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Abduction Forces a Grim Look at What a Story Is Worth

Risks are a given in a war zone, where the odds of death are calculated daily. But the kidnapping of Jill Carroll compels a reporter to reevaluate limits and responsibilities.

January 26, 2006|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — When Jill Carroll was kidnapped, other journalists in Iraq were aghast that something so horrible had happened to someone they knew. But many insisted privately that it never would have happened to them.

They would have traveled in an armored car. They would have taken two vehicles so the second, the chase car, could have scared off the gunmen. They never would have gone to that neighborhood.

Maybe, maybe not. You could avoid western Baghdad, where she was abducted, only to be nabbed in the southern district. You could have two cars and the second could have its tires shot out and careen off the road. You could be in an armored car and your driver could lose his nerve.

The truth is that we are working in a war zone where no rules apply. No one is safe: not Iraqis, not Westerners, not men, not women.

For most journalists in Iraq, it's hard to be honest about danger, even though we talk about it all the time. We follow daily reports about the number of roadside bombings, suicide attacks and abductions. We chart violence the way other people watch the weather.

But talking about the danger in Iraq for what it is -- my life, my death -- is too scary. So we make it ordinary. "Oh, did you see any gunmen on your way over, there were some at the intersection yesterday, and would you like a cup of coffee?"

To family and friends not in Iraq, it is incomprehensible why you came here, and certainly why you returned twice, three times -- in my case, over and over for nearly three years.

I could say something like "The cycle of risk and survival makes life more valuable," but that wouldn't be true, although some journalists do become addicted to the danger, to the high of sidestepping death.

Witnessing History

For me, at least, what is true is that once in a while as a journalist you get the chance to witness history, a moment when tectonic plates shift, when more is at stake than you ever imagined you would touch or see. It's the adrenaline surge of being in a place where people's lives are in the balance, where every decision counts and where what you're writing might, might just matter.

And you feel more alive than you've ever felt -- but you're also often closer to being killed. You notice I wrote "often." I needed a qualifier.

As I said, I wasn't drawn to the danger; it crept up on me. I put out of my mind unsettling questions about just how close I might be to getting killed. But it lurked out there, inescapable. Is a 50-50 chance of survival acceptable? Or are you only comfortable if the odds are better than 80-20?

These are the calculations I've made every day, sometimes several times in a day. Calculations about the odds of being caught in a suicide bombing, abducted, shot by mistake or on purpose. I've become a bookmaker of sorts. I can tell you that the chance of being caught in a suicide bombing is slight, unless you have to go through a checkpoint, at which point it skyrockets. But the chances of my being kidnapped, well, I don't even want to write about that.

I remember an American security contractor with a faraway, almost happy look telling me in 2003, when we could still drive around Baghdad without worrying about it, "Nothing clarifies your thought like a gun to the head." Well, I assured myself, I'm not that far gone.

A year later, I had a chance to test his assertion. I had gone to a hospital in Fallouja to report on the killing of four Iraqis, reportedly by U.S. Marines. But a relative of one of the dead saw in me an infidel intruding on his family's private grief, and in a rage he pulled a gun on me and my interpreter. In that moment, I learned that with a gun near my head, I didn't feel clear about anything except that what I was doing wasn't worth it and that I had put my interpreter, whom I cared about deeply, in danger. He had four children and a wife. What did I think I was doing? And I couldn't bear to think about my family and what it would do to them if I were killed in a foreign place.

The waves of nausea came hours later and I kept trying to breathe more deeply, but for almost a day I felt like I couldn't fill my lungs.

Trying to Blend In

Still, it took nearly two years before I turned back from an assignment. Because something changed for me when Jill Carroll, an American freelance journalist for the Christian Science Monitor, was abducted Jan. 7.

I had always told myself that despite my blue eyes and pale skin, I would slip unnoticed through Iraq with my hijab, head scarf and black abaya. The abaya was my cloak of invisibility, my body armor.

I studied the way many Iraqi women walked -- with a slight shuffle, from wearing slip-on mules much of the time. I studied how they linked arms with other women when they walked in the markets. I noted the kind of purses they carried -- large and black. I blended. I was thrilled when people addressed me in Arabic; perhaps they really thought I was one of them.

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