Abduction Forces a Grim Look at What a Story Is Worth

Times Staff Writer

When Jill Carroll was kidnapped, other journalists in Iraq were aghast that something so horrible had happened to someone they knew. But many insisted privately that it never would have happened to them.

They would have traveled in an armored car. They would have taken two vehicles so the second, the chase car, could have scared off the gunmen. They never would have gone to that neighborhood.

Maybe, maybe not. You could avoid western Baghdad, where she was abducted, only to be nabbed in the southern district. You could have two cars and the second could have its tires shot out and careen off the road. You could be in an armored car and your driver could lose his nerve.


The truth is that we are working in a war zone where no rules apply. No one is safe: not Iraqis, not Westerners, not men, not women.

For most journalists in Iraq, it’s hard to be honest about danger, even though we talk about it all the time. We follow daily reports about the number of roadside bombings, suicide attacks and abductions. We chart violence the way other people watch the weather.

But talking about the danger in Iraq for what it is -- my life, my death -- is too scary. So we make it ordinary. “Oh, did you see any gunmen on your way over, there were some at the intersection yesterday, and would you like a cup of coffee?”

To family and friends not in Iraq, it is incomprehensible why you came here, and certainly why you returned twice, three times -- in my case, over and over for nearly three years.

I could say something like “The cycle of risk and survival makes life more valuable,” but that wouldn’t be true, although some journalists do become addicted to the danger, to the high of sidestepping death.

Witnessing History

For me, at least, what is true is that once in a while as a journalist you get the chance to witness history, a moment when tectonic plates shift, when more is at stake than you ever imagined you would touch or see. It’s the adrenaline surge of being in a place where people’s lives are in the balance, where every decision counts and where what you’re writing might, might just matter.

And you feel more alive than you’ve ever felt -- but you’re also often closer to being killed. You notice I wrote “often.” I needed a qualifier.


As I said, I wasn’t drawn to the danger; it crept up on me. I put out of my mind unsettling questions about just how close I might be to getting killed. But it lurked out there, inescapable. Is a 50-50 chance of survival acceptable? Or are you only comfortable if the odds are better than 80-20?

These are the calculations I’ve made every day, sometimes several times in a day. Calculations about the odds of being caught in a suicide bombing, abducted, shot by mistake or on purpose. I’ve become a bookmaker of sorts. I can tell you that the chance of being caught in a suicide bombing is slight, unless you have to go through a checkpoint, at which point it skyrockets. But the chances of my being kidnapped, well, I don’t even want to write about that.

I remember an American security contractor with a faraway, almost happy look telling me in 2003, when we could still drive around Baghdad without worrying about it, “Nothing clarifies your thought like a gun to the head.” Well, I assured myself, I’m not that far gone.

A year later, I had a chance to test his assertion. I had gone to a hospital in Fallouja to report on the killing of four Iraqis, reportedly by U.S. Marines. But a relative of one of the dead saw in me an infidel intruding on his family’s private grief, and in a rage he pulled a gun on me and my interpreter. In that moment, I learned that with a gun near my head, I didn’t feel clear about anything except that what I was doing wasn’t worth it and that I had put my interpreter, whom I cared about deeply, in danger. He had four children and a wife. What did I think I was doing? And I couldn’t bear to think about my family and what it would do to them if I were killed in a foreign place.

The waves of nausea came hours later and I kept trying to breathe more deeply, but for almost a day I felt like I couldn’t fill my lungs.

Trying to Blend In

Still, it took nearly two years before I turned back from an assignment. Because something changed for me when Jill Carroll, an American freelance journalist for the Christian Science Monitor, was abducted Jan. 7.


I had always told myself that despite my blue eyes and pale skin, I would slip unnoticed through Iraq with my hijab, head scarf and black abaya. The abaya was my cloak of invisibility, my body armor.

I studied the way many Iraqi women walked -- with a slight shuffle, from wearing slip-on mules much of the time. I studied how they linked arms with other women when they walked in the markets. I noted the kind of purses they carried -- large and black. I blended. I was thrilled when people addressed me in Arabic; perhaps they really thought I was one of them.

Carroll had gone one better than me -- she actually spoke Arabic -- and still she was unable to avoid the wash of fury and hatred that now confronts Westerners. We are not wanted.

The words of a dear colleague floated to my consciousness on my most recent trip to Iraq. We used to argue daily about safety, and each thought the other took unnecessary risks -- the truth was that we each took risks in our own way. I had proposed driving to Najaf, a city south of Baghdad, at a time when the road was known for ambushes, kidnappings and beheadings. “Alissa, an abaya is not bulletproof,” he had said.

So when Carroll was kidnapped, although I did not know her, my heart went out to her.

I was aware of the statistics: Since the beginning of the war, 60 journalists, five of them women, had been killed in Iraq and at least 37 abducted, according to a tally by the Committee to Protect Journalists. But like all the other foreign journalists in Iraq -- fewer than 75 of us, down from more than a thousand after the war -- I needed to believe that I was going to slip through.

After Carroll’s abduction, I don’t feel that way anymore.

Last week I set out in the early morning for Kut, a city about two hours south of Baghdad. We left early so that we could get back in a day, adhering to the rule that you shouldn’t stay long in a single place because word will get around that a Westerner is in town.

I roused one of our British security advisors at 7 a.m. and had him remind the drivers of protocol (keep the cars apart, don’t look like a convoy, rely on radios to communicate). But when I went out, it turned out the driver had brought his own vehicle, not an armored car.

Moment of Truth

Carroll’s experience hung in my mind. She had been abducted in part because she lacked the protection of an armored car, and her interpreter had been shot dead. I looked at my interpreter, a beautiful young Iraqi woman who loved to read English literature, had helped me buy Iraqi shoes so that I would appear more local and had taught me about the world of Iraqi women. But I pushed ahead.


Then it turned out we didn’t have a Thuraya satellite phone in the car. Cellphones are notoriously unreliable in Iraq because the U.S. military often blocks signals during its operations. Traveling without a satellite telephone as a backup is at best foolhardy. But we had already left, so I resigned myself to traveling without it.

We weaved through the Baghdad traffic. The road was crowded and people could easily see us through the car windows. Although I usually look out at the passing scene, I forced myself to look into the car so that my eyes and skin would not be visible.

The most dangerous part of the trip is the 15 miles of road immediately south of Baghdad proper. It runs through a largely Sunni farming area, one where mutilated, headless bodies have turned up often. It feels like outlaw country: Someone could grab you and no one would say anything.

As we went through the last Baghdad checkpoint, a policeman told our driver that a new security plan was in effect and we would not be able to reenter the capital for 48 hours. The driver pulled over and turned to me: Did I still want to go?

It was a moment of truth. I had to get back that night. Was there any other way I could get into Baghdad if the roads were closed? Yes, my driver said. “You can walk across the Diyala bridge and the office can send a car to meet you.”

He nodded to a stream of people who were doing that right then -- women in swirling abayas picking their way through the mud, men striding along. “How far would I have to walk?” I asked. About a mile. “Is it safe?” The driver shook his head. “There are bad people here. Everyone can see you when you are walking. We cannot honestly tell you it is safe.”


I appealed to my interpreter. “What do you think, Zainab? Is it that unsafe?” She turned and looked at me. “I’ll go with you if that’s what you decide to do, but the driver wants to know what he can do with his car. He can’t leave it outside Baghdad on the road for the night. It would be stolen. He can’t stay with it -- it’s dangerous. And then we have the chase car. What do you want them to do? “

‘We Can’t Go’

I was silent. I had come back to Iraq to do a small number of interviews. If I didn’t go to the one in Kut, I wouldn’t be able to finish the story.

I thought about close calls I had had in the past. About my interpreter, who said she would go with me no matter what. About my parents, who hated that I was in Iraq. About Carroll, whom I imagined alone in a room, perhaps cold, perhaps not knowing that thousands of people were thinking about her.

And I thought about an autumn night more than a year ago when a colleague had rushed off into western Iraq to cover a suicide bombing. I remembered how worried I had been, and when I finally reached him on the satellite phone I had said: “It’s not about us. We can die if we want to here, but we can’t put those who work for us in more danger than they already are. We’re making decisions for more than ourselves.”

I remember that he had listened and, hard as it must have been, said, “You’re right, I’m coming back.”

I heard my own words now in my head. There was no choice. “We can’t go. There’s no way to make it a safe trip,” I said. “Let’s turn around and go back to the office.”


Was it the right decision? Could I have walked across the bridge unnoticed? Did the drivers really assess the danger correctly? I don’t know. But what I do know is that Iraq is hostile ground and nothing I do can make it safe.