BAGHDAD: “If you know what’s good for you, get out within the next 24 hours. This is no joke,” a Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) volunteer told me a day after I had arrived here from Amman on April 3.
The warning made me uneasy. Being new to Baghdad, I was not able to assess the situation on the ground at all. It did not help either when I saw many journalists packing up and getting out.
There was no television except for Iraqi TV to keep tabs on the war.
This was almost useless to me because firstly, it was in Arabic, a language I don’t understand, and secondly, the channel did not give much on the advance of the US-led troops into Iraq.
The telecommunication towers had already been hit so there was no Internet, e-mail or international telephone lines. And there were also no foreign newspapers or magazines.
Without a short-wave radio, a satellite phone and newspapers, I was almost “blind” when it came to information.
On top of that, our movements were totally restricted by the Iraqi Information Ministry – every journalist had to be accompanied by a ministry-appointed guide and driver, which cost US$50 (RM190) each per day.
The price went up with increasing danger. And even with this, the guides-cum-minders always had to get permission from the ministry officials first before they could take you anywhere.
Walking 100m down the road to have a sandwich on your own was a strict no-no. A repeat offender risked not getting his media pass renewed or, worse, being escorted out of Iraq.
All this made it all the more difficult to survey the area and plan escape routes or safe locations to get to in case things turn ugly at the Palestine or Sheraton Hotels, where all the journalists were made to stay at.
There was also the rumour that foreign journalists, particularly Westerners, might be used as bargaining chips by the Iraqis if things got tough.
So with all that, I headed straight for the coffeeshop at Palestine Hotel and picked a group to talk with.
My choice turned out to be the bull’s eye – they were veteran war journalists, some with over 25 years' experience in the field, mostly in the Middle East.
When they found out I was without war experience, they assessed the situation for me and told me some of the do’s and don’ts and put me right at ease.
“Some days are good days and some are bad,” they said.
They also gave me their name cards and room numbers and told me to call anytime I needed anything or if I just needed to talk. In my first few days here, one of them would even call my room to check if I was doing okay.
Of course, the strict media control disappeared the day the US troops marched into the city, finally making it easier for me to move about.
Suddenly, I could get the driver to take me to places in Baghdad that I never got to see and the city is huge.
But it is the kindness of the people throughout that I will always remember.
Journalists came forward to offer to e-mail my stories via their satellite-linked systems while I waited approval to use the AFP one.
“No need to say ‘thank you.’ This is a war situation. We have got to help each other out. So come back anytime to send your story. No problem,” said Inigo Perez from a Spanish news channel as he sent my fourth story through his satellite phone.
And when the electricity supply was cut, a photographer came, helped me buy some wire and sockets, and then fixed the wiring to tap power from the generator of the hotel for my room. He had done the same for his.
Although not ideal, I truly appreciated being able to at least use my computer and have a light on while I worked when the whole city was in total darkness. It did not matter having to use candles or a torchlight in the bathroom and elsewhere.
Once when there was absolutely no power in my room for a couple of hours and my computer battery ran out, I begged the hotel reception for help.
They allowed me to connect my notebook computer to one of their main sockets and so I wrote the story standing at the reception counter. I finished in 20 minutes so that they could have their socket back before they missed it.
Not liking a repeat of this, I always make sure my notebook is fully charged all the time and try to write some stories whenever there is power in my room.
After more than a week of this, I found out that some people had regular power in their rooms and had paid US$10 (RM38) or US$20 (RM76) to get this arranged.
But when the hotel’s Pakistani electrician learnt I was Malaysian, he refused to accept any money and offered me tea instead!
I also have candles and two torchlights – one is by the bed while I carry the other with me all the time even if I go downstairs for just a cup of tea because the power has a way of going off at the most unexpected moments.
Although there are four lifts at the Sheraton, only one seems to work and even this very rarely, so often I find myself climbing 11 flights of stairs a couple of times a day. This is not a problem really because I do enjoy the exercise.
I am also grateful for the water.
Sometimes, the hotel is without water for the whole day, so I have to depend on the ten 1.5-litre bottles of water I have kept in the bathroom as back-up.
Most mornings, however, we have at least three hours of water, so I am able to flush the toilet, handwash my clothes and shower daily.
But everyday as I do this, I think of the Iraqi people who have no water and wonder how they manage.
Food used to be a big problem, especially during the days of heavy bombardment.
The restaurant downstairs did not open and other eateries around the city were closed, so my driver had to drive from one place to another looking for food.
And often when we found one that was open, it would be full of other journalists also looking for lunch.
Sure, I kept some basic food items in my room like drinking water, cereal, milk, fruit, cheese and even bread when I can get my hands on some. And I even have a cereal bowl crudely cut from one of those plastic water bottles.
But that food is for breakfast and often dinner because it is usually not safe to go out at night (earlier, it was because of the heavy bombings and now with the curfew on, it is totally out of the question).
Although I have taken great care about food and water because I do not want to fall ill from the lack of hygiene, there have been times when I have to throw caution to the wind.
When I go into homes for a story, for example, it is a part of their hospitality to offer guests a drink.
In one of the houses I visited, the woman complained bitterly about the poor quality of water they were getting.
“It tastes funny. It’s like it is mixed with something else,” said Amira Salleh as she brought a mug of water for me to taste.
She drank from the mug, passed it over and asked me to please try it.
I simply did not have the heart to refuse. – JMTM
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