I’ve been back comfortably in Anchorage now for about three weeks. I’ve given a few slide shows and wrote one last story about a foot patrol I joined with troops from Fort Richardson. I’ve spoken to a reporter from Kansas City who’s thinking about rotating into the McClatchy Bureau in Baghdad as I did, and who is filled with the same trepidations I had before I left.
In truth, it was much scarier thinking about going to Baghdad than it was being in Baghdad itself — at least where I was, in a well-guarded hotel in the Shiite-dominated Karada district. But that’s not saying there weren’t constant reminders of the civil war.
I spent six weeks at the McClatchy news bureau, which occupied most of a floor of the 10-story Hamra Hotel. The hotel is about a mile outside the heavily guarded Green Zone where the U.S. and Iraqi governments are ensconced.
We had our own protection — multiple perimeters of blast walls, hotel and media-hired security, and a huge contingent of tough looking ex-Russian special forces who guarded a neighboring hotel. We knew they wouldn’t be delicate with attackers.
Our media rules of engagement forbade us to leave the hotel except under rare circumstances — the risk from kidnappers and snipers was just too great. An overwhelming sense of confinement, rather than danger, was the most serious emotional problem most of the journalists confronted. Nearly every reporter I met took cover beneath veils of tobacco smoke.
The confinement began to bother me in my fifth week and I looked for an outlet besides cigarettes or cigars. I had brought a pink high-bounce rubber ball — New Yorkers know them as “Spauldeens” — and took it outside to throw against a section of blast wall. That first day, I was working up a sweat firing fastballs and fielding grounders when a neighborhood kid of about 13 approached me. He only knew a few words of English. His name was Hassan.
Like all Iraqi boys, Hassan played soccer. He was athletic and quickly picked up the game of catch. He’d want to leap each time he caught the ball, like he was jumping to head a soccer ball, but eventually he learned to keep his legs on the ground.
After that first encounter, I’d meet him every afternoon after school and play catch. Sometimes other neighborhood boys would join us.
Hassan had a strong and accurate throwing arm — an obvious righty. But when he fielded flies and grounders, he didn’t want to use his left hand, the normal catching hand for a righty. I thought I was just not explaining it correctly in my sign language, but then he ran up to me with the ball and pulled up the left sleeve of his shirt.
“Hurt,” he said, showing me the misshapen forearm. “Bomb.”
With that hand, he pointed to the wrecked houses just outside the blast wall.
On Nov. 18, 2005, at a time when insurgents were targeting western media, a van pulled up to the blast wall outside the Hamra. Its suicide driver detonated his load of explosives, blowing a hole through the wall and shattering the windows of the hotel.
Moments later, a second vehicle, this one a truck, pulled up. It seemed the driver intended to get through the new hole in the wall, but the truck got stuck in the crater and debris from the first bomb. The driver blew himself up there.
The coordinated attack failed against the hotel, but the collateral damage was extensive. Eight people were killed in the apartments near the blast, including two children.
“Brother hurt,” Hassan said, pointing to a leg. “Other brother,” he said, pointing to his leg and foot. “Mother hurt,” he said, this time rubbing his shoulders. “Sister...” Hassan said, crooking his neck to the side and shutting his eyes. “Dead.”
Hassan still gamely tried to catch with his left, and eventually seemed to be doing OK. The day before I left Baghdad, I gave him the ball and told him to practice for when I returned.