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When to chase the story in Iraq

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

By Alissa J. Rubin / February 1, 2006


When journalist Jill Carroll was kidnapped, other reporters in Iraq were aghast that something so horrible had happened to someone they knew.

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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. 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.