The Digital Journalist
May 2004

by Lynsey Addario

'II'm not strong enough in my thoracic spine,' she explained, leaning forward, touching her upper back. Her arms were sinuous like a man's, and laced with bulging veins like her legs. They had clearly just met, over breakfast in a crunchy spa on the beach, and he had a lot of information to impart. He was blond, from Kansas, and carried around a holistic eucalyptus spray for his nose--for energy and purification of the body--which he demonstrated for her over tea. He then stood up in the open, wooden café on the beach at Hatien Island in Thailand, and put his hands to the ground. 'In 15 minutes, you can learn...' he reassured, and began a handstand, slowly, controlled (showing off months, if not years of yoga), his feet near my coffee cup full of sugar, his legs spread, head upside-down. 'I love this.' He shrieked, still upside-down.

Thailand. How did I go in two weeks from being detained at the mouth of dozens of Kalashnikovs and RPGs, in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, to a world where hippie twenty-somethings are doing handstands over granola, probably a little over a year after they marched in their first anti-war demonstrations? Did they give up on peace, while the war rages on not so far away? I thought back, and wondered where I went wrong in choosing the path of most resistance.

Iraqi Shiite members of the Mahdi Army in front of Moqtada Al Sadr's office in Sadr City April 7, 2004.

Photo by Lynsey Addario/Corbis, for the New York Times
It was a few days after the Marines seiged Fallujah, and the roads into and around the city were still closed. Jeffrey, the reporter, and I pored over a map with our drivers and security staff, looking for a way into Ramadi, west of Fallujah, where we had heard a US helicopter was downed. It had gotten progressively harder to work in Iraq in the last week, after four American contractors were ambushed in Fallujah, and their bodies dragged through the streets, mutilated, and hung from a bridge, but we were still determined to do our job, in spite of all the odds. Drivers continued in and out of the country from Jordan into Baghdad, so there must have been an open road. I put on my cloak-like abaya, wrapped my face like a flower in hijab, and climbed into the car with Jeffrey, Waleed, our massive driver, and Khalid, our equally massive--though in girth-- translator, and set off. A car with anotther driver and guard followed, in case we faced any problems along the way.

We weaved around the prison of Abu Ghreib on the outskirts of Baghdad, around small towns sunken in green fields surrounded by palms, along a bumpy, unfinished road so serene, and talked along the way. Just shy of three months in Iraq, I was happy to be coasting down a small road, quiet, out of Baghdad and into the farms. Jeffrey made a comment about how nice the road was, how serene, and we joked about how, being superstitious, we shouldn't comment on safety until we arrived at our destination. We continued talking. The light started to soften, and the colors saturated.

We rounded a corner, and out my window, a man with a Kalashnikov walked like a hunter along the street. My stomach sank, and I knew it was too late. I looked at Jeffrey, and pictured an American flag. I took off my abaya, and threw it over his head, unsuccessfully trying to disguise him as a woman. By this time, our car had been cut off by a blue mini van, and dozens of armed men swirled around our vehicle, their faces wrapped in patterned red and white Kafiyas, their black eyes darting back and forth like the men who had robbed me only months earlier--twice--near these roads. Were they the same men? I turned to Jeffrey: we are going to die now. It was my only thought, and I was convinced, monotone. Flashbacks of Afghanistan, Pakistan, of the four journalists who had been ambushed along the road winding through the Khyber pass from Pakistan to Kabul after September 11th, and killed. Now, we faced a possible similar fate in a swarming village outside of Fallujah. The green fields faded.

Our driver and translator were ripped out of the car, quickly shrouded by men with guns and questions. Knowing that if we had been captured with armed guards it would rouse more suspicion about whether we were journalists, the rest of our team in the car following us turned around and returned to Baghdad, and spread the news of our fate to our colleagues in the office.

Insurgents tapped on Jeffrey's door with their Kalashnikovs. A man clenched an RPG. Please don't open your door. Please don't open your door, I pleaded, as if we had a choice. One of the insurgents turned towards the gathering crowd and unleashed a magazine of bullets into the air, claiming authority over the new prey. Khalid came back to the car, 'Jeffrey, get out of the car.' They wanted the man. They started to lead him away, into the blue minivan, and I envisioned his fate. Two men, still pointing their weapons at me, and confused by the sight of a woman dressed like a Muslim who didn't speak Arabic amidst the chaos, stared blankly. I stood up, in full attire, and rubbed my index fingers together, symbolizing the union of a man and a woman, and said, 'that is my husband, I am not leaving him.' Family ties are strong in the Arab world, and I figured the insurgents were less likely to kill a foreigner if he was with a woman, than alone. They led me into the minivan, alongside my colleague.

Our translator and driver were still being questioned amidst a flurry of activity outside the car, and I sat, my eyes now to the ground like a good 'Muslim' woman, and let fate envelop me. Jeffrey was calm, and reassuring. I paused, and realized that in my haste to jump out of our car, I left all my belongings in our car--including my cameras--which was now being driven away by one of the insurgents. Would I ever see my cameras again? How could I have left them behind? What were the last images I shot? Will I even live to care?

The minivan started along the main road in the village, to a resistance headquarters not far from where we initially stopped. Dozens of the same masked men awaited us there, excited by the new bait, and slid our door open to the commander, a calm face with Ambervision sunglasses. I thought of the sunglasses commercial from the early 80's. He spoke some English, but used Khalid to translate, and Jeffrey answered all the questions, with a steady and sincere voice. They don't often address women in tense situations.

Why are you here? Jeffrey, unwavering: We are journalists, here to tell your side of the story. The Americans have closed the roads in and around Fallujah, and we want to document the civilian deaths, what the Americans are doing to the Iraqis. I rubbed my face. Oh my god. Oh my god. Where are your press IDs? In our bags in the stolen car. Could you bring the car back? Who do you work for? The Times. Where do you live? In a house in Baghdad. Where is it? and what is the phone number there? He was going to dial the house on one of our Thuraya phones.

At a certain point, they brought in their own translator, and asked Khalid to get out of the car. Have you taken any photos since you arrived? No. Jeffrey had a point and shoot camera, with random pictures from the last few months in Iraq: pictures of the families we have met and interviewed, a few frames one of our Iraqi translators had taken from the day or the ambush of the four contractors in Fallujah, tourist-like pictures of Jeffrey in Baghdad, posing with the locals.

Our car pulled up, and he sent me to retrieve the bags. The masked men watched me carry everything from one car to another, and I was annoyed at the lack of chivalry. The commander snapped at them to help. I placed our bags in the minivan, and he asked to see the contents of my digital cards on my two camera bodies. I had spent the morning in Sadr City, photographing the Mahdi Army outside Moqtada Al Sadr's office, and he seemed pleased to see another militia in action. Where is this? When is this? He scrolled through scenes of heavily-armed men trolling the streets of Sadr city, manning funeral processions of civilians allegedly killed by the Americans, and seemed satisfied.

Where are your press IDs? I reached into my bag, and pulled out my press identification cards from Turkey and Mexico. Jeffrey took out his New York Times ID. The commander looked them over. I looked at the three men facing us in the minivan, their guns pointed at us over the seats. They were looking inquisitively at us, and I noticed their eyes soften. I stared at each one, and smiled weakly. I rubbed my face. How will this end?

One of the men mumbled something to us, and the translator offered: please tell them we will not hurt them...he trailed...don't worry. Just then, a dented bowl of water emerged from the hands reaching into the minivan, over the shoulder of the commander: drink. In Iraq, and possibly most of the Arab world, the offering of water means you are being offered hospitality--a swift transition from captive to guest. He was finally convinced we were journalists, and not working for the occupation. Movement started around the car. The commander: we want to offer you Pepsi, show you Iraqi hospitality, and let you go...His voice trailed into a massive series of explosions nearby, and everyone started to scramble around the minivan.

They led us out of the headquarters, and back onto the main road, into a whirl of chaos where insurgents rallied around a rocket launcher, and fired off successive rockets, and men unloaded bullets from their Kalashnikovs into the air. Go, we were told, and within minutes, everyone scrambled to flee the scene in fear of a counter-attack.

We were then brought to another house, and told we had to spend the night. If there was indeed a counter-attack, everyone would blame you, a dicey translator appointed by the commander explained, and they know where you live. Resigned, and tired, we were driven to another house, and held in a pillow-lined room with tea and cookies for a few hours, and listened to our captor try to convince us of the fundamental differences between Ali Babas and insurgents, convinced that Ali Babas, as thieves here are called, gave the insurgents a bad name, and that it made any remote difference to our lives at that moment.

At dusk, a man appeared with word we could finally go [again]. We lingered for a few minutes, waiting for an escort out of town, and our new captor began: I want to marry a foreign woman, serious. Great. This is all we need. Thank you, but I am married, a demurred, pointing at my colleague. But I have three sisters...I trailed, smiling. They are married, too. Perhaps the next group of foreigners...

The sun was setting as we raced towards Baghdad in a superstitious silence. No one wanted to speak about our fate until we were home. We entered the periphery of Baghdad, and big Waleed's phone started ringing incessantly: Ayni, (literally, 'my eyes') Habeebi. (honey, sweetheart) Laughter. Habeebi. Sigh. Relief. We're almost there.

Word spread we had been released. Almost an hour later, we finally pulled into the long, blast-walled compound of the New York Times, into its arms of relative safety. Our office manager, Basim, started towards us at the entrance of our driveway, leading the crowd of our staff who had been anxiously awaiting word since our capture in the afternoon. As they neared, all of the formalities between men and women in the Arab world dissipated into the night, and we embraced. It was already dark, but I noticed Basim's eyes filled with tears, and the site of a proud, Arab man, weeping like a child sent me into convulsions of tears as I realized the gravity of the last few hours. I ran inside to call my parents.

In 24 hours, two reporters and two photographers working for the New York Times had been kidnapped. We all returned home within minutes of each other, and met on the roof to celebrate our lives, our good fortune in what could have been the most unfortunate of situations. Our beers were icy cold, and the stars were beautiful above us in the balmy night. Below, our Iraqi staff, largely responsible for having saved four lives in addition to their own, stood over two sheep, freshly slaughtered in our honor. They laughed and told stories, and we clinked our bottles, and watched from above, smiling. Iraq.

04/11/03, Lynsey Addario at work in Kirkuk, Iraq

Photo by Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

© Lynsey Addario