At 64, Berkeley Grandmother Blogs From Baghdad

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Jane Stillwater is an unlikely war correspondent. She’s 64, a self-described Berkeley “flower child, 40 years later” and broke.

So how’d she end up in Baghdad, churning out commentary ranging from shock at Thursday’s bombing of the Iraqi parliament cafeteria, to the weirdness of touring Saddam Hussein’s bathroom?

Inspired by a sense of outrage and determined to blog from inside the war zone, Stillwater ate peanut butter sandwiches for months to save up for a ticket to Kuwait. She got a small Texas newspaper to sponsor her, and eventually boarded a troop transport to Baghdad.

Getting Department of Defense credentials took patience. Stillwater says she was discouraged at first as an “opinion-based, not fact-based” journalist. But after securing her sponsor, she arrived in the Green Zone in late March and has been posting her online missives ever since.

“I’m really glad I came,” she said, reached Thursday by phone at the Coalition Press Information Center in Baghdad. “I don’t know whether I would ever come back.”

Some of her entries are slice-of-wartime-life. Others are strongly political, musing on the affects of fighting violence with violence in what she sees as the “broken egg” of Iraq.

“Its like being on an adventure with somebody,” said W. Leon Smith, editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast, a liberal weekly based in the George W. Bush territory of Crawford, Texas, that is sponsoring, but not paying, Stillwater.
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“She’s like an ordinary person that’s over there … people can identify with it.”

To some, the idea of a grandmother with no formal journalistic training dropping everything to report from Baghdad seems far-fetched at best.
Not so much to her friends.

“Having known her for many years and having seen her do things that nobody else would think of taking on … she’s a pretty irrepressible force of humor and passion mixed together,” said Kriss Worthington, a Berkeley city councilman.

Stillwater planed to soon make the long return trip to the United States and her job as a Juvenile Hall substitute teacher. She’ll bring back a few souvenirs and a lot of memories.

In Berkeley, the mother of four grown children is known for championing students’ quest for a painted crosswalk near their high school. In 2003, she went to the White House in an effort to serve Bush with an “eviction” notice. “You have to be elected to live there,” she said.

Long ago, she opposed Vietnam — “If we’d had the Internet instead of phone trees and mimeograph machines, we could have stopped the war a lot earlier.” — and marched for civil rights.

Travel is an abiding interest and to make that possible she lives frugally, wearing castoff clothing and eating “a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” and a dish she calls “depression spaghetti.”

Baghdad, she says, “is insane. The Green Zone, it’s like East Berlin in 1955. And outside, it’s like ‘Blade Runner.’ People are trying to lead normal lives, and there’s so much going on and there’s firefights.”

Many of Stillwater’s postings have dealt with her frustration at being firmly relegated to the U.S.-protected, fortified Green Zone.

Twice, Iraqi Army officials promised to take her out into the Red Zone. “At last! A chance to get dressed up in my very best Kevlar! And maybe even get driven in a chauffeured limo Humvee!” she wrote.

And twice she got stood up.

One day, she decided to get out of the press room and visit the building where the Iraqi parliament meets. She wandered around the cafeteria, meeting two female politicians who spoke English and sitting down with them for an extended interview on life in Iraq.

That was Wednesday. On Thursday, after filing her story, she went back to the cafeteria to find her subjects, but had no luck.
Shortly after that came the bombing.

“I keep thinking, What if my friends had been there?” she said. “I would have sat down with them, we would have been all three of us blown up.

“It’s a slap across the face. I was just thinking, ‘The Green Zone is America in the ’50s where everybody has a good job and everybody’s happy.’ Suddenly, I realized that Iraq is really a dangerous place.”

Dangerous and confusing.

When she went to Iraq, Stillwater was for immediate troop pullout. Now, she’s not so sure what’s the best way forward.

“What I realized is it’s just very, very complex,” she said.

She remains adamantly opposed to the war. “People are being KILLED over here folks. I don’t CARE who started it. I don’t CARE who’s to blame,” she wrote. “I JUST WANT IT TO STOP.”

The troops are “really nice, they’re really doing a good job,” she said. “It’s just that they’ve been assigned a job that’s screwed.”

Reaction to the blog tends to be love it or hate it. “People will say, ‘Hey, you’re an idiot.’ Or, ‘Hey this is wonderful and we’re so proud of you,” she said.

Worthington’s in the second camp — and looking forward to her return.
“I will breathe a sigh of relief when she’s home,” he said.

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