Here be Dragons…
BAGHDAD — Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of email from aspiring foreign correspondents who want to cut their teeth in Baghdad. I understand the sentiment, I really do. But at this time, I think it’s an unwise course of action and I’d like to take a little space to outline why.
First off, about my situation for the newcomers here: I started this blog in August 2002 after a dash into Iraqi Kurdistan the previous summer. I had a hunch that war was coming and I wanted to get some time in, at least where I wouldn’t be hanged if caught in Iraq illegally. It was a thrilling time, running around Erbil and Suleimaniya, always worried if those shifty guys in the lobby of the Suleimaniya Palace were Iraqi _mukhabarat_ or Kurdish _pesh merga_ or both, warily eyeing each other over cheap coffee tables and fake flowers. I journeyed to Halabja and found myself enormously moved by the plight of the victims of the 1988 chemical attacks there. I met senior members of the Barzani and Talabani clans, all major players on the Iraqi political scene now, and by my questions annoyed the hell out of the current president’s wife, Hiro Talabani. (No hard feelings, ma’am!)
Next, I did the whole blog-raising thing, changing the paradigm for DIY reporting in a war zone in the process. Who knew? Back-to-Iraq became a phenomenon and donations eventually topped more than $11,000 that all went to cover the war in April 2003. It was thrilling and dangerous — and surprisingly easy reporting. I really just wandered around, following explosions and writing about my day. In the process, I captured a bit of the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan in its struggle against Saddam’s regime. I was there when “Kirkuk”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2003/04/heading_south.php was taken back by the Kurds. I was in Tikrit when the last holdouts melted into the landscape, leaving the field to the Marines and “Arab fighters”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2003/04/inside_saddams.php more interested in defending their homes from Kurdish looters than shooting wandering journalists. (Some of the greatest hospitality I’ve been shown in Iraq was at the hands of the Tikritis as they stood around two dead _pesh merga_ and offered me protection against the Marines, knowing full well I was an American journalist. All they cared about was that I wasn’t Kurdish.)
Ah, those were the days. Even “Baghdad”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2003/04/clutching_for_a.php immediately after its fall felt open and watchful instead of boarded up and scared as it does today. The Marines and the 3rd ID walked the streets without helmets or body armor. They stood in queues waiting to buy food, amusing Iraqis to no end, for whom queues are a bit of an alien social arrangement. They’re more partial to crowds.
When I returned for the third time in May 2004, however, things were different. I had raised money again, this time as seed money for a more traditional freelancing career. I figured the donations and my savings would see me through a couple of months. However, TIME Magazine snapped me up immediately and I’ve been working with them ever since. So much for the two months I thought it would take to find a steady gig. And it’s a good thing, too, as by May 2004, the situation had become very bad, with an insurgency we all thought would not get worse but most assuredly did (and still is.) But even in those days, I remember just hiring a couple of guys to drive and translate and run around the city at all hours of the day and night. One of my best memories was a drunken evening at Dragon Bay, the Chinese restaurant outside the Green Zone that had a karaoke machine. My colleagues and I warbled away until 1 a.m. or so and then made my poor driver — who didn’t much like Chinese food — take us home. Along the way, we saw John Simpson, of the BBC, doing a standup report in the darkness of the city. Drunken with cheap red wine and the thrill of the forbidden, one of my friends yelled out “John Simpson sucks!” Sorry, John. Professionalism did not rule the night. Hope the standup went OK.
Such stunts are unimaginable now. I don’t know any Western colleagues who go outside our compound at night. Our social life has been reduced to dinner parties and pool parties. But the work is what’s even worse. Every day we venture out with eyes peeled for kidnappers (who like soft targets such as journalists), IEDs, American patrols and trigger-happy Iraqi troops. The ambient threat has risen far past Condition Red. the Committee to Protect Journalist has listed Iraq, for the second year in a row, as “the most dangerous place in the world to work as a journalist”:http://cpj.org/attacks04/mideast04/iraq.html. “Sixty-
sevennine journalists have been killed”:http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/meast/08/28/iraq.journalists.reut/ here since March 2003, according to Reporters without Borders. That’s more than the _20 years_ of the Vietnam War (1955-1975). Some have been killed by American negligence and error. Others were “murdered by terrorist thugs”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2005/08/steven_vincent.php. Five of my friends have been kidnapped, but thankfully all were released. One kidnapped journalist, Italy’s Enzo Baldoni, was killed. I didn’t know him.
My point is that this is no longer a freelancer’s war. I’m lucky. I have the entire security apparatus of TIME Magazine to back me up. I am protected by guards, have access to cars, the entire secure compound, you name it. I have an editor who would miss me if I didn’t show up. (All of the kidnapped journalists have been freelancers who didn’t check in regularly and people often didn’t know there were missing at first.)
All of these protections cost money, something most freelancers are short of. It is simply no longer advisable to hire a driver and translator and go running around the city like I did last summer. I’ve been getting a number of emails from young journalists asking to do just this, and I tell them not to come and do this unless they have the backing of a major media organization’s security infrastructure. Steve Vincent ended up dead because he cowboyed around Basra — and that’s one of the safe cities, we’re told.
One option, however, is to embed with the U.S., British or other Coalition forces. You will be safe, relatively, and you’ll get to see parts of the country other than Baghdad — which is thick with journalists anyway. It’s an interesting experience, and I’ve found, in my experiences, the accusations of censorship — with one exception — to be grossly exaggerated. If you get a cool commander, he probably won’t give you any grief.
(Of course, there are some common-sense and reasonable restrictions: don’t give away troop positions, don’t show the faces of dead soldiers before their family has been notified or 48 hours, whichever comes first. Things like that.)
Oh, and forget about embedding with the Iraqi forces. The Ministries of Interior and Defense don’t allow this and they don’t operate independently of Coalition troops anyway. Also, they’re often so poorly trained and possibly infiltrated you would be in even more danger from the Iraqi troops than from random, street-level violence in Baghdad — which is why the Coalition and Iraqi ministries don’t allow embedding solely with Iraqis. A journalist killed or betrayed by the troops he’s supposed to be embedded with is very bad PR.
This is all very frustrating I’m sure. I can still remember the hustle that got me out here, and it pains me to discourage new people, but “I’ve already seen one friend die”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/2005/04/our_heart_and_c.php because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and I’m in constant fear that it will happen again. All the freelancers I know, including me, now have long-term relationships that provide us the infrastructure to “work.” And many organizations seem to be cutting back on their coverage and, thus, their hiring.
There are plenty of places that need energetic, young journalists. Darfur, southern Thailand, Indonesia, even Syria (if you can swing the security apparatus.) For those without experience in extremely dangerous work conditions, this is no place for on-the-job training.