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Medill School of Journalism students were mostly in high school when National Public Radio (NPR) correspondent Anne Garrels endured the “shock and awe” bombing of Iraq and wrote the memoir “Naked in Baghdad.”
But that did not curtail their questions about Abu Ghraib, Blackwater, government censorship, embedding with the military and war-reporting as a female when Ms. Garrels spoke at Northwestern University last month.
Casually dressed in a leotard, flowered skirt, ballet flats and bare legs, Ms. Garrels discussed the progression of the war, the effect of escalating violence and kidnappings on reporting and everyday life in Iraq, and her personal experiences as a reporter and a woman.
The surge has allowed “young American captains” to help bridge the gaps between Sunni and Shiite communities, said Ms. Garrels, but the Iraqi government has not used the opportunity to work on reconciliation or security for Sunnis in places where Shiite police and militia still dominate. And, “the government still relies on the U.S. to deliver services and security,” she said.
Because of “Shiite political dynamics,” most of the southern part of Iraq was unreportable, said Ms. Garrels, and embedding with a military unit, such as Special Forces, was not always the answer.
While embedded reporting in Iraq has been valuable, said Ms. Garrels – the military maintains openness and treats women embeds no differently than men – it is no substitute for individual journalism. “What kind of reporting can you do standing next to armed guards?” she asked.
Moreover, there is the issue of censorship. Reporters in Iraq respect the military’s rules about not photographing identifiable soldiers who are dead or wounded said Ms. Garrels – “we do not want their relatives first hearing about it on the news either”- but sometimes the censorship can appear capricious.
She recalled a New York Times story in which an embedded reporter detailed how his unit was pinned down by gunfire as soldiers tried to evacuate the body of a sergeant who had been shot in the head.
“The military found the article ‘distasteful’ and the Times was ‘disembedded,’” said Ms. Garrels, adding that Times reporter John Burns even went to see General David Petraeus over the incident.
While Ms. Garrels said she was amazed at how unprepared the United States was for the Iraq war, relying on information from “30-year exiles” and “power grabbers,” she also worried about the implications of removing troops “precipitously. … It will be a mess. A lot of Iraqis I know are probably going to be killed.”
Ms. Garrels’ own house manager, an Armenian Christian in his 50s, was a victim of sectarian violence a year ago, she said, when he was kidnapped by assailants – some in police cars, beaten, raped and also suffered a heart attack. While the kidnappers released him, presumably for money, U.S. policies initially prevented the man and his family from emigrating to the United States, as the U.S. refuses to do for many Iraqis who help the U.S. war effort at their own peril, she says.
Ms. Garrels had her own experience with sexual assault in Iraq, which she shared at the end of her prepared remarks. She woke up, she said, to find a man from her own Iraqi house staff “on top of” her in her bed, though she was able to prevent an assault. Trying to spare the assailant reprisals, she told his family members who were also staff, that he was fired for “sleeping on the job” – a fabrication that failed because they begged for another chance.
When Ms. Garrels told the truth to the assailant’s brother-in-law, she was exposed, first-hand, to the attitude behind honor killings and treated as a disgraced victim.
“Not once have you asked me if I am okay,” Ms. Garrels castigated the brother-in-law. “You can’t even look me in the eye anymore.”
The brother-in-law believed she was attacked, said Ms. Garrels, but thought she was just trying to protect herself. “In Iraq my husband would divorce me and I’d be locked in the house for the rest of my life,” she said.
Ms. Garrels was also outspoken during the question-and-answer period.
When asked about the Abu Ghraib scandal she said, “It will take us years to recover as a country. You’re forced to explain things that are hard to answer.” And asked about “resentment against mercenaries,” Ms. Garrels described witnessing Blackwater guards killing civilians at a roadblock long before the shooting of 17 civilians in September. “There was no investigation,” she said.
Ms. Garrels lauded the contractor accountability and ethics legislation that Representative Peter Welch (D-Vt.) is spearheading in Congress, because, she said, private security contractors like Blackwater and KBM cannot self-regulate.