To reach Babak Dehghanpisheh, Newsweek‘s Baghdad Bureau Chief, you have to dial an twelve-digit number (that’s minus a series of zeros that you sometimes need to dial first) which rings him on his satellite phone in the house the magazine shares with two other media organizations inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone.
Mr. Dehghanpisheh, who’s been in and out of Iraq since 2003 in rotations that usually last two months at a time, sounds pretty upbeat as he talks about the challenges of reporting a war that in five years has gone through so many different phases. “In ’03, ’04 movement was pretty much unrestricted, I guess self-restricted,” Mr. Dehghanpaisheh says through a slight delay. “You’d jump in a car and go to Fallujah and report a story. You could get away with a pretty bare bones security set up in those early days. Maybe just a guard. But in general, relatively low-key.”
Back then it was possible for journalists to file stories like this one from The Wall Street Journal, which began, “Basking in the sun by the Al Hamra Hotel swimming pool, a Spanish journalist complained to me that ‘all my editors want is blood, blood, blood. No context. No politics.'”
The Hotel Al Hamra was the place to be in those pre-invasion days. According to a 2005 story in The Atlantic by William Langewiesche, the hotel was like a spring break destination: “Think barbecues, bikinis, and beer. This was a war in which a large number of women were involved, both as correspondents and as aid workers. The men and women tended to be unattached, unafraid, and young. As a result, at the Hamra there was a lot of shacking-up going on. There was a lot of casual sex.”
That era came to a swift end.
“With the beginnings of the elections in ’05, it actually got worse. The violence actually came to Baghdad,” says Mr. Dehghanpisheh. “It made people more wary of not only traveling outside of Baghdad, but within Baghdad itself. People got a little more cautious. A lot more kidnappnings, a lot more unpredictable violence. It wasn’t only the threat of getting caught in some sort of attack, an IED, or the —”
Silence on Mr. Dehghanpisheh’s end. The satellite connection cut out.
A few minutes later, he calls back and explains that there was a sandstorm. “Whenever it happens, it makes the phones function crappier,” he says, matter of fact.
At least it was only a sandstorm. Newsweek‘s bureau, which at any given time has fifteen employees including security, is located inside the Greenzone after a suicide car bomb attack near their old bureau in Western Baghdad shook a lot of people up. According to Mr. Dehghanpisheh, there are “pluses and minuses” to being inside. Besides, “all foreigners in Iraq these days are living in some sort of ‘green zone.’ It may not be the actual Green Zone but, you know, you can bet it will be some sort of well-protected compound or something like that.”
Take for example Time‘s Baghdad bureau. According to Aparisim “Bobby” Ghosh, Time‘s former Baghdad Bureau Chief (Mr. Ghosh is now the magazine’s World Editor; the Baghdad bureau currently does not have a chief), security in the cluster of houses and hotels they share with NBC, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times is incredibly tight.
“Cars are all stopped and checked. Strangers are patted down. We make sure nobody brings any weapons into the compound,” Mr. Ghosh said from New York.
Being outside the Green Zone has allowed Mr. Ghosh a little more mobility. He’s reported from Baghdad starting from before the invasion and has shared the house with as many as five journalists and three photographers for the magazine as well as a contingent of Iraqi translators and fixers. Sometimes he can actually go grocery shopping with his Iraqi staff. “Shopping in Iraq is a little bit of a crapshoot. You get what you get.”
Mr. Ghosh, who is Indian, would bring spices with him from New York and make Indian food. His bureau would host barbecues in their yard. An Italian photographer who lived in the bureau brought a suitcase loaded with cheese, pasta, and olive oil, leading Mr. Ghosh to boast, “I think it’s generally accepted that the Time house is the best place for a meal.”
After meals, those who didn’t cook did the dishes. “It’s a fairly democratic system,” he says.
Together they’d watch satellite TV or DVDs: Mr. Ghosh enjoyed light entertainment like Bollywood music videos (the Iraqi staff loved it, too). He had no tolerance for violent films.
Someone from Time’s London office sent over a Monty Python DVD, which Mr. Ghosh says saved his life. “Are you kidding me?” He enthuses. “It was fantastic to have that.”
Lest you think it’s all Italian feasts and British comedies, Mr. Ghosh says that the compound was attacked by suicide bombers on two occasions. The second attack was a double-whammy: A truck followed by a car. “Our blast walls held up okay… They take most of the brunt of the shock but they’re not completely fool proof.” According to Mr. Ghosh, two or three people died in the attack.
“We’re glad we had the walls.”
Mr. Ghosh doesn’t think the journalists were the primary target in the attack. The hotels on the compound attracted contractors who were, in Mr. Ghosh’s words “traveling large.”
“Very aggressive postures,” he said. “They swaggered about a bit.” The contractors rarely mixed with the journalists.
“When they left, we’ve had fewer incidents.”
Despite the danger, Mr. Ghosh wouldn’t trade it for the relative safety of the Greenzone. “That’s the last place in the world I ever want to live. That’s the most sort of surreal, artificial place you can ever imagine.”
Recently, Time has scaled back its bureaus across the board, including in Baghdad. “There are layoffs in every bureau,” Mr. Ghosh says. A spokesperson for the magazine says, “Time remains committed to covering the important story of the Iraq War and will continue to support a bureau in Baghdad for the forseeable future. However, like many other news organizations, we have reduced staffing levels there in recent months.”
The high cost of reporting from Baghdad is also a problem for magazines that don’t have bureaus in place. Patrick Graham, a Canadian journalist who first reported from Iraq for The National Post in 2002 and has written for Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Maclean’s, and The Guardian, remembers what it used to be like. “I used to go and hitchhike around Fallujah. That really ended in the spring of 2004. After that, it became harder and harder to get around… It shut down after that and became a really expensive game.”
“For a freelance magazine writer, it’s just hard. It’s expensive,” he says.
George Packer, who went to Iraq six times for The New Yorker and wrote the book, The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, says he brings “A lot of money. Thousands of dollars.” He also uses an RBGAN (Regional Broadband Global Area Network) satellite modem. “It’s sort of the best way to get online in the middle of nowhere… I don’t even know how much it is [per minute] because The New Yorker has an account and I
‘m not paying for it. But it’s a very expensive proposition. My God. And that’s not even counting guards which in the past, I haven’t used. I only began to travel with arm guards on my last two trips.”
Mr. Packer was lucky enough to stay at The New York Times bureau (“They’ve been absolutely fantastic. I couldn’t have done it without them,” he says) and Mr. Graham spent some time in the Guardian house. Early on in his reporting, Mr. Graham spent a lot of time with Sunnis who were telling him as far back as Fall 2003, “This country is falling apart.”
“But it never made it into the papers,” he says now.
Asked how independent reporters—those without the infrastructure of a bureau—get around, Mr. Graham was unequivocal: “You don’t. I don’t know how anybody could do that. The only way to freelance is to embed.”
Phillip Robertson, who reported from Baghdad for Salon, says that the dangers are even greater for freelancers like himself. “We get kidnapped at a higher rate. We don’t have this support structure.”
Mr. Langewiesche, who reported on Iraq twelve or thirteen times (“I wasn’t counting”) for The Atlantic and now Vanity Fair and has been embedded a few times, says, “Walking around is something you don’t do very long in Baghdad.”
Mr. Langewiesche, who has stayed in several hotels in Baghdad, says that a reporter can get around by knowing the terrain. “It’s a big city. There’s lots of streets. You could move with unpredictability and anonymity through the grid.”
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t encountered danger. “I’ve certainly been shot at. Mortared. I lost a house to rockets. I lost a hotel to a truck bomb. I’ve been chased through the streets, followed, you name it. I’ve had stones thrown at me.”
Mr. Langewiesche prefers not to write about such things. “It’s a question of taste. It’s like, So what? If you choose to go to a war zone—which in the case of journalists is always a choice—I think it’s sort of somewhat distasteful to overplay your own personal drama.”
That kind of circumspection seems to characterize a lot of reporters’ experiences in Baghdad. Few seem comfortable placing themselves at the center of the story, putting to rest any lingering image readers might have of the swaggering “gonzo” war correspondent. Time‘s Ghosh says that there’s no room for anyone, in his words, “batshit crazy.”
“You can’t survive Baghdad if you’re an adrenaline junkie. Those people are least equipped to survive in that sort of environment. And the way news organizations operate now, it’s irresponsible not only to yourself but everybody with you. When I leave the house in Baghdad and go anywhere, I know that I’m traveling with a bunch of Iraqis and possibly a photographer as well, and I’m conscious of their safety.”
Mr. Graham would agree. “Your life is governed by your security detail,” he says.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t a few “gonzo” moments. In 2003, Salon’s Phillip Robertson couldn’t get a visa so he smuggled himself into Iraq via an inflatable boat on the Tigris from Syria. “I won’t say that it was never fun,” he says. “It had extraordinary moments.”
But he also says, “You end up traumatized. Your friends die. I’ve lost two. It’s a tremendous heartbreak.”
“I came out of it really messed up. I was messed up to begin with. It didn’t fix me at all. I became a much better reporter. But that’s a ‘Be Careful What You Wish For.'”
“The opportunities for ambition were limited in Iraq,” says Mr. Langewiesche. “It was basically people doing calm, serious work. And who knew after a while they weren’t advancing their careers.”
“This is very, very serious work being done,” he continues.
“Overall, the quality has been incredibly good. I’m not talking about my own work because I’ve always just been a magazine guy. But the ordinary frontline daily newspaper reporters: I had this feeling that, God, these people are so admirable. They’re so smart, they’re so dedicated, they’re so brave, they’re so educated about this situation and if only the American public could get over the idea that these guys are a bunch of prejudiced schmucks with an agenda, always reporting the bad news and all that stuff. I often felt it was like delivering pearls of work, of understanding, to a population that was, in those days, essentially lazy. I was always much, much impressed by reporters there in Iraq.”