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In this new collection of war reporters' Iraq stories, Newsweek's Scott Johnson recounts his harrowing tale of getting on the wrong side of the front lines.- September 19, 2003
During the recent Iraq war, about 600 journalists were embedded with the U.S. military. An estimated 2,100 more worked as "unilaterals," covering the war on their own, without the constraints imposed on embeds by the Pentagon but also without the protection afforded by traveling amid the world's most military power. After the war, Bill Katovsky and Timothy Carlson set out to record the stories of these war reporters, and the new book Embedded is the result. The volume is a collection of 68 oral histories, stories Katovsky and Carlson obtained through interviews conducted over an eight-week period from April through June. The authors interviewed some of these reporters by phone, but most were interviewed face-to-face, in Qatar, Iraq, and Kuwait.
One of the most compelling stories comes from Scott Johnson, a 29-year-old reporter covering the war for Newsweek. He was not embedded with the military but instead travelled on his own in Kuwait and Iraq, accompanied only by a Newsweek photographer, Luc Delahaye, who travelled in a matching Mitsubishi Panjero SUV. Just as the war began, Johnson and Delahaye entered Iraq on their own, eventually catching up with U.S. forces and following them on their march to Baghdad. But, shuttling among military convoys, Johnson and Delahaye were sometimes travelling in areas that were not yet under U.S. control. Here is Johnson's harrowing tale, recounting what happened when he and Delahaye inadvertently got ahead of the American advance.
We were stopped somewhere between Nasiriyah and Samara. The previous day when we had stopped by a military encampment, a military intelligence officer there had told us that Route 8 was secure all the way to the town of Samara. At that moment, the convoy we were in was the most forward U.S. military unit of the war. We were told we would be fine if we stayed on the road, because of constant military traffic. But under no circumstances should we go into these towns because they weren't secured. As we drove along, we could leapfrog ahead and move to one part of the convoy and drive a little bit ahead and then move back in. Finally we got to the head of that convoy and the question became, "Do we go ahead of this convoy? Or do we stay?" Up until that point, the convoys had been five minutes apart. Suddenly we were in open space. We thought there was another convoy ahead of us, but it was a big gap. We didn't know how far the gap was, but we thought we might as well go ahead. And so I radioed to Luc, and I said maybe we should stop for the convoy. But we decided to just go ahead. We drove for about five minutes. It was open road, and we were going pretty fast. At that point another journalists' car had joined Luc and I. I saw that car pull over to the side right in front of this gas station. But Luc had gone through the gas station. There was a small shack in the middle of the road, with several soldiers. It looked sort of like a checkpoint sentry post. I followed a few hundred meters behind Luc. As I went through, I glimpsed a guy standing in the median with a gun. A big gun. A large-caliber machine gun, the kind of gun where it has two handles sticking out of the bottom that you hold with both hands.
To be honest, I don't think it fully registered that I was no longer in U.S.-controlled territory. We had crossed an invisible border, and things were completely different. I was still processing the change, but the processing went too slow. As I passed the man with the gun, I could see his face and I sensed a weird mixture of joy and anger because he was anticipating a kill.
Until then, the real threat was not coming from the Iraqis, but from the Americans—getting shot at by helicopters or tanks. So we had marked a horizontal "V" on our vehicles. The "V" was a symbol enabling the military to identify you. If you had a "V" on your car, it meant that the military would see it and say, "Oh, they're friendly, so don't shoot them." It was not a press marking. All of the unilateral journalists who went into Iraq had "V"s on their cars. Nobody had "TV."
I don't know if the Iraqis at the checkpoint knew what the hell I was doing. Probably they simply thought, "Here's a target." Everything happened simultaneously. The instant I saw them I heard the radio crackle, and Luc said, "Weapons, weapons, have weapons!" A millisecond later, I heard bullets popping as they hit my car. The bullets sounded as if you took a small hammer and started hitting metal. Little metallic pops, dull whacks. There must have been at least 15 bullets that hit the body of the car, not the windows. I was thinking, "Are those bullets?"
My thought processes immediately changed radically. Some thoughts were very slow. And others were extremely fast. It was almost as if I were operating at several different levels without fully being able to grasp any of them. It was all very fragmented and disjointed. I was having trouble just comprehending that people were shooting my car and that they were hitting it. It was a terribly difficult to accept this new knowledge. But suddenly I had to. I needed to understand it and deal with it. So when I did, a second or so later, I kept my hands on the wheel but I ducked down. Obviously, I lost my bearings and I couldn't see the road. I started to swerve, but I kept my foot on the gas. A few seconds later, I popped my head up and saw that I was fishtailing all over the road. I tried to correct it, but I immediately overcorrected and lost control of the car and swerved left. Then I put on the brakes, which of course locked up, and I slammed into the median and flipped onto the right side. Then the car slid along the median and slammed into a light post, and there the car stopped.
I was thrown out of my seat and just fell down on the passenger door, looking out at the windshield. I don't know if I had temporarily blacked out, but there were a couple of seconds when I can't recall what happened. I just remember slamming the brakes, falling, and all of a sudden sitting there, looking at the window, and hearing men still shooting at me. I could hear the bullets pinging, pinging off the bottom of the car, which was facing them. Just going ping, ping, ping. I thought it was over. At that moment, I didn't see any possible way I would get out alive. My mind was racing and I immediately started formulating several different possibilities, hoping for survival, but they all seemed like dead ends. I concluded, "OK, I'm going to die here. In the next five minutes, I'm going to die."
I started kicking the windshield to break it, so I could get out of the car. While I was kicking the glass, I thought maybe it would be better to climb out of the passenger window, stand up and put my hands up and be taken prisoner so they wouldn't kill me. Then I heard this really loud crack. A bullet had hit the car and exploded out the other side. It was clear they were still trying to shoot me and blow up the car. I could hear them yelling and shouting and shooting—and then I thought, "Well, they'll just run over as I'm sitting here and shoot me through the window." So while I was kicking the windshield, I kept looking for them. "When is the body that is going to shoot me going to appear from the shadows?"
I entertained all these absurd thoughts like, "Wait a minute, I'm supposed to get out." I started to feel overwhelmed with euphoria and despair, racing through all the different possibilities, even of escape. Finally I managed to kick a hole in the windshield, and I crawled out. I just sort of glanced around. Fortunately, the way I got out, the car was between me and the shooters. I crawled away and down toward the median. Then I just lay in this hollowed base between the two sides of the median, which was about six feet wide and six inches deep. If I laid down flat on my back or on my stomach with my head on my side and my arm flat, then I was maybe 80 percent hidden. Every once in a while I could hear the bullets pop right over my head. I don't know if they saw me or they were just sort of shooting randomly. I could hear them yelling a little, but the shooting wasn't quite as intense.
At that moment, I felt extremely, overwhelmingly alone. I thought, "Holy shit, what am I going to do? Nobody is here. Luc is gone." It was the most terrifying, horrifying experience I've ever had. I felt completely vulnerable, with no recourse. I was cut off. All of those connections to civilization we take for granted, the backing of a major media organization, all of my friends, family, were gone. All the technology was sitting in a destroyed car, completely useless. All I had was a little curb and a hollowed out space in the dirt. I tried to dig myself further down into the dirt. It was kind of a red-brown color. It was cool and very soft. I was very comfortable. I was so glad to be in the dirt rather than on the concrete or in the car.
I crawled along in the dirt and started muttering to myself, "Fuck, fuck, fuck, this is really bad!" I looked at my watch, and it was completely covered in mud from when I dove in the dirt. I was startled by that. It's weird when you start to notice all these little tiny things. And then I stared at a black bug crawling in the mud. I kept crawling farther and farther away from the car, so that if it did blow up I wouldn't be anywhere near it. Eventually the shooting stopped and I just lay there in the dirt. My sense of time was muddled. Maybe ten minutes later, I heard a low sort of rumble along the road, getting increasingly louder. The closer it got, the louder it got, the more confident I started to feel. It was the convoy. I didn't get up. Instead, I just thought, "Please get here, please get here." Finally the first vehicles started to roll by. I put my arm up a little bit and I waved. Some of them waved back at me, and I thought, "Waving isn't doing the trick. Should I wave a flag?" Then I started yelling, "Hey, look at me, I'm an American! Hey! Help me, help me!" But the vehicles were very loud, and either they didn't hear me or they did hear me and didn't care. As they rolled by, I started to worry. "Holy cow, they're just rolling by and they're going to leave me and the entire convoy's going to go by and I'll be here alone again!" After five minutes of this, I just stood up. Which was a huge, extremely difficult thing to do. I felt vulnerable and I didn't want to get up from my little dirt hideaway. Once I got up, I started running as fast as I could alongside the convoy. I was shouting and waving and running alongside the tanks, but the soldiers just looked at me. It was like a nightmare.
You know in nightmares when you sometimes try to run and you can't? Or you are running and then you just can't run anymore? After running for a while, I was so terrified and so shocked by the whole thing—plus I am a smoker—I couldn't run anymore. I had to stop. Then I was walking on the road, waving at them, pleading, and they're driving away. Finally, a Humvee stopped. I ran up and the guy asked, "What do you want?" I said, "I'm an American, I was attacked." They stopped the vehicle. The guy in the passenger seat looked at me and said, "OK, get in." I jumped in the back. I was elated because I was confident that once I started talking to them, everything would be a little bit better. I was surrounded once again by Americans and comfort. It felt good. I didn't have any wounds at all, except for an abrasion on my back. But that was it. Very minor. Incredible. Then I started trembling—not screaming, but yelling, hyperventilating and wheezing. I said, "You know, they're over there, they attacked me! That was my car, they hit the car." The guy said, "Where are you from?" I said, "I'm a reporter for Newsweek magazine." He said, "Oh, cool." The guy in the back seat was just looking at me like I was some sort of alien. I was confused, staggered. Plus I was muddy and terrified. The guy in the front passenger later told me that he was ready to pull out his pistol and shoot me if I wasn't who I said I was.
This is excerpted from Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq. Copyright © 2003 by William Katovsky and published by The Lyons Press, an imprint of The Globe Pequot Press. All rights reserved. Excerpted with permission of the author. You can by Embedded at Amazon.com.
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