Into the Soul of Iraq

Into the Soul of IraqA conversation with unembedded reporter David Enders

GNN blogger David Enders recently returned from Iraq where he was on assignment for Mother Jones magazine. The 24-year old Enders is the author of the recently released Baghdad Bulletin: The Real Story of the War in Iraq: Reporting from Beyond the Green Zone. At 22, Enders started the first English-language magazine in Baghdad in the summer of 2003. The magazine failed, but Enders has returned to the war-ravaged country to report numerous times, embedding himself deep into Iraqi society to get the stories you’re not getting in the mainstream media.

GNN’s Mira Ptacin briefly spoke with Enders while he was resting his bones at his apartment in Brooklyn. He plans on returning to Baghdad in October:

GNN: What is among one of the first things you did upon returning to the USA? How long had it been?

Enders: I’ve been back and forth quite a bit in the last two years; my longest stay in either the US or the Middle East since the beginning of the war has been six months. Coming back to the U.S., it’s just always a shock — life sort of moves in a suspended animation after being in a place like Baghdad. People apologize to you because you spend five minutes in line at the supermarket, and really, I’m just sort of like, “hey, don’t worry about it. I’ll survive.” In short, our priorities are very, very different.

Upon returning, I went to my friends’ wedding in Michigan and saw my family there. I came back to Brooklyn to sit and think and write and relax. I was in London for a week before I came back to the States and I spent it working and getting drunk with friends who had been in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. I’m still doing a lot of writing, am in touch daily with people on the ground in Baghdad and making plans to go back.

GNN: Rather than be embedded with the troops, these you were embedded in Iraqi society. Was it hotter than hell’s mouth?

Enders: Average summer temps are around 120 degrees. Add to that the power shortages (Baghdad was getting around 10 hours a day of national power when I left, some areas much less) and yes, it’s really, really hot. But, like the constant threat of death, you sort of get used to it. And hey, it’s a dry heat.

GNN: What I meant was , you were most likely closer to death more often than almost every American, daily. Or at least seeing, smelling, realizing it. Describe feelings of death. . .when it is enviably close, almost omnipotent. In peripheral or do you trick yourself into thinking you’re superman? It’s like a tattoo—you think about the pain rather than ignore it and it has a whole new meaning. . .’pain’. You explore it? Ignore it? Fear it?

Enders: If I ever possessed that whole invincibility thing, it went away quickly. Maybe it’s because I fractured a vertebrae in college — one of those “you could have been paralyzed” injuries. Scared the shit out of me, but I guess I’ve always had a real sense of my own mortality.

In the summer of 2003, we had some people killed on our front lawn. Shortly after that a 24-year-old reporter who had come out in part because he was “inspired” by what we were doing with the magazine was shot in the head.

Going to the morgue, going to visit a hospital, ticking off the people you knew who have been killed — sometimes it feels more like you’re just waiting your turn. You accept that it might happen to you at any time and generally my hope is that it will be quick.

You just have to be aware of the fear and make sure you’re still acting rationally (or as rationally as possible, seeing as a lot of people would find it irrational to have placed oneself in such situations in the first place). I walked into Falluja — went through the checkpoint without being noticed by the Marines or the Iraqi military and suddenly realized, I was standing, entirely unprotected and alone (my driver/translator had been sent through a different checkpoint for a vehicle inspection) in a potentially very hostile place. My first thought was ‘I can’t keep doing this.’ My second thought was ‘it’s good that was my first thought.’

GNN: Steven Vincent [the American freelance journalist killed in August in Basra after writing a New York Times opinion piece critical of Shiite militias operating in the city] — how did you connect with him? Feelings on his death?

Enders: Met him in Basra the week before he was killed, I had sort of dropped in to do some reporting. Nice guy, helped me out a lot. Very sad case — he may have developed a false sense of security, though he told me he was very concerned for his safety and that of the woman he worked with, and his wife said he had been getting phone calls and that the translator had been threatened. I think his real mistake was that he was walking around referring to his translator as his “wife” — I think it’s really hard for people to realize how offensive that can be in conservative Arab culture. The staff at the hotel were absolutely shocked about it and had apparently warned him about it.

GNN: Your description of ‘progressive’ Robert Fisk portrays a him as patronizing claimant to deep knowledge he does not have. . .

Enders: Fisk was patronizing to us and I think there are some real problems with his analysis, but I still think he’s still doing valuable stuff — he’s one of the few people who’s willing to bring a lot of historical perspective to this conflict (it seems to be taboo in the American press to do this).