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July 17, 2008

Baghdad at night

Greetings from Baghdad. Before I am became McClatchy’s Pentagon correspondent and honored member of the Nukes and Spooks trifecta, I was our Baghdad bureau chief. I was here at the height of the violence, when we woke up everyday to bombings, when we didn’t bat an eye at 70 bodies in the street, when a good week meant that none of our friends or sources had been killed.

It was an exhausting experience; everyday felt like a roll of the dice. And yet it came to define normal for us. Would the staff survive the illegal checkpoints, the ethnic cleansing of their streets or an unannounced raid by police forces with inscrutable motives? Everyday, I mentally prepared myself for news that one of our staffers had been killed on the way to work or out on a story. By the end of my tenure, I could not bring myself to send them anywhere, frightened to push the odds. 

Once, after a particularly violent day, I thought to myself, “One day, I will look back at this time and think how crazy we all are to stay here.”

Today, that day came.

It happened as we drove around Baghdad to see how things changed. We went to neighborhoods I never thought I would see again, let alone at night. Street lights illuminated the shopping districts and bustling customers. People were hanging out of their cars to celebrate weddings. Couples were enjoying dinner, sitting next to windows, without the fear of a car bomb. It was so ordinary and yet almost magical.

Now, I don’t want to overstate where things are. Most of the city is silent and dark again by 9 p.m. and throughout there were blast walls and barriers to keep people from parking. And no one is sure how long this will last. But for the first time in years, Baghdad felt almost like a normal city to me.

Everywhere we went, I drove by places where two years ago, we had just missed an IED or car bomb or some other unspeakable violence, places where I almost didn’t make it, indeed where friends and sources didn't make it. Today those places are safe. I saw the madness we were once living under. Why did I stay? What was I thinking?

I think back then it was inconceivable that there would ever be any other reality. Had I know then that things could be like this, maybe I would have seen the insanity of what we were living more clearly.

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Comments

Nancy Youssef

Vero: You raise an interesting point. I personally think the ethnic cleansing was part of a complex equation. But I don't know how much, so it's hard for me to properly answer your point.

Having lived here during the ethnic cleansing though, I can tell you it was truly horrific, unspeakable as you say. I never thought then that things would be relatively calm, even for a little while. So I think all Iraqis are trying to embrace -- and adapt to -- the peace.

Nancy Youssef

Vero: You raise an interesting point. I personally think the ethnic cleansing was part of a complex equation. But I don't know how much, so it's hard for me to properly answer your point.

Having lived here during the ethnic cleansing though, I can tell you it was truly horrific, unspeakable as you say. I never thought then that things would be relatively calm, even for a little while. So I think all Iraqis are trying to embrace -- and adapt to -- the peace.

vero

I have read that part of the return to normalcy you cite is the result of the "ethnic cleansing" that has taken place; with neighborhoods uniformly Shia or Sunni, there is simply that much less reason and opportunity for hostilities. If true, the normalcy has been achieved at an unspeakable price.

batguano101

Congratulations on being alive.
Thank you for this short article.
In a real way this says more about then and now than a 3,000 word piece.

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"Nukes & Spooks" is written by McClatchy correspondents Jonathan S. Landay (national security and intelligence), Warren P. Strobel (foreign affairs and the State Department), and Nancy Youssef (Pentagon).

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