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Naked in Baghdad The Iraq war as seen by NPR's correspondent
By Anne Garrels
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2003 Anne Garrels
All right reserved.
Brenda Bulletin: October 19, 2002
Well hello again,
Just when we were all getting used to the idea that our Annie was going to be more or less gainfully employed organizing the linen closet or darning socks by the fire, the damsel is off again - this time to Iraq. You might be forgiven for thinking that after Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Israel in the last year, NPR could come up with, say, an in-depth series on beach erosion between Bordeaux and Biarritz, but the straws in this outfit all appear to be short.
Remember that intrepid comic book character of our youth, Brenda Starr, who was always getting into and out of impossible scrapes? Well, someone the other day dubbed Annie "Brenda of the Berkshires," a reference to our remote abode up here in the hills of northwest Connecticut. It fits, and it has a certain ring, so I have appropriated it. For those of you who have tolerated my scribblings since 9/11 when she headed off to Tajikistan and points south, these letters will no longer be just Annie Updates but Brenda Bulletins . . .
Brenda, in her packing mode, is curious to observe. Well over a week before she actually leaves, many too many suitcases are dragged out, only to lie opened but untouched for days on the bed in the spare bedroom. Something Zen-like goes on as she circles and stares at the empty cases. Then one morning, in a flurry, there suddenly appears a great pile of brightly colored, neatly folded frocks and form-fitting pants and snappy shirts and fitted jackets - gorgeous oranges, lime greens, bright blues, and pinks predominate. These are the things Brenda would like to take, the things that are in her nature. But inevitably these treasures go back in the closet, replaced by long, loose, formless things that cover everything and button all the way down - the cheerful pile morphs to monotonous blues and blacks. And by the end there are not very many of these, either, because so much technical gear has yet to go in. The old stand-by Sony cassette tape recorder that has been her mainstay all over the world with three dozen cassettes, the new still-unproven mini-recorder that's no bigger than a cigarette box, the satellite phone, the laptop, and an odd assortment of technical gear that makes her pieces sound as if they originated in a nearby mall, not halfway around the world. Stuffed in at the end is a huge wad of un-read research, the unfinished expense-accounting from her last trip, a staggering number of pairs of reading glasses, and her one surviving hearing aid, a new one, made by an old Russian friend who is now an audiologist in Jerusalem. This tiny device has fifteen minuscule computers in it instead of four, enabling her to eavesdrop virtually on thoughts. That is, if she remembers to wear it.
Last-minute exotically wrapped cartons of new sophisticated equipment from NPR arrive. Miniature satellite-phone antennae blossom briefly amid the dahlias. An hour before the taxi is due, she is still downloading a complicated NPR program with a cool competence that may keep her safe until she returns.
She left here with a weighty array of journalistic weaponry that is lean, mean, and all business. All but the technical gear was checked-in luggage at JFK, where security pawed through everything; what was neatly packed upon leaving certainly will not be upon arrival. In the end she didn't even carry a change of clothes onto the plane; Brenda, as she will modestly admit, knows - if she knows nothing else - how to SHOP.
So, our Brenda arrived safely in Baghdad from Jordan on Sunday. She spent the three days in Amman waiting for the promised Iraqi visa that never came. It was a quick lesson in how things work over there. She was finally able to reach Ahmed, the Iraqi "fixer" in Baghdad with whom she has been talking for weeks and who had promised to have the visa waiting for her. Ahmed - now follow me on this - said to her, "No problem, all you have to do is contact Nabil in Amman." Well, Nabil wasn't much help but he turned her over to Amjad, who is a fellow big-time fixer in Amman. Amjad told her that he couldn't really help but that Ibrahim could. Ibrahim, in turn, passed her on to Mohammed, who said that for $200 he could set up a breakfast with the Iraqi ambassador. Well, that is how Brenda got her visa. Cheap at the price, it seems, as another news organization had bought the Iraqi ambassador his new car. In the fraying atmosphere of Amman, with everyone squirreling dollars, just about anything is for sale. She also found time in all this to do a yet-to-be-aired piece on how the Jordanians find themselves once again between Iraq and a hard place.
Brenda's claim that she has absolutely no idea how she got her visa strikes some who know her as slightly disingenuous. When her switch is OFF here at home, many make the mistake of assuming that she carries with her overseas that slightly muddled, directionally challenged, technologically inept persona that is so pleasurable and delightful. Don't be fooled. About three weeks ago there was an audible click when the switch went ON. Annie became Brenda in an instant. "Wake me at five" meant wake her at five. Carefully crafted exquisite dinners slid into hamburgers with frozen limas or even "fend for yourself" affairs. Research e-mails poured in. Books were ordered and devoured. The phone was constantly in use to far-flung places at odd hours. Her voice took on a different timbre. Brenda knows very well how to work the system, even if Annie doesn't.
Stay tuned. . .
October 20, 2002
Vint and I took our usual farewell walk with the dogs just before the taxi came. It was a spectacular autumn day and we talked about all the garden projects we want to do next spring. We talked about everything but Iraq. But when we said good-bye we knew this wasn't just another assignment. If there is to be war, this is the beginning of a long odyssey.
I've never been to Iraq before and have all the fears I always have embarking on any new assignment. I need to hit the ground running, but I need the right people to help me do it.
After finally getting a visa, I arrived in Baghdad from Amman late at night to be met by the 250-pound Ahmed. I've inherited him from other NPR colleagues who have made use of his services in the past. Though he works for an American television network, he moonlights (literally, in this case) for other organizations. His brother is an official with the Information Ministry, so he has the connections necessary to arrange visas, drivers, and hotels - all, needless to say, for hefty fees. He leads me on a mysterious dance through the airport, where endless officials cut in. I try to follow the best I can. Innumerable forms are filled out and stamped with orders not to lose them or I will never get out of the country. What's most important, though, is knowing how to dish out money. The black case containing my satellite phone is sealed with a sticky white label, and I am told very sternly not to open it until I have checked in at the Information Ministry. Given that it's well past midnight, that will have to wait until daylight.
It's an inauspicious beginning. I have just missed probably one of the biggest stories in Iraq in years. While I was traveling, President Saddam Hussein announced a "full, complete, and final amnesty" for tens of thousands of prisoners, opening the doors to Iraq's notorious jails and releasing everyone from pick-pockets to political prisoners into the arms of jubilant crowds.
The decree read throughout the day on Iraqi radio and television marks the first time Saddam's government has acknowledged imprisoning opponents of the regime, despite years of scathing reports from human-rights groups. This appears to be another attempt to rally public support for war with the United States, which looks increasingly inevitable.
As I check into the Al-Rashid Hotel, reporters describe the scene at Abu Ghreib prison, the country's largest. As word of the decree spread, thousands of family members raced to this fortress, which is situated on the outskirts of the city. Chaos broke out. Iraqi officials had announced that five hundred prisoners would be released every hour, but guards stood by as families broke through the gates into the prison courtyard to find their loved ones. Prisoners meanwhile pushed their way out. Several were killed in the stampede. As night fell, some family members were still searching in vain for prisoners, calling out for them in the dark or holding up handwritten signs with their names.
The amnesty comes just days after Saddam received a preposterous 100-percent approval in a referendum. The government claimed he got every single vote with every eligible Iraqi participating, and officials say the prisoner release was to thank the people for their support, but the underlying message is clear. In Saddam's Iraq, life, death, and freedom are in the hands of the man who has ruled Iraq since 1979.
Excerpted from Naked in Baghdad by Anne Garrels Copyright © 2003 by Anne Garrels
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