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Sunday, June 13, 2004

Christopher Allbritton's Heart of Darkness

The day I started this blog, Christopher was on route to Iraq to work as a freelance journalist. He also started a blog called Back to Iraq which is a source you'll want bookmark.

Today I read this powerful piece:
Heart of Darkness

Three weeks isn’t much time in most places. Just a couple weekends of meeting with friends, maybe having a beer or seeing a movie. Three weeks of working at a job that maybe you like, maybe you don’t. In my case, I’ve been in Baghdad Since May 19, so let’s call it three weeks. It’s a nice round number.

In that time, in no particular order I witnessed a car bombing next to my hotel, started work for TIME Magazine, watched an interim government unveiled, interviewed a vice president, been mortared more times than I can count, missed two other car bombs by a few minutes, pined for New York and tentatively fell in love with Baghdad.

She’s a city that has seen better days, frankly. As mentioned, the electricity is bad. The gas lines are long — up to 5 km in some places — and U.S. soldiers still break up black market petrol rings even though that’s often the only way for Iraqis to get petrol.

Baghdad is also an incredibly stressful place to live and work, especially as a westerner, as I’ve mentioned. We’re targets, and when you look very western, like I do, you’re constantly aware of eyes on you and the hostility. At restaurants, the waiters sullenly clear your table, sometimes being none too careful about keeping chai or food from spilling on you. The kindness I encountered last year is absent; a western face brings a sullen welcome, calibrated to the bare minimum.

Violence, too, is never distant. A few days, there was an IED attack against an American humvee near the Interior Ministry. It killed one American soldier and wounded three others. We were on our way to the Oil Ministry and we detoured to the site of the attack. As I rushed up to the cordon, I yelled out to the soldiers that I was press. They responded by waving me away. I tried to ask one soldier a few questions about what had happened. Traffic streamed around us and cars horns beat out a cacophonic concert.

“Can’t talk to you, sir, go away,” he said.

“Well, where was the attack?” I pressed.

“I said go away,” he growled.

“Can I speak to your commanding officer? Who is he?”

“He said get the fuck out of here!” a second soldier screamed and both soldiers pointed their weapons at me. There are few things more threatening than seeing scared and pissed-off American soldiers pointing weapons at you. The Iraqis know this feeling well. I quickly retreated and returned to the car, shaken at the Americans’ hostility.

This feeling of trusting no one has gotten to me; it’s palpable and the constant vigilance is exhausting. My mood is black and I can feel a depression that is never far away. Not writing for the blog is a source of guilt, too, but TIME has kept me so busy with stories that don’t bring me in touch with average Iraqis much. I’ve been moving between the CPA and the former members of the Governing Council.

I also can’t seem to get excited over stories of abused Iraqis. There are so many and they have a numbing quality. Also, the hostility I encounter from Iraqis makes me — shamefully — less empathetic to their complaints. But nor do I feel much sympathy for Americans who point guns at me. The tragic part of this is that there is no way to blame anyone in this situation. The Iraqis will naturally hate an occupying army. And soldiers will naturally grow to hate a people they think they came to liberate but who continue trying to kill them.(Go read the rest)