After four years of coming in and out of Baghdad, I've learned to always expect some kind of change each time.
Like a violent storm, with an occasional lull, there would always be some deadly shift: more kidnappings, tortured bodies, car bombs, booby-trapped donkey carts, phony cops at phony checkpoints, and always more of the improvised explosive devices.
But if there was any constant or calm at the center of the storm, it was those members of our local staff, the ones who would never leave. That is, until now. Mohammed*, our fixer/local producer, has given up, and has left to find a new life.
I arrived last week to the news that Mohammed would be leaving in a few days, to join his family, who he had moved a year ago to Damascus, Syria. Now he was leaving for good, with his mother. His father refused to leave, saying he was too old to start again.
Actually Mohammed has two families. "It's not easy to leave after four years of working for NBC," he told me. "I've spent more time with NBC these last four years than even seeing my own family. I expected one day to finish with NBC, but not like this."
Fear surpassed hope
A climate of fear and terror had made his life unbearable. (See Mohammed's last blog).
Mohammed is a Sunni, and even though his neighborhood, al-Gdeer, is a mixed one, Shiite militias roam the streets, setting up checkpoints, looking to flush out Sunnis. And to work for a Western firm is even worse.
The clouds for Mohammed had darkened over the past two months. "Strangers started coming to my neighbors asking details about me. 'What is he doing? Why isn't his family with him? Why does he only come home every few days?,'" Mohammed said. "They also went to my university teacher. They wanted to know who I worked for."
I remember Mohammed from the beginning. We had arrived in Baghdad days after the city fell, and set up our first office at the Hammurabi Hotel.
In those days, the only street traffic was from the Abrams, M-1 tanks, and Humvees rolling through the city. Most Iraqis were staying put until they were sure that Saddam really was gone.
But Mohammed pulled up to our hotel in an old Peugeot sedan, looking for a job. He offered to be a driver/translator. He had no experience with the media, and his background was in tourism. Still we hired him, and also saddled him with the tedious chores of logging and filing the hundreds of field tapes we were accumulating. He never complained and ended up being our longest-serving Iraqi employee hired after the fall of Saddam.
Grace under pressure
Over time, he became part of the heart of our coverage in Iraq: developing contacts with each of the three Iraqi governments, from the Iraqi Governing Council to the first elected government under Nouri al-Maliki. With his gracious style he had an "in" with all of the different prime ministers' offices and became one of our main troubleshooters, especially when it came to discreet dealings with the Ministry of Interior and the police.
He also had a front-row seat to history: the three Iraqi elections, the war against the insurgency, the capture and trial of Saddam Hussein, and, of course, Saddam's execution.
He also lived through and remained a sea of calm during some traumatic moments for NBC: two different bomb attacks of our offices; the forced re-location of numerous local staff members' families out of country; and even the kidnapping of one of our local employees.
He was a study of grace under pressure, with a good sense of humor to throw in. He is a tireless worker, reliable, and trustworthy – qualities that are not always apparent in a lot of people here.
The 'future is very black'
But through all this, Mohammad was losing his own identity. "When I started I was so excited and proud to work with NBC. I was so eager to get an NBC ID…I was proud to show it at a checkpoint. But then I started to hide the ID and even started to hide my own personal ID. I stopped saying I was a journalist." In the end, he even told people he was looking for a job.
Now he is bitter about Saddam and bitter about the future, "When they captured Saddam, he deserved a double execution. For what happened to us during the 30 years of his regime and for what is happening now because of him," Mohammed said.
"And now the future is very black. It's more than one year for this government, and we've gone from bad to worse. The main thing on the agenda was to get rid of the militias. But as we see now, the militias are still the biggest threats to the future of Iraq."
More than 750,000 Iraqis have fled to Jordan since the war began and Syria has become the second gateway for another 1.2 million. According to the United Nations, up to 2,000 Iraqis line up daily seeking entry at the Syrian border.
Mohammed has now joined that exodus and from now on he will only say that he is a refugee. We will miss him and I worry that he is not the only calm in the storm that we've lost.
* The complete names of local journalists are not used to protect their identity.