Baghdad Gets Scarier

BAGHDAD, Sunday evening—Today, for the first time, the bombs fell and the missiles struck in daylight. The assault lasted all day. And it came not only from long-range missiles but from coalition planes that are flying over our heads and dropping their payloads in the neighborhood of the Palestine Hotel, where most of the foreign journalists remaining in Baghdad are staying.

Today is also the first time that I am truly frightened. It is not the American bombs I am primarily afraid of. What frightens me and Mary—the name I’ll give a photographer with whom I’ve become inseparable—is the mood of the people. The city is thick with anger and defiance, and we are Americans.

Every day since Mary and I arrived by road from Jordan, we have been threatened with expulsion. This morning, once again, we were ordered out. “You have two choices—you can be a human shield or you can leave the country,” said my government minder. He offered this without his usual smarmy smile.

“But what about my visa?” I asked.

“Your visa is now to heaven,” he said, forcing a laugh.

I talked my way out of it once again. My minder said we could obtain visa “extensions” provided we take HIV tests. I brought my own syringes, and I swabbed Mary’s arm and extracted a vial of blood in my room. She did the same for me. We then went to the so-called HIV center together, with bombs dropping around us, to submit our blood to the Iraqi government. Of course, they insisted on taking their own samples. Cruise missiles launched 900 miles away exploded around us, incinerating government buildings as we partook in this ridiculous charade.

This absurdity over, we returned to the Palestine, where we are as prepared as we can be for whatever may come next. We have 300 bottles of the water and have filled the bathtubs in each of several rooms for reserve. We’ve stockpiled enough food for weeks. Should the power fail, we have a generator and jerry cans filled with petrol purchased on the black market. If a bomb blows out our window, the duct tape we’ve covered it with should protect us from flying glass. All of our electronics—computers, cameras, communications devices—are wrapped in aluminum foil against so-called e-bombs that will destroy all the data of electronic devices.

At 4 p.m. Baghdad time, an American fighter jet dropped its payload so close that the concussion sucked the air out of our lungs. Mary and I got in our car and drove toward the site of the explosion.

As we crossed one of the four Tigris bridges, there was an enormous traffic jam. Hundreds of armed men and civilians were looking down to the river below. Scores of cars had stopped in the middle of the bridge. We grabbed our gear and got out.

The rumor was that an allied plane had been shot down. Word spread through the crowd that two pilots had parachuted from the downed plane and were floating down the river. One had supposedly already been captured. Whether there were any pilots in the river, I don’t know.

Small boats with heavily armed soldiers searched among the reeds. From the banks, people took pot shots at objects in the river. Under the impression that the airman had been captured, thousands of cheering Iraqis chanted and clapped, shooting AK-47s in the air for joy. People in both uniform and civilian clothes eyed us with hostility during this celebration.

“Where are you from?” demanded an armed Iraqi, looking at me.

“Germany,” interjected my government guide, abruptly grabbing me by the arm and yanking me away.

“Do not tell them you are American,” he whispered as he rushed me to the car. “We must leave. It is very dangerous here.”

Then we were on the western side of the Tigris, where the coalition bombardment has struck hardest. The sounds of imams on speakers reverberated through the streets—calls for the people to kill all the Americans. We raced through Baghdad’s most dangerous area, passing Saddam’s palaces, now piles of burnt rubble. The Foreign Ministry was a concrete shell with no windows and only sullen soldiers at the entrance. Apartment buildings recently filled with civilians were charred, burnt, collapsed, and empty. Hundreds of apartments and no people—where did they all go? Western medical sources have reported some 300 civilian injuries in Baghdad but very few killed.

The Iraqi military had now closed all the Tigris River bridges. Mary and I were stuck. We had to drive north for an hour as bombs continued dropping around us. “This is the road to Babylon,” said our government minder. It felt like Babylon. We then took another road—the road to Kuwait, our guide said. We had to drive north of the city, then east, and then south to enter Baghdad on the east bank of the Tigris and return to our hotel.

Explosions are rocking my computer as I write. For the first time, small-arms fire can be heard throughout the city. Anti-aircraft emplacements are set up around the perimeter of our hotel. It’s not a good sign. Yesterday those 500 meters from us were destroyed, completely destroyed, by American missiles.