Long road to Baghdad

VOICES FROM THE NEWSROOM

IRAQ WAR

The war in Iraq changed forever the nature of war reportage. The continuous stream of pictures and information, and the chance to get closer to the action than ever before, blurred the line between reality and myth. But however impressive the sound and lights show, it could not erase the horror that war inflicts on innocents, say our journalists, who tell what it’s been like, if not on the frontline, then at the receiving end of such media bombardment. Our man in the Middle East ventures through Qatar, Jordan, Kuwait and now Iraq

IT HAS been a long five weeks, but I have finally just arrived in Baghdad.

In that period, I have had my share of battles – with bureaucrats – and first-hand lessons on understanding the complexities of Arab society.

As I prepared to cross the border into Iraq on Friday, a Jordanian police officer handed me one more document to sign. I looked at it with trepidation.

In English and Arabic, it warned: ‘The Jordanian authorities are not responsible for what happens to you. The roads in Iraq are dangerous and you are crossing the border at your own risk.’

Decisions. Decisions. Making decisions big and small has been a big part of covering this war for me.

It can be as simple a matter as the best time to make a journey (the word is that rats can be a problem on roads at night) or something weightier: like whether to trust your life with a driver and translator you barely know.

It is also all about understanding the Arab psyche. My travels through Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan and now Iraq, have shown me different facets of the vast mosaic that’s the Arab world.

Having covered Indonesia for the past seven years, I have come to be acquainted with the complexities and quirks of the place and its peoples. In the weeks that I have been in this part of the world, it is like opening the pages of a new primer into another diverse and complex society.

In the learning process, there are always the hard parts. For me, it is coming to terms with the bureaucratic hurdles. Almost everything needed paperwork and endorsement from multiple agencies.

Just getting a visa to any country in the Middle East is an achievement in itself. I remember sitting in the office of a senior Iraqi diplomat in Jakarta to put forward my case for a visa to his country. He smiled at me and said ‘Insyallah’ (God willing) before proceeding with a lecture on why the United States is an ‘evil power’.

After enduring 50 minutes of rhetoric, I was still not assured a visa – which I secured only a month later through the help of an entrepreneurial fixer in Jordan.

With the exception of Jordan, perhaps, most countries in the Gulf make life difficult for correspondents covering the war by giving them single-entry passes.

Professionally, the challenge was to sift fact from fiction. ‘Who is telling the truth?’ is not easy to answer when we are talking about shades, calibrations and degrees of the truth.

On one end of the spectrum, we have the Arab media’s intense focus on the broken and bloodied victims, on the other we have the American military’s detached drama of bombs raining from the skies, minus the victims.

Remember the press conferences of Brigadier-General Vincent Brooks of the US Central Command in Qatar?

This grainy picture, he would say, is of an Iraqi MiG fighter jet. Then poof! A puff of white smoke, and the plane is gone. In the before-and-after shots, the targeted buildings are erased, but everything else around them remains apparently untouched. Cold, clinical and strangely divorced from reality.

Baghdad presents a different picture altogether. It is a lawless, bomb-ravaged place. There is no electricity, and the phonelines are down. The sound of gunshots can still be heard from time to time, a reminder that while the end may be near, the war is not yet over.

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