BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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Next Tuesday marks the tenth anniversary of the night of “Shock and Awe,” exploding across the night sky over Baghdad, the opening salvo in a nearly nine-year war. It was a deadly conflict to cover, especially if reporters were not embedded with US troops. Foreign reporters increasingly relied on Iraqis to take the risks on the ground. Back in 2006, I reported on three Iraqis, pulled into journalism by a trick of fate, caught up in the wave of correspondents pouring in from the West. We’ll replay that and then see where they are now.
My story begins with writer George Packer, author of The Assassins’ Gate, who founded the blog called Healing Iraq, while covering Iraq for The New Yorker.
GEORGE PACKER: Well, the first time you go to his blog, it says something like, views of an Iraqi dentist, and then there's a quote, I believe, from Swift. So you're just thinking an Iraqi dentist whose epigraph on his blog is from Jonathan Swift and who is writing these long, informed, historical accounts of what's going on in Iraq today? It – who is this guy, where did he learn all this? You know, why is he writing this? Is he real?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: "It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of what he was never reasoned into." That's the epigraph from Swift that sits atop Healing Iraq.
GEORGE PACKER: I thought he was maybe 50, not a guy in his mid-to-late 20s, because he seemed so reflective and sort of sad and slightly disdainful about the militias and about the violence and about Iraqi politicians and about American mistakes. But there was no hysteria and there was no rank partisanship. He somehow seemed to take the whole thing in and see it as the tragedy that it was and is.
ZEYAD: I thought that in the early days of the war, the Western media was just pouring into Iraq and they were confused about everything and they were just missing a local perspective.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Zeyad - he prefers to leave off his last name - writes Healing Iraq.
ZEYAD: There were many misconceptions in the Western press, too many to count, so I just tried to do one at a time, and that [LAUGHS] - I thought that would be my mission. I was probably one of the few people who actually supported the war, at least in my community in Baghdad. I wanted to convey that sense and that support.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Zeyad is now studying journalism at the City University of New York, reporting on local stories in Brooklyn. On Monday, he posted this on Healing Iraq:
ZEYAD: Another close friend of mine has been killed in Baghdad. We had lunch together in Baghdad just days before I left. I can't concentrate on anything anymore. I should not be here in New York, running around a stupid neighborhood, asking people about their issues. I now officially regret supporting this war back in 2003. The guilt is too much for me to handle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you feel like you've marooned yourself onto a desert island or something?
ZEYAD: [LAUGHS] Yes, sometimes I have that feeling. I get depressed many times and think - what am I doing here? I mean, I should be back with my family. I mean, if they're in danger, at least I should be in danger with them. I can't be safe here, while they're suffering over there. But I'm also willing to learn. That's what I came here for. That's at least what I tell myself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Zeyad doesn't see himself as a newspaper or a TV reporter. He doesn't want to work for a Western news agency. He's not even ready to renounce dentistry. But, for now, he says he needs to reach out to the West his way.
ZEYAD: Maybe my focus on online journalism is kind of my way out of this, you know, [LAUGHS] to just - I mean, not to be immersed too much in the risk and, at the same time, doing my best to get out the story. I mean, that's what I can do. I mean, I can't be like any of those brave Iraqi stringers who all went to Fallujah and embedded with insurgents. I could – I could never do that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ali Fadhil does that. A doctor who ran afoul of Saddam's regime when he bought a color laser printer without permission, he fled, and was practicing medicine in Yemen. When Baghdad fell, he returned.
ALI FADHIL: To participate in building my country, and I thought, we have now a new Iraq, we'll have the best Iraq ever in the world. I have to be there from the beginning.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But in the Baghdad hospital where he worked, the equipment didn't work. The security was nonexistent.
ALI FADHIL: And worse than that, politics was coming into the hospitals. It was coming into the Ministry of Health. You can see everything is being taken from you and like you are an alien in your country. At that time, I was approached by the media, by The Financial Times. I thought, okay, I couldn't do anything as a doctor, probably I can do something as a journalist.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did it ever occur to you, before this point, that this might be a profession you'd want to be in, journalism?
ALI FADHIL: No, not at all, no, never.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In reporter-speak, a fixer is a translator, navigator and person finder for a journalist on unfamiliar ground. But in Iraq, where the streets are perilous, the fixer often is the unsung reporter who asks the questions and brings the answers back to his journalist boss. A great fixer can even save your life. One reporter described Ali Fadhil as a “rock star among fixers,” smuggling one Western reporter under a blanket in a free-fire zone, clearing the path for another who wanted to speak with some angry young men with guns. Now, Ali works as a freelancer because working with Western reporters is more likely to get you killed. But even alone, it's still likely. George Packer.
GEORGE PACKER: They're targeted by the Sunni insurgents. If they write bad things about the Shiite militias, they're targeted by them. They often run afoul of the American military at checkpoints or simply by being in Baghdad and being Iraqi. And now, more and more, the Iraqi government is their main enemy because it's clamping down on them, it's throwing them in jail, it's beating them up, it's keeping them from the news.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last month, Ali Fadhil wrote a piece in the New York Times, praising the efforts of the Coalition Provisional Authority to establish a free press in Iraq.
GEORGE PACKER: Ali wrote that it would be very ironic if the Americans, having sort of fathered this democratic process and created an independent Iraqi press, watched while it turned into yet another state-controlled press corps, like in every neighboring country.
I would say, though, that, unlike the Iraqi police and army, the young Iraqi journalists I know are real professionals and are quickly achieving sort of international standards of excellence and are winning awards and are keeping the world informed and are getting killed for it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So I put it to Ali, currently studying journalism at New York University: This is a really dangerous job. You have a wife and two kids. How come you want to do it?
ALI FADHIL: I want to correct this. I have an angry wife and two kids.
She's very angry about my job. She hates that I'm doing this job. The reason why I like journalism, the reason why I thought that the risk you take while doing a story is worth it, is because I saw Western journalists throwing themselves in these remote areas of Iraq. I've never dreamed of going to these areas, and I think it's too dangerous just to be there as a human being, but they just go for the sake of the story. I worship this thing in journalism, and that's the way, how it goes, and I think that's the way I'm gonna take it. It's my country, at the end, and I have access to many places in Iraq that Westerners don't have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Unlike Ali, Ayub Nuri did not become a journalist by accident. Born in the Kurdish town of Halabja, notoriously gassed by Saddam, he was a teenager when he met his first Western journalists, a British TV crew who hired him as a translator. He was already an experienced reporter at the age of 24, when Elizabeth Rubin, filing for The New Republic just before the war, hired him as a fixer for a trip to an Arab part of Kurdistan.
ELIZABETH RUBIN: And the Kurds were telling us, don't go, you’re gonna be killed. And Ayub basically said to me, though he is a Kurd, he said, don't trust these guys. They've been looting every single Arab village, and they don't want us to see it. And so we went to this village and, in fact, there was a fight going on between the Kurds and the Arabs of this village because the Kurds were trying to steal all the petrol [LAUGHS] at this gas station.
And, in fact, that's exactly what they hadn't wanted us to see. And so, we went and were with this Arab family, found out everything that was going on. And people trusted him because they saw that he was also not playing on any tribal card. You know, he was looking for the truth.
AYUB NURI: Everything goes back to not being free.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ayub Nuri never believed he could be a journalist in Iraq because the media weren't free. But he always knew how it could sound because it poured out of his father's radio.
AYUB NURI: He was listening to the Persian and Arabic service of the BBC when I was a child, every morning, every night. And then I bought my own radio and listened to the BBC all day long. And I think that's how I learned my English, from listening to the BBC. I was jealous of the reporters when they were reading their sign-off, saying, so and so from Kuala Lumpur, for example. That was my only dream, one day to be a reporter and say that.
AYUB NURI [ON-AIR]: For the world, I am Ayub Nuri, Baghdad.
MAN [ON-AIR]: We're talking to Ayub Nuri, who reports for the BBC. He's been telling me -
AYUB NURI [ON-AIR]: For the world, this is Ayub Nuri, Kut, Southern Iraq.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ayub is also in New York at the moment, studying at Columbia Journalism School. But, like Zeyad, like Ali, Ayub is planning to head back. As the death toll mounts and the despair deepens in Iraq, these and many other Iraqi journalists are ready to stand up, even as Western journalists are forced to stand down.