A day in the life: Othman Mohammed, a journalist in Iraq

byبسام سبتي
Oct 31, 2008 in Specialized Topics

June 18, 2008 (Translated from Arabic) --

Five days have passed since I almost lost my life in Abu Ghraib, a Baghdad suburb, at the hands of the insurgents. While chasing a story about a young girl used by insurgents to carry weapons and letters, I was kidnapped by al-Qaeda fighters who confiscated my camera, cell phone and even my pocket money before I was released. Thank God, if I had been held longer, I could have been whipped. 

When I was captured by the insurgents, the folks at the Washington Post newspaper office and my wife expected a disaster. Previously, a colleague of mine, Salih Saif Aldin, was killed in a Baghdad neighborhood while covering clashes that took place between insurgents and the government forces. It was an incident we have not recovered from. But - Thanks to God - all I lost after being beaten were three teeth. I am recovered from the trauma of the incident just days later thanks to my family and friends.

And here I am today going back to the field to search for another story and events that I hope I will be the first to report. It’s 8 a.m. and I am in my house preparing to go to the Washington Post bureau in Baghdad, where I work as a special correspondent.

The day is no different than any other day. I work on a story, hoping to be published the next day. Because I want more details, I always try to go closer to where the events happen. So I hide my press ID in my shoes, which I bought in a slightly big size in order to fit my ID cards. I carry my pen, notebook, my Iraqi National ID and some pocket money – enough for me to pay for transportation. 

I usually leave my shoes on the step outside my house, in order to avoid seeing my wife worried and scared as I put my Press ID inside my shoes on my way to work. I am used to hiding everything related to ‘Press,’ fearing al-Qaeda insurgents might see me and consider me an apostate of Islam whose blood should be shed; or the Shiite militiamen, who announced every Iraqi journalist working for an American news agency is an enemy. After Iran accused the U.S. media of ‘changing the truth,’ they sent their militiamen to target us, according to sources in the Iraqi and American military.

Because the insurgents and militias search everyone in the haphazard check points they establish, I have to prepare myself for armed groups blocking the road, searching for Iraqis’ sect identity and work. I have to change my appearance to match the neighborhood’s people. I try out my new look: a moustache and beard, Islamic clothes and a rosary in my hand.

My beloved wife prepares breakfast for me and then I make my way to the street to hail a taxi to take me to Latifiyah, a town south of Baghdad in the so-called “Triangle of Death.” The town is inhabited by Sunni Muslim Arabs and has been a strong scene for al-Qaeda insurgent attacks since the war started in 2003. What I am looking for in this area is the people’s reaction to the U.S.-Iraqi agreement and whether they accept or reject it.

After an hour of waiting, a taxi cab driver finally agrees to take me on one condition: that he will not have to drive all the way to the center of town. He is worried about being kidnapped, because he is a Shiite Muslim. I try to convince him that the security situation is a lot better there, but I am not successful. He finally agrees to take me to a bus station near the center of the town. I will have to walk a couple of miles to get to the town.

We reach the bus station one and a half hours after leaving Baghdad. The cab driver smiles and says, “Journalism in Iraq is crazy.” He wishes to never “hear news of my death on the evening news.” 

Latifiyah appears deserted. The most distinctive thing to be seen here are the check points installed by the U.S. Marines and the Iraqi Army. After a long list of boring questions that I’m used to hearing from the Marines when I try to enter an Iraqi city, I inform a Marine that I’m a journalist trying to get people’s reaction for a story. The Marine asks me to identify the places I am going to visit. He also wants to know what the story is about and why the western and Iraqi journalists are visiting this particular place, so that he can inform his commander. I tell him I do not know the name of the neighborhood I am going to visit, especially since the town has become unrecognizable since the last time I visited in fall 2006.

Finally, I make my way to the town after passing four Marine checkpoints, two Iraqi Army checkpoints, one checkpoint manned by Sahwa members (former insurgents who turned against al-Qaeda fighters) and finally one Iraqi police checkpoint. I enter the heart of the town. The streets look haunted and deserted, and full of destroyed cars. The people are afraid of any journalist, due to what they allege has been false coverage of their town.

“Asalamu Alaikum,” I whisper to a man (“Peace be upon you”). “I’m a journalist and would like to ask you some questions.”

“Go away,” he snaps. “I don’t care about any questions.”

After being rejected, I do not insist, and instead make my way towards a man in his 40s near a mosque. “Asalamu Alaikum, Sir. I’m a journalist and would like to ask you some questions,” I say.

Next comes what I expect: “God help us. You are agents of the Americans and should be killed,” he barks. “Go away or else I will inform the Mujahideen of you.” 

As I move away from him, he speaks vulgar words in my direction. My eyes finally catch an Iraqi traffic policeman standing at an intersection used exclusively by the police, the Marines and civilians on bicycles.

“Asalamu Alaikum, are you from the city?” I ask.

“Yes, can I help you?” he answers.

“I’m a journalist and have a question. Would you be willing to be interviewed?”

“Yes, but are you Shiite or Sunni? I don’t speak with Shiite media.”

“I work for an American newspaper.”

“Welcome, welcome.”

“What do you think of the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement? Do you support it?”

“Yes, we love the Americans and they are our friends.”

I don’t feel comfortable with the way the policeman is speaking. I feel he is being dishonest and might try to praise the Americans to get a promotion after his name is published.

I continue searching for more people to speak the truth.

It is now 1 p.m., and I realize I can not get anyone to speak to me honestly. So I decide to use a technique I have used before to have people speak to me without any fear: I go to an old coffee shop in town and find several young men playing dominos and Poker. This is due to the unemployment rate in the country.

“Asalamu Alaikum,” I greet them. “I’m a teacher who just recently arrived in town and I would like to ask you some questions for research my students will do.” People agree, so I talk individually to several men. In fact, I am able to interview 24 men. Except for one man, their words seem very sincere.

In the end while sipping my coffee, I tell them I am not a teacher, but a journalist and that I won’t mention their names if they don’t want. They all jump at once and say, “Don’t mention our names. We are afraid of Iran, al-Qaeda, the Marines and the government. We don’t want to be involved in problems.” Some of them are angry with me and accuse me of lying, but others understand my situation. In the end, I tell them I came all this way to the town to get a sincere answer to my questions.

As I leave town, I am stopped at a Sahwa checkpoint. One of the fighters manning the checkpoint tells me they know about my presence in town because of tips they received from people spread all over town.  He tells me they left me alone because they agree with the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement and want me to report on the issue. They even drive me outside the town in one of their vehicles so that the fanatic Sunnis do not discover my presence and put pressure on me to write what they want.

When I arrive home, I discover that my Press ID which I hid in my shoes was destroyed because of the rain water that covered the town. In the house, I sit for one hour with my wife and children before I fall asleep. I thank God that I was able to do part of the story. I will give myself a few hours to rest before I will wake up to think of a new way to get into a Shiite neighborhood in order to finish the story.

 

Othman Mohammed works as a special correspondent for the Washington Post in Iraq. He covers the war, mostly in the restive Sunni areas, including his hometown Anbar Province. Mohammed is pursuing his Master’s in War Journalism at Ain Shams University in Egypt.