“It will take a little bit of your soul,” my friend says about Hostile Environment Training, training offered by ex-British Special Forces to reporters and freelancers. Although the intense five-day training focuses on situational awareness, first aid and survival tactics, it also puts participants through mock kidnappings.
I’m taking the training in the U.K. this month in preparation for my return to Baghdad in August. I was last there 10 years ago, just a few months after the U.S.-led invasion, back when it was thought that was as dangerous as the city would get. Then the U.N. headquarters was bombed the next month. In the ensuing decade, more than 112,000 Iraqi civilians died directly from violence, according to IraqBodyCount.org, and another estimated million from war-related inability to get proper medication, safe drinking water or adequate healthcare.
Following the provisional elections in Baghdad, violence is rising. It’s “political” violence, says my contact in Baghdad. Last month’s back-to-back car bombings made May the most violent month since U.S. troops officially pulled out in December 2011.
My friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, took Hostile Environment Training after he was kidnapped by political terrorists while working in Asia. He wants me to be prepared for the emotionally and psychologically draining week.
“I still use what I learned.” He glances around the restaurant where we’re dining on gourmet salads. “I still walk into a place and look for the back exit. I walk along buildings’ walls so I can’t get dragged into a car. They teach you to sit at an inside wall in a restaurant so you can’t get dragged out while you’re eating,” he touches the wall as his eyes well. We don’t talk about his kidnapping.
“You learn to listen for sounds, regular sounds, to help keep track of time.” I thought of Lorena Santos, a young woman I interviewed in Manila, whose mother was kidnapped by the corrupt Philippine police and secretly held, while blindfolded and handcuffed, for three days before she surfaced. She counted planes flying overhead to keep track of the days.
I’m going back to Iraq to try and answer two questions: Are we really out of Iraq, and are Iraqis better off today than they were a decade ago?
Specifically, I’ll research:
• Status of women. Ten years ago, I interviewed several women and reported extensively on how women were affected by the impending war and the initial weeks following the invasion. I developed a talk called “Face to Face with the Women of Iraq” that I presented to hundreds of organizations, including to congresswomen in the U.S. Capitol.
I intend to interview women and girls from a variety of backgrounds to learn about their experiences during the war and how their societal status has changed. Under the Hussein regime, which was secular, women had a variety of options and were active in politics, academia and various professions. I will attempt to find women I interviewed in 2003 to provide their updated perspectives and experiences. I am in the process of lining up visits to schools and hospitals so I can report on how women and girls are faring in education and healthcare.
• Plight of refugees. I have followed one family for the past decade, including reporting about them from Damascus, where they fled in 2008. They are now back in Baghdad. I will interview Amina and Lulou (last names omitted for their protection), who were 15 and 13, respectively, when I saw them in Damascus. Now they are young women, 20 and 18, returning to face past traumas and uncertain futures.
Four million Iraqis were displaced during the war and occupation. Two million were displaced internally as neighborhoods experienced brutal ethnic cleansing. (Abdullah, Amina and Lulou’s father, tells me Baghdad is now “all walls.”) Over 1 million Iraqis fled to Syria and now many have returned to Iraq to escape that country’s civil war. Ironically, I spent the summer of 2008 in Syria helping Iraqi refugees; this summer I’ll be in Iraq interviewing Syrian refugees.
• Impact of U.S. contractors. In July 2003, I broke a story in the Santa Monica Daily Press about U.S. contractors who set the bar too high for Iraqis to get hired to rebuild their own country. Rep. Henry Waxman used my reporting to open an investigation. The Los Angeles Times ran a story about the Congressional investigation that referenced my research.
There are other stories I’m pursing as people make connections for me: a closeted gay man, a beleaguered Christian pastor, a worker at a water treatment plant. As I conduct pre-interviews via Skype, I’ll make them available on my website to subscribers at www.AreWeReallyOutOfIraq.com.
I ask my friend whether the Hostile Environment Training made him feel safer — or more suspicious? “I wouldn’t take it again, but I don’t regret the decision,” he puts down his fork. “But it won’t make you feel safer. And it will take a little bit of your soul.”
Following Hostile Environment Training, for which she was just awarded a grant by BBC News, Kelly Hayes-Raitt returns to Baghdad this August to put a human face on the U.S.-led invasion and occupation. Support and follow her trip at www.AreWeReallyOutOfIraq.com. Supporters get access to exclusive pre-trip interviews and blogs directly from Iraq.