I spent the day in Basra. Exciting to do some real reporting. It felt safer than it probably actually is.
Yesterday, a couple reporters and I decided to go up to Basra. I have to say, I feel like a total coward and loser for missing this whole war. My assignment was not to cover the battles, but to cover the impact on the people. And until this week, it just wasn’t possible to do much reporting with people. There was no reason for me to go into the war, but I still feel like a loser. I feel embarrassed writing this, actually. I spent so much time in the last few months preparing for covering the war. I didn’t consciously decide not to go in during it. There just was no moment that made sense. Most of the reporters covering the battles were embedded, and I was told by my editors not to embed, because we’re not doing war coverage. Then a bunch of reporters’dand a lot, a lot of photographers’djust drove up into the battles. That seemed nuts to me and wouldn’t serve my needs at all, since none of those people got to actually talk to regular Iraqis. All this week, I’ve been trying so hard to get up into Iraq and talk to Iraqis, but I haven’t been able to find anyone to go with. There is a group of reporters, a kind of clique, that was going up. Some of them said I could go with them’this was on Monday or something’dbut then the leader of the group said no. They were too many. So, I spent the week trying to find people to go up with, because I certainly don’t want to just drive into Iraq alone. It’s stupid to. If I get a flat tire or anything, I want someone who can grab me and take me. I left Amman’dwhere I knew so many people and had the whole place wired’dfor Kuwait where I just don’t know that many people. Finally, I found a couple guys who wanted to go up. We went up yesterday to Basra.
We were very anxious about crossing the border from Kuwait. There are so many rumors about that border. I heard from one friend that it’s closed completely. Another friend said it’s wide open. Other people said you have to be there at 4 in the morning or you’dll never get across. There’s this magic letter people get from the ministry of defense that allows them to cross. So, I spent much of the week hectoring my fixer to get that damn piece of paper. Which he finally did on Wednesday. Anyway, we just drove up and passed through the border with absolutely no problem. I’ve written a lot about border crossings in the Middle East. This was nothing. A big, heavy Kuwaiti army guy came up to our car and said’dno way, you can’t go across. We waved the paper at him and he didn’t even look at it and just waved us through. And then we were just in downtown Safwan, the southernmost Iraqi city where there had been intense fighting.
Safwan and all the other small cities we drove through, are so shockingly miserable. There is all the war damage’dburned out Iraqi tanks and artillery cannons on the side of the road, buildings that look bombed and burned out. It’s grim. But it’s pretty clear that these cities were horrible before the war. One of the reporters I was with kept saying, ‘dIt’s worse than India.’d Most of the buildings are squat and long, yellow brick. There is dirt and trash everywhere. And along every road there are all these little kids’so dirty’djust running back and forth across the street in front of cars. We blazed through Safwan on our way to Basra. It took less than an hour to get there. Right away, it just started feeling so normal to be driving on this road. There were lots of other cars’dmostly taxis. Iraqi taxis look cool’they’re white with orange panels on each corner. Outside of Safwan we didn’t see much sign of the war. Only the occasional burned out tank or something. We did see a whole bunch of spent rocket shells on the side of the road. The guys I was with kept discussing taking things like that for souvenirs, but I found that lame. Every now and then someone on the side of the road or someone driving would give us a thumbs up or wave or honk. They weren’t jubilant, like we expected before the war started. And it was kind of the same thing as you get in Central America or Japan or whatever’djust small town people excited to see a new face. I didn’t get the sense they were thrilled that we looked Americans. We did pass a lot of British tanks and other army vehicles. Some were so cool’dlike those bridge crossing trucks that have these enormous planks on top that can stretch out. Some were so strange’djust these crazy Star Wars looking trucks. I can’t really describe them. Just out of this world cool. So strange we couldn’t figure out what they were for or what any of the weird parts does. We did pass a few burned out, bombed out cars that looked totally civilian.
We made it to the bridge into Basra. One of the reporters had been at that bridge during the siege of Basra. This bridge was the sign of utter devastation and massive firefights. A friend of mine slept below that bridge for a week. Now there was all but nothing there. We just drove across the bridge and were in Basra. Almost as soon as we got there, we saw this open truck filled with teenagers dragging a recently ripped down statue of Saddam Hussein. It was funny. Two days earlier, this would be the biggest news in the world. But yesterday’dmore than 24 hours after the big Baghdad statue fell’this seemed almost pathetic. We were the only reporters around. The truck of kids were just driving, they weren’t cheering or anything. But then we honked at them to ask them to pull over so we could interview them and they started cheering and singing some triumphant song. But they wouldn’t pull over. We drove after them for a long time, they kept singing but didn’t want to talk.
A bit further down the road we came across the destroyed Ba’dath party headquarters. This building had been on CNN for a long time recently. It’s a huge building’dmaybe only 10 stories tall, but wide and thick looking and it’s completely bombed, destroyed. The center wing has collapsed. You can see right into the building, because the windows and everything are gone, and it looks stripped clean. In the rubble we saw some young kid having trouble carrying a broken chair. The last looter. Within moments of stopping, we were surrounded by people, mostly teenagers or early 20s, but some older men. They kept saying the same thing over and over. Tell Mr. Bush we have no water, no food, no electricity, no security. There is looting. We’re not safe. We’re so thirsty. We can’t wash or drink. The hospital was looted, the schools are looted. And the British don’t do anything. We wave to their tanks but they drive by and don’t stop. They won’t do anything. It’s horribly depressing for a minute or two and then it’s just overwhelming hearing all this. We ended up hearing it all day long. Every time we stopped the car, all these people would surround us and say the exact same things. We caused traffic jams, because people driving by would stop their cars and come out and talk to us. We’d stop on an almost empty street and in three minutes we’d be completely mobbed. Totally surrounded by people. It made me think how funny the juxtaposition of these people in real agony is with the needs of a reporter. When we would leave some group, I’d joke with the other guys’don’t they understand that looting and lawlessness and no water is yesterday’s story. We need something new, guys. You’re just not interesting anymore. But it’s true. It’s horrible to say. Also, I found it grimly amusing that each person would tell us this as if we didn’t know and as if George Bush didn’t know and if we could just get word to the right guy, he’d understand and bring them water and electricity tomorrow. But, of course, everyone knows they’re deprived and everyone just says’dit’dll take a while.
With these crowds around us I was surprised at how comfortable I felt. I didn’t feel scared or nervous. The people didn’t seem desperate or anything. They just wanted to tell us their story. But at some point, I’d just look around and things felt different. I don’t know if it was just that there was more people. Or if I actually sensed a change in the crowd or if someone bad showed up or if I was just being paranoid. But I’d get kind of nervous and start saying’dguys, guys, let’s get going. They always let us into our car without problems. I kept thinking about what a friend of mine, a long time war reporter, told me. He said crowds are really bad news. Especially desperate crowds. They can be friendly but they can switch on a dime and then they’re insanely violent. It definitely didn’t feel impossible to imagine that happening here. Several times, the crowds just degenerated into a lot of young guys begging us for water, demanding water. We had a big case of big bottles in the trunk and I was nervous they’d find it. Some reporters were stripped bear not long ago. I had a bottle in the front seat with me and a few times people saw it and demanded it. I knew that if we gave them any water, it would be disaster. The crowd would go nuts. And we’d just have enough water for a few of them.
We happened upon the red cross office in Basra. I don’t know why it struck me so, but it really left an impression. It’s this beautiful villa, pleasantly shaded (the day was so miserably hot and humid I couldn’t barely stand it). Inside it seemed like an island of civilization. There were a lot of people in the waiting room who were asking so much of the red cross. It was the only sort of official place left. The British soldiers would just tell them to buzz off. There were no Iraqi officials left. So people came here. Some guy came in, talking softly and sweetly and then suddenly screaming. He’s the captain of a boat and his boat was looted over several days. First they took his fridge and electronic equipment and then he thought he was safe. The next day, they took all the fixtures and everything metal. Then this morning they just wrecked the thing and burned it to the ground. Two of his sailors are missing. He was screaming at the red cross woman to help and she was screaming back that they’re not the police. He kept on saying that Kuwaitis are paying Iraqis to loot because Kuwaitis hate the Iraqis. She kept screaming that the red cross is a political and he shouldn’t make any accusations in the room.
I went in to meet the director, who is this tall, handsome, gentle Swiss guy. He had been there the whole war. Hadn’t left the place in a year and a half. He seemed so civilized and sweet and exhausted and overwhelmed. He said he’s doing things the red cross never did. Like he’s setting up negotiations between the British and the local Ba’dath leadership who are the only people in any position to run anything. He said their biggest problem right now is that looters and rioters will attack anyone with any kind of official looking uniform. So, the water department and electricity department engineers are attacked and their cars looted. He watched a water department guy beat up and his car stolen the day before. He said it’s so ridiculous, since these are the same people complaining about the lack of water and electricity. There are a few brave people still working at the water department, he said, but not enough to get the water on. He’s hoping electricity comes back tonight.
We met this guy in front of the red cross office who invited us to his house to see an errant British bomb in his garden. We went to his neighborhood. We were all disappointed, because the bomb was so tiny’dmaybe a rocket-propelled grenade. He lives in a pleasant middle-class neighborhood. Where everyone else was begging for water, he gave us water. We made a big deal out of offering him two of our bottles, and he was like, yeah, I got plenty of water. The houses are small, they would definitely be the houses of poor people in the US. But compared to anything else in Basra, it was quite lovely. He said they have no looting. No troubles at all.
His brother showed up and told us he works in the local bank and it was completely looted. In fact, there are people there now hoping to loot it some more. So, we drove with him to the bank and there are these big British tanks surrounding it. As we pulled up, a British soldier trained his rifle on our car’dright on my head, it seemed, and followed us down the street. There was a huge crowd around the Brits and one giant soldier kept running at them and screaming ‘dGet back.’d It looked just like what happens in the West Bank. It made me think’dwow, we really are occupying this country now.
The crowd was enormous and it just seemed so much worse than any other crowd we’d seen. They were younger, angrier, dirtier, poorer, more of a group’dI mean they were acting more in unison somehow. It was terrifying, I have to say. One of the reporters I was with asked a group what they’re doing there and they said, we’re waiting to rob the bank. I edged very close to the British’dwho had a tape preventing people from crossing to where they were. They wouldn’t let me cross the tape. I wanted to be near them, though. So I stayed near the tape. I asked this British soldier what they were doing and he said they’re protecting the bank. I asked to interview him on mic, and he said, I’m not here for your bloody entertainment. I started yelling at him. It just set me off. I was saying: I’m not here to be entertained. I’m in the same shitty situation you are. I’m doing my job just like you. I don’t need to hear that. He looked properly embarrassed. But then I realized that I don’t want this crowd behind me to think I’m on the outs with the guys with the big guns.
The Brit said they’re planning to blow up the safe to get the remaining money out of it to keep it safe. But when he heard we had brought an employee of the bank he asked to meet the guy, so he can get the key and open the safe without blowing it up. I turned and our bank employee friend was in the middle of this huge crowd’dhe was much taller than anyone, so I could see him standing up. From what I understood of his Arabic, he was saying, you shouldn’t loot this bank. There are 150 employees here who now lost their jobs. You’re just hurting yourselves. The British soldier got him to go into the bank.
At some point I came kind of close to panic. The crowd was more and more aggressive and demanding water and food. And I kept saying I don’t have any. A lot of people also asked to use my phone to call family in Kuwait or the US. I said the phone doesn’t work here. I was screaming I don’t have any water. I don’t have any food. The crowd was bigger and bigger. I looked for my translator and the other two reporters and they were surrounded by their own massive crowds. It did not feel good. I was just listening to myself on tape from the crowd and I was so panicked. Screaming: Tom, Steve. Let’s Go. Yalla. We made it to the car but with difficulty. The crowd was so thick it was hard to open the doors. I didn’t want to get in the car without them, so we stood there for a moment until all of us could get inside. Our translator is a good guy but he was so excited to be in Iraq, so fascinated, that he just didn’t want to leave. He was enjoying his conversations. I was screaming’steve, Steve, get in the car. We got in the car and the car was shaking. Nobody was trying to shake it, but there were so many people pressing around it was just shaking. I had all these Snickers bars that we bought in Kuwait and some kid saw them and was pointing and demanding them. Then he saw my water bottle. Finally, Steve got in and we pulled out through the crowd. It was fucking scary.
We wanted to find some local intellectuals or religious leaders or anyone who could talk about things past the I want food, I want water level. We went to that pleasant middle class neighborhood but the guy with the bomb and the brother from the bank said everyone is too scared to talk now.
We happened upon Saddam’s local palace. Well, the huge gate in front of it. It’s being guarded by British troops and they wouldn’t let us in. We could see the gorgeous gardens, but couldn’t see the palace itself. Damn.
We drove around and found a couple shops that were open. We hadn’t seen any other stores open the whole day. We pulled up and into one of the shops. The guy said he hadn’t closed a single day during the war or after. But he hadn’t gotten any more stock since before the war. He said there was no looting, no problems in his neighborhood. It was odd, since it seemed very close to the main part of the city where there is a lot of looting. We said we want to find a Shiite mosque and asked him to point us towards one. We drove by this massive, gorgeous mosque. Beautiful green tiles and tons of domes. Just beautiful. We were speculating that this must be a very friendly to Saddam mosque. It was closed though. Otherwise, why would it be so big and beautiful and well kept up. So we drove until we saw another minaret on a much simpler mosque. We went in and asked to speak to the imam. The guy at the door said we’d need an appointment and would have to come back tomorrow. We said we have to leave Basra in half an hour (we wanted to be out of Iraq before nightfall). They brought us in. It was prettier than any mosque I’ve been to in Jordan. More ornate tiles inside. Beautiful rugs. And people were just hanging out, which I never saw in Jordan. I was mad at myself. I had the plan of learning as much as I could about Islam and the differences between Shiites and Sunnis. I have all these books that I’ve dragged all over the Middle East, but I’ve never read any of them. I just never seemed to have time. I mean I had a lot of expensive dinner to go to with reporters in Amman, so how could I be expected to read up on the region.
It was cool and pleasant and peaceful there and people told us nothing bad happens in a mosque. (We found out later that at around that same time in a mosque in Najaf two Imams were hacked to death by a wild crowd). They brought in everyone who spoke English. It was strange. This happened all day, actually. People were very tentative talking about Saddam. They actually would say sort of negative things. And say, yes, they’re happy that he’s not in control of Basra. But then they’d say, quite directly, they don’t want to speak too much against him because they’re not really convinced yet that he’s really gone. Nobody trusts the Americans and nobody can figure out what the Americans are up to. And everyone is convinced that Saddam was an employee of the Americans all this time and they still think there’s a chance the Americans will just leave Saddam in power. It seems so unlikely. Why would we go to all this trouble just to leave him in power. They see that and are pretty sure he’s gone, but not convinced. They did say that the Mukhabarat secret police guys who came to every service at the mosque are no longer showing up. The Ba’dath guys aren’t around. But all in all, these interviews were annoying. They kept saying, nothing’s different. It’s all the same as ever. I’d say: but for the first time in decades you can say whatever you want openly. Yes, they’d say. That’s true. It’s nice. But it’s all the same. The Imam finally showed up. He’s actually an Imam-in-training. His dad is the big leader of the Shiites here. In fact, his dad runs that big, gorgeous mosque we saw. We definitely got the feeling this guy was at least friendly with the Saddam regime. He didn’t seem scared. But I wondered if his days are numbered. What I really felt was that I just don’t understand what the fuck is going on here. I don’t know enough, didn’t spend enough time to figure out what the hell is going on in these people’s minds and what’s happening politically. I felt like I just need to move to Basra for a while and develop relationships and get to know people well enough to talk to me. Get a feel for what is happening.
We left Basra after that and drove a different way back, through a bunch of other crappy towns. The other reporters were eager to give away our remaining water. They wanted to pull up to some crowd and hand it out. I knew we only had eight bottles or something and the crowd would turn ugly. I was saying, no. No. we’re not giving anything to anyone. They said, OK, if we see some women and children, we’dll give the water to them. On the side of the road there was this group of women in black chadors and kids sitting, looking peaceful. We pulled up and brought out the water and they swarmed on us. It was terrifying again. Grabbing, screaming. Wild. And, of course, we only had so much water and the strongest kids got it all and the women were surrounding our car and tapping on the windows and demanding more. We pulled away.
We got to the other border town of Umm Qasr and got lost trying to get to the Kuwaiti crossing point. We came across this Iraqi army installation. It was amazing. On the ground we saw shirts and then pants and helmets. It looked like’dI’m sure it was’the residue of Iraqi soldiers who just stripped as they ran away from the advancing troops. Our translator found a tiny army barracks and went inside. He said it was loaded with Iraqi army gear. He grabbed some helmets and jackets and pants and shirts. I found it too grim and told him I don’t want any.
An hour later we were back in Kuwait city. Soon, we were eating Sushi in this expensive restaurant in a luxury hotel. Then we bought one bottle of whiskey and one bottle of vodka from a bootlegger for $250 and we got pretty drunk. Some other reporters showed up. They haven’t been in at all. We all expressed our great frustration that so many of our friends are in Baghdad in the center of the story. And we agreed to move to Basra. It’s time to be there. I thought about commuting. That it would be more pleasant to sleep in my gorgeous 3 bedroom apartment in Kuwait. But that’s not possible, I think. It’s time to actually do some work. The surface story in Basra’the one you can get on a drive-through’dis just not that interesting anymore. It’s now necessary to go deep. To get to know the people well and spend time with them and uncover richer stories. So, we sketched out a plan and decided to go to Basra permanently tomorrow. Then one of the reporters said he heard about some other guys who drove around Basra at the same time we were there. Their car was stripped bare. They were robbed of all their computers and money and cameras and everything. Fuck. I still think we’re going. I know reporters who’dve been living there all week and I figure they know how to stay safe. And I’m always just an hour’s drive from the Kuwaiti border.
I really do just want to drive to Baghdad. It’s about six hours or so. Driving on the main road felt so safe and there were signs for Baghdad. But other reporters who’dve made the trip say it’s terrifying. They saw plenty of shelling. There’s so much debris in the road, it’s easy to get a flat tire. One convoy left Kuwait city yesterday morning at 4:00 am. They got to the outskirts of Baghdad but couldn’t get past a bridge, and huddled under it with major fighting all around them. Most of my friends in Amman went for it yesterday. The Iraqi border finally was abandoned and a convoy of 50 or more cars (including Dan Rather’s) crossed the border. It’s a long drive from Jordan but a lot of people made it to an American checkpoint 15 km short of Baghdad. They were told to spend the night there. It’s too dangerous to go farther. I would guess they’re in Baghdad now. It’s a bit frustrating. I left Amman for Kuwait specifically because I thought this was the fastest way to Baghdad. I have not enjoyed Kuwait particularly and it’s a bit annoying that I could have stayed in Amman and gotten to Baghdad sooner. But maybe it’s best that I’m not there. As one army guy told me, they’dve divided Baghdad up in to 44 districts and only one is considered secure. I would guess I’ll get there some time in the next few days. But I’m not driving alone. I don’t want to get a flat tire on my own. So, I’ll stay in Basra, with a bunch of people, and then make the drive when I have company.