• Thank You, but I'll Pay: When staff writer Jill Carroll signed up for a trip to Libya sponsored by the Libyan government (see story) she made it clear that, as a journalist with an independent newspaper, she would need to cover her own expenses.
She knew it might take a little finessing to pull that off in a country where hospitality is highly prized, but she was still surprised by the hotel's response when she went to pay her bill.
"There was a huge uproar – the employees were very agitated," says Jill. "To pay for something that has been given to you as a gift means there's some sort of huge problem. It's a sign of a major break in relations."
That created a personal problem for the man in charge of media relations on the trip. "He was worried about his own reputation in the hotel," says Jill.
To mollify the employees, Jill had to write a note to him to accompany her payment explaining who she was, who she worked for, and why she was paying.
"Then I had to have tea with him – for a couple of hours – to show that we had good relations. It was a very long process."
That wasn't the only tricky part of the trip, however. Though the Libyan minders assigned to the trip couldn't keep track of all 400 journalists at once, Jill had to be creative about getting some unmonitored reporting done.
She'd slip away from the hotel and head down to the market, but people were very nervous about talking to foreigners, let alone Western journalists. She'd planned to meet a brother of a friend of hers, but even he was too skittish to be seen in public with her, unfortunately. "He told me he wanted to speak honestly and bring his friends. They are really eager to get the outside world to hear what it's like there."
• Back to Dora: On a recent embed with the US Army in Dora, correspondent Sam Dagher was struck by how bad things had gotten since he was there in August 2004 to cover some "horrific" church bombings. On that Sunday, many of his colleagues from Western media outlets simply drove there. This time, it took the Army to get Sam there.
Dora – once a relatively thriving district, popular with middle-class Baghdadis, where Sunnis, Christians, and Shiites coexisted peacefully – is now commonly referred to as "saqta" – Iraqi slang for "the lawless" (see story).
Saddam's children and relatives had stately homes nestled in Dora's famous orchards and farms. Last year, Iraqi national police took over one of the villas. When US troops went there to convert it into a joint security system, some soldiers told Sam that they found out that the Iraqis had been using the pool as a giant toilet.
Even with the stepped-up presence of US forces in the area since December, and the revival of some commerce in the main market, the place remains desolate and completely run down, says Sam. He saw endless heaps of garbage, smashed-up store fronts, and a war of graffiti on the walls. Gunmen continue to intimidate and kidnap residents.
"A Christian elderly lady who had ventured to the market to get food told me the only reason she has not joined the exodus to Jordan and Syria is because she's too poor to do that," says Sam.
– Christa Case