Middle East

Cracking the Code of Silence

My Instincts Tell Me to Stay

A photojournalist takes a picture as he heads from Kuwait to Iraq on March 11, 2003 (Photo: AFP)

Wars are always accompanied by lies. Lies about losses, lies about victories, lies about the war’s victims. As a war reporter, you have to try to cut through the lies and their half-brother, war propaganda, to uncover some kind of truth.

But I have never worked under such difficult conditions as now in Iraq. Previously, I have covered wars in Chechnya, in the Balkans, and in Afghanistan. What makes it so difficult to work in Iraq and to cover war crimes here is that no one is talking. Nobody dares to talk. I have never before experienced such a thorough dictatorship as Iraq. The society is so oppressed by fear that most interviews are just phrases and banalities, in a way sort of mimicking the Iraqi news.

Iraqi authorities have a strict and very effective policy when it comes to Western journalists. The first is that it is extremely difficult to get a visa. Many people have been waiting for several months, and large newspapers haven’t received visas for their correspondents. This means that visas are a scarce commodity, and you have to do your best to hold on to them. Since the Iraqi authorities keep track of what the journalists write and eventually throw them out of the country if they don’t like what they have written, many journalists are careful.

This is now one of the larger topics of conversation between my colleagues and me: How far can you go in criticizing the country without being deprived of your residency permit? Many journalists have received warnings from the authorities that they will be deported if they write articles that are too critical of Iraq or of the country’s president. Because I work for a smaller paper in a less common language, I have taken the liberty of writing everything that I have seen and heard and bet that the authorities won’t check it. But larger newspapers and TV stations are constantly under a magnifying glass. We are subject to surveillance. On arrival, we are assigned a so-called minder. He or she should always be with us when we conduct interviews. The minder is both a servant and interpreter, and anything that is told to us goes through him. It is his version that comes out, unless you are courageous enough to speak Arabic.

The absurd thing in the situation is that Iraqis are their own minders. After 25 years under a brutal dictatorship, the people are scared to death of criticizing the regime. Therefore, you often get the same answer: That they are not afraid, that they want to fight, that everyone is behind the president.

Only when you meet someone without your minder do you actually have the chance to hear another version, but it is rare. People are afraid of being monitored or ratted out. As one man said to me: “We don’t trust you journalists. That you have been allowed to come to Iraq means that one way or another you have had contact with the regime. Besides, what if you quote us, and someone has seen us together?” Rarely do you hear criticism of the regime, and if you hear any, you often don’t write about it—out of fear of being expelled.

It is difficult to determine what people in Iraq actually think and to what degree they would want to support the regime under a potential war. Some say that 95 percent of Iraqis would gladly see Saddam Hussein’s eventual downfall. Others say that many people will fight fiercely to defend him.

Now journalists in Baghdad are preparing for war. The big question is whether one should remain, despite the dangers, or leave the country. Most of the people who have decided to stay are well equipped with gas masks, bio-terrorism suits, bulletproof vests, and helmets. They have purchased cases of water, food, blankets, generators, flashlights, candles, and car batteries. But many want to leave the country in the event of a war. No one knows how long the war will last, if it will be over in a few days or if it will rage on for a long time, if the regime will take journalists as hostages, if people will want to seek revenge against the Western world, if bombs will annihilate the entire electrical infrastructure, if Baghdad will fall under siege, or if there will be fighting in the streets.

This is a part of the everyday life of a war correspondent: To weigh “the story” against the danger. I am always in doubt. Reason tells me to leave, but my journalistic instincts say: Stay.