- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 10, 2007

Baghdad market

A story and photograph on our front page Wednesday described life in a street market in Baghdad just days after a truck bomb in a similar emporium killed 135 persons — the largest toll from any single bomb blast since the war began.

The story itself wasn’t exactly dramatic; nothing blew up. It simply described the frustrations and anxieties of ordinary merchants and shoppers struggling to maintain a semblance of ordinary life as they faced extraordinary danger.

What made the story stand out, in our minds, was the fact that it existed at all.

Western reporters very seldom go into the streets in Baghdad anymore; at least one major news agency has totally forbidden its Western staff to do it. When they do go, it is generally with heavily armed security teams, and they tend to avoid such places as crowded markets that are favorite targets for bombers.

Above all, they avoid doing anything to call attention to themselves, such as pulling out a camera.

So who is James Palmer, whose byline appeared on the story and photo?

This intrepid freelancer first sold a story to us from Kabul, Afghanistan, in December 2001, describing conditions along the treacherous road from Jalalabad where four Western journalists had been dragged from their car and killed the month before.

The next couple of stories came from a pass along the India-Pakistan border and the insurgency-troubled territory of Kashmir. Within a year, he was in Africa, filing stories from war zones in northern Uganda and Sudan.

All that presumably prepared him for reporting from Iraq, where he arrived in the summer of 2005. Joined since by his wife — a trained nurse-practitioner — he has filed primarily for the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., which has nominated him for a Pulitzer Prize.

Go” zones

“I always try to go where there are stories but not a lot of reporters, filling a niche where there is a need for news,” Mr. Palmer told me by telephone a few days ago.

“I’m living in a relatively quiet neighborhood in a secure compound in the so-called Red Zone,” which is to say outside the fortified Green Zone, where most Westerners stay for safety. “Where I am, I feel relatively secure, but that is by Baghdad standards.”

Most reporters refuse to go anywhere in Baghdad without several armed guards and at least a second “chase car” to follow behind in case of an ambush or kidnapping attempt. Not so Mr. Palmer.

“I work with two Iraqis, and that’s about it,” he told me. “I’m pretty much on my own, other than that.”

He also avoids the press conferences, press releases and canned interviews with officials inside the Green Zone that have become the staple for most reporters in Baghdad. “I go looking for average Iraqis, like the customers in the market,” he said. “I want to explain how things like the bombings affect people.”

Mr. Palmer said he does not take out his camera unless his Iraqi escorts tell him he is in a “go” zone.

“The number of those is shrinking for us, but you will see Arabic cameramen out in the street. Luckily for me, I can pass as an Iraqi because of the way I look, the way I dress. … I get my clothes here and everything.”

Mr. Palmer said he has made one big change in the way he works since fellow freelancer Jill Carroll, now a staffer with the Christian Science Monitor, was kidnapped last year. “We are not making appointments with anyone, not telling anyone, ‘I will meet you at a certain time,’ ” he said.

Like all reporters working the streets in Baghdad, he never stays more than 10 or 15 minutes in one place. “I tell my wife I feel like I’m committing a crime [when I interview an Iraqi] because I do it, and then we jump in the car and move off.”

As for his plans, he said he talks regularly with his wife about how long to stay. “It’s just on a month by month basis,” he said. “At the end of every month, I weigh my options.”

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

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide