Good news from Iraq -- of courage and nightmares
01 February 2006
Alastair Macdonald is about to end an assignment of almost two years in Baghdad as the Reuters Bureau Chief for Iraq. In the following story, he reflects on the difficulties of covering Iraq and on the work of the Iraqi colleagues he leaves behind.
By Alastair Macdonald - Witness
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - There is good news in Iraq.
For Reuters journalists, this week's high points were the safe return of two colleagues seized by a death squad which shot two other hostages and the survival of the teenage nephew of another employee who was kidnapped and tortured in Baghdad.
The lows, as I complete nearly two years running the news agency's operations in Iraq, were sending condolences to the family of our former driver Ismail Ibrahim, who was gunned down in Mosul this month, and trying to find out from U.S. forces why they seem intent on detaining our reporter in Ramadi for a third time.
All in all, as I write to the sound of mortars rattling our windows in central Baghdad, it's a routine week, four years into a war that has turned into a bad dream for millions of people -- and in which I discovered a cure for nightmares.
More on that later.
As a foreign correspondent, it's my job to be a witness to history but never before have I been so blind without the eyes of others: local colleagues who brave the mean streets of Iraq since attacks on foreigners turned our newsroom into my prison.
Recruited from universities and camera shops, law offices, even a barber's salon, as well as from the old state media, over 60 Iraqis now write on, film and photograph their nation for Reuters from Arbil in the north to Basra in the south.
Teamwork among expatriates and locals is the heart of our work everywhere but without the brief freedom foreigners enjoyed after the war to travel and report in relative safety, our eyes on the conflict are now nearly all Iraqi.
They have paid a heavy price, in lives and liberty, to bring the world news from across a country where Reuters had operated for decades but was mostly restricted to Baghdad.
Two have been shot dead, joining two foreign colleagues killed early in the conflict.
The ethnic cleansing that has driven Shi'ites, Sunnis, Kurds and others from homes across Iraq has not spared our journalists.
I have watched colleagues go pale and weep in the newsroom as word came in of relatives slaughtered, heard their tales of midnight flight from family homes in fear of their lives and took dazed reports from those caught up in suicide bombings.
These are the everyday stories of Iraqis today, and their ebb and flow through our office has been a vital part of gauging the state of Iraq.
Journalists face particular dangers, too. A policeman pistol whipped our Najaf correspondent this week, a commonplace occurrence.
Worse, some 130 journalists and support staff, most of them Iraqis, have been killed since 2003 in the deadliest conflict for our trade since World War Two.
Many were killed by militants exercising the ultimate censorship -- a tactic that has all but closed some areas to the media.
Text messages of the "leave or die" variety are a favorite weapon. "What can we do? We go on," one recipient told me.
Not all are killed by insurgents. When U.S. troops shot and killed our television soundman Waleed Khaled in 2005, as he reversed his car away from covering a news assignment, two bullets punctured the press card lying over his heart.
After handling it, I typed the story. Waleed's blood stained the keys. It was hard.
Perhaps harder still has been the way the U.S. military has refused to accept responsibility for the deaths of four colleagues and the detention and abuse of others.
Those who shot Waleed acted "appropriately", U.S. officers concluded. An independent report commissioned by Reuters found their actions "prima facie unlawful" but there was no inquiry.
Three colleagues were detained for several months in 2005.
Though no evidence of wrongdoing was produced, two were held again last year; not accused, but grilled for information. One of them watched a cellmate tortured nightly by Iraqi guards. The man later died.
The courage of my Iraqi colleagues and their determination to keep telling their stories has kept me going.
Finding that cure for nightmares helped too. It's not one I would wish on anyone, but it puts you into the mind of Baghdad.
Where a typical anxiety dream used to be waking up naked in the street or missing an exam, here I once dreamt I killed a man. Now justice would come and my life was ruined, I fretted.
Then, still dreaming, I remembered with relief: this is Baghdad. No one will notice one more body.
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