In the middle of 2002, the diplomatic debates on the extent of Iraq’s compliance with the UN resolution failed to end the stalemate and the US threatened to disarm Saddam Hussein by force. As the imminent war loomed over Iraq, scores of journalists and newsmen descended on Baghdad to report firsthand on the situation in Iraq, the living conditions of the Iraqi people and also the extent of dissent against the Saddam regime. Among them was National Public Radio’s correspondent Anne Garrels. A highly respected war correspondent, Garrels has covered war-stricken areas of Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya, and more recently Afghanistan. She has, often at great risk to her life, done an outstanding job of bringing out the details of war and of the anguish of the sufferers to her listeners. She does this yet again with Naked in Baghdad, an account of her life in that city from October 2002 to a few weeks after the US invasion.
Staying in Baghdad when the US bombs were falling and almost all networks had withdrawn their staff, Garrels broadcast daily using a satellite phone from her hotel room at the now-famous Al-Rashid hotel. The title of the book comes from a night when Garrels broadcast naked from her hotel room using a satellite phone that was illegal to possess. She figured that if Iraqi officials came knocking at her door, she might be able to grab a few minutes on the pretext of getting dressed, giving her time to hide the phone.
Garrels' narrative starts with the trips she made to Baghdad before the start of the war. During these trips, which were very short since Iraqi authorities refused visa extensions to foreign correspondents, Garrels gives the readers a firsthand feel of Baghdad. Against the backdrop of an anxious, terrified, and at times resigned city waiting for an attack, we are told of the rampant corruption where many a palm had to be greased to get the required visa, visa extension or the official approval of the Information Ministry. Interspersed with the text are emails written by Garrels' husband, Vincent, to their friends and well-wishers during those days. Offering a view of what a war correspondent’s routine entails, these emails are also reminders of how their lives hang on an edge. These also act as a wonderful foil to the detailed news and information that fills the book.
Garrels recounts the time when she first arrived in Baghdad amid Saddam’s announcement of general amnesty for all prisoners, including political ones. She sees hundreds of women silently demonstrate outside the ministry demanding information about their imprisoned kith and kin. Much as she would like to interview them, she cannot, as the media is tightly controlled by the Iraqi government. Foreign correspondents are required to be accompanied by an official “minder” during all conversation with locals. The fact that most locals wouldn’t dare open their mouth before such a “minder” serves the Iraqi authorities well. All this, however, does not deter our lady. She eventually gets a friendly minder and driver in a man named Amer and is able to meet middle-class Iraqis, professionals, academicians and entrepreneurs. We learn of the hardships of the UN sanctions that most readers might interpret as lack of lifesaving drugs and industrial equipment. Garrels tells us there is more to it. Sanctions include microwaves, videocassettes, paints and several items of ordinary everyday use. This coupled with a severe limit on Iraq’s oil exports has completely ruined the country’s economy, so that the slogan of the Arab world “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads” does not hold true for Baghdad any more. Though most people Garrels met steered clear of political discussions, they were very opposed to the US toppling the regime by force. Among the young men there was a lot of talk of fighting the American army, too. Yet the same people and scores of others that she met showed no hostility when told that she was an American.
The book ends soon as the US tanks roll into the city. Now we are told of the casualties of the bombings: hospitals full of corpses and bodies rotting in the morgue. Then the lootings begin as people pilfer shops, stores, schools, and just about everything. There is total anarchy and, unlike the rest of the world, Garrels does not see much of the “scenes” of jubilation on the streets of Baghdad.
If the reader gets a fairly good idea of the months leading up to the war and the days of the actual attack, it is because Garrels' excellent narrative is detailed as well as insightful. Her thorough reporting goes hand in hand with personal stories of the Iraqi people she writes about - stories of honesty and courage that are unfailingly interesting and poignant.