These Were The Painstaking Measures Used To Keep Journalists Safe In Baghdad

map of baghdad

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On Wednesday night, the New America Foundation held an event featuring Joshuah Bearman, author of The Atavist’sBaghdad Country Club,” James, the founder of the Baghdad Country Club and Robert Nickelsberg, a freelance photographer who was in Iraq during the insurgency. The story Baghdad Country Club explores James’ adventure, a paratrooper in the British military turned contractor who worked security for the UN election. He then opened up the only bar in the International Zone, formerly known as the Green Zone, in Baghdad from 2006 to 2007. Both James (who chose not to disclose his last name for safety purposes) and Nickelsberg had incredible stories about living and working in Baghdad and what it was like to try to find some normalcy in a warzone. 

Nickelsberg was stationed at the New York Times‘ compound which was out in the Red Zone, for two months in 2007 and one month in 2008. In 2003, he stayed in rented house while he was there for TIME magazine for two months. Security was just beginning to become an issue in 2004, as he can recall.

By 2007, the editorial decisions made by reporters and photographers were almost entirely controlled by security. Iraq Body Count puts civilian death figures for 2006 and 2007 at more than more than 28,000 and 25,000, respectivelyIt was so difficult to get into the Green Zone that Nickelsberg and fellow journalists only ever visited the Baghdad Country Club during daylight hours. 

“Any kind of entry into the Green Zone required badges and the right badge,” said Nickelsberg. 

“As a civilian in an armoured vehicle, you were briefed every morning in where you were going or not. If you were going out you were given a beeper and something to throw in case you got kidnapped.”

In order to go take photographs, there were two security guards on either side of Nickelsberg and two back at a car with walkie-talkies timing him. He often had only two or three minutes to get his shots off.  

He brought one bottle of liquor with him from Jordan and that disappeared pretty quickly. Journalists also couldn’t get too drunk because they had to be alert to keep up with New York deadlines, 8 hours ahead.

“Generally the entertainment was for the contracters, the people within the Green Zone. In the Red Zone, we couldn’t go out. There were 17-foot-high blast walls around the place. I wouldn’t go out to take a picture for days at a time. And in 2007 when it was really getting nasty out there security people had control over what we did editorially.”

Baghdad Ny Times Compound
Exterior of the NYT house. Along Abu Nawas Street, next to the Sheraton Hotel (C) and the Palestine Hotel (L). It’s now fully open to vehicular traffic.

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The Washington Post was in the Green Zone and James confirms they came to the Baghdad Country Club.
It took about three hours to go through the checkpoints (get frisked, x-rayed, sniffed by dogs) to get into the Green Zone. The Special Forces security guards at the Times compound would have the right passes but then they would expire. Women journalists staying at the Times housing had to wear all black from head to toe with only their faces showing.

However, all journalists in Baghdad didn’t have the same rigorous security. Jill Carroll, a freelance reporter for The Christian Science Monitor, was kidnapped while on her own with only a driver and translator in 2006. She was released after three months. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, there were 57 journalists kidnapped in Iraq from 2003 to 2009.  

The threat was constant. Nickelsberg said he often didn’t go out for five or six days at a time. When a car bomb would go off, insurgents would video the blast to see who showed up so they would know which Westerners to target. 

James, the founder of the Baghdad Country Club wanted to give Westerners a place where they could socialize.

“We just wanted to somewhere to go where we could feel normal,” said James, founder of the Baghdad Country Club. Compared to say, living in New York City, where there are bars on every corner: “I can’t really describe what it’s like when you don’t have that. It’s tough living like that. The bar and the restaurant was a way of humanising us again—what we miss at home.”

Nickelsberg said: “Most of us at the Times did not drink until we were done cause the adrenaline was still chugging through and you wanted to maintain that kind of edge.”  

Nickelsberg said the journalists became good at ping pong. Andy Arkell, a Security Advisor for the New York Times, was dubbed the “Ministry of Ping Pong.” There was a swimming pool and Nickelsberg caught up on reading and the entire season of HBO’s Deadwood on bootleg DVDs. If you wanted to go for a run, there would be a guard with a pistol alongside of you. 

“There’s a cost involved with a comfort and alcohol is a comfort. It’s a luxury,” said Nickelsberg. “The Green Zone was an oasis.”  

ministry of ping pong nytimes
Ministry of Ping-Pong, Andy Arkell, (L) and an Iraqi NYT reporter (R).

[credit provider=”Robert Nickelsberg” url=””]

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For the ping-pong shot, L to R: Andy Arkell, head of NYT security team and photographer, Moises Saman.

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Here Are Some of Robert Nickelsberg’s Iraq Photos from 2003 > 
You Can Read More About Robert Nickelsberg’s Experiences in Iraq from 2009 >