Fallujah was fertile ground for great work. In 2004, Filkins was one of the few reporters to travel with the U.S. Army all the way through the city on foot, and he covered the experience with the kind of intensity and nuance reporters still remember (like his description of insurgents signaling one another with black flags from rooftops). By spending time in Fallujah, Shadid intuited the insurgency in its very beginning stages and got a seismograph reading on its faint, first rumblings. Nir Rosen created a stir in 2004 when he wrote about the mujaheddin in Fallujah for The New Yorker, setting a precedent almost no one could follow. As he wrote, I was able to avoid being taken hostage or killed because I speak Arabic and have olive skin and black hair and, when asked, I said that I was Bosnian . . . More important, I was traveling with a Palestinian who had helped the resistance leaders during the fighting.
Certain women, too, have made names for themselves in the past three years, which may seem odd in an aborning fundamentalist regime but makes sense when one considers that it’s easier to move around and report in Iraq wearing an abaya. “In general, I found it a huge asset to be a woman,” says Fassihi. “You gained access to homes and families and to women. As a man, it’s harder to do that kind of reporting.” She thinks for a second. “Though the clerics could be scolding when they learned I wasn’t married.”
“We have gun pits on our roof and snipers positioned up there on rotating shifts, plus other gunmen at various other points around the perimeter, and we have other checkpoints around our house . . .” He trails off. “But to be honest, if the insurgents decide they want you dead, they can kill you.”
In the early days, says Fassihi, she and her girlfriends would organize movie nights in Baghdad, and on one occasion, they even set out to get their nails done (and then had to leave the salon when the electricity went off). But there’s very little of this group socializing in Iraq today. Unlike in most conflicts, where reporters could gather somewhere in the evening and tie one on—the most famous example being the rooftop bar at the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon—Baghdad is strikingly slim on social outlets. Apart from the occasional poker game in the Hamra, reporters seldom see much of one another. “It’s not a very social conflict,” says Richard Engel, now in his fourth year in Baghdad for NBC. “It’s actually pretty medieval. We live in little fortresses and then we go through the badlands to arrive at other little fortresses. Am I going to organize a convoy to have a cup of coffee?”
Most reporters spend their off-hours unwinding alone. Most of their bureaus have makeshift gyms, a disproportionate number of which, as Engel points out, have punching bags. (“We have one, Time has one, the Washington Post has one . . . ,” he says, counting. “We’re all gonna be boxers when this is through.”) Hamza Hendawi, of the Associated Press, lifts weights in his room and watches bootleg DVDs he buys from a man outside the Palestine Hotel. “Some are of surprisingly good quality,” he says. “Others you can hear sneezing and someone blowing his nose.” In a few instances, this hothouse climate has brought people together—two Boston Globe reporters, Anne Barnard and Thanassis Cambanis, met in Iraq and married—but it has had a grim effect on those with spouses left behind. At least three star correspondents—Shadid, Filkins, and Engel—have gotten divorces since the war began or are in the process of divorcing.
“Not spending time together was obviously difficult,” says Engel, who tried, at various points during the war, to persuade his wife to move to Beirut or Istanbul. “But it’s more than that. You have to remember: The war seems almost endless. It’s difficult to tell someone, ‘Don’t worry, stick it out.’ And the experiences are really different. Your day is so outside the normal realm of reality. It’s hard for other people to relate.”
So why stay in Iraq? Why not go home?
“I thought this was something that everyone would find as fascinating as I do,” he says. “I’ve been covering the Middle East for ten years. Not only do I get to be in the front car as it’s plowing through history, but I get to see how human beings and states and armies react. It’s a privilege you don’t want to give up easily.”
He thinks about this. “But what happens is the other person feels like there isn’t any room for them, like you’ve become married to the war,” he concludes. “And it’s a fair description. I just kept trying to say it was a girlfriend. Or a lover. Or a mistress.”
The pressures and dangers of reporting in such a claustrophobic environment have also, in some cases, damaged people’s careers. In October 2003, Susan Sachs, a reporter on the New York Times metro desk, went to Baghdad to run its fledgling bureau. The Times was still in its tiny house then. It had too little room (and just a couple of bathrooms) for too many people; meanwhile, the world outside was getting more and more violent by the day. Sachs hadn’t managed a bureau of that size before. She endeared herself to no one, especially Burns, who’s won two Pulitzers for his coverage of past wars. Like other reporters in the bureau, he believed Sachs was taking insufficient measures to protect them or the bureau—a position that had already prompted one reporter, on one occasion, to bring a gun along in his car. (The Times now has a policy forbidding reporters’ carrying guns.)