When Risks Make a Story Too Dangerous to Tell
On January 26, 2006, a few days after freelance reporter Jill Carroll was kidnapped in Iraq, Los Angeles Times correspondent Alissa J. Rubin wrote a Page One story entitled, "Abduction Forces a Grim Look at What a Story Is Worth." In her article she described how the kidnapping of a fellow journalist had compelled her to "reevaluate limits and responsibilities." At the conclusion of her article, which we excerpt below, Rubin wrote about assessing the risks she was taking in doing a story and the responsibility she felt to the Iraqi translator and driver who were accompanying her.
Last week I set out in the early morning for Kut, a city about two hours south of Baghdad. We left early so that we could get back in a day, adhering to the rule that you shouldn't stay long in a single place because word will get around that a Westerner is in town.
I roused one of our British security advisors at 7 a.m. and had him remind the drivers of protocol (keep the cars apart, don't look like a convoy, rely on radios to communicate). But when I went out, it turned out the driver had brought his own vehicle, not an armored car.
Carroll's experience hung in my mind. She had been abducted in part because she lacked the protection of an armored car, and her interpreter had been shot dead. I looked at my interpreter, a beautiful young Iraqi woman who loved to read English literature, had helped me buy Iraqi shoes so that I would appear more local, and had taught me about the world of Iraqi women. But I pushed ahead.
Then it turned out we didn't have a Thuraya satellite phone in the car. Cell phones are notoriously unreliable in Iraq because the U.S. military often blocks signals during its operations. Traveling without a satellite telephone as a backup is at best foolhardy. But we had already left, so I resigned myself to traveling without it.
We weaved through the Baghdad traffic. The road was crowded, and people could easily see us through the car windows. Although I usually look out at the passing scene, I forced myself to look into the car so that my eyes and skin would not be visible.
The most dangerous part of the trip is the 15 miles of road immediately south of Baghdad proper. It runs through a largely Sunni farming area, one where mutilated, headless bodies have turned up often. It feels like outlaw country: Someone could grab you and no one would say anything.
As we went through the last Baghdad checkpoint, a policeman told our driver that a new security plan was in effect, and we would not be able to reenter the capital for 48 hours. The driver pulled over and turned to me: Did I still want to go?
It was a moment of truth. I had to get back that night. Was there any other way I could get into Baghdad if the roads were closed? Yes, my driver said. "You can walk across the Diyala Bridge, and the office can send a car to meet you."
He nodded to a stream of people who were doing that right then — women in swirling abayas picking their way through the mud, men striding along. "How far would I have to walk?" I asked. About a mile. "Is it safe?" The driver shook his head. "There are bad people here. Everyone can see you when you are walking. We cannot honestly tell you it is safe."
'We Can't Go'
I appealed to my interpreter. "What do you think, Zainab? Is it that unsafe?" She turned and looked at me. "I'll go with you if that's what you decide to do, but the driver wants to know what he can do with his car. He can't leave it outside Baghdad on the road for the night. It would be stolen. He can't stay with it — it's dangerous. And then we have the chase car. What do you want them to do?" I was silent. I had come back to Iraq to do a small number of interviews. If I didn't go to the one in Kut, I wouldn't be able to finish the story.
I thought about close calls I had had in the past. About my interpreter, who said she would go with me no matter what. About my parents, who hated that I was in Iraq. About Carroll, whom I imagined alone in a room, perhaps cold, perhaps not knowing that thousands of people were thinking about her.
And I thought about an autumn night more than a year ago when a colleague had rushed off into western Iraq to cover a suicide bombing. I remembered how worried I had been, and when I finally reached him on the satellite phone I had said: "It's not about us. We can die if we want to here, but we can't put those who work for us in more danger than they already are. We're making decisions for more than ourselves."
I remember that he had listened and, hard as it must have been, said, "You're right, I'm coming back."
I heard my own words now in my head. There was no choice. "We can't go. There's no way to make it a safe trip," I said. "Let's turn around and go back to the office."
Was it the right decision? Could I have walked across the bridge unnoticed? Did the drivers really assess the danger correctly? I don't know. But what I do know is that Iraq is hostile ground and nothing I do can make it safe.