(WOMENSENEWS)–As the Bush administration and Congress wait for the recommendations of the 10-member bipartisan Iraq Study Group to help formulate a new strategy for the war, Anne Garrels is not optimistic that an easy solution is at hand.
“There are nothing but bad options at this point,” says the National Public Radio senior foreign correspondent.
A Nov. 8 memo leaked this week in which national security officials expressed doubts about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s ability to control violence in Iraq, she says, is a symbol of the administration’s inability to handle relations with the Iraqi leader and effectively manage the war.
“It’s a sign of complete turmoil,” Garrels says. “It’s a dialogue of the deaf at the moment.”
As the security situation continues to deteriorate, Garrels says she wakes up each morning and asks herself whether reporting on Iraq is worth the risk, both for her and the Iraqis who work for NPR.
“I’m now 55 years old. This is the last big assignment. I’m not going to embark on another adventure,” says Garrels, who has covered conflicts in former Soviet republics, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo, Central America and the Middle East.
In Iraq, where Garrels has spent an average of six months a year for the past four years, she was one of only 16 non-embedded journalists and photographers who reported from Baghdad at the end of the Saddam Hussein regime as U.S. forces bombed the city and invaded in March 2003.
She was the only U.S. broadcaster–and one of two female reporters–to remain as hundreds of journalists left Iraq in the days leading up to the “shock and awe” campaign.
‘Taste of Day’ at Home
After the initial invasion was over a convoy of journalists flooded into occupied Baghdad and Garrels headed home where she says she had become “the taste of the day.”
In the year following her return, she stockpiled awards, including the 2003 Courage in Journalism Award from the Washington-based International Women’s Media Foundation and the 2004 Edward R. Murrow Award from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. She shared with NPR staff the 2004 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, the third time she received the honor, considered the Pulitzer Prize of broadcasting.
“I look at all this slightly askance,” Garrels says of the acclaim. “The fact that people were paying attention to what was going on, to what was happening to Iraqis in Baghdad, that’s why I keep doing it . . . It matters enormously.”
Once back in the United States in April 2003, she wrote a book about Iraq over the next month, “Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War and the Aftermath as Seen by NPR’s Correspondent.” It was published in September 2003 and documents the war’s early phase and includes e-mails to friends written by her husband, Vint Lawrence, who was holding down the home front in Norfolk, Conn.
In the book, Garrels describes how she eluded detection by Iraqi authorities. She hid her satellite phone and, while holed up at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, called in her reports to NPR while naked in the hope that she could persuade Iraqi secret police, if they burst in, that they caught her in the shower and keep them at bay long enough to hide her clandestine gear. She also developed a secret knock system to let in her trusted translator, whom she called Amer.
Unusual Ground Reporting
Loren Jenkins, NPR’s senior foreign editor, says Garrels’ pre-invasion reporting gave the network unusual stature.“We were reporting the story as it should have been, on the ground,” Jenkins says. “Everyone loves Anne Garrels everywhere she reports. She has a terrific empathy with her subjects, a lot of compassion for the people she writes about . . . and how they cope, or don’t cope, with the war.”
In a March 30, 2003, broadcast, for instance, she described the defiance of 38-year-old Zainab, a “delicate woman in a long, blue robe,” who vowed to fight the U.S. invaders even though, as a Shia Muslim, her family had endured the oppression of Hussein. The sentiments contradicted official U.S. claims that American soldiers would be greeted as liberators.
In September, during her most recent stint in Iraq, Garrels told the story of a 9-year-old Shia girl named Guffran, whose father was killed in one of the country’s numerous carjackings. Guffran wrote letters to her father, which he was carrying when he was killed, and continues to write to him after his death.
“I feel my heart will break when I remember him,” Guffran told Garrels.
Garrels says being a foreign correspondent means a life on the road and few women who do it have children. She says she has been bolstered by a supportive husband. In Iraq, in particular, being female has brought some advantages. Male officials are less likely to challenge her, and she has been able, at times, to slip around unnoticed and veiled.
Career Start in TV
Garrels graduated from Harvard University in 1972 and got an early break at ABC–where she worked for a decade–when an executive noticed her background in Russian studies and sent her to Moscow as a reporter. She worked briefly for NBC from 1986-87 but, overall, Garrels says, she and TV were not a happy mix.
She says news executives suggested she “blondize” her hair, maybe pump up her lips. “I just burst out laughing,” she says. “But I still had a lot to learn. I came to NPR and had an aggressive we-can-do-it news sense, but I also learned a huge amount from them about writing, telling stories.”
One piercing story from her Iraq tours concerned the increase in honor killings, which she first heard about from women’s activists who said the crimes were rarely prosecuted.
Garrels interviewed a 35-year-old Iraqi police officer named Sarhan who coolly explained why he had killed his 16-year-old niece, Fatima, after she had been kidnapped and was presumed to have been raped. The family believed she had shamed them.
“She knew the customs, but I don’t think she expected we would kill her,” Sarhan told Garrels. “She was crying. I saw in her eyes that she thought we would take her in our arms and say, ‘thank God, you are safe.’ But she got bullets instead.”
Garrels says she was lucky to find an honor killer who would talk on tape.
“He was extraordinary in how honest he was and straightforward about what he had done. I just remember thinking, ‘I can’t react. I can’t show my horror, my disgust, my outrage.’ I needed him to tell it.”
Garrels says women’s groups in Iraq walk a fine line between needing financial support from Western organizations and having to protect themselves from a dangerous association as hostility against the United States intensifies.
She notes that the middle ground is being shut out in Iraq, as the middle class and the educated flee to Jordan and Syria and more radical voices take over.
Even though the situation is dangerous, she says she will continue to cover Iraq as long as she can. “I’m not ready to let go,” she says. “I’m a lot better at what I do now than I was 10 years ago. But I also know there comes a time when you’ve just got to rethink it.”
Jennifer Thurston is associate editor at Women’s eNews.
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For more information:
NPR, Sept. 9, 2006, “Letters to a Father Who Was Lost”:
NPR, Dec. 7, 2005, “Concern Grows Over Iraqi Honor Killings”:
NPR, July 13, 2004, “Status of Women in Iraq, Part I: Baghdad”:
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