Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi first published
this story, an unflinching account of her six weeks in Baghdad,
in the November/December 2004 Columbia
Journalism Review (CJR). Read about the daily life of journalists
in Iraq: fake press cards; flak jackets worn under two layers
of head-to-toe hijab in 130-degree heat; a bomb explosion just
outside the front door; and the death of a colleague broadcast
live on the morning news.
Reprinted from Columbia
Journalism Review, November/December 2004. © 2004 by
Columbia Journalism Review.
By Farnaz Fassihi
In August CJR asked Farnaz Fassihi, The Wall Street Journal's
Middle East correspondent, to keep a journal of her life in
Iraq, where she had been since before the war, and where reporters
were finding it difficult to do their job. In September, just
after she sent us her report, Fassihi sent an e-mail to friends
and relatives - something she does regularly. Usually, she says,
these e-mails are chatty, but this one reflected her observations
on an ominous sea-change: "The genie of terrorism, chaos, and
mayhem has been unleashed ... as a result of American mistakes."
Within days her private note had popped up on the Internet and
circulated far and wide, even making an appearance in Doonesbury.
She became Exhibit A in the perennial discussion about the link
between the published work and private opinions of reporters.
Below is a full slice of Fassihi's reality in Baghdad, and it
raises a question: How could she work there and not have an
Tuesday, August 17
The chartered Royal Jordanian aircraft, the only civilian flight to Iraq, nose-dives down onto the Baghdad airport runway in spiraling corkscrew turns. The force of gravity pulls me forward from my seat and I nervously clutch the armrests. It feels like a prolonged crash. I gaze out the window at the dusty horizon lined with palm trees as the plane rocks to forty-five-degree angles right and left. Airplanes can't land here without these evasive maneuvers, because rockets and mortars are fired at them every day. It's hard to believe that until only four months ago we could still travel to Iraq by car.
My team of driver and translator, Munaf and Haaqi, wait for me at the nearest U.S. military checkpoint to drive me to Baghdad. The highway from the airport to the center of town is short, but one of the most dangerous roads in Iraq. Insurgents hide in the date farms and attack military convoys with rocket-propelled grenades. I sit in our recently purchased armored car and feel relatively safe. I remind Munaf to stay in the center of the road to avoid hitting one of the landmines. A few minutes later, we find ourselves driving directly behind a convoy of American Humvees and tanks. I panic. The Americans could get attacked at any moment and we don't want to be caught in the crossfire. "Hang back, hang back," I tell Munaf. He slows down but the cars behind us don't want to pass, either. "I can't stop because the Americans will get suspicious and shoot," Munaf says. In Iraq, no one wants to drive near the Americans.
Wednesday, August 18
I spend all day at the Convention Center inside the heavily fortified American compound where most official activities take place. Getting there was risky today, because the roads leading to the checkpoint are shut down and we had to walk about a mile. All the security guards checking our press passes are wearing helmets. One of them says, "A mortar hit right here this morning," and points to a bunker several feet away. I walk even faster. I'm trying to catch the last leg of Iraq's political conference, a four-day marathon of meetings, dealings, and debates to hash out the selection of a hundred-seat national assembly. It is quite something to see all these people gathered in one place and freely voicing their opinions. There are Shiite clerics clad in sweeping robes and turbans, women candidates in skirt suits and high heels or the black head-to-toe hijab, Kurds in traditional baggy pants and fringy head wraps, and Western-educated technocrats in suits and ties. I spot the former interior minister, Samir Sumaida, and have tea with him. He is critical of the conference's shortcomings but is quick to list its benefits as well. "There's been a lot of manipulation and open cheating here, but despite all this we have a body far more representative than ever before," he says. "This is what democracy is all about, these are the first steps and we are learning." A loud boom interrupts our chat. The building shakes and we all run for cover. An American soldier is screaming, "Mortars! Get away from the windows!"
Sunday, August 22
Our house, which we share with Newsweek, has been transformed into a fortress. To get to it, you have to pass several roadblocks and checkpoints and negotiate a labyrinth of forty-foot concrete blast walls that surround the compound. Security has been beefed up; we have more guards at the gate and one on the roof. Sometimes it feels like living in a luxurious prison. I already miss walking. On my last trip home, I spent seven hours walking around Manhattan on my first day back just because I could. Security and administrative work takes up most of my time these past few days. I read through the security reports e-mailed to us every day and discuss with the Iraqi staff new measures to make sure everyone is safe. We have to register our armored car and the paperwork lacks appropriate border stamps. I can't get hold of the Jordanian driver who brought the car in, and don't want to send it back to the border, but the police keep stopping us at checkpoints around town threatening to confiscate the car. Last night as Haaqi pleaded with a cop to give us back the car documents, I sat debating whether I should risk standing at a police checkpoint - a common target of attacks - or take a chance on losing the manifest. In Iraq, we are often security experts first, administrators second, and reporters third. I interview an imam in a mosque today and I politely decline his request to turn my cell phone off. I can't afford to be out of touch with the bureau and my colleagues in case there is an emergency, I explain. Sure enough, half an hour later my phone rings. It's the check-after-a-boom call from my boyfriend, Babak Dehghanpisheh of Newsweek. "You okay? Come back home soon, there was an explosion somewhere," he says. We have several conversations of this nature each day. In Iraq there is this constant anxiety over life and death.
Monday, August 23
The Najaf crisis is escalating and I want to find a way to go there. My friend Ivan Watson, a reporter with NPR, sent an e-mail from Najaf today saying the road from Baghdad was "terrifying." He lay down in the back seat for the entire three-hour drive, hiding under a sheet and heaps of plastic bags. They passed an aid convoy, including an ambulance that had been ambushed minutes before and was burning. Two photographer friends are stuck in the Imam Ali shrine right now with Moqtada al-Sadr's militia, because they can't walk back through the sniper alleys and into the no-man's land of the old city. A French photographer friend got shot in the leg by a sniper as she ran for cover. And worst of all, Georges Malbrunot, a French reporter for Le Figaro newspaper, has disappeared on the road to Najaf.
Babak and I discuss the possibility of a trip to Najaf, but both our Iraqi teams refuse to go. "They'll kidnap you and kill us," my driver Munaf says. He read in the newspaper today that an Italian journalist was kidnapped in Najaf and the dead body of his driver was discovered in his car.
In search of a way to write about Najaf from Baghdad, I go to the two main Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods to do man-in-the-street interviews, clad in a scarf and long robe. In Khathemiya I am able to walk around the streets and corner passersby for a chat. In Adamiya, a Sunni enclave where most of the population is anti-American, I have to be more discreet. We drive around for some time until we find a crowded bookshop. Haaqi goes inside for a few minutes to take its pulse and determines that it is safe enough. Inside, the bookseller chats away, praising the brave Mujahedin of Falluja and calling it "a nationalistic resistance," while dismissing the Sadr militia as opportunists who are politically motivated. I stand close to the counter, practically whispering in English to Haaqi and holding my notebook out of sight below the counter as I take quick notes.
Friday, August 27
I am in Najaf. There is a tense calm in the city today after Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani arrived yesterday and brokered a peace deal between Sadr's militia and the Iraqi government, and, in effect, the Americans. Analysts are saying that, after many weeks of fighting, the crisis in Najaf was resolved by a frail cleric.
The drive from Baghdad to Najaf is only three hours but it took us a day to get here, with a night spent in Karbala. Babak and I took elaborate measures to disguise ourselves as locals. Despite the 130-degree heat and blazing sun, I didn't wear my sunglasses and threw on two thick layers of a black head-to-toe hijab, and then stared ahead without looking out the window, like a proper conservative Muslim woman. We left behind U.S. passports, press cards, driver's licenses, and any other document that could identify us as Americans. I even carry around fake press cards that say "International Journal Newspaper," with a picture of me in a scarf. We instruct our nervous driver and translator that if we are stopped on the way, they must say we are an Iranian couple visiting from Tehran on our way to Karbala. Each of us carries a small Koran in our bags.
On the way, the Iraqi police waved us through the checkpoints. Our problems began ten miles before Najaf. The road was blocked and the Iraqi police were going nuts, firing openly into the traffic. In this country, you don't know whom to trust and often nobody is your friend; the police checkpoint could easily be insurgents dressed as cops. But then we noticed a unit of Iraqi national guard scattered around the fields next to the highway and wondered if the militia had brought the fight to the highway. We had no way of knowing. Then gunfire broke all around us and we ducked. It's amazing how quickly a seemingly calm situation can turn around here.
Friday, September 10
A friend who drove through the Shiite slum of Sadr City tells me that young men are openly placing improvised explosive devices into the ground there. They melt a shallow hole in the asphalt, place the explosive, cover it with dirt, and put an old tire or plastic can over it to signal to the locals to give it wide berth. He says that on the main roads of Sadr City, there were a dozen landmines every ten yards. Behind the walls sat angry Iraqis ready to detonate them as soon as an American convoy got near.
I have wanted to go to Sadr City to see why the truce between Sadr's militia and the Americans isn't being honored, but am too afraid to just go. So I send my driver and translator to check it out first, secure an interview with Sadr's representative, and then come back and get me. A simple interview here can take hours to arrange. Half an hour later Haaqi calls. He is out of breath and sounds terrified. "We are at the main square in Sadr City, there was an American tank in front of us, and this young guy ran toward it with an RPG on his shoulder and attacked it," he yells into the phone. "The tank blew up in front of us, it's on fire, the body of the soldier flew in the air, and then the other soldiers started shooting into the crowd and at our cars." I tell him to turn the car around immediately and come back home. Sadr City, home to 10 percent of Iraq's population, is quickly being added to our list of "no-go zones" - off limits to the Iraqi government and the American military, and out of the reach of journalists.
I miss my mobility and being able to just get in the car and go. It's hard to believe that only six months ago I could take a trip to Najaf, Samarra, or Tikrit on a moment's notice. It seems ludicrous that last December I was making daily trips to Samarra to write a feature about its local soccer team. Now it's no-go. I remember eating kebabs in downtown Falluja last October and then paying a visit to one of the tribal sheikhs deep in the groves of Al Anbar province. I'd get my head cut off if I attempted that trip today.
Sunday, September 12
I am going around to various political parties to discuss how they are preparing for the coming elections. So far, the Shiites are far more active than the Sunnis. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, a Shiite party with close ties to Iran, has organized community meetings and training sessions for pollsters. Another group, Hezbeh Wafaq Islami, invited me to attend its campaign lecture after Friday prayers at a mosque in the town of Abu Ghraib, but I can't go. Abu Ghraib is dicey for foreigners. I send Haaqi, my translator, and give him a list of questions, a tape recorder, and a brief reporting lesson about paying attention to detail and color. More and more, we are all relying on our local staffs to do the street reporting and go to places we can't. This is also true for photographers. There is only a handful of Western shooters left in Baghdad. The freelance crowd is thinning out, too. It's impossible to work here without the infrastructure and backing of a media organization to give you the basics: a secure location, guards, local staff you know and trust, satellite phones, flak jackets, and so on. A reporter can't just parachute into Iraq anymore.
Tuesday, September 14
The insurgents have brought the war to downtown Baghdad. For the fourth day in a row Haifa Street, a strip of old houses and Soviet-style apartment blocks, is a battleground between Americans and rebels. A few days ago, I watched Mazen, an Arab colleague with Al Arabiya news channel, get shot by an American helicopter as he was doing a live stand-up on Haifa Street. He died on television as I sipped my morning coffee. I ask Babak if he thought we'd need therapy after we were done with this place. "Probably," he replies. My translator Haaqi can't concentrate because his parents live on Haifa Street and are under a dusk-to-dawn curfew and fear leaving their home. He can't go visit them either. This morning a massive car bomb exploded near police headquarters, killing forty-seven and injuring more than a hundred people. I go to a nearby hospital where the emergency room is overwhelmed and patients are piled in the hallways. Later today I go to see Sabah Khadem, a senior adviser to the interior ministry. He tells me the insurgency is spreading, getting more organized, and that the various groups are beginning to cooperate. I call the ministry of health for a count of casualties in the past four days. The numbers are astounding: 110 dead and more than 300 injured in Baghdad alone. In four days. So that's the story I'm writing.
Sunday, September 19
I am getting stir crazy from being in the house too much. I go to see my Iraqi Christian friends, a lovely family I befriended when I visited Iraq before the war. Mary Rose, a gregarious fifty-something, hugs me tightly and bursts into tears as soon as I walk in. "I was hoping you had left," she says, adding that since the two Italian women were kidnapped from their home last week, in broad daylight, she can't sleep for worrying about me. Sabah Nasser, an engineer, looks pale because he's developed a heart condition worrying about his two sons returning home safe every day. They are missing church services for the first time in their lives because of the attacks against Christians.
Wednesday, September 22
I am on the phone in my room when the force of the explosion throws me off the chair. The boom is so massive that I think the house will collapse. All the windows facing the garden shatter. Bricks fall out of the walls and some of the doors buckle. We are under mortar attack, I think, and run for the door. It turns out that a car bomb has exploded less than fifty yards away from one of the security checkpoints on our street. It was aimed at an American military convoy driving by on the main street. From the windows we can see thick black smoke and blazing red flames. Burnt, twisted pieces of metal, parts of the Humvee and the car, have flown over our walls and landed in our garden. Our neighbor's children are injured, with bad cuts from the broken glass. We later learn the explosion killed an American soldier and three Iraqi men passing by in their cars. It took a day for wailing relatives to pull their remains out of one burnt car. It is a miracle that no one from our house was hurt. In the middle of all this, the phone rings and it is my editor, Bill Spindle, from New York, asking me to check e-mail for readback on a front-page story. I stand there half scared, half in a daze and at loss of words. There I am clad in a flak jacket and helmet standing in the middle of the living room with broken glass all around, clutching my emergency bag - money, passport, a satellite phone - and here is my editor, millions of miles away from this mess, asking me to simply do my job. "I can't right now, I'm, ah, in the middle of a situation, a car bomb near the house, all okay, will call later." And I hang up. It will be two more days (we had to evacuate the house) before I finally step into my reporting shoes again and check for that readback.
Thursday, September 30
I've been at the hotel for a week now. It's the fifth or sixth time I've moved in Baghdad in the past sixteen months in search of a safe place. This is very disruptive for work. The hotel is probably not 100 percent safe either, but I feel safer here, perhaps because I think the odds still work in my favor in a hotel packed with journalists. And all my friends, with whom I've bonded from war zone to war zone over the past three years, are staying here, and every night after filing we get together to have dinner, a drink, or a talk. Today has been grim. A car bomb aimed at an American military convoy has killed thirty-four children. I rush to the Yarmulk Hospital, where most of the injured are taken. After covering war in Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, and Iraq, I have seen my share of misery. But there is something about children hurt in terrorism attacks that is hard to shake. There aren't enough beds in the emergency room for all the injured children and the floor is flooded with blood. Every time the doctor pronounces one of them dead a parent drops to the floor and wails in a piercing cry. We drive back from the hospital in silence. I'm leaving in two days after a seven-week stint. Our rotations, like those of other media organizations, are usually six to eight weeks in and then three to four out. Babak is already out and he calls every day, begging me to leave. I stayed behind an extra week to wrap up my election story, and then got caught up with deteriorating security and the house evacuation, to say nothing of the turmoil caused by a private e-mail that became very public. As glad as I am to get a vacation, there's always this bit of guilt. I am leaving behind our staff and our Iraqi friends.
© 2004 Columbia
Journalism Review at Columbia University's Graduate School
In the January/February issue of CJR: The full story of how
Keith Idema, convicted fraudster and would-be terror fighter,
played the press. Dale Maharidge reconsiders the lessons in
James Agee's book "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." Evan Cornog
explores the question: Is quality journalism possible if the
public doesn't care? And much more.
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