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COLUMN ONE

Layers of truth and life in Iraq

Out of the war zone after 41/2 years, a Times reporter looks back on the disguises of reality it took to get to the story and survive.

April 10, 2007|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

But once we got to the top, she was elated. We looked out upon a gorgeous scene: the palm tree groves, the azure waters of the Tigris, the gleaming golden-domed Askari shrine.

"It was worth it," she said.

I asked her to marry me a few months later. We seated the guests at tables named after cities where we'd worked: Tehran, Kabul, Dubai and so on. We sat at Baghdad.

*

IRAQ'S descent quickly intruded onto our illusions. The violence edged closer and closer. We befriended Al Arabiya television correspondent Ali Khatib a few months before he was killed. We met with clerics in Najaf a few weeks before its shrine was bombed, killing Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim and launching the spiral of sectarian violence that would become the narrative of the coming years.

We lunched in the cafeteria of the United Nations headquarters on the Canal Highway a couple of days before it was bombed. We missed by seconds a massive roadside bombing that killed an American soldier on the highway to Fallouja. I was sleeping in my hotel room when a bomb went off close by, shattering the windows and lodging shrapnel in the wall of my kitchenette.

Honestly, I loved the action and adrenaline. The more dangerous, the greater the exhilaration. I got used to the gunfire and explosions. Sadly, I even got used to the smell of burnt flesh after car bombs exploded. I believed I could distance myself from it, as long as I was not physically harmed.

I became attached to the Iraqis I worked with. The more danger and horrors we experienced together and survived together, the closer we became. I cherished relations with ordinary Iraqis, politicians, U.S. Embassy officials and soldiers I befriended.

I told friends and colleagues that Iraq was the most important story of our time. And though covering it was the most difficult and dangerous job I have ever had, it was also the most rewarding.

As the situation in Iraq grew more dire, Delphine left Iraq for the most part, for the relative safety of reporting in Tehran. I took a full-time job with The Times, committing myself to an even longer stay in Baghdad. My wife and I began spending more and more time apart. (I joked that my coalition partner was abandoning me, just like Spain and others ditched President Bush.) What had started out as a romantic adventure became a dangerous full-time job and a bizarre lifestyle.

I came up with more innovative survival tricks. My greatest fear was being followed by gunmen or kidnappers as we left an appointment or the hotel, which everyone in Baghdad knew was teeming with Western journalists and contractors.

Sometimes, I would dress down, like an Iraqi laborer, and walk off the hotel compound with Nadeem, my interpreter, holding digital cameras, recorders and notebooks in a decrepit plastic bag. Our driver would pull up, with a little "taxi" plate on the roof of his sedan. We'd pretend to haggle with him for a few seconds before getting into the car.

A little facial hair, a Middle Eastern complexion and local clothes helped me blend in, as long as I didn't open my mouth. But there were far more close calls than I care to remember.

Once after interviewing truck bomb witnesses in downtown Baghdad, we were briefly stopped by the police.

"Who are you? Where's your identification?"

We cleared up the confusion, only to stumble into greater peril.

"They're American journalists!" one Iraqi cop announced to his superior, amid the huge crowd. It felt like all eyes were on us as we briskly walked away.

I was scarred, tired and adrift in a sea of sandbags, razor wire, blast barriers and gunfire. Death became part of my daily rhythm.

Mornings I awoke to the dry thud of explosions across the city. The metallic clang of weapons loading signaled preparations for an afternoon trip to the grocery store. Night fell, and after days that stretched 19 hours, I fell asleep to the sounds of automatic gunfire.

I rarely mentioned the close calls to my wife.

"How was your day?" she asked on the phone.

"It ended up being fine," I replied.

My goal was to prevent Iraq's troubles from flooding into my life or those of the increasingly demoralized Iraqis I worked with. But inevitably, Iraq began inundating my waking hours, even when I wasn't in Iraq.

On a holiday in Sri Lanka, the ongoing battle between government troops -- dominated by the majority Sinhalese -- and Tamil separatists obscured the beach and sun.

"Where are you coming from?" the driver of the tiny three-wheeled tuk-tuk asked us.

"It's none of your business," I snapped at him. "Just drive."

"What are you doing?" Delphine chastised me. "He's just trying to be nice. And you're not in Iraq."

During a drive through Chicago, I imagined the majority Latino West Side fighting against the mostly African American South Side. I imagined fighters setting up mortar positions along the Dan Ryan Expressway. Snipers taking shots at rival gunmen from the top of Soldier Field, its facade crumbling from rocket fire.

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