Midd alum discusses journalism in Baghdad

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Author: Thomas Brant

On a visit to Baghdad’s Shorja market last spring, Indiana Congressman Mike Pence commented on how peace was taking hold in Iraq. The market, he said, was “like a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime.”

Pence must have been oblivious to the flak jacket he was wearing or the troops that were surrounding him because, as Adi Raval ’98 made clear to a packed audience attending his “Meet the Press” lecture in McCardell Bicentennial Hall on Feb. 21, Baghdad still is not peaceful, and it is nothing like Indiana in the summertime.

“What [the Iraqis] have to go through on a daily basis just to get to work is amazing,” Raval said. During multiple two-month stints as the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) Baghdad bureau chief last year, Raval’s life was on the line daily, as were the lives of the Iraqis with whom he spoke.

One day, Raval told the audience, a custodial assistant in the BBC compound came to work with tears streaming down her face. Raval asked his interpreter what was wrong with the woman. It turned out that the Iraqi police had found an improvised explosive device (IED) in a car parked outside her house and were planning to detonate it on the spot rather than risk towing it to a more secure location.

Raval faced his share of danger, too. He traversed the five-mile strip between Baghdad International Airport and the American-secured Green Zone two times, once the most dangerous highway in Iraq. The first time it was so perilous that the U.S. military arranged a Black Hawk helicopter for him and his staff. On his second trip, it was deemed safe enough to “drive at 70 miles per hour in an armored bus and hope you don’t get blown up by an IED,” Raval said.

Combine the constant danger of being blown up or taken hostage for a huge ransom with 19-hour workdays, and it is no wonder that the BBC replaces its Baghdad chief every two months, Raval said.

“It’s really hard, and you have to be completely unemotional,” he said.

The audience, a mix of students, eclectic Vermonters and equally eclectic professors, was captivated as Raval talked about the effect of the U.S. media and military presence on ordinary Iraqis. Originally from San Francisco, he explained that he views his dual roles as American observer and British journalist separately but equally important.

“When you’re an American in Iraq, you experience firsthand our country’s darkest moments,” Raval said. “There was a sense of shock across the board from all Iraqis I spoke to that America had done such a poor job. Some of them told me that they actually regretted that the Americans had come in.”

The attitude of the people Raval talked to disturbed him.

“I felt it was my duty to help the Iraqis,” Raval said. “They saw me as a representative of the American government and the Bush administration. What they want is a clearer sense of American resolve. They want to know how patient we are at carrying out the war. They don’t want a foreign presence longer than is necessary, but they worry about the immediate drawdown of troops that the Democratic [presidential] candidates have said they would do once in office.”

Nothing gave Raval a clearer sense of the strained relationship between Iraqis and Americans than watching the transfer of power to the Iraqi government on June 28, 2004, when he was working as an ABC correspondent before joining the BBC.

“We received a phone call from Paul Bremer’s office,” Raval said. “They said, ‘Can you and Peter Jennings be inside the Green Zone in two hours?’”

With no other information given, Raval immediately said yes.

“You don’t ask questions” of someone like Bremer, who coordinated the reconstruction efforts, Raval explained.

It was 120 degrees Fahrenheit outside when the ABC team arrived at the secret chamber deep inside the Green Zone where the prime minister’s office was located. There was no indication that something as momentous as a transfer of power was about to occur.

“Paul Bremer handed the legal document to the Iraqis, and that was it,” Raval said. “The ceremony was rushed and not very well thought out. There was no Berlin Wall moment. I was one of the few people in the world who actually knew what had transpired. I realized how surreal it was that I was a part of history.”

Following his speech, Raval addressed questions from the audience, including one from a professor who had taught him at Middlebury. He wanted to know what Raval thought about the media presence from various foreign countries in Iraq.

“The British are by definition more skeptical and cynical than the American journalists are,” Raval replied. “There’s a commitment on the part of the BBC to be in Baghdad and to report on political events. We’re always doing [a story] on Iraq.”

Asked about Raval’s answer after the lecture, Bilal Sarwary ’10, also a BBC correspondent, agreed.

“The way I see the Americans is that they are like nomads,” Sarwary said. “The BBC are like settlers.”

That may explain why Raval’s account of the perils of his two months in Baghdad is at odds with Pence’s description of “a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime.”