When an Iraqi middle-class father leaves his wife and sons for work, he makes sure to kiss them goodbye and read a prayer.
“[The man] might be kidnapped on the way home,” said Iraqi journalist Huda Ahmed, Monday night in her lecture at University Hall. “He cannot tell who could be bombing him. This is the typical way.”
A typical Iraqi man today worries about getting food for his family and keeping a budget that will allow him to pay for electricity and transportation to work, Ahmed said. He makes just enough, because he can’t save.
“If anything happens to the husband,” Ahmed said, “that’s it for the family.”
Ahmed’s presentation focused on her experiences as a journalist who has been covering the war in Iraq for McClatchy (formerly Knight Ridder) newspapers, as well as on the present situation in her homeland. Ahmed was the second of four speakers in a series of public lectures called “The United States and the Battle for Iraq,” presented by Northwestern’s American Studies Program and Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.
Ahmed holds the 2007 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship in Boston at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), sponsored by the International Women’s Media Foundation. During this fellowship, she will work for several national American newspapers, including the Boston Globe and the New York Times.
Introduced as a “remarkably brave” woman who serves as “the eyes and ears of the American press core in Iraq,” Ahmed’s perspective offered students and community members thoughts on the war in Iraq from a first-hand point of view.
Ahmed’s first words as she walked to the front of the room were of thanks — thanks to the University for hosting her, thanks to her friends and colleagues for their faith in her, thanks for the fact that there was no microphone to speak into during her presentation.
Ahmed, like most Iraqi journalists today, avoids being on camera or having her voice recorded at all costs.
As war began, “events started to shift and things became crazy,” she said. “(Iraq) couldn’t cope with the fast changes. Iraqis were not safe in their homes, not at the office, on the streets, anywhere.”
And for journalists, the danger was worse.
“We are threatened,” she said. “We are exposed. We are the targets (and we have) nothing to protect ourselves.”
If their identities are found out, journalists can expect one or two threatening letters, then death. The government “has different ways of knowing where you work, how many people are in your family, your (route) to work,” Ahmed said. “They will find out one way (or another).”
Ahmed mentioned that 146 media men and women have been killed since the start of the war, including not only reporters and writers but also photographers, drivers, reporters, security guards and local media representatives. But that doesn’t stop her and her colleagues from doing their jobs as journalists.
“Iraqis are really crazy people,” Ahmed said. “We have lived all our lives in danger and violence, a series of violence. A troubled life. Even if people have a good time or fun for one day, they’ll be afraid of the second day.”
She said Iraqis are often “afraid of laughing too much,” afraid that anything good will be followed by something twice as bad.
Although newly acquired freedom after Saddam Hussein’s death might have felt strange to journalists, they didn’t want to give it up. Being like a “fourth power, or branch,” of government was an extraordinary experience, Ahmed said.
“At first, we didn’t know what questions to ask officials,” she said. “We weren’t used to giving aggressive or embarrassing questions.”
Journalists were not even accustomed to being able to ask for confirmation of sources, she said.
“So we began to rephrase our questions, to start to feel like that fourth power in the country,” Ahmed said. “Now we have the power. Now we are the voice of the people. We have the right to criticize, to make change.”
Journalists must be careful, though. Even today they are forced to take extra precautions in order to protect themselves in a time of war. Ahmed explained these safeguards by likening herself to a versatile character in a play.
“There are many chapters in this play, and I have to change my personality, my character, often,” Ahmed said.
Depending on whether they’re around locals or westerners, Ahmed and her colleagues use different names in their bylines: various combinations of last names and first names, nicknames and the names of their editors. They travel to and from work using different routes: “Sometimes we change the car (we drive) or our clothes,” she said.
When attending press conferences, journalists avoid being caught on camera. They decline television interviews for Arab and local stations. Work is kept secret, even from family. Some keep guns in their cars.
“This is to save (our loved ones) from any troubles, any harm,” Ahmed said.
The government can’t protect them, Ahmed said. It can’t protect any of its citizens.
“We live in our own neighborhoods with no protection,” she said.
In addition to sharing her personal experiences, Ahmed called the situation in Iraq “complicated”: With Baghdad as a “ghost city,” and its population “fed up,” things aren’t easy. Her colleagues who still live there don’t even want to talk about it when she calls, she said.
“They’ll say, ‘We are so frustrated; we can’t talk about this anymore,’” Ahmed said. “They’ll want to change the subject.”
Ahmed offered her perspective on how the situation can be improved.
“We need sincere intentions from many sides,” Ahmed said. “We need Iraqi politicians to unite together to work for Iraq, not separate sects.”
Ahmed also said that to be successful, Iraqis need to know that one day Americans will leave, that their government will work for the people and not for political parties, and that parties must have mutual trust in each other.
“Whether Americans leave gradually or instantly,” Ahmed said, “Iraqis have to be prepared for it.”
She said the nation needs a loyal army and a police force the population can count on.
“They need police that can be counted on as their protectors,” she said.
Ahmed quietly fought back tears as she spoke of the “land of war” that she said defines modern Iraq.
“We try to live our lives,” she said. “People are starting to say, ‘That’s enough!’”
Ahmed also fielded questions from the small audience after her speech. Here are a few she covered:
Will Bush’s plan to add troops help? Or do you like Obama’s idea about pulling out within the year? Is it too hard to say?
“What will the new troops do that troops in the last four years haven’t done? What difference will it make?” she said, “Send a million. It will not fix it.”
For success, she said, the security plan must be changed, not just the number of people there. Problems with training must be resolved. Iraqis cannot be trained only to obey Americans. Iraq needs to engage in diplomatic discussion with neighboring countries.
As for Obama, she said he is “so courageous” to say we can withdraw by March 2008. There is no way for us to know what will happen between now and then. As the Muslim saying goes, only “in God’s willing” can anything happen.
“You don’t own your own destiny,” Ahmed said. “Anything might happen.”
Would it have been better for Iraq if the U.S. had never come?
“This is a hard question,” Ahmed said. “The Iraqis didn’t call for war. They wanted it to happen from the inside. They know how war is. They have lived it. It has damaged their lives. They asked for change.”
“They wanted a resolution from inside, maybe help with intelligence from strong countries.”
Some Iraqis were desperate, she said. They felt like they had no options. “’OK, let’s have it,’ they said. ‘Maybe our life will be better (afterward).’”