Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Unembedded in Iraq

The frequent readers of this blog know that I'm not a big fan of embedding reporting. Why? It is military officialism at its best. What is more important for a viewer back home: a night vision shot of soldiers inside an armored vehicle or documenting the civilian costs of the war?

After 9/11, people in the USA rallied behind their president and the outcry for justice ( revenge) was stronger than the voice of reason. Let's just flip the coin. You are in country without real possibilities of defense against the largest military force in the world. They invade you, destroy your infrastructure and way of life. The outcry for revenge comes full circle. Are we supposed to be surprised by the fact that after the invasion of Iraq terrorism have increased?

The USA media have to accept their responsibility in their role of misleading the public ( this week word: misleading ). Whenever we see a report from Baghdad, it is mostly a still shot of a reporter or military information. A war without dead soldiers, dead civilians and without destruction... sanitized images. War as a video game? Only recently, and through the international division of CNN, we have seen reports by Arwa Damon presenting the actual conditions of a once vibrant city: Baquba.

The role of the press is debunking the official propaganda that have institutionalized the Muslim phobia, and its "intelligence" errors which are affecting innocent people like Maher Arar, the Canadian who was detained by US officials and interrogated about alleged links to al-Qaeda, chained, shackled and deported to Syria, where he was was beaten, tortured and forced to make a false confession ( see Courtney's post on the topic ) or José Padilla who has held in custody for three years without being indicted of any crime violating his Constitutional rights. But it is not happening. They are more focused on the "entertainment side" of the news industry that distracts their viewers from what is really important.

I believe in the reporters that are not afraid to present reality, those with their own voices that understand that they are not the story and are not afraid to leave the sugar coating at home. At this time in history, a blurred vision of events its the worst legacy we can leave.

Chelsea Green Publishing recently published a book named Unembedded Four Independent Photojournalists on the War of Iraq. The images are haunting, unfiltered, necessary.

Peter Bergen wrote the prologue of the book where he states:

"Much of what is shown in Unembedded will probably disturb many Americans who have generally watched a sanitized version of the war and occupation unfold on their TV screens. Unembedded captures the whole range of Iraqi life under US occupation from joyful wedding scenes to the carnage of civilian casualties. Its a stunning book."

Peter Bergen, author of Holy War Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden

I think it is time to clear the Fog of War, and face the reality and its responsibility. Yesterday a friend joked about a mock interview with President Bush, the main core question was, as a known Christian, what excuse will you give God for the unnecessary bloodshed of American troops and Iraqi civilians... if Bush and his collaborators have any conscience, they must be a bunch of tortured souls.

SHAOLA, March 28, 2003
An eight-year-old girl, killed in a US bombing raid, is washed for burial. (Kael Alford)

Female patients pace the courtyard in the Zenab Women's Ward. (Rita Leistner)

HILLA, May 15, 2003
Female family members wail and beat themselves in Shiite tradition as a coffin containing the remains of brothers, Naim and Fasal, is brought home for mourning. The two were killed when Saddam Hussein's regime crushed Shiite uprisings in central and southern Iraq in 1991. The men's mother, cousins, and widows searched newly uncovered mass graves for more than a week before locating the brothers' identity cards in clothing tangled in their bones. (Thorne Anderson)

BAGHDAD, September 12, 2004
An injured Iraqi civilian calls for an ambulance during fighting in Haifa Street. Twenty-two Iraqi civilians were killed and forty-eight injured when US helicopters opened fire on crowds celebrating around a burning US armored personnel carrier. (Ghaith Abdul-Ahad)

BAGHDAD, September 12, 2004
A young Iraqi civilian lies dead in Haifa Street as a US armored personnel carrier burns in the background. Twenty-two Iraqi civilians were killed and forty-eight injured when US helicopters opened fire on crowds celebrating around the burning vehicle, which was disabled by an insurgent attack. No American soldiers were killed in the fighting. (Ghaith Abdul-Ahad)

NAJAF, August 26, 2004
An Iraqi National Guardsman lies dead, killed by Shiite militia. (Ghaith Abdul-Ahad)

NAJAF, August 27, 2004
Members of the Mahdi Army run for cover during a gunfight with the Iraqi police. (Thorne Anderson)

MOSUL, April 16, 2003
One of Saddam's bombed palaces draws crowds of curious Iraqi citizens in the days following the fall of Mosul. (Rita Leistner)

KURDISTAN, April 3, 2004
The Iranian-Kurdish wife of Osman Ocalan, a leader of the PKK Kurdish separatist group, lives simply at a camp hidden in the mountains of northern Iraq. Outlawed in Turkey, the PKK advocates an independent Kurdish homeland. (Rita Leistner)

BAGHDAD, July 18, 2004
Young men and women venture out for the evening in Zowra Park. Socializing after dark in Baghdad ceases during periods of of heavy fighting or suicide bombings, but rebounds as soon as their is a perceived lull. Still, mixed-gendered public outings are increasingly discouraged by religious conservatives' censure. (Thorne Anderson)

FALLUJA, April 30, 2003
Smoke from burning oil trenches drifts over the Euphrates River. Shortly after the US-led invasion, oil pipelines and infrastructure became targets of sabotage by Iraqi resistance fighters. Iraqi oil production continues to flow at rates lower than those prior to the invasion. (Kael Alford)

BAGHDAD, April 4, 2004
An Iraqi boy celebrates after setting fire to a damaged US vehicle that was attacked earlier by insurgents. (Ghaith Abdul-Ahad)

ZAFRANIA, April 26, 2003
Angry residents of Zafrania confront US soldiers guarding an ammunition stockpile after an accident launched a missile that killed people in nearby houses. (Kael Alford)

NAJAF, August 21, 2004
A father shows his hand to snipers as he carries his terrified child across the front line between the US forces and the Mahdi Army at the wrecked outskirts of the old city. (Kael Alford)

Phillip Robertson

About the photographers
December 19, 2005

[These photographs are taken from Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq (Chelsea Green Publishing). The following essay appears as the book's introduction.]

If this introduction offers an explanation of what it means to work as a journalist outside the U.S. perimeter, it is also an involuntary exorcism of intense memories.

There have been worse battles in Iraq since the late summer of 2004, but that doesn't matter. One death is still a death. It is the end of a universe. The photographs in this feature story, many of which were taken in Najaf during the siege that August, are the bright traces of the moments we witnessed there, and it is impossible for me to see them now without hearing the detonations, the entreaties, and the terrible silence of that time.

During the siege of Najaf, a holy city to tens of millions of Shiite Muslims, the five of us - four photojournalists and I - were drawn together, pulled into a fierce orbit around the gold tomb where the saint Imam Ali lies buried.

On Aug. 17, 2004, close to the height of the U.S.-led siege of Najaf, Thorne Anderson, Yassir Jarallah and I crossed the U.S. cordon and the Mahdi Army lines on foot, thinking that if we could get to the old city, we would be able to understand what was happening at the center of the Mahdi movement. Very little information was coming from the old city inside the cordon because few reporters had made it through the blockade. Most had been turned back by gunfire or had been rousted from their hotel rooms by Iraqi police. For a period of a few days, journalists were threatened with arrest if they remained within Najaf city limits. We wanted to find our way through the cordon and break the news blockade.

On the day we crossed the cordon, Kael Alford was taking photographs of a Najafi family trapped by the fighting near the desolate zone that characterized the front lines. Rita Leistner, who arrived in Najaf the following day, was in Baghdad, tirelessly negotiating the release of our colleague Micah Garen, a Mahdi Army hostage in Nasiriyah. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, whose columns for the Guardian are some of the best reporting to come out of the war, arrived in the shrine that evening and captured a doomed peace delegation as it met with Mahdi Army officials. I remember seeing his blue flak jacket as he followed the dignitary Hussein al-Sadr though a chanting mob of fighters.

As Thorne and I crossed the U.S. cordon with our hands in the air, we found ourselves in a landscape of burned buildings and smoldering cars. We continued over broken glass and melted plastic through a ruined market where we finally came across the first Mahdi Army position. We waved to a group of heavily armed men wearing black shirts, crouching in an alley, and when the fighters saw us, they did not arrest us. Instead, the commander sent an unarmed messenger to show us the path through the fighting to the old city. We walked to an open space where a wide street divided the old city from its newer sections. When we reached the middle of the street, where it was impossible to turn back, a sniper fired on us, and there was a cracking sound and dust in the air from the rounds hitting the concrete pillar above our heads. Thorne lay down in the road, finding shelter under a low concrete barrier. I ran behind a column.

When the shooting was over, we walked slowly to the shrine in the old city, past dozens of fighters in black, leaning against the walls with their weapons. It was a moment of relief, of somber triumph. Other photographers and journalists who have risked everything to cover the war from the other side know this feeling well because they have made this crossing or one just like it many times. Fighters on the other side of the street took us in, and there was an innocent, human quality in this moment that I cannot describe even a year later. It would have been easy for them to kill two American journalists, accuse them of being spies, but they did not. Perhaps that is all that needs to be said.

In the old city where most of the fighting took place, the sound of the great machinery of killing focused on a small space came through the air in shattering waves. A few dozen yards away from the great shrine of Imam Ali, Hellfire missiles fell from Apache helicopters and smashed buildings into their basements, rocket-propelled grenades flew down Prophet Street, machine guns chattered in bursts. We watched young men rushing through the gates of the shrine, down Prophet Street toward death. In this way we learned that all of the weapons have their own distinct voices. Soon it was easy to imagine the machinery of war as demons, and the siege of Najaf as a war between heaven and hell. This was how the Mahdi fighters saw it. For them, it was a war of faith.

We entered the southern gates of the shrine and saw the tomb of Ali in the center of an expanse of polished white marble. The reflection of the sun off the gold minarets made them look like vessels being fired in a kiln. Wounded fighters were being carried through the gates to a makeshift infirmary in a small alcove, as the Mahdi lines collapsed around the shrine. Older men who tended the mosque wiped up the trails of blood from the wounded. The young men in black T-shirts and green headbands ran down Prophet Street toward the American lines and came back on wheeled carts, their bodies torn apart. After they died, comrades of the dead fighters wrapped them in white and carried them in a final circuit around Ali's gold tomb, shouting, "There is no god but God."

While I filed reports for the radio and gave interviews over the satellite phone, Thorne took hundreds of pictures of the fighters in the shrine and near the front lines, documenting what I was unable to describe in words. He showed them eating meals, praying and fighting, the whole extent of their lives under fire. In his photographs you can see the connection he had made with the young Mahdi volunteers and the trust he had gained.

A few blocks to the north of where we slept, hundreds of Mahdi Army soldiers were hiding in a vast graveyard, a necropolis far larger than Najaf itself, with more than a million people buried in the sacred earth. Fighters huddled down in the dust of the tombs, firing at U.S. positions. We heard the sound of the missiles that destroyed them. The other men who took their place picked up the weapons of the killed and fought until they also died. The war and the routine that surrounded it functioned with mechanical regularity. And because machines are predictable, you always knew what would happen before it happened.

Three days later, on Aug. 19, after learning that we couldn't safely leave the old city the way we had come in, Kael Alford and Rita Leistner brokered a cease-fire between the U.S. military and the Mahdi Army. It was the first step in a plan to evacuate us from the shrine. Riding in the first car of a convoy of journalists, Kael and Rita made their way into the old city, past the nervous fighters who fired warning shots to stop them. While some of the journalists in the convoy decided to turn back, Kael and Rita continued through the ruined city.

At four o'clock, dozens of journalists entered the shrine to bring us out, get quick interviews, take photographs of the Mahdi volunteers who were shouting and chanting Muqtada al-Sadr's name. I had first heard that they were coming when a young fighter ran up to me and said, "The journalists are coming."

"Which journalists?"

"All of them!" the boy said. An hour later, when Rita and Kael arrived, it seemed like a species of miracle. After we returned to Baghdad, we were shocked by some of the reactions people had to our work during the siege.

One U.S. officer who was angry that we covered the other side of the conflict in Najaf accused us in a New York Times editorial of putting American soldiers at risk. I am not sure what he meant, and it is certainly not true. Another man, in an Internet posting, threatened Thorne's life because of the photographs he took behind the Mahdi lines. This is a short catalog of incidents, but all of us have been escorted out of places, threatened with the loss of press credentials or with arrest. There are always consequences when stories run, but I was surprised by the bitterness and vehemence of the accusations, the absurd insinuations of treason.

We crossed the lines because we believe it is more important to humanize a conflict than it is to trade in rhetorical truths, or to reinforce easy notions of enemy and friend, which are mere propaganda. Instead, we wanted to document honestly what we witnessed in the war because this is the sole duty of journalists, regardless of their nationality and religion. We were able to do this precisely because we did not carry weapons or claim allegiance to one of the warring parties.

If our journeys behind the lines were acts of faith, then they were also proof that often when one man is confronted with the humanity of another, he will not raise his rifle and pull the trigger. This is not disloyalty to one's country. It is the thing that brings an end to war.

Now, here are your witnesses.

© Phillip Robertson

Since 2001, Phillip Robertson has covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for


3 comentarios:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the info

Anonymous said...

That was amazing. I will have to get this book. I wonder what goes through the minds of brave men and women who risk their lives to tell a story that most people can't be bothered to hear? No one wants to see death and destruction, heartbreak and loss, but Jesus Christ!!! People live it, can't we at least look at their faces and acknowledge what they have experienced? Not to mention show some respect for what people go through to bring these stories out. No one would in Dubya's admin wants us to know what goes on over there. That's how dictators maintain control, by cutting off information. Hell, they don't have to even try to do that here- the media does it for them and the public couldn't care less about stopping it.
It's terrible.

ivy said...

@chris -from what I understand security situation in Iraq deteriorated since 2004 when these photos were taken and many things possible then for reporters aren't possible today. I agree that that the war should be de-sanitized in media, but I guess the decision is on news channels/shows management and producers, as well as newspapers editors. I'm sure if Cnn's Baghdad's beauro journalists made those decisions we would see a lot more realistic images --like the ones in Ware's report yesterady or in Arwa's report that you linked.


Don't think for me. Don't assume what I want to hear or read. Give me facts. Give me reasons. But not yours. Bring me debate. Enlighten me. Today, accountability is masked behind anonymity; bylines are hidden by zeros and ones. Everyone publishes; everyone is "in the know." Ethics are non-existent. Speculation is king. The truth is masked and a hostage. Empowered by our minds, WE ARE THE FREAKSPEAKERS!


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