- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 19, 2004

Fear in Baghdad

Sitting in a pile of papers on my desk is a photo of freelance correspondent Borzou Daragahi on his wedding day in Paris. He is riding through Paris in a horse-drawn carriage with his beautiful bride, a reporter for the Paris newspaper Le Figaro, whom he met while both were working in Baghdad.

The two enjoyed a leisurely honeymoon this summer and then returned to their home in Tehran before heading back this month to Baghdad and the increasingly nasty business of covering the war in Iraq.

The headlines on his last couple of articles pretty well sum up what greeted Mr. Daragahi on his return: “Fierce day in Baghdad kills dozens,” and “Suicide bomber kills 47 in Baghdad.”

The stories were full of the quotes and details that can only be acquired by getting out onto the streets, viewing the carnage in person and talking to survivors and witnesses.

“Human beings were piled one on top of the other,” he quoted a survivor of a car bomb explosion as saying in Wednesday’s story. “I’m all choked up with shock. I saw it with my own eyes.”

Reading Mr. Daragahi’s raw copy, I had to admire his enterprise, especially in light of increasingly brazen kidnappings aimed at foreign reporters and relief workers. I know from talking to colleagues at other news organizations that better-financed reporters with far better security measures at their disposal are increasingly leery of venturing outside their hotels.

With that in mind, I asked Mr. Daragahi to send me some notes on how the problems faced by reporters have changed in the couple of months he was away from Baghdad. His response was more disturbing than I had expected.

‘Quick, quick, quick’

“For the foreigners here, life has become a bit of a nightmare. The kidnappings have struck fear into all of our hearts,” Mr. Daragahi wrote.

“All illusions of security have been shorn away as the kidnappers have grown more audacious in their techniques and indiscriminate in their targets — journalists, nationals of non-coalition countries — heck, even nationals of anti-coalition countries like France and Iran have all been targeted.

“I do go into the field, but on lightning-quick missions to specific places. Get the quotes, get the ambience, and then get out, quick, quick, quick, before someone sends word that there’s a foreign journalist around.”

Mr. Daragahi has been traveling into Iraq from Tehran for two years now — often for periods up to four months — and is on his eighth visit to the country.

During that time, he wrote, “There have been moments when it seemed like the story would have a happy ending. When I was in northern Iraq covering the buildup to the war and living among Iraq’s Kurdish minority, that sense was very strong. In their hearts, everyone believed that Iraq would find its way to liberty and peace.”

But, he wrote, “Those moments of optimism, sadly, have progressively become fewer and farther in between as the months have worn on.

“I once cracked a joke that the only people who were optimistic about Iraq’s future were those with the ‘914’ area code cell phones handed out to government officials and coalition authorities. Now I find that I can’t even reach those people because they’re out of the country waiting out the storm.

“The passport office has become one of the busiest hangouts in Baghdad as droves of young talented Iraqis take the first step toward emigrating abroad. I have to say I’ve never seen the place so depressed.

“Defenders of the interim government and the U.S. either don’t speak out or have changed their minds, because all I hear from ordinary Iraqis is how bad, bad, bad things are.

“‘There’s no security. There’s no reconstruction. There’s no prosperity.’ And the most dismaying cry of them all, ‘Things are getting worse.’”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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