Veni, Vidi, Video

Sean Maguire

My driver Haji stopped singing two days before the Americans struck at Baghdad. His renditions of ditties from the Iraqi hit parade ceased, and he could not bring himself to sing along to the two hours of Western music every day on Baghdad FM. It became unsettlingly silent in the car; we stopped having ‘maybe peace, maybe war’ discussions in pidgin English just after Perez de Cuellar’s plane took off from Saddam Hussein International Airport.

Haji had kept talking throughout the six weeks I spent in Baghdad. He had the directness given him by a taxi-driver’s knowledge of essential English. He numbed me once by saying: ‘Sir, I have children.’ I had been trying to persuade him to take me to a location where I wanted to film without a Ministry of Information guide, forgetting that while I might not have my visa renewed the stakes were higher for him. Silence reinforced the city’s oppressiveness. Baghdad never was an enjoyable place to work; and the eeriness of the empty city in the last days, with shops shut, windows latticed with tape and ever more anti-aircraft emplacements appearing on roofs, left me hollow with unease. There was an infectious apathy to the few people left on the streets. Many families had already left for country towns by 15 January. Those who remained were turned out by Ba’ath Party officials to demonstrate defiance. Courteous Iraqi house-owners brought me into their homes and led me upstairs to film the crowd from the rooftops. Near the podium a hundred or so young men chanted and sang. I sat on a parapet and enjoyed the mild winter sun: beneath me, a thousand Iraqis stood aimlessly, not even bothering to chat amongst themselves. The scene was peaceful, as though the crowd were waiting for a train. As the tailenders of the march reached their destination – the rally site – the first absconders could be seen filtering away through the trees. I think they were going home to continue packing.

The city reminded me of what I had read of Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge had expelled its citizens. It was as though an act of dreadfulness had already happened. The alley cats had taken over the dustbins in daylight; dogs ran carelessly across roads and fought over scraps at street corners. The refuse was uncollected and the sewage pipes unmended. That night I gagged and choked in the street as the city filled with a rotten sulphurous cloud. A down-river petrol refinery was malfunctioning: it spewed gas over the city for hours.

A few resilient café-owners opened their doors and closed them after little business. The old men playing draughts, so beloved of journalists desperate for pictures of ‘normal life in Baghdad’, were listless and uncooperative. There had been a time when I developed splitting headaches walking through the copper souk, a long alleyway lined with cupboard-sized shops, where workmen fiendishly hammered bits of metal into bowls, shields and goblets for a non-existent tourist trade: on the afternoon of 15 January, however, the alleyway was as peaceful as a plague spot.

The copper souk was beside the river. Occasionally I would be there at dusk. With the sun setting over the slow-moving river, the bridges lit up and the glow of the yellow stone on the old dilapidated river-hank houses, the city was quite beautiful. Unfortunately the river was among the sites that could never be filmed. If your guide was remiss enough to let you, the censor at the television station would prevent transmission. On the approach roads to bridges, near ministry buildings and outside the presidential palace there were signs in English saying: ‘No photography’.

The Iraqis never seemed to grasp that the Americans already had copies of the Baghdad A to Z and spy satellites that could measure the diameter of Saddam’s bald spot. They had not read Flight magazine and had no sense of the hi-tech bombardment that was going to keep them in shelters for weeks. When we eventually tried to leave Iraq, our car was confronted by panicking young border guards who screamed at us to turn off our headlights lest we attract enemy fire from the bombardment of an airfield about forty miles to our rear. We had to grope our way into Jordan.

The check-list of forbidden photo-opportunities was well-known, and judicious self-censorship kept trouble at bay. It was much more frustrating when I wanted to film at a location I knew was uncontentious and, for reasons of pigheadedness, idleness or lunch-break, the men from the Ministry of Information refused to allow me out of the hotel with a camera. Working for Visnews, a news agency the Iraqis had never heard of, I did not have the clout of a CNN or BBC reporter.

Occasionally the guides would summon the press from their hotel rooms, corral us in the lobby and take us to an event organised for our benefit. I was a regular attender at forlorn demonstrations outside the British or US Embassies, where a hundred schoolchildren or factory employees given the morning off-work would dutifully chant ‘Down, down Bush’ for fifteen minutes and then troop back to their buses. Sometimes the guides felt they had to offer us diversions; this was usually when there were more pressing matters to be filmed elsewhere. On the morning when hundreds of British hostages were arriving in Baghdad from strategic sites, prior to their flight home, the guides forced the press corps to attend a news conference celebrating the discovery of a cure for cancer and given by a chain-smoking Iraqi doctor.

The Iraqi inclination to force the press to hunt in a pack sometimes backfired. Yasser Arafat used to give press conferences in the front parlour of his residence, a room the size of a claustrophobic toilet. A convoy of cars would race from the Al-Rasheed Hotel and disgorge thirty camera crews, all of them with the killer instinct of the international press. Arafat’s parlour would turn into a heaving mass of swearing cameramen, trampled print journalists and anxious bodyguards, and the message of the PLO would be mingled with polyglot curses and the crash of falling furniture and ornaments.

The Iraqis never developed the same cynicism towards the press as the press sometimes displayed towards them. They remained innocently optimistic that the journalists would behave with decorum and exhibit a degree of self-regulation. When Perez de Cuellar was due to arrive, although the visit hardly rated a mention on Iraqi television, the Ministry agreed to allow the press to film his being greeted by Tariq Aziz. I arrived with my camera later than most and found a line of around forty crews being politely marshalled by ministry guides. Beaming proudly over his mastery of set-piece organisation was Sadoun Al-Jarubi, head of protocol at the Ministry of Information, Heriot-Watt University alumnus, aficionado of the pubs of Rose Street in Edinburgh, and owner of one of the blackest senses of humour outside Death Row.

As Tariq Aziz and Perez de Cuellar turned from the bottom of the aircraft steps, you could see the fear in their eyes. The line of crews stayed firm momentarily, then broke and the pack pounced. A six-deep circle of frantic cameramen formed, microphone poles bounced off Tariq Aziz’s head, and Perez de Cuellar was rabbit-punched as he tried to mutter a hasty statement into the blinding lights. The security men had to mount a charge to relieve the besieged diplomats, hauling cameramen away by the neck and punching a passage through to the terminal building.

Undeterred, the pack raced to try and film the departure by limousine. We lined up, blood-lust coursing through our veins, until Sadoun Al-Jarubi appeared. Fuming with anger at his own loss of face before his bosses, and aghast at his folly in ever trusting journalists, he screamed that we were all animals and sent us off to our cars like naughty children. We stared at our feet, said nothing, and went and hid behind some bushes until Sadoun had left and we could return to get the shot we wanted.

Where the Iraqis got their revenge was at the satellite feedpoint. They quickly realised they could reduce hardened television producers to worried babbling and pathetic pleading by pulling a wire out of a wall and stopping a transmission. Radio and print journalists were reassured of the merits of their media every time they saw a television colleague returning from another nerve-wracking transmission. There was only one satellite path, from Baghdad to Amman, and the one co-ordinate phone frequently did not work, especially if you were unlucky enough to have a transmission time coinciding with a change of shift at the telephone exchange.

I came to loathe that transmission room and my twice-daily visits there. The machines were set up on trestle tables, connected to dusty jumbles of wire going nowhere, and faced overstuffed sofas where sat the cast of ghouls who ran the operation. Transmission times were decided by a dragon lady called Madame Awatiff, who had a voice that could cut through steel, wore saucer-size glasses magnifying her eyes and dressed in glamorous Fifties frippery. She responded best to flattery. The chief censor was the aptly-named Dr Saad, who derived a perverse satisfaction from the misery of those whose stories he chopped, and enjoyed the horse-trading between journalists arguing over whose turn it was to transmit. He responded best to appeals to his intelligence. But by 15 January he seemed to have given up caring.

Madame Awatiff revealed how the tension was affecting her by banishing me from the television station for some unknown crime on the night of the 15th. Although Saad was profuse in apology the next morning, when the bombing began the television station was top of my hit list. I had also developed an aversion to the airport, as a result of repeatedly filming dignitaries arriving, hostages departing and the last goodbyes of diplomats. Most other crews shared my desire that the airport might disappear, apart from some colleagues who boarded what was to be the last plane to leave, and arrived in Amman to find that thousands of pounds worth of equipment and their personal effects had been left behind in Baghdad.

The boredom of continually filming in the same places because the Iraqis would allow us to film so little, meant that the bombing came as quite a relief to the image-hungry. The press corps that stayed behind included those addicted to the story, professional war groupies, and those like myself who had not been organised enough to get out in time. Still there in Baghdad seems to be a peripatetic hand of stills photographers, mainly French, all slightly unhinged, veterans of Kabul and Romania and Northern Ireland, who revel in war zones. One of them came down to breakfast on the morning of 17 January and was bemused by the ashen sleepless faces around him. He had worn earplugs and slept through the three hours of bombing.

I was not sorry my company ordered me to leave as soon as I could. I had begun to feel institutionalised in the Al-Rasheed Hotel, with its prison diet of cold omelettes and vegetarian curry. When the staff managed to start the generator the first essential service they switched on was the irritating lobby music. Most journalists had spent the night playing hide-and-seek with the patrolling security men eager to shoo us into the shelter. It was an uncharacteristic display of concern, and unwelcome, as the shelter, with its airlocks and gas seals was more frightening than anything coming out of the sky. They gave up, and we returned to the windows to watch the expensive fireworks display and wonder who was mad enough to be driving the cars we could see flicking their headlights on and off as they moved along blackened streets.

In the morning, the extras who used to mill around the lobby – drivers, spies, guides and hangers-on – had vanished. Haji did not come to work. The driver we did find charged us 75 dollars for a damage-spotting tour through the deserted city which he swiftly cut short when the distant booms started up again. As a television journalist I felt redundant. We were not allowed to take cameras out of the hotel and our satellite was shut down. The radio men huddled around satellite phones in the garden and the print journalists queued impatiently to file, sitting on the wall of a flower-bed tapping at their laptops. I went upstairs and watched the smoke rising from the Ministry of Defence building, reflecting on the business of being bombed by something you cannot see and cannot hear until it hits you. I packed the few things I could carry, abandoned much and left.