An Iraq reporter, stranger in her own country
Last week, one of my colleagues asked if I would be
interested in going on a day trip with the U.S. military to
visit an oil refinery north of Baghdad.
In my four years working as an Iraqi reporter with Reuters
in Baghdad, I had never before been “embedded,” the process in
which journalists insert themselves into military units and
report on the war under the shield of the U.S. military.
I had seen my foreign colleagues don their flak jackets and
helmets and disappear for days or even weeks at a time,
reappearing looking exhausted, sunburned and filthy.
I agreed immediately, never imagining that what I expected
would be a pleasant afternoon jaunt would turn into a 28-hour
odyssey that was a strange experience for an Iraqi, suddenly
transported to what seemed to be a foreign country within Iraq.
In Baghdad I boarded a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter that took
me and several other journalists to a base near Tikrit in the
north. I was thrilled, imagining how I would tell my father, a
former Iraqi military pilot, about my first helicopter flight.
But once we reached the base, we were informed that the
second leg of the trip to the Baiji refinery was cancelled due
to weather. We would be heading back to Baghdad, they said.
I was disappointed about not seeing Baiji, but it was a good
opportunity to wander around my first U.S. military base. I had
heard so much about the sprawling military cities within walls.
One of the first things I noticed was that, despite my
fluent English, I could barely understand the Americans soldiers
who were escorting us. They used military acronyms nonstop.
The hall where we ate wasn’t a “cafeteria”. It was a “DFAC”,
short for “dining facility”. Inside, I saw my first Halloween
decorations and ate wonderful caramel and strawberry ice cream.
The soldiers I met were friendly. One showed me pictures of
his wife. I imagined it must be hard to be so far from his
family. It was hard already for me to be away for just a day,
especially from my eight-year-old son at home with my parents.
As we waited for our flight in a cold tent, a Sylvester
Stallone movie flickering, I shivered in the autumn chill. I was
growing more worried about getting home that night.
Finally, a Chinook helicopter arrived. Trying not to remind
myself of the Chinook crash that killed seven U.S. soldiers a
few months ago, I climbed aboard. After around an hour’s flight,
I thought we had finally made it to Baghdad. But when we landed,
one of the pilots welcomed us back to the very same base: we had
been sent back to Tikrit because of bad weather.
It was around 9 p.m., and we shuffled back to the same cold
tent to wait for another flight. Around 1:30 a.m., I awoke from
a troubled doze feeling like a refugee. A soldier told us we
wouldn’t be able to return to Baghdad for at least 24 hours.
I was too tired to do anything but be trundled off to a cot
to sleep. The next morning, I woke in woeful need of a shower,
with no change of clothes, no toothbrush, no comb.
Enough of waiting for helicopters: I decided to return by
road. A Reuters reporter based in Samarra picked me up at the
base, and we drove toward Baghdad on a highway that would have
been perilous a year ago but which people said was now safe.
I donned a head scarf so I wouldn’t be noticed in the more
conservative rural areas. When we passed Samarra, I tried not to
think about a female journalist who was killed on the same
stretch of road in 2006.
We reached Baghdad and I hugged my son and mother tight. It
was wonderful to be home.
I won’t win journalism prizes for reporting on this embed,
but it was a learning experience. I was fascinated by the
extraordinary efficiency on the base, with U.S. soldiers working
like bees with their modern gear and funny acronyms.
I joked with colleagues that it was my first and last embed.
But the ice cream from the DFAC? It might just be worth another.