When to chase the story in Iraq

A reporter considers the risks of working in a war zone.

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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.

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The truth is that journalists 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 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. You see 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 a day. Calculations about being caught in a suicide bombing, abducted by a kidnapper, shot by mistake or on purpose. 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 US 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 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. He had four children and a wife. What did I think I was doing?

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

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, Ms. 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.

I studied the way 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 spoke to me in Arabic; perhaps they really thought I was one of them.

Jill 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. 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 abbaya is not bulletproof," my colleague said.

So when Jill 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 have been killed in Iraq and at least 37 abducted, according to a tally by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent nonprofit organization, at the end of last year. But like all the other journalists in Iraq - fewer than 75 of us, down from more than a thousand - I needed to believe that I was going to slip through.

After Jill, I don't feel that way anymore.

Last month 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 advisers at 7 a.m. and had him remind the drivers of the protocol (keep the cars apart, don't look like a convoy, rely on radioing each other). But when I went out to the car, it turned out the driver had brought his own vehicle, not an armored car.

Jill's experience hung in my mind. Not only had she been abducted in part because she lacked the protection of an armored car, but her translator had been shot dead. I looked at my translator, a beautiful young Iraqi woman who loved to read English literature, had helped me buy Iraqi shoes so that I looked 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 satellite phone in the car. Cellphones are notoriously unreliable in Iraq because the US military often blocks the signals when it undertakes operations. Traveling without a satellite telephone as an alternative is foolhardy. But we had already left the office, so I resigned myself to traveling without it.

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

The most dangerous part of the trip is crossing out of Baghdad proper and traversing the next 15 miles of road to the south. It is a largely Sunni farming area and one where headless, mutilated bodies turn 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, the policeman told our driver that a new security plan was in effect and we would not be able to reenter for 48 hours. The driver pulled off 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 now, women in their swirling abbayas, 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 translator. "What do you think? 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 of 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?"

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 finish the story I was writing.

I thought about close calls I had had in the past. About my translator, who said she would go with me no matter what. About my parents, who hated that I was in Iraq. About Jill, whom I imagined alone in a room, perhaps cold.

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 as he drove 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.

©2006 The Los Angeles Times.

Alissa J. Rubin is a Los Angeles Times reporter. This piece was first syndicated on Jan. 26.

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