Kidnappings, bombs, death threats: Two Iraqi journalists, Sunni and Shiite, talk about the war
BAGHDAD – BAGHDAD (AP) — As the U.S. draws down in Iraq, two Associated Press Television News cameramen, one Sunni and one Shiite, talk about what it has been like to live through and record the war. The accounts are translated and edited.
Faris al-Qaisi, 47, is a Sunni with two daughters and a son. He served in the Iraqi military for nine years and fought during the 8-year war with Iran. He was working for a Lebanese steel company before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. He joined The Associated Press Television Network two months after the fall of Baghdad.
I did not expect the country would fall so easily.
I suffered during the former regime of Saddam Hussein because I lost three brothers in the Iran-Iraq war. But the fall of Baghdad was a shock. The looting and sectarian violence that came after made hell out of our lives.
In 2004, I was assigned to cover the predominantly Sunni area in western Baghdad, including the Yarmouk hospital. It's the biggest hospital, always receiving many dead and injured after attacks. I knew many people there and they allowed me to film the injured in the hospital and dead bodies in the morgue.
When the conflict between the Shiites and Sunnis started in 2006, everything changed.
Anybody named Omar (a Sunni name) was a target. I used to live near Yarmouk hospital, which was taken over by the Mahdi army, a Shiite militia, during the sectarian fighting.
A doctor whose name was Omar received threats and had to leave. An official in the morgue, who was my friend, was killed because he was Sunni. Many Sunnis I knew in the hospital were killed, including seven people named Omar in the area around the Yarmouk hospital.
In April 2006 my wife called my mobile and said she found a threatening note in our garden. The letter said, "We know that you are working with nonbelievers and you must die." I told my wife to pack, take our passports, put on an abaya (an outer robe worn by many Muslim women) and tell the two girls to wear them too, and I took them to Mosul in the north.
We were there for 20 days. I wanted to quit my job, but then decided to continue working and take my family out of Iraq.
When I took my family to the bus station, the number of people waiting to leave was frightening. The bus we were on was only one of 30 buses taking people to Syria with a one-way ticket.
It was the most miserable day in my life.
We were all crying because we did not want to leave. We felt as if we were expelled.
I rented an apartment in Damascus and arranged for my family to live there without me. I returned to Baghdad and asked not to be assigned to Sunni areas where people knew me and knew I worked for an American news agency. I asked to cover Risafa, a Shiite area.
I memorized the names of the Shiite Imams because if I had a run in with the Mahdi army, that's the first thing they'd ask.
I also covered the fighting between the Americans and the Mahdi army in Najaf. The militia men caught us, accused us of being spies and interrogated us for a long time. The longer they kept us, the more I was afraid they would find out I was Sunni.
The same year, police picked me up after an explosion in central Baghdad, saying I was filming without permission. I insisted I did nothing wrong, but they kept taking me from one officer to another.
Later my assistant told me he had tried to find me and called the police station. They asked him if I was a Shiite or a Sunni. When he said Sunni, they told him he can find me in the Saada area, a deserted district behind the Shiite slum of Sadr City where the Mahdi army throws the bodies of its victims.
I was also kidnapped by nine masked men after I filmed the aftermath of a bank robbery. When we got to the car, three cars came and surrounded us. My assistant thought they would kill us and told me to recite the Koran. They took us to a deserted area. We were shaking with fear.
I begged them to free me for the sake of my kids and family. Then one masked man asked if I was the owner of a restaurant I use to own. I told him I was a journalist now. He told me to shut up and left. When he came back, he said: "Allah loves you. Go, both of you."
For me, living in Saddam's Iraq and in the Iraq under the U.S. occupation was equally hard, but I don't want the American military to leave Iraq because the security forces cannot protect us. I've lived the past seven years in fear: from the Sunnis who killed journalists and from the Shiites who killed Omars.
Although I have frequently been in trouble because of my work, I did not quit for two reasons: I must support my family, and I love it.
Journalism is an amazing way of life. It's more than a job for me. What I experience every day helps me expand my horizons, to always look beyond. I love filming. It brings me happiness and joy. And I risked my life many times to have a moment of happiness.
My family came back to Iraq in 2008, but last year I started to think of us leaving the country for ever.
I want my kids to have a future. I do not see them having one in Iraq.
Ali Jabaar, 28, grew up in Baghdad's Shiite slum of Sadr City. He dropped out of grade school to support his family and was working as a tailor when the U.S-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. He joined The Associated Press Television Network in 2004.
We were very poor. We did not even have a TV set before the war.
We thought we'd all live well after Saddam was gone. Life did get better for me and my family, but not for other people, and not for the country.
I have a job at a foreign company and a regular monthly salary. I bought a car. I renovated the family house and built an apartment on the second floor. I got married in 2004 and I have two children.
We welcomed the Americans. But we are still in shock over what happened to our country after the U.S. invasion. With the occupation, the destruction came and people started killing each other and exploding themselves for no reason.
We got mobile phones, but we lost security. Bombs started to explode everywhere and everyone became a target: the journalists, the policemen, the soldiers, the construction workers, the civilians. There's nothing but chaos and sectarian tensions.
I was surprised at the withdrawal of the Americans since there is no new government, there are bombings and assassinations every day. All that is happening while Americans are still here. What will happen when they are gone?
The Iraqi army is not capable of protecting us. Policemen and soldiers themselves are targets and the politicians cannot agree on anything.
I was optimistic before the March elections, but now I am very pessimistic. I feel under constant threat as a journalist, working for an international news agency. People accuse us of being traitors because we are working for an American company. I was attacked in a hospital when I was filming people who were wounded in a bomb attack. I had two eye surgeries and I need to go for a third one soon.
I received threats, saying I deserve to die for collaborating with the Americans, but I continue to work and will not stop. I moved out of our house in Sadr City last year and lived in a Sunni neighborhood. But then it got dangerous there, because I am Shiite, so I went back to Sadr City.
My work raised my awareness. I meet with ambassadors, prime ministers and presidents, while during the former regime I was not even able to meet a police officer. I also got to see the American troops on assignments. The American soldiers looked different when I came close to them. They treated us with respect. But when they are on patrols and missions, they are different because everybody becomes their enemy.
Journalism in Iraq is very difficult. However, when I get my work done, I feel extremely pleased. The adventures, the wars, the pressures did not stop me from doing my work. It fact, these things thrilled me.
I never thought I'd see such horrible things.
I saw many attacks. I lost my cousin in April when worshippers were bombed during Friday prayer in Sadr City. I saw my relatives wounded in attacks and I was also in one attack on a bus when a car bomb exploded 100 meters away from us. The bus was damaged, but none of the passengers were injured.
In 2008, five massive car bombs detonated one afternoon in Sadr City. I was with friends when the first bomb went off at a busy intersection. I saw the mayhem, the destruction, the wounded people being evacuated in hand-wheeled carts. I filmed it all, but then another bomb went off. I saw the smoke rising into the sky. I ran there to film, fearing another bomb may go off. And it did, and after that, the fourth and the fifth. Bloodied and burned men, women and children were all around me.
There is one scene I will never forget. Four years ago, six members of the same family were shot dead in their house in eastern Baghdad while they were sleeping. I went there. The policeman was my friend and he let me in before anybody came. I saw four children, in their beds, in pools of blood, their father on one side and their mother on the other. It was horrible. They looked like they were sleeping, but they were dead.
I sent my five-year-old daughter to a kindergarten in Sadr City. The building was on the verge of collapse. The toys had rust on them. The teachers were worthless, and there is no drinking water. There are 100 kids in one classroom. Half of them sit on the floor, and the sewage is flooding the streets around the school.
I don't see a future for Iraq and for my family in Iraq.