An Interview with Josh Hammer, Author of "Return to the Marsh"

Ben Block spoke with Josh about Iraq and reporting in dangerous regions of the world.

(Jaime Morales (Clickability client services))
smithsonian.com

What drew you to the Middle East and to reporting on the Arab world?

I wasn't really drawn to it until I became Newsweek's Jerusalem bureau chief in 2001. I was based in Berlin, and I was there for barely a year before Newsweek asked me to move there because I had written about Israel in my first book, almost as an aside. It hadn't really been at the top of my list of places to go. But I got there at the beginning of the second Intifada, and I very quickly found myself caught in the conflict. I spent a lot of time in the West bank and Gaza and learned to speak some Arabic—in fact I ended up speaking far more Arabic than Hebrew, because it was more useful, since nearly everyone in Israel speaks English. It was an incredibly dramatic time to be living there, with this on-going conflict between Arabs and Jews that had reached a new level of intensity. The issue of land, the tortuous history between the two sides, it just sucks you up. I started traveling around the Arab world. I traveled to Lebanon, and I spent some time with Hezbollah and saw some things that prefigure what's going on now. And then the war in Iraq began and I started spending a lot of time in Iraq early on after the war when one could travel around the country with relative freedom. I watched over the course of the year and a half how that all changed so much for the worse. I was in the Arab world for four very intense years, and it definitely shaped my career and it's a place I will always be drawn to.

Are you still interested in war reporting?

I'm definitely interested in conflict reporting, but I have a couple of kids now and I'm less drawn to it than I used to be. In my younger days I'd be running off to Lebanon at a moment's notice, and I'm not doing that now. I don't particularly relish going back to Iraq for the moment or being embedded with American troops—I just don't feel the same passion about it that I once did. I guess that's a reflection of having kids and a family and getting older and putting my life on the line too many times. I've been in gunfire and I've seen horror. The same stuff that's going on in Lebanon I saw in Jenin and Ramallah and Bethlehem in 2002 and 2003, and I think I have less of a hunger now.

Why didn't you hesitate to go into Basra for this story?

There's a big difference between Baghdad and Anbar Province and Basra. There's definitely violence everywhere in Iraq, but southern Iraq is relatively quiet. Yes, we did have an occasional attack by the Shiite militia and the Mahdi Army. I toyed with the idea of going in by myself, but I was rapidly given the score and told that was insane. When I did go into the marshes it was very closely supervised, very safe. I was with the British troops the whole way and it wasn't a high fear factor. It wasn't like going into Ramadi.

Did you ever feel like you were in danger?

You always feel like you're in danger. It starts just driving from the airport into the Green Zone. It's half an hour and you're under very tight security, but everybody's nervous and you just don't know what will happen on the road. It's a very hazardous journey. Once you're inside the Green Zone you feel a lot less exposed. I left Newsweek, but my swansong for Newsweek was that Baghdad trip. It's restricted to working in the Green Zone or being embedded with the military, almost no Newsweek reporter goes driving in the streets of Baghdad anymore. It's just not done. And the Green Zone is a weird little world unto itself, it's totally cutoff from the rest of the city. So there's very little danger there.

How did your recent trip to the marshes compare to the trip you took in 2004? Did you feel less secure?

I didn't feel less secure because this time I was with the British, but I felt more frustrated because I was always surrounded by the military. I was rushed along and couldn't really talk to people for very long, and there was always the sense that if you lingered something bad would happen. The first time I went in I was with a former rebel, and we were on our own schedule, went anywhere we wanted to, hung out. It was a completely different experience being there with the military, surrounded by dozens of heavily armed troops.

How did you change your reporting tactics?

I had to be much more intense about it and take the time I had on the ground, which was cumulatively a few hours in these two different trips, and make the most of it under very intense time pressure. I had to grab whatever color I could get out of those scenes. The experience was so shaped by the presence of these big guys with guns and helmets that I didn't really get a sense of what it would be like without them. There was not a great deal of spontaneity. Whereas the first time around, it was unpredictable and fun, it was a good time

You say that the Marsh Arabs are cut off from aid and have no access to health care. What's their explanation for that?

They think they're just being neglected by the government, and I don't know why they think so, they're just angry. There's no security, nobody's getting anything in Iraq now, but I don't think they're getting the big picture. They don't have much contact with the outside world, so they seem to think that it's a conspiracy against them that they were lured back to the marshes and neglected by a government with a bigger agenda and that they're poor and they don't really count. But Iraq in general is just a total disaster, and at least the Marsh Arabs aren't dying from violence.

Were conditions better in 2004?

Well, that was early on, and everything was just getting started. People were coming to the marshes for the first time. They formed their first security force because the coalition forces hadn't penetrated into that area. They were organizing themselves into patrols and they were dealing with fish poachers, imposing some sort of law, helping each other build houses again, getting organized. I wasn't around long enough for the second time to see that going on, but it was fairly stable. Everyone was poor and everyone was bitching and moaning, but it was pretty stable.

Did the military try to hide anything?

The British were uncomfortable. They weren't expecting to hear all the gripe, but I didn't get the feeling that they were trying to stop me from hearing it. I don't think they were expecting me to hear so much.

Was this the first time they heard these complaints as well?

Yeah, I don't think those troops had ever gone deep into the marshes before.

What was it like to travel with the Royal Air Force?

What surprised me was the hard edged realism of the British about what a disaster the Iraqi experience is. They were talking very straightforwardly about how the operation had been botched, and they're living in one of the most peaceful areas of the country. Being around Americans, in my experience, there's often a gung-ho naivety. Maybe that's gone now—it's been awhile since I've been embedded with American troops. But I found the British to be a little cynical and more realistic, and a lot of them were writing off the whole thing.

How would you describe the troop morale?

I found a lot of people hanging around the bar. The British get to drink after work, which keeps their morale from completely collapsing. They were kind of cynical about the Americans and how badly the Americans had handled it and they didn't see any way out, any positive way this was going to end.

How often are there attacks between the rival tribes of Al Huwitha?

All I can tell you is what I was told by the military intelligence guys who I interviewed, and they said it hadn't been much over the past year or so, but up to 2005 there had been frequent battles between the two, including one ferocious firefight.

How are they obtaining their weapons?

There are hundreds ways of getting weapons in Iraq. You go to a bazaar and buy them.

You can get them anywhere?

Everywhere.

With the tremendous risks of traveling in Iraq, how much longer do you think foreign aid civilians like Jepsen will be willing to risk their lives there?

Jepsen said that he's still there, but his movements are definitely limited and he's going out less than he once did. He still goes out but he goes out under pretty tight security and heavy protection, whereas in the old days he didn't do that at all. I have a feeling he's still going out there, but it's difficult and he doesn't do it as much as he once did. And of course, he's in a security bubble—he has private security. But again southern Iraq isn't like the rest of the country. Compared to Baghdad, Anbar, Tikrit, the other areas, it's a different world.

How large of a role do you think that the issue of water rights will play in creating a peaceful Middle East?

Water, oil, land are the three major issues—well, make that four: water, oil, land, and political power. But political power equals control over water, oil and land. They're huge issues, and there's not enough water to go around. It's been a burning issue for a hundred years and it always will be. It will always be a source of friction between these countries. In this story it's Turkey, Syria and Iraq battling it out for control of the Tigris and Euphrates, that's the dynamic there.

How do you draw the line between sympathy and objectivity when you report?

I've learned a lot of things. I don't think sympathy and objectivity are mutually exclusive. I think you can be both sympathetic and objective, and that's what I always strive to do. If there's bias, it always comes through in the reporting and undermines the integrity of what's being written and the integrity of the journalist, and people sense that. So I always try to maintain objectivity. It's hard sometimes. It was hard in the Palestinian territories to watch this kind of onslaught, as I imagine it's hard in Lebanon to see this onslaught and not to be filled with some kind of anger.

Hopefully the violence will end one day.

I doubt it.

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