Baghdad to London: a taleof two cities

Andrew Marshall left his job as Reuters’
bureau chief in Baghdad for a quieter life in London. He tells Julie
Tomlin how days later he was reporting on the 7 July bombings

AFTER TWO years covering the
escalating violence in Baghdad for Reuters, Andrew Marshall was looking
forward to a more peaceful life working in the news agency’s London
bureau.

Having worked in Iraq since shortly after the fall of Saddam
Hussein, Marshall had told his bosses that he had done his time as
bureau chief in Baghdad.

Marshall had seen the capital “change
beyond recognition” in that time and was aware that being responsible
for a team of about six foreign journalists, a network of stringers
around the country and back-up staff was beginning to weigh heavily on
him.

A few days after arriving back in London, however, Marshall
got a text from a friend in Iraq asking if he was OK and moments later
was rushing to Reuters’

Gray’s Inn Road offices, where for the next three days he was again working on a major bombing incident.

“It
was very uncanny,” says Marshall. “My mother was bombarding the Reuters
switchboard with frantic calls because she was certain that I must have
escaped Iraq to get caught up in the bombings of London.

“It’s
something we got used to in Iraq. Unfortunately there were a lot of
suicide bombings, but I never expected it to happen here so soon after
coming back.”

The collapse of the mobile phone network that made
communication so difficult on 7 July also had “echoes of Iraq”, says
Marshall. Working under such familiar conditions in London was “strange
and almost eerie”, although in Iraq dealing with an “erratic and very
unreliable” system is almost a daily difficulty.

Marshall says he
was aware how “shocking and significant” the first suicide bombings to
take place in the UK were, but his response to the attacks is no doubt
tempered by having worked for two years in a city where suicide
bombings happen regularly.

“I don’t remember the last time I
spent a day in Baghdad without hearing an explosion,” says Marshall.
“It could be car bombs, suicide bombs or a mortar going off, but
they’re happening all the time.

“One of the difficulties of
covering Iraq is that they have become almost routine,” he continues.
“It’s very hard to write the story and keep people interested when
there is constant daily violence.”

Marshall avoided being caught
up in any violence, although an explosion that blew in the windows of
the Reuters house he lived in forced him and other staff to run for
cover to an underground safe room.

“There is this constant risk of random attack even if people aren’t specifically targeting us,” says Marshall.

“The bombers aren’t very accurate – a lot of Iraqi families have been wiped out as a result.”

The
blanket coverage of the London bombings contrasted strongly with
Baghdad, where the regularity with which bombs go off makes it
increasingly difficult to generate interest.

“When a country is
going through such a high level of violence for so long people do begin
to lose interest to some degree,” says Marshall. “We certainly felt it
in Iraq. A year or a year and a half ago, every time we heard an
explosion we were immediately rushing to find out what it was, racing
out of the door grabbing the flak jackets.

“These days we would
hear it and it’s just ‘another blast’ and we know we still have to
cover it, but the level of interest has drifted.”

The depth of
coverage of the London attacks and the amount of space devoted to
personal and background stories particularly struck Marshall.

“The
coverage has been excellent. It’s something I wish we could do more of
in Iraq, because what people were able to do is to focus very quickly
on the victims and their families and who they were.

“Because of the amount of violence in Iraq, you don’t have the same amount of time to follow up.

“Now
and again we have done some very powerful stories, interviewing the
family of a suicide bomber or going to a hospital and seeing the scenes
there after a bombing. We try to do as much of it as we can, but as
there’s so much violence and because of the dangers and difficulties we
don’t always do it.”

Life in Baghdad changed considerably as the
city spiralled deeper into violence – the bureau was moved to a secure
area and staff were forced to leave the Sheraton hotel because mortar
attacks happened so regularly.

“Baghdad was relatively peaceful
back when I first went out there,” says Marshall. “We used to eat out
in restaurants, we used to drive around town after curfew without any
trouble, we would go out reporting every day and never felt too
concerned.”

But things started changing after the bombing of the
United Nations building in the summer of 2003, says Marshall. “We knew
then that we were a potential target, so we had to start fortifying the
bureau and taking more precautions.”

Now the Reuters team, along with BBC and New York Times staff, live and work in the same specially protected area.

“We had to fortify the whole street,” he continues.

“All
the different agencies have large guard forces armed with Kalashnikovs,
we’ve all put up big concrete blast walls right around the buildings so
if there is a suicide bomber who gets through the checkpoint it will
absorb the blast.

“The houses themselves look more like
fortresses – there are sandbags around the windows and barbed wire, so
it is quite an oppressive atmosphere, but that’s the way it has to be
if you want to stay safe in Iraq.”

The cost among Reuters staff
has already been high, with four killed since the war began and several
badly wounded – including two Iraqi staff who were lucky to be alive
after coming under US fire in separate incidents.

Another Iraqi
stringer was detained by insurgents and beaten over three days, and
three staff were detained and abused by US forces near Fallujah last
year. That incident has still to be fully investigated.

“The worst thing is that you come under fire from all sides,” says Marshall.

A
recent development whereby a second bomb is timed to go off once
emergency services and the media have turned up at the scene of a
suicide bombing has made the job of reporting even more hazardous.

“There
has been some discussion among the media in Iraq that if that trend
continues then we might make some formal pool agreement,” says Marshall.

“We
did it very successfully during the election when we made an agreement
to pool everything we did because we all knew there would be attacks on
election day. Competition can be good, but pooling means we can get the
story out and make sure people are safe.”

Political events will
keep Iraq on the UK’s domestic news agenda this year, but after that it
will be harder to keep people’s attention, Marshall believes.

“It’s
inevitable that it’s going to happen, but my role when I was there, and
my colleagues who are still there, is to do our best to tell the story
as well as we can and to try to ensure that the world keeps its eyes on
Iraq.”

There may be a time when it is simply too dangerous for most of the media to remain in Iraq.

Marshall
says he can foresee a future in which Reuters and rival agency APTN are
the only UK news gatherers with a significant presence in Baghdad.

But
if Iraq does slip into civil war, the Reuters operation would have to
be scaled down because it would be too dangerous to maintain a bureau.

“With
new technology it is possible to work in a decentralised way – we can
have cameramen and reporters based in their homes,” says Marshall. “We
have discussed the possibility of doing that if things get really bad.”

For
now, Marshall is hoping for a period of relative quiet editing in
London after what he recognises was a very tough first stint as a
bureau chief. The next one will be somewhere less hazardous, he
insists: “I knew it was going to be tough when I went to Baghdad, but I
didn’t know how tough things were going to become.”

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