The words of an Iraqi army officer I met while embedded in northwest Baghdad echoed in my head. Two days before the June 30 withdrawal, Iraqi Army Capt. Haithum Haidr, operations officer of the 1st Battalion, 22nd Brigade of the Iraqi Army's 6th Division, said that if he were an insurgent, "I would lay low for a week, then come out fighting."
They laid low for a week. Then they came out bombing.
That's how Iraq breaks your heart. A week into this tour I wrote about the joy of being able to go outside our building and eat supper like normal people. I expressed cautious hope that maybe, someday, Iraq could enjoy peace like that simple evening out of doors.
Hope is not a plan.
I get to leave. I can come back home to Merced. All our troops eventually get to come home -- if they live -- though they may be sent back for second and third and fourth tours. Or they may now be sent to Afghanistan.
But some 25 million Iraqis, or however many are still here after many of the best and brightest have fled their birthright, can't leave. They have to live in Iraq through today, tomorrow and for untold years to come.
The eight Iraqis in our Baghdad bureau, four reporters and four drivers, have taught me many lessons during my 12 weeks with them over the course of a year
Jenan, for instance, came to work this morning breathless. She lives a little over a half-mile from the bureau and had just pulled out on her street when she saw her cousin walking. She stopped her car and asked him if he wanted a ride. Then, about 200 meters ahead, an IED exploded. If she hadn't stopped to talk with her cousin ...
Laith, another reporter, rolls in red-eyed most mornings. His house has no power, so he sleeps, or doesn't, on the roof, trying to escape the heat but subject to the dust and sand. Mohammed commutes from Fallujah, and each evening when he leaves, I say, "See you tomorrow." Then we both automatically say at the same time, "Inshallah." If God wills.
The most eloquent description of what these reporters go through to give you, our McClatchy readers, the best obtainable version of the truth, came in a short speech by Sahar. She and other women in our bureau won a prestigious journalism award for courage two years ago. Here's her acceptance speech. She says it far better than I can:
"It is a great honor for me to stand here today.
"To me, this award means that my colleagues and I have succeeded in what we set out to do; and that our voices have carried, through war, through death and sorrow, through sleepless nights and fear-driven days in an effort to reflect the picture of our country as we see it, and of our people as only we can truly know them.
"To be a journalist in violence-ridden Iraq today, ladies and gentlemen, is not a matter lightly undertaken. Every path is strewn with danger, every checkpoint, every question a direct threat. Every interview we conduct may be our last. So much is happening in Iraq. So much that is questionable. So much that we, as journalists, try to fathom and portray to the people who care to know.
"In every society there is good and bad. Laws regulate the conduct of the society. My country is now lawless. Innocent blood is shed every day seemingly without purpose. Hundreds of thousands have been killed for seemingly no reason. It is our responsibility as journalists to do our utmost to acquire the answers, to dig them up with our bare hands if we must.
"But that knowledge comes at a dear price, for since the war started, four-and-a-half years ago, an average of about one reporter and media assistant killed every week is something we have to live with.
"We live double lives. None of our friends or relatives know what we do. My children must lie about my profession. They cannot under any circumstance boast of my accomplishments, and neither can I.
"Every morning, as I leave my home, I look back with a heavy heart, for I may not see it again -- today may be the day that the eyes of an enemy will see me for what I am, a journalist, rather than the appropriately bewildered elderly lady who goes to look after ailing parents across the river every day. Not for a moment can I let down my guard.
"I smile as I give my children hugs and send them off to school; it's only after they turn their backs to me that my eyes fill to overflowing with the knowledge that they are just as much at risk as I am.
"So why continue? Why not put down my proverbial pen and sit back?
"It's because I'm tired of being branded a terrorist: tired that a human life lost in my country is no loss at all in the eyes of the world. This is not the future I envision for my children. They are not terrorists, and their lives are not valueless.
"I have pledged my life -- and much, much more, in an effort to open a window through which the good people in the international community may look in and see us for what we are, ordinary human beings with ordinary aspirations, and not what we have been portrayed to be.
"Allow me, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to reach out. Help us to build bridges of understanding and acceptance. For although this war has cast a dark shadow upon your nation and mine -- it is not too late.
"I thank my bureau chief and our editors for retaining a high standard of balance and credibility, and I thank you all for being here tonight.
Hope is not a plan.
Executive Editor Mike Tharp, when he returns from Iraq, can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or firstname.lastname@example.org