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From AJR,   April/May 2013  issue

Memories of Iraq   


By Jackie Spinner

Jackie Spinner (jackiespinner@mac.com) has reported on the Middle East since 2004. She was a staff writer for the Washington Post for 14 years and covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the paper. She is the author of “Tell Them I Didn’t Cry: A Young Journalist’s Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq.” Spinner is now an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago. She wrote about launching a student newspaper in Iraq in AJR’s Spring 2011 issue.

     

Jackie Spinner asked a number of journalists about their favorite reporting moments in Iraq. Here are their responses:

Lara Jakes, Associated Press

"A few months after I moved to Iraq, I went to interview a sheikh in the town of Youssifiyah, a former al Qaeda haven just south of Baghdad. The trip took a little longer than I'd expected, and I politely declined to stay for lunch when invited at the end of the interview. The sheikh insisted and again, I said I was honored but I needed to get back to the office and start writing the story. Finally my translator quietly said in my ear, 'Lara, we should stay.' As soon as I accepted the invitation, the sheikh's family started bringing in tables and tables of food. The women clearly had been working for days to cook for me what must have been a week's worth of the family's sustenance. I was beyond overwhelmed, humbled by their generosity, ashamed that I'd been so close to walking away and effectively wasting all their food and efforts. It was a wonderful lesson for me about the renowned hospitality of Iraq's people, and it changed the way I saw and covered the country."

Hannah Allam, McClatchy

"In August 2004, as U.S. warplanes were dropping 1,000-pound bombs to root out Sadrists from the old quarter of Najaf, I was holed up in the Imam Ali shrine with stranded civilians, Mahdi Army commanders, civilian Sadrist supporters and a bunch of terrified pigeons. The airstrikes were so close and so strong that we'd lie on the ground and feel it shake so hard that it felt like our bones would come popping out of our skin. They were so strong that, after a while, it was hard to tell which was worse: the actual strikes or the sickening dread that preceded the next one. It was also boiling hot, August in southern Iraq, and in the brief lulls between air raids, the women in the shrine would run to the bathroom and soak their headscarves in water to keep cool. During one of those bathroom breaks, an old Iraqi woman turned to me and said something to the effect of, 'You know, my heart breaks for them. Here they are, so far away from home, far away from their families, in this war. They have mothers, too.' It took me a while to realize that this woman trapped in a besieged shrine was expressing sympathy for ordinary American soldiers. It was just one of thousands of examples I witnessed of Iraqi resilience, compassion and humanity in the face of foreign occupation and civil war."

Tim Arango, New York Times

"One that sticks out for me is a hunting trip I went on in Fallujah with one of the local sheikhs who was a prominent Awakening leader. I had just arrived in Iraq, and I just had this sense of, 'Wow, I'm really here.' And of course, Fallujah is one of those evocative words from the Iraq war that brings to mind the battles and the killing of the Blackwater guards, but that day it was quite peaceful. Sadly, that sheikh was recently killed by a suicide bomber in Anbar."

Ned Parker, Los Angeles Times

"In 2010, our paper broke news of a secret jail system run by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office. It was rewarding for us when the family of a victim thanked us for reporting on the facility because it meant the place where their loved one was held existed and could not be dismissed as fantasy."

Jane Arraf, who opened CNN's Baghdad bureau

"I think a lot of us do what we do for those moments when things come together in unexpected ways and reveal something real. And for me here, a lot of time they're in places that I couldn't go to before the war. In the southern marshes recently on an absolutely magical trip, we pulled up in a boat to an empty fishing camp where our boatman cooked bread on the reeds the same way the Sumerians did. The owner of the camp pulled up — he must have been about 50 but seemed older — and our guide introduced himself. All of a sudden, they started hugging each other and crying. They had been in grade school together and hadn't seen each other in 40 years. They talked about another schoolmate who had been executed when Saddam was at war with Iran and drained the marshes. The man had a rifle he used to hunt whatever birds were flying over the migratory bird path. It was a little glimpse into a completely different world."

James Janega, Chicago Tribune

"The stories that took place during 2004, 2005 and 2007 were important and satisfying. I was always proud to have done embedded reporting in places like Fallujah, Ramadi, Baqubah, Baghdad and Al Qaim. No single memory stands out — just satisfaction in telling a part of those big stories under difficult conditions. And a few bits of oddly incongruous beauty — watching the sun set over the Tigris, the turquoise water of the Euphrates below Haditha, watching a dust storm roll in from the canyon around Al Asad airbase, the stars over the Jazeera desert. That kind of thing."

Steve Fainaru, Washington Post

"Most of my favorite Iraq memories revolve around the friends I made, but especially [reporters] Anthony [Shadid] and Karl [Vick], how close we became during that time. Anthony and I went out on a bunch of stories together in 2005, and I think we both felt those trips were the most 'fun,' if you could call it that, that we had in Iraq. One trip we flew up the Baiji and did a story about the tragicomedy that was the training of the Iraqi military by the U.S. Anthony hopped in the back of a truck with the Iraqis and they were singing songs to Saddam! That became the lead to our story. Then we flew to Kirkuk to chase a tip that the Kurds were abducting Sunnis off the street and shipping them off to secret prisons in Kurdistan. Incredibly, it was true. Somehow we had time to play poker, drink scotch, work out, edit my brother's book and watch multiple episodes of the 'Sopranos,' all on that same one-week trip. That was Anthony in a nutshell: He always seemed to be writing amazing stories. I really miss him, like everyone." [Shadid died in February 2012 while reporting in Syria.]

Larry Kaplow, who covered Iraq for Cox

"One that stands out was the day the regime fell, April 9, 2003. I was in Baghdad doing street interviews with a government 'minder' in the morning. He eventually got too nervous about what was going to happen and asked to go back to our hotel. I was working with Anthony Shadid that day and, of course, it was great to hear his take on what seemed significant. Among the Iraqis, you could sense the excitement as well as the anxiety over the chaos to come. I talked to a guy who I had interviewed a week before, when he'd been praising Saddam. As soon as I approached him at his little restaurant, he said he was going to have some different answers than he did before and started to talk about how the regime's repression had affected him. But as soon as the first column of Marines came through Karrada, even the people who greeted them were nervous. A couple ophthalmologists came out of their clinic — they spoke English — and told me that the Marines should take the U.S. flags off their vehicles because it looked like occupation and would anger Iraqis. There were already stories of armed Mahdi militia members organizing the streets in Sadr City. The looting was going to start within hours as people realized the oil ministry was the only ministry being protected by U.S. forces. The day was dominated by the main news storyline — the regime's fall — but it provided a good condensed lesson in what would soon go wrong and how important it was to listen to Iraqis carefully."