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'Unwilling Witness': Former Journalist Recalls Iraq War


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, some four million people call themselves NRA members, but that's only a fraction of gun owners in America. In a few minutes, we are going to speak with one lifelong gun owner who says the NRA does not represent him, and he'll tell us why in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk more today about the war in Iraq. It started 10 years ago. Yesterday, we spoke with an American veteran. He told us about his experiences and what he thinks about his service now. Today, we want to speak with a man whose job was to write about the war, every gruesome part of it. And this might be a good time to tell you that the story might not be appropriate for all listeners.

Joining us now is Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi. He is a former reporter for the New York Times. He recently wrote a piece in the New York Times magazine about one of the most infamous scenes of the war that he personally witnessed, and how that moment has stayed with him all these years later. Abdul Razzaq, thank you so much for joining us. Actually, welcome back to the program. We've spoken with you before.

ABDUL RAZZAQ AL-SAIEDI: Thank you for having me again.

MARTIN: Can you just first tell us why you wanted to be a journalist?

AL-SAIEDI: Before the war, before 2003, I never worked in journalism. We didn't have real journalism during the Saddam era. But it's like telling the truth, so I feel there's a commitment that the people, especially the U.S., they need to know exactly what's going on, you know, without, you know, propaganda or where they're against this.

So, for me, this is really, you know, important that we're telling the truth, and we describe the scene as it is, you know, for good or for bad.

MARTIN: The piece that you wrote for the Times was called "The Unwilling Witness." It refers to a scene that many people in this country probably have in their heads even now. This was in March of 2004, and there was an attack in Fallujah against an American convoy. And there were four security contractors who were working for the firm then called Blackwater.

And you got there, and you realized this was another one of those instances where it was just you and an Iraqi driver, because non-Iraqi journalists, it just was understood to be too dangerous for them to go. So you get there. Do you mind if I ask what you saw?

AL-SAIEDI: So when we arrived, I saw a burned-out vehicle, that had completely burned. And there were marks around it. They dismantle everything that they could find it useful. And then I asked what happened, and they said, oh, there's four Americans were killed. And then I said: Where are they? They said, oh, they took them to the bridge. And I said how they take them? He said, oh, they burned them and they dragged them to the bridge.

And also, I saw one flesh with a bone was dangling from the electricity wire. And someone, when I ask where are they, and somebody said, oh, look up. And I look up. He said this is the one of the remains. Oh, my God. So I feel so scared. I feel like, for me, it's like, you know, too much. I feel, like, disoriented a bit, but I'm here to report it. So I have to get the story.

Then I walked to the bridge. And then when I went up to the bridge I saw, you know, two bodies, where it's completely burned, were hung. And there's two just on the ground. And the two on the ground, there's children there. One of the kids, I think he was 10 or, like, 11 years old, and he was, you know, kicking one of the bodies. And he kept saying this is pacha, pacha.

And pacha is an Iraqi meal made of the head of the sheep. And that, for me, you know, as a person said, you know, this is, like, too much. You know, I can't stand it. But also, at the same time, I had my camera with me, but I was so scared. If I would take pictures, maybe this mob, you know, they were so excited. And mostly teenagers, children. And there was no policeman, no American soldiers, no any - none.

And then they look at me, because I think maybe they ask themselves, said, who's this? And then I find myself, some people there, staring at me. And I know within one word I could maybe the fifth body. They look at me, and then I pretend also I'm excited, you know, with this.

And then I decide to leave. So I left. But I left with a story.

MARTIN: Well, you talked about the fact that - in your piece - you see this boy kicking this person...


MARTIN: ...who's just been killed, and you say to yourself: This child can't be human. But you also - you get back to the bureau, and you decided you would quit.


MARTIN: But you didn't quit. Why didn't you quit?

AL-SAIEDI: Well, my bureau chief was very smart and very wise and is really good with the negotiation tactics. So he gave me - he said, you know, take a few days off. Think about it. Until I - you know, like, when you get angry or you get anxious, and then a few days, you just have peace. And he convinced me that we will be careful to not be exposed to these, you know, dangerous issues or whatever.

And also, I liked him, and I like my work. You know, I like my work with the Times. Then I - you know, then I decide to stay.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is the second in our series of conversations about the Iraq war, looking back over 10 years. Yesterday, we heard from an American, a Marine. Today, we are speaking with former New York Times reporter Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi.

Eventually, you did quit. This was after two of your colleagues were assassinated. And you did travel to the U.S. and undertook graduate studies. But you met a woman named Donna. Can you tell us about that?

AL-SAIEDI: In 2009, five years after this incident, I was at Harvard. I was a student at the Kennedy School. And a (unintelligible) in 2009, in class, they told me that a mother of one of these people who were killed, she will come to Cambridge, because there was informal event. And then she told me that she really wants to talk to you. I was reluctant to meet her, but at the end, I feel really sorry, because she's a mother, and I know how much I love my mother.

So I tell my mother, and I said that meeting might help her. So let me do it. And we met for breakfast, and she looked at me, and she said, please tell me what happened. That was her question. You know, what could you say to a mother when I saw all this scene, you know, to tell her what happened? So I tried to be, like, elusive or tried to change the subject.

Because she asked me a couple of questions, and then she said: Please tell me what happened. I need to know why, and then why did that happened to my son? Then I give her a short answer and said: He was killed very quickly. That's what the eyewitness told me, that the insurgents, they trapped them. They shoot them. They killed them, and they left.

And then the mobs, when they gathered, and it was chaos. So they burned and they dragged them, etc. Then I told her he was killed very quickly. And then I couldn't stand to, you know, to see a mother. And I talk about my mom because when we - you know, I lost my brother. He was hung.

MARTIN: By Saddam Hussein's forces in Abu Ghraib. Correct?

AL-SAIEDI: Yes, by secret forces. He was executed. But they didn't tell us. They executed and they buried him in a secret cemetery in the back yard of Abu Ghraib. And then, because 2003, when Saddam's regime was removed, then I looked for him. Then I found his grave.

MARTIN: Do you think it helped Donna(ph) to hear this?

AL-SAIEDI: Yeah. I said tell me what's happening that day. How did you know? And then she start talking to me and said, you know, in the morning she was listening to the radio and then she heard about what happened in Fallujah on the radio and then she emailed her son because she thought about it and she emailed him and said please be careful and let's talk today when you have time, whatever. And two hours later she knew that Jerry(ph), her son, was one of them.

So it was like a therapy session. It was because it is trauma of war. You know, we exchange it. We help each other, so we like - you know, we counsel each other. I listen to her and then she listens to me and we both cry, so I think that helped both us because this kind of a trauma - it lasts for a long time.

MARTIN: Abdul Razzaq, before we let you go - and thank you for speaking with us, I know it's not easy to talk about these things.


MARTIN: I know you're speaking for yourself. It's 10 years after the start of the war and, you know, you are an Iraqi citizen, but you live in the U.S. You lost your own brother to Saddam Hussein. You lost colleagues to the war. How do you think about this war 10 years on?

AL-SAIEDI: Wow. The answer - it's not easy - but I could say, in 2003 most of the Iraqis people, the majority, were happy with this war because that was the only way to remove the regime, the brutal regime and that - we thought that's the end of dictatorship, of oppression, of injust, and we hoped that is the beginning of a new future, of freedom, of democracy, of a new Iraq.

But things, unfortunately, things are getting worse and worse and worse. And I'll always say - I always say that - I said we gained freedom. We were liberated, for sure, but we lost the country. We lost our security, our stability, our identity, and since 2003, Iraqi people, they are living in violent political crisis, uncertainty. So that's what I see. We gained something, but we lost other things, so...

MARTIN: How are you?

AL-SAIEDI: I'm OK. Thank you. I'm doing - I finished my degree at Harvard and I think I have successful career, but you know, as I said, I mean I'm talking to my mom almost every day. My family's still there in Iraq, but the trauma of the war, I think, lasts for a very long time.

MARTIN: That was Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi. He is a former reporter for the New York Times and a former Nieman fellow at Harvard. He's currently working on a project to advance human rights in the Middle East and he joined us from member station WGBH in Boston.

Abdul Razzaq, thank you so much for joining us.

AL-SAIEDI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.