Baghdad survivor visits America

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By: Barbara Bedway

Samia Nakhoul witnessed her first military conflict as a 12-year-old in Beirut, the main battleground in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. The Reuters correspondent experienced war in a different way last April 8 as she stood on the balcony of the Reuters office at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad ? headquarters of international journalists ? observing the advance of American tanks into the city.

Suddenly an Abrams tank fired a round at the hotel, wounding Nakhoul with shrapnel that cut through her skull and lodged in her brain. Before complete chaos engulfed the city and devastated the hospitals, an Iraqi surgeon was able to save her life.

The U.S. Central Command investigation into the shelling, which killed two journalists including Reuters TV cameraman Taras Protsyuk, 35, and wounded two other Reuters colleagues, concluded the bombardment was “fully in accordance” with the Rules of Engagement. “There were 150 journalists there, recording and filming, and nobody heard a shot or saw a shot fired [at the American soldiers],” Nakhoul recounts in a chapter she contributed to the new book Under Fire: Untold Stories from the Front Line of the Iraq War (Reuters Books/Prentice Hall), a collection of Reuters correspondents’ experiences.

Last month, Nakhoul, who is based in Dubai, was invited with several other journalists to participate in a panel at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where she was well received by cadets who “had mainly met embedded journalists,” she points out. “We spoke about what we did, how the task was divided covering the war. My main focus was the impact of war on the six million people in Baghdad. But you need both embedded reporters covering the front lines and the advance, and unilaterals. This is history. You need comprehensive coverage to get the whole truth.”

Before she was injured, Nakhoul had filed a series of indelibly vivid accounts of the war’s effect on civilians, aided by her fluency in Arabic and familiarity with the culture. “You can sense when people are being serious and telling the truth more easily than when you have to go through a translator,” she says. “I went to see women at funerals, and they would tell you what they think and feel.” Her story of Ali Abbas Isameel, 12, who asked her to help him get his arms back ? he’d lost both of them when a missile obliterated his home ? brought in to high relief the immense suffering of Iraqi civilians, and led to Ali receiving medical care in Britain.

Stephen Naru, global head of media relations for Reuters, who accompanied Nakhoul to West Point, gave the military high marks for “inviting someone as grievously wounded as she was. The officers and cadets did not know a great deal about the Palestine Hotel bombing. We had the opportunity to show videotape of the hotel attack and talk about it.” Nakhoul reports a varied response, but several cadets told her that the fatal attack should have been acknowledged as a mistake.

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