Heading into Danger

By Bassam Sebti

An Iraqi reporter must hide his profession even as he is compelled to follow its demands.

Sebti, 26, is a special correspondent for The Washington Post and one of a growing number of Iraqi reporters covering the conflict for Western news organizations.


As I leave home each day, I peer right and left to be sure no one is tracking me. I follow the same routine when I return 12 hours later. Being a journalist for an Iraqi organization is dangerous enough, but working for a foreign news outlet puts you in double jeopardy. In the eyes of insurgents, I am a “spy,” an “infidel,” a profiteer exploiting the suffering of Iraqis.

No one in my neighborhood knows what I do. I’ve convinced them that I run my own business, an Internet café. If anyone discovers my profession, I am sure to be threatened and I fear being killed. Since 2004, three neighborhood men who worked as translators for U.S. firms have been shot dead.

I don’t drive a car to work because I don’t want to be identified going in and out of the compound where The Washington Post bureau is based. I hail taxis instead, examining each driver’s face in hopes that I can somehow discern whether he is a threat. By nature, Iraqi cab drivers like to chat, but is the driver exchanging pleasantries or collecting information that could endanger me? I keep silent so the driver doesn’t know who I am or what I do. Paranoia has become my shield.

I worry about threatening letters or a bomb planted at my family’s doorstep. In 2004, a colleague had to flee Iraq after a bomb shattered windows and destroyed parts of his home. As a reaction, I’ve created my own security measures. When I am home, for example, my parents don’t answer any nighttime knocks on the door. Instead, I check who is there, in case it is someone with a gun.

I do give my name when conducting interviews–I feel it’s the ethical thing to do. My byline also appears on stories, although I ask my bosses not to use it on sensitive pieces that might put me in danger.

Car bombings are among the most dangerous assignments, yet I am drawn to them because it brings me closer to the people who are suffering. I wait at least a half hour before going to such scenes, though, because insurgents use double-bombing techniques to heighten the devastation. A car bomb will explode, draw a curious crowd to the scene, and then a second bomb will claim a new set of victims.

Stress is an unforgiving companion. Body parts scattered in the streets and children weeping over dead parents are common scenes in my daily life. Covering the news on the ground and then watching it on television have left these vivid pictures in my mind, and they play like a videotape over and over.

Yet I’m determined not to allow my emotions to interfere with the job. I’ve succeeded in large part, but my will was tested last November while covering an explosion at a Baghdad restaurant. Rescue workers were carrying off the wounded as soldiers and police cordoned off the area, fearing another attack. I left the huge gathering of reporters, hid my notebook and camera, and, with my driver, persuaded police to let me inside. It was the first time I had seen a large number of dead people. They were in piles, one atop another. A child sobbed over the body of his father.

The moment I stepped into the car to return to the office, emotions washed over me and, for the first time, I let loose my tears. I imagined my father or a friend in that restaurant, lifeless and bloodied like those I saw inside. I haven’t slept well since, and nightmares accompanied me for months.

Becoming a reporter wasn’t my dream. I studied English literature in college, becoming drawn to journalism as the security situation worsened. I started as an interpreter in 2003, first for freelance reporter Jill Carroll (who would be kidnapped in January 2006 and held for nearly three months before being released unharmed) and then with The Post. As The Post came to trust my work, editors gave me increasing reporting responsibilities.

I was inspired by an Iraqi friend and Post reporter, Omar Fekeiki, who directed, advised, and taught me how to depend on myself and use my instincts. In 2003, Omar was about to be kidnapped by the Mehdi Army, a militia loyal to the Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, but he escaped with a few punches in the stomach. A picture of that terrifying moment was captured by a photographer. I remember the image of Omar being surrounded by the militiamen and the look in his eyes. He has continued to work, and I’ve been stirred by his dedication.

Western news organizations have come to rely a lot on Iraqi reporters– particularly in dangerous areas– because we speak the language and we know the culture. Despite the obstacles, the Western media cover most of the news, and reporters try their best to present a complete picture. As an Iraqi, I don’t see much good news around me.

A few months after I joined the press corps, after I told these stories every day over dinner, my parents begged me to quit. By then, it was too late. I am infected by this job. I believe that my country needs me and that journalism is a noble profession, a mirror in which people can see what is happening in their world. As Jackie Spinner, a friend and former Baghdad colleague, says in her book, Tell Them I Didn’t Cry, “We drive into hurricanes, not away from them.”

Here, the hurricanes are bombs. We go toward them, warily, determinedly.

Iraq Snapshot

Key statistics compiled by CPJ staff as of May 2006:

• Iraqis constitute 78 percent of the journalists and support staffers killed for their work in Iraq.

• Overall, 60 percent of journalists and support workers killed in Iraq were murdered.

Fifty-four percent of journalists and support staffers who died were working for international news organizations.

• Baghdad province is the most dangerous, with 34 journalists and 15 media workers killed.

• Insurgent actions are behind 68 percent of journalist and support worker deaths.

Data on Iraq is updated regularly on this Web site