Europe

Killed While Reporting

Conversations with Julio

Julio Parrado was killed April 7 by an Iraqi missile attack nine miles south of Baghdad, while traveling as an embedded correspondent with the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division, reporting for El Mundo. —WPR

“They’re in Saddam’s main palace—you can report that!” shouted Julio from his satellite telephone at 6:30 a.m., European time. It was almost an hour before the news agencies picked it up. Yesterday, once again, we were covering the war live. We’ve been able to do it in recent days, thanks to his calls. He was enthusiastic about the chance to see it and report it. As the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division command reported the most recent advances, and with the prudence of someone who knows what he’s dealing with, Julio called us with all the information and we put it up on www.elmundo.es.

“U.S. troops entering the Iraqi capital” was the last event he reported to us—almost as it was happening. The night before, he had found out he wouldn’t be traveling with the other journalists to accompany the 3rd Division in the attack on the palaces in the Iraqi capital. His bulletproof vest was not safe enough, according to the Americans. “But even so, I thought about it…until two soldiers wounded by mortar fire arrived at the field hospital and told me that if it weren’t for the vests they were wearing, they’d be dead. In the end, I decided to stay put.” Instinct, though doomed this time, and caution made Julio stay where he was: 15 kilometers from the capital, together with his German colleague.

And we were even forewarned. His second-to-last “big news” came on Sunday night. Direct from the 3rd Infantry Division operations site: “Be ready at dawn…something big is going to happen.” And it did. The last message, yesterday: “In half an hour, they’re going to knock down Saddam’s statue in the park at the presidential complex, but only if Fox cameras are there.” And that happened, too. Julio, the “novice” war correspondent, didn’t miss on any of his predictions.

He covered the war as if he had already lived through several. He didn’t even seem to be aware that, for us, he was the authentic voice from the war front, [among] the real voices of the war in the pages of El Mundo, the voice of the actions and the horrors, the victories and defeats—live on www.elmundo.es. “What did you do with what I wrote yesterday?” he asked about the report he had filed on Saturday, on the first time troops entered Baghdad.

“On the front page, Julio, five columns.” “Really? Again?”

Hidden among the day’s disorder on one of our tables was a blue folder with “Julio” written on it. Inside were printouts of the front pages from our online edition that we were saving for him on his return.

He called every day, every hour if needed, explaining the current operations in full detail, noting what the next tactics would be, and always taking a moment to chat: “Who would have thought I’d be here?...I’m dying for a beer and to take a shower!” You’d listen to him and imagine him there, among so many soldiers dressed in khaki, with his Córdoba-now-almost-New York accent, and his vitality, exuberance, common sense. His tone, more “accelerated” than usual these days, interrupted only by startling moments of silence that allowed the person on the other end of the phone to hear the sound of missiles falling only meters away.

Julio would comment on how U.S. troops were very well equipped and well trained, but enormously inexperienced, which meant they were constantly committing fatal errors. Last Friday, together with other colleagues, he was caught for a few moments between two firefights. As he was going through those fearful seconds, the conversation was interrupted by at least three big explosions. “There are cars going by too fast, and the Americans are blowing them up with the passengers inside, no questions asked,” he told us, later adding that despite this brutality, U.S. military doctors in the field hospitals were attending to the injured Iraqi children, women, and men with great care.

One of the paradoxes of the war: “They want to be on the good side of the civilian population.”

Today, many of us in the newsroom were remembering our surprise at seeing Julio A. Parrado’s byline during the first days of the war. But we got over this surprise when we began to read his articles, so alive, human, and exact. In the war, just like in New York, Madrid, and Córdoba, he found a place for himself. Just the right place for the excellent person he was.

He traveled with the 3rd Infantry Division, but in a very special place: together with the field hospital medical team. He didn’t experience Stockholm syndrome, identifying with triumphant soldiers roaring by in impetuous tanks. He did experience it, of course, in the medical team: “They’re incredible, they really are…excellent professionals and persons, it’s incredible how they treat the injured Iraqis….They’re a genuine elite surgery team. What a difficult thing to be shooting at them, and then working to heal the very same Iraqis.”

And just as Julio’s sad ending is, above all, full of paradoxes and good intentions, here’s another one: From the time he arrived in the heart of the 3rd Infantry Division, he became—and so did we—the channel for communication between the medical team and their families in the United States. He came up with all kinds of ways to send messages from the military personnel to their families.

And all of them had the same two words: We’re alive. We were their channel of communication. In the reports he would file with El Mundo, he would add personal messages from his new battle companions, so that we could pass them on to their families by e-mail. And then we would send back to Iraq the messages from eternally grateful families who all had the same words for their loved ones: “God bless you,” and “Take care.” And yes, the U.S. doctors with the 3rd Infantry Division are alive. But they weren’t able to do anything for Julio from Spain.

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