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A Day in the Life of a Female Iraqi Journalist in Baghdad: Part One

You're expecting anonymous, shadowy armed men disguised in Iraqi security uniforms to storm the house at any time of the night and kill or abduct whoever they want into anonymous destination.
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Huda Ahmed is a reporter for McClatchy Newspapers in Baghdad Iraq. During the course of the Iraq war she has assisted in covering and translating a wide variety of breaking news and feature stories for McClatchy Newspapers and the Washington Post. She was on the front lines of the bloody siege of Najaf, on the ground in Baghdad during the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, and on the streets during Iraq's historic elections. She is the recipient of the Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship, sponsored by the International Women's Media Foundation, and will also be the recipient -- along with 5 of her colleagues at McClatchy's Baghdad bureau -- of the IWMF's 2007 Courage in Journalism Award.

Ahmed is one of hundreds of courageous Iraqi men and women who put their lives at risk every day. Western media outlets -- TV, newspaper, radio and internet -- rely on these local employees -- drivers, cooks, security personnel, translators and reporters like Ahmed -- to cover the war in Iraq. She shares some of her experiences as a working journalist in Baghdad with the Huffington Post.

Boston -- When I watched the news on CNN about the second bombing of the golden dome of the al-Askari shrine last June, I knew there would be big trouble ahead. I was desperate for more details. I sensed what kind of trouble the Iraqis will have to put up with for the coming days.

Though the Iraqi government had declared a curfew in Baghdad and Samarra, where the bombing took place, that would not mean a wave of sectarian violence and bombings could be avoided -- and many of these things would not be reported in the media.

I was so worried about my family and I had a terrible feeling of guilt that I was not there with them. I kept the phone next to me and called them everyday to make sure nothing was happening to them. At the same time, I did not want to hear any more news and wanted to shut myself off from the world and try to listen to anything that would distract me. I put my iPod headphones on and listened to songs by Fairuz (a Lebanese diva singer). But this made things worse because she was singing about the good old days of childhood and love. I burst in tears until there were no more.

I began to think about my colleagues in our bureau in Baghdad and the other Iraqi and foreign journalists. I knew how dangerous and hard it is for them to pursue any major story for security reasons.

The typical day of an Iraqi journalist -- especially one who works for a foreign press outlet -- involves facing many challenges. One of the first challenges is how to go back and forth from work and home.

Every night is hot and stressful, the heat may reach up to 130 F. Between keeping an eye on the generator and the national electricity that may come for an hour on anytime without prior notice, listening to the sounds of bombings and shootings, and the cries of babies struggling to sleep without electricity. In addition, you're expecting anonymous, shadowy armed men disguised in Iraqi security uniforms to storm the house at any time of the night and kill or abduct whoever they want into anonymous destination.

The second challenge is preparing for work in the morning. First, they have to check underneath cars for an IED (improvised explosive device) and they check the street for any unexpected armed group or militia.

Then, while driving on the streets of Baghdad wearing a headscarf, you have to change from the dangerous routes to avoid bombings, traffic jam or checkpoints. Also, you have to avoid any roads that lead to the IZ (international zone) to avoid American army, convoys of American contractors, or Iraqi army and police. The car doors must be locked against any armed intruders who may bump into the car. You must keep the windows down and turn down the radio on to listen to any shootings or bombings. You should keep your seat belt unfastened so you can run away quickly during any bombing, shooting or kidnapping attempts. You should drive away from the curbs where the IEDs are planted, keep your eyes open for any suspicious passing car, and keep your cell phone to call the office for any emergency.

The office is located in a hotel in a suburban area outside the fortified international zone. The hotel is surrounded with 12-foot walls beginning from the checkpoints, arranged in a zigzag way for cars to slow down. There are six checkpoints divided on both sides from the main street and the back street until the hotel's entrance. There are security cameras inside and around the hotel. Most Iraqi journalists prefer to use the back street checkpoints for security instead of the main street.

To get to the floor where the office is located, there is a security gate with a password known only by the staff of the paper. There is a chef to cook for the staff to limit the risk of eating at restaurants.

Also, we have local stringers around the country to file any news or story ideas because it takes hours and huge risks to get to any city. Once we are at our desks, we have to put away any family problems or personal issues and focus on work and how to stay alive without jeopardizing the crew's life or going insane. The work is supposed to be 10-12 hours a day, but it is a 24-hour job, whether at the office or at home amid irrational violence. We (Iraqi correspondents) try not to drive home after dusk, when it is better to stay in the office. Also, the Iraqi staff (Iraqi correspondents and drivers) rotate between each other to stay in the office for any breaking news or emergency. This is a glimpse of an Iraqi journalist's life and life amid violence and war.

When going on assignments, there should be a security plan about the place and time and information known about the background of the interviewee and if it worth the risk. All the communications devices should be available with us and drivers with walkie-talkies to contact the base. But the walkie-talkie will work only in the range for 4-6km. Other than that they will be used between the two cars and should be used while hidden under the passenger's seat. In this way, we will discard any suspicions from the security checkpoints or people on streets linking us with the insurgents or government or media outlets. The first car will be the reporter with the translator. The second will be the chase car to watch any suspicious movements or find an alternative route for the first car. The female reporters should were conservative clothes like loose, long sleeve shirts and skirts or loose pants, and wear a headscarf. The interviews should be quick and to the point. At the same time, your eyes and ears should look for any suspicious moves. Be ready to leave right away.

The Iraqi journalists and translators along with the foreign journalists should carry two IDs. The first ID will be the one authorized by the CPIC (Coalition International Press Center) which is hidden all the time. The second ID which is the safest and most used is called the fake ID issued by the paper's office itself and will be in Arabic on one side and English on the other side.

The above is just a glimpse of what the Iraqi journalists' daily life in Iraq's war zone. It will take many pages or may be books to talk and describe in depth. This is just the beginning of a journey of many posts ahead. This journey will put you in close touch with the environment there. A journey of anxiety, achievements, humor amid of violence, frustration, humanity, determination, dedication and death.