For NPR journalist, 'the wars found me'

by Mark Herman | 11/4/03 6:00am

As a war correspondent for National Public Radio, Anne Garrels was one of only 16 American journalists to stay in Baghdad during the initial invasion of Iraq, but she never expected to find herself in such potentially dangerous situations, she said in an interview yesterday with The Dartmouth.

"I didn't look for the wars, the wars found me," Garrels said.

Garrels began her career as a journalist at ABC News, covering the Soviet Union. "I started out in the very Cold War -- far from bullets," she said.

She was working as a "junior-junior-junior producer" when the network was looking to send a Russian-speaking correspondent to Moscow in 1978.

"I was cheap," she said, contrasting herself to higher-paid, more experienced reporters who were still unable to find stories due to their inability to speak the language.

More than newspaper journalists, Garrels said she had difficulty reporting from the Soviet Union, both in getting people to speak with her on camera and in getting film past Russian censors.

"Raising a camera was a bit like raising an M16 -- everybody would scatter," she said.

Authorities would also stop her and her crew, exposing their film before it could be broadcast.

On other occasions, censors would confiscate rolls of film. Garrels recalled sending out 1,200 feet of film to be developed and only receiving 400 feet back.

"You had to find ways around that," Garrels said. One way was to smuggle film out of the country before it could be seen.

When American television reporters began using video for reporting, Russian authorities were unfamiliar with the new technology. Garrels and other reporters would tell Russian authorities there was no film that could be destroyed. At first, the authorities believed them.

"Those blissful days were brief but wonderful," Garrels said.

With little access to the Soviet government, Garrels focused her reporting on the Soviet people and on "how the Soviet Union worked -- or didn't work -- as the case may be," she said.

Her experience in the Soviet Union, finding people to share their stories with her and learning how to maneuver in a police state proved to be good training for covering Iraq, Garrels said.

In Iraq, Garrels depended on Iraqi citizens to provide her with information. "Wherever you go as a foreign correspondent, you rely on local people to be your guides," she said. "The most important talent is finding the right people to help you."

She added she was most impressed by their foresight on the war's outcome.

"The truth of the matter is that the Iraqis predicted everything we're seeing now," Garrels said. She identified the current "security vacuum," looting and violence as among the problems Iraqis expected to encounter in the aftermath of war.

Garrels won a 2003 Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation for her work in Baghdad.

"It was a calculated gamble that I was going to be okay," she said of her decision to stay in the city despite impending bombing and invasion.

Garrels said that in her experience covering wars from Iraq to Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya, the best reporting does not result from risking one's life.

"You don't need to necessarily put yourself in the line of fire," she said. "If you're dead, you're no good."

Garrels, however, has still found herself in the line of fire during her career.

"You always remember the first time you see tracer bullets coming at you," she said of her experience in El Salvador in 1985. Garrels said she started shaking uncontrollably and eventually hid in a bread oven, only to find a soldier already hiding there with a family of pigs.

Garrels is on campus this week as part of the Montgomery Endowment's series on Truth and Ethics in Journalism.

She has been meeting with students, and she will also deliver a lecture entitled "Naked in Baghdad." This is also the title of her new book, which details her experiences covering the Iraq war. The speech will be held tomorrow at 4:30 p.m. in Filene Auditorium.