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Living with The Fear

A freelance correspondent in Baghdad wonders if it's time to get out.

By Christina Asquith - April 28, 2004

War correspondents all measure danger differently. One veteran reporter told me he packed up his bags and left Liberia after he started getting nightmares. Another defined "too dangerous" as any assignment with a more-than-passing chance he'd be killed. I'm in Baghdad right now, and I've decided I'll leave when I'm spending infinitely more time in the hotel than out reporting. It's a day that seems to be approaching rapidly.

Already, dozens of journalists have been kidnapped. I've avoided their misfortune by staying in Baghdad, and, lately, by traveling from my barricaded hotel only for scheduled interviews. The Palestine Hotel is regularly hit with rocket-propelled grenades. Last week, a leaflet circulated the city threatening Iraqis to turn in Westerners living in residential neighborhoods. So, like many other journalists, I've adopted the self-conscious strategy of tucking my blond hair into a black abaya on the street, and, when asked, pretending I'm a citizen of anywhere but the United States.

Maybe it's already past time to get out of Baghdad. Of course, even making that decision implies I can choose to leave. On a recent Saturday, the U.S. military closed down the Baghdad-Amman highway. The only exit point is the airport, which reopened only a few months ago, after a departing plane had been downed by a missile.

This is life now in Iraq, the liberated nation slipping into a prison of chaos. It's ironic: In covering the War on Terror, I find myself for the first time since September 11, 2001, living in a state of terror. In the evenings, the journalists sitting around the poolside tables swap close-call stories, talk only of security, and ask each other when they're leaving. Everyone is agitated. It's hard to sleep at night. It's hard to think creatively. Reporters aren't having mental breakdowns; no one is flipping out; no one I know who didn't come here a drunk has turned into one. But I'm spending more and more time behind the locked doors of my hotel bedroom, away from the windows, watching DVDs and praying a suicide bomber doesn't pay us a visit.

* * *

It didn't used to be like this.

"It was such a nice little war," reporter William Prochnau once said of Vietnam's early days. The same was true of Baghdad in the summer of 2003, when I arrived as a 29-year-old freelancer with a letter of assignment from The New York Times and Elle magazine.

This was my first assignment in a war zone, and I was pleasantly surprised. Baghdad's Al-Hamra Hotel, where most journalists then stayed, hosted a dizzying variety of poolside parties each night. Reporters leaned off the balconies, balancing satellite phones with Heinekens as helicopters thundered overhead. Bureau chiefs jumped in the pool. Latin music replaced Arabic, and photographers merengued. Reporters traded tacky 1970s club clothes looted from the closets of Uday and Qusay's palace. Wartime romances flourished. Stories broke hourly.

War reporting—or, rather, postwar reporting—was a good time all around.

Back then, it really wasn't a war anymore, despite what we were writing. Sitting around a plastic table, in the poolside 140-degree heat, I remember the eruption of laughter when I said, "This is my first assignment in a war zone" A world-weary French photographer explained that no seasoned journalist considered Baghdad a war zone. "Try Africa, zee drugged-up 12-year old with zee machete will hack you to death." For an exotic clique of war-hopping correspondents, Baghdad was a Serbia/Africa/Afghanistan reunion party

With one small, unnoticed exception: The murder of Richard Wild, a 24-year-old British videojournalist on his first freelance foreign assignment. On July 5, he was reporting on the looted Iraqi National Museum and standing in a crowd on the street when someone put a bullet into the back of his head and ran off. Some Iraqis flagged a taxi and dropped Richard's body off at the hospital. Several journalists had died while embedded or in combat, but only Richard lost his life in the random, unexplained manner that would characterize dozens of brutal murders of Western civilians months later.

Few news organizations recorded his death. I arrived in June, reported for a month, traveled around Iraq, fell in love, and returned to New York. Three months later, I was back in Baghdad to cover the postwar story that The New York Times was then calling "The Rebuilding of Iraq." I was thrilled to be back.

* * *

By October, the major publications had left the hotels and settled into gaudy mini-mansions scattered throughout the upscale neighborhood Al-Jadreeya. News organizations used their generous expense accounts to overpay the worst kind of war profiteers: the ex-Baathists who had fled to Jordan in fear of reprisals, leaving their homes vacant. The Washington Post house had waves trimmed into its hedges. The Guardian had a pool under its date palms. I shared a grand house with three other correspondents: Jack Fairweather from The Daily Telegraph, Adam Davidson from Public Radio International, and Jen Banbury from We had chandeliers, lighted fountains, and marble floors. Our landlord, Motez, was in charge of air defenses during the 2003 war. Later, he would take advantage of the anarchy and steal our $5,000 generator.

We were five minutes from the heavily fortified U.S. headquarters known as the "Green Zone," and we could watch the smoke of landing mortars fired by the so-called resistance. We hooked up wireless Internet, installed the soon-to-be-stolen generator, and set up a dish for our satellite phones. We hired a cook and three guards, who mostly drank tea and smoked. With three spare bedrooms, we rented out space to correspondents from Newsday, The New Yorker, Time magazine, and The Washington Times; we threw nightly dinner parties. The social scene felt like a college campus of fraternity houses: There's the NYT house, the BBC house, ABC. We were shuttled to and fro not by campus buses but by our Iraqi drivers, who we sent off to Christian liquor stores on beer runs. Dinner parties were regularly interrupted by a tank rolling past the living-room window or mortars whizzing overhead, but everyone was more interested in how a New York Times fixer was holding the whole bureau hostage. It seemed an amusing example of the chaos we reported on crossing over and entering our world. We truly entered an out-of-touch state of affairs when Adam rolled up to the house waving from a U.S. military tank: He had hitched a ride home from a military base after a reporting a story.

Slowly, the violence that was destroying so many Iraqi lives began creeping into our own. Between December and March, there would be small waves of terror that reached into journalists' lives. A colleague was carjacked in December. A CNN team was shot at on the highway in February. A journalist's translator was killed. But the attacks seemed more to be opportunistic robberies or personal vendettas than terrorism targeted to intimidate news organizations. The first real scare we had was when The Washington Post's house was anonymously threatened, and the staff moved into a hotel. We lived just down the street, but we were told the threat came in response to a specific article criticizing a leading Shia cleric, so we stayed put. Even in early March, I was still travelling frequently around Iraq, interviewing people of all tribes, religions, and anti-American sentiment. During that time, at least six journalists were killed, but they were all Iraqis accidentally killed by U.S. forces or working for Western organizations in a place too dangerous for the bureau chief to have sent a Western correspondent. Many of us were scared, but just as we began to pack our bags, there would be a lull in the violence, everything would go back to normal, and we'd all feel like we overreacted.

The violence against innocent Iraqis, however, was uninterrupted. In these months, thousands of Iraqis were killed, either in suicide bombs or targeted assassinations or "regrettable" shootings by U.S. soldiers. Covering these took a toll on journalists. Hundreds of bombs shook my bedroom windows, but one I will always remember: The January suicide bomb at the entrance to U.S. headquarters. It went off at 8 a.m., waking me up, and for a few minutes I lay there in the silence, thinking about the scene that would soon confront me. What innocent person would have had his legs blown off? Or her face burned? What crying mother would I have to interview? Later, I would feel guilty about my private angst—nothing could compare to what they were going through. Some journalists joked about the carnage over beers at night. Some kept whatever they felt inside. Some carried morbid reminders, like a grotesque photograph. These images walked with me always, taking the form of a melancholy mood or unexplained frustration, or lack of energy. It was wearying. But it wasn't dangerous. For most of us, it wasn't time to leave.

* * *

Later in March, in the space of two weeks, 14 Westerners were killed, including five Baptist missionaries, two women who were leaving a Women's Center in Hilla, and two Finnish businessmen. Life as we knew it wouldn't be the same. A few reporters moved out of our house. No one else would move in, calling our home a soft target. Jen and Adam, who had become close friends, left Iraq, deciding the story wasn't worth their lives.

What was most frightening was that we didn't know who to fear, Baathists or Al-Qaeda or the U.S. military or anti-Americans or regular criminals. Were foreign fighters driving around looking for Westerners to gun down? A veteran war correspondent declared Baghdad the most dangerous war zone he'd ever been in. "Baghdad has everything you can think of," he said. "We're getting mortared, kidnapped, drive-by shootings, suicide bombs." People were dying, and, frustratingly, no group ever took credit. The enemy became shadowy, unknown, and, for people who devote their lives to information gathering, to seeing patterns and finding trends and knowing, this random violence was particularly unnerving. It was terrorizing. A few weeks later, on April 4, the Marines invaded Fallujah, and the entire country turned against the United States. Journalists' houses were directly threatened and at least a dozen were kidnapped, some with knives held to their throats. For a week, very few journalists, if any, left Baghdad, and many didn't leave their hotels, which were also coming under attack. Suddenly it didn't seem to matter to this shadowy, invisible enemy if we were journalists. The last few holdouts in the expense-account mansions fled into heavily guarded hotels, including me. The walls began closing in.

* * *

The strange thing about terrorism is its ability to amplify its own power. One death can leave thousands of others alive, but it can take away their ability to live freely.

One of my last nights out socializing came two months ago, during a lull between two waves of violence. We had called a moratorium on parties at the house, not wanting to call attention to ourselves. Instead, we all went to the disco for coalition government employees at the Al-Rashid Hotel, inside the Green Zone. Officially, journalists weren't allowed in, but some source or another was always willing to escort us. We got drunk and danced. The CPA disco was like an American catalogue: On the dance floor was a cowboy with a black 10-gallon hat, tight jeans, and heeled cowboy boots, likely a contractor from Tennessee; there was a hip-hopper in a football jersey down to his knees, probably an off-duty soldier from Newark; and, of course, there were plenty of Foggy Bottom foreign-service girls, neat in their button downs and hip-hugging black slacks.

Afterward, when we all spilled out of the hotel, the scene was much like that outside a club anywhere. Except, this being Iraq, someone had a gun. A fight broke out between rival security companies, and suddenly shots pieced the air. The Foggy Bottom girls crouched down behind a concrete block. The U.S. soldiers patrolled stonily, not sure how to deal with an enemy who wasn't Iraqi. Even inside U.S. headquarters, when mortars weren't landing, it was not safe. The U.S.-led coalition here has always condoned a cowboyish kind of violence among its contractors, and here it was turning on itself. Disturbed, we kind of shook our heads and, around midnight, piled into the car to drive home.

The one-mile drive from the U.S. headquarters to our house would, we knew, be a dusty, empty stretch of road; the threat of carjackings kept most people off the streets after darkness fell. The U.S. Humvees that once patrolled our neighborhood barely came around anymore, part of an effort to reduce street presence and minimize violence against U.S. forces. People once complained of the noise of a tank, such a visible symbol of occupation. Now they were gone, and I desperately missed them because there was no replacement. Who was protecting us? Who was protecting anyone?

As we crossed the Tigris River, left the U.S. headquarters, and drove back out onto the streets of Baghdad, scary thoughts crept into my head, little facts I had picked up in weeks of being here. Fourteen Westerners gunned down in two weeks. Violent images collected over the months came back to haunt me: A week earlier, I'd witnessed the aftermath of an assassination. The man was dead in his car on the side of the highway; shattered windows, his bloodied head fallen forward against the side window, bullet holes in the car. A tank and an Iraqi police car had pulled alongside. My Iraqi driver refused to stop or look. So many people are killed each day in Baghdad, he said with a shrug.

I began to feel edgy. Anyone who wanted to kill someone connected with the U.S. government only had to sit outside the checkpoint and wait for departing cars. We were a carload of Westerners in the middle of a lawless city that was teeming with terrorists. Or, was it really teeming with terrorists? Were Al-Qaeda cruising the streets looking for targets, as we worried? Who knew? So far no one was targeting journalists. But how would they know we were journalists? We could be leading someone right back to our house. Most drive-by assassinations, we've been told, occur within a few blocks of your house, and usually when you're slowing down to turn a corner.

As we approached our eerily quiet street, our driver Abu Hassan slowed to maneuver some potholes. I wanted to shout at him—"Don't slow down! Are you crazy?" Then, two blocks ahead, right at our turn off, a street light went out. Adam pointed it out. My heart started to thump. Were we being set up? No one here ever talks about The Fear. But it is real, and everyone knows it. Suddenly it was sitting in the seat next to me. I became aware of everything, the headlights of a car in the distance, the bushes, an Iraqi night guard in a dish-dasha swinging prayer beads. We were like sitting ducks. We were going to be ambushed. Why did we go out tonight? Why? To a stupid CPA disco.

In a silent acknowledgment of The Fear, Abu Hassan made a left, taking a roundabout back route that led to our house. "Good going," I thought. For the next 90 seconds, I ran through scenarios in my head, escape strategies. No one talked. We pulled up to the house and honked. The guard came and pushed the gate open, and we drove inside and closed the gate. We all got out, walked briskly into the house, and said brief goodnights.

As always, it was hard to sleep that night.

Christina Asquith is a freelance education and culture reporter living in Baghdad. She has written for The New York Times, The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, London's Guardian, and Sports Illustrated. She recently completed The Paper School, a book about her year teaching in one of New York City's worst inner-city schools, which is on submission to publishers. You can find more of her writing at her website.

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