Life During Wartime

NBC News’ Richard Engel on reporting under fire, as told to Mark Laswell
Author:
Publish date:

This is the first in an occasional series of reports from journalists in hot spots around the world.

The day before the election in Iraq, I didn’t even know if I would be able to cover it properly. I had gone out to report on a pro-election rally by a group in Baghdad I’d known for a long time. But when I got there—and this was typical—the organizer told me, “No, Richard, it’s not good right now.” He has a militia (everybody here who’s worth his salt has his own private little army), and someone in a black BMW had just sprayed gunfire at them. The militia was looking for them, and he thought there was going to be a fight.

So on his advice, we left, but then we ran into an Iraqi checkpoint. While we were there, talking to the Iraqi police and National Guard, a suspicious car pulled up, and somebody—I don’t know who—fired a shot. Everyone was so wound up that suddenly there was this tremendous volley of gunfire. I don’t know if it was a gun battle or just bursts of gunfire. But we got out of there and went back to our hotel. On the morning of the election, we tentatively sent out a local crew—and they were immediately arrested. A total lockdown had been imposed. I thought, “We’re not going to be able to cover this today.”

And I expected that the election was going to be total pandemonium, with militia gunmen everywhere and the 40,000 election observers pressuring people and stuffing ballot boxes. About 11:00, we decided to try walking to a nearby voting station; we were a little band, huddled down and looking over our shoulders, not knowing what to expect. But then we started running into people. They were out with kids on their shoulders, and it was suddenly like a street fair, a carnival. The voting station wasn’t designated as one open to the media, but the guard said, “Oh, come on in!” People were laughing and dancing inside, but it was being very efficiently run. It was the most organized thing I’d seen in Iraq in two years.

Reporting under Saddam

When you arrived, the Ministry of Information gave you a minder, and his job was to follow you and write reports. And to make sure that you didn’t point your cameras at any presidential sites, which were everywhere. There were certain areas where you could film one way but you couldn’t move your camera four inches to the left. But there were ways of getting around these guys. An Italian friend of mine gave me this tip: Pick the minders who are big and fat and smoke heavily, and then just walk ’em. Walk ’em all day long. Eventually, they’d lose interest. After walking for a whole day, they were, like, “I’ll just meet you there.” And so you were able to get a few hours on your own. It was a totalitarian system, but it was an Iraqi totalitarian system, so there were lots of holes in it. They didn’t really censor your stuff. If I was going to talk to one of their scientists, they were more concerned about what he said than what I said.

The invasion

It was amazing to see this totalitarian regime—the state was everywhere—disappear, leaving behind a puff of smoke and no remains. In the beginning, it was the easiest time to cover Iraq. I would get in a car and go to Najaf, and if I didn’t finish the shoot, I would stay in a hotel. I have lots of contacts, and I would go to their houses and have lunch. I know their families, and I’d go to their children’s weddings. You just spent more hands-on time with people. Then, in April 2004, the security situation collapsed. There were starting to be kidnappings. The Marines went into Fallujah for the first time, and it was a very unpopular offensive. There were riots all over Iraq. Muqtada al-Sadr decided to launch his own little parallel revolution. And it became no longer safe to be a Westerner in this country.

Safety measures

There are two major risks right now. You can get killed in some sort of violent incident, hit by something military or a car bomb. But the other danger is kidnapping, and that’s what keeps us awake at night. Most of the women reporters wear a head scarf and a black abaya, and some of the men put on local clothing so that they’re not as conspicuous. But that mostly just helps print reporters. Once we’re carrying cameras and tripods, that attracts a lot of attention. It’s better if you can do things indoors. When I call someone to set up an interview, I ask: Do you have a closed garage? Can I come and park my car in the garage so nobody will know I’m there? You spend as much time on that kind of question—to keep both yourself and the other person safe—as you do on the actual interview.

The military are constantly telling us that we’re missing other parts of the country that are doing well. To a degree, they are correct. In Najaf and Karbala, the situation is quite under control. The trouble is that, if I tried to drive down to Karbala, there is a good chance that something would happen. Insurgents are running checkpoints all along that road, stopping cars and looking inside. If they see a Westerner, they think, “Oh, this is someone of value.” To the first level of kidnapper, I’m a commodity worth, I don’t know, $10,000? Maybe $20,000. He’s a criminal. Then you’re sold up the line until you’re sold to insurgents, who will then hand you over to another group of insurgents. To cover stories outside of Baghdad, you go with the military.

Momentum

A couple of weeks ago, a car bomb went off near our hotel at about 6:30 in the morning. I woke up in a big cloud of dust. The windows and window frames had been knocked in, and doors were just blown out. I ended up plucking out shrapnel that was burning its way into the carpet. It’s the third hotel room of mine that has been wrecked since the war started. It has been rough. You feel like you’re running on luck. But now, after the election, I think—you’re always nervous about saying “the trend is getting safer,” and then suddenly you’ll be reading my obit someplace—but I think it will be easier for reporters to get access to places.

The election gave the Iraqi people confidence in themselves, a little bit of ownership in the process. It feels like we’re back at those first few days after the fall of the regime, when you sense some momentum. But that’s a dangerous period, because a lot of mistakes were made right after the war. Expectations were very high then, and now they’re very high again. I’ve been here since before the war started, and it’s fun to watch the whole process unfold. But I don’t want to be here my whole life. Hopefully: first one in and last one out the door.

Related