I was looking forward to a leisurely breakfast and a pot of tea in the hotel restaurant. All of the gang was there at different tables; the assorted activists, journalists, and human rights hard cases that live in our hotel. Everyone was sleepy and cranky from lack of caffeine. I had just taken my first sip of tea.
And then WHOOM! The windows rattled as a bomb exploded, somewhere very near the building. Everyone scrambled for cameras and jackets and we hit the stairs as a herd, taking the steps three at a time. I jumped into a jeep with a Hungarian reporter friend and two soft-spoken cats from Polish National Radio. "This is actually the first time I've tried to witness one of these," I confessed to one of the Poles as we pulled into the street. "The thing is," he replied, "when you do this, it is nothing original. When a bomb explodes, every journalist in Baghdad arrives."
And he was right. We saw a reporter for Al Jazeera fly by on a minibike, a video camera slung across his back. "Follow heem!" bellowed the Hungarian, and the driver lurched the vehicle across a cement embankment and we shot down a side street after him. Within two minutes we were at the scene.
A bomb had exploded on Karada, a crowded street of shops and food stalls. The target was a passing American convoy, but the device had missed, and instead killed an Iraqi man. He lay on the street, covered with a cloth and a piece of cardboard. Another man was staggering around, bleeding profusely from his shoulder. Journalists were everywhere, pushing through the crowd, jockeying for position. American soldiers stood nervously in the street, trying to look calm.
The crowd was getting angry. One man kicked a French photographer in the chest for pushing too hard in his attempt to take a picture of the corpse. Someone yelled in Arabic, "The journalists are agents of the Americans!" Another man shouted at the Humvees that were approaching. "Go home! You only make people die!"
The whole scene made me glad that I am not a news photographer, someone who has to run to where "the action" is, and push and shove to get "the shot." Sometimes it's fine, but other times it's vulgar and obnoxious, and can get you kicked or killed. I would rather try and make films, which is more difficult and takes much more time, but allows you to be broader, and not to just focus on the flash and the bang. That morning, I filmed plenty of footage of the journalists on the scene, as well as the carnage and the crowd.
I returned to the hotel just in time to deposit my camera and hail a taxi to get to work on time. Needless to say, I didn't get to enjoy my leisurely breakfast. But there will be more pots of tea, I imagine, and for sure, there will be more bombings.
Very, Very Tired
Our film is about life in Baghdad before and after the war. The Spanish film crew I am working with was here in February, and now we are filming the second part of the piece. They have a stridently anti-war, anti-American stance on the whole affair, so I don't think the film will get much play in the US.
We've been filming a lot of people who have lost family or friends in the bombing. We shoot in hospitals, where all the doctors are around 25 years old, the older ones having been fired for being Baathists, adding to the 60-percent unemployment rate in Iraq.
We talk to children who were burned when bombs hit a hospital next to their school. A teacher who lost six members of her family and half of her students in two weeks. People cry in front of the cameras at times. Life here in Iraq is very, very hard for most people, and they are very, very tired.
One day we interviewed the family of a 12-year-old girl who was severely wounded when her house was hit by a cluster bomb. They have even preserved the blanket she was sleeping under when the attack came. There is a hole the size of a basketball in it, where the shrapnel tore into her side and broke her arm. She told us about her experience, speaking in Arabic, but I needed no translation. It was a heartbreaking story, and for the first time after a month in this broken, torn, tragic place, I started to break down myself. Of course I had to keep quiet, because we were recording.
Is this where the proverbial "devil's advocate" comes in? The voice that says: In every war there are accidents. In every war, civilians are, unfortunately, hit and wounded and killed. It simply can't be avoided.
Well, that is supposed to be the job of the filmmakers and the journalists, to tell the other side of the story. Most of them, needless to say, don't concern themselves with such things. In the U.S., we rarely hear a word about the civilians, only the military's stories of laser-guided missiles and precision bombs. And when I think about all the people back home, especially in my hometown of San Antonio, Texas, with its four military bases, wearing their "Operation Iraqi Freedom" T-shirts and "Support The Troops" pins, it makes me sick.
Freedom in Iraq, at the moment, is a daily struggle for survival, and supporting the troops is, as always, a meaningless slogan.
Homes of Rubble
Several days ago we filmed in the former Air Defense Ministry building. It was once a colossal, palatial affair, with marble walls and an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
Now, it is mostly a pile of rubble, with some of its former imperial glory remaining in the form of rain-streaked walls and crumbling concrete diving platforms, 30 feet high.
We were there to interview one of the families of people that have since moved into the abandoned space. There are at least 500 Iraqis living there now. Clotheslines criss-cross the former exercise plaza. Fences around dwellings are constructed from locker doors planted in the ground.
Spray painted on a wall it says "Bakery" (in Arabic of course), with an arrow pointing to a small improvised house. And there indeed, in what was formerly the parade ground of the ministry building, a family runs a bakery, daily making the round flatbread that Iraqis eat with every meal.
Our specific focus that morning was a group of boys who climb a mountainous pile of debris every morning and dig out the useable bricks. The whole city was drowning in cold, thick fog when we arrived. Palm trees were barely visible hovering in the distance as the two kids picked their way over burnt and blasted columns, twisted rebar, and mounds and mounds of crumbled rock and plaster. They pulled out the intact bricks and loaded them into a plastic-sheet sling while we filmed them. Then they hauled them down to the mud path that used to be a street, and past the huts and houses carved out of the ruins. They brought the bricks to their father, who cleaned them off, and with the boys' eager help, set about mortaring and arranging them into a wall of the house he is building for them to live in.
Even here at ground zero of American imperial dreams, some people are making a home for themselves, out of the ruins of violence and terror.