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Week of 5.4.07

Maria Hinojosa from the Middle East

Maria Hinojosa How is it possible that after four years of war, most Americans have only two distinct and constantly fortified images of who the Iraqi people are? They are the crying women screaming to Allah and at the TV cameras about the death of a loved one. And then there is the image of the young, angry insurgent men. It is a blurry image. We can't really say what they look like because if they ever talk to reporters they cover up their faces with keffiyehs.

But perhaps there is one more image: the dead and the wounded. The wounded but often speechless children who are all made to seem like they are destitute and uneducated. The lifeless bodies of men stacked in a hospital morgue or out on a street as if they have no one who ever loved them.

In this time of war, I can remember only one print piece that made me feel as if I could actually be friends and identify with an Iraqi. It was a wonderful magazine piece about a teenager rocker in Baghdad who loved to listen to the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. He was waiting for the American troops to come so that maybe he could become the Iraqi rock and roll star he always dreamed of. He looked like he could be one of my Mexican teenage nephews (also rock and roll geeks who are invisible to most Americans but not to me).

In this day and age where everyone communicates to everyone through email, instant messages, and satellite TV shows that cross borders without permits, how is it possible that I, an educated, worldly, curious but time-strapped reporter, have no image of the millions of middle-class Iraqi families who I know must live in Baghdad? Or is it simply that some of us are lulled into believing that people like us just don't exist in Iraq? That everyone there is poor and uneducated and fundamentalist and hates America and the West? How is it possible that with so much technology we don't hear from the Iraqi people who are on the receiving end of so much violence instigated by the country?

I have been to war zones. Many of them. And as a young and fearless reporter with no husband or child, I was committed to giving my audience, back then on NPR, a view of the humanity of the Spanish-speaking people in these war zones. I was with the independent journalists covering the Shining Path guerilla movement in Peru. I met coca farmers who invited me and my microphone into their homes to plead their case in gentle Quechua-accented Spanish. I spoke to a poor blacksmith in Apopa, El Salvador, who whispered that we should hide quickly because the American-made helicopter flying above us might mistake us for guerillas. I encountered a little girl with shrapnel in her leg who cried into my tape machine for her mama who had left her and gone to Los Angeles. I spoke to them and made them real for me and for you. I had to because I am a journalist and this is what we do. We give people a voice when they are voiceless and victims. This is our job. This is our mission.

But in Iraq now, insurgents have made it impossible for my colleagues to do our jobs without literally and daily fearing for their lives. So all of us who watch the network news know what to expect on the evening news: A stand up in front of some sort of a dome , some tall palm trees and scenes of carnage. And pictures of often nameless American soldiers on patrol. Night after night.

We don't know the people of Iraq —yet our lives and theirs are tied together like a tightly twisted braid. For four long years already and maybe for decades to come. Decades. And we don't know each other at all.

When my producer told me we got the go-ahead to fly to the Middle East to do a story about Iraqi refugees I was at once excited and scared. I had promised my husband I would not report from Iraq because he had no intention of becoming a widower. How was I going to tell him I would be on my way to the Middle East? It was not Iraq but it was right next door. But my reporter's heart was jumping. Finally, finally I would meet Iraqi people. Even though I lived in the most international city in the world, New York, I had never met and befriended an Iraqi. This would be my chance.

With some anger but also with genuine concern in his eyes, my husband asked me simply, "Why? Why do you have to do this to us?" That day I couldn't answer him. A day before my trip, one early morning I was walking to the gym. I was calm. And that is when the answer came to me. I had to go to Amman and meet Iraqis because I had to be able to tell my children (and my audience) who the Iraqi people really are. I had a responsibility to do this. My grandmother and mother were always borderless explorers and inquisitive women. I was an explorer by nature and now by profession. But more than anything I had to see these invisible people for myself, so I could look my children in the eye and tell them who is on the receiving end of the war they are growing up with.