Khalid Hassan was irrepressible. In the days after Baghdad fell, he would drop by my office with the most positive outlook of anyone I'd ever seen. It was only after I got to know him better that I realized how even more remarkable that was.
After Saddam was toppled, the dream of a better life went horribly wrong for Palestinian-Iraqi families like Khalid's much sooner than for most Iraqis. Iraqis blamed even Palestinians born here for supporting Saddam while he was in power and drove thousands of them out of their homes. When I met Khalid four years ago, his family had taken shelter in a school. It was a fact that he mentioned in passing with a rueful and still hopeful smile – hopeful that everything would turn out OK.
Khalid Hassan, the New York Times reporter killed in Iraq last week, with NBC News' Kianne Sadeq, left, and Jane Arraf during happier times.
For a while it did. He got a job he loved with the New York Times, a steady paycheck, moved his parents and sisters into an apartment and delighted in the long black leather jacket and trendy clothes he was able to buy. His father was shot and wounded driving a taxi and his family depended on him more than ever.
On Thursday, Khalid was driving to work in southwest Baghdad when gunmen forced his car off the road and opened fire, according to his employers. He survived the first bullet and called his family to tell them he was OK And then incredibly, a second group of gunmen came back and shot this remarkable 23-year-old with the sweet, rueful smile in the head.
Absorbing that news it felt as if the earth should stop turning for a while. The same way it seems incomprehensible that life rolls on after every sudden death of a friend or colleague or family member that leaves the world you know much sadder and smaller.
Not the only one
Khalid wasn't the only Iraqi journalist to die last week.
Namir Nour al-Deen was 22 and a Reuters photographer. He and his driver and assistant Saeed Chmagh were killed during a battle between the U.S. Army and Shiite insurgents in Eastern Baghdad on Thursday. Namir had called a colleague to say he was taking pictures of a damaged building. Witnesses say he died in a U.S. airstrike.
Reuters ran some of his photos in tribute – some were more grim than many Americans will ever see in their newspapers: the outline of a charred body burning in a bombed minibus, a man picking up body parts from the street. Others were signposts of what he'd seen his country become in the past four years – a tangled bridge plunging cars into the river, children turned into refugees.
When the two were buried, other photographers took the kind of photos Namir would have taken at other people's funerals – the face of Chmagh's son twisted in grief as he clung to the vehicle carrying the coffin, his grieving father in a wheelchair.
While I was on a military embed for a website in May, I ended up with U.S. army medics in a mosque in Baghdad as they treated Iraqis shot in clashes with al-Qaida.
Time seemed to stop as they brought in the wounded – one of them an off-duty Iraqi cameraman for APTN. He died on the floor, two of his brothers by his side. I translated when I could for the Americans treating the Iraqis.
When they didn't need me I asked his brother if I could take photos. "Take them," he said. So I did, trying to capture the frantic effort to save him, the inconsolable grief and rage when he died, and the anguished loneliness of his younger brother keeping vigil by his coffin as the shadows lengthened in the mosque.
"How could you take those pictures?" a friend asked me later in horror. I imagine, like a lot of readers might, he thought it was ghoulish. I tried to explain that that was what we do. We bear witness. That to have not taken photos would have made me a tourist, a voyeur. It was important for someone who had seen and documented so much grief in his country that his own suffering shouldn't go unheard.
Sometimes I think the news is like shrink-wrapped steak in the supermarket. People are happy to have it but don't really think very much about how it got there. A lot of the information and images people get in their newspapers or on the Internet, a lot of the video they see on their TV screens comes from local reporters, translators, photographers and cameramen whose names they will never know.
The interpreters – the difference between accurate information and serious misunderstandings – are particularly anonymous. A third Reuters employee – a translator – was killed last week – shot dead in Baghdad. His name was withheld to protect his family.
Even further below on the safety rung are freelance cameramen who get paid only for the video they manage to sell. One of them showed up yesterday with footage of former insurgents who had teamed up with U.S. forces west of Baghdad. He had likely risked his life to get the footage. We told him we'd done that story and he went away to try to interest someone else.
The Committee to Protect Journalists says 110 journalists and 40 people working with them have been killed in this war – most of them are Iraqis. That may not seem like a large number but it's a huge proportion of journalists.
For most of us, not an uneventful day goes by that we don't consider ourselves and our colleagues really lucky.
On Sunday a large boom rattled the windows in our relatively safe neighborhood. It was a car bomb exploding on the very corner where a day before our Iraqi crew had been out interviewing street vendors about what they thought about U.S. troops pulling out. An anonymous news agency photographer took video of smoke rising from the blast and his agency sent the images around the world.