I have been sorting through old files these last few days and came across this article I wrote in March, 2003, from Baghdad, after the American’s had launched their “awe and shock” aerial campaign, but before they reached the capitol. I was very frightened. This story was written for my local small town newspaper, “The Star Democrat”, mainly because I had a court date of which I was going to miss because I was in Iraq, and I wanted the judge to have evidence I had a good reason why I didn’t show up. He issued a warrant for my arrest anyways, but I am glad I went to Baghdad and I am glad I wrote this article and I am glad I found it today, sparking very unpleasant but real recollections of what war has meant to me, and means to many who experience it.
“I AM SCARED TONIGHT I AM GOING TO DIE’
The last tourists in Baghdad
DORCHESTER MAN COVERING WAR FROM BAGHDAD
EASTON STAR DEMOCRAT
MARCH 26, 20003
BY NATE THAYER
SPECIAL TO THE STAR DEMOCRAT
BAGHDAD–Night has just fallen here in Baghdad, and I am scared that tonight I will die. Last night hundreds were wounded where I am. The American missile attacks for two days have shattered my windows. We have 300 bottles of water, the windows are covered with duct tape to limit the shrapnel of the shards of glass from the concussion of the Tomahawk and Cruise missiles landing less than 500 meters from us. Balls of flames from the long-range missiles vaporize buildings with remarkable accuracy.
The American aerial assault is awesome in its accuracy. Two kilometers of government buildings, four presidential palaces, the Foreign Ministry, oil refineries, and the Defence Ministry and many other government buildings were all hit on first shot. Baghdad, as I write, is sliced apart by lines of blood red fire and black smoke. Huge fireballs erupt everywhere but we cannot see or hear the incoming missiles before they hit, perched on the balcony, cameras and videos on tripods, and watch the anti-aircraft fire rain in vain. Baghdad has been under attack for four days now, but today deteriorated to the point where we are all frightened we will die. Mary, sweet Mary, is scared also. We never let each other out of each others sight. The few minutes between explosions we hold each other tight.
Our fear is superseded by only our desire not to die. Every day journalists are arrested by the security forces and disappear, or are forced into cars to drive to the Jordanian border. CNN was kicked out en masse yesterday morning. It is only the dozen of freelancers with no bosses to order us out left here now. The young CNN Turkish correspondent hugged me, her eyes welled with tears, as security forces forced them into four-wheel drive vehicles for the highway to the Jordanian border with Iraq. That checkpoint was leveled yesterday. I should not have told them that my friends car was strafed by American jets on that road a few hours ago.
My first night I was checked into a hotel on the west bank of the Tigris river. I sussed out the neighborhood. The oil-fired power plants outside my window with 100-foot smokestacks demanded that I must insist on a change in accommodations. Last night, I watched those stacks be hit twice by Tomahawk missiles. My hotel, which I paid for through next week, no longer exists. It is a facade of burnt concrete. Mary and I were the last guests to check out. “You must move,” the hotel manager told us. “It is not safe here.”
But that was a long time ago. Yesterday. Yesterday, the Iraqis lit a ring of fire around Baghdad. Trenches filled with oil were lit in the afternoon and fires and smoke encircled those of us still here trapped in Baghdad. It does make it harder to see the effects of incoming attacks. The city is dark in the day from the smoke of war and burning oil. But it is the psychological mood of defiance that reflects the mood of the people in Baghdad. I am met every day by a cacophonic mixture of gifts and kisses and genuine solidarity–on a strictly human level–by Iraqis everywhere who know we are past the point of political debate. Nobody knows what will happen and we all fear we will die.
Today for the first time the bombings did not come only after dusk. It lasted all day. It did not come from only long range missiles today. Allied planes flew overhead and dropped their payload. Today, for the first time, small arms fire is coming from inside the city.
Anti-aircraft emplacements are now set up outside the perimeter of out hotel. That is not good. Yesterday, those that were 500 meters from us were destroyed by long range missiles. The smart bombs, we all agree are a lot smarter than they were 12 years ago in Kuwait. But all of the former was to be expected
Today, we all–those very few journalists and human shields–and the very much smaller subgroup of Americans within us–are being zeroed in on. Journalists are being expelled every hour. They are being put into cars and sent on the 1,000-mile drive to the border. Who know where they are now.
Independent western sources have seen 100 dead civilians and five captive air crew. Three Americans are shown on television over and over. They are frightened and their legs covered with bandages from their wounds.
After an allied jet dropped its payload at 1600 Baghdad time, Mary and I got into our car and drove toward the site. The light was good and pictures are part of our job. The blasts from the bombs are so intense that the liquid in your body gurgles and warms and the concussion sucks the air from your lungs.
One of my hotel rooms and safe houses has three balconies. 16 floors above the city. We can see anything. We turn the lights off and take pictures. I turn the tape recorder on and dictate to myself.. The concussion from the bomb blasts are too much for the tape recorder, overwhelming its ability to be clear.. But the pictures are phenomenal. Tonight we all know will be worse. The Americans are moving north with less resistance than expected. But if they come to Baghdad, it will be very, very different. There will be a bloodbath. Like all wars, it is the civilians who are suffering.
But everyday has been a struggle not to be expelled, taken hostage, placed as a human shield at military targets, or arrested. I have been threatened with each every day. Day after day, we have been threatened with being taken prisoner by the government. This morning we were ordered expelled. “You have two choices, you can be a human shield or you can leave the country,” said my government minder. He was not smiling his usual smirk.
What about my visa, I asked.
He responded by confiscating my passport. “Your visa is now to heaven,” he said, forcing a laugh.
I talked my way out of this. A visa extension was given but I had to take an HIV test, they insisted.. As usual, I brought my own syringes, and I swabbed Mary’s arm and extracted the vial of blood in our room and she did that to me. We went to the HIV center to submit it, but they insisted on their own injections.
Cruise missiles landed around us as we partook in this ridiculous charade. Two journalists were killed today outside of Baghdad. Seven are missing. Five are in prison.. Mary, my sweet Mary, was taken from my room in the dead of night. One cannot leave Baghdad now. Every vehicle on the roads out of the country are being strafed by American airplanes.
Our other option is to be a human shield, to be placed at a power plant, or electrical facility, or other targets on the allied list of vaporization. Explosions are rocking the computer as I speak. The paint from the walls covers the floors from the concussion of the long-range missiles.
But back to this afternoon: as we crossed the bridge of the Tigris River–one of four from the east to the west of the Tigris River, there was a traffic jam. Hundreds of armed men and civilians were looking down on the river below. It was 1637 hours. Scores of cars had stopped. We grabbed our cameras and gear and got out, the only two non-Iraqis there.
An allied plane had been shot down. Two pilots or crew were floating down the Tigris through central Baghdad. One had just been captured. When we arrived, they were searching for the other. He was captured as we watched. Thousands of cheering Iraqis chanted and clapped.. People in both uniform and civilian clothes shot AK-47’s in the air in celebration. Others took potshots at sightings along the banks. Small boats with heavily armed soldiers raced through the river searching the banks for the remaining pilots.
“Where are you from?” an armed Iraqi demanded, pointing at me, poking my chest.
“Germany,” interjected my government guide, abruptly grabbing me by the arm, yanking me away.
“Do not tell them you are American,” he whispered as he rushed me to the car. “We must leave. It is very dangerous here for you.” The captured pilots had been hiding in the reeds along the banks of the Tigris in central Baghdad. And hundreds of guns and cheers went off celebrating the capture of the second pilot. Where their aircraft was shot down, I do not know.
After we crossed the bridge to the west side–where all the American bombardments had been centered–the military shut down all four bridges. We were stuck at the epicenter of this horrific scene of 96 hours of carnage. We were trapped in the kill zone and there was no way back. Mary did not want to go at first. But I wanted to get a feel of the mood on the street. And now my heart raced both with guilt and our predicament.
To flee, we had to drive through Baghdad’s most dangerous area. We passed Saddam’s palace, which was a shell of burnt rubble. The Foreign Ministry, also, was a shell of concrete with no windows and lurking, sullen soldiers. Apartment buildings, hours ago filled with civilians were charred, burnt, leveled and empty. Hundreds of apartments and no people. Where were they all?
And now tonight as I write this the bombs are dropping again on Baghdad. This time I can see the B-52’s drop their payloads on the cit’s outskirts. Bursts of red light turn night to day. Mary is downstairs where we have the satellite phone set up covertly. She is trying to file her pictures. I rush to her. We promised each other we would not be separated, ever, during the battle for Baghdad. All the international lines are cut now and if we get caught with a phone we will be arrested.
My room has food for weeks of a possible siege, a small generator purchased at the market, fire extinguishers, gas masks for chemical warfare and body suits to protect us from biological weapons attacks. We have 150 Jerry cans of petrol bought at the black market stored at a safe house in case we have to flee the Hotel Palestine on the banks of the Tigris River that snakes through central Baghdad.
We have electronics from computers, cameras, communication devices, but now they are wrapped in Reynolds wrap–the aluminum foil deflects the e-bombs that will destroy the data of these electronic devices that are the tools of our craft. We have safe houses. I have four hotel rooms. We have flack jackets and helmets and gas masks equipped for chemical warfare in our room.
But it is not the American bombs we mostly fear. Between us, Mary and I have covered wars from Somalia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Burma, Vietnam, and the former Yugoslavia among other conflicts.. So it is not the war, it is the mood of the people that we fear. There has been a sea change since yesterday. The city is thick with anger and defiance. George Bush’s name has been spit out with venom. And as an American, it is understandable that rage and venom for the American government is a veneer ready to be punctured and directed at us.
. Mary and I arrived by road from Jordan one week ago. Mary and I and a motley group of six peace activists and freelance journalists, all of us under the cover as tourists. We arrived at the Iraqi border at 0400 huddled in the dark listening to George Bush live on the BBC shortwave announcing that the war had begun.. But our driver refused to drive the next 560 kilometers thought the deserts of Iraq to Baghdad. WE literally hijacked his bus, forcing him out of his seat and threatening to drive the bus ourselves. We were serious.
“You are the last tourists to Iraq,” smiled the Iraqi at the Iraqi Tourist Bureau in Baghdad.
“How many tourists are here in Iraq?” I asked.
“About 100,” he said.
” How many real tourists are here in Baghdad?” I asked.
He paused, smiled in appreciation and held his hand up, his forefinger and thumb forming a circle. “None.” I was glad we got that out of the way.
I was listed as a farmer from Dorchester County, Maryland. Mary a singer from Washington, D.C. I have 300 animals. Mary has a beautiful voice. She sang to me softly as we sped west through the night towards Baghdad. Our near empty coach bus was the only vehicle heading towards Baghdad. Hundreds of cars stuffed with personal possessions headed towards Jordan, the opposite direction.
A few days later, when they closed the bridges while Mary and I were on the west–the wrong side of the Tigris river, we drove north to find a way back to the Hotel Palestine. As we sped past charred government buildings and civilian housing reduced to rubble in the last hours, the city silent and absent of people, our driver turned and said: “This is the road to Babylon.”
Indeed, I thought to myself. We are already there.