I’m cowering under the bed. But I’m here

By Deborah Haynes, Baghdad correspondent for The Times (THE TIMES, 03/07/07):

A pair of vacuum-packed, in-flight rolls (cheese and chicken) is one of the few things to savour when flying to Baghdad. A second treat is the view from the plane – the city looks as picturesque and tranquil as any other at 30,000 feet. The fellow passengers are also a wonder, with muscle-bound men covered in tattoos crammed next to moustached Iraqis in cheap suits.

The corkscrew landing to avoid surface-to-air-missiles brings reality back into focus. A white-knuckle car ride from the airport to my bureau, down bomb-pitted roads framed by blast walls, serves as a further reminder of the dangers.

I returned to Iraq yesterday so I’m grappling with the familiar excitement and dread. Living and working in Baghdad is exhilarating: every person you meet has a story worth telling and every day there is something newsworthy. But the constant risk of explosions and kidnappings, as well as the power cuts, water shortages and stifling heat, is a challenge.

People, including some journalists, increasingly ask why I want to work in Iraq. It is impossible to do regular reporting, such as freely meet contacts and visiting places, and it puts a huge strain on family and friends back at home. As the dangers in the country grow, the number of correspondents covering the story shrinks: The Times is the only non-American newspaper still with a full-time bureau in Baghdad.

But having a permanent presence on the ground – no matter how small and how much time that person (ie, me) spends cowering under a bed – provides an insight into life that cannot be gleaned from reading the news wires or watching the BBC.

The thought of going to Iraq is more intimidating than actually being there, because 95 per cent of the time life carries on as best it can. The problem is that for the brief moment when things go wrong they go very badly wrong.

London and Baghdad provide a huge contrast. Gone are the routine working hours and nights out drinking with friends. Instead, I spend my days deciding what stories to cover and how best to gather the information. A lot of time goes into pulling acrobatic poses in the corridor outside my room as I try to get a signal on one of my notoriously useless Iraqi mobile phones.

Then there are the frequent trips in and out of the fortified green zone, where what should be a five-minute car ride takes more than an hour, thanks to multiple layers of security checks.

Evenings are typically taken up bashing out copy to meet my 9.30pm deadline and then enjoying a late-night trip to the compound swimming pool. I am told it is ill-advised to go for a dip during daylight hours because the prospect of a woman in a swimsuit (even my hideous, baggy one) brings nearby men to stare. I tested this theory once when the sun was especially hot, daring to dive in just before lunch. Sure enough two “pool attendants” quickly emerged with their mops and scrubbed away at invisible stains by the water’s edge, mysteriously finishing their task when I finished my lengths.

Nothing is easy in Baghdad. Phone networks fail as a matter of course and laptops pack in just when you hit the send button. Even something as simple as eating requires forward planning as it is impossible to nip to the supermarket or a restaurant. I have to ask my staff to buy food for me and if I forget – which often happens – then I go hungry or dine on tinned tuna and dried bran flakes.

Also, never assume anything will go to plan. It won’t. Big attacks change the day’s news story in an instant; then when you think you are on top of things, something even worse happens.

Whatever the daily difficulties I encounter working in Baghdad, they are trivial compared with the troubles local Iraqis suffer – and most of them don’t have a choice about staying in the city.

One man I know is effectively being “ethnically cleansed” from his Baghdad neighbourhood. He is a Sunni Arab living in a majority Shia district and has been told to move his family or die. This is common.

Another friend of mine fled Iraq with his wife and children this year to neighbouring Syria, but was forced to return alone after failing to find a job. He now spends most days pining for his young family, while trying to gain some form of medical qualification in order to secure work in Damascus. A third acquaintance was stopped at a rogue checkpoint in his car when trying to get home from work a couple of weeks ago. For several minutes he was led to believe he would be shot in the head at the side of the road. Thankfully the men at the checkpoint were bluffing. Often they are not.

Most people you speak to have a relative or close friend who has been kidnapped. Everyone knows someone who has been killed. Last month, I was standing by a checkpoint inside the green zone next to a young woman carrying a four-month-old baby who was fast asleep. Suddenly a US attack helicopter swooped low overhead causing me to jump in surprise. The baby, so accustomed to war, did not stir.

Iraq may seem a world away from Britain but imagine the uproar here if one of the car bombs found on Friday in London had exploded. Scores of people die each week in such attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere across the country, but the violence barely registers on the West’s news agenda. Even the steady drip of British and American military deaths attracts less attention than it once did.

At least with foreign journalists remaining in Iraq, meeting people who experience the dangers first hand, it is possible to relay part of what is happening. This, for me, makes the risk of living in the country worthwhile, for now.