NEAL CONAN, Host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Over the weekend, four members of NPR's Baghdad bureau went out to report a story about business on a once prosperous street in that city which now looks like a war zone. Correspondent Ivan Watson, translator Ali Hamdani, and two drivers parked outside a kebab shop, went inside to record an interview, and stayed for lunch. As they were leaving, soldiers from a nearby Iraqi army post shouted out warnings in Arabic, one pulled one of the drivers away from the door of his armored BMW, and a few seconds later the car exploded in flames. Luckily, no one was hurt.
After months of greatly improved security, November was a bad month in Baghdad. In a moment, Ivan Watson and Ali Hamdani join us from Baghdad to talk about what happened and about changing security there. If you'd like to talk with them about what it's like to work as a reporter in Iraq these days, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. Later in the program, "Inheritance," a new documentary about one of Oscar's Schindler's survivors who returned to the concentration camp where she worked as a slave to meet the daughter of the camp commandant, the man played in the movie by Ray Fiennes. But, first to Baghdad and NPR's Ivan Watson and Ali Hamdani who are joining us from our bureau there. And Ivan, we can't tell you how relieved we are that your there to tell us this story.
IVAN WATSON: Thank you. I think we're pretty relieved as well.
CONAN: I bet you are. Ali Hamdani, where were you when you realized something was wrong?
ALI HAMDANI: Well, I was standing right next to Ivan.
CONAN: And that was in the doorway of the kebab shop or out on the sidewalk?
HAMDANI: Well, it was less than 20 - like 20 yards away from the car when we realized that there is something wrong going on. It's like soldiers, you know, running up and someone shouting. First, they said car bomb which we felt like they were like - trying to like fool us. And then they started saying IED which sounded more serious to me.
CONAN: IED - Improvised Explosive Device, the terminology for, well, those things that have killed so many people in Baghdad.
HAMDANI: Yes. Yeah, clearly over the last few years.
CONAN: And Ivan Watson, this is a particular type called a sticky bomb attached by magnets or masking tape beneath cars and these have been of late the weapons of choice.
WATSON: Well, one of many weapons of choice. But yeah, they have been used a lot, and they're terrifying because somebody can slip them under a car on what was a fairly busy street without anybody evidently noticing or not too many people evidently noticing, though there was that tip that we're told was called in to the nearby Iraqi army post which we believe helped save us. According to the Iraqi government, there were 28 sticky bombs used that detonated in Baghdad last month alone. We were the 28th sticky bomb.
CONAN: And very fortunate indeed, and fortunate that those soldiers not only acted promptly, they acted very bravely to save your lives.
WATSON: Yeah. They actually restrained our two drivers from approaching further to the vehicle, and then helped protect us in the aftermath. We were very worried after the initial explosion that there could be some kind of follow up attack. And in fact, at one point, Ali asked me to duck down behind him in order to hide the fact that there was a foreigner standing out on the street. I kind of got up after a few seconds. I felt pretty ridiculous hiding behind him.
CONAN: Ali Hamdani, that's an extraordinary story, but it has obviously been extremely dangerous for foreigners in the past several years in Baghdad - a little bit safer of late. This sounds like the situation may be changing.
HAMDANI: Well, yeah. I mean that's the thing. At that moment, it's like I was like recalling all the incidents and all the stuff that we've been reporting about, you know, for over the last, you know, five, six years. And I thought, oh, my God. Yes, we're safe now, you know, like we're safe from the explosion itself, but what if someone just turns up to say, oh, here's a blonde guy. Why don't we just take him away, and like by the way, kill the translator. So, I was like, I don't know what to do. Just standing there, I asked Ivan like stupidly to duck behind me.
CONAN: And kill the translator. That's an unfortunate side product when those do happen. And of course, there's more than a few incidents where one bomb goes off and they wait for first responders to rush in, and then another bomb goes off, and that's been a typical tactic. Ivan, we want to talk about things in general, but one point in recounting the story earlier this week on NPR, you said that somebody was arrested, a suspect. Do you know what's happened?
WATSON: No. We've been trying to ask about that. There was - we were told by the Iraqi Security Forces that immediately after the bombing, one of the vendors at the shop directly next to the BMW that was bombed - one of the vendors was arrested, and the Iraqi Security Forces said that he had been suspicious for some time that they'd been watching this man. We were then told by another source that the next day Iraqi Security Forces actually raided the kebab shop that we had eaten lunch in and that they had detained one of the workers there. We don't know much more about this attack. We've clearly been talking about it amongst ourselves and it's anybody's guess. Who could have been behind this? And as you look back with this kind of more paranoid perspective, suddenly every person you spoke to in the hour leading up to this explosion suddenly looks suspicious. Perhaps, they were conspiring against us. Perhaps, they were trying to distract us while a fellow assassin placed the bomb under the car. It's just impossible to know right now what exactly happened.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Our guests are Ivan Watson and Ali Hamdani. Ivan, a correspondent for NPR; Ali Hamdani, a producer and translator for NPR News at the bureau in Baghdad. 800-989-8255, email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Joe is on the line. Joe calling from Phoenix, Arizona.
JOE: Yes. Ali and Ivan, I'm glad to hear you guys made it through, and weren't severely injured. Did you have any temporary hearing loss or fragments or anything like that hit you? And then the other question corollary is, was it a really busy street with a lot of cars on it, or was your BMW the only one there?
WATSON: Ali, why don't I take that? No. One of the miracles of this is that we did not have - I don't believe hearing loss unless I've totally lost my hearing already. And we were not pelted with shrapnel. Every car bomb I've been near and I think Ali would say the same, tends to spew at the very least, broken glass and pieces of the car itself. The car itself becomes a shrapnel bomb. And we think maybe that we were protected by the fact that the car's structure was reinforced, that its glass, is reinforced glass - that didn't - while the windows were broken, they were broken out. They didn't shatter and spray glass or pieces of the car all over us, and we were standing only 15-20 feet away and there were other Iraqis with us as well. As for the street, it was broad daylight, around one o'clock in the afternoon and there was traffic moving back and forth. There were other pedestrians passing by. Not incredibly crowded but busy enough that I think we felt fairly comfortable there, especially due to the close proximity of the Iraqi army checkpoint, which was just about 20 yards up the road from where we parked the cars.
CONAN: Joe, you may be unaware. But, the real problems are going to come when the expense report comes in. You know one BMW, comma, armored. Thanks very much for the phone call.
JOE: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go now to Brad. And Brad is with us from Mercer in Wisconsin.
BRAD: Yes. I was curious. Ivan, were you targeted because you are an obvious foreigner or because you were a journalist or do you know why you were targeted?
CONAN: Ali, why don't you take that one?
HAMDANI: Well, I think it's everything basically, because first of all, you turn up with armored car which mainly for ordinary Iraqis, you know, who never saw armored cars before 2003. It means that there is someone valuable inside that car. Either like, you know, officials, security, journalist, someone, at least well worth a ransom, or you know, will make some publicity out of, you know, like killing him, hitting him and that's one thing. The second thing is like maybe, Western-looking, you know, like the blonde hair, you know, might also attract attention and the third one is like actually introducing yourself, you know, to the restaurant guys, like the restaurant owner. The first we did, is like introduced ourselves as journalists, as we always do in reporting. So, that on its own, you know, will make you a target because journalists, like in general in Iraq, have been targeted over the last six years in Iraq.
CONAN: And Ivan, if you... go ahead I am sorry.
WATSON: We also stayed in the restaurant for a good 45 minutes eating and talking to people there. There were other patrons in the restaurant who heard us speaking English and could have moved on and told other people about our presence in that restaurant. So, we did attract some attention as well. We just thought we were OK. We thought we were guests, and we would be treated as guests.
CONAN: And didn't the rule in the old days in Baghdad mean, you know, if you were anywhere for more than half hour that was about 10 minutes too long?
WATSON: Yeah, 15-minute rule.
CONAN: Yeah. Brad, thanks for the call, appreciate it.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go now to Paul. Paul with us from Nantucket in Massachusetts.
PAUL: Yeah. Hi, there. I am wondering if any of these terrorists want their story told by the journalists rather than just attacking journalists all the time.
WATSON: I am going to defer to Ali on that one. What do you think Ali?
HAMDANI: Well, you know, the thing is, you know, attacks in Iraq are like happening so like frequently, even when you say like things have improved, you still have like at least five attacks in Baghdad everyday. So, like reporting on attacks has become like, a general news like regular day-to-day stuff, but what made it like most significant to us is that this time we've been involved. We've seen what like Iraqis have been going through every day. You know, it's like that's why like our reporting was like, you can say like, you know, more extensive on that particular bomb than any other attack.
CONAN: Yeah, but we've all reported on other situations in the past where there were insurgencies going on and the IRA always wanted to talk to reporters to explain their story and to see if they could win over people. Any experience with that in Baghdad?
HAMDANI: Sorry, it's really breaking line. I would let Ivan take that.
WATSON: Well, from the beginning of the predominately Sunni insurgency in Iraq that we did not see that this rebel movement, this insurgency was ready to engage with the international media. It did not operate that way. Later on when a Shia militia emerged, Muqtad al-Sadr's Mahdi army, that group of fighters was ready to engage with Western journalists even in the midst of fierce fighting with the U.S. military. Those fighters I found were able to make a distinction. They were able to give interviews and try to change public opinion, change international opinion by addressing the international media.
CONAN: We got to go. We'll have more in just a moment with Ivan Watson and Ali Hamdani from NPR's Baghdad bureau. Stay with us. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I am Neal Conan in Washington. You may have heard Ivan Watson's report over the past several days about an attack on NPR's reporting team in Baghdad. Thankfully everyone is OK. You can see some of the photos and video taken after the bombing including a picture of the blown-out BMW at npr.org. Today NPR foreign correspondent Ivan Watson and Iraqi producer and translator Ali Hamdani are with us from our bureau in Baghdad to talk about what happened over the weekend and well, tell us more about the situation in Baghdad, and what it's like to work there as a journalist these days. If you'd like to talk to them, 800-989-8255. Email is email@example.com. And let's see if we can go now to Jim. Jim with us from Jacksonville in Florida.
JEFF: Hi, this is Jeff from Jacksonville, Florida.
CONAN: I apologize, go ahead.
JEFF: It's OK. Do know how it was detonated? Was it a timing device or is it a radio-controlled like they were watching you?
WATSON: We were told there was a cell phone attached to the explosive.
CONAN: So somebody was watching and then.
WATSON: Somebody was probably watching.
CONAN: And waiting as you got close to the car.
JEFF: And one other question was any of the bystanders hurt?
WATSON: No. Nobody was hurt. I mean, it was really a miracle. And again, I attribute that possibly to the fact that the car was such a strong structure that it did not fling off metal or glass that typically wounds a lot of people after these car bombs.
CONAN: Jeff, thanks for the call. Let's see if we can go now to, this is Mary Ann. Mary Ann calling from Phoenix.
MARY ANN: Yes, good afternoon.
CONAN: Good afternoon.
ANN: You know, I follow your stories all the time, Ivan, and I woke up to your story yesterday morning and I was really upset, but I have to ask you, with all of the dangerous places you go and all of the stories you cover, are you surprised it's taken this long, being in harm's way, to have such a close call?
WATSON: I've had other close calls before, Mary Ann. This isn't the first time, but perhaps this is the first time someone has deliberately pick me out of a crowd and said, I want to kill that guy and the people he's with. That's rather chilling. I'd like to pass the question along to Ali if possible, because he's been living in this environment and working in this environment constantly for five years. How do you deal with it Ali?
HAMDANI: Well, the thing is, you know, if you decide to do, you know, journalism anywhere, you'll have, you know, to take some kind of risk and no one can argue that. But the thing is, in Iraq because it's been a war zone for the last six years and being most violent for the journalist, in particular, you know, you start to develop some sort of, you know, security measures, some sort of, you know, things that you normally don't do while reporting somewhere else, that would actually like raise the level of or improve the level of your, you know, reporting. So, I think being safe - staying safe all that long time until, you know, this incident happened wasn't like - I mean, wasn't like a miracle. I mean, it happened to many other journalists, but the thing is because you develop some further security measures, you become more aware and you start to do different things. You consult, you know, professional people on how to do proper reporting, but the same time not to put anybody's life at risk.
WATSON: You have had real close calls here, right?
CONAN: I was just saying thank you to Mary Ann, but go ahead.
ANN: And if could just say one last thing, Neal. Ivan's coverage of Chechnya several years ago was riveting, and I always wanted to tell him I just hung on every word for those days upon days of that tragedy. So, keep up the good work and please stay safe.
WATSON: Thank you.
CONAN: Ali this is your city. As you mentioned while we keep hearing how much the security situation has improved - again November, a bad month - but nevertheless, this is your city where now as you suggest bomb attacks are reported as if they're well, you know, traffic jams in other cities in world. Can you live in hope that things are going to get better?
HAMDANI: Well, that's the problem. I mean, that's the thing. That's the sort of confusion that most of Iraqis are living through these days. You know, I mean, people are talking about, you know, like reports of security improvements and like, you know, figures and statistics about less number of attacks, bombs, and killing, and stuff but that's like compared to what? That's compared to like two years ago? But, two years ago was horrible, you know - wasn't like normal. So, we are comparing, you know, a abnormal thing to another abnormal thing. You know, it's all comparative but it's not normal yet. So most of the people - most of Iraqis were actually like, most of the time you'll hear them saying like, we are waiting for the problems to start again. And November, you know, might actually just make some more Iraqis thinking that like, you know, things will be bad again. We can't really feel secure enough to live our normal life to practice, you know, like a normal daily life that we had before 2003, for instance.
CONAN: And Ivan, you reported in some of your stories that the upsurge in November may have been in the context of the debate in the Iraqi parliament over the status of forces agreement with the United States. The Iraqi parliament did approve that - I guess now, a couple of weeks ago - and that calls on U.S. forces to leave Iraq by the end of 2011 on the other hand some people look at that as staying three years longer and three years more, too long. And is this - any idea whether this is the cause of the increased violence?
WATSON: One senior Iraqi government official did say that some of this violence is probably related to this. There are also concerns about the upcoming provincial elections in January as different factions prepare to compete at the polls. There are fears that there is going to be more violence on the ground between the different militias and fighters that are loyal to different groups.
CONAN: All right. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Ian. Ian calling us from Cincinnati.
IAN: Yes. I wanted to say first of all, thanks to all the work that you guys do on the news station. It's the only news source I feel I can trust fully anymore. But my question is now, I am not sure how long you guys have been there but in your personal opinion, do you feel that overall the situation is improving or is it getting worse or staying the same? And secondly, if there is some improvement, do you feel like - you were commenting a second ago that you are moving towards normalcy where there won't be bomb attacks, or do you feel you're not quite over the hump yet? And I will take my comments off the air.
CONAN: Ian, thanks very much.
IAN: Thank you.
HAMDANI: Ivan, I would take that question, if you don't mind. Answering how long we've been doing this in Baghdad, I've been here for 29 years, which is my age, actually. I was born in the city, never left it apart from like vacations and holidays. So, the thing is no one can deny that there is some kind of security improvement. Like the general situation in Baghdad, in Iraq is actually improving. But whether it's back to normality, no, it's definitely not. It's comparatively speaking, you know, two years ago, it's improving from what it was two years ago. But, like there is a famous Iraqi saying that everyone is like recalling these days, which is like they have shown us, they've shown us death filled with fever. So it's like - it's now down from like 55 dead bodies dumped in the streets everyday and endless number of bombings and ambushes and attacks, to like five bombs in Baghdad and you know, other, you know, violent actions.
So, it's not normal. It is improving, yes. But the thing is it's confusing. It's really blurred image for most of regular Iraqis. Its like they don't really know whether things have been like completely resolved, like have been like completely, like whether the government and the security forces have actually managed to get rid of the - of what actually made all this mess and what actually caused all that violence. Because, some of the elements that actually, you know, participated in that violent action in the past have now changed their titles and now they are like somehow protecting - pretending to be protecting people. And in fact, they do protect people genuinely. So Iraqis are wondering whether these guys will continue to do so or will be back to their, you know, insurgency, work or like to kill people and behead people again as they did in the past.
CONAN: Ivan, let me ask you also about the people who are there to report on these events. We've seen sharp reductions in the number of agencies, television networks that maintain bureaus in Baghdad, as this conflict has gone on over the years. And well, puts an enormous strain on budgets of just about every news-gathering organization.
WATSON: Absolutely. The number of reporters has shrunk. It's just too expensive, the security costs and it's too difficult to work here for many organizations when you run the risk of kidnapping. If you spend more than 15 minutes out on the street, which as we mentioned earlier, there was the 15-minute rule. You could not move around. I think my colleagues here are starting to feel more comfortable. We've seen a more permissive environment with reporters traveling by road from city to city over the course of the past months, and it was pretty exciting to start to be able to get out on the street again. That is part of why we decided to go to West Baghdad which has been a difficult neighborhood in the past, why we thought that we could after reconnoitering the area, why we thought we could get away with an hour of interviews there. But, it just shows that every time you step out on the street it's still a roll of the dice.
CONAN: Lets' see if we can get Lauren on the line. Lauren is calling us from San Francisco.
LAUREN: Hi. I'm wondering what will happen to Mr. Hamdani after the Americans leave? Is he at risk for attack because he worked with American journalists?
HAMDANI: Well, being in - like working with western journalists in general, not particularly American puts you at risk. And. working with the American journalists would put you at further risk, because they are like - all Americans are considered military and they as you know, these insurgents are seeing it as like part of what the American army is doing, you know, in the country. So, it does put you at risk. So, actually this particular incident might have actually exposed like me in person to be working with foreign media, but it doesn't actually like cause the threat, because the threat has been there like constantly over the five years, and most of my colleagues, you know, Iraqi - those Iraqi guys who started like working with western media and American media in particular - have actually passed through that risk, all the way through.
But such a particular incident might actually like expose you more like - you know raise, your profile, because, you know, people there gathered, of course, after the bombing. They saw your face. I've been actually living in West Baghdad in the past, so there might be someone just, you know, standing there coincidentally and saw my face. Oh, this is Mr. Hamdani. He tried to hide it for like five years or six years, but now I know what he does. So, who knows what will happen later. But, you have to put such a thing in your mind when you decide to do this job, you know.
LAUREN: Well, Mr. Hamdani, you're certainly very brave.
HAMDANI: Thank you.
CONAN: Lauren, we thank you for the phone call. We're talking with Ali Hamdani, a producer and translator at NPR's bureau in Baghdad. Also with us, Ivan Watson, a foreign correspondent for NPR, also at our bureau in Baghdad. If you just joined us, they survived an incident over the weekend. A bomb placed underneath their vehicle detonated just about 15 feet away from where they were. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. They were also with two drivers from NPR's bureau as well. And we're talking about security there and well, what the situation is like in Baghdad as violence is somewhat reduced but continues at an unacceptably high level. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's get Susan on the line. Susan with us from Chicago.
SUSAN: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm very interested to know - well, first of all, I'm happy that the gentlemen are safe, that everyone is safe - but how are your families dealing with this? It's got to be a horrible thing to know that you're in danger. So, how are they dealing with it?
CONAN: Ali Hamdani, why don't you start with that?
HAMDANI: Yeah. I mean, talking about family is actually another hassle, because you hide your job from everyone else but not your family, of course. They know what you do, they know what kind of risk you're facing, and they see - they saw many journalists being involved, many translators, many people who helped journalists getting their jobs done in Iraq, you know, facing death and violence during the past years. But, for this particular incident, let me tell you that I haven't actually told my family yet, because I know that my family, which is my mother and sister, you know, they won't know, because they are now living in Syria, and they don't get the chance to actually listen to NPR. So, I actually try to sit on it until I go on vacation, or I see them, you know, in the next couple of weeks, and then I will tell them about it, because they will never believe you that you're OK. Even though like you're talking to them, you laugh, you make jokes about it, they just will not believe you. They will be horrified, and I knew that. So I still actually - I still haven't told them yet.
WATSON: I think this is traumatizing for my family. It's one of the decisions why I - one of the reasons why I decided - I asked to stop coming to Baghdad regularly after 2004. I just - it was so dangerous, and I recognized how difficult it was for my family to put up with the worry and the fear. I just decided that it was not fair. I've made a couple forays back thinking it was a bit better and it was very difficult, Neal, knowing that we had just gone through this. I was very excited. I had a lot of adrenaline just because we'd survived. We had lived to see another day. And then to call back home and speak with your family and realize that they're just totally shattered having heard how close you came to death. That was a very difficult position for me to be in. That is nothing, though, compared to the Iraqis who have to live with this day in and day out or the soldiers. Imagine you've survived one of these terrible roadside bombs, and then you have to continue doing this for another 11 months, Neal. That is very hard to imagine. I get to leave here in a couple of days and go to a much safer place.
CONAN: Here's an email we have here from Dan in Oakland California. What I wonder about is how rattled you get by this kind of thing. Does it ever get to the point where part of your brain or heart says enough is enough, get me out of here? And Ivan it certainly sounds like you've hit that point well more than once.
WATSON: Yeah. And you learn to deal with trauma and conflict, and we do get some therapy and some advice on how to deal with the after effects. And in past conflicts when there have been prolonged periods, you do emerge and sometimes you don't recognize at first that you're on edge, that you're losing your temper. That you're acting irrationally or irresponsibly. After one war, I totaled a rental car driving like an absolute maniac, and it took doing that to realize that whoa, I need to slow down, take a deep breath. Thankfully nobody was hurt in that accident - and recognized that I'm no longer in a war zone, that there are going to be consequences. I'm back in the civilized, peacetime world, and I have to act very differently here.
CONAN: And Ali Hamdani, we just have 30 seconds or so left, but I wanted to ask you if your family is in Syria, have you ever thought of catching the next flight out to Damascus?
HAMDANI: Well, that's a very tough moment for me actually, because now, it's becoming more and more difficult to justify to them my staying here and the job that I'm doing, because over the past years they've all been saying this is too much risk for you to take. You have to consider other options, especially like, I'm a medical doctor so I have other options actually in hand. So, it's hard to justify it anymore. So it's quite a tough call for me, and I need to decide because at that moment when it happened, actually I was thanking God that everyone came out safe. But to be honest, I started to think like, can I really continue doing that? And then like I felt like I'm actually letting my people down back there in Syria - my mother and sister. What would they say? That they would like to blame themselves for like not stopping me enough or...
CONAN: Ali Hamdani in our bureau in Baghdad and Ivan Watson. This is NPR News.