BAGHDAD, Iraq—My 26th birthday party was perfect.
Stars glittered over the Baghdad hotel where I blew out the candles on a cake decorated by my four closest Iraqi friends. We stayed up until the dawn call to prayer rang from a nearby mosque, telling stories and debating the future of a country I'd grown to cherish.
A year later, only one of those friends is still alive. The poolside patio where they sang "Happy Birthday" in Arabic is empty most days, because foreign guests are afraid of snipers and mortars. The hotel has become a prison, and every foray outside its fortified gates is tinged with anxiety about returning in one piece.
Baghdad has never been tougher for journalists. Treacherous roads and kidnapping squads restrict travel. "Embedding" with the military or going with Iraqi government officials is the safest way to leave the capital. Our ability to uncover and tell the truth about Iraq—good and bad—has suffered terribly.
At least 36 journalists have been killed covering this war. Everyone seems to know someone who's been taken hostage. We share our nightmares of terrorists cutting off our heads. Word of new abductions brings guilty relief: Thank God it wasn't me.
I first came to Baghdad in July 2003, sweltering days when electricity was scarce, but at least targets were clear: American troops were attacked; reporters just wrote about it. My stories from back then sound like a grim list of "firsts": the first big car bombing, the first hostage video, the first helicopter shot down, the first mosque raided.
Now we barely take note of those commonplace events. Satellite television soon arrived, beaming rap videos and Dr. Phil into our hotel rooms. Cell phones replaced crackling, unreliable satellite phones, and our jobs grew easier. We hadn't yet been introduced to a Jordanian militant named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, so we wrote stories about the horse track and American troops watching the Super Bowl.
Camaraderie among foreign correspondents eased the pressures of deadline and danger. We played poker with useless old dinars imprinted with Saddam Hussein's face. New restaurants opened, including a Chinese place with a karaoke bar. Even then, though, we avoided "Great Balls of Fire" on the song list.
Hopping in the car as the sun rose over the Tigris River, we felt like explorers. Mythical places became three-dimensional as we arrived in Babylon and Nineveh, Najaf and Karbala.
We thrilled at covering the most important story in the world. Unlike for many of my colleagues, Iraq is my first war zone. I still feel indescribably lucky to get so close to history as it happens: boarding a Black Hawk helicopter with the Iraqi prime minister, eating beans with Shiite Muslim rebels while they're being pounded by a U.S. airstrike, strolling through Saddam's old Republican Palace with its new American occupants.
Then there's Iraq's incredible diversity. We've met Kurdish wedding musicians trying out a new keyboard, marsh Arabs zipping by on narrow boats, Iranian pilgrims ecstatic in ornate shrines, foreign guerrillas hiding among lush orchards, oil smugglers sweating at southern ports.
This, I thought, is the Iraq I want to show our readers.
It's hard to say when it changed. By last autumn, insurgents had improved their bomb-making skills and organized themselves into sophisticated cells. Reporters waded into an alphabet soup of military terminology: VBIED, vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. RPG, rocket-propelled grenade. PSD, personal security detail.
The CPA, or U.S.-run Coalition Provisional Authority, was derided as Can't Produce Anything. In a matter of months, the AO—area of operations—was unstable.
The pace and scope of attacks grew exponentially. Targets came to include foreign journalists and the Iraqis working with them. Two of the Iraqi friends at my birthday party were shot to death at point-blank range as they drove home one spring night.
Two weeks later, American soldiers opened fire on the third friend, an Iraqi television reporter who was speeding to the scene of a mortar attack. His last gasps were broadcast on live TV. I couldn't work for weeks.
The fourth friend fled Iraq after receiving death threats.
So far, we've been lucky at Knight Ridder in escaping death or serious injury. Our American and Iraqi correspondents have been shot at countless times, attacked by knife-wielding rebels and bruised by stones lobbed from angry mobs. They've been trampled by riotous demonstrators, arrested by a renegade police force, taken hostage by militiamen and burned by red-hot shrapnel.
After one bombing, a young boy shoved a severed hand in my face. Another time, I used a tissue to pick shreds of human flesh off my shoes after covering a car bombing. Gagging, I gave up and pushed the sneakers deep into the trash.
As the close calls grew, the Iraq we knew shrank. The northern mountains and southern marshes are off-limits now because the roads out of Baghdad are lined with bombs and gunmen. Even a jaunt to the grocery store is a meticulously planned affair. Do you have a radio? A flak vest? A second car to watch for kidnappers?
Some of my colleagues have left, their blond hair and pale skin too inviting for militants out hunting foreigners. Other reporters plan to move inside the Green Zone, the American compound that "protects" you from the people you came to cover. Instead of gathering for card games, journalists meet to brainstorm ways to free kidnapped colleagues and trade the latest threat reports.
We rely more on our Iraqi staff members, courageous friends whose brown faces and local accents allow them to navigate the world outside the hotel walls. Many fledgling Iraqi correspondents have blossomed into excellent reporters and probably will remain in this nation's media long after the Western news corps has moved on. Maybe that's our contribution to rebuilding Iraq.
We added first-aid demonstrations to our morning planning meetings. After talk about an election story, for example, it's quiz time. How do you treat a friend's punctured lung? (Answer: Pierce the chest with a ballpoint pen.)
We rolled blast film across our windows, obscuring the view of Baghdad's minaret-speckled skyline. It keeps glass from shattering during a bombing. The fitness-conscious don heavy body armor and run up and down the hotel stairs for exercise. Soccer games and jogs along the Tigris are off-limits.
Knight Ridder hired a British security adviser who promptly walled off our floor with a security gate nicknamed "The Cage." He gives the staff daily safety reports and we impatiently cut him off before his trademark ending. We know, we know: "The threat level just can't get any higher."
My mother begs me to come home. Her Oklahoma accent sounds foreign from so far away as she tries to persuade me: "Darlin', there's not another thing in the world you can do over there. ... Enough is enough. ... There is no honor in having your head chopped off, no honor in dyin' that way."
But it feels too early to leave. American soldiers—138,000 of them—are still here. There are 26 million Iraqis desperately seeking security and elected leaders. A brutal dictator is awaiting trial. There are still so many stories to be told.
I just turned 27. With the war still raging and the heartbreaking absence of my four Iraqi friends, there seemed little to celebrate. Still, several journalist colleagues sent me inspirational messages laced with the gallows humor of our trade.
One wrote: "Keep your head up—and on."
(Allam is Baghdad bureau chief for Knight Ridder Newspapers.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTO on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Hannah Allam