- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 9, 2004

Fear in Baghdad

Borzou Daragahi, the outstanding freelance correspondent who is now representing us in Baghdad, sent me an article this week that had been commissioned by another of his clients. It was too long for our purposes and included extensive segments written in the first person, something we avoid.

But he has written so compellingly about his personal struggle with the fear that stalks Baghdad that I have decided to share some excerpts in this space. The rest of this column is from Mr. Daragahi’s article:

The fear and trauma Iraqis live with strikes me during a hasty visit in early October to the Bab al Sharji “thieves market,” a sprawling bazaar in the old section of town.

I am among pickpockets, car thieves and prostitutes, but I gravitate to a 13-year-old boy named Allawi Ali Haydar [who] is selling videos of local guerrillas fighting American forces and the Iraqi National Guard. …

As the interview continues, a crowd gathers around Allawi and me. My driver and translator whisk me away. “We have to keep moving,” my driver says. “We’ll be safer if we keep moving.”

Another day, another quick getaway from an interview, another lesson of the ongoing lessons life here offers outsiders.

The protocol is simple. Wear local clothes and drive in low-key vehicles. If you’re a male, you grow facial hair. If you’re a woman, you wear a head scarf over every strand of hair on your head. Long lunches at restaurants or simple strolls along the street are out. …

Another time, in late September, I am bundled into the back seat of the car after an interview with soldiers at an Army base ends when the fear starts to crawl up my body like a cool draft.

Paranoia is my constant companion. I think of Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, the French reporters kidnapped on the road to Najaf. I last saw Christian in Paris. He was pondering coming back to Iraq. Georges was at my wedding in July and had been talking about settling down back home with his new girlfriend.

They now have been missing for 40 days.

Computer repairs

A calamity has struck; my laptop has died.

I call around desperately. And while it is not difficult to buy another one, I need to recover the data and interviews on my ailing hard drive. Someone recommends a computer shop near my hotel. The owner — speaking perfect English — tells me he can’t fix my computer, that I need to go to Sana’a Street, Baghdad’s Silicon Alley.

I dress local in a cruddy button-down shirt I bought for $2 at the bazaar last trip here, gray slacks, dirty shoes, Baghdadi frown.

I go with my translator.

“Don’t speak too loud in English,” I tell him.

“It’s hard to remember,” he says.

“Just picture me on Al Jazeera with a knife to my neck,” I say.

“Don’t worry,” my translator, an Iraqi Christian, says. “They’ll kill me before they kill you.”

The computer shop is like something out of “Blade Runner,” with radio tubes, microchips, screwdrivers and hammers mixed together on shelves. The technician says he can repair my computer, but that will take a few hours. He says he can probably extract the data, too, but that I should stick around to make sure nothing is lost.

I’m not really supposed to stay anywhere for longer than a few minutes, an hour tops. I’m stuck between safeguarding my person and my data. I decide to play the odds and go with my data.

I sit around for a couple hours. … Bored, I take a walk along the street. The shops sell all manner of high-tech gear, flash cards, digital cameras, laptops, and I find myself lost in the window displays of colorful gadgets.

I come to, and the fear creeps up on me again. I return to the computer shop and reclaim my laptop.

It is time to get back on the road.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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