YOU know how they say a frog will let itself be boiled alive, sitting placidly in a pot of bubbling water, if you turn the heat up slowly enough? That used to be what Iraq was like for journalists. Over the past 2½ years, the danger increased incrementally, with kidnappings, killings and bombings first hitting Iraqis, then soldiers, then contractors, missionaries and aid workers, before finally hitting us.
It took us a while to admit we were targets, and start to change the way we work — adding bodyguards, armoured vehicles, blast walls outside our hotels, and so on. But now going into Iraq is like being flung into a pot of water you can see boiling from a great height from far away. Inwardly, you’re screaming, “Arghh,” then you stifle it with a mental “Ulp.”
Every time before I fly in I sleep with one eyeball peeled, staring at the alarm clock, counting the minutes until the plane takes off. Then I half-hold my breath until our plane touches the tarmac. Then there’s another slight breath-holding experience driving down the Airport Road, before finally arriving at our hotel.
My mood instantly changes. I see our Iraqi staff and some of the regular CBS “inmates”, the translators make fun of how much my Arabic has deteriorated, we knock back strong coffee, and I get to work. There are always a couple of startled moments, when a distant or nearby bomb makes me jump. But I quickly forget where I am (or rather, that it bothered me).
The water’s toasty, verging on the scalding, but I’m fine.
That is, until I get myself and a cameraman, soundman and perhaps a producer invited on a trip across town with the US military, just like our ABC colleagues Bob Woodruff and Doug Vogt did [they were severely injured in an attack].
Then it starts all over again — the eyeball glued to the clock all night. Then there’s the armoured car dash to our meeting point with the military (which often entails a round trip down the Airport Road, and you just know the insurgents know our cars by now,that they see us from their hiding places and say to themselves, “Oh, there go the Western TV journalists. We could go for them, but let’s see if we can get a Humvee instead.”) Sometimes, the soldiers like to give journalists a hard time, saying things like, “Ma’am, if we’re hit by a bomb and we all get taken out, here’s how you operate the Humvee radio to call for help.” Thanks, guys.
But if you want to tell their story, you have to take their risks. If we, the journalists, are sitting in hot water, the troops are hopping around on Hell’s coals. It’s even worse for the Iraqi army and police. And then you’ve got the Iraqi people, who are not restricted to tours of duty and have no ticket out.
So yes, absolutely, journalists face awful, dangerous risks in Iraq. But it’s nothing compared to the people we cover.
This abridged article was first published on the CBS News website, www.cbsnews.com