‘War Zone Diary’

Jan 13, 2008  •  Post A Comment

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Richard Engel was in Baghdad as a freelance journalist. The U.S. television networks had pulled most of their people out on the eve of war, but Mr. Engel was there in the thick of battle, documenting everything with a handheld camcorder.
Mr. Engel also decided to turn the camera on himself as a way of recording what he experienced, and he continued to do so as he lived behind enemy lines and reported from the war zone.
Four years later, he and producer Madeleine Haeringer went through 30 hours of his tapes, along with hundreds of hours of footage that didn’t make “Nightly News,” and produced “War Zone Diary,” an hourlong program that aired on MSNBC.
“I thought I was going to be filming my own obituary,” said Mr. Engel. “I was very conscious of the fact that this might be it, facing what was billed as the ‘shock and awe’ of the invasion. The situation was so fluid I thought I might have to ditch everything. I had to hide tapes and the satellite phone. I had a safe house, getaway cars, generators and crowbars. It was easier to consolidate everything, what I was eating, doing, a way to collect my thoughts in the middle of the day. I kept it up. I still keep it up.”
It was after the invasion that Mr. Engel joined NBC News, reporting for all of its news programs from Iraq, all the while continuing to keep his video diary.
“There were four years of incidents, but I only put in ones where I thought there was an emotional impact. I didn’t talk about the political situation, and didn’t try to document key events,” Mr. Engel said.
His video diary describes his team’s betrayal by a trusted Iraqi “fixer,” who after several years of working with the NBC crew tried to extort money from them by faking his own kidnapping. Mr. Engel also tells of the personal toll of growing apart from his wife in the United States and their eventual divorce.
“I tried to show what war over time does to people and societies and what it’s like to witness it,” said Mr. Engel. “I didn’t dwell on it, but so many soldiers got divorced, and so many of my colleagues were in relationships that fell apart.”
Three of the four hotels where he lived in Baghdad were bombed, and he saw colleagues die. The NBC News bureau was blown up twice, destroying archived footage.
When Mr. Engel went back over his own tapes, he was struck by the changes that had occurred and how brutal things had been.
“It seemed like there were several wars,” he said. “The first year was nothing like the second year, which was nothing like the third. Each period had such distinctive characteristics. … Oftentimes you would think bombings all blend together, but the targets were different, the enemy was different, and looking at it chronologically, it helped me understand that.”
Mr. Engel, who became the bureau chief of NBC’s newly created Beirut outpost in June 2006, has lived in the Middle East since 1996. “I get to see things, I get to watch,” he said. “I feel very lucky to get to see history in formation, to get in the front car as it’s happening. I think of journalism as a journey of exploration.”
Credits: Richard Engel, reporter; Madeleine Haeringer, producer; Elizabeth Ruksznis, associate producer; Carrie Wysocki, director; Linda Diehl, Beverly Chase, editors; Bredun Edwards, Steve O’Neill, Kevin Burke, Richard Engel, camera; Jody Sugrue, motion graphics artist; Gordon Miller, music, Judith Greenberg, Sharon Hoffman, senior producers; Scott Hooker, senior executive producer; Michael Rubin, vice president of long-form programming, Steve Capus, president, NBC News


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