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'Bus' chronicles intrepid journey through Iraq

Babylon by Bus, By Ray Lemoine and Jeff Neumann with Donovan Webster, Penguin, 336 pp., $24.95

Their enterprise selling "Yankees Suck" T-shirts outside Fenway Park lost its glamour after four summers, and Ray Lemoine and Jeff Neumann were inquisitive, adventurous young men who'd each traveled to some 60 countries. They were looking to go ``somewhere that mattered," not just another backpacker hotspot or Lonely Planet scene. When a plan to spend New Year's in Israel fell through, they thought, ``Why not Baghdad?"

``Babylon by Bus" begins like a travelogue, as our intrepid, irreverent entrepreneurs make their way through Israel to the West Bank, sneak into occupied Nablus, and find a $50 bus to take them to Baghdad. It was late 2003; the ``insurgency was still a toddler." Their arrival in Baghdad, toting sleeping bags and trying to ``escape from the escapism" of restless travel, was a novelty. Within hours they found themselves volunteer work with a nongovernmental organization in liaison with the Coalition Provisional Authority. Within a matter of weeks they were bunking rent-free inside Saddam Hussein's former palace, where their office was .

Using an army to provide humanitarian aid seemed inherently flawed. Lemoine and Neumann initiated the Humanitarian Aid Network of Distribution, a program to distribute relief supplies to Iraqi civilians. Not being government employees, they were free to move without pre approved travel documents, so they simply loaded up donated clothing and drove beat-up vehicles directly into impoverished Sadr City . The ne'er-do-wells weren't working wonders, but they found meaning in their role and began taking it more seriously; they were providing direct aid in a way few others seemed able to. They began to earn a measure of respect and found themselves featured on an American televis ion segment emphasizing positive news from the reconstruction. ``If we were the good news from Iraq," they thought, ``CPA had a problem."

As it became increasingly evident that the CPA was losing whatever grip it might have had on Iraqi society, they became disillusioned. It became riskier to travel outside the Green Zone , and as conditions in the country deteriorated, the army began shutting programs down. Lemoine and Neumann turned HAND over to an Iraqi friend, Hayder Mehssen, and left Iraq -- the very day the insurgency seemed to break out all over. Footloose in Jordan, they got into a fight with a shopkeeper and were sentenced to 11 years in prison. The misunderstanding was resolved with diplomacy and an apology, but only after formal dissociation from the army, with which they'd never understood themselves to be associated.

Back in the States, the authors -- still with the knack of finding their way into hot spots -- were in the stands for the Red Sox win against the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, and for the the final game of the World Series, against St. Louis.

Lemoine and Neumann's time in Iraq was an intense period that brought together disparate people -- journalists, freelancers, NGO, and other aid workers, members of the military -- under great stress. Within months after the pair departed ``War Disneyland," Hayder had been killed; a year after they left, the aid worker who first welcomed them, Marla Ruzicka , was killed. They attended a funeral service for her at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C. The book is well enough written that when it ends, one misses not just Hayder and Ruzicka but the haphazard camaraderie Lemoine and Neumann enjoyed with those they encountered.

The light hearted jaunt became deadly serious. Iraq had plunged into civil war. The pair who entered Iraq on a lark exited after seeing there was good work they could do but finding it no longer possible to do it . In their acknowledgments , they write : ``To the people of Iraq, we apologize for the reckless, unplanned, understaffed, corrupt, and wasteful way in which our country occupied and then failed at rebuilding your shattered nation."

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