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thedrifter
01-29-06, 09:24 AM
Western journalists calculate dangers of covering Iraq war
Abduction of reporter prompts press members to scrutinize job's soaring risks -- and rewards.
Alissa J. Rubin / Los Angeles Times
January 29, 2006

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- When journalist Jill Carroll was kidnapped, other reporters 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 taken two cars so the second could have scared off the gunmen. They would have traveled in an armored vehicle. 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 south Baghdad. You could have two cars, and the second car 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 journalists are working in a war zone where no rules apply.

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 to face. 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, and certainly why you came back 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 danger, to the high of sidestepping death.

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 much more is at stake than you ever imagined you would touch or see. It's the sheer adrenaline of being in a place where people's lives are in the balance, where every decision counts and where what you're writing might matter. And you feel more alive than you've ever felt -- but you're also often closer to being killed.

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 a day. Calculations about being caught in a suicide bombing, abducted by a kidnapper, shot by mistake or on purpose. I've become a refined bookmaker of sorts. I can tell you that the chance of being caught by a suicide bomb is slight, unless I 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 it.

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 that proposition. I had gone to a hospital in Fallujah to chronicle the killing of four Iraqis by U.S. Marines. But a relative of one of the dead saw in me an infidel intruding on his family's grief, and in a rage he pulled a gun on me and my translator. In that moment, I learned that when I had 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 translator, whom I cared about deeply, in danger. What did I think I was doing?

Still, it took another 20 months before I turned back from an assignment. Because something changed for me when Jill Carroll was kidnapped. An American freelance journalist for the Christian Science Monitor, Carroll was abducted Jan. 7 and has yet to be released.

I had always told myself that despite my blue eyes and pale skin, I would slip unnoticed into the Iraqi world with my hijab and black abbaya. The abbaya was my cloak of invisibility, my body armor.

Carroll had gone one better than me -- she actually knew Arabic, and 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 with whom I argued daily about safety floated to my consciousness on my most recent trip to Iraq. Each of us thought the other took unnecessary risks -- the truth was that we each took risks in our own way.

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

Ellie