Turning Points

Everyone has a story about when things began to go bad

Dexter Filkins
The New York Times

I remember the whole period from October, November, December 2003, everybody — all the reporters — were still playing by the old rules and going where we wanted to go. And everybody would come back more and more and say, “My God, I had something really scary happen today: ‘my car got raked by gunfire,’ or ‘a crowd chased me down,’ or ‘some guys with masks chased me in a car,’” and so it was clear that the environment was changing, and so we had to respond to that and it took a long time to kind of figure out how to do that.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran
The Washington Post

In early December of 2003, I was driving back from Hillah. A translator, a driver, and I had gone down to do a story on the provincial council there. Each province had its own government council. We talked to the members. On the drive back to Baghdad, we were about half way there and saw what we thought was a big car accident. One of the vehicles was on fire. We saw a couple of bodies on the road. As we’re driving by, something caught my eye. I thought, “This is very unusual.” Because people were celebrating, were cheering, were very boisterous. I thought, “This is not an accident. This is very strange.” So I directed my driver to pull over and my translator and I got out. I kept my notebook in my pocket, and since I’m of a darker complexion, if I don’t open my mouth, I’m often mistaken for a dark-skinned guy from Basra. So I just sort of walked through the crowd with my translator. It became clear that those were Spanish intelligence agents and seven of them had been ambushed on their way down to Hillah. Their bodies were sprawled out on the road and they were being mutilated by this mob. We just stumbled upon them.

Andrew Lee Butters
Freelance writer

I could feel things change in February of 2004, although I was slow to pick up on it somewhat. I remember catching a ride back from a dinner in a taxi with Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker, and someone asked me how things were going, and I said something about safety, “Ah, it’s fine, you can do anything.” And Jon Lee Anderson said, “I’ve never been in a society where something so clearly was on the brink of happening.” And I was like, “What’s he talking about it?” Sure enough, and not very long afterwards, there were the two uprisings in Fallujah and Ramadi. In some ways you feel like a frog, the proverbial frog in boiling water. The changes are so gradual you don’t notice it until suddenly things get really bad.

Luke Baker

For Ashura [a Shiite holy day], in March 2004, there probably were about a million people estimated gathered in Karbala. It was the first time that Shiites had celebrated Ashura publicly in Iraq for something like thirty years. On the final day, when the streets of Karbala were the most packed, there was a series of bombings. We were on the streets of Karbala; one bomb went off reasonably close to where we were. Perhaps foolishly we went to it, thinking it was a one-off thing. We were rushing to the site where the bomb had gone off, and another suicide bomber blew himself up between where that bomb had gone off and where we were, probably about thirty feet in front of me, and it just mowed down everyone between me and him. Thirty people were just wiped out in front of myself and the cameraman — a really devastating scene. Then we turned and another bomb went off to our left, doing exactly the same thing to people to our left, and then another bomb went off. I was on the satellite phone trying to call in what was happening, and people then thought that — I was the only foreigner there — I was somehow setting these things off through the satellite phone. They wanted to attack me, but we managed to basically get out of immediate danger.

Alissa Rubin
Los Angeles Times [In March 2004], people in Fallujah had been laying IEDs [improvised explosive devices], and we knew that a serious assault was coming. We had someone with the Marines, writing about the Marines, and some civilians in Fallujah were killed, and so I felt that we needed to tell the story also from the point of view of the civilian Fallujans. So I went out there to talk to them. And I was in a hospital and a relative of someone who had just been killed came in and he was very angry that there was a foreigner there, although I was properly dressed in an abaya and a hijab, but he became furious and he pulled out a gun. An Iraqi translator I was working with was there and [the angry man] basically held the gun far closer to his head or my head than either of us ever want to see again.

And Suhail [Rubin’s translator] told him, “Calm down, stop it. We didn’t mean any harm.” That sort of thing. And he told him that we were trying to explain what had happened to his relative who had been killed. No one offered to help us or pull the man away, and we walked out of the hospital and survived. Although we were very afraid as we walked out that we’d be shot in the back.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran
The Washington Post

I spent more than two weeks with the U.S. Marines in Fallujah in April 2004 during the first Marine incursion into Fallujah, the one that would eventually result in the Marines’ pulling out and then bringing back a bunch of former Baathist officers called the Fallujah Brigade, which turned out to be a disaster. This was in the spring of 2004.

I was with a Marine battalion in the city. We were camped out in an abandoned soda pop factory. We went out on patrol with these guys. We ate the MREs with them. We were taking incoming fire in the evenings with them. We were in the same degree of danger as them. I was just blown away by how a bunch of eighteen-, nineteen-, twenty-year-old kids, from often very broken homes, inner cities, you name it, how they had come together and were exhibiting what I felt to be very great discipline. We all know there are exceptions to this, but by and large I was just really impressed by their ability to exercise restraint, to have such a disciplined chain of command. The Marines would have to go back in again with greater numbers and greater force in the fall of 2004.

Hannah Allam
Knight Ridder (McClatchy)

I think the beheading of Nicholas Berg [in May 2004 was a turning point]. And then after that it really seemed almost overnight. I guess it was the realization that reporters were not immune as targets. That we were considered foreigners, there was no distinction. That what we are doing here is noble and truth-telling, there was no distinction. A foreigner is a foreigner is a foreigner.

Anthony Shadid
The Washington Post

I think after April 2004, it changed pretty dramatically in all respects. I remember pretty vividly that moment of standing in the street when there was a militiaman manning a checkpoint, wearing a bandolier of bullets, and on a street over there was either a Bradley or a tank, and you got that sense of the street fighting that was talked so much about before the invasion was actually happening at that point.

I had done a story back in 2003 on the village called Thuluyah and I’d gone there quite a few times in 2003. I’d ended up doing a story on a father who’d been forced to kill his son for being an informer for the Americans. And it felt pretty relaxed in 2003 doing those stories. I met the people who had forced the father to kill his son and I met the father himself. I moved pretty casually through the village. And as you move through these villages, you look for people who know everything. You look for the barber, the pharmacist, the people who talk to everybody. I latched on to those people early on, I latched on to the pharmacist, and he really made it easy, getting around the village, talking to people.

[In 2005] I wanted to go back because I was trying to do a story on what life with the insurgents, you know, what life in liberated Iraq was like. I thought this would be a good village because it very much was off limits at this point. The Americans just didn’t go in there and, when they did, there was fighting. And I spent three days in Balad, trying to set up some sort of guarantee.

I had met some doctors at the hospital in Balad from this town, on another trip a couple of months earlier. And they had said at that time that they thought they could get me into this village. And so I went and talked to them. On the first day, they said, “Let us make some more calls.” And I went the second day — it’s not that safe of a drive from Baghdad to Balad — and they said, “You know, give us one more day.” And on the third day I went back, and two of the doctors said they couldn’t guarantee my security and the third doctor said he could.

And I thought about it, and I thought, if I were ten years younger and desperate for the story I would have done it. But you think, two out of three isn’t great odds. It just kind of hit me that this is an important story, and it’s a story about where Iraq is headed and where it’s been. And it just wasn’t possible.

Dan Murphy
The Christian Science Monitor

Probably the way Fallujah was leveled [in November 2004] was not as well reported or understood as it could have been. But press had great access to that story. They were there. They were banging away with the Marines, so they saw a lot. And there was an incredible amount of destruction in that city. And you have to remember you didn’t have to be in Fallujah to cover the Iraqi side of the story. There were a lot of refugees that fled Fallujah and came to a refugee camp right up the road from where I’m staying. Of course, the people who ran that refugee camp took to kidnapping foreign reporters who wanted to talk about the situations those families found themselves in. So that story got a lot less coverage as time went on because they were shooting the messenger. But you know we did a couple of stories about them. We tried.

Elizabeth Palmer
CBS News

In the battle of Fallujah, it was one of the first times the Iraqi forces, the newly trained Iraqi forces, were deployed with the American soldiers. Two of these new Iraqi special forces soldiers were given to our unit, and the officers who were concentrating on the battle made absolutely no effort to integrate them, to give them the equipment they needed; they didn’t even have body armor; they didn’t have sleeping bags. There was no understanding that these guys, these Iraqis, would be their best allies in the field, that it was important to find out where they were from, whether they were Shia or Sunni, and what their unit was. I was able to write some of this for the Web page, but it never made it into mainstream television news because that needed to be the headline, the big story of the day. This is more peripheral stuff that’s softer — very telling — but certainly not hard.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
The Guardian, Getty Images

I remember that day in Fallujah [when I was embedded with insurgents, in November 2004]. It’s raining. The night before the town was bombed — it was a really rough night — we didn’t sleep. And in the morning I was sitting in this yard outside the house we were staying in, and there was this Yemeni guy, and he was a normal guy, he is a guy that you would meet everywhere. And this guy was cleaning his weapons. I was sitting next to him, taking a couple shots of him cleaning his weapons, taking pictures, and it was raining.

And then the guy started talking, and he was telling his story, how he grew up and why he came to Iraq. And this guy was part of one of the Arab jihadis coming from all over the world, coming to Iraq, coming to fight in Fallujah. I felt so weird. It wasn’t my first experience with insurgents but it was as if someone just opened a door, and suddenly I was on the other side. And I was seeing what was happening. The guy was telling me his story, he kept talking and I was taking notes and writing. And I was so overwhelmed by what I was hearing, not because it’s an amazing story — it’s just the story of this Yemeni man and how he came to Syria and was smuggled across Iraq, it’s the same story that we all knew, how jihadis were coming — but it was on a personal level, it was him talking about his family back in Yemen, him saying goodbye to his little daughter without telling her that he was going to Iraq to die, the personal level of the story. And that was just like really weird and amazing to understand the personal background of those people and why they were there fighting.

Of course, there were these moments when they went to pray and they asked me to go and pray, and I said, “No, no thank you, I don’t pray,” and they were trying to tell me why I should pray. And then this other guy comes, and he listens to this whole conversation and of people preaching to me and trying to convince me to pray. And then he’s asking, “What’s wrong with him?” and they’re saying, “He’s not praying.” “Why?” “Because he’s not a Muslim.” And then he’s just kind of naturally saying, “Why don’t we kill him?” the same way you would say, “Oh, why don’t you have a cup of tea? Why don’t you kill that fly on your shoulder?” He is just asking, “Why don’t we kill him?” and they are saying, “No, no, no, we are in a kind of truce with him. We can’t kill him because we gave him the truce, we gave him permission to stay with us.” And it’s just these little moments where you leave Fallujah, and like two years after Fallujah you are thinking, “What was I thinking?” And I was like “Fucking hell, what did I do to myself?” I was like sitting with those guys, and “Why don’t we kill him?”

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.