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January 26th, 2005 Emily Harris | News Stories
 

Letter from BAGHDAD

Dispatches from "post-liberation" Iraq.

     
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If you've tuned your FM dial to 91.5 in the past few days, you've probably heard Emily Harris' voice. The 37-year-old National Public Radio correspondent arrived in Baghdad two weeks ago and has since filed more than a dozen stories, ranging from the murder of a key aide of a prominent Shiite cleric to security plans for the Jan. 30 national elections.

The assignment puts the Yale grad 7,000 miles from her hometown of Portland, where she went to Lincoln High and interned here at WW in 1988 before starting her broadcast career at KBOO in 1992.

While her official "beat" includes Germany, Austria, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, events in Iraq have altered her travel plans. She first went there in September 2003, just six months after the U.S. forces landed, and has been back several times, filing stories for Morning Edition, All Things Considered and NPR's new show Day to Day. No NPR reporters are stationed in Iraq full time. Rather, Harris is one of a few who rotate in and out, usually in for a month to six weeks, then out for awhile.

Her parents, Bill and Bonnie Harris, live in Northwest Portland and try not to fret about their daughter's hazardous line of work. "I can't ask Emily a lot of questions I'd like to, because in a way you just don't want to know," Bonnie says. "It's definitely a worry to have someone you love in a place like Iraq. But the assignment is her choice, and we've learned to trust her judgment."

For the past couple of months, Emily Harris has been exchanging emails with WW editor Mark Zusman, providing an insider's perspective on Iraq, which is slated to hold national elections this week. What follows are exerpts from her dispatches.

>> Usually I know about a month or so ahead of time when NPR wants me to go to Iraq The first time I went I flew to Amman, Jordan, got picked up at the airport at 2 am and headed straight for the border in a big white GMC. Flights between Amman and Baghdad were going on then, but they were under threat of rocket or other attacks, and the banditry on the highway between Jordan and Baghdad seemed like a better risk.

It's a long drive, about 10 hours, and most of that is pretty grim-looking desert. (You had to leave early in the morning so you'd be on the Iraqi side after the sun came up-for safety.) Later the road to Amman, which goes right by Falluja and Ramadi, got uglier, so we switched to driving down from Turkey-which means flying to Istanbul, then to Diyabakir, in eastern Turkey, then getting a car from there to the border (about three hours) then switching just inside Iraq to another car. Now pretty much everyone is flying in and out via Amman. >>

>>For a long time, we stayed in a small hotel in a mixed residential/commercial area. It was pretty nice, but after a while we figured we should move on, so we've lived in a few different places since then. Can't talk much about specific security precautions, out of the hope they'll work! >>

>>One of the biggest dangers to journalists is that we are perceived as spies. Also, there is a widespread feeling among angry Iraqis (including those close to insurgents) that the "real" news of what's happening in Iraq isn't being told. That perception also puts journalists in danger-although maybe we're worth keeping alive. One Sunni cleric I interviewed told me he believed I was working for the CIA-but he hoped so, because he thought at least then the U.S. government might finally hear his opinion! >>

>>Despite security worries, we do still manage to get around Baghdad a fair amount. I went out on interviews almost every day (and not just to the Green Zone) when I was there last October. I don't go out and interview random people on the street anymore, though. I also don't walk anywhere, don't hang out places. A major difference between now and last year this time is that travel around the country is extremely limited.

And while the risk of something bad happening is, in my opinion, still a possibility, not a probability, many decisions have to be made based on the worst-case scenario. For example, we don't really know the situation on many roads. (We do know some: South of Baghdad, for example, there simply have been regular killings, ambushes, kidnappings.) But we have to assign a lot of risk to the roads because the outcomes of traveling on them are possibly awful. That doesn't prevent us from joking about gruesome things like on-air fund drives for ransom, with logo-emblazoned orange jumpsuits for thank-you gifts. >>

>>Exactly what is it like being a journalist in Iraq? I find it intense. When I say intense, I don't mean just grappling with the possible threat to your life. I mean the range of people I've met and observed. An American woman from Alaska, who went to Baghdad to get a piece of the reconstruction pie, arrived at the gate of the Green Zone right behind a car bomb, but is too addicted to being close to history to go home. An Iraqi man who was imprisoned in Abu Ghraib for five years for an offhand comment about Saddam. He built things out of toothpicks to keep sane and was freed when Saddam emptied the prisons in the fall of 2002. An American military spokesman making firm statements that all major highways in Iraq had been closed-statements that were very simply not true. A soldier on a dark, quiet street in Samarra telling me he'd seen his colleagues kill an Iraqi family when their car approached a checkpoint too fast. Another soldier in the halls of one of Saddam's former palaces in Tikrit assuring me that the night vision on his tank is so good he never hits women or children. An Iraqi Christian woman who had lost her home when a restaurant nearby was bombed wishing Saddam could come back for just a few weeks to clean things up. The proud Iraqi police officers who had rounded up 150 suspected criminals and kept them blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs, in one eventually very stinky room, for at least 48 hours after they were arrested. The Iraqis who continue to work with NPR despite the risk to their lives.

Overall, I find it can be hard to let go and switch back to covering Europe. >>

>>One advantage of being a female reporter is sometimes you get ignored. That might not seem like an advantage at first glance, but, for example, if you're driving someplace and only the two men in the front seat get asked for their ID, that's not all bad. Also you get waved through checkpoints more frequently.

In principle, being female can get you better access to females. Helps to have a female translator, though, which I don't generally have.

A disadvantage can be that there are some places women don't generally go, like some tea shops or mosques. So trying to talk to people in such places can either cause extra hullaballoo that doesn't help, or someone else has to do interviews for me. >>

>>"Wearing" is the first word that comes to mind to describe day-to-day life in Iraq. But that's not because of a shortage of human comforts! There are actually excellent chocolate-chip cookies available at certain supermarkets. And not-bad cheesecake at a bakery I discovered last spring. The thing I like least is that I can't go running or biking. And life is wearing because of the booms and bangs, because of the uncertainties and dangers. >>

>>I "embed"-which can mean anything from staying a day to staying a month or longer with the military-some of the time. It's the best way to get a firsthand view of what is going on on the ground from the U.S. troop perspective, which is a very important part of the story in Iraq but of course only part of the story. It's hard to talk to a lot of Iraqis when you're out on patrols or missions with troops, or in headquarters at a briefing. But it's a great way to talk to soldiers and commanders on the front lines. For example, I went on patrol with American soldiers in Mosul, who spent the time trying to guess whether piles of garbage held homemade bombs and trying to comprehend what seemed to them utterly strange ways of Iraqi life-such as vegetable vendors blocking traffic by parking their carts in the street, and Iraqis who want electricity creating fire hazards by running multiple wires from private generators into homes. >>

>>The day after I first went to Iraq in September 2003, a massive bomb went off outside a Shiite shrine in Najaf.

I went to Najaf the next day. I watched men picking through black oily gunk and broken metal, chunks of cement-looking for human remains. I'll never forget the communal shriek that went up when one found what was clearly a large piece of scorched human skin. >>

>>Since a year ago, a couple of significant things have changed. First, it's gotten more dangerous, so we don't travel as much and certainly not at the drop of a hat like before. Second, I've started to wonder how much Americans really want to know about Iraq anymore. The U.S. is still spending billions of taxpayer dollars there, U.S. troops are still fighting and dying there, Iraqis are dying and still don't know if they're getting democracy or civil war, and everything that happens there is affecting U.S. relations with the rest of the Middle East. So in my mind it's still a very important story!

But when I was in Portland last August, I got the feeling many people had made up their minds that the inital invasion was either good or bad. That assessment was the end; everything they heard supported that position. It's a much more nuanced place than that. >>

>>During some of my time in Iraq, car bombs would go off frequently in our neighborhood, usually in the morning. So in the morning if I woke up early, I'd lie in bed and just wait. If nothing had exploded by 6:45, it seemed chances were good nothing would that morning. Mornings are still a prime target time-the business day in Iraq starts early and winds down around 2 pm.

Car bombs are pretty obvious, the explosions are so big. You can't always tell what gunfire means. Guns are shot in the air at weddings and funerals, and after soccer matches. For a time, in a hotel where we stayed there was gunfire on the back street almost every evening. It turns out another guest at the hotel liked to shoot off his gun when he got drunk, which he was doing regularly. >>

>>I think the notion that news from Iraq is either "good" or "bad" is silly. What's going on is complex. Iraqis' lives have been turned upside down over the past year and a half. Now some people are looking at an unprecedented opportunity to get power. Some are trying to help create a representative form of government. Some are just trying to survive. Others, including some non-Iraqis, are fighting-some what they see as a foreign army that doesn't intend to leave, some what they see as an illegitimate government, some what they apparently see as Islam's enemy. >>

>>U.S. officers who talk with Iraqi officials or leaders often say the Iraqis put out a defiant message in public then in private tell the U.S. officers that they support their work, and American troops must stay. But U.S. soldiers on the front lines don't trust most Iraqis at all. Not only because they are appropriately on the lookout for attackers, but because they feel there are significant cultural differences that can't be reconciled.

Some Iraqis have told me they want the U.S. troops to stay. The usual reason is "Otherwise, we'll kill each other." That might give an image of U.S. troops as peacekeepers. But the catch is most Iraqis feel they wouldn't be in this position of potentially being at each other's throats-and already very suspicious of each other-if the U.S. invasion hadn't happened in the first place. >>

>>There have been some positive changes since my first visit. For those working for the government, for example, salaries are higher now than they were before the war. There is news and information coming in from all over the world. One day when I watched one of our interpreters heading home with his laptop over his shoulder and his cell phone clipped to his belt, I thought of how much his life and his concept of what is possible have changed in the past two years. But he gets more pessimistic every time I see him.

This is a major challenge for the U.S. attempts to get Iraqis actually in charge of their country. The dangers of ordinary life and a continuing lack of basic services also give rise to a desire not for democracy, but for an iron fist.

>>It's hard to get some soldiers to trust you; others open up easily. The most common thing on most everyone's mind, it seems, is when will they get to go home. But there's also desire to help, anger when assistance gets attacked, distrust of-sometimes almost distaste toward-Iraqis (strangers and not), as well as admiration expressed for Iraqi translators, for example, who keep coming to work despite death threats. There's a mix of managing their own worries, a determination to get "the bad guys," and trying to make deployed life as normal as possible (i.e., Sunday-night volleyball on bases that have gyms, Christmas decorations in the dining hall).

One soldier once overheard me identify myself as a reporter then asked, rather angrily, why all the media report when soldiers get killed. I said I thought it's an important part of weighing the costs and benefits of this war. He said, "It makes us look weak." Which I hadn't thought of before. >>

>>The most obvious sign of campaigning is posters. They are plastered thickly around some areas of Baghdad. Less so in other cities, some of which have far more anti-election and threatening graffiti, as far as I understand from other reporters who have been on trips there. There are also some television ads, particularly by Prime Minister Allawi's party (as well as general ads telling people to go vote). There is very little "pressing the flesh" as we understand it in the U.S.; candidates seem to be campaigning among friends, holding small meetings in homes, etc., if they are doing anything. A couple of parties have told me they are walking around handing out leaflets, but I haven't witnessed that myself. Some mosques are also handing out materials supporting certain slates of candidates. >>

>>There are many confusing elements to this campaign. One is that it's not a vote for individual candidates, but slates of up to 275 candidates (that's the number of seats there will be in this new, transitional parliament). Many of the slates have very similar names, and if they have platforms at all they are very general-such as security, basic services, etc. And very few of the names of the people running on a slate are public. So voters don't know exactly who they are choosing to be in Parliament, even as they support a particular slate. The electoral commission has not yet released the names. Although I have understood this was for security reasons, I am told by an advisor to the electoral commission that this is largely because of logistics-they only managed to enter some of the names of people running. This advisor was uncertain whether the names of the actual people who would be sitting in Parliament will be available to voters, even at polling stations, by election day. Only one party I know has published the names of its candidates on campaign materials. Others do cite security-this was the reaction of the agriculture minister when asked what number she is on Allawi's slate: She said No. 3, then giggled, and said she wasn't sure she was supposed to say because of security. >>

>>There are very strict restrictions on which polling stations reporters can record interviews in (this just affects radio and TV reporters)-last I heard it would only be three to six polling stations in Baghdad. A week out, that hasn't been announced. Also, journalists are not allowed to take photographs of anyone without permission. That's out of fear that voters may face violent consequences. It's also not clear when returns will be inthe ballots are supposed to be counted at least the first time at polling stations, and besides unknowns like how many ballots they'll have to deal with, there are also issues like electricity that goes off regularly and poor communications, which may make it hard to phone in results. There's an 8 pm-to-6 am curfew for the day before, day after, and on election day.

>>Oddly, the only international observers involved in this election will be monitoring the overseas vote. About a million or so Iraqis living outside Iraq are eligible to vote, and there will be polling stations in about 14 countries. There might be one or two international observers here, but they won't likely actually go see a polling station-unless they visit one inside the Green Zone. The electoral commission has announced that 3,000 election observers have been registered, and an American NGO that's been training Iraqi observers says it has submitted forms for 10,000. About 7,500 agents of political parties have so far been registered by the electoral commission. They will be looking out, of course, for violations that hurt them.

>>Covering this election will be a huge challenge, mainly because we don't know exactly what will happen. Our Iraqi staff will, as usual, play an important role in helping us gather information. I don't know that the lack of international monitors will affect my role as a journalist that much. I'd always be looking for irregularies, difficulties that might affect the fairness or perception of fairness, and of course recording the thoughts of Iraqis who either do go vote or don't. >>

>>There is a possibility this could turn out OK. OK for Iraq at least-I don't see it being a domino for democracy in the Middle East unless one thinks very long-term. I felt most strongly that things would work out better for Iraq during my first visit in 2003. I have gotten progressively less optimistic. At this point I think the best-case scenario may be a pretty autocratic, corrupt government that may or may not be honestly elected and is unable to meet the needs of its people but is accepted in the international community and agreeable to U.S. policy.

>>I laugh more than cry. Grim laughter, sometimes. The Arabic expression "insh'Allah"-meaning "if God wills it"-takes on a whole new dimension when it makes sense as a response to "see you tomorrow." But also just regular laughter. When I've cried, it's mostly been out of frustration with a certain story or deadline. At disaster scenes I've felt a (perhaps odd, perhaps normal) sense of observation.

For example, once I went to Tikrit to check out a story about a car full of civilians being shot at multiple times by someone with a heavy-caliber machine gun. The one survivor, of five in the car, said they were motioned to pass a U.S. military convoy by the last vehicle in the convoy. He said the first vehicle in the convoy opened fire as they were passing. The military says it was never able to confirm the survivor's version.

Anyway, I went into the hospital morgue to see the body of one of the men killed. It was strangely intact-he was still fully dressed, and I couldn't see any signs of damage to his body. His head, although still in the rough shape of a head, looked like it had simply exploded. A mess. I just looked at it and tried to register and imprint on my brain what I saw (taking notes, of course, too!). I came out and saw the man's family, who had come to identify him. That was one time I couldn't think of anything to ask.

 
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