Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Calvan Interruptus File

Below are the portions of Bobby Calvan's blog I was able to salvage. This post is made on October 25th, 2007, but post-dated to September 25, 2007 to preserve front page space.

Mission Interruptus
October 18, 2007
BAGHDAD, Iraq – I awoke from an hour’s slumber at 5 a.m. to prepare to join U.S. troops southeast of the country’s capital, in one of Iraq’s so-called buffer zones. I wiped away the crust from my lower eyelids and dragged myself into the shower.
I dressed, still bleary eyed. We were supposed to be out the door by 5:30 a.m. to make a 6 a.m. rendezvous with a military copter in the Green Zone.
I attended to last-minute details, and hastily put on my bulletproof vest. Whenever leaving the heavily guarded hotel compound, we are always to wear our vests.
We bounded out in the darkness. Our driver used the light from his cell phone to inspect the undercarriage of our armored Mercedes. Our chase car followed as we drove through a maze lined with concrete barricades and rifles.
We thought 30 minutes would be enough time to make it to the Green Zone. When we approached the Fourth of July Bridge, the span that separates the Green Zone from bomb-devastated neighborhoods, we hit the morning’s first roadblock.
The private keeping watch over the bridge said the span would not open until 7 a.m. He directed us to another route, requiring us to drive by shops and parked cars, any of which could be laden with explosives.
Our alternate route, we quickly learned, would also remain closed until 7 a.m.
The media officer’s voice was thick and groggy when I roused him from bed with a phone call. My trip would have to be rescheduled. The copter and crew who were to shuttle me to my destination, of which the specific location was still unknown to me, would have to depart without me.
Few things are seldom easy in Iraq. Careful planning can be undone by the smallest of oversights.
Unbeknownst to my security officer, Kevin, and the military media officer who helped arrange my embed, the rules of entry into the Green Zone had changed. Military personnel could come and go 24/7, but civilian traffic was now prohibited to mostly daylight hours.
Certainly, the botched plans were an inconvenience. In a war zone, oversights could lead to more than mere inconvenience. There were four lives out on the road that morning – mine and those of my security officer and two drivers. Who knows what else was out there.
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Hola, Mis Amigos
October 18, 2007
BAGHDAD, Iraq – The man with the gun placed his fingers to the corners of his eyes and stretched them apart as another soldier inspected my U.S. passport.
“Chino,” said the first soldier.
“No,” I replied. “Yo soy Filipino.”
The second soldier chuckled as he listened to the playful dialogue.
“No, Chino,” the first soldier insisted with a laugh, again using his fingers to use his own face as a caricature.
“No soy Chino,” I reiterated.
“Tu, eres Mexicano?” I asked, turning the tables on him. I knew he was from Peru, as were the dozens of troops manning the entry into the Green Zone’s civic center, where I was to apply for my media credentials at the Combined Press Information Center run by the U.S. military.
The second soldier smiled appreciatively, mocking his comrade. He shook my hand. The first soldier motioned me to approach. He extended his hand for a shake and I accepted it gladly.
At several other checkpoints, I bantered freely with the Peruvian soldiers, who were spectacularly polite.
Standing in one line was a group of men who I was confident were of Filipino descent. Indeed they were. They were in Iraq as contract workers. I told one “kumusta” – hello – as he passed. He replied in Tagalog. I asked from where in the Philippines he was. I learned that his native language was Ilocano, like mine.
We conversed for a while, then went our separate ways when the security process was over.
The visit to the Green Zone was a mostly pleasant one. The trip, which began with the ordeal of putting on a bulletproof vest and going through ominous bombed-out streets, lifted my earlier jitters.
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Dateline: BAGHDAD, Iraq
October 17, 2007
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Concrete barricades line the drive into town. Machine guns aimed at the ready. Columns of armored military vehicles shared the road as a steady flow of cars played cat and mouse along the route, once the world’s most harrowing drive because of mines, snipers and missiles.
Just outside the airport, panic filled the eyes of a harried woman dressed in black from head to toe as she stooped to quickly gather plastic water jugs that had tumbled from her arms while trying to cross the busy road.
Children kicked up dust as they played soccer on a patch of barren land strewn with rocks. Other people milled about in neighborhoods that would not have appeared so sorrowful had I not known of the bleak conditions throughout Baghdad’s grid of violent and deadly streets.
My driver hid his eyes behind sunglasses. Affable before the trip, he was now driving in silent concentration. I was forewarned not to distract him with chatter. My security guy, a veteran of the British military, scanned the road for trouble, occasionally breaking the silence with hushed commands to slow down or speed up. Now and then, he would turn toward me, instructing me on what I should do if trouble arrived.
Should a bomb explode near our vehicle, he said, I should fall to the floor and roll my body into a ball. I was instructed to sit away from the window of our Mercedes, which is far from luxurious. It is equipped not for luxury, but to keep its passengers safe from gunfire, bombs and the enemy, whoever they may be. The car’s windows are made of glass two inches thick and its underside supposedly able to withstand a grenade.
I wore a bulletproof vest, its heavy plates weighing down my shoulders beneath a loose-fitting shirt I wore to conceal the bulk. It took awhile to adjust my breathing.
Near the end of the flight into Baghdad international, I held my breath and stomach to steel myself for landing, a popular discussion among those new to flying into Iraq.
The landing felt like a dive out of the sky. The flight from Amman, Jordan – a commercial flight shuttling a cabin filled mostly with contractors – descended toward the runway in a steep corkscrew, ostensibly to thwart the steady aim of any would-be attackers. The touchdown was surprisingly smooth. The flight attendant thanked us for flying Royal Jordanian and wished us a pleasant stay in Baghdad.
Gun-toting soldiers monitored the runway. As lines formed at the immigration counter, Iraqi security personnel ordered several passengers out of the terminal. The relieved travelers returned several minutes later to report that dogs were used to inspect their bags.
Immigration was a breeze – the least trouble I’ve ever had. I already had a visa. After a final stamp in my U.S. passport , I headed to claim my baggage, two oversized bags bursting at the seams. My security detail wondered what I had packed. Did I plan to stay for an entire year?
My luggage was filled with a tangle of power cords and cables for my electronics. I also brought a sleeping bag, a few pairs of shoes, including boots, and a week’s worth of clothes. I brought some DVDs, including “Borat” and my favorite French movies.
I also took a compass, binoculars, flashlights, batteries, a pair of cameras, a voice recorder, a stack of notebooks, a few books and a ton of food, including boxes of tea, dozens of power bars, several cans of smoked oysters, beef jerky, boxes of macaroni and cheese and a few weeks’ supply of instant ramen noodles. My load certainly felt like a ton.
Perhaps it will be these small comforts brought from home that will help lighten whatever burdens weigh me down over the next six weeks.
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Sleepless in Amman
October 16, 2007
AMMAN, Jordan — On the trip from the airport to downtown Amman, my driver asked if I was being sent to Baghdad against my will.
“No,” I chuckled. “I volunteered.”
He responded with a laughter that embarrassed me.
“You’re like those guys,” he said, and then stumbled for words. “Like those guys who climb Everest. How you say…”
I offered help: Crazy? Stupid? Nothing to live for?
“No,” he said with a second burst of laughter.
“Adventurous?” I suggested.
“Yes, you’re adventurous.”
My sense of adventure has always been a point of pride. But I was feeling anything but adventurous when I awoke Monday morning, the day I would board a flight to the Middle East to begin my assignment in Iraq. I awoke to the news that an Iraqi journalist working for the Washington Post was killed.
I looked at my passport. My Iraq visa is pasted on Page 13. Ominous, I thought. I would also be leaving on Oct. 15, my late father’s birthday.
For the past few days, there had been discussions about holding me a week in Washington, D.C., because of concerns over my safety. I would arrive in Iraq with the prospect of being the only U.S. journalist in our Baghdad bureau for nearly a week. A quirk in the scheduling had placed me and the bureau in a pridacament.
I have never covered a war. I have never supervised a staff whose native language I do not speak. I have never suddenly felt so overwhelmed and frustrated.
I assured my editors I would be fine, that I would stay out of trouble, that I’m accustomed to being thrown into the fire.
My editors were more concerned about gunfire. Bombs, too. And there was my relative inexperience. I have worked nearly two decades in journalism, but aside from covering crime in Detroit, I had never been in a truly hostile environment where I faced the real risk of getting killed.
The Washington bureau’s top editor talked about a social contract, that he needed a clear conscience about sending me out to cover the world’s biggest story. Had he done everything possible, he asked, to assure my safety? Was the company taking too many risks at my expense?
With or without a second U.S. journalist, the dangers would be the same, I told him. A colleague won’t be able to protect me from a missile flying into my window, I told him.
In the end, my editors decided to let me depart as scheduled.
Being a journalist means being a target. Being a journalist also means being in a state of denial. I know of the dangers. Anything can happen.
A colleague in Sacramento seemed to dismiss the dangers of arriving at Baghdad’s airport and the trip to the hotel. Yes, it will take an entourage to get me from the airport to the hotel. Yes, I will have to wear a bulletproof vest. (Bullet proof? I don’t want to test it.) Yes, there will be two cars that meet me, one to carry me and the other ready to drive like a bumper car to block any potential danger.
Reporting from a hotel room, too, has its risks. It is Iraq, after all, arguably the most dangerous place in the world. Two years ago, the hotel that houses our bureau – as well as those of several other news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times and NBC News, was attacked.
The truth is, I will not only be reporting from a hotel room. I will be going to the Green Zone, the heavily fortified district of Baghdad. I will be going on embeds with U.S. troops who are always a target.
Yes, journalists are targets, too. My colleague from the Washington Post is the latest to die. Nearly 120 journalists have died in Iraq, nearly 100 of them Iraqis.
I will be working with a staff of local journalists who risk their lives so I can get a byline. In most cases, their names will arrive at the very end of stories.
A colleague, who served months in Baghdad, demanded that I show my Iraqi colleagues respect. Without them, we would be lost. Without them, we could be dead, he said. My U.S. colleague recounted a harrowing experience in the early days of the war, when a crowd surrounded him. Factions in the crowd were arguing about who would abduct him.
His Iraqi colleague, one of the handful of courageous journalists who works for McClatchy’s Baghdad bureau, began reciting verses of the Koran. He spoke about the importance of showing hospitality to one’s visitors. The crowd suddenly became disoriented by his words, enough to distract the crowd and allow the journalists to get away.
My U.S. colleague reminded me not to take this assignment lightly, even if it required me to remain in the seemingly safe and comfy environment of my hotel room. On my final day in Washington, another colleague, a former chief of the bureau, spoke about how nerves keep her awake before returning into Iraq.
It is nearly 5 a.m. I am sleepless. I am exhausted. I am anxious. But more telling: I am excited.
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The Adventure Begins
October 9, 2007
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It’s never too late to turn back. The message was drilled into me during war training. I’m off to cover the war in Iraq, but there is no turning back. The truth is, I don’t want to turn back.
I depart for the Middle East on Monday and will arrive in Baghdad on Wednesday. First, a stop in Washington, D.C., to attend to some administrative details, including a meeting with editors who will be giving me my marching orders while I’m in Iraq.
I’ve just learned that I may be alone in the Baghdad bureau. The bureau chief is taking a break and won’t be there when I arrive. Another reporter ships out the day after I land, enough time to show me around the hotel and hand over the keys. Another reporter, the former bureau chief, is expected to arrive the following week. I will have to hit the ground running.
It is already shaping up to be an adventure.
When I told my oldest sister I would be headed to Baghdad to cover the war, she responded with a pair of questions: “Are you depressed? Are you thinking of committing suicide?”
No, to both, I told her. Sure, maybe I am a little crazy, I told her.
My family has always questioned my judgment. So have others. Sometimes, I do too.
When my mother called, I was ready. I’d use the same responses I used to appease my sister’s worries. I won’t be covering the front lines. I’d be spending most of my time in a hotel. I’d be protected by a security detail. I won’t do anything crazy.
To my surprise, my mother’s biggest concern was whether I’d miss her 80th birthday celebration. I assured her that I would be there, in the Philippines, for her big day. She was sufficiently reassured and ended the conversation.
In the very least, good or bad, Iraq will be an adventure. It’s the world’s biggest story.
While I fret about the possible dangers, I am now more worried about how I will fare as a reporter. Will I have good story ideas? Will I be smart enough to make sense of such a complicated story? Will I remember names, and will I know how to spell them? Will I have the proper words at my fingertips to describe the unfolding drama in the theater of war?
I don’t know what to expect. I’ve talked to a few colleagues who have returned from their tour of duty in the Baghdad bureau of McClatchy Newspapers, which owns my paper, The Sacramento Bee.
Yes, it was certainly an adventure, my colleagues agreed. A once-in-a-lifetime experience. Some have already turned “once” into “several.” I’m still looking for my initiation into being a foreign correspondent — will reporting mostly from a hotel room count?
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