Another great day and difficult evening in this fascinating city.
I had the most stressful evening and it had nothing to do with violence or danger. It was just trying to file my story for tonight. I have this great satellite phone that feeds data. Most of the time, it’s amazing. I can be anywhere in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East’din the middle of nowhere’dand I have a high speed connection. I was having so much fun today and yesterday instant messaging my brother and my dad and a good friend. It was working so smoothly, I didn’t feel any rush to file. So, when I started filing the Sat Phone just crapped out. It wouldn’t maintain a connection. When it did, it would go so slow’dnormally it’s almost like a DSL line. I’m now showered and relaxed and it’s hard to remember the panic. But I spent hours madly trying to get this stuff up. Not to go into too many boring technical details: but I had to reconfigure my audio in all sorts of strange ways and train the engineers in LA to use an ftp site. It was hours and hours were every minute I thought I wouldn’t make it: I wouldn’t get on the air. To be honest, (gun fire outside just now, a lot, medium distance) in normal circumstances I wouldn’t mind missing the show. But today it felt impossible to let that happen. I’m working so hard and I’m in the middle of things and DAMN IT I want to get on the air. I did. My contract says I have to file 14 minutes a month. I’ve been here two days and I’ve already filed 14 minutes. More, I think.
One of the constant conversations among reporters is trying to file and dealing (wow, bigger bangs. Not guns. Something heavier. And dogs barking, one is yelping and whining) with editors back home. The editors just don’t understand. I really like my editor. She’s very supportive and very good. But she keeps having expectations that I’m in some kind of normal situation. Like she asked why I didn’t give her my hotel phone number. Because there are no phones working in this country. There is no electricity. There is nothing. She suggested some stories and I just had to laugh. She wanted me to do something on how the IT sector is doing (that’s computers and stuff) in Iraq. There is no IT sector right now. There is total chaos. She wanted me to go to the airport and just find out who is flying in and who is leaving. There are no airplanes flying, except military ones. The airport is a massive US military base. There were some other stories: oh, she wanted one where I would interview construction workers. There is no construction. Only destruction. I guess being here it’s obvious, but it must be hard to imagine a country with no infrastructure, no laws, no structure. Nothing. Just a bunch of people in a pre-modern existence trying to make their lives work. I was thinking today how I was wondering yesterday what all these people driving around and looking busy are doing. I mean, they’re not going to work. Today, I realized I was an idiot: they’re trying to live. They’re trying to find water or food or relatives or just anything.
Again, I just walked out of the hotel and the stories hurled themselves at me. I wanted to go out on my own’dI mean without other reporters’today. There are all these people in front of the hotel, kept behind the concertina wire (that’s barbed wire strung out on the ground, some military guys told me not to call it barbed wire, it’s concertina wire) that protects us from the locals. This hotel complex is like a giant marine base. There are tons of Marines here with their guns out and lots of tanks and armored personnel carriers. They frisk us when we walk in and give us a hard time. And they won’t let any Iraqi in who doesn’t have proof that they’re employed by the hotel or a journalist. Anyway, I went outside and wanted a translator. There are all these Iraqis there offering services and someone pointed me to some young guy and said he’s a great translator. I spoke with him for a minute and he said that he studies English literature in the university. He seemed to speak English well enough’dit was so crazy with all these people around, I just said: fine. But he doesn’t have a car. This older man with very few teeth said he has a car, so I hired him as well. I asked a Marine, a young woman, how I can get out to them. She said, you’re going out in to that? (The military people see much more threat here than we reporters do). We went off and right away I realized the young guy barely speaks English at all. Fuck. He told me that he doesn’t really go to class because he’s busy with his CD pirating business. He was asking what I want to do and I said I wasn’t sure: let’s drive around. The old guy, who creeped me out at first, took us to his house nearby and we got in his car that is just a shell of a car. I’m too tired to explain in detail: but it’s basically like the metal cage of a car, all rusted and dented and old, with some seats somehow in it. The engine is partially visible from inside. It doesn’t seem like it could run, but it does somehow. The old guy tells me that he works (worked?) for the ministry of industry and would like to take me to some factories. I just wrote the story and don’t want to go into all of it, but it was an amazing day of visiting all these factories. They basically fell into two types: completely looted and burned to the ground, or totally fine with a bunch of armed men guarding them. The armed men are employees (were employees?) who just showed up to protect their place of employment. They’re not getting paid. The guys outside are laborers, but inside, we’d sit with the management. Who all were so freaked out, they wouldn’t talk to us. Well, they’d talk to us, but not to my microphone. They said they don’t know who is in charge, they don’t know what will happen and they’re really scared of pissing someone off. And they’re scared to describe the factories lest some Iraqis decide to loot the place. I explained that no Iraqis, at least none in Iraq, listen to my radio show. No luck. Anyway, nobody is allowed in the factories. Not even these volunteer brigades of protectors. They’re afraid that if even they go in, they’dll start looting the place themselves. Some of them said that the Ba’dath party guys who used to run the factories are still calling the shots. The Americans haven’t made contact with any of these people. They have no idea what the future holds. Most of the managers just seem scared. The laborers are mostly really angry, they say America is horrible and destroyed their country and they hate Saddam but he was better. A lot of that is just temporary, I think. Once power is back on and normalcy is slightly returned and there’s food and water and jobs and no looting, I think that high level of anger will lessen. But I sense such a strong resistance to this American presence from pretty much everyone. It feels like this was a really bad idea, this war. It feels like Bush just fucked up. Just believed that Iraqis would be so grateful, he could get away with things. I don’t know. I think it’s going to be a long and bad occupation. That’s how I feel today. Like I’m in the West Bank in 1967. Israelis thought it was going to be a brief thing in the West Bank and they could improve things and then leave. Even before the war, there was so little here, the country needed massive rebuilding. But now, with this degree of looting and destruction, there is nothing to build on. The Iraqi state was horrible but it functioned. It was a working place. Almost everything that made it work is gone. Donald Rumsfeld was saying that the media is blowing things out of proportion. That is such total bullshit I can’t believe it. This place has been wrecked. My friend who were here for the war say the looting was more destructive than the bombing. I don’t think they had that in mind. And I don’t think they understood how resistant Iraqis would be. I didn’t. I thought they’d love us. Throw roses at the tanks. Some, especially in the south, do. Not most. And I haven’t found a single person who is happy about it in Baghdad.
I feel very pleasant at the moment. I’m sitting on the balcony. There’s a lovely cool breeze. We’re right on the Tigris and it’s quite pretty outside. Across the river is one of Saddam’s palaces and tonight lights went on there (probably for the troops stationed there) and it’s beautiful.
My friends who have been here for the war and for a month before it are so whipped and worn down. So exhausted and still working their asses off. They’dve remarked on how all these new people, like me, have so much energy. But none of them wants to leave. They don’t want to hand the story off to someone else. That’s another constant discussion: how long will you stay. Most say two weeks. But I think that’s just a thing to say. Nobody really knows how long they’dll be here. I certainly don’t. Because I’m tired and because the hotel is kind of gross and because there are no comforts (except this breeze and the view) I kind of want to leave and I also want to stay a long time. I think it’dll be amazing to see this develop. Yesterday I didn’t see a single store open (I think, anyway very few, almost none). Today there were a bunch open. Most are still closed, but it was amazing to see this big change in one day. There will be so many fucking changes in the next few weeks, months, years. I want to stay to at least see some.
I like most of the soldiers I talk to. They’re everywhere. More every day. And most of them are cool, young guys. I don’t think I wrote this yesterday (if I did, sorry). I was talking to some guys from the 3rd Infantry Division’the guys I lent my phone to. They were saying this is the last war they ever want to have any part of. It was so scary. I found that cool, these tough guys talking like that. I talked to other soldiers who didn’t see any action and they were bitching about it and saying they wish they did.
This is so disjointed. I’m so tired. I did lend my phone to this very nice Iraqi woman at one of the factories. She called her uncle in Canada and let him know, for the first time, that their whole family survived the war. She was so happy and then was crying quietly for a long time afterwards. Tears of relief. Like, OK, now it’s officially over. We made it. It made me feel so good. I felt like a damn hero for letting her do that. So, when I got back to the hotel, and this nice middle aged guy asked me if he could use my phone, I said OK. He called and then a bunch of other guys crowded around. I kept saying, one more and that’s it. And then I’d let another. But that’s it. And then another. I let the whole crowd. I don’t know 20 or something. They were so grateful. One guy tried to kiss me and these other guys said that wasn’t cool. Some of them seemed nonchalant. None of them cried. I wanted more emotion, damn it. I’m being the big hero. They should be more dramatic. Some of them seemed calm and normal on the phone. (More gunfire. It seems to follow the same pattern: one or two shots, then a beat, then a whole bunch of really fast shots. I don’t know what that is.)
I’ve been telling people about my harrowing experience of the first night. I thought the veterans who’dve been here a while would say, oh, no, you were fine. That wasn’t a big deal. Not at all. Several have said it’s the scariest thing they’dve heard of, aside from the reporters who actually died. I think I’m just showing off now, but the woman I rode with just came by to thank me for being so calm while she was freaking out. Said I saved her life and mine. I’ve been wondering, thinking a lot, about how brave I am, how I could handle the actual terror of war. Because I’m kind of a whimp. I have a lot of anxiety. I don’t like riding elevators because I’m claustrophobic. I think of myself as someone who is not brave. But my anxiety is all anticipatory anxiety. Mostly, anyway. I’m always really scared of what could happen tomorrow. But I’m glad at least then, when there was actual danger, I didn’t freak out.
A friend, today, had a scarier experience. Guys with big guns grabbed his camera and he ran away with it (it’s his only camera) and they shot at him. Fuck. The city seems safe during the day. But it isn’t. Made me want to stay in the compound a little while.
I’m so wired. I feel kind of embarrassed how wired and excited I am. Like, I don’t know, I should be cooler or something. But this is amazing and exciting and it really does just feel so great to be at the center of the biggest story there is. It also is such a relief that I’m getting good stories. I thought my story yesterday might be the best I’ve ever done. When I’m writing my stories, I feel like they just pour out and pour out well. Much easier and quicker and sharper than normal.
I am so aware of people in the states reading this and hearing my stories. I feel really proud and psyched about that, I have to admit. I do feel like a big stud right now. I think I’m so embarrassed about that, that I just want to write it and admit it. And hope that doesn’t take away any of the studliness.
It’s quarter of two in the morning and I want to sleep, but I feel like it’dll be a while before I can. But I can’t just keep typing. I have to go and try to calm down.
One thing I’m sad about is that there really isn’t much socializing. None at all, almost. People are so busy and so whipped. I thought this would all be a big party. Not yet. I still have high hopes for a couple weeks from now or so, when we all get houses (people are starting to get houses) and things get a bit back to normal. But I would like to sit and talk with people, but I’m so in my own head and so are they, it’s hard. Alright, I’m going to try to get some sleep.