My Iraq: a reporter's 20-year retrospective
The longest-serving Western correspondent in Baghdad tracks the lives of two Iraqi friends – from dinners under the moon and palms to the heartbreak of war.
(Page 3 of 5)
I met Nermeen in 1998, during a window in which Saddam was trying to improve relations with the West. The regime had invited American TV networks to open bureaus, and CNN's Ted Turner was convinced Iraq and the rest of the world needed to understand each other. I became the only Western journalist permanently based here, a country of 26 million people at war with the West. I hired Nermeen to help me understand the country. It wasn't exactly a plum job for her.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In Saddam's Iraq, every foreigner was thought to be a spy. Iraqis in too much contact with them came under suspicion. My phone was tapped, my hotel room was bugged, and when I moved into a house, it was, too. It was a system so effective that Iraqis worried even their own families were informants.
I knew Nermeen had eloped at 18 and chose to raise her son in Iraq herself, rather than emigrate to the US with her Lebanese husband. "I could never imagine myself living outside Iraq," she says of that time, an echo of the choice she makes today.
I didn't know a lot of other things about her, until the regime fell. In 1991, her closest friend, another journalist, was taken away and hasn't been seen since. Sometimes cold reality is too much even for someone who's seen as much as Nermeen.
"One day, maybe, I always said, he would come back, but because of these concrete barriers and these tons of barbed wire he lost his way to my house," she says. "Maybe he will find it one day and he will come and knock on my door."
"After all this catastrophe in Iraq, there has to be a free press," she rails. "It's not a gift; it's a right from the tons of promises they gave us."
In April, a day after she was voted one of the five best journalists in Iraq by young colleagues, her name was put on an Internet insurgent list of media people targeted for execution. More than 100 Iraqi journalists have been killed since the war began.
"Threats and violence have become the Iraqi way of life," says Nermeen. She takes precautions – not staying home alone, making sure she's not tailed – but believes the only list that determines when you die is that drawn by fate.
I knew dozens of Americans and Iraqis who died in this war. For Nermeen, it numbers in the hundreds. The challenge is to find meaning in it.
On a recent day, I went with her to her apartment on Baghdad's Haifa Street, scene of some of the worst fighting in the war. She has only been back here four times in three years after moving to the relative safety of her parents' Kirkuk house.
"Welcome to my dusty home," she says, her high-heeled boots clicking on the parquet, coated in a layer of fine sand. The kitchen window has shrapnel holes.
"When were you in Fallujah, again?" I ask her.
"When you were there," she says matter-of-factly.
Nermeen was a volunteer with the Iraqi Red Crescent, helping civilians trapped in the devastating battle between the US and insurgents. She later wrote about an entire family – all but a 9-month-old baby – killed by a US airstrike. I was with the American forces as they moved into neighborhoods controlled by insurgents who'd rigged buildings to explode. They rained more artillery shells on Fallujah than in any urban battle since Vietnam. The explosions through the night felt like the end of the world. What was left at the end looked like it.
The Iraqi refugee catch 22
Rafiq Tschannen, the International Organization for Migration’s chief of mission for Iraq and Jordan, discussed their plight with Monitor correspondent Tom A. Peter.
Since the Iraq War began in 2003, 15 percent of Iraq’s citizens have been displaced – 2 million fled from Iraq, 2.7 million fled internally. Rafiq Tschannen, the International Organization for Migration’s chief of mission for Iraq and Jordan, discussed their plight with Monitor correspondent Tom A. Peter.
Q: What caused most refugees to flee, and do these issues now affect their decision to return?
A: One overwhelming reason was the total breakdown of security. Inthe meantime, basic services like electricity, water, etc. havecollapsed. Now some people are returning because security has improved,but some are hesitating because there is electricity where they are staying now and they are thinking, "Why should we go back to a place where there isn't electricity?" It's a bit of a Catch-22 – [if] you don't come, your services won't be restored. What we see is often that the displaced send one or two family members to check out an old neighborhood before making the decision that everybody returns. The government of Iraq would have hoped that the numbers are larger and quicker. But there's a slow and steady return, which is promising.
Q: Why is it important for refugees to return?
A: Among the refugees are a lot of well-educated, well-qualified people needed to help rebuild.
Q: Why haven’t most displaced Iraqis ended up in large camps?
A: The displacement was gradual. Every day, hundreds of people left, but it'snot as though 4 million left in a month. So that's why they were ableto find places [outside Iraq]. The main displacement was from Baghdad,and many went back to their tribal homeland. In a way you can say manyreturned to their origins.