Reporting From The War Zone: Garrels Reflects

Anne Garrels i i

NPR correspondent Anne Garrels interviews an Iraqi soldier and interpreter during the battle of Fallujah in November 2004. Jay Kopelman hide caption

itoggle caption Jay Kopelman
Anne Garrels

NPR correspondent Anne Garrels interviews an Iraqi soldier and interpreter during the battle of Fallujah in November 2004.

Jay Kopelman

After 23 years as an NPR correspondent, Anne Garrels is trading the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan for the peace and quiet of home.

Garrels talks about her reporting posts that have included the wars in Chechnya, Afghanistan and Bosnia. Though she has retired from her post as senior foreign correspondent, she'll continue to contribute to NPR in the future.

Moscow, one of the cities in which Garrels made her mark, has changed drastically since her days there. Now, "Moscow is so high-end, you wouldn't believe it," Garrels tells host Neal Conan. "I used to walk along the street where NPR has its office and apartment," Garrels remembers, "and there would be some scuzzy restaurants." These days, Garrels says, "I can't afford to walk in the door. The restaurants are phenomenally expensive... It's mind-boggling... and it's not the kind of mysterious place it used to be."

Garrels is also well-known for her reporting from Baghdad. In retrospect, she wonders if she stayed in Iraq too long. Though it was an "extraordinary experience" for which she is grateful, Garrels admits she had a hard time letting go. "The longer I stayed, the more I knew," she says, but "unfortunately, after six years, I was pretty burned out."

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan, in Washington.

Last month, NPR News announced the retirement of correspondent Anne Garrels, who's been my friend and colleague here for the past 23 years. You will remember her reports from Tiananmen Square in Beijing and Firdaws Square in Baghdad, from the wars in Chechnya and Afghanistan and Bosnia, and the experience and wisdom she brought to her reports from here in Washington.

Before she joined NPR, Anne Garrels worked for NBC and ABC TV. She's won every award I can think of in broadcast journalism and joins us in a moment from the studios of Connecticut Public Broadcasting at WNPR in Hartford.

If you'd like to talk to her about what she's seen and heard, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Farhad Manjoo of slate.com joins us on the Opinion Page after he's had a chance to play with his new iPad. If you've got questions for him, you can email us now. The address again is talk@npr.org.

But first, Anne Garrels - and Annie, I promise not to get gushy here - but thank you very much for being with us today.

ANNE GARRELS: I'm delighted, but damn it, you're the one who makes me cry every time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARRELS: And I'm not retiring. I'm still a contributor.

CONAN: Contributor, well, that's so you may be going out from time to time.

GARRELS: Exactly.

CONAN: Okay. Let's go back over the years, you have spent an awful lot of time in Moscow. You were there for another tour last fall, and I just wondered if you'd given any thought to how much that place has changed since you first saw it.

GARRELS: Oh. Changed so dramatically, and it's still changing. It's still a work in progress. I mean, it's been I don't think people understand how dramatic the breakup of the Soviet Union was and how dramatic it was for Russia to figure out what it was, what its position in the world was.

I mean, in the '90s, it was chaos. I mean, people were scrambling for a job, something to eat. It was exciting democracy, but it was also terrifying. And then Putin comes in, and Vladimir Putin, then the successor to Yeltsin - and people basically made a pact, which was we'll go for stability and a limit on our freedoms.

And now, after 10 years, 12 years, people are saying, well, maybe that didn't work so well. And so it's completely unclear, I think, where you know, how Russia is still going to define itself.

CONAN: The character of that city, I'd visited it very briefly back in the old Soviet days.

GARRELS: You wouldn't know it.

CONAN: Just the emotion of the city, it seems to have blossomed.

GARRELS: Moscow is so high-end, you wouldn't believe it. I mean, it is probably now the most expensive well, I think it got demoted this year to the second-most-expensive city in the world.

I mean, you want the highest-end designers, no problem. When I mean, I used to walk along, you know, the street from where NPR has its office and apartment, and you know, there would be some skuzzy restaurants. Well, now I can't afford to walk in the door. It is the restaurants are phenomenally expensive.

The chauffeurs and the BMWs, the Rolls Royces, the Daimlers are all stacked up outside. I mean, this is it's mindboggling, and it's not very friendly, unfortunately, and it's not the kind of mysterious place it used to be. It's kind of crude and rude and rich.

CONAN: Do people line up for things anymore?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARRELS: God, no. But it is still corrupt. I mean, there is still I mean, you know, it was corruption in a way that had everybody lining up for things in the Soviet period, and that's the big issue that hasn't gone away, and it's the big issue that this country still can't deal with.

CONAN: We are apparently on the cusp of signing a new strategic arms treaty with now the Russians, no longer the Soviet Union, fairly modest reductions of warheads in terms of if you look at past treaties. Nevertheless, it's an issue, I think you've been covering it your whole life.

GARRELS: Oh, God, I know. I remember, you know, the biggest yawn I think I ever got was when I would sort of try and parse START treaties of the you know, and strategic arms treaties of the past. I mean, it's not exactly good radio.

CONAN: Hey, believe me...

GARRELS: You definitely need graphics.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I can't tell you how excited I was to find a girl I could discuss throw-weight with.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARRELS: That's right. Oh, God, those were the days. And I mean, oh, and you taught me how to do radio my dear.

CONAN: Well...

GARRELS: I mean, there's no question. We remember those days, when I came as a TV tart to NPR, and you know, suddenly, I mean, you know, I wasn't writing a minute and a half in shorthand. I actually, you know, could go on a bit, and you were going, well, we need to work on this a little bit.

CONAN: Annie and I sat next to each other for many years at the old building.

GARRELS: We did. Oh, but the you know, the interesting thing about this treaty is that what has not been discussed is the sort of behind-the-scenes, complete revamping of the Russian military, which is going on. And in fact, nuclear weapons are going to be more important for Russia's sense of stability. So the whole idea of eliminating nukes is, I think, I mean, yeah, cut them back, make them safer.

The U.S. pushed for verification on this. That's one reason why this treaty took so long it was supposed to be done by Christmas and was not but at the same time, the Russians are cutting back dramatically on their military in terms of manpower. They're you know, this is yet another legacy of, the Soviet Union. There are so many things that have not been resolved from the Soviet past, and one of them was the structure, composition of the military. The weaponry is out of date, and so in some ways, nuclear weapons for the Soviet for Russia remain rather important.

CONAN: We're talking with Annie Garrels, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's start with Cathy(ph). Cathy's on the line with us from Minneapolis.

CATHY (Caller): What a treat to speak with both of you. I just wanted to ask Anne if she would comment on the benefits of studying a foreign language in doing her job, especially considering how foreign language study has been downplayed in public school education of late.

GARRELS: Well, you've asked my favorite question. Knowing Russian changed my life. I would not have been sent to Russia as a complete nummy(ph), and when I was 27, 28, had I not known Russia. I mean, that made the difference, and it made the difference in my ability, especially in the bad Soviet, Cold War days, because I couldn't use a translator in the Soviet Union because they were all owned by the KGB.

I mean, I had to be able to navigate on my own, and I mean, I of course don't know the language of every country I have visited, every country I have worked in, alas because I do know the value of having the language. And I would urge people to learn a language, I mean, whether it be Chinese, Arabic, Russian, I mean, you know, Spanish, whatever.

It's enormously important, and having learned one language, it makes it much easier, then, to learn the next.

CONAN: Cathy, do you speak a language?

CATHY: I do. I studied French in high school and in college, and in fact, I am married to a man from France.

GARRELS: Well, lo and behold. I mean, this is slightly scurrilous, but I mean, I have always been told that learning a language is best done in a horizontal position.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARRELS: Alas, I learned Russian in a vertical position, I have to confess, and it was a real struggle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Cathy, I think we'd best leave it right there.

CATHY: Okay.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can get another caller in, hopefully on another subject.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Kim(ph) is on the line from Salt Lake.

KIM (Caller): Hi, thank you for having me. I just wanted to tell Anne thank you for her reporting when she was Iraq. My son was in Northern Iraq with the First Infantry Division, 2004 to 2005, and I had emailed Anne Garrels a couple of times, and she answered me. And just the fact that I could hear her voice on the radio, reporting from where my son was, was such comfort, and I just want to tell her thank you for all of that time she spent there.

GARRELS: Well, it was an extraordinary time, and I am just so grateful that I had that experience. And you know, there were remarkable troops who helped me along the way. I have to say there were moments when the military and I did not see eye to eye. But it was I am so glad that I was able to do it.

I perhaps stayed a little bit too long. I couldn't let go, because the more I knew - I mean, the longer I stayed, the more I knew. Unfortunately, though, after six years, I was pretty burned out because, I mean, I'm sure your son would know. I hope he's fine and home.

KIM: Yeah, he's fine and home, and he's a junior in college. He's taking an engineering course at the University of Utah, and he's doing fantastically.

GARRELS: Yes, wonderful news.

CONAN: Kim, that's great to hear. Thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

KIM: Thank you.

CONAN: And when Anne Garrels says she didn't sometimes get along with the military, well, that doesn't include just the American military. Of course, there was the Russian military, the Soviet military. Just in a few seconds before we have to go to a break, Anne, the war in Chechnya, that had to be a powerful personal experience.

GARRELS: Well, I think it was the first time that I had experienced a war that was so brutal. I mean, and the Russians are still dealing with that legacy. I mean, they just sort of they didn't know what they were doing. They went in and were just killed, maimed, shot, not knowing what they were doing. And it was and watching the transformation of the military and then watching the radicalization of the Chechens at the same time because of this ill-conceived, ill-conducted assault in Chechnya.

CONAN: Echoes, of course, just last week with bombs in the Moscow subway.

GARRELS: That's right.

CONAN: Anne Garrels just retired as senior foreign correspondent for NPR, though she will continue to be a contributor. Up next, we'll talk more about her time in Baghdad and the dramatic moments there. If you'd like to speak with her about what she's heard in her more than two decades with NPR News, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Anne Garrels may be stepping away from the day-to-day job, but you will still hear her voice from time to time on NPR. After more than two decades as a correspondent, reports from Baghdad, Beirut, Bosnia, she will continue to file occasional reports as a contributor, and well, almost seven years ago to the day, Anne was in Baghdad as American forces came into town. As Marines and crowds of cheering Iraqis joined to tear down a statue of Saddam Hussein, she spoke with a number of Iraqis nearby.

GARRELS: Dr. Saad Jawad(ph), an Iraqi political scientist, watched sadly as the Marines helped Saddam, calling the scene humiliating. No fan of Saddam Hussein, he nonetheless warned of wounded pride. He acknowledged now Americans are here, they must be in full control, but he said that control will quickly be resented.

Another Iraqi man in his 40s just wept. Though he, too, hated Saddam, he said seeing American troops in Baghdad was more than he could bear.

CONAN: If you'd like to talk with Anne Garrels about what she's seen and heard over the years, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation also on our Web site at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Anne, it's awful to be right sometimes.

GARRELS: Absolutely. You know, that was probably one of the most important moments for me as a reporter, because MORNING EDITION called me back after that report and said, well, you know, we're seeing pictures on CNN of jubilant crowds. Do you want to rewrite, I mean, you know, re-file? Has something changed? I went, no, not at all. There are some jubilant people around, but most of the people are just shocked.

And I talked to them, and that's what I heard, what you just heard, and it did unfortunately describe what people would feel over the next few years.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jerry(ph). Jerry's with us from Baltimore.

JERRY (Caller): Yes, wonderful, superb correspondent, Neal. Let me ask you this, and this has always bothered me, Ms. Garrels. Certainly, Saddam Hussein was sadistic, horrible, mean-spirited man throughout his climb to political power, but didn't we make a mistake when we overthrew him because he was the one barrier we could count on against Iran? He destroyed their military forces, and here George Bush upset the person who might have been a counterweight against the Iranians, who I think now are our most dangerous enemy. I'd love to hear your comments.

GARRELS: Well, I think it's quite clear that the Bush administration did not realize what it was getting itself in for. In George Packer's(ph) wonderful book on Iraq, he describes a moment where he speaks to a senior official. I can't remember who it was, but and he poses the question: Do you understand what you're getting into?

I mean, this is and the response was basically: Screw history, we make history. Well, America does not make history. We were dealing with a much more complex animal than we know. We the administration went in with remarkable arrogance and ignorance, and we're seeing the legacy of that to this day, and we will be living with that for years to come.

JERRY: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Jerry, thanks for the call, and Anne, sadly, you witnessed two countries in paroxysms of violence after the departure, under very different circumstances, of the strong man, in Tito in Yugoslavia and Saddam in Iraq. And to some degree, some people might suggest, well, you know, at some point, he had to leave. Were those passions not there underlying the surface? Yes, they were released in a terribly unfortunate fashion by the American invasion, but weren't they there anyway?

GARRELS: Passions where, Neal?

CONAN: In Iraq.

GARRELS: In Iraq?

CONAN: Yeah.

GARRELS: Oh, absolutely. But we are blamed for it now. I mean, that's the difference. And, I mean, there was a moment, you know, when the troops first came into Baghdad, and the looting was going on, and it was clear that this wasn't just the poor people from Sadr City, or Saddam City as it was then known, coming out just it wasn't it was also Saddam's people very cleverly making the city essentially ungovernable for the Americans.

And this colonel was standing outside the Palestine Hotel, anxious bless his heart for, after a long slog into Baghdad, for a drink. But, you know, but they weren't doing anything. And I said to him, well, you know, what's your mission? He said: I don't know. We don't have orders.

And, you know, there was so I'm not sure it was doable anyway, in a way that, you know, we would have come out loved, but there was, there were so many lost opportunities in the first 18 months and an unwillingness to accept what was going on.

I mean, we reported on NPR about the growing sectarian violence. We addressed this at press conference after press conference, and basically, we were dissed by the administration authorities in Baghdad, who sort of said that we were nothing but naysayers.

Well, of course, Iraq ended up on the verge of a civil war or in a civil war, I mean, however you want to cast it, but there was a denial of reality all the way along.

CONAN: Here's an email, this from Johan(ph) in Ontario in Canada: So much of what we hear in the news about places like Russia and Iraq is negative. What has Anne Garrels seen during her time in those places that gives her hope to the future?

GARRELS: Well, when I was in I would say, I mean, in Russia, for instance, it is still, I mean, since I was just there for, you know, many months over the last year, going back to places I knew well, there is a lot of I mean, it's still in flux. There's no question. And Russians would be the first to say that.

But out in the provinces, I've been covering this city of Chelyabinsk now for 15 years, and I had been going back regularly, and then there was a gap because I was in Baghdad, and I went back.

CONAN: Listeners should understand that this is a place you could not go to before 15 years ago.

GARRELS: That's right, exactly. And I mean, I basically you know, I wanted to choose one place that I could follow because then I could really get come to grips with changes that were going on and get to know people. And I threw a dart at the map, and I hit Chelyabinsk.

And it's in the middle of Russia, and I was stunned when I went back this year - or last year and then again this year. There are a lot of positive changes. There are a lot of very iffy things going on, too, because it, like unfortunately more than 500 Russian cities, is a one-industry town.

The Soviets created these one-industry towns, and it's got to diversify or, you know, it is it's going to be, you know, it's facing sort of what happened to Pittsburgh. You know, it's a metal town.

But I saw, you know, people beginning to take responsibility for their lives, taking care of beginning to address the real issues of the town - NGOs developing, businesspeople being responsible citizens, helping in orphanages, beginning just to do what good citizens do.

But in the Soviet Union, you couldn't do that. The state did everything. And that was very hard for Russians in the post-Soviet period to sort of understand, that it's their responsibility. They can do a lot as citizens.

Now, Putin hasn't encouraged that entirely, or has only encouraged the kinds of NGOs that he likes, but nonetheless, people are doing things. Once again, though, I have to say the issue is corruption, lack of trust in the authorities, lack of trust in the police, and that has to be dealt with because it is utterly corrosive.

CONAN: Let's go to Keith(ph), and Keith with us from Gainesville, Florida.

KEITH (Caller): Hi, Anne. Going back to your comments, early in the show, about the technological inferiority of the Russian military. I watched the shuttle launch this morning from my backyard and realized we have few left. We've now abrogated our ability to put people in space entirely to the Russians. We're not going to be able to do anymore.

GARRELS: Old-fashioned missiles, though. I mean, you know, yeah, we have, though, yeah.

KEITH: We won't be using them to put people, though. We'll just be using to put stuff. So now the Russians - we are completely dependent upon their old-fashioned missiles to put our people into space.

GARRELS: It's worked pretty well so far for the Russians.

KEITH: It has worked well for them, and that's actually part of my question. Does this, even though they're technologically behind us in a lot of ways and -from not having GPS systems like we do or other things, does this give them some sense of pride that, in a way, they've beat us at this again?

GARRELS: No, it doesn't give them any pride at all. In fact, there's a - they realize - I mean, Russia's facing - it's got a demographic crisis. It is one of the largest land masses in the world, and its population is decreasing. And technology is going to become more and more and more important. It's very leery of migration from outside to create a workforce. It - the infrastructure inherited from the Soviet Union is appalling. There have been horrendous accidents in the last year, not to mention the last five years, because of failed infrastructure, explosions, there aren't enough roads, bridges are deteriorating.

Now, I know that we have problems here in America, but it's nothing like what you see in Russia at this point. And Medvedev, President Medvedev is talking about modernization, modernization, modernization, but you need - once again, you've got to get rid of corruption if you're going to get people to come in and invest. At the moment, because of corruption, it costs something like 10 times as much to build a highway in Russia as it does in Europe or the United States.

KEITH: Goodness. Well, we've certainly found technological advances in our space program, and hopefully we'll continue to somehow. Maybe they will. I don't know.

GARRELS: No. I mean, I think that - and, you know, there's still - it's a very edgy relationship, and - to this day. I mean, in the '90s, you know, Russians, when the doors opened, I mean, and - it was all warm and fuzzy, and in a way, it was sort of the Russians were in love with all things Western. And now there's sort of - there's a kind a pride and a kind of, like, well, you know, we don't - we're not so pathetic, really. And don't look down on us. And they've made a lot of money on oil and gas, and that has certainly bolstered them.

But they do know that they've got to be part of the world. How they are part of the world? Good question. How they modernize? How they get new industries in -I mean, they're talking about building a new Silicon Valley. I mean, they're -Medvedev's desperately trying to push Russian into, you know, the 21st century. There's a huge amount of talent there, but how you use it, what you do, you know, that's the big issue for Russia right now.

KEITH: No one trusts to go in there if - from what you're saying.

GARRELS: Well, people are leery, with good reason and...

CONAN: And if payoffs are at that scale, you could understand their reasons.

GARRELS: Well, payoffs and, you know, all of us - the government, in the last 10 years, nationalized a lot of what they called strategic industries. People put money in and then suddenly found out that they didn't own what they thought they owned. And now the government is saying - actually, they understand that state-controlled industries are not the most productive. And so they're going -they're taking about putting a lot of these industries up for, you know, for bid, or portions of them. It's - as I say, I mean, it's still a work in progress.

CONAN: We're talking with Anne Garrels. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go to Clark, Clark with us from Newport News.

CLARK (Caller): Yes. Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

CLARK: Yeah, I have a question. I wanted to know, has she ever interacted or cooperated with Anna Politkovskaya, the author and journalist who was actually assassinated by the Putin government, or...

CONAN: Allegedly. Let's throw that there.

GARRELS: Yes. Yes, I did know her in Chechnya. And I had not seen her for many years, and then, of course, she was killed. And then - and ironically, I was planning - I did go back to Chechnya last fall, and I was planning to go - I was - had been in touch with another friend of Anna Politkovskaya's, Natalia Estemirova, who was a human rights worker there and a very close colleague of hers. And once again, just as I was going down to Chechnya, she was - too, was murdered. We don't know by whom, but the human rights community there is living in terror of the authorities.

CLARK: Horrible. It's horrible.

CONAN: Clark, thanks very much for the call.

GARRELS: Yeah.

CONAN: Appreciate it.

CLARK: Sure. All right. Bye.

CONAN: As we mentioned at the start of the program, the NPR News issued a press release last month, saying that Anne Garrels had retired. Of course, she's going to continue as a contributor from time to time. She's been with us today from Hartford in the studios of Connecticut Public Broadcasting at WNPR. I have to ask Annie, has spring arrived in northwestern Connecticut?

GARRELS: We got our first daffodils yesterday, and we also have the influx of the fake ladybugs by the thousands. So if you were to ask me: What are you doing now that you are no longer in Chechnya or Iraq? I would say I'm vacuuming up bugs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Fake ladybugs?

GARRELS: Oh, yeah. No, they're fake ladybugs. They're not real ones, and they just blossom when the sun first comes out. But, hey, there are daffodils. We've got reticulated irises and heather, and we're so many weeks behind you, Neal, though. I mean, I don't even want to - we could get snow again.

CONAN: It's not too late. It's not too late.

GARRELS: I don't want to think about it. I don't want to think about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Annie, we are going to miss you so much.

GARRELS: Well, I'm not going to be gone entirely, Neal. I will haunt you all the time.

CONAN: And I will put - I will make you live up to that.

GARRELS: Yes, you better.

CONAN: Anne Garrels, with us from Hartford. And WNPR will be - she will be back with us soon. Bye-bye.

GARRELS: Bye, love.

CONAN: Up next, the iPad is on the Opinion Page. Farhad Manjoo joins us.

And give us your review. If you snapped up an iPad over the weekend, was it worth it? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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