Baghdad in the Rearview Mirror

Tom Bullock reported from the Iraqi capital since shortly after the war began. In this reporter's notebook, Bullock shares his reflections on leaving Baghdad.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

I'm going to yield my time to Rachel Martin, because I think her Most is most extraordinary.

RACHEL MARTIN: Thanks, Alison.

My Most is from NPR's list of top e-mailed stories. It's a reporter's notebook from NPR's producer Tom Bullock, who is just finishing up his 21st tour in Iraq. And I was lucky enough to do some time in Baghdad with Tom over the summer, and it's amazing what he does there. He's been an anchoring force in NPR's Iraq coverage for years and years. And this is, as Luke put it, his exit interview and a goodbye letter, really, to his time in Iraq. Here's some of his reporter's notebook.

TOM BULLOCK: The first thing I saw in Iraq? An American soldier lounging in a plastic lawn chair. He was manning a checkpoint on the Iraqi-Jordanian border, and I was speeding past in a Chevy Suburban, trying to get to Baghdad as soon as I could. It was just after the invasion, and this was the golden era - or, at least, that's how it seems now.

(Soundbite of music)

BULLOCK: We worked our butts off. But looking back now, what I remember most is how we spent our down time.

I found time to swim safely across both the Tigris and Euphrates, though not on the same day. And when I needed a haircut, I'd just walk down the block to an Iraqi barbershop that looked like something out of "The Andy Griffith Show."

The reason for this Glenn Miller song - a pizza parlor not far from where we used to live. There was a piano inside, and an Iraqi-Armenian who had an amazing ear for music. You'd walk in and he'd hand you this dog-eared copy of the songs he could play and demand you make a request. He spoke almost no English, and the song titles showed it. "Fly Me to the Moon" became "Fling Me at the Moon." And this song, "T.D.'s Boogie Woogie," morphed into "C.D. Boggle Woggle." Whatever the name, the guy could play, and the pizza was great.

On a regular basis, American troops would show up there to buy dozens of pies to go, then throw them in the back of their armored vehicles and drive them back to their bases. Basically, it was the world's most heavily protected pizza delivery service. That world was brilliant, brief, and is no more.

(Soundbite of music)

BULLOCK: As the violence increased, everything in Baghdad changed. The Americans became isolated behind barriers in the Green Zone and on U.S. bases. All of Baghdad turned into 12-foot high concrete blast walls, and razor wire which spread through the city like kudzu.

Our reporting changed, too, dominated by stories of car bombs, insurgent attacks, and then civil war. Millions of Iraqis fleeing, and thousands dying as Shiites and Sunnis cleansed neighborhoods and bombed markets. Kidnappings became common. And I became a prisoner in our bureau.

To go out meant putting not only my own life at risk, but the lives of my translators and drivers as well. So we taught the Iraqis we worked with our trade, and they became journalists. Our entire Iraqi staff is now made up of refugees. They're some of the most amazing people I've known. And through all of this, they come to work every day, and our bureau has kept running.

(Soundbite of music)

BULLOCK: Working in Baghdad is a strange thing. You get accustomed to long days and constant work. You learn to live with having nowhere to let off steam. The cycle is simple: wake up, work, repeat. You weed through press releases and sit through press conferences, which seem at odds with the reality we - living in the Red Zone, the real world - know all too well.

Some of my favorites: a series of statements from the Iraqi government saying reconciliation is at hand. But you read the fine print and make some phone calls, and you'd find out there's been a meeting to agree on a more important meeting on some unknown day in Iraq's very unknowable future.

Some of the press releases are just plain strange, like U.S. troops defuse an explosive device strapped to a donkey. I'm pleased to report that the donkey was unharmed, by the way.

Have I been harmed? I've come close. But after 21 tours, my body and my mind seem to have held up okay. And while the marriages of a number of journalists and soldiers I know here have fallen apart, I managed to fall in love with and marry a beautiful bride.

(Soundbite of a telephone ringing)

Unidentified Woman: Hi. How are you?

BULLOCK: I met Carrie just before I started coming to Iraq. She's supported me through four and a half years of this. And every time I was about to go back to Baghers(ph), we'd listen to the same song.

(Soundbite of song, "Long As I Can See The Light")

CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL (Band): (Singing) Put a candle in my window, 'cause I feel I've got to move.

BULLOCK: My last view of Baghdad will be of the city by air, courtesy of a small Royal Jordanian passenger jet. And I will leave here frustrated. I am frustrated at that death of that golden era of pizza parlors and barber shops. I'm frustrated with Iraqi's I've talked to who proudly say we are all brothers, then take up arms against each other. And I'm frustrated with American military and civilian officials who stand up and say everything in Iraq is working. Then when they leave, they write books about how everything in Iraq has failed and it's not their fault. And I'm pained by the number of people that I've personally known who have been killed here: journalists, Iraqis and American soldiers.

Now, for the last time, Tom Bullock, NPR News, Baghdad.

(Soundbite of song, "Long As I Can See The Light")

BURBANK: That is a great, great piece of radio from Tom Bullock.

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