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The days of a plane's
gentle descent into the Baghdad airport are long gone. Ever
since arriving planes became targets for Iraqi insurgents armed
with rockets, planes bound for Baghdad do a corkscrew dive to
the tarmac as passengers like FRONTLINE/World correspondent
Nick Hughes white-knuckle their armrests.
"These days, the flight from Amman to Baghdad is pretty empty," Hughes says. "A few Iraqi businessmen, one or two security contractors, and a couple of fellow reporters."
Hughes, a veteran cameraman for the BBC, made his way to Baghdad to report on the enormous dangers that journalists face there every day.
At the Hamra, a hotel once bustling with journalists and now nearly deserted,
Hughes runs into Scott Peterson, a photographer with Getty Images
and a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor. Peterson
has just returned to the Hamra after spending 30 days embedded
with U.S. troops in Fallujah. Peterson shows off his flak jacket
and the "kill number" written on his wrist that would be used
to identify him if he were injured.
Then Hughes meets up with Los Angeles Times reporter Alissa Rubin. She's planning a visit to a predominantly Shi'iah neighborhood, and she shows Hughes a map with possible routes to the area -- all of which are dangerous.
Rubin allows Hughes to join her, but with conditions: He has to use a hidden camera and he can't show what she looks like when she's veiled for fear that someone might recognize her disguise.
In the car, she nervously asks Hughes to keep his camera low. "I feel quite insecure with you in the car today with the camera," she tells him. Hughes follows her through the streets of the neighborhood as she scurries about in her disguise -- determined to see what's happening for herself and to speak with ordinary Iraqis.
Next Hughes meets up with Rory McCarthy, a correspondent from the Guardian (U.K.). His Iraqi stringer and translator, Osama Mansour, has just called to let him know that a British convoy was bombed, and McCarthy arranges to meet him. While many journalists will travel only in bullet-proof cars with armed escorts, McCarthy prefers to make his way around Baghdad in a regular car and without any weapons.
"I am very reluctant to have guys and guns with us," McCarthy says. "We don't have guns in this car, we don't have guards with guns working for us. At the end of the day, we're journalists."
He adds that part of the problem with reporting on the war in Iraq is that there are no front lines -- a battlefield can be anywhere. More and more, he says, he dispatches Mansour to gather information in areas that might be particularly risky for a Western journalist.
Hughes notes that 10 Iraqi stringers like Mansour have been killed since the war began in 2003.
While driving around Baghdad, Mansour acknowledges that his work is dangerous. But, he says, he just tries to stay alert. "You will die if you think about death and death and death. If you keep thinking about security. If you keep thinking about all those things, you will get killed someday."
Footage from September 2004 shows Mazen al-Temeizi, a reporter for Al-Arabiya television, preparing a standup in front of a burning Humvee. He died seconds later when U.S. helicopters fired missiles a few feet away from him. "I'm dying, I'm dying. Seif, Seif," he cried to his cameraman, Seif Fouad, while the camera rolled.
Fouad, who now works for Reuters, remembers his colleague fondly and tells Hughes, "Every day when I wake up, I hope nothing will happen to me. But I also need the work, and my work is to film bombings."
Fouad's boss, Khalid Ramani, is grimly aware of how his decisions could mean life or death for his staff. "I don't want to feel guilty one day," he says.
Hughes says that 35 Iraqi journalists have died since the war began. Most were killed by U.S. gunfire or because they were working for Western news organizations. Nineteen foreign journalists have also died in the war, including Enzo Baldoni, an Italian reporter who was kidnapped and beheaded.
Because even leaving the hotel to pursue a story is so dangerous,
Hughes says that now the safest way to get a good story is to
be embedded with U.S. troops. "Generally, all it takes is one
email to some lieutenant," he says. "A few days later, you're
in a sardine can bumping along Highway 1."
Hughes joins John Burns of The New York Times, photographer Jason Howe and Reuters photographer Alastair MacDonald -- all on an embed in an area called "the triangle of death." They first receive an hour-long military Power Point presentation. "You have to remember you are only getting one side of the story, and it's a very convincing narrative," MacDonald says.
Hughes then meets up with Jackie Spinner, a reporter from The Washington Post, who is hunkered down beside a concrete wall, trying to file a story by satellite. She laments her dependence upon Iraqi stringers and the military for information. "I can't be my own eyes and ears anywhere," she says.
The next day, Hughes goes with the other embedded journalists to the banks of the Euphrates to search for insurgents. It winds up being a 14-hour day, during which they find three Kalashnikovs and a bag containing a severed head. On the way back to base camp, a truck in their convoy is attacked.
That night, Burns files a story in which he draws comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam. "Vietnam," he wrote, "is rarely mentioned among the troops. It is considered a bad talisman among those men and women, who privately admit to fears that this war could be lost."
Another New York Times reporter, Dexter Filkins, has just returned from two weeks of covering the battle for Fallujah. He was with a company of 150 U.S. Marines. A quarter of the company was killed or wounded during the October offensive there. "I thought, my god, what have I signed up for?" he says, remembering the hours of combat. "It made everything else I've covered look like a tea party. You know, I'm a writer -- and words failed me completely."
Exhausted, Filkins is departing Baghdad for a break -- but he still has to make it to the airport, along a road where there have been 15 suicide bombings in the past month. Filkins is distracted and nervous as his security guard notices a suspicious car on the road, but they make it through safely.
"Just the other day, my colleague went to the airport, and
I think he had to drive through one car bombing and then through
a gun battle," Filkins says. "It's just such a measure of how
troubled this enterprise is. Nineteen months into this thing
and we can't really drive to the airport with any kind of assurance.
And it's only a couple miles down the road."
FRONTLINE/World correspondents risk their lives to report
from Iraq, Israel, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
the Line of Fire"
Journalists face danger in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Mazen Dana Killed in Iraq"
A cameraman featured in "In the Line of Fire" was shot and killed
by U.S. troops in Baghdad.
A journalist reports undercover in Iran.
Road to Kirkuk"
A report from Kurdish Iraq.
and Lies in Baghdad"
A dangerous trip deep into Iraq when Saddam was still in power.
The story of a guerrilla war fought in the jungle of the Philippines.
In Sri Lanka, a reporter finds himself in a street that is strewn
with body parts.
Behind-the-scenes with FRONTLINE/World reporters and
Reporter and Camera
ASKOLD BUK AND MIRANDA HENTOFF
production for FRONTLINE/World
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