Beneath the Violence, Baghdad Is Still a Vibrant City

By: Chris Hondros

I arrived back in Iraq a few days ago, landing at Baghdad’s airport on a daily commercial flight from Jordan. I got my bags, went though customs, stepped out onto the sidewalk and took a taxi to a rough dirt parking lot on the outskirts of the airport. Ahmed, an Iraqi driver from my office, greeted me with a smile. We loaded my bags and headed into town, chatting on the way, mostly about small doings involving his family.

After 20 minutes navigating the crowded Baghdad roads we arrived at our office in a protected hotel. The car was given the customary check by security, and then we were allowed in. Upstairs in our hotel office, other Iraqi staff members were there working, and all stopped when I arrived for a round of hugs and greetings. One made tea while we sat in a circle and caught up.

That’s all that happened. No drama. No death. No explosions. That this might seem surprising to average Americans concerns me. We journalists presumably want to convey an accurate sense of place in our work, yet I worry most Americans believe Iraqis spend their whole lives literally cowering in fear in their homes.

Baghdad, of course, is a violent and dangerous city; crime and kidnapping are common, and a bomb goes off in the sprawling city nearly every day. Certainly every Baghdad resident’s life has been touched by the political uncertainty and its resulting carnage. And for three years now journalists have churned out story after story about life in Iraqi’s massive capital.

Still, for all this attention, I think most Americans would be surprised by what they saw if they took a cursory drive through Baghdad, as I did upon arrival. Men and boys play soccer on dirty grass fields on the banks of the Tigris; appliance stores all over town sell Japanese televisions and sleek vertical washing machines; families dine in gaudy fast food restaurants; portly traffic cops try in vain to untangle one of the city’s mind-numbing traffic snarls; school children amble to class in groups, all wearing crisp uniforms, some later going off to sports practices and ballet lessons, activities which have endured (albeit much diminished) despite the daily madness.

Baghdad is violent, but it’s also vibrant. Now, a vibrant city can be dangerous and cruel. A vibrant city can be one on the verge of civil war. But to imagine it entirely as a war zone — a place where death looms every moment for all five million inhabitants — diminishes the humanity of this place. People live in Baghdad. They have a wide range of lifestyles and continue to work, play, worry, and laugh like anyone. That’s important for Americans to know and understand. It makes the indignities and pain that Iraqis suffer all the more jarring and heartbreaking.

The particular dangers to journalists are being widely reported, and of course, I’m desperate for the release of my colleague, Jill Carroll. Journalists’ hotels are watched and infiltrated and the image of being violently whisked off always looms in the background of our thoughts. Unfortunately, such horrid kidnappings aren’t new, nor are they unique to Iraq, as attacks and apprehensions of journalists and other Westerners in troubled areas have long been with us. It happened (or happens) in Chechnya, Colombia, Lebanon, Nigeria, Somalia, and many other places. Recent incidents, for instance in Sierra Leone where three notable Western journalists were killed in 1999-2000, caused our profession to evaluate our procedures and expectations.

This constant evaluation is healthy; we should always be looking for ways to make our jobs safer. But it is also possible to be too self-absorbed on this issue. Eventually all this contemplation boils down to the obvious: war journalism is dangerous. Covering conflict means entering war zones. Entering war zones brings a chance of injury or death, no matter what precautions are taken. It’s a profession where the very fabric of the job is risk, like firefighters or coal miners. And just as we don’t disband the fire department every time a firefighter dies doing his job, we shouldn’t let our grief for our fallen friends overwhelm the core mission of our profession.

To me, opting out of coverage of Iraq because of the dangers is not a serious option. Whatever one’s politics, this is indisputably a massive undertaking by the United States, breathtaking in its scope, expense, and hubris. A key role of journalism in a free society is to observe the actions of government. The invasion and military occupation of Iraq is an action of government sui generis. If American journalists have any sort of mandate and responsibility to our fellow citizens at all, this place has to be covered, and covered well. If it’s hard and dangerous, well, our job is to figure out a way to do it anyway. That resourcefulness is a basic feature in the skill set of war journalists.

On some level, we’re succeeding. Bombings or not, kidnappings or not, some journalists continue to cover Iraq. While many news organizations have abandoned Iraq or drastically cut down coverage, the faithful keep plugging away. We should probably celebrate more than we do those news outlets and journalists who have persisted in covering this enormously important story despite the dangers and expense.

It’s also worth noting that some of the shortfalls in coverage of Iraq have nothing to do with the possibility of kidnappings. Embedded journalists don’t get kidnapped, and yet the number of journalists embedded is a fraction of what it was. According to the military, 42 journalists are currently embedded in Iraq. A few are military journalists, at least one is a translator, and a number of them are foreign media organizations.

Many of the American embeds are small newspaper teams presumably covering the work of their local units. Compare that to March 2003, where over 500 journalists representing just about every major American media organization covered the original invasion as embeds, an invasion which ultimately ended up merely being a prelude to the critical events happening now.

I am aware of the difficulties that covering this long war has created for news outlets, in both money and manpower. And I don’t have any silver-bullet answers, other than a hope that we keep the acute dangers of the Iraq war in context with the dangers journalists have often faced in the world’s difficult places. It’s ironic: a bit like the U.S. military itself, journalists in Iraq are in a tight position with no easy solutions, and are doing the best they can with a bad hand.

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