View Full Version : Abduction Forces a Grim Look at What a Story Is Worth

01-26-06, 08:13 AM
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.

By 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.

Carroll had gone one better than me — she actually spoke Arabic — and still she was unable to avoid the wash of fury and hatred that now confronts Westerners. We are not wanted.

The words of a dear colleague floated to my consciousness on my most recent trip to Iraq. We used to argue daily about safety, and each thought the other took unnecessary risks — the truth was that we each took risks in our own way. I had proposed driving to Najaf, a city south of Baghdad, at a time when the road was known for ambushes, kidnappings and beheadings. "Alissa, an abaya is not bulletproof," he had said.

So when Carroll was kidnapped, although I did not know her, my heart went out to her.

I was aware of the statistics: Since the beginning of the war, 60 journalists, five of them women, had been killed in Iraq and at least 37 abducted, according to a tally by the Committee to Protect Journalists. But like all the other foreign journalists in Iraq — fewer than 75 of us, down from more than a thousand after the war — I needed to believe that I was going to slip through.

After Carroll's abduction, I don't feel that way anymore.

Last week I set out in the early morning for Kut, a city about two hours south of Baghdad. We left early so that we could get back in a day, adhering to the rule that you shouldn't stay long in a single place because word will get around that a Westerner is in town.

I roused one of our British security advisors at 7 a.m. and had him remind the drivers of protocol (keep the cars apart, don't look like a convoy, rely on radios to communicate). But when I went out, it turned out the driver had brought his own vehicle, not an armored car.

Moment of Truth

Carroll's experience hung in my mind. She had been abducted in part because she lacked the protection of an armored car, and her interpreter had been shot dead. I looked at my interpreter, a beautiful young Iraqi woman who loved to read English literature, had helped me buy Iraqi shoes so that I would appear more local and had taught me about the world of Iraqi women. But I pushed ahead.

Then it turned out we didn't have a Thuraya satellite phone in the car. Cellphones are notoriously unreliable in Iraq because the U.S. military often blocks signals during its operations. Traveling without a satellite telephone as a backup is at best foolhardy. But we had already left, so I resigned myself to traveling without it.

We weaved through the Baghdad traffic. The road was crowded and people could easily see us through the car windows. Although I usually look out at the passing scene, I forced myself to look into the car so that my eyes and skin would not be visible.

The most dangerous part of the trip is the 15 miles of road immediately south of Baghdad proper. It runs through a largely Sunni farming area, one where mutilated, headless bodies have turned up often. It feels like outlaw country: Someone could grab you and no one would say anything.

As we went through the last Baghdad checkpoint, a policeman told our driver that a new security plan was in effect and we would not be able to reenter the capital for 48 hours. The driver pulled over and turned to me: Did I still want to go?

It was a moment of truth. I had to get back that night. Was there any other way I could get into Baghdad if the roads were closed? Yes, my driver said. "You can walk across the Diyala bridge and the office can send a car to meet you."

He nodded to a stream of people who were doing that right then — women in swirling abayas picking their way through the mud, men striding along. "How far would I have to walk?" I asked. About a mile. "Is it safe?" The driver shook his head. "There are bad people here. Everyone can see you when you are walking. We cannot honestly tell you it is safe."

I appealed to my interpreter. "What do you think, Zainab? Is it that unsafe?" She turned and looked at me. "I'll go with you if that's what you decide to do, but the driver wants to know what he can do with his car. He can't leave it outside Baghdad on the road for the night. It would be stolen. He can't stay with it — it's dangerous. And then we have the chase car. What do you want them to do? "

'We Can't Go'

I was silent. I had come back to Iraq to do a small number of interviews. If I didn't go to the one in Kut, I wouldn't be able to finish the story.

I thought about close calls I had had in the past. About my interpreter, who said she would go with me no matter what. About my parents, who hated that I was in Iraq. About Carroll, whom I imagined alone in a room, perhaps cold, perhaps not knowing that thousands of people were thinking about her.

And I thought about an autumn night more than a year ago when a colleague had rushed off into western Iraq to cover a suicide bombing. I remembered how worried I had been, and when I finally reached him on the satellite phone I had said: "It's not about us. We can die if we want to here, but we can't put those who work for us in more danger than they already are. We're making decisions for more than ourselves."

I remember that he had listened and, hard as it must have been, said, "You're right, I'm coming back."

I heard my own words now in my head. There was no choice. "We can't go. There's no way to make it a safe trip," I said. "Let's turn around and go back to the office."

Was it the right decision? Could I have walked across the bridge unnoticed? Did the drivers really assess the danger correctly? I don't know. But what I do know is that Iraq is hostile ground and nothing I do can make it safe.


01-26-06, 10:54 AM
The Other Beat Of Her Heart
In Iraq, the Reporter Learns You Go Into Battle Alone
By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 26, 2006; C01

That can't be Jill, I whispered to myself, over and over, even as her picture hung on the TV screen.

No, it's not her, I said to myself in denial. Jill? Jill Carroll? Being kidnapped in Iraq, sitting cross-legged with black-hooded, gun-toting men behind you, was there any worse fate for an American reporter in Baghdad? I couldn't imagine it. This was my friend, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, who, like me, had fallen in love with Iraq.

The day I left to join The Post's Baghdad bureau in May 2004, my twin, Jenny, told me that if anything happened to me, she would never feel joy again. I went anyway, selfishly clinging to an ideal, a quest for truth, grasping for a sense of purpose that even my twin could not give me.

In our 34 years, Jenny and I had never been apart for more than a few months at a time. She was always my identity, the other half of the Spinner twins who grew up in a blue-collar town in the Midwest, chasing lightning bugs and a sense that the world extended beyond the corn and soybean fields surrounding us.

For 13 months in 2004 and 2005, my half was in Baghdad, dodging mortar rounds, roadside bombs and potential kidnappers, while Jenny worried from home that I would not be able to keep my promise to my nephew, her young son. "Aunt Jackie always comes back," I told him each time I returned to Baghdad, to a place that began to feel more like home the longer I stayed.

Although I had tucked Jenny's warning words deep inside of me when I left, I realize now that on this journey of a lifetime, I had gone alone. And I was alone that day outside Abu Ghraib prison, when a stranger grabbed my arm and began dragging me toward a car.

After the kidnapping and killing of Nicholas Berg in May 2004, journalists were more careful when gathering outside Abu Ghraib to cover the release of U.S. security detainees. These releases occurred outside the secure compound, on an open stretch of highway between Baghdad and volatile Fallujah. Post reporter Daniel Williams had been ambushed on that road, his car raked with bullets. We reporters had become targets, forced to send our Iraqi translators out to interview those being released from Abu Ghraib.

Frustrated with this awkward interview system, I devised a new plan -- to cover the release from inside the prison. No other reporter had done this. It would be a good exclusive. I persuaded the military officials on the ground to let me do it, then consulted with my more experienced colleagues about the best way to get there. We decided it would be safer if a driver dropped me off with Post photographer Andrea Bruce. I had an abaya for disguise and a bodyguard with an AK-47. We would go at dusk. Our overnight bags for prison would be dirty hotel pillowcases, because they looked like the flour sacks Iraqi women often used. Abu Saif, who was working for The Post as an interpreter, made sure I knew a few words in Arabic. "Say it like this," he instructed. " Ani Sahafiya ," I repeated after him. "I am a journalist."

On Sunday night, June 13, 2004, Andrea and I slipped out of the car and walked into Abu Ghraib under a pink sky.

We settled into a small, whitewashed cell in a large warehouse and plotted how to cover the next day's story. The Army had painted the cell's walls, but the stains were still there: sweat, dirt, blood. Saddam Hussein had crammed as many as 64 prisoners into the same space where Andrea and I had two single cots, separated by only an arm's length.

Jenny. Her name often came out of nowhere when I found myself in a nearly unimaginable place. I needed to describe this to her. I needed her to see the colorful murals of Hussein still painted above the cell blocks: Hussein in a white military uniform surrounded by white doves, with the snow-capped mountains of the Kurdish north over his left shoulder; Hussein in dark glasses and a white fedora against a splashy black and orange background; Hussein in a dark suit, his eyes scratched by vandals.

I took my satellite phone outside and pointed it southeast, spinning around to get a signal. Bats fluttered in the artificial lights as I talked to Jenny a half-world away. "You'll never guess where I am. Abu Ghraib! The prison. Yes, I'm inside. It's so creepy, Jenny. I have to sleep in a cell. And I'm looking up right now, and there are all these bats, which makes it even more creepy. But I had salad for dinner."

With Jenny, I could be wide-eyed, excited, sad, scared, elated, real. In the bureau and with my editors, I had expectations to meet. The other correspondents were so hardened. They had seen war many times, had faced down dictators, guerrilla leaders and warlords in exotic, far-off places. This -- Iraq -- was all I had. I could not pretend to be more experienced than I was. But I could hide how green I was. I didn't need to act like a clown who had just joined the circus. No, I saved that for Jenny.

My words gushed out, as usual. I tried to call her at least once a day, never talking long, to check in, to bring her with me, when I just needed to hear her voice, when I was full of new sights and sounds and had to empty some of it. I could tell Jenny the part of the story that could not go in the news articles. I could tell her my story.

Back on my cot in the cell, I could not sleep. I kept imagining the ghosts of the detainees who had died in that room, kept hearing their screams, their voices finally growing hoarse, then fading into the nothingness that had already consumed them.

Andrea and I got up early the next morning to watch the release of about 500 detainees. The prisoners lined up according to the direction they were headed, Tikrit here, Baghdad there. They clutched homemade bags sewn from brown plastic MRE packages. Most professed their innocence to me.

From a guard tower, Andrea and I watched for hours as the buses with released prisoners rolled out, the crowd of nearly 600 waiting family members slowly thinning as the morning went on. Ghazwan and Bassam, our driver and interpreter for this trip, were outside the prison watching for us to come out. I wanted to wait until most of the onlookers had left so we would not attract as much attention.

Andrea decided to follow a bus of released detainees and jumped into a car with an Associated Press photographer and reporter. I called Bassam to let him know I was on my way and asked the Marines in the tower to make sure I made it to my car. I said it with such breeze, as if I were leaving a movie theater in the United States and getting ready to walk across a dark parking lot.

I followed a narrow path through barbed wire that led from the prison to a small parking lot near the front. Several cars idled in the noon heat. No one seemed to pay much attention to me. I walked along the perimeter of the parking lot and headed for the highway. I could not see Bassam or Ghazwan, but based on our telephone contact, I knew they were waiting in Ghazwan's yellow sedan.

Suddenly, a man ran toward me, grabbed me by the wrist and began pulling me toward an orange and white car. At first I said in Arabic, " La. La. Rajan. " No. No. Please. I pointed to the highway, where Bassam and Ghazwan were hidden from view. But he kept pulling me by the wrist. Another man came up behind me and grabbed me around the waist. Someone else grabbed the pillowcase that held my belongings and threw it aside. At first I couldn't fathom what was going on. What was happening to me? Were they trying to kidnap me? They were trying to kidnap me! My heart pounded.

I had avoided watching the video footage of Berg's beheading that played repeatedly on Arab satellite television. I imagined it now anyway. I could not let these men put me in that vehicle.

I was trying to remember how to say "I am a journalist" in Arabic as Abu Saif had instructed. I couldn't find the words. Instead, in a panic, I told them that I was a vegetarian. Ani Nabatiya! Ani Nabatiya! I fell to the ground and started kicking them. It did not stop them. They just dragged me on the ground, still trying to pull me by my hand. Someone yanked me up, and the man who first grabbed me ripped off my abaya. They saw the blue bulletproof flak jacket that foreigners wore in Iraq. He said, "No Iraqi, no Iraqi." I realized instantly: They think I'm CIA. So I screamed back, Washington Post! Washington Post! Until then, I had tried not to raise my voice. I did not want to attract the relatives still waiting for the detainees, but our tussle finally drew their attention, and a crowd formed around me. Where was Bassam? Where were the Marines I had asked to watch me as I walked to my car?

I looked over at the faces in the crowd, and I didn't see a single person who saw me as a human. I tried to plead with a woman standing there, plead with my eyes, and she looked like she wanted to spit on me. I was an American woman, no better than the American soldier in the photographs of the abused detainees who dragged one of their bloodied sons or husbands naked on a leash.

Bombs were going off almost daily. Iraqis were dying. They blamed the Americans. This is not what they had imagined when they imagined democracy. There was no distinction made between the American press and U.S. soldiers and contractors who had promised electricity and had not delivered it. They felt occupied, and I was part of that occupation.

I saw the helicopters blaze in the sky coming out of the prison, while the Marines followed on foot, pointing their weapons and shouting at the crowd. I didn't hear anything at first but the sound of my own voice, which had grown hoarse from my mantra: Washington Post! Washington Post!

Once the men who grabbed me saw the Marines, they let go, and everyone scattered. Bassam came running as the crowd parted. He had been trying to get a better look at what had drawn the people. But he had not seen me. Please, my bag, I mimed to Bassam, as the Marines led us back inside Abu Ghraib.

I balled up my head scarf and threw it on the dirt. "It didn't even work!" I yelled. I was furious that something about me -- my walk, my body, the way I carried myself -- had tipped them off that I was a foreigner. I leaned against a concrete barricade inside the prison, folding my hands in my lap to stop them from shaking. My entire body convulsed. I looked over at Bassam. "When we get back to the office, you tell them I didn't cry. Tell them," I insisted until he agreed. I needed them to know. I had not buckled. I had not broken down. I was intact.

When I called Jenny later, my voice shook. "These guys tried to kidnap me!" I exclaimed. I had already talked to my editor back in Washington, had heard myself begging: "Please, do not make me come home. I want to stay. Please, do not call me home."

Although I could tell Jenny the truth that I could not tell my editor -- that I was rattled but also resigned -- I did not tell her that I had pleaded to stay in Iraq. I did not want her to know that I had gotten so close to terror, so far from her, and yet I could not bring myself to come back, so that I could take away her own fears.

In the book, Jenny Spinner, an English professor, writes about getting Jackie's call about the attempted kidnapping.

I always knew it was her before she said anything, my "hello" met by a long pause, then the "click click" of the satellite phone as it attempted to shrink the miles between us. Sometimes I waited for her to speak; other times, I shouted eagerly into the phone, "Jackie? Is that you, Jackie? Can you hear me?" When she left for Iraq, she promised to call me as often as she could. We usually talked every few days, taking advantage of her journalist's access to the world outside Iraq. When she couldn't call, we e-mailed, often several times a day. As far away as she felt to me, it helped that I rarely went half a day without communicating with her, and we both understood what a privilege that was. But it also made her journey to Iraq seem closer, easier, than it truly was -- at least for me. As long as I could reach her, she was within my grasp.

This phone call, though, was different -- the pause longer, heavier, before I heard her voice. "Jenny," she whispered.

"What's wrong?" I asked, leaning into the kitchen counter where I had been cleaning breakfast dishes, steadying myself for whatever dark and unimaginable news she was about to share. I recognized that tone, the way she wrapped the letters of my name around a barely contained gasp. "Somebody tried to kidnap me," she said.

My world heaved. "Say that again," I said, even though I heard her the first time. Say it again and again and again. Say it until I begin to reconcile the bright Connecticut morning, happy and oblivious, with your world in Iraq. "I fought like a dog," she said, the narrative steadying her shaky voice. "I kicked and screamed until the Marines finally rescued me."

I tried to picture it: my thin sister, on the ground, her hands digging into someone else's dirt, scrambling for freedom.

"I don't understand," I stammered.

"I'll be okay," she said, shifting into protective mode. "We left the prison and are -- " She stopped, interrupted by a loud voice. "Oh, no," she said, before the phone clicked and went silent.

I stood at the sink, unsure what to do, how to go about the morning, the day, the rest of my life.

It would be hours before she would call again, and by then she was a new self, resolved, distant, yes, farther away than ever before.

Adapted from "Tell Them I Didn't Cry: A Young Journalist's Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq" by Jackie Spinner. Copyright 2006 by Jackie Spinner. Printed by permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc., N.Y.