A Hundred & One Days: An Interview with Asne Seierstad

Finding the human stories in Baghdad before, during, and after the US invasion

| Thu May 12, 2005 2:00 AM EDT

In early March, 2003, with the US invasion imminent, major media companies pulled their correspondents out of Baghdad. A handful of intrepid independent reporters stuck around, among them the young Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad.

Seierstad got her start in journalism in the 1990s covering the war in Chechnya, where she developed strong views on the proper way to report on a conflict. “It’s hard to cover a war when you have no idea what it looks like down there, you have no opinion of the people, you haven’t met them, and you’re fed lies and propaganda,” Asne explains. “I really had to go and see for myself.” She has since applied this approach to her reporting on the conflicts in Serbia, Kosovo, and Afghanstan, and her first book, The Bookseller of Kabul, was an account of life in Afghanistan before, during, and after the removal of the Taliban.

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Seierstad reported for various media outlets from Baghdad from January through March 2003. Her new book, A Hundred & One Days, grew out of this experience. Seierstad’s Iraq reportage is fresh, honest, and determinedly focused on small-scale human stories. "I wish I could have written a novel about this, because again I think the more human stories you tell, the more you can put the reader inside someone else’s head and be insightful." On a recent visit to San Francisco, she sat down with Mother Jones to talk about her work.

Mother Jones: You write in your foreword, “I have never worked in more difficult conditions than I did in Iraq.” What was so difficult about reporting on the war in Iraq compared to Kosovo, Chechnya, or Afghanistan?

Asne Seierstad: During the dictatorship, people were so afraid to speak their minds. It was like the Stalin period in the Soviet Union in the 193os. Whatever you ask, you get these banalities and safe phrases, phrases that they had been taught to say to foreigners. We were always fighting to get a quote or a story. We also had to spend so much time and money on bureaucracy to get visas and to go to press conferences. During a war, you have to be very careful – you can’t really move where you want. In Iraq, we had to be in Baghdad all the time, we couldn’t go out from the city. So we were really not free at all.

MJ: What was the atmosphere like in Baghdad before the war? What were the people saying, and how did that change over the course of your stay?

AS: The atmosphere was wary. You could feel the clouds of war nearing, but you couldn’t see them, like when you know a storm is approaching. In the beginning, people didn’t want to talk much about the war. They would easily come up with phrases against Bush or against the bombing, but they were kind of relaxed. As the war became imminent, the anger came out, and people would just be screaming and crying. Nobody knew how this war was going to be, whether there would be the use of chemical weapons or other types of new weapons we’d never even heard of. There were so many rumors, both among the journalists and among the population.

MJ: What were the attitudes toward the Saddam regime and toward the US?

AS: I think the population was split. There was definitely a part who supported the coming war just to get rid of the dictator. Many Shia Muslims were the most affected by his dictatorship – they were the most hit by his cleansing campaigns where he killed and imprisoned tens of thousands of people. If you’d lost a lot of family members to torture camps, you would want to get rid of that man at any cost. They were also the people who greeted the Americans when they came. Then there were those Iraqi nationalists or Baathists who were very against the war for political reasons. And then you had a big chunk of the population who were defenseless and were against the war because they were afraid of a bomb dropping on their house, on their children, the city being destroyed, who thought that there should be some other means. It seemed that the Iraqis were very much aware of the situation. They said, okay, Bush wants this war, there’s nothing that can stop him. I think many who supported the war have now turned their backs on the Americans. They’re disappointed because they see that they didn’t come to liberate them, because they haven’t really done anything to protect the population.

MJ: How deep, as far as you could tell, did Saddam's cult of personality go?

AS: That’s a difficult question. Some people were definitely brainwashed. I’m still wondering about my translator, Aliya. She seemed to be a child of Saddam, born in the 70s to a Sunni family, who never really suffered anything. She didn’t have any loss in her family. She didn’t grow up knowing anything about politics. She only grew up to admire this great man who was everywhere – there were posters, statues, prayers for him, songs for him. She was translating his speeches. She did not doubt him. She thought he was the greatest man, and felt very humiliated and shocked as we stood their watching the statue of Saddam fall in Baghdad. I think going around to the prisons and talking to those who had been affected did have an effect on her, but I believe she would still say that she had a better life before. I sometimes speak to her by phone and she says, "The worst thing now is that we have no idea what will happen tomorrow, what will happen on my way home. We have no influence over our own lives."

MJ: Can you talk a bit about your relationship with Aliya?

AS: I had just fired my first translator because there was no connection whatsoever. I was sitting outside the Ministry of Information on my computer thinking, what can I do without a translator? And there was this big woman just standing there. I asked her in English, "Hey, what are you reading?" And she said, "Oh, same as usual." And I thought, That’s an interesting answer, because in Iraq you’re supposed to say that the papers are so interesting. And then we just started to talk, and I realized that she spoke great English, which most of the translators didn’t. So I applied to get her as a translator, and she was happy to work with me. She said, "I’ll protect you, whatever happens. Now you hide behind my back, and I’ll hide behind your back when the Americans come."

But she was also a minder from the regime, so her job was to control me and to translate. It wasn’t really a friendship, but a sort of mutual respect. She also stayed all through the war when everybody left, and she came to work every day. We fought a little, liked each other a little, and at times she was like a safe pole in my life. I actually liked the fact that she was more scared than I was. She would just say that’s too dangerous, or we shouldn’t be stupid, it’s dangerous as it is. She would make those decisions at times, she wouldn’t just follow mindlessly. When the Americans came, she went into this kind of depression coma, and I was sometimes being sarcastic just to make her live again. And then in the end, after seeing the torture camps, she said, “Maybe Saddam didn’t care about us.” And that was such a hard phrase for her to say, because Saddam had always been the big hero in her life.

MJ: Do you think a lot of Iraqis went through that same disillusionment?

AS: If you’ve lived in a dictatorship for thirty years, you’re used to people lying to you. If you now read that Saddam was a tyrant, you’ll think that’s just American propaganda. There’s no real basis for them to judge what’s right and what’s wrong. I think some people want him back and don’t really acknowledge how he was. But now it’s papers who talk about this, so that would be an opinion. Aliya went around and saw it and listened to people.

MJ: What were the advantages and disadvantages of being a white woman reporter in Iraq? Did it allow you to position yourself in ways that men perhaps would have had more difficulty in doing?

AS: As a woman, I think you can connect better with the women, especially in a Muslim society, but I think it mostly depends on being a nice person. As a journalist, you just have to try to be nice, straightforward, and honest -- as honest as you can be, of course. Sometimes you use your charm if you have to. In this war, it was basically that I was more interested in the human stories. When you have that interest, I think you will be able to find those stories, whether you're a man or a woman.

MJ: Are you happy with the kinds of stories you found?

AS: I think I did my best. Of course, there was always this hunger to understand more and to meet more people, but in a dictatorship, you just know that you can’t have it all. I gathered those human stories that I found most interesting by [focusing on] Aliya, and also the two drivers Abbas and Amir, who started as the best of friends, but when the statue falls they cry for different reasons. Now they don’t speak to each other. Abbas is working for the American forces, and Amir is supporting the suicide bombers. So they chose totally different paths, but two violent paths. And then you have Aliya, who’s just doing her job, she’s coping with her situation. It’s the eternal role of a woman, even though she wouldn’t think of it like that. Even in a war, someone has to take care of daily life. Someone has to feed and clothe the children. As a woman, you accept the situation, adapt to it, and do your best, whereas men would choose violence.

MJ: At several points in the book, we find you in Ministry of Information office begging to stay in Iraq after your allotted time, ten days, was up. Why do you think they let you stay for so long?

AS: First of all, I had this protector, Kadim, and he must have liked me. Because for most people, it was ten days, no discussion, you had to leave. He must have trusted me as well because he took my money. Everybody did it, but he had to be careful about it. I also tried to play my case that I work for eight newspapers. Because the thing is, they wanted the coverage, but they wanted as few as possible of us in order to control us. So I said, okay I’m working for eight newspapers from eight countries. Wouldn’t you rather have me than eight journalists?

MJ: What made you want to stay while other journalists were leaving?

AS: When you’re there, it takes an effort even to pack your bags and leave. I didn’t want to leave, I wanted to see what was happening. In many of these situations, my curiosity is greater than my fear. And then it’s also this feeling that says, I’m going to be okay. I was thinking, there are 5 million people, and I am just one of those 5 million. In the build-up to the war you see children playing in the street, and you think, ah, I’m going to be okay.

MJ: At one point in the book, you urge a young Finnish man, who has gone to Baghdad to be a human shield, to leave. Isn't that a bit paradoxical?

AS: I think that was totally an emotional thing. There were other human shields that I didn’t care about. This man was young, and he reminded me of my brother. I wouldn’t want that to be my brother. Also, their mission was over. Yes, it would be a symbol if they were killed while they were linked to those installations, and they had been brave to go there, but the war was inevitable. He was also one of the very few Westerners, most of the other human shields had already left, and he was kind of on his own there.

MJ: Why did you leave when you did?

AS: I just had had enough. I was so exhausted – so tired, and I couldn’t think, and during the last days I had to force myself to work. I was interested in the story, and that’s also why I stayed as long as I did, but when you get tired, you also get scared. After the war had ended, the violence was actually growing. People were shooting in the streets, it was lawless. And I was thinking, I’ve just survived the whole war, I don’t want to get killed now. I did my thing, and I was getting afraid. And I think when you start to get afraid, it’s time to leave. I think I stayed another two weeks after the war ended.

MJ: Have you been back?

AS: No, I haven’t. And now I wouldn’t go back. When you’re there, you forget that there is peace outside. The situation was so intense in the build-up to the war, and I really wanted to stay and see the end. It was a big story, a world event, and I was so focused on finding out what would happen in that war. But now that I’m outside, I wouldn’t go back in. Also, the dangers are different. Back then, we at least had some sense of collectiveness – we could be hit by the bombs, but somehow I didn’t have that great a fear of being taken hostage or used as a human shield. Today, the fear of being kidnapped is too big for me. With my job, first of all I always follow my gut feeling, and now it says no. As a war correspondent, you have to weigh the risk you run against the story you can get. Right now you can’t really walk the streets, you would be stuck in a hotel, not being able to spend more than 10 minutes at one site because someone might report that there’s a foreigner. The violence has escalated, and so has the danger of being hit by stray bullets, being kidnapped, or meeting the fate of Marla Ruzicka, whom I knew, who died in the car bomb on April 16.

MJ: Do you have an opinion on how the US media covered the war?

AS: It seems to me that many of them are kind of patriotic in talking about “our troops” and “our boys” and “moving toward democracy” without going into the depth of the conflict. When I go around and read from my book, giving the Iraqis faces and names, lots of people tell me, "This is a story we never heard. We never get to know the Iraqis, for us they are just the Iraqis or the insurgents." If you never present the human stories, you end up demonizing a country and its people. If you never saw their faces or heard their names, their cries, or even just ordinary non-violent stories, they become like the enemy. By putting a human face on the enemy, maybe you find out he’s not your enemy. I think that’s lacking in the American media.

MJ:Your book is unusual -- part war reportage, part memoir, part cultural study, and at the same time, very lyrical, almost poetic. What inspired you to write your book in such a way?

AS: I believe in literature. I wish I could have written a novel about this, because again I think the more human stories you tell, the more you can put the reader inside someone else’s head and be insightful. In order to achieve that, you can’t just use the very straightforward language of the newspaper. You have to try to find other ways. I always try to describe the situation just as it is. I try to find sentences that I believe tell the story best. Even my articles are more literary than ordinary news stories.

MJ: You manage pretty successfully to keep your politics out of the narrative. Was that deliberate? And was it difficult?

AS: It’s not so difficult. There is no journalist without opinions, and there’s no real objectivity, but we can strive toward it. If I was older, maybe I would be sharper, and think okay, now I know. Still being relatively young, I’m here to learn. I would like my book to give people insight to the war before and after, but I don’t think anyone could read my book and suddenly make up her mind about the war. I want to write for everybody.

MJ: Do you feel like sharing your real opinion now?

AS: Being a war correspondent, and having covered four wars, I know that wars very seldom solve things. Look at Chechnya. It started as a little invasion ten years ago, and now 10% of the population have been killed in 10 years. The occupation has been so hard and now they resort to terrorist attacks, which is new as well. It hasn’t solved anything. Kosovo is a mess. Afghanistan is a mess. I believe the consequences of a war are so harsh that it should be always the last resort. In this war, the US didn’t try everything. The UN weapons inspectors were begging for more time. And there was nothing Saddam Hussein could have done in those months. What was the hurry about when you see what’s happening today? There was no plan for peace. I think that’s one of the worst things, that there was this great hurry and yet there’s obviously no coordination – not even enough troops to keep the city safe.

MJ: What's next for you?

AS: I’m taking some time off. It’s been a lot, writing two books and covering three wars and the last five years, four wars in ten years. I just need to recover.