From a Baghdad Balcony

April 2003

by Seamus Conlan

Photojournalist Seamus Conlan has been covering the war in Iraq for People magazine and World Picture News, the photo agency he launched in September 2001. Click here for more about WORLD PICTURE NEWS.

25 March 2003


Knock at the door. It's writer Nate Thayer, who recently arrived here with photographer Molly Bingham. Molly, who earned two honors in the recent Pictures of the Year competition (for her work in Afghanistan and Gaza), is on assignment in Baghdad for Esquire. She belongs to the photo agency I set up in 2001--World Picture News.

I open the door and sit back down on the settee. He tells me, "I've just made a call on the THURIYA [sat phone] and Molly called. [The Iraqi officials] want all my room keys and are holding Molly." "I'll be down in one minute. You go see Molly." I head down the stairs in order to come out in the front of the building. It'll give me a direct view of these guys as I make my way toward them. I'm approached by an Iraqi in a leather jacket with a green uniform under it. "What's your name?" "Shams, my friend. Ana Irelandas." "Okay, Irish," he says, "What room you in?" "Why? You want to come up?" "No, no. It's okay, Mister Irish." I walk over to the lift where I can see Molly and Nathan with a lot of heavy officials. We all get in the lift and then some French guys rush to join us. "What's your name?" they ask one of them. "Jean," he says. "You're welcome." Meaning: You're okay. You don't have to be questioned. "Am I welcome?" Nathan asks. Not a word. "Where are you from?" I am asked once more. "Ana Irelandas." "Okay, go, welcome." The doors open on my floor, and I take my leave. Molly and Nate should be okay, I reason. They can talk their way out of this one. But I'm beginning to understand how dangerous it is for Americans.

Knock at the door. It's Marco, Molly's close companion. "They have taken Molly away." "Calm down. It'll be okay. They will treat her okay." "I'll ring the tour guy, who'll be able to help." "That's the best thing to do. Stay calm." "Thanks, I'll do that." I close the door and go back to consider the consequences of Molly's detention. The Iraqis have just made off with her. Like that. Was it her tourist visa? The sat phone calls? Later, there will be speculation that suspicions may have been raised by her former White House affiliation, since she had been a photographer with Vice President Al Gore. All I know is that a friend and close colleague has been forcibly removed. Knock....I open the door
quickly. Nath is shaking. "They took Molly." "It's okay. She will be fine.""Get the phone up and ring someone." "Who? Just stay calm. You are no good to anyone like this, Nath. They will try to get a chain reaction, Don't start one." He leaves, seeming a bit more composed.

12.00 noon.
Still no word on Molly's whereabouts. U.S. troops are now only 80 KM from Baghdad--20 KM closer than they were yesterday. What is it going to be like here in a few days? I can see everyone fighting. Men, women and children. I've observed a few ten-year-olds running around with AK's in the last few days. It will be bad, I'm sure. If I wanted to leave, I couldn't. The road to Jordan is a highway of death now, with burned-out cars littering the roadside all the way to the border. I should see if I can photograph it somehow.

Nathan comes to see me. He is looking shaky, his eyes conveying the fear and worry I hoped not to see. "Molly is not back yet." Oh no, the words I didn't want to hear. He discusses his own encounters with the Khmer Rouge. He theorizes about what could happen. "I don't want to hear, Nathan, please. Have you spoken to the Red Cross?"

Fear has set in. I have to get out of here today. I don't know what the situation is going to be like when the approaching troops try to take Baghdad, or even what the next 24 hours are going to be like. I consider a tempting alternative: getting an exit visa, through Sadune, and getting the hell out of here. At the press center Sadune is nowhere to be found. "Sadune is with his family," a few of the other minders tell me.

The sky is spooky. The high winds seem to be buffeting Baghdad, as if the city itself is under an ominous spell. It is feeling very unsafe now. Or is it just my own fear? Outside the press center, I notice my hands are shaking as I drink sweet tea.

I hear two U.K. journalists talking about leaving. "A few people are missing," one says. "What do you know?" "Very little," I respond.

"How long does it take to get to Syria?" I ask my one-legged taxi driver as we slowly cross the river. "Seven hours, maybe." Of course it would, the way he drives. "I have had no business today. I wait all day." "Here, feed your family, my friend." Maybe I'll go to Syria, but not in that car. All routes are very dangerous now. Battles have taken place on the Jordan road, now strewn with hulks of vehicles of all kinds. The road to Syria is closer but a bus was blown up there yesterday. Then there's Iran. No. I don't want to get into that.

I see Marco going for lunch at the hotel so I follow him to the restaurant. Nathan is pacing in the lobby. Sitting down to eat, Marco tells me that Molly has been expelled to Syria. "Marco, inform the Red Cross." "I will. I promise." "They will get in the middle of it and sort it out." Another journalist mentions that the Iraqis only took people without official press papers. Others are missing as well, and I'm not sure who. Molly'll be in quite a state right now, I'm sure. Yesterday Saddam was calling for a jihad all night--and now this. The muezzin in the mosque down the road has been singing away, all day, crying for Allah.

I think of flight and yet I've got to get my mind around how to begin working this--from this end--and my wife has to work this from her end. How to help Molly? What other agencies might intervene?

As the bombs drop outside, I can hear the peace activists--protestors--shouting, "No More War." Their voices are drowned out by the constant wail for jihad coming from the mosque. The sandstorm has tugged a yellow curtain across the town. The buildings and cars--the very air--is cast with a strange, deathly light. The wind seems as if it could lift you off your feet. Worst of all is the oppressive light in the hotel lobby: a violent violet blue. No way of escaping this place. Even my hotel room seems dead and dark and cloaked in gloom--even with all the lights on. It's like a living dream or maybe a nightmare from which you can't awaken. I really need to leave now. And yet, suddenly, my laundry arrives--amazing at a time like this. Maybe I am the only one going crazy here after all.

Again, I think of departing, due to the danger. But Molly's missing and I need to do all I can to help find out where she is. I'm conflicted. I check to see if anyone is leaving. Maybe I'll take my chances with the wind. They can't bomb through this. You can't see your hand in front of you. Wait. Not so fast. I hear the bombing now. And it is close by.

I find that deliberate tasks help to settle my mind a little: taking the time to change money; getting my flask filled with coffee. Everyone is talking about Molly and the others having been taken. The word is that they were taken over the border to Syria, and are probably safe. So things seem to have settled themselves. But no one knows for sure.

I try to sleep but Nathan comes banging at my door. When, when do I get some sleep?

26 March 2003

Another day. A pink day. The sandstorm has rolled in at gale force, cutting visibility to a hundred feet. I can't see the mosque across the road any more. There is news that the TV station, near the press center, was hit this morning. The press center will be the next to go, I'm sure of it.

After speaking on the line to Pete Norman, I feel a lot better. He's reassured me that Ingrid from CNN is trying to find out what happen to Molly. Is she in the jail with the Special Police or is she, in fact, in a refugee camp in Syria? If anyone can sort this out it will be Ingrid. My minder said he would look into it for me, but I haven't seen him in two days either.

Today I'm in a better frame of mind. I think I'll stay in Baghdad. Considering the road to Syria has burning cars on it and the Jordan road is now a junkyard battlefield, I think my options have been decided for me.

The days of the week begin to blur. I reassemble the blow-by-blow by piecing together snippets from my notes. . . .

Ingrid has no new news on Molly. Everyone is in the dark here as to where she is. Rumors fly again, like wildfire. They've found Molly's sat phone. She is in Iraq. She is traveling to Jordan tonight. Don't think so. They say there is a chance she is in Syria right now. Supposedly a bus with 28 expelled people--journalists without visas and "human shields" --were escorted out so that the Red Cross could come and collect them in a few days. If this is the case, we should hear in 24 hours.

. . . . No sound news on Molly. If she had been taken over the Iraqi border, into Syria, then we would have heard something from her. The last journalist to be expelled into Syria has just returned here and has said that there was fighting on the road and burned-out villages all along the way. Once, he says, they came across U.S. troops and he had to double back and now, here he is, in this hotel. Now it seems that Nathan and Marco must leave in the morning. Just saw Nathan with seven heavies walking him into his room.

Outside, it sounds like a hit-and-run accident. Thunder crackles across the earth. The projectiles come in, one after another, shaking the place like crazy. You can hear it roll in over your head. Then, bang. Then, suddenly, it is over. Then, again, like clockwork, the singing from the mosque. Then, bang. What a place this is, this war zone. That one sounded very close. Almost broke the windows.

I wonder: What does my daughter look like now? How has she changed? The new life she has made for herself. And does she sleep with my unopened moving boxes in her room to smell her daddy? I'm so sorry I can't be there for her. Yes, Tara and I should be proud of what we have there, this sweet, intelligent, aware girl. I love that she loves me so much. It really fills me up and gives me strength.

Knock at the door. It's Nate. "They found Molly's sat phone and I have to leave in the morning." "Did they say where Molly is?"" She is still in the country on her way to Jordan on a bus. That's all they would say."

. . . . As for Molly, by all accounts she is in big trouble. [NAME WITHHELD], now in Amman, has been trying to get her contacts inside to help her. The news is bad. And this comes from her contacts in Baghdad. Rumors that the Iraqis apparently taped Molly's phone calls on the sat phone before taking her in an early morning raid. This, like everything else, may be fogged with the falsehoods of war. Sounds like Baghdad bull to me. But, if true, it would be serious. And it makes one wonder: what ELSE are they able to monitor?

Just spoke to a colleague from Cox newspapers who said they were organizing a
petition to insist the ministry find the whereabouts of our Molly Bingham. He has just heard, via sources at Newsday, that Molly has spoken to some "human shields" in Damascus, Syria, only a hour or so ago. So it sounds as if she's safe. I e-mail Tara to have her phone Molly's father with the good news. I am certain that Molly will surface shortly.

. . . . Tara sends an e-mail:
I know you have been working really hard to find out where she is and been in the thick of it, I am just getting it from all sides here trying to be helpful and feeling helpless....Let me know if you hear anything else. . . . I love you madly darling
All our love always

. . . .Then, she writes: We still haven't heard from Molly and the rumors keep growing. From the sounds of it, she has been in Syria, Jordan, and back in Baghdad--all in one day. The news that she was in Syria turns out to have been just speculation. Nothing has been confirmed. (I have been on the phone all day with them.) And theoretically she should have contacted someone by now if she was in either place. So I am still back and forth with everyone here trying to find the real story. It is really worrying.

. . . .A representative from the International Committee of the Red Cross, Roland Huguenin-Benjamin, came around only an hour ago, telling me that the case on Molly is closed. She was officially in Syria as confirmed by an e-mail from a close friend of hers. She was with a Danish photographer, Johnan, and a Spanish guy called Lattasa. He still has no word on the status of the two Newsday people, Mathew McAllester and Moises Saman. The poor guy from ICRC said that he is always hunting down "lost journalists" who, it turns out, don't consider it a big deal: no one really knows their whereabouts anyway, so they don't bother to stay in touch. He says he found one guy in the coffee bar of the hotel. He'd been missing for a week. When he told him that his editor was worried he said, "They always worry." Sounds like Molly has been found, and that she doesn't know the commotion she has caused by not getting in touch with anyone. Let's HOPE that's the case.

. . . .Tara writes an e-mail:
I just got off the phone with Molly's sister and they are beside themselves with worry. They are not convinced that Molly would not ring or e-mail and I am a bit shocked that if she is okay she would not at least e-mail me regarding her assignment, or [e-mail] Marco. But [she'd e-mail] a close friend who no one knows?
All our love forever and ever. . . .

. . . .And now, the bad news. The contact that had told me about Molly meeting with the "human shields" group in Damascus was mistaken. Back to the ICRC tonight to continue the hunt--through the right channels. Tara, in New York, has been in contact with Molly's family, Esquire, Newsday, the Committee to Protect Journalists, you name it. And CNN International and other journalists are calling Tara, wanting photographs of Missing Molly.

Tara and I strategize, over e-mail, about how to continue the pressure. Others are helping. We scurry about. We hit up our contacts. I thought that something like this might happen in our World Picture News life, but not so soon, really.

. . . . I leave a message for Roland at ICRC. He then went and registered Molly's name with everyone in Baghdad. Every ministry: Information, Defense, Tourism, you name it. They have put a request into Washington to have them have talks with people here. He came around to see me tonight to let me know he has started all this again and will keep us up-to-date.

Tara sends an e-mail:
D [Dylan] knows you are working and that you will be home when this is all over. She misses you but she also understands the important work you are doing as much as a nearly five-year-old can.....

10:30pm, 1 APRIL 2003

I telescope back in time, trying to focus on the weeks leading up to the war. Before I came to Baghdad, Tara and I had packed up our flat in London. She flew off to New York with Dylan to set up what was meant to be our new residence as a family. Now it is hers and Dylan's; and I am here, in my dim hotel room with the bombs falling out the balcony. In my mind's eye, the last mental remnant of my pre-war life was our empty London apartment: me sitting in the hollowed-out rooms, emptied of all our possessions, even the moving boxes gone. Tara's now in a new setting--a home in Brooklyn that I've never laid eyes on. I have no visual reference of her and Dylan's life now. And all I seem to be able to recall of my former life is this eerie, vacant space that used to be ours.

I'm adrift here, alone. I feel like a bubble floating, without grounding. I don't even know the new phone number of our apartment in Brooklyn. And why should I? I haven't had access to a line to ring her in three weeks. Yes, we exchange e-mails, as I have with good friends and colleagues. But I just need to hear her and Dylan's voices.

I get access to a line. But I don't know where to call. Even her cell phone number has changed since the move. I ring David Friend, a good friend in New York, who's advising World Picture News and brought together our management team. He'll have Tara's new numbers. I phone his office at Vanity Fair.

As soon as I hear his voice, he tells me the wonderful news. His mother has just phoned him from Arizona to say, "Turn on CNN. There's a report they've found that photographer." He tells me that Molly and the others--Matthew McAllester and Moises Saman, of Newsday, and Danish photographer Johan Spanner, are supposedly safe, several hours from the Jordanian border. Sitting in New York, he repeats the words coming out of the mouth of a CNN announcer in Atlanta talking about Molly's projected arrival in Amman, and I'm hearing it in Baghdad.

Is this some April Fool's joke? No, it's quite real. In time, we hear that Molly and the others were actually held by the Iraqis, in notorious Abu Ghraib prison, on suspicion of espionage, possibly as a result of their not being accredited through official channels. The conditions were harrowing and they feared for their lives. They could actually hear the howls of other prisoners being beaten. And we learn that so many people helped work to free them: their families, their colleagues in the Middle East and around the world, Newsday, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Vatican, the ICRC and a host of others, including, possibly, Yassir Arafat.

What's important is that she's safe. And after all the twists and turns and ups and downs of this conflict, I feel real relief, and release. I ring Tara and we discuss what is, to us, the best news of the war thus far.

© Seamus Conlan

Part I: 'The Bombing Begins'


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