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The Baghdad Press Club


In December, Roger Cohen, then the editor of the Times foreign desk, came to visit the Baghdad bureau. Minutes after he arrived, Sachs wandered outside to see Burns and screamed at him in front of several members of the Iraqi staff. A few nights later, Cohen took the staff to a restaurant, hoping to resolve security matters. Sachs pulled out a tape recorder and was asked to put it away. She was reassigned to Istanbul in March. A year later, the Times fired her, claiming she’d written a series of letters and e-mails containing a baroque list of allegations against her Times colleagues in Baghdad, a claim she denied.

There’s probably some truth to the stereotype that war correspondents are a breed apart—at home both everywhere and nowhere, defined by a brittle sense of mission and a striking lack of fear. Like cops, they become accustomed to seeing corpses and those who mourn them; like soldiers, they see the banal parts of dying, the way bodies are unsentimentally tossed aside or left to rot. (After covering several suicide bombings, Robert Worth says he was stunned to see civilians “hurling bodies into the backs of cars and trucks.”) In 2002, Anthony Feinstein, a psychiatrist from the University of Toronto, surveyed 140 war correspondents and found that roughly a quarter of them had suffered post-traumatic-stress disorder, which is roughly the same number for the military.

But the isolation of this war, combined with the constant pressure to produce stories and the near-impossibility of letting off steam, makes it especially hard on those who are there. “I’m finding a generation now for whom Iraq is really one straw too many,” says Mark Brayne, a psychotherapist and former war correspondent who’s the European director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, based in Seattle. So far, he’s worked with Newsweek, the Washington Post, and the BBC during this war. “I hear people saying, ‘I’ve coped well all these years, but Iraq is too much and I just don’t want to go back. My bank account is empty.’ ”

This January, Shadid, now based in Beirut, went back to Iraq for the Post to cover the elections. He was standing on a street corner for only fifteen minutes, noting the content of campaign posters, when he felt compelled to jump in his car and leave. It was the most scared he’d been in Iraq, even though nothing had happened at all. “When I look back at my time in Baghdad, there’s this ever-present dread,” he says. “It’s not always dramatic; it’s just there. Once you’re out, you realize how pervasive it was and the toll it took.”

Before he was ambushed in Sadr City, Rory Carroll—no relation to Jill—says he thought less about getting kidnapped in Iraq than did some of his colleagues. “I was much more concerned about getting mutilated or blown up,” he told me, speaking from Johannesburg, where he’s now a correspondent for the Guardian. “That was my big thing. How would I handle that?” Then, as he wrote in his own paper, when he was leaving the city, three cars, including a police Land Cruiser, cut off his two-car convoy on an empty street. A dozen men got out. One beat his driver; another threw his translator to the ground; a third sprayed bullets at his “follow-up vehicle,” or chase car, nearly killing the driver; and a fourth put a gun to Carroll’s head and shoved him into a Honda.

Handcuffed in the backseat and trying to signal a passing trucker with his foot, Carroll now thought quite a lot about getting kidnapped, and he had even more time to contemplate its perversity and grim potential when he was taken to a small house and locked in a concrete storage space beneath the stairs. He ran through all the reasons he’d gone to Baghdad, including the fact that he’d had a bad breakup. He wondered whether any story was worth this. He thought about his cat. A Dusty Springfield song started to run, unbidden, through his mind. “Still,” he continued in his surprisingly funny Guardian account, “no bag over the head, not chained to a radiator—could have been worse.”

What ultimately surprised Carroll about his experience was the banal, domestic nature of his captivity. There were kids, at least three of them, running loose around the house. A woman was cooking in the kitchen. “It was strange,” he tells me. “But also quite reassuring. It might have explained why I remained sanguine.” He fell asleep.

The following day, Carroll tried to establish a rapport with his captor. When he was released for supper, he used the Arabic word for “delicious” to praise the food. He asked for a book to read. When it seemed as though he had softened the man somewhat, he asked if it was okay to do calisthenics on his carpet. The man, a bit puzzled, assented. “It was sort of a surreal scene, doing this whole Jane Fonda impersonation,” he says. “But I wanted to show him I hadn’t lost it, that I was in control of myself. I also knew that for them, it’d be a weird thing. I mean, having a Western hostage on your hands is weird anyway, but I knew he’d find it sort of hilarious.” Which his captor did, as did his children. They pulled out the camera phone and took pictures of him doing push-ups and squats.


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