[Sept. 3, 2007, UPDATE: Bobby Ghosh becomes world editor at Time.]
Following is a Q&A with Aparisim “Bobby” Ghosh, Baghdad bureau chief for Time Magazine and one of the most talked-about speakers at this year's SAJA Convention. Ghosh has reported from Iraq for more than four years; his essay "Life in Hell: A Baghdad Diary," was Time's August 2006 cover story, and provides an incredible window into just what Ghosh does and where he does it. SAJAforum's Rumee Singh spoke to Ghosh during the convention. He spoke about his "webcam marriage” to his wife, as well as his work on the front lines, his ethnic advantage and his encounters with Al Qaeda. (Photo by Preston Merchant)
What drives you to cover one of the most vulnerable places in the world? Why do you even remain in the city?
Working in Baghdad has been terrifying in many ways for me. The atmosphere in Baghdad is very dangerous; you are exposed if you go out with a camera in a hand and any one working for a media organization is targeted for kidnap or assassination. But on the same hand, it has been intellectually satisfying for me - there's the opportunity to tell the most important story of our times - one that will have a lasting impact on the rest of the world. There is no single country that’s not been affected by Iraq. Iraq has changed the way the world views America, the way America views itself, the way the world views Islam, and the way Islam views itself; it has changed the war in terror, it has changed the way terrorists fight. Iraq is changing everything.
Nobody forces you to go to Baghdad. There have been people who go and come back in 3 days and they've never been held against that. Every time I fly from New York to Baghdad the last thing my editor asks me is “Are you sure you want to go? Do you know the repercussions?” And my answer is always a yes. I know I will always want to go to Baghdad whether it’s a long trip or a short one for the rest of my life.
How would you compare working in a war zone with other situations? What do you look for when covering stories?
What happens in a war zone is unpredictable, exposed and raw. It gives you a chance to examine people closely and how societies behave in such conditions. I have been consumed in the Iraqi experience and my interest has always been with how Iraqis cope with the situation. I have always made a conscious attempt not to reduce the stories into kidnapping and explosions but tell the human side of it. It’s a very difficult place to be in and not everyone has the same advantages that I do.
Is being an Indian an advantage?
Being Indian is definitely an asset. Anybody who looks obviously like a foreigner is at risk. When I'm in a public place, nobody notices me because I am often mistaken for an Arab and I blend into the crowd. If I am traveling in an ordinary car with Iraqi staff, we don’t attract attention.
What’s a day like in your life in Baghdad?
We live in the red zone and since a number of V.I.Ps live nearby we have a higher degree of security. There is a little freedom to roam and I go out every day, but in order to go anywhere, we have to drive through Karada. Karada is the most bombed neighborhood in Iraq.
I believe, by now I have developed a heightened sense of danger, and I listen to my instincts to when and where to go. Out there, if a foreigner visits an Iraqi home, the word spreads out like fire, making the person, the home and even the entire neighborhood vulnerable. So everyday I tend to go and meet people who I have known for a long time. No eyebrows are raised when I limit my visits to my old contacts and friends since everyone knows me. It’s very hard to make new friends.
How has your family responded to your being in Iraq?
As much as it is stressful to us, it is much more stressful for our family. I know, my wife has to put up with more stress than me. And I am conscious that I do not take that for granted. I call her 10 to 15 times a day and we share what I like to call a “webcam marriage.” When she was in Singapore we would have a meal together in front of our computers. My webcam is switched on all the time, so even when we are not talking, we can see each other.
If there’s a large explosion, your first instinct as a journalist would be to call your news desk, but when you are in Iraq, every news person calls home first. It’s your responsibility to let your family know you are fine.
Does your family try to talk you out of it?
They have already given up on that. Covering Baghdad is what satisfies me and they have adjusted their lives to allow me to do what I love. Occasionally, my friends try to talk me out of it. People have a hard time to digest you are a war correspondent.
How hard is it to find sources for your stories?
Getting people to talk is not a problem at all. Iraqis love to talk but I am always trying to restrain them on the basis of what they tell me. If I interview people who say terrible things about Al Qaeda, there’s bound to be repercussions if we run their real names and pictures. When we feature them in our stories, we are very careful to explain about what the consequences could be and we are ten times more careful when using photos. Iraq now has a large media scene, and many steal pictures from wires and the internet. Nobody would sue them for copyrights anyway.
Why has violence against South Asian contractors not gained much media attention? Is it an issue that you would cover if you had a chance?
Such issues are usually out of Baghdad and I haven’t been able to cover stories outside of Baghdad. If I were able to do the reporting I’d have no problem doing it, and I am sure TIME would have no problem with it if I were to pitch it. The sad part is such stories don’t get told by their own local media.
Suicide bombers are a big issue in Iraq. What motivates them?
Suicide terrorism creates an intellectual distance; it’s too hard to understand their concept and what motivates them. Suicide bombers are of course much more effective to disturb the enemy and are less expensive. And unlike Palestine where they glorify the names of these suicide bombers and their families get money, in Iraq, there’s no glory and families are rarely compensated. Much more often, the bombers bring money to pay their way to paradise by being a suicide bomber. Their commitment to their religion and country runs deeper than monetary considerations.
One of the scariest persons I have ever met was an Al Qaeda commander whose job was to facilitate suicide bombers. He provides safe house for suicide bombers and equips them with explosive vests, cars and other materials. He prepares the bomber psychologically with religious justifications and is the last person the bomber talks to. He told me, “Suicide bombers are not human beings. They are mere weapons that walk on two feet,” and he could not name any suicide bombers he's dealt with in the past. It’s hard to imagine how de-humanized it has become, those who are sending them to their death beds do not know who they are.