Leila Fadel / Forth Worth Star-Telegram & Catherine Philip / The Times Online – 2005-11-20 07:44:44
Reporter Cried, Feared She’d Die
Leila Fadel /Knight-Ridder News Service
BAGHDAD, Iraq — After a late night writing about men who apparently were tortured in the back rooms of an Iraqi Interior Ministry building, I fell asleep on the couch in Knight Ridder’s hotel in Baghdad early yesterday, hoping for an easy day.
I awoke to the ground shaking under me. A thunderous boom cracked the windows on our floor in the Hamra Hotel. I ran to a small alcove near the door and waited.
In less than 30 seconds another blast rocked the building, blowing out windows and window frames and sending a crack up one wall of our floor. Then gunfire broke out.
I wasn’t a brave war correspondent. I crouched in the narrow space between the door and wall, and I cried.
This was it, I thought. This was the final moment for a reporter living outside the heavily fortified Green Zone, where U.S. diplomats and Iraqi politicians live. Scenarios raced through my head in the next 10 seconds, clouded by the awful noise of the bombs. By the time that Paul, our British security adviser, came to my door, I was convinced that insurgents had stormed the building.
He ordered me to put on a vest of body armor and a helmet, and we sat in the windowless hallway of the Knight Ridder bureau, waiting for safety.
A white van had blasted through the high concrete walls that protected one end of our hotel complex, which houses many foreign journalists. About 23 seconds later, a flatbed truck that U.S. Brig. Gen. Karl Horst said probably was heading to the front entrance of our hotel got caught in the deep hole excavated by the first bomb. It detonated with a man inside. He never made it to his target.
We all lived, except for the man who made the cookies and pastries in the bakery.
Ali Abdul Salam walked to work as he always did that morning. But yesterday the white van, which breezed down a road that typically has an Iraqi police checkpoint, backed up to the blast wall as Ali walked up to an opening in the concrete. The blast took Ali and put smoke, fire and rubble in his place.
Maybe some of the burnt flesh that landed by the pool is his, or the foot in front of the hotel entrance or the arm found in the gym on the fifth floor. Or maybe they’re the remnants of the bomber, who took his own life, Ali’s and the lives of a little girl and her mother.
Later I walked toward the rubble about 50 yards from the hotel entrance. Behind the destroyed blast walls I watched Iraqi men and women comb through the remains of their things. The front of an apartment building had been blasted away. It lay in a pile of concrete rubble. Four dead people and an injured man were pulled from the ruins later.
A young boy stood in front of his family’s shack, which now was a pile of twisted sheet metal and cinder blocks. His parents and brother had been sent to the hospital.
Nearby on a dusty blue van someone had rubbed away the dust on the front end to spell “God Bless Us.” Also in the dust, “Zarqawi” — the name of the terrorist leader who instills fear in most Iraqis — mocked the comforting words.
My employer, Knight Ridder, provides security for me as a Western journalist in Iraq. But Iraqis live each day on the dangerous roads of this capital city without the blast walls, guards and coiled concertina wire that protected me today.
This is a place where people are thankful when only 10 innocent victims die in suicide bombings or gunfights.
It’s a place where traffic isn’t a nuisance, it’s frightening. If something explodes, there’s nowhere to go.
It’s a place where you leave your home praying that you’ll make it back, and when you do, you thank God that you lived today. In the back of your mind, you know you still aren’t safe.
Our Iraqi staffer Zaineb was walking to the office when it happened. She was thrown to the ground by the blast, and a guard grabbed her arms and dragged her into a house before the second bomb hit. She went home shaken and waited for her hearing to return. It did.
Another staffer walked into our hallway in shock with a cut around his eye. His nearby house was outside the protection of the high concrete walls. His neighbor was buried in the rubble.He asked us to bandage his eye, and he returned to his family.
Upstairs at the Hamra, I waited for the feeling of safety to return yesterday. As I write these words, like most Iraqis, I’m still waiting. Maybe tomorrow I’ll live another day, and that feeling will return.
Nothing Can Prepare You for that Moment
When a Suicide Bomb Is Suddenly Aimed at You
Catherine Philip / The Times
BAGHDAD (November 19, 2005) — The blast ripped through the room at 8.20am, spraying fragments of glass and plaster across the bed, throwing me out on to the floor on the other side just as the wooden door jamb flew past and landed by my feet.
Lying on the ground, awake for only seconds, I knew exactly what had happened. A suicide bomb, yes, like so many mornings in Baghdad. But this time it was the one we had long feared and expected, aimed at our hotel full of foreign journalists.
My ears still half-deafened by the blast, I lay on the floor next to the bed, knowing too well what could happen next. First came the volleys of automatic fire, the shouts of guards, then the sound of screaming. Then, seconds later, even louder than the first, another blast that sent the whole building shaking all over again.
Pulling the bedsheets around me, I crawled next door to the bathroom, the only room in our suite with no windows. I needn’t have bothered. Not a single shard of glass remained in the windows to fly out and injure me.
No matter how many times you run through the scenario, how well you know the drills, nothing can really prepare you for that moment when a suicide bombing of the sort that occur daily in Baghdad is suddenly aimed at you. But that realisation comes much later, long after the roar that knocks you off your feet and the robotic work mode that you suddenly slip into as the shock ebbs away.
I pulled on the first clothes I could find, picked up a bag with all my personal documents in it, and ran for the door. On the way down I met the security guards for NBC. “It’s building two,” they said, referring to the adjacent tower of the hotel. “It’s taken the worst.”
I ran down the remaining nine flights of stairs to the ground floor. Shattered glass and smears of blood covered the reception floor.
Dazed staff wandered around searching for one another. Outside, the courtyard was strewn with the charred gobbets of flesh, the unmistakeable sign of a suicide bombing that I had seen on Baghdad’s streets so many times before. At the end of the road, a woman in a black abaya was screaming, searching for her missing husband.
Two men rushed out of a neighbouring apartment block whose side had been ripped off. They were carrying a child still dressed in her pink pyjamas, bloodied and weeping. It was the little girl who used to wave at me from her balcony. Her family lived half in, half out, of the blast wall that surrounded our hotel complex and was supposed to protect us from such an attack.
Now the concrete blocks lay toppled like dominoes, peppered with shrapnel. Later we learnt how the wall had been blasted open by a first suicide truck packed with explosives in order to clear the way for a second aimed at the hotel — the same tactic used a month earlier against the Palestine hotel.
It was the sheer scale of the insurgents’ ambition that saved our lives. The crater and pile of debris created by the first explosion was so huge that the second lorry could not get through.
It detonated where it was, killing at least eight of those living in the surrounding flats. Miraculously, not a single journalist was killed. As so often, innocent Iraqis were the victims.
Of all the media hotels in Baghdad, al-Hamra, where The Times has its office, is the most legendary, an iconic war correspondents’ hotel.
The seedy, unloved Palestine, while host to several large agencies and television stations, is also home to scores of security contractors and guarded by the American military. When it was bombed last month, it was speculated that it was the journalists they were after. Or maybe, others surmised, the bombers just wanted to get their spectacular explosion captured on live television.
“Blow up a bomb around the media and you’ll write about it,” Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Roth said, confirming that we had been the target of the bomb. “Or else they just have something against the media.”
I was less sure that they wanted us to write about it. They would not have tried to kill us if they did.
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Liz, a friend from the Chicago Tribune, led me through her destroyed office suite, showing me where the ceiling tiles had fallen on her sleeping translator and driver. Kim Sengupta, from The Independent, showed me where an eight-inch spear of glass had landed inches from his head.
I walked back to the hotel reception courtyard where a crowd of guards stood around looking at the severed foot of one of the bombers lying by a tree. A hand and a penis lay yards away.
I sat down on a concrete bolster for a moment and thought about my friend Marla, killed in a suicide bombing on the airport road in April along with her beloved colleague Fais.
I thought about Nadia, the bereaved bride from the Amman hotel bombings who had cried on my shoulder only a week before.
And the grieving relatives of the slain Diwali shoppers in Delhi, where I live, wailing outside the hospital. Then I thought about the night before in my hotel room when I watched the Bali bombers’ videotaped statements before they blew themselves up at a beach restaurant where I went the next day to watch the bereaved lay flowers. “When you see this, God willing, I will be in Heaven,” the bomber said, grinning.
I looked at the bomber’s foot still lying on the ground. No, I thought to myself. If I believed in Hell, I’d hope that you were there now.
I walked back inside the hotel and into the courtyard between the two towers where the swimming pool is, where Marla used to pound up and down every morning, where after the war, bacchanalian evenings unfolded among the war-weary press corps, with bottles of wine downed and colleagues thrown into the pool fully dressed. “One day someone’ll toss a grenade in here,” someone quipped.
That was in the old days, though, just after the war, before the first suicide bombing came and changed it all.
At the poolside, the pool boy fished around in the water for shrapnel thrown there by the blast. He pulled up the net to find a piece of a bomber’s skull, with the matted hair still intact.
I went back inside to my room where the shattered window, held together by a plastic blast shield, had caved in on the computer, and tried to drag it off. Then I sat down and started to write. Because whatever those people who blew themselves up trying to kill us believe, that is what we are here to do.
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