The Digital Journalist
Inside the Green Zone

by David Honl

July 2006

"Don't be a hero," Al Saraya hotel owner Fayez mentored me after checking out of my room in Amman. Fayez has been housing and assisting journalists on passage to Iraq for years and was quick to point out the dramatic change in safety for Western journalists, particularly in the past two years. In safer days, he sent many a CNN crew from Jordan, but now instills that no Westerner is safe once in Iraq. In my last night in Amman I walked to a little cafe in the bustling old city with British journalist Phil Sands, another guest of Fayez's hotel. Just after Christmas 2005, Phil had been kidnapped and held by armed terrorists in Baghdad only to be miraculously rescued by American special forces on a routine house raid five days later. They found an orange jumpsuit and a sword, common props of videotaped beheadings. We washed down war talk with plates of falafel, hummus and bread.

An Iraqi girl skips along concrete barrier walls protecting the Green Zone from sniper, rocket and mortar attacks.

David Honl
A few days earlier I had left my home in Istanbul for Amman to meet up with a C-130 transport to Baghdad to be embedded with the U.S. military on my arrival in Iraq. Two days later I was scheduled to leapfrog by fixed wing and helicopter to northern Iraq to photograph female Iraqi police officers—"Angie Dickinson 'Police Woman' types," the State Department guy boasted. The C-130 was full of private security contractors, U.N. officials and a few journalists. Once on the ground in Baghdad, a five-hour wait at Camp Stryker for the next leg of the trip.

Well past midnight I was on the Rhino, an armored-to-the-teeth custom-made bus that seemed to mimic one of those 1970s Winnebagos on, sorry for the cliché, steroids. "Green does not mean safe, and the Green Zone is no place for complacency." These were the rehearsed words announced by the blond, clean-cut and heavily armed State Department self-described "tour guide" before he locked the hatch. The Rhinos (four at a time) travel nightly on one of the most dangerous roads in Iraq, nicknamed Route Irish, never at the same time, flanked by Humvees and attack helicopters. It's the safest way to the Green Zone, the heavily fortified section of Baghdad that contains Coalition forces, the Iraqi Government and defense supercontractors like Halliburton.

Young Iraqi children play below their makeshift home on a balcony in the remnants of Saddam Hussein's personal theater.

David Honl
The Green Zone is not at all what I imagined. I can only liken it to a dusty hot, five-square-mile industrial section of Southern California's San Fernando Valley. Complete with concrete and razor wire perimeter walls, and checkpoints within checkpoints. There are 5,000 Iraqis living there, along with another 30,000 or so Coalition forces, contractors, and Iraqi government officials.

The following day I was notified the trip to northern Iraq was postponed until July due to a small fixed-wing mechanical problem. Once non-combat transportation has any sort of mechanical problem in Iraq, it has a domino effect on transport missions throughout the country. It's all too common that a two-day trip inside the country can frequently turn into a seven- to 10-day one.

A Rhino armored bus transporting the judge, attorneys and witnesses for Saddam Hussein's trial is seen in the bullet-proof rear window of an IZ Police SUV security escort in Baghdad's Green Zone on June 5, 2006.

David Honl
While hooking up at the last minute on a four-day stint with International Zone Police Force, I came upon the remnants of Saddam Hussein's personal theater, built to entertain the former Iraqi president with stage plays and music during his reign. Nothing remains but a shell and there are several displaced Iraqi families living at the site, mostly on rug-covered floors with makeshift power cords strung from nearby power lines for electricity. Many of these families were working-class before the war and ended up in a Catch-22: No Green Zone security I.D., no job. No job, no security ID. Caught without an escort within the walls of the zone, you're certain to be sent outside with no chance of return, family inside or not. Families have been given loose notices to move out and many fear they will be sent outside the walls where they risk being viewed as traitors by extremist groups.

I let the children wander around and shot pictures with my embarrassingly expensive Canons. Watching them preview the LCD screen was like handing them a kaleidoscope. I ate with them, joked with them and looked over old family albums from better times. Selfishly, I wouldn't trade the experience for any old Angie Dickinson story.

On my final night back on the Rhino for Camp Stryker, we hear and feel a huge blast. We're on high alert as there has been a rocket attack in the area of the Al Rashid Hotel, across the street from my bunk bed. While I was relieved I just missed it, I worried about the friends I had left there.

© David Honl

David Honl is an American photographer living in Istanbul, Turkey. He hosts photo treks throughout Turkey and is nearing completion on his first book, "The Digital Photographer's Companion."

See more of David's work at

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