In Love In War
Two reporters' stories of daily life - and unexpected love - in Baghdad.
(World Picture News Photo / Scott Nelson)
In the back of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, six of us sat three to a bench, facing one another like passengers in a well-armored subway car. My head bobbed as I fought sleep; adrenaline was no match for the airless heat, and when I tried to stretch, I would kick a shin or an M-16. Dusk was falling. It was November 2004. I was embedded with a US Army battalion, and within the hour, we expected the order to breach the berm into Fallujah. Six thousand miles away, on a crisp morning in Connecticut, my parents were ordering my wedding dress.
I had picked out the dress on a quick visit from Baghdad. For almost a year, I had been working there as a reporter with plenty of chances to wonder if the risks were worth it. But on that day, for the first time, a mental alarm told me that I might actually be about to throw away my life - and the love I'd improbably found in Iraq.
I was living in a war zone, yet I was happier than I had ever been. I'd long thought that I would have to choose between lasting love and the foreign postings and adventure I craved. The Iraq war, oddly, had brought me both. But it had also brought me here, to this rolling steel box. Riding with soldiers into battle, I was risking more than I had ever planned, to tell stories of this conflict.
My gear, stuffed into the belt of my flak jacket, seemed scant protection next to the soldiers' guns: a notebook that I hoped would communicate I was a reporter, not a combatant, a digital recorder, a satellite phone. Inside the armored vehicle, the signal was too weak to make calls. But I could send text messages to Thanassis Cambanis, my fiance and partner in the Globe's Baghdad bureau, who was on a reporting trip in Kurdistan. "All OK," I wrote. The phone beeped, and the dim screen revealed: "I am with you every minute."
Thanassis and I fell in love when the Globe sent us to cover the US-led invasion of Iraq. Almost a year later, in March 2004, we moved from Boston to report from Baghdad full time. By August, we were engaged. Now, in November, we had discussed Fallujah like any other assignment: not who would have to go, but who would get to go. I knew the place better; I had gone there often and had been embedded with Marines there for an earlier, aborted invasion. So, once again, I went.
As the air in the Bradley grew thick and sweaty, our eagerness seemed ridiculous. Before closing the hatch, the soldiers and I had peered through the bluish dusk at the darkened city, laced, we knew, with hidden bombs. This was the most dangerous thing either Thanassis or I had done since he drove himself into Iraq while Saddam Hussein was still fighting.
I scanned the faces of the soldiers in the Bradley, men barely out of their teens. I breathed deeply and focused on the white dress. But another image intruded, of a blast that could leave me maimed. The thought seemed a strange thing to focus on, even vain, but I tried to lock onto the dress as a beacon to warn me away from careless risks. To stay calm, I told myself that following my instinct to cover Iraq was what had brought me to Thanassis in the first place.
I had met Anne only briefly before we were sent to Baghdad after the American invasion of Iraq. At the time, we were based in Boston; Anne covered medicine, and I wrote about federal courts. I was 29, Anne 32, and we were desperate for foreign postings. A temporary assignment to cover the war was a break for a young reporter.
Anne was sent to Central Command headquarters in Qatar, and I was assigned to Iraq. One of the reporters who avoided embedding with the military, I drove from Kuwait with a photographer and translator, reaching Baghdad's outskirts the day after Saddam Hussein's regime had fl ed. There was still too much fighting to get into the city center and find a hotel, so with a group of other reporters, I camped at a highway underpass with a US Army company that had spent three days in gun battles. Until that night, I had never seen anyone kill someone else. After nightfall, a white
The next day, we piled into our SUVs and drove into Baghdad. Every large building, it seemed, was on fire. Civilians dragged burned bodies out of cars that were blocking the streets. Shopkeepers with AK-47s tried to stop looters. Near every tank or every pile of bodies, crowds gathered. People told stories of children killed by Saddam's forces or the Americans, of torture, of underground prisons. For the first time - and as it turned out, only during a brief window - Iraq had opened to the world.
I took a room at the Hamra Hotel. The owners had bricked up every entrance before the war, knowing that looters would strike when the government fell. Anne arrived a week later. The bricks were gone, the restaurant reopened, and the hotel was a social hive for reporters, aid workers, contractors, and wealthy Baghdadis.
Anne and I instantly became allies, part of the young generation of war reporters jostling with our older, more experienced colleagues. We worked hard. After her first day of reporting, Anne returned to the Hamra with a tragicomic tale of an American doctor who had stepped from a Humvee at a hospital and told baffled Iraqi nurses he was the new health minister, while around him doctors and family members looked for a room to pile a tide of dead bodies. Still, she was the first to show up when I called the Hamra's inaugural post-invasion party.
What a horribly exhilarating place Baghdad was in those days. Anne looked desirable and crazy, as she'd been described to me by a French reporter: "High-strung, but what beautiful blue eyes." We fell into each other as if we were resuming a suspended love affair, not starting one. A war romance, we figured.
We were both hooked on the Iraq story, which could now turn in any of several very different directions. It turns out we were also hooked on each other. Back in Boston a few weeks later, we sat on Anne's stoop in the South End. She half-jokingly proposed running away together to Baghdad. We started pushing for return assignments.
I returned to Iraq without Anne on a short-term posting in the summer. I plotted all the things she and I would do together if she managed to get there: On weekends, we could take pleasure excursions to the orange groves in Diyala Province or the waterfalls of Kurdistan. Baghdad itself had its riverfront cafes, its European-style nouvelle cuisine restaurants, and its carpeted Arabic eateries. At the time, this Baghdad dream didn't sound delusional to people who lived there - romanticized perhaps, but possible.
The week Saddam Hussein was captured, in December 2003, the Globe sent us both on temporary assignments to Baghdad once more. On an afternoon that felt like early fall in Boston, we hired a boatman to take us up the Tigris River in a motorized wooden skiff, from the old city to an area north of downtown, where we joined Baghdadis eating kebabs and smoking apple-flavored tobacco on a floating barge. That was the life we signed up for when we persuaded the paper to send us permanently in March 2004.
By now, Thanassis and I both knew the road from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad, but this was the first time we'd taken it together, the SUV flying over roller-coaster bumps.
Today, no foreigner would consider driving into Baghdad. But in March 2004, our Jordanian driver had a workable survival strategy: speed. He'd floor the pedal and drive all night to hit the dangerous stretch outside Fallujah at dawn, when he figured highway robbers were sleeping. I had first taken this ride with Elizabeth Neuffer, one of the Globe's most experienced war correspondents, days after Saddam fell. She died in Iraq in a car accident in May 2003, just after I had returned to Boston. She had been planning to move in with her longtime partner - Peter Canellos, a Globe editor - after years of living apart to pursue their careers. Now, 10 months later, Peter had helped make sure that if Thanassis and I went overseas, we'd go together.
We'd waited for our midnight ride at the sleek Square Bar at the Four Seasons in Amman. We drank expensive whiskey from thick glasses. On top of our mundane fears - Could we handle the stress? Would we do a good job? - we had just heard jarring news: Sixteen precisely aimed bullets had cut down the husband, mother, and young daughter of an Iraqi woman who translated for American journalists. In the car, we held hands, plunging in together.
A year into the occupation and a month after we moved, war broke out again - all over Baghdad, in the south, in the Sunni Triangle. Marines massed to invade Fallujah after four Western contractors were murdered, their corpses dragged through the streets and hung from a bridge. For the first time, everything felt very fragile. We had to come up with an evacuation plan. What if the uprising engulfed the entire city, not just half of it? What if our hotel was attacked?
But just like the Iraqis whose world we covered, we sought an antidote to the ruin around us in the demands of mundane domestic life. I desperately wanted to transform our three-room suite - where the decor recalled the Soviet bloc - into something that felt and looked like home, since the city outside no longer appeared disposed to serve as the tranquil backdrop of the plotline in my head: War Correspondents in Love. We weren't ever going to drive through Fallujah to the charming lakes in the western Anbar desert.
Anne embedded with the Marines in April 2004 as they prepared to take Fallujah, then pulled back. I quit smoking, figuring I would be stressed anyway, so why not do it then? Most nights, I would sit up until 4 a.m., waiting to hear from Anne that she was safe while tracking the flare-ups across Iraq on a map that was increasingly spotted with red, to mark dangerous "no go" zones.
I did the next best thing to planning a romantic getaway: I went shopping. On the way home from reporting in Baghdad's battleground neighborhoods, translator Sa'ad al-Izzi and I would stop, to look at furniture. Eventually, I settled on the least horrible alternative: a yellow pleather sofa set. We also brought back a new mattress, new carpet - industrial brown instead of industrial with dizzying stripes - refrigerator, air conditioner, desk, and halogen lamps. I had spotted a particularly appealing love seat near the airport road, but when we tried to return, the neighborhood was off-limits a new insurgent stronghold.
My nerves frayed. The few days that I saw Anne that April, we were sitting back-to-back in the portion of our suite designated "the office," exchanging only clipped sentences to divide up the workload, writing two or three stories a night after long days of reporting on the streets. Instead of covering the emergence of a new democracy from the ashes of a dictatorship, it seemed, we were witnessing the metastasis of the second Iraq war in a single year.
All that April, the knots in our stomachs never unclenched. We fell asleep debating which streets were safe to work on and woke up discussing how to manage Iraqi translators and drivers who were risking their lives every day for us. Every time we could have taken a few minutes together, we heaped on more work - and more tension. When one of us was on a roll, the other felt inadequate. If I e-mailed a source and forgot to copy Thanassis in, he'd accuse me of elbowing him out; if he announced he planned to write an important story, I would wish I had thought of it first.
But somehow, after a few weeks, the pressure melded us into a working team. We both grew confident that there was enough success to go around. We had waited a week for a precious slot to embed in Fallujah when the Marines called to say one of us should be ready to go in a couple of hours. There was no time to debate. Thanassis, sick with a stomach bug, told them I would go.
A few hours later, I was in a Chinook helicopter over Baghdad, flying "dark" to avoid being shot down. I spent a week outside Fallujah, watching Marines gear up for an assault, then squirm with relief and disappointment when commanders put the invasion on hold. Instead, I camped out with them for days in a half-built school as they tried to win over a hostile village. To make it back to Thanassis in time for our first break since we moved to Iraq, I talked my way onto a night convoy to Baghdad. I filed a final story by satellite phone from the back of a soft-skinned truck. Speeding through dust and dark - the only way we'll spot a bomb, the convoy leader said, is if we hit it - I felt capable, cool. Even though I knew I was just lucky.
But I stopped racing when we made it to Paros, Greece, to the house where Thanassis' mother was born. We slept 10 hours every night for 10 nights. We were swathed in circles of quiet: behind thick, 400-year-old walls in a white house flanked by other white houses in a sleepy town on a scrubby island in an eventless sea.
We've weathered the first round, I thought. But more importantly, I am happy. With his radiant love, his bounding energy, and his engaging mind, Thanassis protects me - not from danger, but from loneliness. Paradoxically, perhaps, I can do my dream job better because it is no longer the most important thing in my life.
At a goldsmith's shop on the island, we bought cheap wedding rings. Though we weren't actually engaged, we wanted to look convincing when we told Iraqi colleagues and sources that we were married, to deflect the discomfort or even danger we might invite by violating traditional Muslim mores. We wordlessly left them on our ring fingers after trying them on - though it would be days before we got back and needed the disguise.
We saw the image that was roiling the world - a black-hooded Iraqi prisoner at Abu Ghraib - in the International Herald Tribune as we sipped our morning coffee. It was OK. We could let go of the story. But in Amman on the way back in, I couldn't stop crying. I was afraid to return to the constant pressure, afraid we'd lose each other in work again - or that if we didn't, our work would suffer.
The air in Baghdad carried the familiar scent of dust and burning trash. The summer heat - 120 degrees most days - had begun. At work, we immersed ourselves in understanding everyday life in Iraq. I spent days on the job with municipal sewage workers and doctors, and I sat with the family of a teenager killed by a car bomb.
At home, we made it our business to entertain ourselves and others. One of our drivers started bringing us perfect, dusty tomatoes from the market. Bring us any vegetable you see, we said. We grilled chicken by the hotel pool for our translators, our drivers, their families. Candlelight dinners for friends became links in a chain of moments of normalcy.
To celebrate July Fourth, we invited the press corps and some Iraqi politicians to the Hamra patio for marinated beef fillets and hundreds of grilled chicken legs. The hotel's older, ponytailed piano player sidled up to Thanassis and said, "I've never seen a party with so much meat." In Iraq, where a host is measured by the heap of food on his table, it was a real compliment.
The kidnappings and ambushes started in earnest in August 2004. A dozen insurgents dressed in Iraqi police uniforms stormed a downtown office and took a pair of Italian aid workers. No one could draw a line between insurgents, terrorists, and police.
I had just proposed to Anne, on another stop in Greece, formalizing the silent decision we'd made when we had bought the rings in the spring. Immediately, we had gone separate ways; she visited family in the United States while I stayed to write about the Olympics in Athens. Ahead yawned a second monthlong separation, with Anne planning to cover the elections in Afghanistan as I held down the fort in Iraq.
Then a friend, French journalist Georges Malbrunot, and his colleague, Christian Chesnot, were kidnapped on the road to Najaf. (They would be released after four months.) I crafted complicated reasons why these incidents didn't really apply to our situation, and I wasn't alone.
In early September, a dozen acquaintances joined us for a late dinner at a downtown restaurant decorated like the inside of a schooner. Anne was back from the States, on her way to Afghanistan. Seated in a low-ceilinged mezzanine, we shouted down for bottle after bottle of wine. The chief of an aid group, an American who was soon to leave Iraq, described his deputy's murder; he suspected that the assassins had actually been after him. We joked that it was easy to get good tables at restaurants - that people less brave and more paranoid had stopped going out months earlier. While we were eating, our friend Borzou Daragahi, a freelance writer, got a call from his wife, Delphine Minoui, an experienced journalist herself who happened to be out of the country. His smile faded, and Borzou was already out of his chair when the call finished. "Delphine says we're crazy to be out," he said. "She's right." Chastened, we never ventured to a restaurant for dinner again.
A month later, Anne was in Afghanistan when two journalists staying in the Hamra compound were kidnapped on their way to routine meetings. One, John Martinkus, an Australian TV reporter, was snatched just a few hundred yards from the front door, under the nose of police at a nearby checkpoint. He had been tailed for days.
Just hours after his release, I saw John at a house in the Hamra complex, half-crushing the can of beer he was drinking. To escape, he had charmed a group of jihadi foot soldiers with his antiwar stance, thoroughly documented in articles they looked up on the Web.
At the time, we were still working without any special security in Baghdad. After these incidents, I didn't want to leave the hotel ever again - terrifying men like those who had followed John could be watching. No rules granted journalists special protection. In other conflicts, like Bosnia, combatants often gave reporters safe passage through battle zones. I watched the beheading video of the American contractor Eugene Armstrong. A masked man sawed at his throat. Armstrong sobbed to the last. Every night for several months, I imagined myself dying the same way.
After John's close call, I was sure it would never get better, only worse, and that we would never be able to work in Baghdad again. I booked a flight to Amman and called Anne in Afghanistan.
"What do you want from here, in case we never come back?" I asked. She could only think of one thing, the string of pearls I had bought in Indonesia years before I had met her to give someday to my wife.
Anne signed up to embed once again with US troops for the second invasion of Fallujah, expected at the end of Ramadan in November 2004, and I arranged to go to relatively safe Kurdistan. My first day there, as Anne sent text messages, I walked - by myself, at nightfall - through the central market of Sulaymaniyah, a bustling city. People were preparing for Eid, the holiday at the end of Ramadan, a month of prayer and fasting. Young women, heads uncovered, jostled the crowd and daringly met the gazes of passersby. As far as I could tell, I was the only one who felt any fear.
After our wait on the berm, the Army battalion finally lumbered into Fallujah. A dreamlike strangeness - the incandescent rounds drifting in the air, a mosque strung with lights playing recorded religious chants to a dark city - gave way to a real, grinding battle. On the fourth day, I watched soldiers drag their sergeant, just 21 years old, up the ramp of the Bradley we were sharing, a bullet wound in his leg. I felt sympathy and loneliness as the medics whisked him away. He would live, but two in the battalion died that night.
We sat up at night in the Bradleys or camped out in houses that residents had fled. But on the 10th night, in a half-destroyed neighborhood, things felt quiet enough to sleep outside. I sat under a poncho to block the light from my computer. Mortars thumped in the distance. With a mix of guilt and relief, I borrowed a mattress and blanket from one of the ruined houses and slept under the stars.
My close calls during the battle had been random: Iraqi soldiers, mistaking a group of US soldiers for insurgents, shot up a house where we were resting. Mine-clearing equipment failed to arrive, so the Bradley driver sped across a suspected minefield with an optimistic whoop. One night, a 69-ton Abrams tank moving with no lights passed inches from where I crouched over my laptop.
I felt the exhilaration of survival, a hyper-awareness of my physical self: hungry, sleepy, efficient. But I teetered on the edge of crying, wishing to be somewhere green, wanting to be with people I loved. Another reporter confided his only wish: to go home for good and father a child.
But as I headed back to Baghdad after a month with the troops, what I felt was anger. When I landed, in the middle of the night, I couldn't go home, because a curfew had been imposed. I felt a wave of the rage Iraqis often describe - at the lack of security, at the risk of getting killed in the dark by a faceless insurgent or an American sentry, at the US and Iraqi officials who issued rosy predictions from behind blast walls but failed to curb the chaos that intruded on every aspect of daily life. Everything was absurd. My anger wasn't supposed to be personal, but Fallujah left me raw. I had seen a wounded baby whose family had been afraid to seek medical help; his upper arm was yellow, rotting mush. I'd watched earnest US troops trying to start to rebuild the city, and many residents ready to forgive and cooperate if their lives improved quickly. But already it was clear that the Americans didn't have what they needed and that progress would be slow.
In December, on vacation in Barcelona, Thanassis and I sought to re-create the quiet of Paros, but at night, I dreamed long, exhausting dreams: In one, we were driving around Iraq, but I had stupidly worn revealing American clothes. In another, we toured a vaulted church on a hill but realized our guide had signaled kidnappers to come get us.
We sat in cafes drinking hot chocolate, and we walked on the beach. Thanassis made me talk about each of my days in Fallujah, no matter how repetitive the stories became. It took three days. Still, when we returned to the Hamra, I found myself at dinner chatting with other reporters who'd been there. I mentioned the time we'd nearly stepped on a mine in the dirt behind a house. "You never told me that," Thanassis said.
The kidnapping threat subsided enough that we decided to return to Baghdad after Christmas, just in time for a wave of preelection suicide bombings. The loudest blast I'd ever heard shook our bed before dawn on January 19 of this year. The hotel moved. The bomb had gone off two streets away. Over dinner at the hotel that night, we talked with new awe about what a bomb that size would do if it exploded in front of the Hamra.
We had hired armed guards, and I developed a breathing problem - no matter how hard I inhaled, I couldn't get enough air. I was sure I had a tumor. Friends, wiser to the ways of anxiety, suggested I wait and see if the problem persisted.
As the elections approached, we were finally working at the level to which we aspired, every day producing stories we liked. With our new precautions, we still felt safe reporting around Baghdad and in calmer cities like Najaf. We managed to detour to the supermarket and DVD store between appointments with Iraqi politicians and US officials in the Green Zone. By spring, the suite really was home. I watered potted plants on our balcony and served dinners of beef tenderloin and Lebanese wine to correspondents, translators, and friends. We made plans from afar for our June 17 wedding on Paros. I had to shout to be heard over the cellphone when I talked to the florist, the caterer, and the travel agent in Greece.
And then, as unexpected as our departure from Boston nearly a year and a half earlier, it was time to quit Baghdad, pack up our personal belongings, and say farewell. We had gotten a new assignment, to cover the whole Middle East, not just Iraq.
Anne left first. She called when she got to Jordan. I had only three more days until I would join her. She was safe. Now I worried I was arrogantly tempting fate with my last days in Baghdad timed so tightly to our wedding. In the car to the airport, a bulletproof Mercedes, I figured it was time. This was how our American friend Marla Ruzicka, who ran an aid organization called CIVIC, had been killed in April, riding on the airport road when a suicide bomber hit his switch. On my ride, though, nothing happened. When I got to Amman, all I wanted to do was cry, expel in huge, heaving sobs the fear I had felt over the last year. I couldn't shed a tear.
Exactly one week after leaving Baghdad, we were in Greece. Our families were on their way, and Anne was at the first fitting for her wedding dress.
Anne Barnard and Thanassis Cambanis joined the Globe separately in 2000 and are now the chiefs of the Middle East bureau. To respond to this article, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.