I’ve gotten many a worried e-mail lately, so I just wanted to let you know that I am alive and well and planning to vote for John Kerry.
That’s all the good news I have to report. For the past three days, I’ve basically been stuck in the fortified hotel complex made up of the Sheraton, Palestine, and the grungy Fanar, where I now live. Since the Palestine and Sheraton house both western journalists and the largest American reconstruction companies, they have long been protected by impressive concrete battlements. But on Friday, we were reinforced by tanks and soldiers from the First Armored Division, who set up extra barricades and closed down the surrounding streets after receiving intelligence that among the festivities planned for the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad was a bum rush on these hotels in an effort to take us all hostage. A Humvee armed with huge speakers announced in Arabic that anyone in the streets with weapons would be shot on sight, and intermittently played “Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns N’ Roses. Yesterday evening, with nothing to do but go stir crazy, I was thinking about sneaking through a checkpoint to go play tennis next door, until the tennis club got mortared.
Other than the occasional explosion, it’s quiet and hot, like a beach weekend gone bad. Except no one’s leaving the city. With all the major highways either blocked or out of Coalition control, the only safe way out of Baghdad is a one-a-day Royal Jordanian flight in a small propeller plane.
Not that I’m planning to leave, but at some point I may have too. It is getting increasingly difficult to report from here. The kidnappings are what everyone’s scared of most. A friend of mine got taken outside Falluja. They roughed her up for seven hours, took her money and car. Luckily they they didn’t discover her Israeli passport or she would have been toast.
Besides being frightening, the situation is also frustrating. Now that I’m working for Time, I’m finally in a position where I can report on the big events taking place here, and in case it’s not clear from the outside, what’s happening is indeed that big — the collapse of American policy in Iraq. But I can’t cover it from a hotel room.
More importantly, I’m afraid for all the Iraqis with whom I’ve worked and with whom I’ve become friends in the past six months. It seems like a short time, but it doesn’t take long to learn to love the people who live here. And I worry that my continuing association with them could sooner or later get them killed. Though it’s not like by packing up and leaving I’ll be doing any favors for those who make a living working for me.
If and when there’s enough stability to return to street reporting, I do have quite a good little operation. My driver, Tariq, is just the kind of hard man you want by your side in a pinch. Our car is a beat up ’88 Volkswagen Passat — the most common vehicle in Iraq — with lightly tinted windows in the back. It’s the poor man’s equivalent of Stealth technology. My translator, Ali, is my age, a physician, and half Sunni, half Shia. “I’m Sushi,” he says. He’s also caught the journalism bug. On Wednesday, he volunteered to sneak into Falluja for me. “I really care about what’s happening,” he said. “But I’m also curious.”
Which kind of sums up why we’re all still here.
PS Don’t pass this on to my parents. I give them a slightly more upbeat version of events for obvious reasons.