When I left the States for a vacation in Ireland on Tuesday Oct. 12 the situation in Baghdad and Iraq generally was mostly what I'd come to expect. The security situation, as it has been since maybe February, was geting incrementally worse--it was becoming more difficult to leave the hotel safely and more difficult to travel outside Baghdad, and the risk of kidnapping was on the rise. I was willing to accept those risks and the limits on my movements in Iraq. But very quickly, between when I left Chicago early last week and when I left Ireland Wednesday morning, things seemed to have gotten a lot worse.
When I checked my email at Shannon airport there was an email from my USA Today editor, Elisa, requesting that I call as soon as possible to discuss the security situation. My friend Chris
had emailed to tell me that Time Magazine was pulling its staff out temporarily. Time's Baghdad bureau chief is a wild man who hangs out with insurgents, the kind of guy who gets mysterious phone calls late at night and disappears for hours on end. He wouldn't close down his bureau on a lark. I exchanged emails with another editor of mine, Jim Michaels, who had been in Baghdad for a monthlong stint.
One of his messages included the ominous suggestion that it might be best not to spend too much time at the hotel. Having concluded in April that the streets are unsafe, and concluded in early September that small private houses are unsafe, learning that the hotel is unsafe seemed to constrain my options. I was down to hoping that I could jump right from Amman into a long embed with the Marines in Fallujah, and when that's your most comfortable option things are seriously out of whack.
I had a one-night layover in London and got to hang out with my friend James, who was kidnapped for 24 hours this summer by goons who nabbed him because he was a foreigner and then released him when Moqtadr Sadr (a goon himself, but kind to western civilians) demanded his release. James pointed me to an entry on Chris' blog describing the kidnapping of a western journalist just meters from the Hamra entrance, and concluding that insurgents have informants on the Hamra staff and lookouts loitering up and down the street in front of the hotel. Apparently this guy's captors would probably have sold him to Zarqawi if he'd been an American. It's flattering to be a hot commodity, I suppose.
After a day of walking from South Kensington past Buckingham Palace, through St. James' park, past Parliament and across the Thames with St. Paul's in the distance, I was once again having the feeling that engulfed me in June as I laid over at de Gaulle airport--"Why, oh why, aren't I staying in Europe?" We had a few pints at a little pub and the next morning (Thursday) I was out before dawn to Heathrow.
By the time I got to the Four Seasons in Amman USA Today had made its decision about security. When I emailed to let Elisa know I was at the hotel I got a call almost immediately and she told me the paper had decided it was too dicey for the time being to send me back to Iraq (and also too dicey to send a USAT staffer, so I'm not at all getting the shaft for not being full-time with them).
So... what's a young journalist to do when the story he came to cover is too dangerous to cover? Fortunately for me I met up with Chris at the Four Seasons and figured out the answer--he heads to Beirut with a buddy to enjoy beaches, bars and freelancing opportunities while waiting for the situation in Baghdad to improve (which may not happen). I'm going to hang there for a week or two getting my bearings and deciding what to do next. I'll probably stay in the region, and freelance either from Lebanon or Israel and the Palestinian territories.
I'm not actually overly upset about not getting back into Iraq. The security situation would have made things difficult and, more importantly, would have made the journalism boring and ineffective. More experienced reporters are there still doing good work, but it might be better for me to be in a place where I can develop my skills a little more. It would be nice to be able to get to know a city by mixing with its citizens, and to be able to report both sides of an issue without fear of, you know, being decapitated on international television.
On top of that, after eight months in Iraq (with a seven week break in late spring) I may need more than six weeks off to recharge my batteries. As I was heading back east I realized that I just don't care about Iraq that much right now. I care intellectually, and in an abstract sense I of course don't want people to die, but my dominant emotion at the moment is that the whole place can go to hell. I think that means it's time to regain my perspective.
I hope to keep this blog going as a chronicle of my continuing adventures in the Middle East. I may try to set up charliecrain.com, since Bagh Blog may no longer be an appropriate name. Maybe Levanternet? Le-blog-non? I'll work on it.