The Survival Mode of Reporting From a War Zone
‘Our generation is more vocal about trauma we experience than others have been. It can't be avoided when you see this much violence and senseless death.’
Farnaz Fassihi directed The Wall Street Journal's Baghdad bureau from 2003 until December 2005. She then became the newspaper's senior Middle East correspondent, covering Iran and other Arab countries. She spoke in May with Nieman Reports editor, Melissa Ludtke, from New York City.
Melissa Ludtke: What does it feel like not only to work but also to live in an environment in which your life is threatened — to never escape from the threat of some harm or danger? You describe a car bomb that went off near a house you had recently left and several foreigners abducted and beheaded in the neighborhood. Another time a car bomb exploded outside of the house you were living in, and yet you had to stay there knowing that insurgents were outside and might possibly abduct you. It is as though you can't escape from it.
Farnaz Fassihi: I think in those circumstances, when you live and work in Iraq, you go into a survival mode in which you push the fears out of your mind and just do what you have to do. It's only when you leave that environment that your body and mind can truly process the trauma you've experienced. I think that is why so many of us are experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder; we can function when we are there almost mechanically, but it hits us when we leave.
Ludtke: Is there a way you can describe what this survival mode feels like? It sounds to me like it is more the absence of feeling than it is its presence.
Fassihi: I think it is almost automatic; it's not something you think about doing. It is something that happens to you. You never really rest or have deep sleep at night. You are always vigilant for sounds and movement and on full alert.
Ludtke: Your family had fears for your safety. Your only sibling, your sister, when she got engaged asked you for one gift: to stop going back to Iraq so that you would be alive when she got married. How did those feelings/fears affect you and your work in Iraq?
Fassihi: Other people's fears about you are never far from your mind. For me, it has meant just being a lot more careful. My sister was getting married, and my mother was very agonized about my Iraq assignment. When I had to make a decision about a reporting trip, I'd ask myself whether I really need to go on this interview, whether it was worth the potential risk of getting kidnapped, killed or injured. Sometimes I decided against going and would send one of the Iraqi staffers at our bureau.
Ludtke: You have said that working in such a dangerous place led to you forming "intense friendships" with other journalists — and described how you would monitor each other for security. Do you think the intensity of these friendships gave each of you the ability to be more courageous in the work you were expected to do?
Fassihi: The conditions in Iraq were so extreme that it created a parallel reality to the outside world we knew. So having friends does help keep you sane. We looked after one another. We would count on each other for support and check on one another several times a day. Whenever I would leave to go somewhere — whether it was out on a story, or to do an interview, or to go out to buy a loaf of bread — there were two or three other journalists I would call to let them know where I was going. I'd tell them exactly what streets I'd be taking, where the interview was taking place, and when I expected to be back. And if I wasn't back within a half an hour of when I said I'd be back, they were to let my editors know. And also we could talk to each other in ways no one else could; there is a sense that no one else other than your colleagues and friends on the ground really get what you have been through.
Ludtke: After you were confronted by angry mobs and were fired upon or your car was chased, I am wondering how you prepared yourself to go out and report again after having that kind of concrete experience with danger.
Fassihi: It slows you down for maybe a day or two, but then you go back out because that is what you need to do. I was in a helicopter one time with some military troops and we just about crashed, but I went back in helicopters after that happened. But the feelings hit me not on other military helicopter rides but when I was flying in commercial airlines outside of Iraq. We hit any turbulence, and I would freak out; the memories and fear would come back. I have to say, for me, the feelings are most intense when I'm outside of Iraq and have a chance to reflect and process my experiences.
Ludtke: You said there were times when you put parts of a story in the hands of Iraqis who were working with you at the bureau. But were there also times when you thought that the story was not worth the risks it was demanding of you or of your Iraqi staffers to tell?
Fassihi: I never thought the story as a whole was not worth the risks. I firmly believe that war correspondents have a mission. They are the only independent observers of conflict, and if journalists were not there to tell this difficult story, then people would have to rely on only what the military and government officials want us to know. Being there to tell the story was important and was worth the risks. But I came to realize that after three years of being in Iraq and working under these conditions I needed to leave. At the same time I argued strenuously that there had to be another reporter sent to Baghdad and that the bureau we have there had to remain open.
Ludtke: By the fall of 2004, insurgents in Iraq were abducting foreigners from their homes in Baghdad. By then, you had hired armed guards and were traveling in a fully armored car and limiting the reporting trips you made outside of protective zones. And you were relying on Iraqis who worked in your bureau to be your eyes and ears in Baghdad — though they would sometimes bring people to your hotel office for you to meet and interview. And for stories outside of Baghdad you only traveled as an embedded reporter, with the U.S. military or State Department as escorts. How did these changed circumstances — based on a situation where violence exists around you — affect the reporting your paper could do and the stories that were important to tell?
Fassihi: Our inability to move around freely or to travel to parts of the country made this very, very difficult. And to have to use Iraqis to do some of our interviews, sometimes they were not able to pick up on subtle things that we might feel are important to the story, or might not observe things in the same way we'dwant to if we had been able to go out to do the story. But we tried to be creative and find ways around the challenges and, I have to say, under extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances, I think we've all done our best.
Ludtke: You — and other Western correspondents — speak about the commitment and courage displayed by the Iraqi staffers who took on increasingly risky assignments to them and their family members as the violence in Iraq increased. In one of your articles you quote one of your drivers as saying, "We live like animals in the wild. We eat, we sleep, and we try not to get killed each day." Can you talk a bit about what those Iraqis who worked with you risked by doing the kind of work your news organization and others began to rely on them to do?
Fassihi: They foremost risk their lives. They risk being kidnapped or killed, or having family members kidnapped. They never carry with them an identification that would show that they work for us, and no one other than their spouse knows what they do. They would not tell their children in fear that they might say something to someone. And Iraqis who have worked for Western news organizations have been killed, and they've had family members threatened.
Ludtke: Where do you think they find this kind of internal strength to do this kind of work? Have you talked with them about this?
Fassihi: I did talk with them about this. I think journalism is addictive; for them, it enables them to help to tell their country's story to the world, and this gives them a powerful sense that they are doing something useful and important at a time when their country is being torn to pieces.
Ludtke: You have written that "being a woman correspondent in an Arab Muslim culture proved to be a huge asset," and that your Iranian-American identity also became very useful in your work, as you could wear and shed your heritage and upbringing depending on the situation. Because of this, do you think that this enabled you to take risks in your reporting that other Western reporters might not feel they are able to take?
Fassihi: Yes, I think it did. I think looking like a local and being able to hide under those garments made me more invisible. This made it easier for me to blend in than it would be for someone who had blond hair and blue eyes and therefore might be a more visible target than I would be.
Ludtke: Alissa Rubin with the Los Angeles Times wrote an article in January, soon after Jill Carroll was kidnapped, about an assignment she set out on with her Iraqi translator and driver. It called for her to travel outside of Baghdad to do an interview. At each step along the way, she became more concerned about the risks she might be taking for herself and those who were traveling with her, but she continued to press on. Finally at the last roadblock they were told that they could not return for 48 hours, which meant staying in a very dangerous place, when they had intended to be back in Baghdad that same evening. At that point, she felt that because of the lives of her companions whom she was responsible for she could not go any further and turned around and returned to Baghdad. Have you had a similar moment when you've had circumstances add up to a decision that the risk is just too large for you to go on?
Fassihi: Yes, I remember during the seizure of the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, I went down there with another journalist. We didn't take armored cars because we wanted to blend in with the locals and we hid our flak jackets and satellite phones and I wore a black, long abaya all the way. About a mile or so near Najaf, we reached a blockade that we could not pass. The cops had closed the road, and they were engaged in a shootout with some people who looked like militia running around open fields along the road. We quickly turned around and had to make a choice: Do we wait for the shooting to stop, do we take the back way through the village, or simply return to the next nearest city? We chose the last option, which was the safest, and ended up spending a night in Karbala. But a trip that should have taken us only a few hours turned into taking us two days. Constantly, we were evaluating risks like these every step of the way and having to make decisions on whether to go ahead in reporting what we set out to report or turn around and go back to where it would be safer for us.
Ludtke: Now that you are out of Iraq, and you spoke earlier about the trauma that returns to you from these times, what have you learned about courage in the practice of journalism in a situation like the coverage of war in Iraq?
Fassihi: Courage comes out of the commitment to telling the story, a belief that this is what we must do and the importance of doing it. Bearing witness to conflict and the impact it has on ordinary lives is not easy, and the chance to relay it to the world is a huge responsibility. I think our generation of war correspondents is more vocal about trauma we experience than others have been. It can't be avoided when you see this much violence and senseless death. And it's something that is going to be with us, likely with all of us, when we leave Iraq. I still jump when I hear loud sounds like a door slamming or thunder. I can't watch fireworks; they remind me too much of mortars.