Baghdad Diary

What It's Like To Be A Journalist In Baghdad

60 Minutes associate producer Diane Beasley, who has traveled twice to Iraq with Correspondent Scott Pelley, writes about what it's like to be a journalist in Baghdad.

Before working for 60 Minutes Wednesday, she worked as a field producer/assignment editor in the CBS London bureau. She was posted to Baghdad for two months after the war in Iraq ended last year. During the war in Iraq, she reported from Egypt, Bahrain and Jordan, and was posted in Pakistan during the war in Afghanistan.

I've traveled to Baghdad for CBS three times since the end of the war. This trip was different. I didn't want to go.

As reporters, we are given a choice whether we want to travel to Iraq. This time, I did not take my decision lightly. It's a lot more dangerous there now then when I traveled there 10 months ago, but the real reason I didn't want to go was that I had a "bad feeling." I am superstitious about such things.

I consulted with my colleagues and family, but no one wanted to tell me what to do. Perhaps they were right not to answer. When I joked about my premonitions of death with a friend in Baghdad, he reminded me of an unwritten rule: "We don't talk about dying here."

How quickly I had forgotten. You don't talk about the possibility of death when it's a daily reality.

I had to go back. I put my psychological armor back on, and reminded myself of my favorite Iraqi cameraman's response each time I gave him a dangerous assignment: "It's my job."

I got on the plane. Hooray! It is now possible to fly from Amman to Baghdad on Royal Jordanian. On the last two trips, we drove about 10 hours from Jordan to Baghdad in a convoy. The first 10 minutes are exciting: You can pretend you are Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia," and marvel about what it would be like to travel this distance riding a camel.

But then, it becomes boring. You look out, and the scenery is the same: You see a lot of desert. Every once and a while there is a mini-sandstorm, which keeps things interesting by rendering you (and your driver) unable to see.

On both drives to Baghdad, everyone in my car fell asleep. They were jolted awake by the security guards ordering us to put on our flak jackets, when we reached the terrorist strongholds of Fallujah and Ramadi -- about an hour and a half outside Baghdad. But not me. I stared out the window the whole time we were driving in Iraq, peering into all the cars which sped by, trying to guess which one was going to try to rob us or kidnap us. I clutched the walkie-talkie that connected me to our security guard at the back of the convoy. I think he grew tired of my constant "radio checks."

Flying into Baghdad was a relief. The pilot was in control. My colleagues had warned me that the landing would be harrowing. The pilot is required to descend in a spiral, like a corkscrew, so that the plane remains within the perimeter of Baghdad International Airport. Otherwise, there is a risk that insurgents will strike the plane with a missile or RPG. Sounds scary, but in fact it's much more comforting to be in danger for 1 hour and 15 minutes than for 10 hours. In Iraq, everything is a numbers game.

There are two flights scheduled to Baghdad each day, but they are often cancelled due to missile threats. Our flight was full — about 50 people on board. The passengers were mostly contractors and journalists. I was one of two women — the other was an elderly Iraqi woman wearing a hijab scarf. There were only a few Iraqis on board. It's too expensive for most of them to fly.

After we landed, two security guards picked us up, loaded us into armored cars and we went screaming out the gate. The hotel is only 15 minutes from the airport, but it's one of the most dangerous roads in Baghdad.

Once we made it through the checkpoint at the hotel, it was a relief. I can't describe the security at the hotel for my colleagues' safety, but I can tell you that if anyone goes crashing through the barricade, they would be shot multiple times with AK-47s.

Once inside the hotel, I could take off my flak jacket, which was especially uncomfortable in the 120-degree heat. Much like the military, our home is walled off from the city.

Amazingly, a year ago it was considered safe enough to eat out at local restaurants. But now, as one Iraqi explained it, eating out is considered "suicide." Most of the time, the military stay in their Humvees and Bradlees, journalists stay in their hotels, and most Iraqis stay at home.

On most stories, the best reporting often comes from talking with locals while sitting in bars and cafes. That doesn't happen in Baghdad now.

I think it says a lot about the current state of affairs in Iraq that most reporters do their stand-ups from their hotels, and they can't go out to eat at restaurants. I think a real barometer of success in Iraq will be when you see an American reporter sitting across the table from an Iraqi in a Baghdad cafe.

One year ago, I was startled by the sight of American tanks and soldiers in the street. Now, it is rare to see a soldier or Marine walking on foot. There is a constant presence of Apache helicopters and the sounds of thunderous raids on Sadr City at night. Iraqis on the street don't even look up at the helicopters as they fly overhead anymore. I do — I still find it jarring.

Two of our local employees in Baghdad recently quit after their lives were threatened. One of our former employees was kidnapped. A former security guard was killed while setting up his own business in Iraq. An Iraqi female gynecologist was grappling with the decision of whether to leave the country after she was warned someone was plotting to kidnap her. The list goes on and on.

The Baghdad bureau is a family of sorts. There are only a small group of people at CBS who travel to war zones, and most of us know one another.

We hardly ever run into one another in "normal" situations. We wouldn't all necessarily be friends back home. But in Baghdad, you learn very quickly who you can trust with your life. And, in Iraq, this is much more important than having friends.

There is no question that you can trust the old guard of CBS with your life. They have been to places like Beirut, Bosnia, Somalia, the first Iraq War, Kosovo and Afghanistan. They are from a different era of reporting. None of them needed to take journalism in college. Younger reporters like me usually go to Baghdad in their footsteps because we have heard their war stories, and want to develop our own experience.

But the first thing you learn: There is no glory. For everyone, it is different. For me, going to Iraq is a test of how to manage the pain you witness. A friend said going to Iraq feels like a prison sentence. I see his point. Going to Iraq for an American is a quick education about losing your freedom.

We all have different methods of coping. There are people who drink too much, smoke a lot and those who eat too much junk food. What happens in Baghdad usually stays in Baghdad. Unfortunately, my support mechanism is chocolate. It came back with me on my hips.

Other than the inevitable diet and gym membership upon my return, it's difficult to explain what it's like to board the plane home. You are elated, but feel equally guilty about the people you are leaving behind.

After two weeks of being in what my friend calls "prison," even the small choices still seem overwhelming. I don't have to eat the same thing every day (hummus and chocolate). The guy at Starbucks wants to know if I want whole or skim milk in my coffee. I don't need to be back at home by sunset for my safety. The options are frightening when I first return home. Imagine what Iraqis will feel when they are suddenly handed so much "freedoms" after decades of dictatorship.

Friends ask me if I will return to Iraq. I usually respond that I don't know, or grumble, "I hope not." The experience is not something most journalists would admit they'd like to repeat. But the truth is that it's something of an addiction. I will go back, and I suspect I will be reunited with most of my colleagues there, too. I believe we all return in hopes that one day we will be the reporter sitting across from the Iraqi in a Baghdad café.

  • Rebecca Leung

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