NPR Reporter Looks Back On A Year In Iraq

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reflects on her just-concluded assignment in Baghdad with host Jacki Lyden.

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JACKI LYDEN, host: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has been in and out of Iraq covering the story since well before the 2003 U.S. invasion. She just wrapped up over a year as NPR's Baghdad bureau chief, and she joins me now to talk about her time there, and we are very glad to welcome you to the show, Lulu.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thank you very much.

LYDEN: You've covered Iraq since long before the invasion. What are your thoughts about the country today with just this new spike in the bombings?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'll tell you what. During every single episode of Iraq's history that I have been privy to, people have asked me what I think. Even Iraqis ask me what I think, and where is it going, and I always don't know what to tell them.

And I think right now, I feel exactly the same way. I left Iraq with an absolutely bittersweet feeling. For the first time in a long time, I was able to travel around the country. I was able to speak to Iraqis. There is a sense of renewed hope among certain quarters, but there is still so many difficulties there that I really left dreading the future.

And speaking to Iraqis as I left, they feel the same way. There's hope in their hearts, but there's also so much fear. And I think that that fear, at the moment, is really the winning emotion in the struggle between the two.

LYDEN: One of the stories that I recall you doing the most was about a single individual who was collecting the bodies of the dead. Could you talk about that story?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It was an incredible story, actually. This was in 2005, and the bodies were mounting at the morgue, the bodies of people who had no identification. People didn't know who they were. No one was coming to collect them. And it was really the first time that we felt that there was this terrible thing happening in Iraq.

And as I went to the morgue, as you would go to frequently to cover the violence, a lot of the morgue workers would whisper about this man. This is the man who takes away the bodies of suicide bombers. He takes them for burial in Najaf to the biggest cemetery in the world. And it was extraordinary to meet him. It was so powerful.

He talked about before, under Saddam, how there were really only one to two unidentified bodies in a month and how there were now dozens that he was collecting every week. And it was really the first time that it really hit me what was happening in Iraq, how people were killing each other every day, in incredibly violent ways.

LYDEN: Were you able to develop anything that you would call affection for Iraq in the midst of all this?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes, absolutely. I don't think you can cover a country as long as I have without feeling a great deal of affection. The story becomes, in a strange way, and I'm sure you know this, Jacki, it becomes about you, almost.

You know, I've gone through a lot of things in Iraq. It's often been a love-hate relationship, though. I used to describe Iraq as an abusive husband that I kept on going back to no matter how it made me feel because I felt this story was so important. I felt what we were doing there was so important.

LYDEN: Yeah. We as journalists often don't like to talk about the things we've seen, not even when we get together in the after-hours. But I wonder, I can't leave you and not ask about how it's affected you, if you're willing to talk about that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am. I had posttraumatic stress disorder, actually. I was diagnosed with it in 2005. I had spent two years straight there from 2002 to 2004, and I left to become the Mexico City bureau chief, and it all just came crashing in on me. It was extremely difficult period.

I kept on going back for National Public Radio in 2005 because I really just felt that I could cope, and I really wanted to continue to cover the story, but then I just had to stop for a little bit because everything that you see there affects you. You live it, too.

As a journalist, we're not only reporting the things that we see, we experience them. When you go to a bomb site, you are witnessing the carnage, you know, and it was extremely difficult for me.

And as a journalist, I think, you know, you don't really want to talk about it because it makes you seem weak, or people will think oh, look at all the terrible things that are happening to Iraqis, and here you are talking about yourself, me, me, me, me, me. But there is, I think, a trauma that can happen to journalists when you cover a lot of conflicts, and you really have to take care of yourself.

LYDEN: Yeah, or you might not be able to go back. I know you've done tours in really difficult places: Kosovo, Haiti, and now you're in Jerusalem, not an easy posting by any means. Listeners are going to ask, do you want to keep doing this, I think.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a question that I ask myself all the time, and I think it's a healthy question to ask yourself all the time. I think you say you won't do it anymore the minute, actually, you stop caring about the stories that you cover. That, for me, is the benchmark.

I see it happen a lot to foreign correspondents who've covered wars for a long time. They shut down. That's what I'm afraid of. I'm afraid of shutting down. And the minute that I shut down, then I'll stop doing this. But as long as I can engage, and as long as I feel I can tell people stories the way they deserve to be told, then I'll keep doing this.

LYDEN: Well, thank you so much for sharing this, Lulu, and I think everybody is wishing you the very, very best of luck in Israel. And thank you for your service to this network in Baghdad and Iraq.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

LYDEN: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is now covering the Middle East from Jerusalem for NPR.

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