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Naked in Baghdad
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 predominote. 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 unread 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—alt, 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 pickpockets 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.
The Al-Rashid is full of reporters I know from other assignments in other places. Towering over everyone is Nick Turner, a talented cameraman for CBS News. Though he’s a little grayer than when we first met, he’s as lean and deliciously mean as he was twenty-five-plus years ago, when we were both assigned to Moscow. He says work conditions are frustrating and will remind me of the former Soviet Union, where raising a camera had the same effect as raising an M16—everyone scattered for cover.
The Al-Rashid Hotel became world famous in 1991, when CNN broadcast from here during the Gulf War. It’s a huge complex, and its cavernous halls, full of people I can only assume are intelligence agents, are slightly menacing. By the elevator there is a man whose only job is to watch you get on and off. On the 8th floor, my new home, there’s another man monitoring the hallway. His job, I suspect, is also to watch who comes and goes.
It is indeed a familiar setup, developed and perfected in the Soviet Union, where “floor ladies” were also the bane of my existence. When I first arrived in Moscow to be ABC’s correspondent in 1979, I lived in the Intourist Hotel for a couple of months while I waited to move into an apartment. Vera Ivanovna was a surly presence whose cleaning was so thorough as to include a regular search of my belongings and the removal of my address book. Though barely over five feet, she also body-blocked anyone trying to visit my room. When I met her again years later, after Mikhail Gorbachev had lifted the veil of fear, she greeted me warmly and apologized for her behavior. “I am so sorry,” she said simply. “I always wanted to make you some decent soup because you never ate anything,” she recalled, “but I couldn’t. You understand.”
We exchanged stories about her duties back then, necessary to keep her job, and my efforts to thwart her. We talked about how life had changed for her. While many of her friends were embittered at the loss of Socialist security and scared of an uncertain future, Vera proved to be an indomitable soul. She had had contact with foreigners and an inkling of what life might be like beyond the confines of the Soviet Union. She was enthusiastic about the reforms under way, even though her savings and her pension had evaporated with the crash of the ruble. Too old to benefit from the changes, she nonetheless hoped her children and grandchildren would live a very different life. But in addition to hope, the end of Soviet rule brought chaos and conflict. I have a feeling I am about to watch a repeat.
OCTOBER 21, 2002
I didn’t sleep well, nervous about how I’m supposed to tackle this complicated story in a country I don’t know. In the cool light of dawn I finally see the famous mosaic on the hotel threshold. In my confusion last night I missed it, but everyone who enters or exits the Al-Rashid must walk over the scowling image of George Bush the elder with the words DOWN WITH USA etched in tile.
Ahmed hands me over to the man who will be my driver. Thirty-eight-year-old Amer is some sort of distant relation. Everyone here seems to be related, but he’s the opposite of Ahmed, whose style can only be summed up as “slob.” With thick black hair and a perfectly trimmed mustache, Amer is tall, strikingly good-looking, and well-dressed, but most important of all, he has a decent command of English. Ahmed’s language skills seem limited to dinars, dollars, and cents.
Amer takes me in tow and we begin another mysterious dance at the Information Ministry. The power to make or break emanates from one small office on the ground floor, where I have been told I will spend as much time sucking up as I will reporting. I pay my obeisances, register my satellite phone, which is duly unsealed, and look for somewhere to work. The prospects aren’t good. Work space inside is limited; the few offices are already rented for exorbitant sums, so I find myself camped outside in a dusty courtyard that overlooks a busy, noisy main thoroughfare. Amer helps me scrounge a desk, a rickety chair, and an extension cord to one of the few available electrical outlets.
There is a rigorous system for controlling and monitoring Western journalists in Iraq that has been honed over the years. The Information Ministry’s goal is not to facilitate our work, but to make sure we do only what they wish us to. Satellite phones, by which we can communicate, access e-mail, and broadcast to the States, are to be kept in the Information Ministry at all times because officials are leery of these portable machines, which they cannot easily bug. They are nervous about us, and they are nervous that Iraqis could use the phones for uncensored calls. All reporters must also have an officially approved “minder” who will monitor every interview if able. The minders’ knowledge of a foreign language is by no means their top skill. A display of loyalty to the regime is. And most Iraqis, familiar with the rules and the penalties for an injudicious remark, are wise enough not to speak to a foreigner even without a minder present. With so many journalists now in Baghdad, minders are in short supply—and it’s clear there are a lot of frustrated, unattached reporters milling around the lobby unable to work.
Thanks to Ahmed I hook up with Sa’ad Samarrai, who’s reputed to be one of the better minders, whatever that means. Somewhere around fifty, he’s suave and his English is superb. He’s already working with another journalist, Olivia Ward from Canada. She’s naturally not well pleased that I have elbowed in. We “negotiate” the price. In other words, Sa’ad tells me his services will be $100 a day. Little matter that I am already paying the Information Ministry $50 a day for him.
The agenda has already been set. We are going out to water-and sewage-treatment plants to see the ongoing effects of the UN sanctions that were imposed after the ’91 Gulf War to exact compliance with UN demands. Crudely put, Iraqi officials blame the sanctions, and the limits on what Iraq can import, for continued health problems. The UN says that if Saddam were to fulfill his obligations the sanctions would be lifted. This trip seems like a good way to get my bearings and see something of Baghdad, and besides, at this point I have no choice. Amer and I get into his black ’91 Chevrolet Caprice. Sa’ad and Olivia take a second car.
The streets are packed with traffic. Gas is cheap, but nearly all of the cars are old Chevrolets and Fords with broken windshields. Baghdad is not a charming place. The cement buildings are spare, solid, and utilitarian; there’s little vegetation to interrupt the ubiquitous beige and there is virtually nothing left to hint at the city’s exotic past, the Baghdad of a thousand years ago, of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and other stories from The Thousand and One Nights, when the city was the capital of an Islamic empire that stretched from North Africa to the edges of China.
There are no longer any mysterious souks. The relics of that world were consumed by floods, sandstorms, and Mongol invaders. Four hundred years of Ottoman rule, ending in 1917, left Iraq one of the most backward and underdeveloped regions of the empire. History seems to have begun with the rise of Saddam and his Baath Party in the ’60s, which promised an Arab renaissance, and Saddam’s modernization campaign evidently had no tolerance or taste for quaint. But if Baghdad lacks the architectural intrigue of a Cairo, it also doesn’t have its teeming masses and widespread poverty. It is well laid out, with good roads. There are hospitals, universities, and shopping centers, vestiges of its recent prosperity. There are imposing government complexes built during the oil boom of the ’70s and early ‘80s, and we pass through sprawling middle-class neighborhoods of respectable two-story houses that give the city the feel of the American Southwest. There are no signs of past U.S. bombing campaigns. The government has repaired almost all the bridges and buildings which were hit in ’91 and again in ’98. New construction, however, seems to have been limited to the creation of vast presidential palaces and enormous new mosques. Amer points to one mosque, still bristling with cranes and the skeletons of soaring minarets, which he says will be the biggest in the world. He also nods discreetly at several compounds surrounded by crenellated walls: “Saddam’s palaces,” he says, with barely concealed disgust and no further explanation.
He gives me a quick primer on conditions. The electricity has been largely restored since the ’91 Gulf War, despite UN sanctions. Blackouts are less common now. Emergency services such as hospitals are operating without life-threatening power cuts, but as we approach the water-treatment plant he says the deteriorating water system is still a major concern.
Inside the plant, four of eight purification tanks are out of service and a vital sediment filtration machine needs to be replaced. Senior engineer Mohammed Ali Kassim blames the UN sanctions committee for holding up purchase of a new one. The amount of drinking water available to the public is half what it needs. And in rural Iraq the water systems are far worse. Many villages have no access to running water and often depend on brackish wells. All this contributes to endemic gastrointestinal problems and continued high infant-mortality rates.
In the east of Baghdad, in the slum of al-Hansa, barefoot children play in the fetid streets. There’s no sewage system. In the boiling summer months water pressure is so low that residents say barely a trickle reaches their houses. They have to illegally cut into the pipes to access water. The runoff from the free-flowing sewage then seeps into the punctured water system. According to my notes, the UN now puts Iraq at 127, the bottom of the list, for overall development. It used to rank 67.
Suddenly there’s the sound of music. A ragtag band wends its way through the streets, the drum and trumpet attracting a raucous crowd. Much to Sa’ad’s horror, we race after them. They stop outside a one-story house. Sa’ad asks some quick questions, establishes what is going on, and agrees that we can go in. The Sadiq family is sitting in a dark, bare room celebrating the return of their father. He was one of the prisoners released yesterday, and everyone is still clearly in shock. He says he’d expected a life sentence for murdering his cousin even though, under customary law, the family had resolved the problem by paying blood money to the family of the victim. He has nothing but good things to say about Saddam Hussein.
Back in the car, Amer expresses reservations about the prisoner release, given the crime wave that beset Baghdad through much of the 1990s, but he also says many were the victims of an arbitrary system, a poignant statement about the state of Iraqi justice. As we talk, we pass hundreds of people standing silently by the side of the road. “The families of political prisoners,” says Amer, a comment he certainly didn’t need to offer. They are waiting across the street from the General Security Directorate, one of the most feared buildings in Baghdad. I realize we have just tripped on a much more important story than the prisoner release of yesterday. These are people who are looking for prisoners who did not emerge from the cells, and their silent demonstration is unprecedented.
Amer then gives me a quick lesson on how we are going to work. As long as there are no minders around, he will do what he can “within reason” to help. He warns me to be careful what I say around Sa’ad. When Sa’ad is in the car, I am not to speak to Amer. I am to treat him as nothing more than a dumb driver who follows orders.
Given this opening, I begin to pepper him with questions. He says he started his professional life as a schoolteacher, but when he could no longer afford the luxury of his job he began to work for foreign journalists as a driver. He has three small children. He rents a house in the western part of the city and has no phone. In recent months the government has taken several steps to bind Iraqis to the regime. Rations have been doubled, cars and stipends have been doled out to party loyalists, tribes, and the military. The prisoner release is a good way to make peace with the military, which has suffered purges, and it is also a way to get more fodder for the army. Many of those in prison were draft-dodgers who will now be “persuaded” to join up and stay. The amnesty may also be a gesture to Iraqis living abroad, who have been invited back, but Amer doubts many will respond, since many of those who have come back in the past have been welcomed with arrest or execution.
It was much too dangerous for Amer to stop outside the security complex, where the crowds had gathered. I ask him to leave me at the hotel, telling him I have some work to do for a couple of hours. When he has disappeared, I flag a taxi and return on my own. I wander through the mass of people, mostly women draped in black. Without a translator I can only call out, “Does anyone speak English?” No one will speak directly to me, but as I pass by some whisper without raising their eyes, “My son, gone twelve years,” “My husband, eight years,” “Where are they? No one will tell us.” Within seconds, it seems, the police spot me and hustle me away. I deliberately don’t have a tape recorder with me, or a notebook. I try to look as stupid as I can, and they let me leave without further incident.
Back at the Information Ministry we’re told there’s to be a mass wedding to celebrate Saddam’s recent reelection. At a youth club, more than 150 couples gather for a most unromantic union, but the government is picking up the tab and without this help the couples say they could not afford to get married. The brides, so heavily made up and hairsprayed that they look like they’re wearing masks, have been provided with long white dresses, veils, shoes, handbags, and gloves. They will be allowed to keep everything but the dresses, which must be returned. Sa’ad is nowhere to be found, and Amer says he cannot translate for me if other minders are present. I find one who speaks one of my known languages—Russian. In fact, it is extraordinary how often Russian is proving to be useful here, as many Iraqis were educated in the former Soviet Union, which had close ties to Saddam’s regime through the ’80s. The same thing happened in Afghanistan, and while reporting in the West Bank I often resorted to Russian when talking to Palestinian doctors, many of whom were trained by the Soviets. And, of course, in Israel, with the huge immigration of Russian Jews or those passing for Jews, Russian is more useful than Hebrew in many neighborhoods. I certainly never expected to use this language as my main means of communication in so many disparate countries.
OCTOBER 22, 2002
The silent demonstration of yesterday has turned into a protest march to the Information Ministry. Dozens of Iraqis ignore repeated warnings to disperse and gather outside to demand information on the fate of sons and brothers still missing despite the government’s decision this week to empty its infamous prisons.
Most are women, swathed in black robes, and most are Shiite Muslims. Though the majority in Iraq, they are underrepresented in a government dominated by Saddam’s clan and loyal Sunni Muslim tribes. The Shiites have their origin in a series of disputes within the early Muslim community, starting more than a thousand years ago, over who was the rightful heir to the prophet Mohammed. Differences in doctrine and practice emerged. The Shiites have suffered repeated reprisals at the hands of Saddam’s ruling Sunni sect, especially after Shiites in the south rose up against Saddam following the ’91 Gulf War and were abandoned to their fate by the United States, which had encouraged them to rebel.
The women beg foreign journalists to help determine the whereabouts of their relatives. One after another tells how a son or husband was picked up, with no explanation, and has not been heard of for years. These women, however, are no fools. They intersperse their whispered pleas with pro-forma praise of Saddam. Careful not to implicate the great leader, they say, “Of course if he knew our relatives were missing he would help. It’s his subordinates who are to blame.”
Iraqi officials, used to all demonstrations being officially sanctioned, are clearly stunned at the appearance of the crowd, and they are not deceived by the veneer of support for Saddam. No minders will help translate, so I just record every utterance in the hope I can make sense of it later. A CNN reporter who speaks Arabic balks when I ask her to help. She can’t afford to be seen assisting me. The authorities see Arabic-speakers among the Western press as a potent threat because they can maneuver without minders. Thugs try to block photographers’ cameras. They infiltrate the group shouting pro-government slogans, attempting to turn the demonstration into a full-fledged Saddamfest, but they can’t stop the women from getting their plaintive message across. Finally plainclothes security men carrying weapons appear and shove the crowd away. It’s not clear if any of the demonstrators have been arrested. In the privacy of the car, Amer later helps translate the tape I have recorded.
Some Western news organizations’ representatives have sat inside the Information Ministry, refraining from covering the event, fearing they could jeopardize their Iraqi visas by documenting a so-called “unauthorized demonstration.” They were right. Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite channel that broadcasts across the Arab world, had its videotapes confiscated. A CNN correspondent has been expelled after the network carried the protests live. This is one of the few signs of bravery by CNN, which has curried favor with the Iraqi authorities in order to maintain its substantial presence.
But is maintaining a presence at the cost of not reporting the whole truth worth it? Tonight there was a raging debate among some journalists at the Al-Rashid. One Italian television correspondent told me, “I am here for the big story,” meaning the war. Reporters have long played a regrettable game, tacitly agreeing not to report on aspects of Iraq for the sake of a visa. Among the issues that are forbidden: the personalities of Saddam and his sons; the fact that he is widely despised and feared; the terror that his regime has instilled.
CNN and the BBC are seen in real time by Iraqi authorities, who monitor the satellite channels normal Iraqis can’t see. This puts a lot of pressure on them to pull their punches and “behave.” Myself, I don’t see the point in self-censorship. The obvious stories, press conferences, and official statements that are now the fodder for most news organizations can easily be had from outside Iraq. I am here to try to understand how Iraqis see themselves, their government, and the world around them.
OCTOBER 23, 2002
There are many cultural divides here, most obviously between reporters and Iraqis who are scared to speak out. But there are also divisions between the various journalists who have come from around the world, each with his or her own national perspective. Though friendships cross national boundaries, journalists do tend to hang out with their own. There is, however, another divide, and that’s between print and television. Their demands are different. The way they cover stories is different. And the means at their disposal are distinctly different. Television folk have much more money, relatively large staffs, and big feet, which means they make a lot of noise wherever they go. They seem to live in another realm. As a mere radio correspondent, I fall somewhere in between print and video, and given that I work for National Public Radio, my feet are small.
While I sit outside in the dusty courtyard, screaming over the sound of traffic down the sat phone to my foreign editor, Loren Jenkins, the networks have comfortable offices with fax machines, round-the-clock access to satellite news, and newswires, not to mention boys who bring glasses of tea. If I sound jealous of certain perks, I am, but I have worked for the networks and have no desire to do so ever again. We were not a good fit. I like being a broadcast reporter, but I revel in the freedom of working alone without a camera crew. I like the intimacy this gives me. People, especially here in a police state, are much more likely to speak openly without a camera shoved in their faces, and because I don’t have to match what I write with video, I can weave the story with words and sound, nuance and all. And I am not relegated to only a couple of fleeting minutes. I figure I have the best of all worlds, a blend of broadcast and print.
But tonight I’m feeling sorry for myself. The demands by all the NPR programs are enormous. I’m tired and grubby. I have no idea how I’m going to push this story forward, given how frightened everyone is to talk honestly, even without a camera around. All I can do is create a mosaic and hope that a picture emerges that approximates reality.
I seem to have lucked out with Amer. In every foreign assignment I have ever had, there has always been someone who makes the difference. Every journalist’s secret is her driver or “fixer,” a local person whose translation skills go well beyond words: Lionya and Irina in Moscow, Mimosa in Kosovo, Wadood and Andar in Afghanistan. These people shared every aspect of their lives so that I could better understand their countries. Working around the clock, in tumultuous and dangerous circumstances, they found the people I needed to see, they got me to the places I needed to get to, and they have become my extended family.
OCTOBER 25, 2002
I am off to collect string. What I want to do and what I can do are two very different things in Saddam’s Iraq.
There is growing concern here over a possible war, and it’s taking its toll on the country’s small private sector. Many Iraqis have stopped purchasing anything but necessities. Private businessmen are watching their modest profits plummet.
Sa’ad takes me to the Nineveh Paint Company, a small family business on the outskirts of Baghdad, which has survived wars, embargoes, and sanctions. I’m foisted on the owner, sixty-one-year-old Bassam Antoon. He has no idea who I am, and I have no idea who he is. We start with basic facts. He has had to cut his staff from twenty to thirteen, but his employees still make far more than government workers, albeit a modest $15 a week. Antoon laughs readily, but his laughter is tinged with hysteria as he faces yet another challenge, the possibility of another U.S. attack. He says he is tired of trying to keep body and soul alive through so many years of uncertainty.
When I ask about his biggest concerns, one of his workers replies, “Ulcers brought on by stress.” A devout Muslim, this man indicates he is putting greater and greater faith in God. I am surprised that he doesn’t mention Saddam. The economic crisis following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the subsequent UN sanctions all but shut the paint factory down, but after 1997, when Saddam finally agreed to sell oil under UN supervision, the country began to rebuild. Antoon saw his business pick up, but now it’s again in trouble. With the U.S. threat out there, the last thing people are thinking about is repainting their buildings.
Just getting by here takes creativity, and I need to employ some creativity to get Antoon on his own. Sa’ad is getting bored with all the usual questions and Antoon’s dutiful, careful answers. I ask to see the factory, and Antoon seizes the opportunity to talk to me alone while Sa’ad is busy on the phone clearing permission for the next round of interviews.
Antoon used to import paint cans. That’s simply too expensive now, so he’s taken to making his own. An educated man who is proud of what he’s achieved, he shows how his workers recycle old oil barrels, turning them into shiny containers for his paint. I turn off the tape recorder, hoping that Antoon will open up a little, and he does. He warns that there could be a backlash if the precarious gains of recent years are destroyed by a U.S. war. He says that young people are frustrated with no jobs, no income, and no way to start lives of their own. He warns that these young people, who have grown up knowing only war and sanctions, feel they have been condemned to isolation by the United States. This, he cautions, will be the generation the West will have to face. While Iraqis blame Saddam for their problems, they also blame the West.
Antoon speaks quickly, looking to see who’s listening. It’s complicated, he says. He thinks it’s much better for the Iraqis to deal with Saddam than for the United States to try to force him out. If left alone, he suggests, Iraqis will get rid of Saddam in as little as a year. Sa’ad appears and the conversation reverts to talk of paint cans.
Iraq’s private industrial sector has always been small, but to buy loyalty and to reward cronies Saddam has given the private sector more freedom to operate than in the past. He also uses the private sector to smuggle in goods so that shops can provide Iraqis with at least some of what they need, and at first glance I have to say they seem pretty well stocked. But the right to do business remains under Saddam’s control, and he takes his cut.
Next stop—an interview with private businessman Faris al-Hadi, who has a government-approved license to import household appliances. Until the ’90s, the government had retained a monopoly. Now, to skirt the sanctions, there are lots of private suppliers, and al-Hadi is one of the most successful.
Al-Hadi readily admits he resorts to smuggling with the full knowledge of the government. He won’t discuss the payoffs involved. Just about everything he brings in is outside the purview of the UN sanctions committee, and some items like microwave ovens are banned outright by the UN because someone on the sanctions committee thinks they have a military application. This is a risky business. There’s no way to insure illegal shipments, which arrive in leaky vessels from somewhere in the Gulf. One of his boats recently went up in flames and with it $60,000 in videocassettes. With the prospect of a possible war, al-Hadi says he’s put all shipments on hold. He’s dumping his current stock of television sets at below cost to avoid bigger losses later on, should the United States bomb.
What al-Hadi doesn’t say is as revealing as what he does. He does not offer fulsome praise for Saddam or his government, though he does hazard the opinion that weapons of mass destruction are not the key issue for the United States. Oil is, he says firmly, and he believes the United States will press for war regardless of what weapons inspectors might find.
OCTOBER 28, 2002
In his off hours, Amer disappears into the Al-Rashid’s Internet café, which piques my curiosity. Inside Iraq there are no cell phones, no instant messaging, and definitely no private e-mail accounts, but, nevertheless, the Internet has finally arrived. After long resisting, Saddam’s regime has cautiously allowed Internet access and the window it provides to the rest of the world, and it is now struggling to control the uncontrollable. In the late ’80s, the spread of fax machines emboldened and connected student protestors in China, and the fax helped undermine the coup-plotters who eventually tried to overthrow Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. What the flurry of faxes once did in those places, the Internet might do here.
Most in Iraq still get their information the old-fashioned way: in the absence of foreign newspapers and magazines, they search for uncensored news on scratchy broadcasts from the BBC, Radio Monte Carlo, or the Voice of America. When Sa’ad isn’t in the car, Amer is continually flipping stations for some “real news.” The Iraqis regularly jam VOA’s newest Arabic language service, called Radio Sawa, forcing it to jump frequencies and Amer to scan the dial for the latest position, but for a growing number of people, including Amer, the Internet is a growing addiction.
Though it’s run by the Iraqi Ministry of Transportation and Communications, the mundane scene in one of the nineteen Internet cafés in Baghdad represents a quiet revolution. Portraits of President Saddam Hussein act as screen-savers, but with the click of a button he disappears and you enter another psychic space.
The regime first permitted Internet access for government ministries a few years ago, but its lack of trust in its people, and the free flow of information, was evident. Back then, even high-ranking officials weren’t allowed to send e-mails from their desks. They had to take them to a central clearing office. The first e-mail center for the public opened in early 2000. This year, somewhat amazingly, they added Internet service, and now Iraqi universities are beginning to hook up. Access is so popular, and lines so long, that students are restricted to two hours a week. Recently the government took another major step, permitting some citizens to have Internet connections at home. At a little over $30 a month, this is much too costly for most, but where there are Internet cafés Iraqis can send e-mails and surf the subversive Web for just 50 cents an hour, and most seem happy to pay.
There are limits. The connections are slow because of poor phone lines, and when Iraqis try to access private e-mail boxes such as Yahoo! or Hotmail, they’re greeted with a blunt message: ACCESS DENIED. Everything is supposed to go through Uruklink.net, the government-controlled service provider monitored by Saddam’s agents. Sometimes, Amer says, it takes quite a while for e-mails to come through, which reinforces suspicions that the government is reading the messages first. Iraqis are cautious about what they say in their messages, and they develop elaborate codes, but Amer describes ways to circumvent restrictions by sending e-mails through other Web sites, and there are talented Iraqi hackers. The Internet is both a blessing and a curse for a sophisticated totalitarian regime for whom information is at once necessary and feared.
Mohammad, a university student, shows me how he can get to just about any news site on this particular night, but he says that if there’s aggressive news about Iraq you might find some of the sites suddenly blocked. And porn sites are always inaccessible.
As I look over their shoulders, I can see two students from Saddam University looking for information on lasers. They glance at me nervously, since lasers are such a sensitive subject for those trying to impede Iraq’s weapons programs. I suspect they don’t want me to see what they are accessing. They quickly point out that, while a lot of information is available for free on the Internet, they can often access only abstracts. To get an entire article they have to pay, but because of sanctions they don’t have credit cards. Money, they say, is the problem.
Amer says he regularly uses the Internet to communicate with an Austrian company for whom he’s become the local rep. He is helping them bid on contracts for water-treatment plants. Now I know what all those folders are in the trunk of his car. He says we will be able to communicate by e-mail when I’m outside Iraq, but once again he warns me to be careful about what I say or write.
A code has already developed between us. It started when we were passing the zoo. Amer mentioned that Saddam’s elder son Uday has a passion for tigers, walking down the street with them like some might walk their dogs. “Tigers” is now our password for Saddam and his circle. We have begun to trust each other in a society where no one trusts anyone. It’s a gamble we both seem to be taking.
I’ve barely arrived, but it’s already time to apply for the dreaded visa extension. Journalists come into the country with visas that last only ten days, giving the Information Ministry firm control over its flock. By now I’ve been let into the secrets of bribes, sycophancy, and groveling. Some reporters submit copies of their stories to show how friendly they are. Others buy officials expensive gifts. Some order lunch or dinner to be delivered to officials in their offices. I have given one ministry official a nice tie, but I have so far failed to make any impression at all on the super-keeper, Uday al-Tae. He is the director general of the Information Ministry and the man who ultimately decides our fate. He is in his early fifties and once worked at the Iraqi embassy in Paris, where he reportedly ran a network of Iraqi agents in Western Europe. Eventually he was expelled from France, but he still loves to show off his French, and he has an eye for French women that hasn’t done me one bit of good. He is cutting back on the number of journalists currently in Baghdad, and it doesn’t look like I’ll be staying on. NPR, for better or worse, is not on his radar screen.
OCTOBER 31, 2002
President Bush used a campaign swing through South Dakota today to issue another in what have become almost daily warnings to the United Nations: “Do the right thing,” he said, “and force Iraq to disarm now.” He warned that if the UN won’t act and if Saddam Hussein won’t disarm, the United States will lead a coalition of nations to disarm him.
Iraqis say they hope their government will readmit the UN inspectors to avoid a military confrontation, but they also ask why the United States is pressing this issue now. And people in Baghdad seem gripped not by the uncertain future, about which they can do little, but by nostalgia for a great proud past which gave rise to the legends of The Thousand and One Nights.
I drop in on an elderly barber on Al-Rashid Street, the heart of what passes for old Baghdad. If the Americans bomb this area, Ikmat al-Hella says, they will take away the city’s memory. He’s a tiny man who sports a frayed shirt, ancient pinstriped trousers, and suspenders. He speaks a little English, and a friend of his speaks a little more. At seventy-nine he’s too old to be frightened. He recalls Baghdad in the ’30s and ’40s when it was little more than a small town. He regales me with reminiscences of the British occupation and Iraq’s brief fling with a monarchy, when he used to clip the beard of King Faisal until Faisal was killed in a military coup in 1958. Ikmat talks about the golden age of the ’70s, when newfound oil wealth propelled Iraq into the forefront of the Arab world and he would dance until dawn in the city’s nightclubs and risque cabarets. He’s hardly the picture of a lady-killer, but you wouldn’t know that listening to his tales. A monarchist at heart, he says, “Revolution, revolution after revolution have brought us to destruction.”
Many of Iraq’s best and brightest have fled the country. It’s estimated that three to four million now live overseas, not an insignificant proportion of a population that is somewhere about 25 million. Once out of the country, they suffer the fate of so many exiles in so many other countries. They are dismissed at home by those who have had to stay and suffer. When I ask around about the exiled politicians and groups the United States is trying to back, Iraqis show little interest and even less support.
After my solitary walk, I hook up with Sa’ad to go to nearby Babylon, once the site of the Hanging Gardens, one of the eight wonders of the ancient world. It is now an archaeological travesty. It’s been reconstructed to look like a theme park. There are, however, still some raw ruins nearby where laborers continue to excavate Iraq’s glorious past for a mere $3 a month. One of Saddam’s many new palaces looms in the background. It’s forbidden to take a tourist snap of the site if the palace is in the frame, which pretty much eliminates all photography. Even with Sa’ad in attendance, or because of Sa’ad, an archaeologist refuses to speak. He is embarrassed and comes up later to apologize. He speaks good English and says, “It’s just better to be silent.” All in all, the trip is pretty much a bust.
Later, in a smoky Baghdad teahouse, patrons throw dice on backgammon boards. “War,” they say nonchalantly, “we’re used to it.” A combination of bravado and resignation is easily found here, but a couple of men take advantage of Sa’ad’s momentary absence to convey through furtive glances and knowing looks that they are eager for change. One man says, “It’s oil that got us into all this trouble.” He says oil is driving U.S. policy. “Oil is our blessing and our curse.” Despite being an American, I am warmly welcomed, with one old fellow grinning and saying, “I’m lucky to meet you,” as he tosses the dice.
A retired schoolteacher suggests that President Bush is making the situation worse for Iraqis by threatening to invade. “U.S. pressure is merely uniting the country and making Saddam more popular among the people,” he says. This seemingly safe comment is accompanied by a shake of the head as if to add, “Don’t you get it?”
In my constant search for string with which to weave some kind of story, we head out to the English Language Department at Baghdad’s Mustansariyeh University, where I fall into conversation with a charming forty-one-year-old man. A jeweller, with a passion for learning English, he’s attending night classes. He hints at a wasted life and unfulfilled dreams. He spent ten years at the front, first during the Iran-Iraq war, and then in Kuwait. He was captured by the Americans, who, he says, treated him very well—a treasonous remark. He says he never married because of the wars. Now, by studying English, he’s hoping to rebuild a shattered life. He wants to travel abroad but dares not say where. “Please don’t embarrass me,” he says as I push the issue, “please don’t embarrass me.” In other words, don’t get me into trouble by making me say more than I already have said.
The surreal nature of conversations here, monitored or otherwise, becomes painfully clear at the Iraqi Women’s Federation. I am trying to get at what has happened to Iraq’s middle class. Many middle-class women come here for computer training so they can help supplement their families’ dwindling income. One woman, who is loath to give her name, says she is learning Excel because “Life is too hard, too hard.” I ask what her husband does, and she answers, “Oh, what he can.” Later Sa’ad confesses he knows this woman very well. Her husband is one of the prisoners Saddam recently released. He had been held for eight years, accused of spying for Germany. “Doing what you can” suddenly takes on a different meaning.
BRENDA BULLETIN: OCTOBER 31, 2002
Twenty or so years ago a writer/journalist’s friend spent a number of weeks with me here in Norfolk. During the day, we laconically collaborated on a book, The Seven Deadly Sins Today. I tried to put pictures to his eloquent if idiosyncratic update of “The Big Seven.” Henry claimed intimacy with several—Pride, Anger, and Lust. Gluttony for him was more or less confined to alcohol. Envy and Avarice he tasted only fleetingly. Sloth was anathema. My box score on the subject remains classified. At night, when work was done for the day, the bottle of Scotch would come out and the talk would begin.
What Brenda is going through in Iraq at the moment brought back one particular conversation Henry and I had very late one night all those years ago. Most journalists, he maintained—and he could be harsh on his own profession — are little more than collectors of beads. They go through life searching for the gaudiest, the sexiest, the most colorful beads they can find without much thought as to how they relate to one another. They sweep them up, pop them in their sack, and move on. Good journalists, on the other hand, he insisted, have a string of a story onto which they thread the beads they choose. And the choice of any new bead must expand upon or inform the beads already on the string. So the choice may not be the most eye-catching bauble but one that connects and fits and fills out. Getting the string thing right is hard enough; finding that elusive illuminating bead can be even more difficult.
Brenda has two strings working; the effects of the embargo on the Iraqi population and the mad despotism of Saddam. To get to the first, she has to go through the second. The beads she finds are so encrusted with thirty years of suspicion and oppression that she never quite knows what she has found. It is maddening work.
NOVEMBER 1, 2002
Amer is late arriving at the hotel. His car was sideswiped by a government official’s car. Though it was the official’s fault, he can do nothing. He is furious at his impotence. “I know my rights,” he spits out sarcastically. Sa’ad appears, cutting short his invectives. He’s wearing a garish but very expensive plaid wool-and-silk sports jacket with a perfectly matched sportshirt. I can’t help but think I am paying for all this.
Today’s program starts with a return visit to a woman who had struck my fancy during an earlier interview. Forty-one-year-old Huda al-Neamy is a professor of political science, one of many educated middle-class Iraqis struggling to maintain dignity and a semblance of past prosperity on a salary of $15 dollars a month.
I had first seen Huda in her office but was anxious to fill out the portrait by visiting her at home, which in today’s Iraq is not always easy. Luckily, she agreed. The tiles in the living-room floor have buckled, but there’s no money for repairs. Her husband, a former army officer, has left the military, where he could no longer make a decent living, to open up a small convenience store. As she lights up one cigarette after another, Huda says she’s weary of a situation from which she sees no exit. She yearns for a normal life that has eluded her for twenty years. But while she cautiously suggests that Iraq may have made mistakes by launching wars against its neighbors she says the U.S. treatment of the Iraqis is unjustified.
While Israel is allowed to flout UN resolutions, she says, Iraq is not. And the Bush administration’s failure to threaten tough actions against North Korea for its nuclear-weapons program reinforces her belief that the real American objectives in Iraq are oil, support for Israel, and domination of the region. The thought of a war in which Iraq could be dismembered or dissolve into ethnic and religious conflicts makes her shudder. She warns that “it would be a terrible mistake.”
In honor of Palestinians and their unfulfilled aspirations, she named her third and last child Quds, which means “Jerusalem” in Arabic. Now eleven, Quds says she identifies with Palestinian children who, she says, are suffering unjustly just as she is.
Like many in the Iraqi middle class, Huda grew up in a secular atmosphere, but Islam has come to play a much more important role here in recent years, a result, she explains, of despair. The government has encouraged and reflected this shift toward religion, justifying its rule on Iraqi patriotism, defense of Palestine, and Islamic solidarity. It was only ten years ago, when she was in her thirties, that Huda began to wear a head scarf. But while she has sought refuge in religion, she is quick to say this should not be mistaken for fundamentalism. “I am from an educated family,” she says. “I respect all human beings.”
We disappear into the kitchen, away from Sa’ad, who once again seems bored with the proceedings. As she prepares Turkish-style coffee, a thick strong brew, conversation turns to girl talk. She pulls off her head scarf. She laughs that a scarf, a sign of devotion, also has its practical aspects. Her blondish-red hair is in need of a dye job that costs money she doesn’t have. Her daughter, a serious child, chides Huda to cover her hair completely. I can see that, proud as she is of her daughter’s anger at Israel and concern for Palestinians, Huda is uncomfortable with the degree to which Quds has taken to her religion. This attractive, vivacious woman rearranges the scarf her own way, trying out various styles for me. She pointedly leaves some strands of hair visible, flouting strict religious convention.
She too has a nostalgia for the golden age of the ‘70s, when oil wealth dramatically improved people’s lives and Iraq appeared to be joining the rest of the world, but then came the ’80s and the Iran-Iraq war. Money grew tight even before the UN punished Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Huda once traveled to Europe. She dreamt of studying in the United States, but she can’t afford any of that now. And anyway, she points out sadly, it’s unlikely that a Western country would give her, an Iraqi, a visa,
She wants her children to see many civilizations, different people, different cultures, so that they can learn to respect others. For now, though, this family is mired in its isolation and growing bitterness at a world that has rejected them.
It’s at moments like this that I revel in being a female reporter, which on balance has been a distinct advantage. Men generally deal with me as a sexless professional, while women open up in ways that they would not with a man. Hard as it was to break into journalism back in the dark ’70s, and with few role models out there to follow, I have only benefited from my sex, reporting from overseas especially, ironically in societies where women are sequestered. Whether in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia, I can walk both sides of the street, talking the talk with male officials while visiting the women’s inner sanctums, which are often off-limits to foreign males. And being an older woman has its advantages too. I would never have been able to interview a mullah along the Pakistan-Afghan border were he not assured in advance that I was an “old woman.” He had tutored the young American muslim John Walker Lindh, who then went to fight for the Taliban until he was captured by U.S. forces. However, I apparently did not look as old as the mullah had anticipated, and on my arrival his aides demanded I wear a burka for the entire interview because “he had the natural feelings of a man,” which he apparently could not control. Enveloped in the burka’s stifling blue nylon pleats and peering through a square of mesh while trying to push buttons on the tape recorder and take notes was not pleasant, but it certainly wasn’t impossible.
As for covering wars, the dangers are basically the same whether you are male or female. Bullets don’t discriminate, and while some of my bosses in the past have expressed concerns about the risk of rape, my response has been that men can be tortured just as badly, if in different ways.
At the hotel tonight I spot a group of prostitutes, imported from Russia. According to Amer, they are here to service Saddam’s elder son Uday and his friends. They are scantily dressed and cause quite a stir with some of the male reporters, who would be well advised to stay clear. Bored with their assignment, these young women perform an erotic dance out in the hotel gardens. I wander out to talk to them. They are delighted to chatter in Russian, but a security guard comes up and cuts off the conversation before I am able to find out more about their backgrounds or collect any juicy tidbits.
NOVEMBER 2, 2002
A visit to Saddam City, the part of Baghdad where more than two million of Iraq’s Shiites live, has been nixed, so instead we head for al-Adhamiya, a middle-class neighborhood and bastion of Baathist support. The girls school we are taken to seems pretty well appointed. The students in their navy-and-white uniforms primp and giggle as they prepare to have their senior photograph taken. But when a microphone appears, they miraculously refer to notes tucked in their pinafores on why America should not invade Iraq. They spout well-rehearsed answers regardless of the question. Asked if they might have been advised about our arrival in advance, the girls respond vehemently with “No,” but they aren’t very good at lying and the truth quickly emerges.
Once they have performed their assigned declarations, they can’t hide their curiosity about how girls their age live in America. They want to know how I have a family and do the job I do, a question I am hard-pressed to answer. Seventeen-year-old Noor, one of but a few who is not wearing a headscarf, pipes up, “I want to be a lawyer,” and adds, “I think the most important priority now for women in society is to take part and get what we wish. Only second is marriage.”
Saddam’s secular revolution gave women in Iraq a remarkable degree of freedom compared to others in the rest of the Arab world. Despite the continued constraints of tradition, they prided themselves on their education, but Saddam’s spending on wars, the subsequent sanctions, demographics, and the shift to a more conservative religious atmosphere are cramping their style. Overall literacy rates, which reached an impressive 87 percent by 1985, began to plummet as Saddam expended billions on the Iran-Iraq war. Following the imposition of UN sanctions in 1991, only 45 percent of girls can now read. Twenty-three percent of Iraqi children of primary-school age are not enrolled in school now, with twice as many girls dropping out as boys. There is the specter of a lost generation, with girls taking the bigger hit.
These girls are among the fortunate ones, and when the subject turns to their future professions they shout out “engineer,” “doctor,” or “teacher,” but even here the headmistress says she is struggling to stem a soaring dropout rate. With so many men killed during recent wars or going abroad to make a living, girls are under pressure to marry early or risk finding no spouse at all. Given that more and more families are in economic distress, the school tries to raise money among the wealthier parents to help keep those in need from quitting.
The discussion is veering in too many directions for Sa’ad’s peace of mind. The effect of UN sanctions is the accepted topic, and he tries to keep questions and answers in that box. Headmistress Selwa al-Sharbati obliges and pulls out a photograph. “This is my big sister,” she says. “She was also a headmistress, but she died of breast cancer because of the UN sanctions.” The UN has not permitted the importation of spare parts, let alone new radiation machines, because they might be diverted for military uses.
Later on at a Baghdad hospital, Dr. Saad Medi Hasani links Iraq’s high infant-mortality rates to both sanctions and the crisis in education. He says illiterate mothers don’t know what is harmful and what isn’t. He says they don’t know about vaccines. As we stand talking in one of the wards, a woman from a nearby village, one of the poor Shiite majority, cuddles her child. She is draped in black. Her face has smeared blue markings on it—tribal tattoos. She doesn’t know her age but guesses she’s about twenty-two. Dr. Hasani translates, saying she never went to school. She can’t read or write, and she doesn’t plan to send her children to school.
Her youngest, a one-year-old son, suffers from parasites transmitted by dogs and sand flies. Dr. Hasani says this could have been avoided by using repellent or sleeping nets, but that the family had neither the knowledge nor the money. Now he says there’s no hope. He says the only treatment is a drug called Pentostan, another one of the items on the UN proscribed list. This woman doesn’t have the money to find it on the black market. Her child is going to die.
NOVEMBER 3, 2002
As anticipated, there’s no visa renewal. I go through the departure ritual, which requires paying the hotel with shopping bags full of Iraqi dinars and forking out vast sums of dollars in accumulated fees to the Information Ministry. The serial number of each bill must be listed, presumably to ensure the money is not stolen before it reaches Uday’s office. The process takes hours, and is not made any faster by the cashier, who lost most of his fingers in the Gulf War. Then there are the necessary letters and stamps to confirm that I am not skipping the country without settling my accounts. The last step is taking in my satellite phone so that it can be sealed and documented, lest I leave it behind for some Iraqi to have fun with.
I leave Mr. Mohsen $100, a modest contribution, but I hope he will look favorably on my next visa application. The Information Ministry wants to clear the decks for the moment. The staff is exhausted from monitoring us. I am exhausted from being monitored. As the milling horde waits outside his office to demand visa extensions, Mohsen is relieved that I have chosen to go without a fight. He closes my expanding file, saying, “You are very well behaved.” Little does he know, but may he believe it.
BRENDA BULLETIN: NOVEMBER 4, 2002
Brenda, ever mindful of her local civic responsibilities, landed in New York late today from Amman in time to vote here on Tuesday. She is on her way to Norfolk as I finish this.
“Surreal, difficult, and expensive” best describes the past two weeks. She will tell you that working in Baghdad was as difficult as anything that she has ever done. Everywhere Brenda went, her government minder was sure to go—making her job all but impossible. Pleasant enough in person, her constant shadow cast a pall on virtually every conversation. Occasionally, she would slip the leash, but even when on her own the most that she could get out of the people was that they were tired of war, tired of the struggle to retrieve a modicum of what they had before the Gulf War, and fearful that they would lose it all over again. By language unspoken, some made clear that they were also tired of Saddam. But U.S. threats had solidified popular support for him. Did you know that in Iraqi Arabic “BUSH” means “empty” or “nothing”?
The only bit of levity came after a long, hot marginal morning of interviews when her minder and Brenda had the following colloquy:
Annie, why are you so thin? You don’t eat. Don’t you ever get hungry?
Not when I’m working.
Oh, some people have to eat sometimes.
Does that mean that you want to get something to eat?
Oh, that is a very good idea.
So between constantly buying everyone food, paying exorbitantly for her minder and driver, shelling out daily to the Ministry of Information just for the privilege of being there, and paying for her dingy but pricey hotel room, it was an expensive two weeks. Oh yes, and then there were the hundreds of dollars in bribes that Brenda had to pay at the airport just to get out of the country. Once in Amman and looking back, Brenda was unsure, all in all, if it had been worth it. It was, for one of Brenda’s redeeming virtues is that she has never quite figured out how good she is. Ah, I think I hear the taxi.
BRENDA BULLETIN: DECEMBER 1, 2002
Brenda spent the past couple of weeks getting some sleep, reveling in the domesticity foreign travel denies her, and packing up again. She was also, once again, constantly on the phone at strange hours coaxing a visa out of unenthusiastic Iraqi officials.
We spent a last glorious four days in Vienna with my daughter Rebecca, who lovingly calls our girl “Wism,” as in wicked stepmother. And then she headed more or less east, and I west. However, the only route to Baghdad from Austria proved to be a most circuitous one. At 8 p.m. she flew Czech Air to Prague; from there she caught a flight to Beirut that landed at 2 a.m.; four hours later she was on a flight to Amman and then, after collecting her hard-won visa, she caught the 9 p.m. flight into Baghdad.
To while away the down-time of the cat-and-mouse game that is so much of her life these days, Brenda has taken up a new indoor sport: embroidery. Madame Dufarge incarnate, Brenda cross-stitches away, artfully recording the elusive sites of Weapons of Mass Destruction on pillowcases collected from the better hotels en route.
The question has arisen as to why the good lady heads for the farthest, most Godforsaken parts of the globe on such a frequent basis. I have chosen to ignore the opinion most often voiced: that it has something to do with me, the five dogs, the two cats, and my large and overbearing family. A second explanation is more palatable. Those who are familiar with her own family have perhaps picked up on certain manifest patterns of obsessive-compulsive behavior. As noted previously, a gear gets thrown and this otherwise delightful, ofttimes wafty lass becomes steely-eyed, focused, intrepidly brave, and dogged. Nothing, not even me, five dogs, two cats, and my large and overbearing family can stand in her way. And then there is a third possibility, the one I like best. She was simply unable to get everything that was on her Christmas list when she was last there, and well, pashmina by any other name is just wool from Land’s End.
DECEMBER 3, 2002
It looks like the bribe to Mohsen and dozens of subsequent phone calls worked. A visa was waiting at the Iraqi embassy in Amman. Ahmed was at the airport in Baghdad to meet me. He says Sa’ad is again my minder but Amer can’t work for me as his longtime Japanese clients have arrived. He has a contract with them and there’s nothing I can do. I am desolate.
We do the now-familiar dance through the airport. The “fees,” however, have increased, perhaps because people know that time is running out and they want to make as much money now as they can. And just when it looks like we have sailed through, there’s a hitch. I have to get a letter from the Information Ministry before customs will release my satellite phone. This requires a trip back to the airport.
I race to the Information Ministry to get the necessary documents before officials pack up for the night, and then I head back to the airport. With hope flouting reality it was built after the ’91 Gulf War, but given the continued UN sanctions there aren’t many flights into Baghdad, and by the time I return the airport is deserted. The guards demand money before they will let me in. I wander around the sepulchral halls and finally track down the lone official who’s waited because of the promise of a meal, which the driver and I bought for him along the way. He hands over the sat phone, and I go back to the Information Ministry, where it is registered and unsealed. This time, though, I am not going to be able to work here. My “office space” out in the courtyard has been turned into a construction site. For reasons that defy understanding, the Information Ministry is expanding the building. These guys are living in never-never land. The new offices won’t be finished before there’s a war, when this entire building undoubtedly will be turned to ash. And if there isn’t a war, the number of journalists will drop off dramatically and there will be no one to rent the new offices.
I decide to risk it and take the satellite phone to the Al-Rashid. When I check in, I ask for a room with a view over the swimming pool, the best direction for locking on to a satellite. For yet more money, reception is happy to oblige.
DECEMBER 4, 2002
The smarmy Uday al-Tae is still the managing director at the Information Ministry, but the simian Mohsen has been eclipsed by a new man who’s been put over him to run day-to-day operations. Qadm al-Tae (a distant relation to his boss, Uday) is definitely in a different class: organized and refreshingly straightforward. Nonetheless this means ingratiating myself with yet another official. The ten-day-visa rule still holds, and within seconds of my arrival it’s clear that reporters remain obsessed with the issue of visa extensions. Who gets them and how is a subject of endless speculation and jealousy. And there’s a notice announcing a hike in the daily fees we have to pay for the pleasure of being in Iraq. They have doubled to at least $200 per person per day. Television companies pay far more.
Sa’ad now has five journalists in tow, from each of whom he continues to demand and receive $100 a day. With the shortage of minders, let alone those who speak English, he can call the shots. A lot of reporters still have no one to work with and are more or less stuck in the Information Ministry with access only to official press conferences.
The story this time round is going to be inspections. Saddam Hussein has agreed to UN resolution 1441 demanding the return of UN inspectors after a four-year break. So far, the Iraqi government has been surprisingly compliant, a strategy that could prove more vexing to the Bush administration than Saddam’s usual defiance. But the new UN resolution also stipulates inspections of presidential palaces as well as interviews with Iraqi scientists without Iraqi officials present, either inside the country or outside if need be. These are potential flashpoints, but analysts and diplomats I’ve spoken to wonder whether the United States has underestimated Iraq’s capacity to cooperate, since the regime’s very survival is at stake.
At the Al-Rashid tonight, I hear a voice bellowing, “Bella!” across the lobby. It can only be one person, Lorenzo Cremonesi from Italy’s Corriere della Sera. His short blond hair stands straight up on end as usual. His eyes sparkle with devilish merriment. In an obscenely revealing pair of running shorts, he’s obviously just come back from a ferocious bout of physical exercise, his everyday way of dealing with tension. It’s great to see him even though he immediately yanks the cigarette out of my hand and, as ever, chastises me for smoking.
We met in Afghanistan last year not long after four journalists were killed there. One of them was Maria Grazia Cutuli, his colleague at the Corriere, and Lorenzo had been sent to Afghanistan to investigate her death. It’s hard to believe that only a year has passed since then. With the situation in Afghanistan still far from settled, who would have guessed we would meet again in Baghdad with another U.S. intervention in the offing?
It really was almost exactly a year ago, following the “rout” of the Taliban. After months reporting from the north of Afghanistan in the run-up to the fall of Kabul, I had taken a break and was trying to get in again from Pakistan. The border was suddenly closed without explanation. What I didn’t know was that a caravan of my peers had been attacked a few hours down the road inside Afghanistan.
When I finally drove into Jalalabad the next day, I found out the details. A convoy of journalists had left Jalalabad for Kabul. Suddenly thieves stopped the second and third cars near the village of Sarobi. They pulled out four journalists. Within minutes all were dead, shot in the back, their bodies left near the road. The rest of the convoy fled back to Jalalabad, where I found them in shock.
It was soon Thanksgiving. The American journalists organized a dinner inviting everyone, regardless of nationality, who was at the Spin Ghar Hotel. Turkeys had been located, dispatched, and stuffed. Collecting ingredients in the market had been a challenge, but this traditional meal had taken on a new meaning, in addition to providing some sanity in the midst of madness. Everybody was too frightened to move out of Jalalabad. A somber group gathered around several tables laid end to end. Pam Constable of The Washington Post had been in the deadly convoy, and she raised a glass to her friends who had not survived it. Many of us hadn’t known the four journalists who were killed, but we knew what they were doing, and why they were in Afghanistan, and no one could help but think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” In “dry” Afghanistan, there was only one bottle of wine for the assembled group, numbering over forty, and as it was passed down the table everyone was chided to take but a sip. I could only think it was like Holy Communion, which I had not attended in years.
Geraldo Rivera, who’s recast himself as a war correspondent, arrived as the meal was under way. He seated himself at the end of the table, as if this were the way we always dined. He was catered to by an obsequious entourage. He was also surrounded by a contingent of armed guards he had hired. He had not yet announced that he, too, was packing heat, and ready to take on Osama bin Laden mano a mano, but it was clear he was playing by different rules that blurred the lines between journalist and combatant. He was upping the ante and I didn’t want to be in his playpen.
The next day I decided I would go on to Kabul alone, with a trusted translator. Some journalists wanted to mount another convoy, but I was not anxious to travel in a large group, especially if weapons were involved. Journalists weren’t using public transportation. This seemed like a window of opportunity. Bus drivers told us they had not been attacked. They were willing to take us, so I decided to go for it. I didn’t tell anyone in the hotel about my plans because I was nervous about the Afghans who were hanging around the lobby. It was impossible to know who they were and where their sympathies lay. At five in the morning, my translator and I boarded the bus. Wrapped in a shawl, I tried to appear as inconspicuous as possible. Along the way, Afghan passengers pointed out the turn in the road where the four journalists had been killed. That day there was nothing to suggest that the particular rocky curve was different from any other. Had I not known what had happened I would have thought it merely a starkly beautiful landscape. The trip was uneventful and we arrived safely in Kabul.
DECEMBER 5, 2002
The Bush administration continues to insist that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqis insist that they don’t. UN weapons inspectors say they are satisfied with progress and will speed up the pace in the weeks ahead.
Our daily routine for now is to track the inspectors. In the early morning fog, a phalanx of UN vehicles speeds out of the Canal Hotel, which is the inspectors’ base, for what’s become the daily chase through the streets of Baghdad and beyond. First, the UN’s white four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruisers head west, then north, then west again, all to keep the Iraqis and us in suspense about their ultimate destination. Today, after a two-hour circuitous drive, they eventually reach al-Muthanna, where gates immediately open. Chief Weapons Inspector Demetrius Perricos quips that he is going to the moon, and it’s hard to argue with his description. With the exception of the weapons factory, the bleak desert landscape stretches as far as the eye can see. Inspectors in blue baseball caps spend five hours scouring the spread-out installation that was once the heart of Iraq’s chemical-and biological-weapons industry. It was largely dismantled during earlier inspections in 1998, and later, when we are permitted to enter, I see the carcasses of disabled equipment, each tagged with one of the inspectors’ four-year-old labels.
As we wait outside, dozens of camels wander by, a weird contrast to the sophisticated weapons Iraq had or still has. I finally see Amer, who’s back working with his Japanese. He hasn’t gotten my e-mails because the Iraqi government has temporarily suspended Internet service, since the United States has been flooding the country with messages urging Iraqis not to fight in the event of war. He has brought me some food, which I happily gobble up, but my new driver is jealous. Given how vicious the backbiting can be, Amer says he has to keep his distance. Ahmed is jealous because I clearly like Amer more than I like him, and he undoubtedly fears that he could lose his lucrative commissions. In addition to the money I have shelled out for visa support, he gets a hefty chunk of the $100 I ostensibly pay the driver each day. Amer would do a much better job, but he doesn’t have the protection of close relatives in the Information Ministry and can’t risk moving into Ahmed’s territory.
The crunch comes this weekend. Iraq has until Sunday to provide a detailed list of its biological, chemical, nuclear, and missile programs. Today Baghdad once again denied having weapons of mass destruction, which puts it on a direct collision course with the United States. Washington insists it knows Iraq has them and demands full and frank disclosure, warning it will disarm Iraq, by force if necessary. Iraq promises to provide a huge amount of material on its arms programs, but it says those programs include only activities that are allowed.
With late-night press conferences and late-night deadlines, I’ve been living on room service, but tonight I decide to break out of my enforced isolation and try the “National Restaurant” downstairs. It’s always empty, but the menu seems more enticing than the grim coffee shop down the hall where the rest of the international press corps hangs out. The manager is clearly delighted to have a customer. With no one around, he starts talking remarkably freely. His name is Faez. He’s a Christian, a minority in Iraq. He prepares a delicious meal of hommous and grilled lamb, followed by succulent dates, for which Iraq was once famous. He tells me that dates are Iraq’s version of Viagra, and packs up a box for me to take home. He also offers me some red wine, which is far more useful just at the moment. It appears in a discreet tumbler with a can of Pepsi placed next to it for camouflage. Under Saddam’s current rules, bars have been closed down and booze is only to be imbibed at home. Faez dismisses the waiters, anxious to talk about the situation in relative privacy. He asks what I think will happen. He is evidently of two minds about a war and the removal of Saddam. He makes it clear that he hates the regime, but he is scared to death that what might follow could be even worse.
DECEMBER 6, 2002
Inspections of Iraqi military sites have been suspended for two days while Muslims celebrate the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. At Baghdad’s main amusement park, there are screams of happiness and excitement as the rusty roller-coaster dives down the track. For a brief moment, families here appear to have shed whatever fears they might harbor. Most are from Saddam City, a poor Baghdad neighborhood hit hard by sanctions, and are scraping by on tiny salaries and government food handouts. But today they are decked out in new clothes. Women wear their wedding jewelry, or what’s left of it. Most have had to sell off anything of value to feed and clothe their families. A thirty-two-year-old government worker who makes a mere $10 a month is splurging on his nieces and nephews. He’s brought them to play video games. “Today,” he declares, “there is no thought of war.”
A photographer, Nadeen Juhad Akadi, says business has never been better. As he snaps families in their holiday finery, he says people are optimistic that the embargo will be lifted soon because if the inspectors do their job successfully they will find Iraq has no illegal weapons.
He echoes the words of President Saddam Hussein that people must be patient. They must let the inspectors disprove U.S. allegations that Iraq continues to have weapons of mass destruction. Despite the threat of war coming out of Washington, Iraqis smile and ask to have their photograph taken with me. Sa’ad, my minder, is in constant attendance, so I’m left to wonder what people really think.
Next to the amusement park is one of Baghdad’s many monumental war memorials. It’s customary on Eid, the holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan, to honor the dead. Children race around playing tag, seemingly oblivious to the toll Iraq’s recent adventures have taken. This memorial, which resembles a vast blue teardrop, commemorates the Iran-Iraq war that ran for eight years in the ’80s. The names of 500,000 Iraqis who were killed are inscribed on the walls. A man whispers in English that in fact far more died in the war. He does not answer when I ask if Saddam’s policies are worth such suffering.
The dark museum, housed below-ground, is moving in its unusual simplicity. Instead of Baathist bombast there are modest glass cases showing the personal effects of soldiers who were killed: cigarettes and lighters, ID cards and half-finished letters to family members. I ask Sa’ad to translate one of the letters. It’s from a wife to her husband. It was found in the soldier’s pocket after he was killed. “I am very longing to see you and your smile, my dear,” Sa’ad begins. He breaks off and turns away. His face is damp with tears. He’s embarrassed, recovers, and refuses to discuss his feelings.
On the return trip from the amusement park I’m alone in the car with the driver. In central Baghdad we pass one of Saddam’s many extravagant palaces, an obscene expression of his aspirations to grandeur. I point to it and ask him what it is. He blanches, warning it’s not wise to look too closely and that it is dangerous to stop here. With no encouragement he then goes on to say that Saddam has no interest in or understanding of a simple man like him. He says people are not afraid of a U.S.-led war because they believe Americans will only target Saddam and government sites, not ordinary people. However, he continues in his very broken English, Iraqis are afraid of the aftermath, assuming the country will fragment and dissolve into a vicious civil war.
After I have filed my reports, I join some Canadian colleagues for a late dinner outside the hotel. The restaurant is a dark, smoky place where they serve tumblers filled to the brim with straight gin. Its lack of color is its most desirable quality, since it can pass for water. The conversation takes a distressing turn when it turns out that one of the journalists is delighted he has managed to blackball a colleague. She insulted him somehow in the past and in revenge he showed Iraqi officials transcripts of her reports. She has never been able to get a visa since. Iraqi officials aren’t the only ones playing nasty games.
DECEMBER 7, 2002
Iraq hands over to UN weapons inspectors the required declaration on their weapons programs, past and present. It exceeds more than 11,000 pages. The press conference has been delayed several times in the course of the day. Hundreds of journalists champed at the bit inside the Information Ministry until we were finally ordered to get in our cars and drive to another ministry complex. This resulted in another high-speed chase through Baghdad’s streets ending at a building braced with armed guards. We are locked into an auditorium and told we cannot leave until the proceedings are over. I panic. I am due on the air for Morning Edition in a little more than an hour. I race out, jumping over seats and climbing over colleagues, only to find my exit blocked by humorless security. I sputter something. Qadm is there and lets me through. I suspect he thinks I am going to have a complete meltdown.
I’m told later that after I left the situation got completely out of hand. Camera crews pushed and shoved to get into a room where the thousands of pages of documents have been put on display. They smashed down a glass door, but in the end all they saw was volume upon volume labeled “chemical,” “nuclear” or “biological,” with nothing allowing them to judge the contents. It’s going to take days for these documents to be vetted by inspectors and reach the UN Security Council in New York.
Just when the Iraqis look like they are gaining some ground, Saddam makes an extraordinary and provocative statement through a spokesman on television. I sit taking notes as Sa’ad translates. It’s a letter to the Kuwaiti people. Advertised as an apology for the invasion of ’90, it’s in fact more defiance. True, Saddam does apologize to the people of Kuwait for the pain Iraq’s invasion caused, but he still blames the Kuwaiti government and the United States for forcing Iraq to take such extreme measures. He then goes on to say that the Kuwaitis are being had by their leaders, and he praises those who have recently attacked U.S. soldiers who are now massing in Kuwait. When the broadcast is over, Sa’ad clearly approves of what Saddam has said. When I suggest that this may just make things worse, he looks disturbed.
DECEMBER 10, 2002
Diplomatic debates over the degree of Iraq’s compliance with UN resolutions continue. It’s a good time to get outside Baghdad and go south, where Iraq’s Shiite majority is concentrated. Qadm supports my request and offers to help me with contacts, saying with more than a hint of bitterness, “I am a Shiite and one of the few in the Information Ministry.” I am surprised at this admission but I don’t wish to appear too enthusiastic about his offer of contacts, since he may have been just feeling me out about my real intentions. The Shiite issue is a loaded one and reporters have been warned or even expelled for writing about Iraq’s restive majority. In Jordan I have heard stories from Iraqis about increased vigilance by Saddam’s security services in the south. Beyond the thousands of U.S. troops poised for a possible invasion, the Shiites constitute the greatest potential threat to Saddam’s grip on power.
With the full understanding that it will be difficult, I would still like to tap into this community and see how their memories of the past affect how they think about the present, and I would like to know more about what kind of Iraq they envision in the future. I’ve asked to go to Najaf, the burial place of Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Mohammed whose battle in the 7th century over who had the right to succeed the prophet precipitated the major Islamic schism between Shiites and Sunnis. Suddenly tonight Qadm says all trips outside the city are cancelled.
It’s late. Given the nine-hour time difference, my deadline for All Things Considered is 1 a.m. my time. I’m sitting at my desk in the hotel room trying to weave the bits and bobs I have accumulated into a coherent whole. It’s like so many late nights in so many other hotels on so many other foreign assignments. The desk doubles as a dressing table, so there’s a mirror in front of me. It’s firmly affixed to the wall lest guests try to steal it. At times I put a towel over the mirror since I can’t bear to look at myself as I pound away on the computer. Each day I get grayer. I should follow Lorenzo’s advice and get some physical exercise, but I forgot to bring a bathing suit with me and haven’t had time to go out and buy one.
In many ways covering Iraq is much like covering the former Soviet Union, where I began my career in the late ‘70s. Then, as now, we all had to live under the close supervision of the security services, in approved housing with approved translators who, like Sa’ad, reported regularly on who we spoke to, where we went, and what questions we asked. I worried then, as I do now, about putting “sources” in danger. There, however, I could speak the language. I could pass for a Russian and stand in shops overhearing conversations. There’s no way here I can pass for an Iraqi, and unfortunately I don’t speak Arabic.
Saddam’s Iraq is somewhere between Stalin’s reign of terror and the decaying Brezhnev regime. Cracks are appearing. After his efforts at social engineering, when he murdered or resettled restive ethnic groups, Saddam feels the need to woo them with promises of perks, money, and goods if they behave. And for all the ethnic and tribal splits, there is an Iraqi identity that has emerged over time. Like the Soviets, many Iraqis are well educated and proud of their history, and they have aspirations to regional leadership. And like the Soviets, they fear themselves. Again and again they’ve indicated that they feel they are an ungovernable mixture of peoples who need a strong leader to remain a strong, united country. I would love to corner the foreign minister Naji Sabri and ask him why he has stayed loyal to the man who executed his brother.
It’s been almost twenty-five years since I started out as a correspondent in Moscow. I so remember my first day in the bugged apartment, wondering how the hell I was going to cover the country. I still have those fears every time I get a new assignment. The difference now is that I don’t blow up as easily. Then I was intemperate, much more insecure, and unnecessarily aggressive in the way I dealt with Soviet officials, not to mention the people I worked with. I like getting older, even if I don’t like looking in the mirror.
Life doesn’t turn out at all how you expect it. I never intended to be a correspondent. I started behind the scenes as a production assistant and was propelled in front of the camera because ABC News figured I spoke some Russian and a vice president had the audacity to think I might do something that other correspondents they had sent to Moscow would not. I thought I would have kids. I didn’t, and I would not be doing what I am doing now if I had. With rare exceptions, the women who do this are single or childless.
And I certainly did not expect to be covering war after war. When I began all this I was covering the Cold War, where I didn’t see the heat of battle. True, the KGB roughed me up on a couple of occasions, but reporting out of Moscow in the early ’70s and ’80s was more a battle of wits. I tried to show how the Soviet regime was corrupted and rotten; the Soviets officials tried to stop me. Eventually they expelled me for my efforts, and I thought I would never be allowed back again. Poor Vint. When we married I was what he fondly called a “TV tart” who made lots of money from the safety of Washington. When I asked him if he would go back with me to the Soviet Union if the Russians ever let me in, he readily promised. There was little likelihood he would ever have to fulfill the pledge.
But the unthinkable happened. I joined NPR, and the Soviet Union fell apart and I was allowed back, and since then wars seem to have become my metier as conflicts have erupted in places no one had heard of before: Georgia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya, Tajikistan, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Inadvertently, I became “good” at covering these kinds of situations. And since 9/11 I’ve spent months in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the West Bank. Now it’s Iraq.
My secret weapon is Vint. He’s gone along with this, and the long absences, and given me the security of home and family. When Amer and I grab a few minutes to talk in the parking lot, away from his Japanese and my minder, he keeps asking me how my husband puts up with my work. I tell him we met as grownups. Amer has never been outside Iraq, or outside its confines of tradition and family, which are at once alluring and stifling. He is intrigued by my relationship to Vint, which is like nothing he’s ever seen. He confesses he is wrestling with an unhappy marriage, but for the sake of his children, he says, divorce is out of the question.
DECEMBER 11, 2002
UN inspection visits are now up to thirteen per day. It’s impossible to know in advance where and how far afield the inspectors will go. Reporters who attached themselves to one convoy ended up driving for what seemed like an interminable six hours until they reached an installation close to the Syrian border. The most interesting are the teams looking for chemical and biological weapons. Amer has figured out who’s who by watching the license plates and advises me which teams to follow. “I’m a professional,” he states simply.
On my first trip, Sa’ad was quite efficient at arranging interviews with a lot of the people I wanted to see, but this time he is merely recycling the same stories. His greed knows no bounds, and our relations are deteriorating. And we have a new problem. He turned up in my hotel room (he has no problem with the guards outside), ostensibly to discuss the next day’s program, and then began complimenting me on how smart and energetic I am. Then he really hit home when he told me how attractive I am “for an older woman.” I rejected the come-on and ushered him out of the room. He is not pleased that I rejected his advances and is behaving like a punished puppy. However, he has not gone so far as to try to extort sex in return for his continued services. That has been tried by other minders. Another female reporter had problems with a minder down in Basra. He barged into her room, demanding she go to bed with him or he would have her thrown out of the country. She wisely turned to her driver for help. He told the minder he would turn him in if he persisted. The minder backed off, begging for forgiveness, desperate not to lose this well-paid job. I don’t want this situation to escalate to the point where I have to involve other officials and draw unwanted attention to myself. As frustrated as I am with Sa’ad, he’s still better than the other minders.
I try to go out on my own with the driver as much as I can under the pretext that I want to buy carpets, see art (of which there is a great deal), or buy supplies. I stroll the sidewalks in Baghdad’s thriving Murad Arusafa district, where showrooms are filled with luxury cars: Land Cruisers for $40,000, top-of-the-line Mercedes Benz for a mere $72,000. The wealth enjoyed by a few can be guessed at behind the walls of the villas and mansions of Saddam’s favorites. Armani suits and designer dresses hang in the windows of shops in the Mansour neighborhood. Where the money comes from for such luxuries can only be assumed, but nothing in this society is done without Saddam’s approval.
At the other end of the spectrum is Saddam City, the poor neighborhood on Baghdad’s outskirts, home to two million Shiite Muslims. Though I’ve repeatedly asked permission to visit this area I have been refused. We drive through without stopping, but I can see mounds of garbage and children playing in its midst. At traffic lights, war widows, the elderly, and little children come up to the car begging. Had they grown up a generation earlier, these children would have been part of Iraq’s wave of development, a campaign by the Baath Party to improve education, health care, and infrastructure. Saddam’s military ambitions and the subsequent sanctions have ended all that. Whom to blame for this? Saddam or the United States? Many Iraqis just aren’t sure.
DECEMBER 13, 2002
In a land filled with questions about what fresh hell the future will bring, there is at least one hideaway in the Iraqi capital offering a surprising escape. At the Ghost Music Store the sounds of the enemy are stacked ten feet high: compact discs of everyone from Elton John to Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys to West Life. Sa’ad Yusef, owner of the shop, says he likes music because it connects him to the rest of the world.
Though he’s never set foot in the English-speaking world, forty-year-old Yusef has the language down pretty well just from listening to the music. He’s proud of his inventory, which includes pop, disco, rap, techno, and alternative rock. Demand is high from Baghdad’s urban youth but he says it’s not easy to keep the shelves stocked. It’s hard to get new material because of the UN sanctions, but he manages to smuggle it in from Jordan and Syria. The CDs are remarkably cheap—about $1.75 each. (Pity they are not my taste.) Asked how he can sell them for so little, Yusef pulls back a curtain behind the counter to reveal a five-bank digital duplicator. He counterfeits.
He photographs the CD covers and reprints them perfectly. Though he understands that the record companies would object, he says Iraqis need these CDs now to survive. The continuing economic sanctions against Iraq have affected its cultural life in many ways. No one can remember the last time a foreign pop star performed here. The Iraqi film industry has all but disappeared, unable to develop what it shoots. By default, live theater is flourishing. Even Saddam Hussein has written a novel, later turned into a play, called Zabibah and the King. It’s a thinly veiled story of Iraq’s trials and tribulations, and it closed recently after a month-long run. Iraqis prefer comedies, lining up to see a hugely popular play called The Restless which mocks their miserable situation. More and more, though, Iraqis seek comfort in the mosques.
Praying in the shadow of the renewed UN weapons inspections, Iraqi worshippers mouth one phrase they feel has the power to blow away the looming cloud of war: “Inshallah” (it is God’s will). Judging by mosque attendance and the number of women wearing head scarves, there has been a dramatic upsurge in religious observance. Saddam has capitalized on the religious wave. A picture of Saddam praying has recently been added to the hagiographic iconography that wallpapers the country. Though once emphatically secular, Saddam launched the so-called Faith Campaign in the ’90s to boost his legitimacy at home and in the rest of the Arab world. Saddam University for Islamic Studies in Baghdad is a product of this campaign, and Professor Muhammed al-Sayed is its president.
Seated in his comfortable office, with my minder Sa’ad in attendance, he says the Faith Campaign has helped Iraqis withstand difficult circumstances. He believes it has also given the once strictly secular Iraqi government greater authority in combating crime and corruption, the natural results of so many years of war. And, perhaps most important, he believes that Saddam has neutralized frictions between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite sects by assuming the leadership of all Muslims here. That’s the most he will say about the Sunni-Shiite divide. What he doesn’t say is that mosques under tight state control have become another vehicle to proclaim Saddam’s policies.
Just in case Islam fails them, some Muslims turn to the Virgin Mary for succor. At the Armenian Orthodox Church of Mary in the old section of Baghdad, Muslim women come to pray to the Virgin. An honored figure in the Koran, she is particularly revered here for her miracles, and Iraqis need one right now.
Twenty-nine-year-old Afrar, a Muslim, says she has great faith in Mary. She doesn’t think there is a difference between Muslims and Christians. Seated on her haunches, her hands held palm-up in Muslim tradition, she prays in front of a statue of the Virgin. She finds comfort in this church, calling it a house of God. She has turned to Mary, begging for the baby that has so far not appeared, and pleading for protection from an uncertain future.
If all else fails, there is always alcohol to dull the pain. Iraq publishes no statistics on the subject, but according to Mr. Sabri, owner of the al-Mancal Liquor Store, drinking has followed the rising trend of anxiety in a country staggering from crisis to crisis. He offers a range of mind-numbing potions, from top-of-the-line imported whiskeys and Cognacs to locally distilled gin and whiskey. The gin, made from dates, costs a dollar. Locally produced “deluxe” whiskey is a dollar and a half. Locally produced firewater known as arak is a mere 73 cents. He says he hasn’t taken any particular precautions yet, despite the threat of war, hoping against hope that there won’t be one, but he plans to remove the most expensive items for safekeeping in the event things heat up further. A member of Iraq’s small Christian community, Sabri, unlike Muslims, is licensed to sell alcohol. Anyone, regardless of religious persuasion, can buy it. But the way it’s consumed has changed in recent years, reflecting the shift in Saddam Hussein’s policies. Since he proclaimed the Faith Campaign, drinking in public is now banned. The bars and discos that once proliferated are shut. Iraqis say these rules have cut into their fun. Drinking at home is now the norm, but it’s just not the same.
When I get back to the Al-Rashid from a day of string-collecting, there is a wedding in full swing in one of the ballrooms. “A wedding without drink. What’s that?” asks an Iraqi guest surveying the seemingly alcohol-free festivities. Faez, who has fed and watered me so well in the restaurant, is in charge of the wedding arrangements. I’m not dressed for a wedding but before I can say no he ushers me up to the elegant bride and groom, who are seated on a dais. Once again actions speak louder than words. Here in a country where my government is threatening war, I am welcomed as an honored guest.
DECEMBER 14, 2002
I’ve managed to squeeze a few extra days out of Qadm, but he says I should not expect more. It’s getting on to three weeks since I’ve been home and I’m frankly not all that sorry that I have to leave. I’ve done about as much as I can for now and I might as well conserve my energy, since this is likely to get a lot worse. I go through the usual exit preparations but this time all the flights are booked up and I can’t get a plane ticket out. Lorenzo and I decide to hire a car and drive to Jordan. When we get to the border, there’s the usual two-hour wait as officials check the car, equipment, and documents. Suddenly, though, it appears we have to have an AIDS test because we’ve been in the country more than ten days. Why you have to have a test as you leave Iraq seems to defy reason, but officials are demanding $200 for the test, and are actually threatening to give us one. The thought of someone sticking me with a potentially dirty needle is not appealing. As I try to figure out how to get out of this I read the handwritten poster on the wall detailing the elaborate exit instructions for foreigners. The key paragraph is midway through. Women over the age of fifty and men over the age of sixty are not required to have the AIDS test. The clear implication is that women over fifty don’t have sex. Whatever; I produce my passport to show them how old I am, and the crestfallen officials, seeing their income diminish, grudgingly let me pass. Poor Lorenzo, however, still a sexually active forty-five, has to pay up. At least he persuades them to forgo the actual test.
BRENDA BULLETIN: DECEMBER 17, 2003
And cheers to you all …
Brenda, our Eagle of the East, alit last night in the gentle snows of Norfolk some thirty hours after leaving Baghdad. Her plumage is a bit bedraggled, her pintail feathers awry, but homing instinct and humor are intact. In spite of all, she is still one good-looking bird.
For the past three weeks her home away from home has been the Al-Rashid Hotel, made famous by CNN’s play-by-play during the first Iraqi War. It is bugged and overstaffed with clumsy security personnel and Brenda’s belongings were combed daily. But then, as an almost solicitous afterthought, her door was carefully double-bolted so that no one else, including herself, could reopen it without a special key. She found it amusing if disconcerting to be greeted warmly by her first name by any number of the Iraqi staff whom she had never met.
“Sucking air” is a venerable if somewhat inelegant term to describe the journalistic talent of filling minutes of air time without the support of discernable facts. Brenda sucked a great deal of air in the last two weeks but, as those of you who heard her know, no one does it better. The feeling of the city had changed in the few weeks she had been away from one of defiant nationalism to one of apathetic depression. The people she saw were now tired and resigned. Through gesture and body language, the people of Baghdad conveyed to her the hope that whatever is coming will be short and accurate.
There were two light moments when she left the gloom of impending war. She drove out of the country toward Amman in the company of an experienced Italian journalist whom she had met and befriended in Afghanistan. This gentleman knew how to travel and had a rather more elaborate kit than Brenda’s utilitarian bag. Settling in for the long drive, he dug out two quite exquisitely scented baby pillows and something resembling a silk sleeping bag. And then upon reaching the border, she had yet another reminder that she is something of an odd duck in an odd world. There at the crossing was a large sign in fractured English: “Deer Pasingars, All people must have AIDS test except men over 60 and women over 50.”
Well, this old geezer is happy to have his crone home.
BRENDA BULLETIN: JANUARY 20, 2003
Well, here we go again.
Brenda cruised into Kuwait City today after a disagreeable twelve-hour flight on Kuwaiti Air. The airline, like virtually the entire country, has turned over the actual running of it to other nationalities. The polyglot crew seemed determined to make the experience as unpleasant as possible. She will be there until Friday, when she flies to Amman and then back to Baghdad.
Life in Kuwait centers around the gigantic shopping malls that litter the landscape. The 800,000 Kuwaitis apparently need something to do while the million and a half guest workers do what needs to be done. Brenda has been tempted by certain high-end Parisian outlets not common to our part of the world, but she claims she was able to resist, perhaps because she knows that whatever she buys will have to be lugged into and out of Iraq. One gets the sense that Brenda wants to travel light. She also had some trouble finding many Kuwaitis who were focusing with any seriousness on what may be about to happen immediately to their north.
In her kit when she left, along with all the usual high-tech paraphernalia, were tucked a dozen virgin pristine pillowcases and a full palette of embroidery silk. Only space restrictions saved the sheets from being carted along as well. Those of you who have on occasion observed this aforementioned pattern of her behavior will take solace that, at least for now, she has confined herself to the linens. God help her if she makes a move toward my bureau.
Hope you all had a good holiday season,
JANUARY 27, 2003
After a wintry Christmas at home and a warm week of reporting in Kuwait, it’s back to Iraq via Jordan. The flight out of Amman is held up until journalists delayed in Paris finally arrive to fill it up. We don’t arrive in Baghdad until 3 a.m. We are all in a bad mood and the officials waiting for us are in no better temper. Ahmed, the fixer, now well in excess of 250 pounds, has developed high blood pressure. Carrying Dan Rather’s briefcase last week all but finished him off, though he is extremely proud that they got an interview with Saddam. I refrain from saying that I think the interview was obsequious tripe. As another colleague put it, Rather, with his softball questions, might just as well have been interviewing the prime minister of Belgium, not a tyrant who has imprisoned and killed thousands upon thousands of his own people.
At the Al-Rashid the manager whisks me into his office so that I can pay him, and no one else, for a room with a view, the euphemism for a room where the satellite phone will work. There are Christmas cards pinned up on the wall behind him indicating that he is one of Iraq’s Christian minority. He asks me for the latest news and says he is terrified that if there is a war, the Shiites will gain the upper hand and purge the remaining Christians, who have reached an uneasy peace with Saddam’s Sunni minority.
JANUARY 28, 2003
At the Information Ministry, Qadm is cool. He hints at alleged indiscretions by Kate Seelye, an NPR reporter who has just been in Iraq, and suggests that NPR is in bad odor. Kate did nothing but report the true of feelings of Kurds up north, but her minder ratted on her for asking “inappropriate” questions. Whatever her perceived sins, Qadm’s threats are a good way to try to exact obedience from me. As I get my satellite phone unsealed, Mazzin, who’s the ministry’s equipment guardian, warns me to be careful about using it at the hotel. He says a couple of reporters have recently been expelled for taking their phones out of the ministry building.
Amer is still working for the Japanese, but we catch up in the hallway. He says he will always do what he can to help. He says that nothing much has changed since I was last in Baghdad. I have to have yet another driver, and yet again he’s one of Ahmed’s relatives. Majed, in his late fifties, is an uncle. We settle into the car and begin the process of divining who’s who and how this is going to work out.
Sa’ad, my minder during past trips, has dumped me and will barely speak to me. I wonder if NPR is a pariah, or if my rejection of his overtures is the issue. Amer says Sa’ad is the problem. He apparently overplayed his hand and was caught raking in too much money without sharing it with his superiors, and he has been ordered to cut back on his clients. Qadm assigns me a new minder called Daniella. It’s her first time out and she has a distinctly unfortunate ethnic background. She is half-Iraqi, half-Serb, and she declares that her heroes are Milosevic and Saddam. God help me.
JANUARY 29, 2003
Official reaction to President Bush’s State of the Union Address last night is predictably negative. Baghdad again insists that Iraq no longer has any weapons of mass destruction and firmly denies U.S. charges that it has links to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist activities in the United States. Baghdad is trying to capitalize on the growing antiwar movement in the United States and Europe and, with the encouragement of Iraqi officials, foreign peace activists are arriving in Baghdad. Today’s approved activity is an antiwar rally. However, I suspect it is not what either Iraqi officials or the Greek delegation from Doctors of the World anticipated.
It was billed at the Iraqi Information Ministry as a human chain against the war, but as it turned out, there were only a few weak links. At the Saddam Pediatric Hospital, Greek doctors unfurled a banner saying NO TO WAR, but only a few patients and medical staff joined in. I stood off to the side with young medical students who ignored the proceedings, telling me, deliberately enigmatically, that they hoped for a better life by the time they graduate in June. The parade never mustered enough strength to leave the hospital compound. Greek doctor Nikitas Kanakis was at a loss to explain why more Iraqis did not participate, saying, “It is a strange situation and actually I’m very sad.”
Here in Iraq for the first time, another Greek doctor, Kostas Kostanides, told me he was stunned at how numb the population seems after twenty years of political repression, war, and sanctions. He said every time he tried to have a political discussion, Iraqi doctors dodged the subject. I can’t imagine that he thought they would act differently. He and his colleagues were clearly uncomfortable at the staged nature of the demonstration, because they said their goal is not to support Saddam Hussein but to oppose war.
A woman who was ushered in front of the television cameras initially wailed on cue when they were turned on, but failed to utter the anticipated anti-Western, antiwar statements. Holding her dying child in her arms, she broke down screaming, “I don’t need cameras! I need medicine for my child!” She begged the foreign doctors and assembled journalists to arrange for her child to be treated overseas. Away from the cameras, Iraqi doctors blamed the Iraqi Ministry of Health, not sanctions, for the shortages. And Dr. Nikitas Kanakis acknowledged he was shocked by how grand the Iraqi government buildings are, while bureaucrats apparently can’t come up with funds to buy basic medicines with their oil revenues—legal or illegal. But whatever their feelings about the regime, the doctors remain focused on their opposition to a war. Dr. Kostanides said that it’s not for people outside to determine the future of Iraq, but for the people of Iraq to decide for themselves.
Saddam Hussein remains in control and his government remains defiant. But the views of many expressed off-microphone are now rife with contradictions. More and more make it clear that they want an end to Saddam’s brutal hold, but they’re also afraid of war and subsequent civil conflict if he goes. And while many say they would welcome outside intervention, these very same people don’t believe President Bush’s promises that he has Iraqis’ interests at heart.
JANUARY 30, 2003
This trip is going to be press-conference hell. Virtually every night there is a riposte to U.S. charges. Iraq is complying to a degree with the UN resolution but is playing games over the required reconnaissance flights. Also, Iraqi scientists are not turning up alone for the required interviews. They are insisting they have a “friend” in attendance in order, they say, to ensure that their comments are not distorted. If I were an Iraqi scientist, I would have someone with me too, given what Saddam might do if someone said the wrong thing. The UN inspectors have yet to arrange for Iraqis and their families to leave the country for interviews and insist they have not been given the necessary intelligence from Washington to back up U.S. claims that there are ongoing illegal weapons programs. Meanwhile, Iraqis live in a twilight between war and peace.
The degradation of Saddam’s Iraq can be seen every day, right smack in the center of the city, at Liberation Square. It’s been transformed into a vast flea market, with sellers of secondhand clothing, plumbing fixtures, plastic sandals, and cheap Chinese radios. The traders include teachers, engineers, lawyers—anyone seeking a few extra dinars to augment salaries that now average the equivalent of $10 a month. Twenty-three-year-old Alawi, an economics student, has been working in the market since he was fourteen. Standing in front of a table covered with telephones, he insists business is good. Daniella, my minder, is listening to every word, but when pressed on how many phones he sells, Alawi admits that no one is buying telephones.
Most here dispense with the usual praise of Saddam Hussein, whose beaming portrait looks down on the proceedings, but a merchant, Sa’ad Yassin, draws an approving audience when he asks why the United States is targeting Iraq and not North Korea. He gives his own answer. The United States wants Iraqi oil.
In the afternoon, I visit some Iraqis who will dare to see me without a minder. I jump in a cab, ask to go to a restaurant, and then walk on to the house alone. I bring along a stack of magazines that they can’t get here. The assembled group includes filmmakers and artists. They prepare mazgouf, a local dish of river fish grilled over an open fire. It’s a man’s job, like barbecuing back home, and to listen to the cook, it requires skill and precision to suspend the fish on sticks and get the flame from pomegranate wood just right. They recall the days when families would stroll down to the Tigris to a row of restaurants serving this delicacy. Now such forays are too expensive, and most of the restaurants are closed. Conversation steers clear of politics—many here have made an uneasy pact with Saddam in order to survive and produce their art. I suspect some present are members of the Baath Party, but that’s not a subject they want to discuss. They reminisce about the not-too-distant past, when, they say, Baghdad was like any European city. “We are a place of culture,” they explain. They say the city’s love affair with books became so well known that people across the Arab world used to say “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads.” Inevitably, however, fears about the future seep in. If U.S. troops succeed in capturing Baghdad, as the Mongols, Ottoman Turks, and British did before them, they say they will find a city too proud to welcome an invading force. But these people are clearly torn. They are desperate for an end to the isolation brought on by Saddam’s policies. They want to be part of the world again. They want to be able to exhibit their art in Western capitals. But if Saddam goes, they are afraid fundamentalists will move into the power vacuum, isolating them yet again and quite possibly banning the art they love so much.
I come home by cab, hoping I have not drawn unwanted official attention to these people. It’s all so familiar, and memories of Moscow flood back. I would do the same thing then: flag a taxi or take the underground to escape my tail. It didn’t always work, and I would always warn my Russian friends that seeing me was risky. Once when I was driving my own car, I got lost and drove around and around looking for an exit from the maze of unidentified streets and identical buildings. I noticed I was being followed and finally pulled to the side of the road. “How,” I asked my tail in fractured Russian, “do I get to the Ring Road?” The driver answered in perfect English with another question: “Why didn’t you ask me twenty minutes ago?” Without further comment, this KGB agent took the lead and guided me miraculously to my apartment.
FEBRUARY 5, 2003
My editor, Doug Roberts, and I discuss the wisdom of reporting on the nature of Saddam’s regime at this particular time, but given how much I have broadcast about the weapons issues and diplomacy, we agree it’s important to give some context even at the risk of being expelled.
In recent weeks, Saddam has been appearing almost nightly on Iraqi television with his military commanders. New portraits of him have been placed throughout the country, and new songs have been composed in his honor. While there is private grumbling, there are no open signs of dissent.
Saddam in military uniform wielding a gun; Saddam the father patting the head of a child; Saddam looking dapper in a three-piece suit; Saddam in traditional Arab attire defending the Palestinians. He is all things and his image is everywhere. Daniella swoons over one particular portrait, offering the unprompted comment, “He is very beautiful man.”
He can be stern, but he is never depicted as the brutal tyrant who has killed thousands of his own countrymen with chemical weapons, shots to the back of the head, or poison. That is the hidden face of Saddam, hidden in the prisons that have no names, hidden in the eyes of the women who not so long ago begged me to find out what had happened to their loved ones who disappeared into Saddam’s gulag and have not been heard from since.
Outside the Ministry of Justice, one of my favorite posters shows Saddam holding the scales of justice. All a taxi driver can do is shrug, but that shrug tells volumes. Any number of taxi drivers have now warned it’s dangerous to linger too long outside one of the palaces.
I can’t say it enough: the power of Saddam Hussein is much like that of Josef Stalin, a man he is said to revere. He has promised to make his country great. His intelligence services have infiltrated every crevice of his society. Just as the Soviets elevated the childhood snitch Pavel Morozov to heroic status, Saddam has encouraged children to tattle on their parents should they say something the least bit subversive. Western diplomats here in Baghdad say Iraqi officials never come to meetings alone. They are always in pairs, the better to report on each other.
Ahmed al-Shihabi has been painting Saddam Hussein since 1970, when Saddam was clawing his way to power. Al-Shihabi can’t recall how many paintings he’s done, and he insists artists do this for free, out of love for “Mr. President,” as he is called. Architects have also been enlisted into the glorification campaign.
At the enormous Mother of All Battles mosque built to commemorate the Persian Gulf War, the minarets resemble barrels of Kalashnikovs and Scud missiles. Inside the mosque there are 650 pages of the Koran written, it is said, in “Mr. President’s” blood. Official legend has it that Saddam donated twenty-eight liters of his own blood over two years to produce the calligraphy. His thumb print adorns a plinth outside, and story has it that another war memorial, an arch with two fists, was based on casts made from Saddam’s own hands.
While his image is everywhere, the Iraqi leader has not made a public appearance in almost two years, evidently afraid of an assassination attempt, and until recently he had not been seen often on television. But now there is the nightly Saddam Show. For two hours on a recent evening Saddam listened to his generals, interrupting them to give advice and encouragement. Smoking his trademark Cuban cigar, Saddam gave the impression of calm determination. As if to counter widespread reports that Iraqi soldiers are badly fed, poorly trained, and ill-equipped, the generals described what crack shots their men are. Saddam, the benevolent father, said morale is key and offered homespun tales of how a determined fighter can win, even against a stronger opponent.
In his twenty-three years in power, Saddam has used his strong personality, ruthlessness, and ability to play one center of power against another to retain absolute control. Artist Ahmed al-Shihabi is still banking on Saddam surviving. He’s organizing a new exhibition of Saddam portraits at the Saddam Art Center that should open in a few weeks, just when war is likely to start. He points to one portrait manufactured out of shards of aluminum. Saddam glistens in the sunshine and can be reflected by the lights at night. It’s a hit, and al-Shihabi is commissioning more, bigger, versions based on the same idea to place on buildings in the city.
And lest anyone in Iraq or elsewhere doubt the future, the news program always closes nightly with a montage of film clips of Saddam accompanied by one of the many ballads praising him. They have one theme … that Iraqis want no one but Saddam Hussein and that the people will stay with him to the end.
FEBRUARY 6, 2003
I hang around the Information Ministry until 10:00, the witching hour when Managing Director Uday al-Tae appears. I sit in the office while two babes from French television desperately try to ingratiate themselves with him. They flirt, call in food, offer everything short of a blow job under the desk. After all is said and done, so to speak, I can only mutter something about how important NPR is in the United States. Later, with Qadm, I burst out laughing, saying I am too old to compete with these beauties. I ask him to understand if I don’t try. I have to say he seems relieved and happy to receive my discreetly dispensed money without foreplay.
FEBRUARY 7, 2003
Nowhere is Iraq’s demise so clear, and so sad, as at the Symphony. The hall is shabby, the red velvet curtain faded. Seated on plastic chairs, the orchestra tunes up—but it’s a tricky task. Most of their best instruments were long ago sold abroad. Replacements are costly. Reeds and new strings aren’t always available. These musicians play for love. Their stipends have dwindled to $12 a month, so every member of the orchestra has at least one other job to make ends meet. Seventy-year-old Munther Jumil Haffit, chief violist, points to a doctor, an engineer, a retired taxi driver, and a lawyer.
They try to give one concert each month, but sometimes too many musicians miss practice because of work. Yet Munther says that whenever they play, and often there’s not much notice, the audience turns up faithfully, and the house is always full.
Abdul Razzaq al-Shekhli, who helped found the orchestra, has been its conductor since 1974. The story of al-Shekhli and his orchestra reflects Iraq’s recent history, its development and subsequent decline. In the ‘60s he had the money to study at the top music colleges in London. His eyes glisten as he recalls those days. Flush with oil wealth, Iraq was joining the developed world. Baghdad was booming. Buildings were going up on every corner. There were extraordinary improvements in education and health care. And his orchestra flourished. By the early ’70s it was a full seventy-piece orchestra with more than twenty foreign members, but it’s been downhill since 1980, when Saddam launched the devastating eight-year war with Iran.
An Iranian rocket hit al-Shekhli’s house, killing his two small children. His wife has never recovered. She still has nightmares. Nothing, he says, seems to console her. Music has helped him, and he hopes his orchestra has helped others get through the difficult times.
It’s been a struggle to keep his beloved orchestra together. With Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the Gulf War, and the subsequent sanctions, the foreign musicians have left. Many of the Iraqi players, his closest friends, have also fled for political and economic reasons. Al-Shekhli can now muster only forty-five musicians. Without a full compliment, he has to rewrite the music to make it possible to play.
Munther Jumil Haffit says he dreads another war. “You are Americans. You can stop it, stop this invasion. You have your own voice.” Was this an allusion to the fact that this distinguished man doesn’t have his own voice in a police state? He does not, cannot say. It’s impossible to know. But these musicians are not defiant. They are sad. Waiting for he knows not what conductor, al-Shekhli says he dares not even hope, and he does not say what he might hope for. “I’m always waiting for hope. We’re all waiting for hope.”
The musicians just take it day by day. Their next concert, a performance of new Iraqi compositions, is scheduled for February 27. Juggling diplomatic maneuvering and the time it might take for the United States to amass its troops, al-Shekhli thinks the concert might just take place.
BRENDA BULLETIN: FEBRUARY 7, 2003
A Snowy Norfolk day to you all.
Brenda has been in Baghdad for almost two weeks after being in Kuwait City for about one. Both places are bizarre and otherworldly. Brenda has been able to spin out several wonderful pieces that catch the essence of the absurdity that passes for daily life in Iraq, like the one about the expensive, classy emporium in an upscale neighborhood that imports crystal and elaborate glass chandeliers from France. Commerce elsewhere might be atrophied, but this shop was filled and business brisk. Fragile goblets to toast the night of the cruise missiles, perhaps. She meets a distinguished-looking gentleman inspecting the stemware. He wears a beautifully tailored green outfit with epaulettes but no insignia. She will later learn that this is the Baath Party uniform. Gesturing toward the uniform, she asks, “Is this military?” With barely disguised hostility, he sneers, “No, it is Armani.”
In this lull before leaving (she cannot extend her visa and wants to play by the book so that she can get back in later), now is perhaps a good time to talk of Brenda’s food groups when working. Basically there are three: caffeine, nicotine, and adrenaline. When on occasion she consumes something more substantial, she dispatches it with such speed that no one has actually observed her eat. Her childhood, though Brit, was not to the best of my knowledge filled with Oliver Twistian deprivation, but you would never know it.
With luck, Mr. Blix will render his report to the UN on Sunday, and Brenda will head back toward Amman. It seems like a lot of reporters are taking off right about then, having made the judgment that there will be a diplomatic delay to the inevitable. NPR wants her to reapply now. The line of NPR correspondents who were all set to go in after her has suddenly gotten very, very short. Maybe, just maybe she gets home for a bit in a week.
Lest you were worried that Brenda has let her embroidery duties slip amidst everything else, be reassured that such is not the case. Her offbeat habits have not gone unnoticed. Indeed, at a press conference at the Ministry of Information, director’s chairs were set out, each one stenciled with the organization’s name. There, prominently situated between CBS and NBC, some wag had placed a label upon which was printed “Batty babe from NPR: courtesy of the Pew Memorial Trust.”
FEBRUARY 8, 2003
Today is a national holiday commemorating the 1963 rise to power of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, whose original ideological objectives were socialism and pan-Arab union. It has since turned into one-party rule where anyone who disagrees with Saddam is ruthlessly purged. Today’s celebration coincides with the arrival of UN weapons inspectors on their latest and perhaps final round of talks to try to win full compliance and full explanations from the Iraqis.
The Information Ministry has allowed us to watch the festivities in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, a special favor since Tikrit is usually off-limits. Reporters in the past have tried any number of ruses to get there, including declaring they needed to go the bathroom while on the road to Mosul further north. Tikrit was once a backwater, but it’s immediately clear that this is no longer an ordinary Iraqi town. The tarmac becomes smooth as you approach. On the outskirts there’s a huge arched gateway with a massive mural with Saddam Hussein on horseback galloping toward Jerusalem, missiles and warplanes above him. Images of Saddam are everywhere in Iraq, but the number in Tikrit boggles the mind.
While Baghdad may be the capital of Iraq, Tikrit is the heart of Saddam country. It’s the Baath party stronghold, and Saddam has surrounded himself with clansmen from Tikrit in his government. The name “al-Tikriti” automatically suggests power and privilege to an Iraqi, and the people here have a lot to lose if Saddam falls. In addition to his massive palace, there are reportedly mansions belonging to his closest associates, but we are not permitted to travel freely in the city. We have been brought here to witness a celebration in Saddam’s honor, but it looks like the bloom is off the rose.
There’s a veneer of adoration as the thousands of men and women, soldiers and volunteers, who’ve been bussed in, march across the enormous parade ground—an imposing space that is out of all proportion with the rest of the town. But not even Saddam’s loyalists have been able to fill the stands. The empty bleachers say more than the chanting crowds who have turned up repeating again and again, “We give our blood and soul for Saddam.”
Saddam still has hysterical supporters, akin to those who clung to Stalin, but once again I’m reminded of the waning days of the Soviet Union, when crowds came out for the command performances but only because they had to. Even with a war looming, the volunteer army is a pretty lackluster group. There are men in green fatigues carrying old, worn guns. They don’t even have boots on, just normal shoes. The women wear long skirts skimming high heels or more comfortable sneakers. Some carry weapons, but while a few insist, “We have regular training and are all crack shots,” others confess they’ve never touched a weapon before and have been dragged in for the parade from school along with classmates.
A teacher, who was in the stands, was delighted to practice her English. Asked if she might contact me at the hotel in Baghdad, I said, “Of course.” Minutes later she ran up to me, embarrassed—she gave me back my business card, saying it had been a terrible mistake to think she could see me. Clearly, someone had gotten to her. She didn’t dare even hold on to my name and address.
FEBRUARY 10, 2003
It’s that time again. I pay up the vast bill for services not rendered at the Information Ministry, seal up the phone, get the exit-permission letters, and deposit bags and bags of Iraqi dinars on the cashier’s desk at the hotel. Faez and Mohammed, from room service, come up to the room to say good-bye, wondering if I will ever come back, given that war seems imminent. Amer stops me in the parking lot, asking if I will return. I promise I will.
As I leave I am struck by how frustrated and impatient Iraqis have become with the status quo. People want a normal life. They blame both Saddam and the United States for the mess they find themselves in. Some have started to imagine a time when Saddam is no longer in control. As he takes me to the airport, my driver, Majed, dispenses with any caution and says flat-out that the Iraqi military can’t do anything; that it’s poorly equipped, badly paid, and utterly demoralized. As soon as the bombing starts he’s going to put a sheet on his roof for the pilots to see saying WELCOME USA.
BRENDA BULLETIN: FEBRUARY 13, 2003
Well, well … sort of …
The Norfolk town meeting the other night ran long, as they usually do. When I finally got home, there she was, my Baghdad Bauble, curled and spooned up next to the old Lab, fast asleep. It had been a long slog home, twelve hours from Baghdad to the border by car—once again escaping the now-$250 AIDS test for women under fifty—eight hours in Amman to find an unexpected seat on the next flight out, thirteen hours to New York, and finally the three-hour drive home. She slept through most of it. Her ability to sleep at any time and in any place, but preferably in something that is moving, she claims as her greatest talent. Last year she made a harrowing journey from northern Afghanistan up over the Hindu Kush and down into the Panshir Valley just above Kabul. The pass was at something like 17,000 feet and the main road up had been destroyed by feuding warlords. Brenda and two fellow journalists rented a Russian jeep and started up the mountain on an unimproved track with no guardrails (naturally), which was so narrow and tight that the vehicle could not make the turn at the end of each of the 100 or so switchbacks. The driver was forced to ascend every other switchback leg in reverse. When they finally got to the top some six hours later, Brenda’s ashen and quavering mates were appalled to discover that she had literally slept through the whole thing.
The last hours in Baghdad were taken up paying up and paying out with stacks of dinars, the largest denomination of which is 250. Her bill at the Al-Rashid came to $1,200, part of which she paid with dollars, the other part with 1,600,000 dinars stuffed into two enormous shopping bags. With some coaxing, but with a certain pride, she will show you the ugly bruise on her ribcage inflicted when the chair on which she and the dinars were resting collapsed. It is unclear if NPR has a policy covering wounds inflicted by local currency.
The joy of having her here won’t last. Her gear has not been stowed but sits in neat piles on the guest bed. Toward the end of next week she goes back to either Baghdad or Kuwait. I hear her now complaining to NPR about the slowness in providing flak jackets and chemical-warfare gear. This is all taking on a sudden grim reality.
BRENDA BULLETIN: MARCH 4, 2003
Once again …
For the past two days our girl has been in room 726 of the Grand Hyatt in Amman trying to wring a visa out of the Iraqi bureaucracy. By late today it looks as if she has succeeded and will leave for Baghdad in the next day or two. How long she will be there is anyone’s guess, but she is going in with a good deal more cash strapped around her waist than in the past. She talks cryptically of being there long enough to see what will happen happen.
The forty-pound Kevlar vest and her oversized Teutonic helmet will probably end up in the storage room of the Grand Hyatt. The Iraqis may not let any of this in, and to say that this gear, at 40 percent of her body weight, hampers movement is something of an understatement. The chemical-warfare equipment is lighter and will go in with her. But it does beg the question of just whose ass all this stuff is meant to cover.
A number of you have written of late questioning the continued use of the Brenda alias. Some have suggested that although amusing at first, the device has become stale, bordering on shtick. Others have written to say that the use of the name Brenda somehow demeans and belittles what she has done and where she has done it. I, too, was wondering about this. When she was here, we talked about it. The long and short of it is that Annie likes Brenda. It gives her a needed distance, a character to play to, and allows humor to seep into situations which, if reported straight, might well bring tears. So Brenda will be with us as long as she wants and needs her, and no longer.
You might be interested to know that Annie was first called Brenda by someone within NPR when she found herself near Grozny in Chechnya, being bombed by the Russian air force in the early ’90s. Later a good friend sent her an enlargement of a panel from a Brenda Starr comic book in which a mushroom cloud rises behind Brenda’s anguished face. The balloon reads, “Oh, God, there goes my career!” Somehow the name stuck. I hope you understand.
MARCH 5, 2003
Back on the road but I can now claim to be an Intermediate Emergency Medical Technician! God help the poor souls who are my first real patients. I spent numerous nights while home attending classes and “sticking” friends so that I now know how to set up and insert an IV as long as I am not in a moving ambulance, there is nothing to distract me, and the patient’s veins are popping so I can’t possibly miss them. I’m not all too sure such a patient exists.
After weeks, nay months, on the road I arrived home as an intellectual Neanderthal. I had not seen a real newspaper, editorial, or book review, nor had I read any books except my store of background that had something to do with Iraq. I hadn’t seen a movie except for repeats of The Last of the Mohicans which is a favorite of Saddam’s regime and frequently shown on Iraqi television. I was a royal bore. Thanks to Vint, who clipped items he thought would be of interest, I have, at least, caught up a bit on what the “real world” has to offer. However, most of the time when I was home I was fixated on getting back to Iraq.
Since arriving in Amman, all I have done for four days is call Baghdad about the visa. I can’t focus on anything else. Qadm keeps telling me, “Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.” To keep my sanity I have started swimming in the hotel pool. I began with ten laps and today topped 120. The rhythm helps to mitigate the strain, but as soon as I dry off I am obsessed again. I live on room service because I won’t venture into the lobby, where I will undoubtedly meet up with all the other journalists who have been waiting, unsuccessfully, for a visa. I’m depressed enough and don’t need to hear their sad stories too. I can’t tell if Qadm is just playing with me, or if he really intends to fulfill his promise. ABC is also waiting, and apparently “The List” of the newly anointed is to appear at the Iraqi embassy on Saturday.
MARCH 6, 2003
The one group which has not had trouble getting visas are the “human shields,” peace activists who have offered to stay in Iraq during a possible conflict, but relations are now fraying. Iraq has ordered five human shields to leave the country after a dispute about where they should be positioned to prevent possible U.S. airstrikes.
There are a couple of hundred peace activists in Iraq. They want to choose where they sit out a possible war but the Iraqi authorities have insisted they move to locations the government has selected. These are not the sites many of the peace activists had in mind, and now dozens have chosen to leave, fearing for their safety, and in some cases their integrity. They are staying in downtown Amman at the run-down Saraya Hotel, which has the air of a college dormitory.
They are a real mixed bag, ranging from complete nutters to thoughtful souls. There is no real organization, a range of political views, and now confusion. Many are loath to speak out because while they are obviously uncomfortable with Saddam’s regime they don’t want to undercut the antiwar movement.
While many dodge me and my questions—they think the press has disparaged them and their efforts—forty-six-year-old Bruce Fortner is willing to speak about the conflict and conflicting emotions. Back in Santa Fe, he had sent out petitions and joined antiwar protests, but he says that just wasn’t enough. So in February this lanky carpenter closed up shop and went to Baghdad to support civilians there. He used money raised in Santa Fe to buy medicines for Iraqi children. He wasn’t sure how long he would stay. He wasn’t at all sure he wanted to be there during a war, and if he did stay he wanted to work in hospitals or orphanages. But after two weeks of wrangling with the activists, the Iraqi authorities announced that the human shields had to take up positions at oil refineries, water and electricity installations, and government communications sites. Fortner found that the decision to leave Iraq was suddenly made very easy. “For me it was pretty cut-and-dried,” he says. He had no intention of protecting infrastructure, though he understands those who argue that these places are essential for daily life.
Sue Darling, somewhere in her mid-fifties, is a former British diplomat. She, too, had wanted to be with Iraqi civilians in communities or schools to personalize the face of war by showing that it will be ordinary people who are under attack, but Iraq’s choice of sites had also forced her to leave Baghdad. She is nervous about talking to me. She doesn’t want to undermine those who have stayed on. She chooses her words carefully. “For myself”—she emphasizes “for myself”—“I felt the direction the action was taking was not what I had personally come for. For me it was more a direct humanitarian movement of being with the civilian population, and it has gone in a different direction.”
Darling made the long trip to Baghdad in a convoy of double-decker buses that traveled overland from London. She’d hoped she would be joined by thousands of protesters instead of just the few hundred who’ve rotated through Baghdad. The mass migration didn’t happen, and she is clearly disappointed. And many of those who’ve journeyed to Baghdad have grown increasingly uneasy as the Iraqi regime has essentially hijacked the peace movement. It decides where activists stay. It pays for their food and lodging, arranges transportation, and provides “minders” who limit their access to the ordinary people they want to protect. And ordinary Iraqis often express ambivalence about the prospect of a war, and that ambivalence is hard for the peace activists to acknowledge and deal with.
When I ask Darling how she reconciles her views about Saddam’s brutal regime and her opposition to the war, she cuts off the interview, pushing back her long, graying hair. She’s pretty frazzled. She knows time is running out before the war starts, and she doesn’t like her options. She says she is thinking about going back.
In the hotel lobby, fliers are stacked on a table. Produced by an ad hoc steering committee, they warn human shields of the dangers. They advise volunteers of the chances of civic uprising, hostage-taking, or the possibility of being tried for treason back home. And the concluding paragraph notes that after the war starts it may be much harder to get out of Iraq than it was to get in.
When I go to transmit my report to Washington, I discover that a key piece of equipment doesn’t work. I can’t believe it. It worked just fine when I last used it, in February. I change the batteries and play with the cables. Finally I just shake it. Nothing happens. Frantically, I call Washington. We agree that NPR’s correspondent Peter Kenyon will fly in tomorrow from Jerusalem with a replacement. Thank god I found out now and not after I arrived in Baghdad.
MARCH 8, 2003
I’ve got all the equipment problems sorted out, but when I turn up at the Iraqi embassy it appears I am not on “The Visa List,” despite Qadm’s promises. I have been peremptorily dismissed, but just as I prepare to head back to the hotel pool to drown my sorrow in more laps, a “fixer” from ABC appears. He has helped me in the past. He takes my passport, disappears into an office for an uncomfortably long time, comes back and asks if I am willing to pay $1,000 for a $38 visa. Money changes hands and he tells me to come to his office later that afternoon. I would have happily paid up last week, but last week money wasn’t doing the trick.
With vague assurances of a visa, it’s time to purchase supplies. I head off to a supermarket and load up on batteries to keep the equipment running, baby wipes for when the water goes, packaged soup should food be a problem, plus cans of tuna fish, jars of peanut butter, Kit Kat and Mars bars, coffee, Coffee-Mate, and cases of bottled water. It’s a bit like Supermarket Sweep—that game show where you have five minutes to load up your cart. I definitely win the prize for the most money spent in a short period of time, but nothing looks particularly appealing, and I hope I don’t have to rely on the odd assortment that I have selected.
I pick up my passport with the visa firmly stamped inside, pack up, check out, and load up the car, which will take me to Baghdad. I join a convoy with ABC, CBS, and a German crew.
MARCH 9, 2003
We hit the border crossing just after midnight and pile into the waiting room on the Iraqi side, where a life-size portrait of Saddam occupies one wall. Over the past months I have spent many an hour looking at this, guessing at what the artist thought with each brush stroke. I wonder if it will still be here when it comes time for me to leave Baghdad. Forms are filled out, cars and equipment are checked and logged, and more money passes between hands. We speed across the desert and the driver wakes me up as we reach Baghdad just after dawn.
At the Al-Rashid Hotel I once again stride across the mosaic of George Bush the elder, which is now discreetly covered with a carpet. (Chief weapons inspector Hans Blix reportedly protested when forced to tread on the former president.) Who will get to steal it, if and when the time comes? The staff greets me like a long-lost relative. Faez, now working the reception desk, asks me, “Are you really staying?” More money is passed as I negotiate for a “room with a view.” I am assigned one on an upper floor overlooking the swimming pool with good access for the satellite phone. I hope the bribes mean they will keep their mouths shut when the security guys come round.
As I unpack, I realize that the case with my sat phone doesn’t have a seal. I look at the customs form issued at the border. Though I declared it, the phone isn’t listed, just my computer. Maybe this is a blessing. I decide that I will not confess to the Information Ministry that I have a phone. I’ll save a lot of money, since they charge $100 a day for the privilege of having a sat phone and maybe, just maybe, I’ll be lucky if they decide to confiscate them down the road.
While I have been traveling, Hans Blix, the United Nations chief weapons inspector, told the Security Council that Iraq’s destruction of thirty-four of its banned Al Samoud missiles was “a substantial measure of disarmament,” and he said Baghdad had begun to provide information on its biological and chemical weapons. Mohammed ElBaradei, the chief nuclear arms inspector, was also cautiously optimistic, saying there was no evidence that Iraq had revived its nuclear weapons program. Both said more time was needed, but representatives of the United States, Britain, and Spain are talking of days, not months, before military action.
They have called for a March 17 deadline for Iraq to disarm completely or face invasion, but they have no support for a resolution from Russia, China, or France. This emotional battle in the United Nations goes beyond Iraq to the future of collective action.
I check in with the Information Ministry to get my ID. Qadm looks at me strangely, as if to say, “What are you doing here?” It’s clear he never approved the visa, money notwithstanding, and his look suggests he knows I bought my visa in Amman. Bought or not, it is valid, has all the right stamps, and is good for ten days. If there is going to be a war, I hope it starts by then. The ten-day rule still holds and everyone is worried about getting visa extensions. They line up outside Qadm’s office, begging, pleading, and paying.
Lorenzo Cremonesi of Corriere della Sera is still here, and his hair is wilder than ever. He hasn’t had a visa extension in a month and he is living in the shadows. He also no longer has a valid press card, so he can’t enter the building and skulks around the parking lot trying to avoid Qadm and his boss, the dreaded Uday. As Qadm negotiates the plight of some journalists, I hear him bark something unintelligible but clearly unflattering about Lorenzo and warn Lorenzo to make himself even scarcer. Just how he has survived so long without being expelled I don’t know—and neither does he.
I drop by the NBC office to see Carol Grisanti. She’s been here three months without a break because if getting extensions is difficult, getting a new visa is even more problematic. She’s clearly exhausted and the hard part hasn’t even started. I leave a care package with bath oil, other unguents, and T-shirts for the approaching hot weather. She’s writing a situation report for her bosses back in New York. As far as I can tell the situation is utterly confusing, with nothing but rumors and baseless speculation.
The American networks are threatening to pull out if they’re not allowed to move their operations from the Information Ministry, a likely U.S. target, to somewhere safer, but the Iraqis are holding firm. With their tons of equipment and satellite dishes, television companies are totally dependent on the largesse of our keepers. I, on the contrary, can broadcast with my sat phone in the privacy of my hotel room, assuming I am not caught.
The press corps, which has now swelled to more than 500, continues to overwhelm the government’s ability to provide individual “minders,” and without a minder our movements are restricted, and right now I don’t have a minder. Daniella, the Serb-Iraqi, has been fired for failing to pay her sponsors a cut of what I paid her. I track down Amer, who’s still loyally working for the Japanese reporters. However, they have no taste for war and are planning to leave soon. Amer thinks that when they leave he will be able to be my minder, though he hates to use that word, with all its connotations. He suggests I keep a low profile so Qadm doesn’t assign me someone else. This means I will have trouble working for a few days, but it’s worth the wait.
In the meantime I have Majed again as a driver. He dares to suggest I pay him directly and not go through his nephew Ahmed. This is the clearest sign yet that the regime is in its final days. Ahmed, with his ministry contacts, has been skimming $80 of the $100 I have been paying Majed.
Majed briefs me on what’s been going on. First impressions are that here at ground zero of possible bombardment there is a surreal semblance of calm. Everyone is still going to work and school. Rush-hour traffic clogs the city streets. Construction workers continue to repair the gargantuan limestone-walled headquarters of the Baath Party, which was struck by American cruise missiles in ’91 and again in ’98 and will more than likely be a target this time. Construction also continues at the Information Ministry.
I get the distinct impression that people have adopted a blind fatalism, but the truth is there’s really not much they can do. You would think there would be a run on stores for food and water, but most can’t afford these luxuries. They depend on the rations the government has doled out, and they have now been given rations for five months in advance. As a sign of how desperate people are, many are selling their rations in the markets, not hoarding them, because they need money for other essentials like medicine.
We stop by the ration distribution point in Majed’s neighborhood. When I drag out my tape recorder, the young men working there say they will fight the Americans to the end. When we get back in the car Majed says, “I know these guys, and how they think, and they won’t fight for a second.”
Those who have money have scooped up all the generators on the market. People are also buying plastic garbage cans to hold water supplies. Considering that Iraq is one of the world’s largest suppliers, there is a shortage of propane gas for cooking. The government appears to have commandeered stocks. Majed tells me in his neighborhood he’s seen soldiers pack trenches with propane canisters, presumably so Iraqi forces can explode them as cheap bombs if and when American troops appear. He tells me Baath Party members have been going door to door warning families that they must stay at home in the event of war or else their houses will be destroyed or confiscated as punishment. The party doesn’t want the Americans to arrive in a deserted city. Majed observes dryly that you can bet the Baath Party will move relatives to somewhere safe.
We visit some acquaintances who have enough garden space to dig their own small bomb shelter. The kids think it’s a great addition, and they rampage around, playing in the tiny fortress. They are too young to remember the earlier bombing raids. Their parents look on, unwilling to tell the children how bad it might be, and they are scared to talk into a microphone about their true feelings. But this extended family, who have warmly welcomed me, is clearly hoping that life will be better before long, as long as they all survive.
I e-mail Vint to tell him I am safe.
MARCH 10, 2003
After so many weeks here on and off, Mohammed, the head of room service, now knows my habits far too well. Concerned because I don’t eat breakfast, which is automatically included in the bill, he drops by mid-morning with coffee and fruit. It’s also an opportunity for him to ask me, in the seclusion of my room, what I think is going to happen. I don’t really have much to offer. He pulls out a photograph of his wife and four kids. He asks if I can help him and his family go to America. I have to explain, as I have done too often in the past, here and in other countries, that I am not an official and have little influence, and I suggest that his timing might not be the best.
My main task today is to avoid the Information Ministry—the feeding frenzy of rumors and the inevitable question, “Are you staying?” I have no idea what I’m doing. Television producers tell me the American networks and CNN had a deal that they would stay together or leave together, but now that agreement is eroding and each organization is deciding its own fate.
I go down to the hotel coffee bar for a cappuccino, or that’s what they dare to call it: a confection of instant Nescafé and frothy powdered milk. As I sit there, making lists of things I need to do, I spy a man I know, but I can’t remember where I know him from. We lock eyes. He too is trying to figure out why he knows me. We quickly establish credentials. Bruno was in charge of the European Broadcast Union operation in the Russian town of Khasaviurt on the border of the breakaway region of Chechnya in 1994. The war stories pour out. I spent Christmas and New Year’s of ’94—’95 there, arriving late one night, after a long, meandering train trip of more than a thousand miles from Moscow, to where Bruno had set up his broadcast base camp. He fixed me up with a bed in the “women’s room.” The only hitch was that I had to share it with a producer from AP television. It was a little strange to snuggle up next to someone I didn’t know with the intimate question, “Do you like the right side or the left?” Stranger still, she didn’t bat an eyelid. We were just too exhausted.
Bruno had set up broadcast operations for European and American organizations in a summer camp for wrestlers that clearly was never intended as housing for dozens of journalists in midwinter. In those days, which were not so very long ago, journalists did not have individual portable satellite phones, and we would line up for time on EBU’s cumbersome but nonetheless efficient equipment. We went out during the day, collected information, and then returned to base by nightfall to broadcast. You had time to distill your thoughts. There was no instant broadcasting.
The Chechen conflict was the worst either of us can remember. Indiscriminate Russian bombing was matched on the ground by the unpredictable behavior of drunk, unsupervised, terrified Russian soldiers. Bruno and I reminisced about New Year’s Eve, the night the Russian troops moved into Grozny. I got caught there as the tanks poured in. The Chechens trapped them in the city streets. They would hit the first and last tanks in a column so the rest couldn’t move, and then pick off the fleeing soldiers. Those I later spoke to said they were newly drafted, untrained, and had no idea where they were or what they were supposed to be doing. I spent most of the night hiding in a basement as the fighting went on outside. At dawn, there was a lull. I poked my head out. Buildings all around me had been reduced to rubble. The streets were littered with burned-out tanks and the charred bodies of soldiers. One lone tank was cornered down the street, wounded but not dead, its gun turret desperately flailing as the soldiers inside tried to escape, but there was no way to maneuver out of the trap. Is the fight for Baghdad going to turn into street-to-street fighting, as Iraqis fear?
Chechnya is a reminder of how quickly events take on a life of their own and determine the future. In the beginning, the Chechen fighters had been ordinary residents—teachers, merchants, and doctors—who didn’t think they had a chance. Many were fed up with their brief independence, saying it had brought them nothing, but they also resented Moscow’s arrogance and blatant racism. They thought they were making an honorable, valiant, short-lived stand against a much more powerful aggressor and were stunned by the Russians’ miscalculations and their own successes. In a matter of hours, the brutal battle in Grozny hardened attitudes on both sides and laid the groundwork for the extremism that gradually developed.
While I was in Chechnya, Vint had arrived in Moscow for what was supposed to be a delirious reunion. Instead, he got deliriously sick. While I hunkered down in Grozny, he sat in my Moscow apartment with a raging fever watching Jaws in Russian. He claims to have understood every word. Now he waits back in Norfolk.
I call home. We dodge the issue of whether I’m staying or not. I just say I’m taking it day by day. Iraq has destroyed more banned missiles and dismisses concerns about a U.S.-declared March 17 deadline, suggesting that UN weapons inspector Hans Blix might visit Baghdad. A senior Iraqi official has belittled outstanding questions that inspectors have raised about Iraq’s arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, calling them “technical details.” But he also said that Iraq was preparing for battle.
Just as I turn out the light, Faez calls from the desk. Like Mohammed, he wants to drop by for a reality check. He comes up and asks about the news of the day. His question, like everyone’s, is not if there will be war but when.
MARCH 11, 2003
The hotel hop has started. We’ve all known for a long time that the Al-Rashid might be an American target, and now, with war likely, news organizations are protectively booking rooms elsewhere. Just where might be safe is not clear. I am lumping for the Al-Hamra north of the Tigris River. A number of colleagues are also moving there, so I will have chums. At first the management tells me it’s booked up, but a couple of hours later a room is free as NBC checks out to move somewhere else. What do they know that I don’t know? As good a friend as Carol Grisanti is, she has her professional secrets. I keep my room at the Al-Rashid but schlep most of my stuff to the Al-Hamra, which I actually like much better. For the same money I have a suite with a kitchenette, which, given the prospects, seems propitious.
When I go down to the lobby to survey the general layout, the day manager points to a notice from the Information Ministry reminding us we are not permitted to have satellite phones in our rooms. This is a gentle coded version of “There will be a sweep so hide it if you have it.” The word spreads that tonight is the night. I call NPR and warn them that if they don’t hear from me in time for All Things Considered, it means I had to hide the phone.
Where to hide the phone? In my underwear? Behind the cushions in the couch? In the oven? No, it won’t fit. Then there is the other issue raised by reports of new American weapons that will fry our electronic gear. Word has it that the only way to protect our satellite phones and computers from that threat is to put them in a microwave oven. After all, a microwave keeps the “waves” in, so, it’s been argued, it will also keep them out. The rush on the few microwave ovens available in the market turns into a race. I just don’t have the energy.
When one lives in a city whose very skyline may look profoundly different in a matter of days, the question “What do you do exactly when bombs begin to fall?” takes on a very real meaning. As far as we know, there aren’t any significant government targets around the Al-Hamra, but it is possible that some of Saddam’s family have houses nearby, and by afternoon the staff has criss-crossed all the windows with tape to prevent the glass from shattering inward. In the city center, government workers are taking computers out of key ministry buildings, which are likely to be U.S. targets. Most Iraqis intend to hunker down as well as they can.
There are only thirty-four shelters in this large city and most are in elite neighborhoods. Majed notes bitterly that they are only for members of the Baath Party. He says there’s no protection in his area. Many Iraqis echo this, saying they have no choice but to seek solace in prayer. And even if there is a nearby shelter, Iraqis don’t trust them. They remember all too well the devastating hit on the Amariya shelter in ’91 when a U.S. bunker-busting bomb killed 403, many of whom were women and children. It’s now a museum, a favorite stopover for minders and a site for vigils by foreign peace activists.
Majed is desperate for the United States to come in quickly. His house was destroyed in the ’91 bombing, but he harbors no resentment and wants the Americans to end Saddam’s tyranny. At the Tiger Eye liquor store, run by Christians, a salesman avoids political discussion but hands me a stack of calling cards, saying, “Give these to the American troops and tell them we will be happy to meet their needs.”
Though dictatorial Iraq strictly limits access to foreign media, it’s a poorly kept secret that a small number of Iraqis have access to satellite TV through black-market dishes. They will witness a possible onslaught with one eye on CNN, the BBC, or Al Jazeera, the other on the real thing—that is, of course, if they have a generator and the signals aren’t interrupted by sophisticated American weapons.
One Iraqi who Majed and I discreetly visit demonstrates his illegal satellite system. The dish is hidden on the roof beneath a scrim of fabric. “We watch the news every night for every little update,” he says, adding, “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but at least we know what’s going on.”
Some Iraqis would like to leave the country, but many are afraid even to apply for a passport. Majed says his friend in the passport agency warned him not to apply now because the authorities will consider him a traitor and exact punishment. His son is a police officer, and he tells me the police have been ordered to stay at headquarters twenty-four hours a day. They can go home only to get a change of clothing.
Diplomats are similarly on alert. Most embassies have closed. Those still operating have drawn down their staffs to a maximum of two. Reflecting his nation’s reputation for precision, a Swiss diplomat estimates it will take him exactly seven and a half hours to pack, shut up, and move out. He spends most of his time now conferring with other diplomats about the situation. He offers the last of the Swiss chocolate from his stores. He warns of a humanitarian disaster in the wake of war. He sees no evidence that the United States or humanitarian agencies have stockpiled sufficient food outside the country to prepare for the inevitable disruption. He points out that the United States will be responsible under the Geneva Conventions for protecting the civilian population.
The UN inspectors continue their work, but at tonight’s briefing it’s clear the results remain mixed. They are still waiting for Iraq’s documentation on the disposal of anthrax and VX poison. Iraq promised to produce a letter ten days ago but so far has sent nothing.
MARCH 12, 2003
Reports from the UN suggest the diplomatic wrangling might go on for a while, delaying war until the beginning of April. I don’t know how we are all going to last that long. Sanity and dollars are running low. As it stands now, I am positioned for a war to start on the 19th. After that I have to get a visa extension. I am already knackered from the logistics battle, let alone the real one. But I am in better shape than the poor souls who have been here without a break for the past couple of months. One journalist jokes that he’s going to start a protest movement for war just to get the waiting and the visa nightmare over with.
“To stay or not to stay?” is the burning question now. The AP has decided to pull its non-Arab staff out of Baghdad and the office is in an uproar. Several who have spent months here covering the story are contemplating quitting over the decision. Once other news organizations hear of AP’s decision, they may well follow suit. It is time to discuss this with NPR. I e-mail Loren that I hope my views will be taken into consideration as NPR decides what to do.
I’m still just taking it a day at a time, but now that Amer will be working with me once the Japanese leave, I am much more disposed toward staying. Much as I like and trust Majed, I feel much more comfortable with Amer, who not only is savvy but also speaks good English. I will need him as a combined guide, translator, driver, and savior. The truth of this journalism business, that we are only as good as the people who work with us, has never been clearer.
Loren e-mails back that he needs ammunition to persuade the powers-that-be that I should stay, if indeed that’s my decision. I’m surprised and heartened that he is supporting me and trusting my judgment. Gruff as he is on the surface he is no cowboy, and precisely because I know he cares about me I had feared he might just yank me out. But his instincts are that I follow my instincts. I try to muster my arguments. I have Amer. Amer and I have discussed finding some kind of safe-house if things start getting creepy. I am a woman, and an older one at that, whatever protection that might afford me. I might be able to disappear in a chador and wait out a war. I seem to have fallen below the official radar. The authorities are much more focused on others, especially John Burns of The New York Times, who after weeks cooling his heels in Amman managed to get back in with a peace-activist visa. He has since “legitimized” himself with the Information Ministry, but they hate him for his excellent reporting. As far as I can figure out, the ministry has not bothered to pull transcripts of my reports. I suspect they don’t think radio is very important.
But none of this adds up to a hill of beans.
MARCH 13, 2003
The wind whipped through Baghdad overnight, rustling the date trees and coating everything with a dusting of fine sand. Like talcum powder, it insinuates itself everywhere. The gusts are the harbingers of the short balmy spring. It’s comfortable sweater weather now, but Iraqis warn of the long, scorching summer with no respite from the 130-degree oven. If war is to come, Baghdadis believe it will have to come soon. Virtually every night, President Saddam Hussein appears on Iraqi television meeting various commanders and promising victory. But for many Iraqis the days are now measured by foreign news broadcasts that crackle over shortwave radios. And then there are the rumors.
It’s finally dawning on many here that this could well end up as a fight for Baghdad. And the latest rumor in the capital is that Saddam Hussein will do whatever it takes to fend off the Americans, no matter what the risk to local civilians. Amer tells me the military has laced canals around the city with gasoline to encircle Baghdad in flames and enshroud the city in smoke in a desperate effort to confuse American smart bombs. There’s a deceptive veneer of normality to this city of dun-colored houses, suspended between war and peace. The complacency that Iraqis have about America’s ability to pinpoint targets is shot through with terror that nowhere in Baghdad might be safe if there is to be a ground war.
The Iraqis take us to see an unpiloted drone aircraft that the United States and Britain claim can deliver chemical and biological weapons. With a wooden propeller and joints stuck together with masking tape, it looks like a toy. Brigadier General Imad Abdul Latif, the Iraqi project director, says the drone performed so poorly on early test flights that it has been grounded.
I call around to all the embassies to see if I can talk to the few diplomats left. I either get no answer or am flatly turned down. A few of us have a meeting scheduled with a French envoy, but when we arrive the gendarme at the front desk says the envoy is not available. No apology, no explanation, simply not available. The gendarme says he will never be available.
It is a Shiite Muslim holiday and there’s not much official news. I wander the nearby streets and watch as residents prepare the traditional meal. Once this was a community affair. There would be a neighborhood fire, where everyone would gather to cook together, but that was banned by Saddam. In a grudging gesture to the majority Shiites, Saddam now permits them to celebrate in the privacy of their homes. Women draped in black carry pots of soup back and forth between houses. They smile at me but say not a word.
I can imagine the discussions going on back at NPR and e-mail Vice President Bruce Drake, asking that he not make a peremptory decision without at least consulting me first. I just ask that we go day by day.
Majed reminds me that if I am going to stay, I need the same plastic garbage pails every Iraqi has bought to conserve water. We go out on a shopping expedition for yet more water and soda. Prices have doubled in a week; the value of the dinar is dropping by the day.
We pass the zoo, which, given Saddam’s son’s predilection for tigers, has caused so much sick hilarity between me and Amer. I hope I don’t descend to doing the inevitable zoo story. In Afghanistan, the zoo became an easy focus, especially for British reporters, who competed to own the starving blind lion. While Afghans were suffering, The Daily Mail demanded that the British government dispatch vets to treat the remaining pathetic animals. The British Defense Ministry wisely decided it would be unseemly to do so.
Every war has a zoo: Sarajevo, Kabul, and now Baghdad. Animals are a lot less demanding an interview than people and a lot easier to access. They don’t require that a minder be in attendance. The London Times correspondent has predictably done the story, and she generously suggests that I follow suit. The zoo is under reconstruction, but there are apparently two lions and a tiger that the keepers plan to tranquilize in the event of war. The animals got quite upset during the ’91 Gulf War and nearly killed themselves trying to get out of their cages. I pass on the story for now.
Sandbags are stacked up near the gates of the Baghdad Museum, where the doors are firmly shut. Curators say priceless treasures have been spirited away for safekeeping, and archaeologists say they’re armed and prepared to defend what’s left in the museum—as much from possible looting as from American bombing. At the Information Ministry, workers continue to cart out computers and other valuable equipment, but we must still work there.
Majed is sure no one will fight. He recalls ’91, when Iraqi soldiers in the capital literally dropped their weapons and fled. As he drove through the city, he and his son collected three Kalashnikovs that had been tossed into the street. He sold two but still has one, which he’s kept to defend himself not from the Americans but from possible anarchy. But there are Iraqis who say they will fight the American invaders, and I think they mean it.
Sermons at Baghdad’s mosques have become more strident, exhorting Iraqis to fight the infidel. Even if they are initially defeated there are Iraqis who take comfort in their history, insisting they are the toughest Arab people to subdue. Ultimately, they say, no foreigner has been able to control this territory successfully.
MARCH 14, 2003
Qadm has refused to allow Amer to work with me as a minder. He can only be my driver, so I need to find a benign minder to work with us. I have talked to one guy called Sadiq who speaks excellent English. His journalists have pulled out, and he’s anxious for more work. He claims to be a closet dissident who has aspirations to be a writer. For now he is “writing for the drawer,” as the Soviets used to say. There’s something about him I don’t entirely trust. Meanwhile the CBC radio correspondent has been told by his bosses that they want him to leave. He is in tears. I feel pretty crass approaching him but nonetheless I ask if I can have the minder he is leaving behind. Saleh is a nice young man who won’t get in the way. Amer agrees he is “good,” which in this looking-glass world means he is incompetent—just what I want.
The Information Ministry has called in all the minders for a meeting. Amer regales me with the proceedings. All of them are told to be strong and not to look scared. They are reminded to watch our movements carefully and make sure we are not spies working under the cover of journalism. Like petulant little children, the minders all complain about the drivers, saying the journalists let the minders go and then run off with the drivers so the minders don’t know what they are doing.
A reporter from The Boston Globe is caught with a Thuria, a small hand-held sat phone, and is expelled. The Iraqis are particularly sensitive about these phones because they are easily portable, unlike mine, which though of better quality has a cumbersome and highly visible antenna. They fear that some of us are “spotters” for the American military.
MARCH 15, 2003
While reporters struggle with the dilemma of staying or leaving, Iraqis are facing their own version. Saleh, my new minder, wants his twenty-five-year-old wife and young daughter to go live with relatives far from Baghdad for the duration of any war. His wife has refused. He hopes that I can help change her mind.
The family’s two-story cement house looks out on the vast expanse of the Rashid Air Force Base. It was badly damaged in ’91 and is certainly destined to be hit again, but Saleh’s wife, Esma, is determined to stay with her husband. She pokes her head out of the kitchen and says firmly, “If we’re going to die, we will die together.” His mother, Sakhara, is on Saleh’s side, but so far she’s lost the argument.
Though only fifty-two, Sakhara looks much older. Afflicted with high blood pressure and diabetes, her legs are swollen and she moves to the couch with difficulty. I stupidly tell her we are the same age, looking for some common ground, but then bite my tongue. She looks at me sadly, touches my cheek, and then touches her own mottled skin. She says she can’t bear to live through another round of missiles and bombs and if necessary will go, alone, to stay with a daughter outside the capital.
If Saleh has his way, and it doesn’t look like he’s going to, he and his sixty-four-year-old father, Fadl, would stay in the house alone. The house is all Fadl has left from a once-comfortable middle-class life, and he’s determined to protect it. His business, a small factory producing metal furniture frames, couldn’t survive the sanctions. His savings are gone. The neighborhood reeks of sewage. There were no pipes in better days, either, but then they were on the up-and-up, making improvements. Now the neighborhood has slid into poverty.
Fadl blames the United States and gestures to the portrait of Saddam Hussein that looks down over the dining table. “Saddam is one of us,” he says. “He deserves our devotion.” Neither Saleh nor Fadl would listen to my suggestion that Saddam had been unnecessarily brutal. They deny that he murdered his own people. Like the Soviets defending Stalin, they insist Iraq needs a strong leader to direct and unite this fractious country divided between competing tribes—Kurds, Christians, Shiites, and Sunnis. Maybe Saddam seems cruel, Saleh concedes, but he has to be. They describe Saddam as an Arab hero who has successfully protected Iraqi sovereignty from outside threats. “We have oil and great riches,” Saleh says, “which foreign countries want.”
Fadl demands I tell the American people they must use their voice to stop this war. This appeal to public opinion, which is not permitted here, does not strike Fadl as peculiar or ironic. Staring through his thick glasses, he says he will fight to the last, though he acknowledges he has no weapons, just his faith. Eventually he concedes that America has the technology to win militarily. His bravado cracks further when he speaks of two sons who are in the army, posted somewhere in the north. They have not been heard from in weeks. It becomes apparent as the family talks that they have put by very little in terms of supplies and assume the war could be as short as four or five days.
Saleh and his wife are already thinking beyond the war to the cruel summer when Baghdad boils. Assuming there will be significant damage, they wonder how their baby daughter will survive the searing heat and the bugs with no air conditioning, no fan, and no water. As the family’s sole breadwinner, Saleh asks if his English is good enough to earn him a job with a future American administration. If surviving means switching allegiances to another leader, even an American, Saleh will do what he has to.
Tonight I did what I had to: I broadcast naked in the dark. Rumors swirled again about a late-night sweep for satellite phones. My thinking went this way: if I turn off the light in my room it’s harder to see the antenna on the windowsill and from the corridor there will be no light shining under my door. If someone knocks, I can pretend they have woken me up, beg for a few minutes to get dressed, and then perhaps have enough time to dismantle the phone and hide it. Not a great plan, but the only one I could come up with.
I laid out a dress that I could slip on in seconds, moved the equipment so it was close to the bed so I could quickly push it under the mattress if I had to, and filed my piece in the buff. Robert Siegel remained in blissful ignorance, and the whole exercise was totally unnecessary as no one came to the door. But they could have, and they still might in the future.
MARCH 16, 2003
An e-mail from Loren is waiting for me when I wake up: “We have won the debate about you staying at least for today.” I reply that I want to continue. I have worked so hard to get here, stay here, and arrange all the logistics. I believe it is important to be a witness to whatever happens and to explain how complicated the emotions are here, and, to the degree that I can, explain how Iraqis perceive the situation. I realize it is quite possible that our sat phones will be blocked when the bombing starts, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty to say when they are up again. And I can’t face the idea of sitting on the Jordanian border with hundreds of frustrated journalists massed there, doing nothing. I realize that’s not the best reason for staying, but hey.
Amer is now working with me full-time as a driver. I think Majed was happy to be relieved of the job for now. He needs to get supplies and take care of his family, but his nephew, Ahmed, isn’t pleased that I have paid Majed directly and not through him, and he now tries to wangle a cut of what I am paying Amer. I let rip. Despite all his family contacts with the Information Ministry, Ahmed has gone too far. In a matter of days or weeks it’s more than likely that his ties to the Information Ministry will be a liability, not an asset. Despite all the money we paid him he never delivered on the visas he promised; I got them on my own. If his family feels bold enough to work independently now, I sure do. After feeble protestations he backs off. He clearly realizes it’s time to reposition himself if he wants a future.
Logistics continue to be a drain on energy and time. I need to get Amer and Saleh new ID cards, so they are officially working for me. Amer’s no problem; he has photographs, but Saleh left them at home, which is miles and miles from the office. When I propose going straight to an instant-photo place, Saleh protests, saying he has to shave first. No, Saleh, you are not going to shave. You are going to get the photo taken NOW. I don’t think Saleh and I are going to be working together long. I have a sneaking feeling he is not ready for the rough-and-tumble of war coverage. Am I?
I ask Amer to draw me a map so I can find him and his house if we are separated and telephone connections are disrupted. Addresses alone aren’t much use in Baghdad, since street signs are not common. We are still mulling the issue of a safe-house. His family is leaving Baghdad, so I could hide out with him, but the security people know we work together and they might turn up there. He’s trying to rent a house somewhere else, but it doesn’t look promising. Baath Party members, in their green uniforms, are now patrolling every neighborhood. Amer says the government has placed more intelligence agents in regular army units to prevent defections.
The Iraqis have submitted more documents to the UN weapons inspectors that they say will provide proof that they have destroyed their stocks of weapons of mass destruction. In a last-ditch attempt to forestall war, Saddam Hussein has even admitted that Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction but he says they are no more. There is even talk of inviting Hans Blix back to Baghdad, but this is all too little too late.
People here have little official information about outside events that make war appear imminent—notably President Bush’s announcement that tomorrow will be the last day for diplomatic maneuvering to disarm Saddam. All that the Iraqis hear comes in the form of defiant statements from Saddam and his ministers, who vow in increasingly vitriolic language that American troops will be defeated. But the city is rife with rumors, and everyone is preparing for the conflict ahead, talking about what it might mean for them.
We visit a mukhtar in one of Baghdad’s poorer areas. Abdel Menan al-Drubi is a community leader, approved by the Baath Party. He knows everyone of his 482 charges, and everything about them. Who’s married to whom, how many children, who beats whom, you name it. He arrives from one meeting armed with a Kalashnikov, and is about to race off to another. On cue, his children spout the well-worn refrain, “Bush, Bush, listen well, we all love Saddam Hussein.” A fifty-nine-year-old former soldier, al-Drubi is quite an impressive specimen, tall and commanding. He says the party has armed all the trusted men in the neighborhood and he insists they will pin the Americans down should they dare to enter Baghdad. Residents have been discouraged from leaving the city, but he acknowledges that people here are too poor to go elsewhere. As we wind up the interview, one of his kids, to whom I’ve taken a particular shine, gives me a kiss, and al-Drubi says simply, “Take him with you to America.”
In off-the-record meetings, weapons inspectors have told some reporters to get out of Baghdad. They may not have found any weapons of mass destruction, but they nonetheless warn reporters that Iraqis may well defend themselves with chemical or biological agents. I decide it’s time to unpack my chemical-weapons suit. It’s been twelve years since I tried one on—during the Gulf War—and I’m out of practice.
Issued by Communications and Surveillance Systems Ltd. in London (their Web site is Spymaster.com), the suit has the seal of approval of the Israeli army. There are plastic trousers, a smock and hood, booties and gloves, plus a gasmask. There’s also a container of decontamination powder. According to the leaflet, the powder is to be sprinkled over any liquid that might collect on the suit so that no drops touch the skin when it comes time to take the suit off. The label says one size fits all, and it might just. On me it is enormous. Style is definitely not a selling point; Mr. Lee Marks at CSS had sweetly warned, “It’s not very pretty,” and he’s right. It reminds me of one of those rubber garments that late-night television commercials promise will make you lose weight in no time.
As I struggle with the mask, it’s quickly evident that I would not survive an NBC (military shorthand for nuclear biological chemical warfare) assault. In fact, according to the leaflet, I am already dead, having failed to hold my breath, keep my eyes shut, and secure the mask within the prescribed nine seconds.
I did not go to one of the media boot camps in the run-up to this crisis, because I was simply too busy and, perhaps incorrectly, assumed I knew most of what they were going to teach. Colleagues have said they actually learned a great deal that might improve their chances of surviving a war in Iraq, and as I survey the gear laid out on the floor in front of me, I wish I knew more about the sinister array of chemical and biological substances Saddam Hussein may or may not have in his arsenal. My research material lists blister agents, which cause the skin to bubble and burst, and nerve agents, which send victims into convulsions. Some smell like cut grass, others like burnt almonds. I am not encouraged by one news report that says you’re likely to be “doing the floppy chicken” by the time your nose picks up the distinctive aromas.
By all accounts, the most valuable part of boot camp was the combat first aid, and here I’m relying on the tips I’ve picked up as an emergency medical technician back home in Norfolk, where I am a novice on the ambulance crew: don’t use a tourniquet if you can stop bleeding some other way, because, once starved of blood, the affected limb will have to be amputated afterward; never loosen a tourniquet once the bleeding has stopped, because it will just start gushing again; and removing an object that has impaled a friend’s flank is a bad idea; you’ll just make it worse. I may not get my chemical suit on in time, but I feel pretty good about using the injector of atropine, an antidote which comes with the kit. This skill has won me a couple of new friends in the press corps, who are stunned to learn of my EMT training and swear they will faint if they have to puncture themselves.
MARCH 17, 2003
I log on to find an all-points message from NPR management announcing “time-sheet training.” Just what I need right now. Happily, it is cancelled later in the day. In truth, everyone is treating me with kid gloves, so much so that I’m beginning to feel like someone with a terminal disease.
NPR can be an insatiable beast. First there’s Morning Edition, then Talk of the Nation in the afternoon, and then All Things Considered, not to mention the hourly newscasts. Given the nine-hour time difference from Washington, this means working a double shift. I work the Iraqi day, to collect information, but I don’t finish up until ATC airs at 1 a.m. my time. I haven’t been spared a broadcast since I arrived, but I have been spared calls from local stations wanting to do their own interviews. And when I call in to what is known in radio parlance as “record central,” the engineers are solicitous. Informed that it is difficult, sometimes impossible, to get through on the congested satellite system, they never put me on hold or ask me to call back.
Loren has also spared me a lot of what must be going on back at NPR, but I sense he’s had to cope with endless meetings about my situation. I can only imagine the reaction when management finds out that NBC and ABC pulled out of Baghdad today, with CBS soon to follow. I gather all the news organizations have been conferring among themselves back in New York and Washington, comparing notes on what to do. The New York Times and The Washington Post are now getting a major case of nerves and are talking about pulling their people out too. If they leave, I can’t imagine NPR agreeing that I would stay.
I am sad to find out that a British friend is leaving, but his reasons are more than good. His newspaper is sending in an additional group, among whom there are people “who are not journalists.” He’s cryptic, but the gist is that the Iraqis would have good reason for suspecting that his team includes spies, and he justifiably feels that his editor has put his life in danger. The European Broadcast Union and my old friend Bruno from Chechnya are also on their way out. The Iraqis have not let them take their equipment with them, however.
There is now a steady succession of convoys of GMC Suburbans heading for the Jordanian border. The normal fare for the twelve-hour journey to Amman leapt from $200 this morning to $500 by noon. By late afternoon the trip topped $1,000, and it is still climbing. Many news organizations have been ordered out following Secretary of State Colin Powell’s warning that all Westerners in Iraq are at risk. The Canadian TV team is also pulling up stakes. I will miss them, as they have been among my closest friends here. As far as I can tell that leaves about 150 journalists, with only a couple dozen of them American.
So far, Saddam’s regime has not ordered us out. Officials in fact seem to want us to stay, perhaps to fuel the antiwar movement they are banking on, but, as usual, on their terms, and, as usual, they have their own peculiar way of showing their regard. The Information Ministry has now been taken over by intelligence officials. A whole new set of minders has appeared, with benign people like Saleh being let go. I am so glad I went through all the trouble of getting him accredited yesterday! Amer and I confer about what this change will mean. He has a plan and disappears. Hours later, he returns triumphant. He has gone over Qadm’s head, and has somehow persuaded someone at the ministry to include him as a minder—but it won’t be free. The deal, and there is always a deal, is that we have to get a relative of this official a job with Turkish television, and this means we will have to pay her salary as well. At $200 a month, I figure it’s a bargain.
Just when I think I’ve got logistics sorted out, there’s a new wrinkle. The Al-Hamra says all journalists have to leave. On orders from the Information Ministry, we may live in one of three hotels, none of which is particularly appealing. There’s my old haunt—the Al-Rashid, rumored to be a target; the Mansour is too close to the Information Ministry and the TV Broadcast Center, other likely targets. That leaves the Palestine Hotel. I’ve had a couple of rooms booked there protectively, though I’d hoped this dump would not have to be my home. Maybe it was a decent hotel in the ’70s, but it has since gone to seed and desperately needs a cleanup, if not a total overhaul. The lobby is oppressive, the red tablecloths in the restaurant are permanently stained, and the soiled walls in the rooms bear telltale marks of where pictures have been removed and furniture shifted.
Amer and I pack up all my stuff yet again, retrieve damp laundry, and transfer everything to the delightful Palestine. Considering the tips I have laid out for each move, my stocks of bottled water are now worth more than fine champagne. There’s gridlock in the Palestine’s lobby as TV crews arriving with cart-loads of gear collide with groups trying to leave.
I drop everything in my room and race out to try to get some last-minute reporting done. I make one last visit to the communications beacon known as Saddam Tower. There’s a sky-deck restaurant whose days appear numbered. A few game souls are dining on the last supper, and the Sudanese elevator operator nervously asks what is to happen. The tower rises a full 600 feet over the city and is a testament to Saddam’s remarkable ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. At its base a larger-than-life bronze statue of Saddam stands in triumph over disembodied heads of George Bush the elder and Margaret Thatcher, who lie vanquished at his feet. They defeated Saddam and took his tower down, but Saddam put it back better than ever and added his curious interpretation of history. Rebuilt to twice its original height after it was toppled in the ’91 Gulf War, the tower would seem to be a prime target once again.
In the shadow of the tower, Iraqis are mobbing pharmacies for medicine and the wait for gas is now five-plus hours. Shop owners and restaurants have emptied their premises of valuables and are locking up. Leading imams have called for jihad, saying the duty of Muslims is to threaten American interests anywhere they can. This follows an edict from Iraq’s top Muslim scholars that anyone who provides help to U.S. or British forces will be condemned to hell. This has made some among the Christian minority worry that they might be numbered among the infidels.
Yet at the Catholic Church of the Virgin Mary, Christians and Muslims continue to pray together. Twenty-five-year-old Saheer, in stylish Western clothing, lights a candle alongside her Muslim friend who is dressed discreetly in a long skirt and shawl. Together they pray to the Virgin for peace. There is no talk of victory, no mention of Saddam Hussein. This Christian and this Muslim say they are the best of friends, and that they will remain so.
BRENDA BULLETIN: MARCH 17, 2003
A most welcome call this afternoon. Brenda is well, on her toes, thinking smart, and moving fast, if only to stay a jump ahead of the rumors that swirl like dust.
She phoned in good spirits but guarded, to say that all the remaining foreign journalists have now been moved to the Palestine Hotel for “safety.” She would not or could not say how many there were other than “a lot.” She had smartly reserved a room in the Palestine after leaving the Al-Rashid en route to the Al-Hamra early last week. She did so to insure that her room had the right orientation for her satellite phone. She talked quickly, quietly, and without lights on so that her antenna would not be spotted. She did say that the Palestine is located “across the river” and that it appears to be in a “safer” neighborhood. But she’s seen better accommodations. Then again, she’s also seen worse.
I asked for the phone number in the room. “Well, I can’t tell you. There is no number listed here in the room. I’d have to go downstairs and ask, and I can’t do that.” “Why?” I asked. “Because I’m naked.” “Naked? Why naked?” She explained that there was another rumor that the secret police were running a sweep of the hotel, looking for illegal satellite phones, and she figured that if a naked woman just out of the shower answered a knock at the door, she might stand a chance.
She has been reunited with the most important asset she could have: a smart and good driver called Amer, the same one she had on her first trip. In the meantime he had been working for some Japanese reporters, but they have all gone home. With his help, Brenda’s room is now stashed with crates of bottled water and long-life milk, a lifetime supply of Kit Kats, and trash cans full of tap water for bathing. So there she is on the 6th floor, well-stocked with her dozen yet-to-be-embroidered pillowcases, waiting for what is to happen to happen.
Just to be clear: Annie has been on the Brenda Bulletin list up to this point and, as I wrote recently, she rather enjoyed seeing herself transmogrified into a comic-book character. But I sense, at least for the moment, that this situation might become something quite different. Given the stuff I am seeing on TV—that the Iraqi decision to move the journalists to a central location could be a prelude to taking them hostage—I have decided to take her off the list and drop the use of Brenda. She doesn’t need to hear any more rumors from here. She has enough of her own. I have no idea whether she will be allowed to stay. I have no idea what NPR has counseled, but I will talk to them tomorrow. I do know that as of several days ago, she felt her chances were better in a Baghdad bathtub with her Kit Kats than in a convoy of journalists trying to make their way to the border. After Afghanistan, Annie is allergic to gaggles of journalists in convoys.
Let us hope that Brenda will be able to reappear soon. She reminded me just before hanging up that the soft drink of choice in Baghdad is named “Cheer-Up.”
MARCH 18, 2003
Overnight, President Bush said the Iraqi crisis had reached the final days of decision. He gave Saddam and his sons forty-eight hours to leave Iraq. If they refuse, Mr. Bush said American and British forces massing at the border will wage war “at a time of our choosing.” Iraqi officials quickly dismissed the ultimatum, and Saddam was shown meeting with his sons at undisclosed locations in Baghdad. Saddam warned invading troops to expect a “Holy War.” With the clock ticking down to tomorrow’s deadline, the UN weapons inspectors have pulled out. The last remaining diplomats are following.
Everyone trades what tidbits they know or have heard. A senior Iraqi official told Anthony Shadid of The Washington Post he should stay “because there will be no fight and it will be over in days.” But who’s to say Saddam won’t order the arrest of Westerners and deploy them as human shields at potential American bombing sites, as he did with scores of Western businessmen before the Gulf War in ’91? I corner Qadm and ask what he thinks. If I am scared, he says, I should leave. He offers no assurances, but I didn’t really think he would or could. Nonetheless, I e-mail Loren that I continue to believe I should stay.
It’s beginning to resemble a bad episode of Survivor as reporters are pulled out, flee, just plain lose it, or defy their bosses back home in order to stay.
Television crews who left last night have reportedly been detained on or near the border by Iraqi security. It’s unclear what’s going on. In some cases companies failed to pay their bills with the Information Ministry, in part because it was impossible to do so. The fingerless cashier didn’t turn up. But we’re also hearing that officials are demanding “a currency-clearance certificate,” documentation that heretofore had not been required. This bolsters arguments that at this point leaving is as dangerous as staying. The New York Times ordered John Burns and his photographer, Tyler Hicks, to find the most expeditious way out yesterday, but both wish to stay and they managed to persuade their editors to delay their departure for several reasons, including concern about possible hazards on the exit route. I keep giving NPR my “just taking it day by day” line, but in fact it may now be too late to leave.
The Information Ministry cashier appears, so just to be on the safe side I shell out the $1,500 fee for the past ten days. If I had declared my sat phone, it would be twice that. I resent having to pay them for the pleasure of censorship but collect the receipts, which I will need if indeed I decide to bolt.
Foxholes and sandbagged dugouts are sprouting like prairie-dog hills around the city. Policemen in helmets direct the diminishing traffic. Iraq’s newscasters have yet to report a word of the speech that President Bush gave to the American public last night. There has been nothing about the American ultimatum and nothing about the forty-eight-hour time frame. But Iraqis, so adept at reading between the lines, must have been tipped off that something was awry when Saddam changed tonight from his dapper suits to a military uniform. The city still doesn’t look prepared for a full-scale military siege, but it’s impossible to determine what military preparations might be going on in the outskirts, since we can’t get there.
We are permitted to attend Baath Party demonstrations in the city. The Party members have all donned their green military-style uniforms, but I get a sense of desperation in this crowd of largely overweight bureaucrats, many of whom probably joined the party for job security and advancement. As with the Communists in the Soviet Union, cynicism, self-protection, and self enrichment are the guiding principles.
Some Arab reporters were taken outside Baghdad to see a group of volunteer fighters from France, Algeria, Morocco, and Libya. These fighters claimed they were prepared to blow themselves up following the “Palestinian method.” There are some strange types turning up at the hotel who would appear to be more of the same.
With time running out, Bruce Drake, NPR’s vice president of news, agrees I can stay at least for now, writing, “I hope you realize I felt it my responsibility to put you and Loren and Barbara [Rehm] to every possible test in making the decision we ultimately make. In the world of clichés the buck stops with me. There is no hour that I do not think about your safety.” NPR has never faced anything like this before. I thank him for trusting my instincts, because instinct is all I am working on.
I’m exhausted from discussing the pros and cons of staying. As far as I am concerned, the decision is made. I finally call Vint and ask him if it’s OK with him. We don’t go into the details. He just says, “I trust you.” It is amazing how on the really big things you don’t talk very much. But I know he knew what I was thinking, and he knew I knew, and on and on after so many years, and many sort-of-similar situations.
MARCH 19, 2003
The city is strangely quiet. Most people simply shrug, as if to say “We’re doing what we can.” Instead of praising Saddam, they say they are trusting in God. Baath Party members have now taken up positions in every neighborhood. Amer says there are security and intelligence personnel along with them in the same nondescript uniforms. No one has shoulder boards or name tags. It’s impossible to know who, or what rank, anyone is. They are not a military force to defend the city, but a blanket of terror to ensure that people behave. Knowing the price they could pay for saying the wrong thing, people say little.
While Amer went off to do errands, I took a taxi to and from the Information Ministry. This is always a good way to talk to people in private. On the way, the driver had nothing but unprovoked praise for Osama bin Laden, declaring that Americans are anti-Arab and anti-Muslim. On the way back, another driver said Iraqis know the United States is targeting the regime, not the people; he then confessed he was terrified that the Baath Party would try to pressgang his son into the military. This eighteen-year-old is now confined to the house for his own safety.
CBS is finally leaving. This brings the number of Americans left to about sixteen. Given all the problems others have had at the border, they are desperate to unload their undeclared cash, of which they have a great deal. I am the happy recipient of a loan of $5,000, which I will certainly need to hang on here.
Once again, just as I think I have everything as organized as possible, the Palestine Hotel tells me I have to move out. They declare that they are shutting down the hotel because of the imminent war. I can’t bear the thought of moving again, but my protestations go nowhere and I need to get set up somewhere in time for tonight’s broadcast for ATC. Several of us pull up stakes yet again and head back to the Al-Rashid.
The staff is still here, but the Russian hookers who provided me with endless entertainment have disappeared. The Internet center is being closed down. Men begin to unplug the computers and pack them into cardboard boxes. The windows have been covered with rugs. As I stand in my room waiting for I know not what, I catch sight of the swimming pool glistening in the dusk. I quickly get into my suit, but when I reach the gate I find the doors are padlocked. I climb over a fence and dive in and just swim and swim and swim. It’s a beautiful evening. As I clamber back over the fence, a hotel guard is waiting for me. He motions for me to follow him. I think, “How ignominious. I will be forever known as the correspondent who was expelled for an illegal dip.” As we round a corner, he grabs me. All he wants to do is cop a feel. I burst out laughing, which succeeds where words had failed. He flees. I think of how much I would like a hug from Vint. It’s pretty lonely here right now.
BRENDA BULLETIN: MARCH 19, 2003
Annie has made her decision. She has convinced NPR that she is safer in Baghdad than trying to make a break for the border— some twelve hours by car under the best of circumstances, which obviously no longer obtain. To their credit her immediate boss and his superiors have backed the idea that it should be Annie’s call. Today, I spoke with Loren Jenkins, the foreign editor. He told me of their decision. I agreed. We spoke of other wars in other places and how it always looks more frightening from the outside than from the inside. He said, “Annie makes good decisions and I’ll go with her gut.”
A raft of rumors and reports from journalists who tried this route over the last forty-eight hours seems to confirm her judgment. Some were detained, some have been reportedly jailed, some strip-searched, some turned back, some relieved of their excess cash for “currency violations.” The requisite exit-paperwork that one used to be able to “buy” at the border is no longer available. Order at the border has gone AWOL. In an effort to strip down, the departing CBS crew lent Annie a huge wad of cash. Annie hadn’t seen that kind of TV money in quite a while.
We talked at length this morning after her piece on Morning Edition aired. The city is partly deserted, many people have left but many remain, the shops are shuttered and boarded. The mood is still, bizarrely, not of a place about to be hit but of a place that is slowly going nuts. There is little evidence of street fortifications or the other things that an armed and defiant populace might do in preparation to resist. Instead of soldiers there are mainly groups of Baath Party bureaucrats in their unadorned insignia-less green fatigues— paunchy fellows who look very uncomfortable and don’t seem to know what to do. The place is odd.
Annie and some of the other foreign journalists were moved today from the Palestine Hotel back to the Al-Rashid where she began. Above all she is very, very tired from lugging her gear and her survival rations from place to place, never unpacking. She said an odd bunch of men began moving into the Palestine shortly before she was moved out. Arabs, but who did not look like Iraqis. And then there were the “human shield” folks who have suddenly found themselves in way over their heads. She doesn’t know what will happen to them. The staff at the Palestine had been very good to her, but the place was getting spooky.
Despite its proximity to a presidential palace, she thinks that she will be as safe in the Al-Rashid as anywhere. It is well built and sits in a large, open plot of land. Out her window there is a belt the width of “two soccer fields” that was filled somewhat ominously, as we spoke, by a flock of extremely large, dark birds. Just how many journalists are now mustered at the Al-Rashid is hard to tell.
She speaks well of the other reporters she has met: good journalists in a very tight place trying to live up to a high credo. But more important is the small group within the whole. This is a dozen or so friends from other places at other times. They know each other well and trust each other. They know each other’s room numbers. They talk a lot together and are a doughty band that will look out for each other. Her driver has a room across from hers. His family has gone to his village. He will help her if needed.
I don’t know how much more time we will have to talk or e-mail. The satellite phones may be blocked, and effectively we will be out of communication if they are. I hope to get through at least once more before the deadline. Her gut instinct tells her she was right to stay.