The shattered window of a car outside the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, Iraq after a nearly three-week battle between American military forces and Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Photo by Thorne Anderson/Corbis.
Hannah Allam, a 2009 Nieman Fellow, covers the Middle East as Cairo bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers. From 2003 to 2006, she was McClatchy’s Baghdad bureau chief. In her talk, she focused on her experience in managing McClatchy’s largest foreign bureau and in reporting in Iraq; this was Allam’s first experience covering a war zone and in overseeing a bureau. Her remarks that follow, and those of the other panel members, appear as edited excerpts:
When I accepted the job of running the Baghdad bureau at the age of 25, I envisioned my role as producing thorough and accurate stories that would keep us competitive with the larger news organizations, staying on top of expenses and other administrative duties, and cultivating sources within the military, state department, and Iraqi government and society. All of that proved to be part of the job, but Iraq came with a whole host of challenges I never saw coming. Within months, I was resolving tribal disputes among the drivers, picking out armored cars, making embarrassing requests for specially designed flak vests that didn’t crush the chests of our female correspondents, and generally trying to find my groove in a mostly male, almost exclusively white, and very hard living Baghdad press corps that I must say wasn’t always welcoming to the rookie Muslim girl from Oklahoma.
Still the biggest challenges were to come. The hardest task was putting this fledgling bureau back together after insurgents killed a staff member’s entire family in spring 2004, and once we sort of recovered doing it all again in summer 2005 after a U.S. sniper killed another one of our Iraqi staff members at a checkpoint. As the violence expanded in both its scale and targets, my chief concern was making sure that each of the 18 lives I supervised—each of those people made it home safely each night. The question became should we continue to operate in a place where the story has become secondary to security. The answer, unanimous from both the Iraqis and Americans on staff, was that we had to.
We got some things right. To build trust, I promised every reporter and driver on staff that I would never send them on an assignment unless I was willing to go myself. We were the first bureau to have set working hours and paid days off to recognize the sacrifices of our Iraqi colleagues. Before it became the norm in the press corps, we gave Iraqi colleagues full bylines and also their own blog, Inside Iraq, which became a forum readers loved because it was an uncensored, large unedited space where you could just feel what it was like to live every day in this war zone.
We also got some things wrong. I mistakenly thought that our little sanctuary in the heart of Baghdad was immune to the sectarian tensions that came to a boil in 2005 and 2006. Well, of course, the sectarian strife outside the newsroom wormed its way inside, and to this day we have to remain vigilant to prevent sectarian unrest and to ensure representation of all of Iraq’s groups in our staff and in our coverage. This was especially sensitive because I and the two subsequent bureau chiefs in Baghdad are all Arab-American Muslims, two Sunnis and a Shi’ite.
Sometimes I became so caught up in the lives and concerns of our own staff members that I lost sight of our audience, American readers, and filed reports that were too insider baseball. Other times I didn’t pay enough attention to the lives of our Iraqi staff members. As early as 2003 they were telling us about relatives who’d been tortured inside U.S.-run prisons, and I dismissed those accounts as exaggerated hearsay as, when the Abu Ghraib scandal eventually showed us, that wasn’t necessarily the case.
I turned 26, 27 and 28 in Baghdad, and each year there brought deeper understanding of Iraq’s power structure, sponsors of violence, and the U.S. military and civilian command. Yet in those three years, Iraq also became what I call the incredible shrinking country. Right after the fall of Saddam Hussein, we could travel relatively easily from the mountains of the north to the marshes of the south. Then as security worsened, we became confined to Baghdad and the surrounding provinces, then to the city itself, then to our neighborhood, and finally, at the height of the civil war, to our hotel.
Kidnappings, bombings and beheadings made huge swaths of the country off limits to all Western reporters and to many Iraqis. And no news organization could claim to be providing a comprehensive picture of the war to readers, listeners and viewers. It was only through the unspeakable courage of our Iraqi colleagues, such as Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi, that we were able to dispatch even parts of the story.
Iraqi women are first among the unsung heroes of this war. When it became too dangerous for Iraqi men to file police reports, identify bodies at the morgue, or venture out for food and provisions, Iraqi women filled this role. Every day car bombings killed dozens of men, and that in turn produced dozens of new widows, dozens of new female heads of households. That was every day. The Iraqi women in our bureau stepped up to the plate, going out to interview other women and men, talking their way through illegal checkpoints, and risking their lives to bring us stories of sectarian killings, accurate body counts, and on-the-scene reporting from explosions.
In 2007 six Iraqi women from the McClatchy bureau won the International Women’s Media Foundation Courage in Journalism Award. They were celebrated in New York and Los Angeles where Angelina Jolie and Meg Ryan shook their hands and congratulated them. But where are they now? Three have political asylum in the United States after receiving death threats. One fled with her family to Syria after she was forced out of her home by a militia. And two remain at the bureau in Baghdad, one whose oldest son was killed in crossfire, the other living a double life in which not even her relatives know she works for American journalists.
Did we manage to coax award-winning stories from a bloody, anarchic landscape? Yes. But at a cost so high I still grapple with the question of whether it was worth it. I haven’t made up my mind, but gatherings like this remind me that these doubts aren’t unique to Iraq, that we must work harder and be more creative in finding healthier ways to cover tragedies that not only leave behind devastated populations but also scars on the souls of the reporters who cover them.
Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi, a 2008 Nieman Fellow, worked for The New York Times in Baghdad for four years, covering the war, the trial of Saddam Hussein, and the political transition in Iraq. He spoke about the path he took to becoming a journalist and the enormous toll the war has taken on Iraqis.
I lived all my life with Saddam from school till I left Iraq in 2007. And no one exactly wrote about our suffering or tragedy. Always the Iraqi tragedy or the Iraqi trauma has been told in a political context. When Saddam fought against Iran from the Western side, he was a good guy who was supported by the American administrations and Western governments. But Saddam committed horrendous crimes against us during that war. In 1987 he used chemical weapons. In just a few minutes he killed 5,000 people, mostly children. No one wrote about this tragedy. No one said Saddam is a criminal.
Saddam became a criminal in the Western world when he invaded Kuwait, when the issue became oil. From that time everyone said, “Oh, Saddam used the chemical weapons in 1987. Saddam killed thousands of people in 1985. Saddam, Saddam, Saddam.” But the United States helped Saddam to have these chemical weapons.
So what about us who care about our tragedy? Is Saddam a criminal or not a criminal? It doesn’t matter the name. It’s about the truth telling. And no one told the truth because we were not being able to tell the truth.
For me The New York Times was just a name before the American invasion. I never read the paper because we didn’t have access to it. After I started reporting for the Times, I went with John Burns, my bureau chief, to Kufa where there were big clashes between the Mahdi Army and the American forces. We were taken as hostages, and I was sitting in the room thinking about my life, and then I said, “I survived Saddam’s regime, but I will not survive now. It’s my people.” On the day before that, I was in Fallujah doing some reporting and by chance I saw four American contractors when they were ambushed and killed. And the mobs burned their bodies, dragged them for about one mile, and then hung them on the bridge. I looked at all these scenes. I was so scared. It was frightening. And the question came in my mind, “Who is the victim and who is the betrayer? And when will this trauma be ended?”
During my work with the Times when we’d go out to a story, I used to tell the American correspondent, “You know what, you’re writing my story. I’m writing my story. When we cover a car bomb, it’s my neighborhood.” For an American correspondent, it’s a story. It’s a good story or bad story, it depends on how big the story. Some of the time we said, “We got a report. There’s a car bomb. Three were killed, 10 injured. This is not story. We will not cover it.” But we get another report, someone called and said, “There’s a huge car bomb. One hundred were killed and 300 injured.” That’s the story. That’s the good story. We will write about it. It will be front page.
But it’s my story because this bomb, this car went off in my neighborhood. My friends were killed in that accident. So I chose to title my talk “The Story of My Story.” It’s really very difficult to write about yourself, your neighborhood, your family, and your friends in a story because at the end of the day it’s a story, it’s a business, it’s a commercial thing. As a journalist, this is our profession. We are selling stories. But at the end of the day also someone should write a story about our story. And someone should contribute it to telling the truth.
When I was reporting the Saddam trial, the judge and the prosecutor would talk about crimes he committed between 1986 until 2003. The crimes were genocide or crimes against humanity or war crimes, and then somebody said, “What about current crimes? What about the crimes committed by government people, some of them militia, some of them resistance.” Different groups and different agendas. Different aims and different goals. But the victims are the same—always innocent Iraqi people, they pay.
So where are we now as Iraqis? We have new trauma and more victims. And we have more stories unfortunately. Especially when we talk about the trauma journalism, I focus on the uncertainty. The uncertainty of families when they miss their sibling. Uncertainty of a wife who missed her husband and waited for years to know what’s happened to him. That’s exactly what happened to my family. We looked for my brother who disappeared in 1993 for 10 years, and we didn’t know what happened to him. So with his kids, with his wife, with my mom, there is the trauma of the uncertainty.
After 2003, we have the same thing. Thousands of people, in fact dozens of thousands of people were kidnapped and were killed. So I hope we’ll have a better future since we’ve been freed. And I hope our trauma and our tragedy will be ended. And I hope our story will have a different narrativ.e
Listen to Hannah Allam and Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi describe what it was like for them and their colleagues to report stories about the murder of an Iraqi colleague who worked in the bureau.
Daniel Rothenberg is the managing director of international projects for the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University College of Law. He also works on transitional justice issues. He spoke about his work on the Iraq History Project, which has gathered stories of the trauma Iraqis have suffered through several decades.
Trauma is something that presses meaning beyond easy description and the easy use of words. So when we talk about human rights crises, there are different discourses to name the truth. There’s a classic human rights profession in Iraq that is managed by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), a special human rights unit. Then the journalists, both foreign journalists and local contacts, who are the way that most of the world understands the daily reality in Iraq and in all of these conflict zones. Each of these discourses has a commitment to truth and each crafts the truth in different ways. How they do this affects the truth, and there are advantages and disadvantages in their presentation of truth.
For the last couple of years I’ve been running a project in Iraq called the Iraq History Project. In the social sciences, we work quite a bit differently than journalists, which is to say that we often collect our information quietly and tend to wait a period of time before we present our information publicly, sometimes too much time. At times we have safety questions and we have institutional review boards. If journalists had to go through an institutional review board, they wouldn’t write one story.
The severity of the trauma that Iraqis have experienced is extraordinary just in sheer numbers, if you want to count trauma in numbers. It’s extraordinary in the impact on people’s lives, and I don’t know how you want to count that. It’s so profound to the experience of Iraqis and it’s something that’s very difficult to tell. There isn’t only one way to tell this and at some level there is no right way to tell any of it because it’s so big. Every choice made in the telling has its implications, both positive and negative.
We started the Iraq History Project using the basic concept of a truth commission. Even though truth commissions in their true sense are formal bodies—constructed by a state or through a peace accord—we are not. We’re a nongovernmental organization with some knowledge in the field, contacts and maybe some skills. And we began by gathering information about past violations committed—violations committed by the government from 1968 to 2003.
People told us that no Iraqi would want to talk because it was too dangerous and there were too many barriers to moving forward. So we trained a group of interviewers and developed a methodology which turned out to be key to gathering information. In all, we gathered 8,911 testimonies from witnesses, victims, victims’ families, and perpetrators, which accounts for about 55,000 pages of testimony and material. This turns out to be one of the largest human rights data collection and analysis projects in the world and certainly the largest project of this kind in Iraq.
The key to this functioning was something you know as journalists; Have the work be run by Iraqis. This isn’t common but, as you know from your efforts, if you want to get good stories you work with locals quite extensively. You depend on them. In our case we had an entire Iraq staff which made us an atypical foreign organization in Iraq. Once trained, they went out to speak with people in their communities using their social networks and chain referral systems. In other words, they talked to people they knew and got from them the names of other people to talk with.
The testimonies they heard are profound and engaging and amazingly disturbing; they are also powerful stories. And I can say we had absolutely no problem with finding people to tell strikingly personal stories about the most traumatic events in their lives when there appeared to be no evident benefit to the telling of their story. And this raises a difficult question—why? Similarly we found people commonly saying they’d never told their story to anyone before this. Why? We were explicit in telling every person who we interviewed that there would be no express benefit from this; they wouldn’t get anything other than that we would do our best to take their story seriously and put it in some report, though we did have some general idea that we were collecting this for the benefit of Iraqi society.
We also found stories that were surprising. Particularly among the more conservative religious folks, but really anyone, you would not think you’d get many women talking about their experience of having been raped. Yet we have probably the largest rape database maybe in the world, or at least of these kinds of projects. Many women who had nothing to gain told personal stories about what they’d suffered, including stories that devastated their lives. In many, many ways, there are individual stories and yet, by gathering so many, they are patterned and systematic.
One of the interesting stories about all of this is that we know that people need to tell their stories; we don’t know why. It’s something very profound. Another question is what is the truth of stories and testimonies? And you wrestle with this every day because you have to deal with the truth of sources. One fascinating thing about gathering narratives as narratives, as testimony, is it speaks different kinds of truth. From the human rights community, it speaks a very rich truth because we get away from the classic case-based system of a court or of a traditional human rights report where you say, “Here is a case of torture. Perpetrators, victim, date, place.” We try to let people tell their story with all of the attendant complexities and interpretations.
We did this project to do documentation—to do fundamental truth telling for the value of Iraqi society and the value of the world—so that there exists a body of stories. And we have 1,929 stories of violations after 2003 that recount all of this stuff from the position of Mahdi Army perpetrators as well as victims of the multiplicity of armed groups. And secondarily, we did this project to engage in analysis. We’ve learned certain things about patterns of violations that, interestingly, journalists can’t access. This is the social science benefit because with thousands of something collected in a consistent way, there is a way to play off of those many experiences. And finally, we have a policy component which is really something to learn for the world, and for Iraq, about things that can be done in relation to the suffering.
Listen to Rothenberg talk in greater detail about the steps taken in gathering personal stories of trauma from Iraqis. Their effort began in Kurdistan because it was felt to be relatively safe to do so there. When the project proved to be successful, it spread to other parts of Iraq where the interviewers found Iraqis willing to tell what had happened to them and their families.