Journalists Dodge Danger to Report on the Dead

Body counts of Iraqis killed in the daily bombings, executions and other bouts of sectarian violence often reach double figures each day — but getting an accurate tally of the dead can be just as perilous as daily life in Baghdad. Journalists in Iraq must dodge danger to tell the stories of those who died.

MIKE PESCA, host:

In Baghdad today, another day another shouting match at the trial of Saddam Hussein. The former Iraqi leader and his one-time defense minister were thrown out of court after arguing with the chief judge. The trial was put off for two weeks.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

But a daily occurrence, one that no one has been able to put off for any length of time is the sectarian violence.

(Soundbite of various news reports)

Unidentified Woman (Reporter): This past week in Iraq has seen a wave of bloodletting.

Unidentified Man #1 (Reporter): In Iraq today, a car bomb killed at least 31 people and wounded 24 in a Baghdad slum…

Unidentified Man #2 (Reporter): Another 40 bodies today dumped on the streets of Baghdad. More than 200 in the last five days…

BRAND: NPR's Anne Garrels joins us now from Baghdad.

And Anne, we just heard a brief montage of headlines about recent killings, and usually there's a little more to those stories than just a litany of statistics. But we wanted to get an impression of who these victims are. Who are the faces behind the news headlines, and you tell us something about these people?

ANNE GARRELS: Well, I've got to say that everyone I know here in Baghdad has been touched by the killings. One young man said to me, sadly, this is our new life story because of the sectarian violence.

And I went around and asked friends for stories about the people they knew who had been killed recently, and the answer was how many stories can you handle?

You know, there's Allah Alazawi(ph), a father of five. He's a Sunni. He lived in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood where, after the bombing of the shrine in Samara last March, militants began to push Sunni families out. Their Shiite neighbors were simply too frightened to do anything to protect their Sunni friends.

Allah Alazawi moved his family to a safer place, but he stayed on to look after the house in his small workshop where he repaired furniture. He said he couldn't afford to move completely. But as it turned out, he couldn't afford to stay.

One day, three guys in a black BMW came to his shop, allegedly asking him to check their furniture at home for repairs. Instead, they took him outside the city, handcuffed him, and shot him in the head - removing his ID so he became one of the many nameless bodies that turn up at the morgue.

This meant his family had to look for him with no success for days until they had to go through the gruesome process of looking at hundreds of photographs of dead people at the Baghdad morgue until they were finally able to identify him.

Now that's a pretty typical story.

On one street alone in Baghdad, in the neighborhood of Sidea(ph), 20 Shiite shopkeepers have simply been gunned down. A friend's brother-in-law, a pharmacist, was killed last week as he was locking up. He was a gentle man. He was the mainstay for his wife, children, and two single sisters-in-law, and he was killed for no greater sin than being a Shiite. And no one came to help him as he bled to death on the pavement because they were afraid they would be killed, too. He might have been saved.

BRAND: And is it also dangerous for family members to try to find out where their loved ones are or to go to the morgue and identify their bodies?

GARRELS: Absolutely. The morgue is run by basically Moqtada Sadr's militia. They run the health ministry and the morgue comes under the health ministry, and Sunnis report going there to identify family members and then being tracked and attacked as they leave.

They're afraid to go to the morgue now, in fact. They ask Sunni friends - Shiite friends, rather, to do it for them.

BRAND: And we hear about car bombings almost daily, and then you've talked just now about targeted killings. Is there a difference? Or is it all part of the same sectarian violence?

GARRELS: Well, until about a year ago, Iraqis had a sense that if they were particularly vulnerable - former Baathist, government ministers, Iraqi police and soldiers were definitely targets, as well as others like translators who work with the coalition forces. Of course, many others were caught up in the bombings, but they weren't specifically targeted.

Now, though, anyone can be killed or bombed simply because he is a Shiite or a Sunni.

Take the bombing in Sadr City this week. After the Shiite Mahdi Army went in and hit up some Sunni targets and killed Sunnis in a neighborhood, a huge bomb went off in Sadr City as Shiite women and children were lining for kerosene. More than 30 were killed.

BRAND: What about the numbers of Iraqis killed - civilians killed, if you will - since the invasion? How do you calculate the number? Are there any estimates that are credible?

GARRELS: I don't think there's any way to really get a complete count. Iraqi body count and NGO is very careful about documenting the deaths it records. It estimates there have been as many as 48,000 deaths resulting from the U.S.-led military intervention and its aftershocks, but I think that's a very, very conservative number.

BRAND: NPR's Anne Garrels in Baghdad.

Thank you very much.

GARRELS: Thank you.

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