It's not easy doing a story about journalists when you are a journalist yourself. There's that uncomfortable feeling that somehow putting your own profession into the spotlight is more than a little self-serving. So for more than a year, I've been looking for a way to tell the heroic and important story of what is happening to journalists here in a way that doesn't do anything like that. And when I met Lara Mohammed, I knew I'd found it.
Here was a young Iraqi girl who had a story of her own to tell, one who could touch the heart of people in any language or culture and make them care or think about something they otherwise may not have paid much attention to. Here was a passionate, committed professional who was willing to keep working in the face of unimaginable fear and danger, because of the principle that we hold so dear in the West: the right to free speech.
There's no question Lara Mohammed could not have done the job she does under Saddam Hussein. The sad irony is that the very change which brought press freedom to Iraq has also heralded a time of unprecedented bloodshed for the ordinary Iraqi. Lara and many others here in Baghdad talk to me about the terror that stalks them now that death squads run rampant through the capital, and bombs explode across the city anywhere, at any time. It is unlike anything they have lived with before because it is random and unrelenting and devastating in scale and effect. The survivors are often maimed, burnt beyond recognition, blinded and crippled. Yet their stories are lost in the sea of suffering that has become reality here: Families torn apart, old ties ruptured, neighborhoods ethnically cleansed. It is a time of pain and sadness that has reached into the home and heart of every family in this city.
No one knows that better than Lara Mohammed. As I listened to her speak, I tried to imagine what it must be like to lift your head from the pillow in the middle of the night and find armed men swarming all over you, dragging your father out of his bed and taking him away. You know the stories, you've seen the bodies, you know that this time the death squad has come to your door.
It is not easy to find a way to break through the constant sameness of reporting on kidnappings and abductions and make it meaningful to Americans a million miles away who have never experienced anything like it. I think, through the eyes and voice and words of Lara Mohammed, that is possible. I hope so.
I was a "Lara Mohammed" once – and not just in the obvious ways. But when I was a young reporter in my home country of South Africa working on one of the world's biggest stories – the struggle against Apartheid – I was doing what Lara is doing now: living the story I was reporting. Only Iraq today is much more violent and much more dangerous. I understand what it is like to have no escape from the terrible reality you face and report on.
Foreign reporters like me, even those of us that spend long periods of time here, we always know we have somewhere else to go. We can leave anytime we like. But that is not so for Lara Mohammed. She has nowhere else to go, and now that her father is dead, she also has to bear the burden, as the oldest child in the house, of helping to raise and clothe and feed her four younger sisters.
Lara told me that every time her phone rings she is gripped with terror. The feeling of fear is abnormal, she says, but she is so terrified that something will happen to one of her sisters.
She is not afraid for herself or her own life, she tells me, in spite of the death threats she receives because of her profile on Iraqi television. But as she speaks, I am thinking of one of Saddam's lawyers who told me that very same thing, in this very same garden when I interviewed him. A few weeks ago I reported on his death after images of him, beaten and terrified, appeared on the Internet showing the last moments of his life before he was brutally executed.
I know that not being afraid doesn't protect you. I just hope that something else will protect Lara Mohammed.
Copyright 2006 CBS. All rights reserved.