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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ | COLUMN ONE

How a Bomb Shattered a Reporter's Detachment

Having escaped death at a Baghdad restaurant, she seeks out the families of those killed. They had been sitting at the table that originally was hers.

August 14, 2004|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The table was supposed to have been ours.

It was New Year's Eve, and we wanted to get a sense of the Iraqi mood by joining the party at Nabil's Restaurant, a popular hangout. As the day wore on, our group -- foreign journalists and Iraqi staff -- had grown larger. A picture taken before we headed out shows us, dressed up and smiling, offering a plastic-cup champagne toast.

When the first two in our group arrived at Nabil's, the waiter showed them to the table in the back corner, the table we had reserved. But the booth was cramped, certainly too small for our expanded entourage. The waiter agreed to move us to a larger table, closer to the front of the restaurant.

Almost immediately, two Iraqi couples took our place in the corner booth. The foursome, out to celebrate the advent of a new year without Saddam Hussein, had become fast friends of late. Omar Ajeely and Mahmoud Mear-Jabar were starting a cellular phone business together. Their wives, Dina and Hiam, were pregnant. Both were mixed Shiite-Sunni marriages.

They arrived at the restaurant in the dark blue BMW Omar had just bought and joined the restaurant din of Arabic music and lively conversation.

It was about 9 p.m.

*

At our new table, The Times bureau's computer expert, Mohammed Arrawi, and his fiancee were met by Saad Khalaf, a photographer and one of our part-time drivers. They waited for us.

Outside, Times reporter Chris Kraul and driver Ammar Mohammed pulled up in their old Mercedes and began to parallel park behind Omar's BMW. I followed a few seconds behind them in a small SUV driven by Nasif Duleimy, with fellow correspondent Ann Simmons in the back seat. Chris and Ammar saw a white Oldsmobile barreling the wrong way down the street toward them. They saw it veer to their right, cross their path, then crash into the back wall of Nabil's.

The explosion was so loud I couldn't hear it. It was a muffled pop and a flash of light. It lifted our car into the air with a jolt, slammed us down, then sent searing-hot glass shards, metal and gravel slicing into our faces, necks and hands with the force of a fast, hard punch.

Blood gushing from our heads, Nasif and I were able to shoulder-butt our way out of the crumpled front of the car, and someone pulled Ann from the back.

We staggered into a panicked chaos of flames, smoke and screams. People were running helter-skelter, frantic. It was difficult to breathe, and sight and sound became a blurry swirl. A colleague, Said Rifai, helped Chris, conscious but the most seriously wounded, from his car. Ammar managed to pull himself out.

Inside the restaurant, it was hell. Saad, a solid man weighing about 200 pounds, was hurled across the room like a rag doll. Mohammed and his fiancee, Atiaf, were thrown to the ground under a collapsed roof of beams and brick.

Mohammed managed to use his injured head to ram open the front door of the restaurant, gather Atiaf in his arms and carry her to safety.

And in the back of the restaurant, in the corner, two couples lay crushed to death, at the table that was supposed to have been ours.

*

The bombing at Nabil's, which lighted the black sky and echoed throughout an edgy city, seems a minor event in the catalog of horrors since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Dozens of other bomb attacks have been recorded since, most far more deadly than the New Year's Eve blast with its total of eight victims.

Few targets, however, have been as plainly civilian as the restaurant. And it doesn't take a large death toll to destroy families, exhaust spirits and torment a society.

Six months after the bombing, Mohammed, our computer tech, and I sought out the families of those killed. We wanted to talk to them about their loved ones, learn who they were. It was extremely painful; every meeting ended in tears.

Journalists ordinarily maintain a distance from their subjects, a shield. It's a defense mechanism, the skill or instinct that allows reporters to continue writing, thinking and asking the next question even as the person being interviewed recounts horrific acts or unimaginable circumstances.

In this case, distance was impossible. We had endured treatment and surgery, but we had survived the bombing that claimed the sons and daughters of the people we were interviewing. We were witness, in a way, to their children's deaths. We survived. Their children did not.

"Did you see them?" were among the very first words that came from each mother. And at the same time, Mohammed and I realized that the devastated people we were interviewing -- the elderly father staring into space, the anguished mother asking why, the weeping sister -- could have been our own parents and siblings, had things turned out just a bit differently.

We never tell the families that we were supposed to have been sitting at the back corner table in Nabil's Restaurant on New Year's Eve.

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