Driving around Baghdad. Misery, death, anarchy. But all in all a good day.
After yesterday’s terror, today was shockingly safe feeling. I went out with a reporter who is a friend of mine. We had a translator and a driver and just drove all over the city looking for stories. I felt no fear at all. We were wandering in big crowds. Even some somewhat angry ones. The city is safe. At night it isn’t. I found out that at around the time of my harrowing dark drive through the city, another car of reporters was surrounded by six guys with AK-47s. They sped off safely. But fuck. That is scary. Everyone talks about the daytime as if it is absolutely nothing to be concerned about and the night with pure terror. I found out that those gunshots I heard last night was a battle between Marines and snipers who were targeting the hotel right next door.
Speaking of the hotel, it is utter chaos here. There are thousands of reporters and more streaming in every day. It is so packed. And since the US army and then Iraqi looters destroyed several of the good hotels, most of the reporters are staying in the Sheraton or the Palestine, which are next to each other and are protected by a lot of Marine guards, a la yesterday’s shoot out. There are no rooms left. People are sleeping in the hallway. Every room has two or four or eight people. I’m sleeping on the floor of a friend’s room. There is no food or water or really anything. There’s just this one old man at the front desk who is extremely tired, says he hasn’t slept in seven days, which looks about right, who just stares at you when you ask something. Never does anything to help. Hard to blame him. The hotel’s elevator is out, so I have to walk up to the 13th floor (which is really the 15th, since the first two floors are ground and mezzanine) every time. There are hundreds of new reporters every day. The parking lot is insane: all these marines and tons of SUVs with TV taped to them (to help the army know not to kill us), total chaos. There’s concertina wire around the whole thing keeping out this huge throng of Iraqis. They want food and water from us. And what they really want is to use our sat phones to call their families abroad and let them know they’re alive. But I’ve never seen anyone let them use them. I don’t. Because there are thousands and it just feels too scary to hand your sat phone over to this huge throng. I felt like such shit, though, just walking by. All these people crying and waving and smiling and giving thumbs up. It’s terrible.
It’s hard to convey the degree of chaos in the city. I was talking to an editor today who kept suggesting stories and each one, I would just say: you don’t understand, it is total and complete lawless chaos. There is nothing here. No infrastructure. Nothing. No electricity. Nothing. People are driving around all the time, I don’t’d know what they’re doing. All the stores are closed. There is one open restaurant in the whole city. They won’t even take your order for over an hour. (Last night, I was shocked to hear a friend went in to the restaurant alone. Now, I would have no problem doing it.) There are no traffic lights. A lot of the roads are bombed out of existence or half of them are. A lot of roads are closed by huge American tanks. So, traffic is really insane. Except where it isn’t. Where it’s totally normal. There are cabs driving around. Busses driving around. I even saw a cop car today. We were all shocked. Last week, anyone with any connection to the regime was attacked. We assumed it was a looted car and people were just driving around in a cop car. They took fire trucks and just go joyriding around in them now. (A friend was in Saddam city, the poor Shiite neighborhood, when all these fires were raging. He went in to the fire station and found all these firemen sitting around calmly drinking tea. They said their trucks were taken. Their hoses were taken. And, anyway, they don’t have any water.) Turned out the cops were real. They were told to go back to work yesterday. We talked to the cop in uniform in the front seat and asked if he was working for the Americans. He said no way. They are Iraqis. He said he graduated from the police academy two months ago. But then this older guy in civilian clothes got out, said he was a commander, had been a cop for decades. And yes, they were working for the Americans now. But nobody is getting paid yet. (My writing here is so disjointed. I’m completely exhausted and overwhelmed and I’m just typing.) I think the point I was making is that it is at once total lawless chaos and surprising normalcy.
We went to this cemetery today (I’ll have a story on the radio later today about it.) There were so many people there. As we arrived this older man was walking slowly, crying, and holding a dead infant girl wrapped in a blanket in his arms. He said she was just a little sick. Could have easily been cured. But the hospitals were looted. Nothing is there. So the girl couldn’t be treated and died. Then we walked inside. There was a family digging a grave. A young man held up this small bag, just a grocery bag. He said in it is all that remains of his uncle, his aunt, and their two kids and a friend of theirs. Five people in this small bag. It smelled so horrible. His other aunt just sat their wailing and screaming why, why, why. The whole family escaped to the north to get away from the bombing but they forgot some things in Baghdad, so some of the family drove back to get some things (I forgot to ask what). And they got hit by an American missile. I spoke with a man who sings Koranic verses at the cemetery for money. He said on a normal day, before the war, there would be 3 or four or seven funerals. These days there are hundreds. Every day. Just in that one cemetery. The cemetery is so overfilled that people are burying their dead in their home gardens. The cemetery is now charging 200,000 Iraqi Dinars (about 60 bucks, or several months wages) and is not offering any services. People have to dig their own family’s graves. Most people were eager to talk. They wanted to tell their stories. But one man got very mad at us. He was the only guy there wearing a suit. He looked more well off than the others and he was the only person who spoke English. He was leading a procession of friends and relatives chanting ‘there is no god but allah’d and carrying a relative’s body. He screamed: no photographs, no reporters. He came up to me and asked why did you destroy our people. Why are you imperialists. I hate America. I said I’m not a soldier. I’m here to tell their story. He said, Well Tell it Then. And walked away.
Across the street from the cemetery is a big poster of Saddam. It’s actually kind of gorgeous: like an Andy Warhol print. Saddam’s face looking just like Che Guevara. This man walked up with a tool kit and just calmly went to work taking down the poster’dwhich is encased in big metal bars. He just worked on it slowly, wrenching out the metal. He just started when we went in and when we left a half hour later, he was still at it, making good progress. Nobody was paying him any attention. But down the road, we saw a huge statue of Saddam’done of the very few left. There was a massive crowd around it and these two big trucks with cranes coming to take it down.
We then went to Saddam’s huge palace complex. It’s the size of a small city. Maybe even a medium-size city. It’s a mile walk just to get to the main palace. There are all sorts of buildings on the complex, including big office buildings and lots of small buildings. Who knows what they are. There’s a meeting hall across from the palace: a private meeting hall for top officials, but huge. Like opera house size. It had been bombed unbelievably hard by one bomb (one of the guy’s with me saw it get bombed’done big bomb and boom it was almost gone). We wandered around what’s left of the inside and it’s so ornate: gorgeous marble and crystal chandeliers. It would be a very nice theater. Our translator kept staring at everything and saying, Saddam is crazy. Believe me. He said he’s stared at this palace complex from afar for 30 years, he couldn’t believe he was actually walking on it. But he looked so sad, so upset. Underneath the palace is this huge bunker complex. We went inside, but it was so dark and I’m claustrophobic and I left. But my friends explored it for a long time and said it goes on and on forever’droom after room, with huge bomb proof doors and gas masks everywhere. There’s a hospital down there and a big kitchen. We talked with some of the army guys there (the palace complex now houses several different army bases) and they said there’s one room that’s so well secured with pressure seals that they can’t get it open. They still don’t know what’s inside. It’s so strong that they haven’t been able to bomb it open yet. But they will some day.
One of the soldiers saw my sat phone and asked if he could call his wife. I said OK and he called and then all his friends walked over. I spent an hour (those sat phone calls are expensive) letting one after another call home. Some of them were crying. They said their wives and moms and everyone hadn’t heard from them for months. Had no way of knowing for sure if they survived the war. These are the third infantry division and they saw a lot of combat. While they would walk off, one by one, to make a call, we stood around with the others. They were so grateful, we were absolute heroes, they said. They gave us lots of MREs and told us we could come to their base anytime, they’d give us whatever we want. I wanted to listen to the conversations, but that didn’t seem right. One guy kept saying: that was great. That was much better than expected. That was great. Another guy kept saying he didn’t want to call. No, it’s OK. I said, come on man, they’d love to hear from you. So he did. He was on for just a minute and then came back and said, nope, I knew I shouldn’t have done that. He seemed really sad. I feel like an asshole having written that I wouldn’t let the Iraqis use the phone, but I would let the soldiers. It kept running through my head. It feels really bad. (There are gun pops outside, but they sound far away). I kept, I keep thinking of these people who just survived the war and just want to let their family know they’re OK and I could let them so easily and I don’t. Fuck. But it just seems like it would be a nightmare if I did: massive swarms. Maybe I can let some isolated people do it. I don’t know.
Yesterday, I felt kind of miserable. Like I missed the big story. I would get nothing. I don’t know my way around. I don’t know what’s going on. Today, I realized that there are so many stories. I mean if I needed to, I could have filed several stories today. I just picked the best one. Maybe not even the best. The easiest. I think what I’ll do is just spend the week going out and being overwhelmed and doing whatever stories I come across (the gun pops are getting more frequent, but still far away, I’ve been hearing them on and off all day, I’m surprised by how little they scare me). Next week, I’ll start doing more considered, longer stories. I guess. Who knows. I have found that this has all been a huge lesson in what kinds of stories I want to do. I don’t know that I want to do this kind of reactive reporting so much. I wish I was much better prepared, much more knowledge and deeper knowledge about Iraq and the people here. Today is exciting’dgetting out and going all over. But I don’t like the pressure and lack of consideration of daily quick reporting. I don’t want to do this again, I don’t think. Or maybe I’m just exhausted right now. Everybody talks about how long they’dll stay. Some people just feel like the story is over: it was the war and that’s done. Others feel like the story just started. The post-war is much more compelling. I don’t know if it’s more compelling. But it’s interesting. I don’t know how long I’ll stay, but long enough to see some changes. Maybe a few weeks. Maybe a month or two. I don’t know. I do know that it is so fucking hot I can’t believe it. Just absolutely miserably hot. And humid. And it’s only April. There are four months for it to heat up ’til August. I definitely want to be out of here by August. A friend said that we’dll all go to some island some where when this is over for a while. I like that idea. I will definitely do that. But then I think, I just want to go back home. I don’t know.