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Anne Garrels: Naked in Baghdad

October 7, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: The book is Naked in Baghdad, a memoir of covering the war in Iraq by Anne Garrels, senior foreign correspondent for National Public Radio. It covers her repeated reporting trips to Iraq before, during and after the war.

Anne Garrels, welcome home.

ANNE GARRELS: Thank you.

TERENCE SMITH: Naked in Baghdad: Let’s start with the title. What’s that about?

ANNE GARRELS: Well, it’s a double meaning in a way. On the one hand, you know, I had no protection.

And the other meaning is that in a desperate attempt to hide my satellite phone from Iraqi security agents who were prowling the halls of the Palestine Hotel, I decided I should broadcast in the dark so they wouldn’t see the phone, or that I was awake. And if they hit … knocked on the door and I was naked, I would have a chance to say, “could you give me a minute just to get some clothes on,” and maybe, just maybe hide the phone. I mean, I admit this was desperate, but …

TERENCE SMITH: You were relying on Iraqi chivalry, is that it? You were, in fact, among a very small group of Americans, a couple dozen, and one of two women who decided to stay on in Baghdad as the war began and as others went out. Tell us about that decision and what went into it.

ANNE GARRELS: Well, first of all, why are you making a point of two women? You know, bullets don’t discriminate.

TERENCE SMITH: Indeed they don’t.

ANNE GARRELS: I had been there for many months, and I knew some Iraqis and I had an extraordinary Iraqi, who had been working with me.

And there were a lot of unknowns. It was very hard to persuade NPR, you know, that I knew that I would be okay. I didn’t know I would be okay. But it was a calculated gamble know that I would be okay, in large part because of Amur, this Iraqi who had worked with me.

TERENCE SMITH: And what was it like? Was it terrifying?

ANNE GARRELS: Yes. Curiously, the bombing wasn’t the worst of it. It became very clear, and was already clear from ’91 and ’98, that the American bombing was accurate and it was even more accurate than ever this time around. There was very little collateral damage. You pretty much knew what the targets were. And as the days went by, we saw that that was really quite true.

You know, the question was, were we going to be taken hostage? A few journalists disappeared in the middle of one night. We did not know where they were for eight days. It turned out they were in a prison being interrogated, and then finally released. But, you know, that was the fear. And until, you know … frankly, until the American troops walked in and Saddam’s people evaporated, we couldn’t be sure.

TERENCE SMITH: Before that, you describe repeatedly having to pay bribes for everything, from visa to a permit for the satellite phone, and having to work within the restrictions and the fears that you describe. Were you able still to do what you wanted to do, to be the objective journalist you wanted to be?

ANNE GARRELS: Well, I think I was able to be an objective journalist. Was I able to do what I wanted to do? No. But, you know, I had done this for a long time, and I had also worked in police states before, and that was really helpful. Probably my training in the former Soviet Union, you know, was the best thing. I had sort of learned how to work around things.

Initially, Iraqis were terrified to talk to us. It was very hard to get Iraqis to really tell what they thought. During the war, they opened up a little bit more. And when I couldn’t actually get to people, I knew who I wanted to get to, and I would send Amur out to do it for me with a tape recorder.

TERENCE SMITH: The Iraqi who worked with you.

ANNE GARRELS: Yes, the Iraqi who worked for me.

TERENCE SMITH: Were you able — or generally — to report what you wanted to report, in the sense … the question has arisen after the war: Did those American journalists who stayed in Baghdad hold back?

ANNE GARRELS: I did not. Before the war, I made the decision that I would not pull my punches in order to keep getting visas, because otherwise it simply wasn’t worthwhile, because all I’d be left with was press conferences.

My role was, as I saw it, to report how Iraqis perceived themselves from all different walks of life, whether it was the authorities, people who wanted the Americans in, people who told me they would fight the Americans to the end. I mean, that was my job, and that’s what I did. And I continued to do that during the war.

Now, I was lucky I worked for NPR; I was not at the top of their radar screen. John Burns at The New York Times had a much rougher time than I did.

TERENCE SMITH: You know, people looking at you right now, all scrubbed up and looking very smart, might wonder, why does this woman do this? And I know that there’s a “do this, go cover these wars in these very dangerous circumstances.”

And I know that you have a paragraph in the book in which you try to answer that question. Would you read it for us?

ANNE GARRELS: Sure.

“E-mails from listeners often raise the question, why do I do what I do? It’s infinitely fascinating, is the crude answer. But I’m not really very interested in the strictly military part of war. Rather I’m fascinated by how people survive, and how the process of war affects the attitudes of all sides involved, and how they pull out of it.”

TERENCE SMITH: And that question, how they pull out of it, you describe that even though the U.S. and Iraq were, of course, at war, that you as an American correspondent often got a very friendly reception from ordinary Iraqis.

ANNE GARRELS: Personally, I was always well received. But Iraqis made a distinction between American people and the government and the policy, even those who wanted the end of Saddam. I mean, what was so important I think about staying was that Iraqis knew themselves well, they predicted very well what was going to happen.

TERENCE SMITH: In the aftermath.

ANNE GARRELS: In the aftermath. They, you know, were afraid of the looting, which we all saw happen. They were afraid of a security vacuum, which we all saw happen. They were afraid that their society would fragment, which we have seen happen. They were afraid that the U.S. would not be able to control this beast that they knew very well — themselves. They were afraid of themselves, and still are.

TERENCE SMITH: You know, you also make the point that the death toll for journalists in this short war has been very high. Some 18 journalists have been killed, five as a result of friendly fire. What explains this?

ANNE GARRELS: Well, you know, the explanation … and two of the journalists who were killed if friendly fire were killed … were three floors above me at the Palestine Hotel.

TERENCE SMITH: In Baghdad.

ANNE GARRELS: In Baghdad. And we were not hit by bombs. We were hit by a tank shell.

The Pentagon has said that it was justified in hitting the hotel, because there were apparently … they said it was … they suspected there were spotters there. They don’t make it at all clear that everybody knew that’s where reporters were, and there were reporters on the balcony, on every balcony, including me, of that hotel, watching the firefight in the distance.

They have not released the entire report. They say it’s classified. You know, so far I personally am not satisfied with the answers, and I know the Committee to Protect Journalists also has some issues.

TERENCE SMITH: Finally, you write in here, you ask yourself from time to time in your time in Baghdad what you’re doing there, and whether you’re pushing your luck — any more wars for Anne Garrels?

ANNE GARRELS: I’m learning to say … not answer that question, but I have told my husband I won’t do North Korea. But I’m going to keep going back to Baghdad.

Having starting this one, I’m going to see this one through.

TERENCE SMITH: Anne Garrels, thank you very much.

ANNE GARRELS: Thank you.