In April 2004, during the first U.S. military offensive in Falluja, an Iraqi friend who worked as a cameraman for Reuters in Baghdad called me on a satellite phone to tell me that Alaa Nouri, a Reuters driver, was dead. They had both been in a car on the outskirts of Falluja, and had suddenly come under fire from a U.S. Bradley fighting vehicle. Alaa had lost control of the car after it was hit by several 7.62 mm machinegun rounds; it veered off the road and crashed into the outer wall of a mosque. Alaa’s colleague told me Alaa had been shot in the head.
I was bureau chief for Reuters in Baghdad at that time. As they heard the news, others in the office started to weep. Some started to walk out of the room. I told them to get back to work. We would grieve for Alaa once we were sure he was dead. Until then, we would do everything to save his life.
I didn’t really believe it myself. It was just a way of stopping the bureau falling apart, and of postponing having to deal with the terrible fact that a friend and colleague had been killed.
There was another Reuters car outside Falluja. It had also been fired upon, and I had told the team in that car to come back to Baghdad immediately. I called them again and told them to try to find the mosque where the other Reuters vehicle had crashed. Showing amazing courage, they turned around back into the battle zone, and found their colleagues. Alaa was alive. He had smashed his head on the dashboard when his car hit the mosque wall; there was a lot of blood, but he had not been shot. Both teams got into the Reuters car that was still driveable, carrying Alaa who remained unconscious. They made it back to Baghdad. All are still alive today.
In September 2004, I got a similar phone call. My friend Seif al-Jubouri, a Reuters cameraman, had been filming a piece to camera by Mazen al-Tomeizi, a journalist from al Arabiya TV, in Haifa Street, one of the most dangerous roads in Baghdad, following an insurgent attack on a U.S. vehicle there. Without warning, a U.S. helicopter fired several missiles at the crowd around the burning vehicle. The source who phoned me – a fellow journalist from another organisation who was trapped in an apartment block nearby under heavy fire – told me that Seif and Mazen were dead.
Again, I took the decision to believe Seif was alive until I knew otherwise for certain. A team of Iraqi staff volunteered to drive into the ongoing battle in Haifa Sreet in a Reuters armoured car. They found Seif and Mazen. Mazen was dead; Seif was alive but grievously wounded and bleeding heavily from a huge gash in his thigh. The Reuters team managed to evacuate him and get him to hospital. He is still alive. (And on Facebook.) His photograph is at the top of this post.
An account of that incident is here.
Those of us who worked in Reuters in Baghdad were big fans of Pirates of the Caribbean. We agreed between us that there were some principles we would always try to live our lives by. We called it the Pirate Code. The first rule was that we would never, ever, give up on somebody unless we knew absolutely for certain that all hope was gone.
I still follow the Pirate Code today.
If anybody wonders why I fight for lost causes: now you know.