Friday, May 8, 2009

My years as an Iraq war reporter

May 6, 2009

Deborah Haynes in Baghdad
Deborah Haynes gets a friendly soaking from a US pilot after landing in the Green Zone in Baghdad
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The bundle of $3,000 felt uncomfortable stuffed into my knickers, but I had been advised to stash it there in case my taxi was hijacked during the road trip to Baghdad from Amman. Thankfully, the 11 hours passed uneventfully, apart from a moment of fear as we drove close to Fallujah. It was 2004, and already the city was feared by foreigners. My driver, a Palestinian man, told me to lie down so as not to be seen. Heart-pounding, I pushed the passenger seat right back and lay still until the all-clear. A few weeks later insurgents ambushed, beat and burnt to death four private security guards in Fallujah. Their bodies were strung from a bridge.

It was my first time in the Middle East. I had pleaded with my employer at the time, the French news agency AFP, to let me report on the war, despite having no experience of covering conflict and little knowledge of the region. I didn’t even know what the weather was going to be like. Seeing on the internet that it was snowing in Jordan, I’d packed a ski jacket and snow boots, but Iraq was enjoying a warm spell and I was too embarrassed to admit my error. After a week of suffering, the early stages of trench foot set in. Thankfully, an Iraqi colleague took pity and bought me a pair of flip-flops.

Another wardrobe blunder was the sleeveless tops that I brought along, failing to consider the conservative dress code. This was hammered home when I overheard an American official tell someone: “That blonde reporter will get herself shot if she carries on like that.” He had seen me jump out of my car and sprint across a bridge to the Health Ministry for a press conference, wearing slightly transparent white trousers and a less than baggy T-shirt.

Reporting in Baghdad was the ultimate challenge. The car bombs, airstrikes, ambushes and mortar fire meant no shortage of action; while the attempt to create a new government offered an insight into the complicated tribal and religious fabric of Iraqi society. There was also a crazy sense of chaos. No one obeyed the law because there was no one to enforce it. Well, the US soldiers did, but the thing to remember about them was to steer clear, particularly in the early days when nervous young troops had a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later.

As friendly as they were to me — I remember one US explosives expert handing me a skipping-rope handle-shaped detonator and inviting me to set off a roadside bomb by giving it a “man tug” — there was no forgetting the danger that they represented to civilians. I met one Iraqi boy after he had been shot in the head when his uncle failed to heed a stop warning at a checkpoint. He was treated at a US hospital and survived, but he will always have a problem with his eyes and legs because of the injury.

Our office in early 2004 was in a small hotel in central Baghdad. I remember e-mailing friends at home about the hotel defence: a spiky wire across the ground that was manned by a couple of sleepy-looking guards. “It wouldn’t stop a suicide rollerblader,” I joked. Protection was minimal because there had been few attacks against Westerners, but that changed within my first few weeks. One night, a rocket skimmed over our roof and slammed into the one opposite. The noise was terrifying. I hit the floor along with my colleagues.

Thankfully, no one was hurt. Without thinking, I raced outside to see if any more missiles were falling and scrambled upstairs to the roof. Suddenly a second rocket exploded near by, making me dive under a sheet of corrugated iron. That night, seven hotels containing foreigners were hit, including one by a car bomb.

Friends and family thought that I was mad wanting to work in Baghdad but my mum and dad supported me, even if it meant sleepless nights for them. I failed to get in touch as often as I should have but, that said, making phone calls was problematic. Initially, communication was via walkie-talkie — handy for filing news to the Baghdad bureau but useless for personal calls. Besides, using one of these brick-like contraptions was always a bit of a spectacle because you had to yell through the speaker. Satellite phones had the range but because of the expense were restricted to work calls. Fortunately mobile phones caught on that summer, though the network remained infuriatingly patchy.

Most of the comforts that we take for granted in Britain either don’t exist or don’t work well in Iraq. Electricity in our hotel was cut so frequently that conversations would continue without pause when the room was plunged into darkness. Our supply was relatively reliable; many Iraqi families exist on only a few hours of electricity a day.

After spending seven weeks in Baghdad, I returned to my beat covering world trade and United Nations agencies in Geneva, but I did another two stints that year, before returning at the end of 2005 and the start of 2006, by which time the violence had spiralled out of control.

One of my scariest moments was covering the aftermath of a suicide car bomb against a General Electric convoy in June 2004 that left 13 people dead, including three GE workers. One of three sports utility vehicles was destroyed along with those on board. Passengers in the other two cars escaped but abandoned their transport. An angry crowd of Iraqi men had gathered by the time I arrived. I spotted what looked like the charred torsos of two victims through the shattered windscreen of the bombed SUV. They were the first dead bodies that I had seen in Iraq, but the situation was too chaotic to register any emotion. As I stood amid the wreckage, the mob began to shout anti-American slogans and wave sticks. Iraqi police and US soldiers were also there. The police shot into the air, but the gunfire only aggravated the men further.

Suddenly the rioters surged towards me. My instinct was to run but my Iraqi interpreter told me to remain calm and walk clear. Looking back, I saw the crowd climb on to one of the vehicles, smash the windows and set it ablaze. We sheltered in a nearby police box until things calmed down and my interpreter was able to talk to the mob. It was safer for him to go without me, a hated Westerner.

By the end of that year, it became imperative to adopt a disguise to hide my blonde hair and blue eyes. I always felt like one of the idiotic Thomson and Thompson detectives in Tintin when I donned a long, black robe and headscarf, as if I was stereotyping the Iraqi population. Despite these misgivings, the garb enabled me to venture outside, though trips became limited because of the kidnap threat.

One of the bleakest days was when news broke that Margaret Hassan, the Anglo-Irish aid worker, had been shot dead several weeks after being kidnapped by Sunni extremists. That these people could kill a 59-year-old woman who had lived in Iraq for three decades and had dedicated her life to the country was a wake-up call. I was too scared to leave my hotel for a fortnight. Even when an Iraqi official sent two cars packed with armed guards to take me out for lunch, I got as far as the hotel car park before losing my nerve and retreating back indoors.

Insurgency warfare is a strange creature. Attacks are shocking only until something worse happens. This generates a kind of acceptance of the violence. For example, a bomb that killed 15 people in 2004 would dominate the news. Three years later it would barely be given a mention. News wires used to mark “urgent” the death of a US soldier. By 2006, three needed to die to get such attention.

I hated this sense of war fatigue not because the lack of interest meant fewer stories in the paper for me but because bombs still shattered Iraqi lives and the outside world no longer reacted. The longer that I spent in Iraq, the more painful it became to see the devastation wrought.

Speak to any ordinary Iraqi and he or she will have a story of suffering that would be impossible for most British people to conceive. One woman described how her husband was shot dead by militiamen in front of her. Months later, the widow’s father was kidnapped and drilled to death. The woman still managed a smile as she spoke of her hope for the future.

People ask me whether I think it was all worthwhile — a difficult question as I never visited Iraq when Saddam Hussein was in power. But I can’t help feeling, whether or not Iraq becomes a stable country, that nothing will compensate for the hundreds of thousands of lives lost or damaged.

Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad was not all about death and fear. It was possible to relax by the two circular pools at our hotel but even then, mysteriously, helicopters would always seem to circle overhead whenever a female reporter went for a dip, while staff from the hotel would also find a stubborn stain on the tiles by the water’s edge that would require attention for the duration of the swim.

There was a fairly lively social scene, even in the darkest days, with different bureaus throwing parties within their blast-walled compounds or holding impromptu gatherings that ended with bursts of late-night dancing to Madonna classics. I broke two mobile phones diving fully clothed into a swimming pool at our hotel during one particularly lively bash.

The fortified Green Zone conceals a titillating nightlife that is ready to be sampled, provided you know the right people to get your name on the guest list — namely someone from one of the many foreign missions. Some of the most surreal experiences are the parties at the Italian Embassy. Imagine freshly-cooked pizza, toxic cocktails and dancing on a balcony that overlooks a courtyard where diplomats, aid workers and journalists groove to thumping Euro-pop. In the summer, the Italian guards would strip down to the waist and spray revellers with cold water.

There were lonely and frustrating times as well. Even buying groceries was tricky. I used to get one of my drivers to pick up fruit and cans of tuna and sweetcorn for me from the local supermarket because going myself involved taking both drivers and a guard. I also missed my friends, though I struck up friendships with fellow journalists, hanging out watching DVDs or gossiping. A young Iraqi woman who once worked as an interpreter for the US military, but quit because of personal problems, would also regularly pop round for a coffee and a chat about her troubled love life.

I became an Iraq correspondent for The Times in May 2007. At the time, death squads ruled parts of Baghdad and hundreds of civilians were killed each week. Ten days after my arrival, five British men were kidnapped from a Finance Ministry compound by scores of gunmen dressed in police uniform. Two years later they are still being held, pawns in a much larger political game.

Running the Times bureau — also inside a rundown Baghdad hotel — was a novel experience. Within six months, my interpreter fled to Syria, claiming that he had been the target of a kidnap plot, and one of my security guards quit after being caught up in a roadside bomb or car crash — he never quite got his story straight. A second guard has since been arrested. He is still in jail, though, as far as I can make out, has not yet been charged. Thankfully, two drivers, a pair of brothers who have worked for the paper since the invasion, remain on the team. They treated me like a sister, always making sure that I felt safe and cheering me up if I looked glum. My last interpreter was also a lovely character who provided an invaluable viewpoint on Iraq, correcting me whenever I made a cultural mistake, such as trying to shake an Iraqi man’s hand — many prefer not to shake hands with women.

It was hard to say goodbye after five years, but I know (or I hope) that I’ll be back. Until then I must watch from a distance as the country tries to recover, though I worry what will happen as American forces pull out. There has been a gradual improvement in security over the past year, but bombs continue to claim lives and it remains unwise to shed guards and disguises. That said, in my final days in Baghdad in April I sometimes cruised around with just a driver and stayed calm if I’d forgoten to pack a headscarf.

Back in East London, it is taking time to adjust to “normal life”. On the plus side, I can clean my teeth without fear that brown-coloured liquid will spurt out of the tap. And, of course, I no longer have to keep cash in my underwear.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. I.U. has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is I.U endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)

The Nazis, Fascists and Communists were political parties before they became enemies of liberty and mass murderers.

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