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Former Granville resident talks about her time in Iraq

By Erin O'Connor

Staff Writer

WESTFIELD "Violence hardens people to a point where the middle disappears and people must choose a side," Sabrina Tavernise, "New York Times" reporter said on March 5 at the Westfield Athenaeum.

Tavernise, who has been a war correspondent covering the Iraq War for the last four years, came to the Athenaeum as part of their Guest Lecture Series to discuss what is happening in Iraq.

The reporter, who grew up in Granville, addressed the audience with a grim yet revealing account of current and past events occurring in the Middle Eastern country.

"A metaphor that started in 2003 is that it [media coverage] was first like a big movie picture, then it became a television screen and now we are looking through a key hole," Tavernise said.

When Tavernise first arrived in Iraq in April 2003 it was two weeks after Saddam's statue was taken down.

"It was a very exciting time for the country. People were coming out after repression from Saddam and getting a sense of what their lives would be like," she said. "It was like people were waking up from a long dream."

According to Tavernise, it initially felt as if there was a lot of promise for the country but that soon changed. She cited a recent United Nations report declaring 4,000 Iraqi people are dying a month-more than the entire number of American Military killed since the invasion.

"It is not really a religious war," Tavernise said. "It is from past years of anger and violence. It was 'My father was killed by your group because of what was happening politically at the time.'"

According to Tavernise, the middle group of people, the ones that spoke out against the violence, were killed or have fled the country.

"The middle group, the people not wanting to involve themselves in violence, have been reduced to nothing," she said. "It was an unending stream of violence and there didn't seem to be any retribution for any of this."

What happened?

Tavernise said that the only thing to remember is that a series of elections took place.

"The power structure in terms of religious groups in the country turned upside down. The Shiites came to power and the smaller group [Sunnis] lost power," she said.

Tavernise said this was followed by some uncomfortable moments which she knows now to be the beginning of chaos that would engulf the country.

"Americans came in and the Iraq army left and there was massive looting," she said.

Tavernise said one of the most recalled incidents over the course of the war when talking to Iraqis is they wanted to know why the Americans did not stop the looters, why they did not say to looters, "Stop put down that lap top computer."

"But that did not happen," Tavernise said.

The summer of 2004 was the last time that Tavernise sat casually in a restaurant with her interpreter eating a hamburger.

"In the fall," she said. "There were a number of kidnappings."

According to the reporter, who has been with the New York Times since 2000, when traveling her and her companions had to be followed constantly by another car in the event if one car broke down they would get into the other. Iraqi guards wearing regular clothing and carrying guns accompanied the group.

"There are assumptions that we [reporters] are always traveling with military but out of a two to three month stay we would spend one to two weeks actually embedded with the soldiers. This was a requirement for going anywhere else in the country except for Baghdad."

In the Iraqi city of Baghdad, a quarter of the country's population of 60 million reside. There she lived in a "Green Zone" (safe zone), where the seat of the government and the American Embassy are located. "We created our own self-sufficient city within the city," Tavernise said. "Everyone thinks journalists in Baghdad are in hotels but it is really not like that," she added.

Tavernise said that she concentrated her stories on Iraqis and their families and the effects on Iraqi societies. She wore a head covering to make her safer if stuck in traffic. She did not speak Arabic and so was always with a translator.

Tavernise said large bombings in various places in Iraq began to take place with the first bomb attacking the United Nations' headquarters in August of 2003.

"It still felt like normal life was good and people were still buying tomatoes at the market but as time went on and that violence was continued more and more was aimed at the Shiites," she said.

Tavernise said over the Internet news items were appearing aiming the war at the Shiites. The Shiites became pretty angry and in February 2006 the first massive retaliation took place.

"It was a big bombing of a Shiite religious statue," she said. "They [Iraqis] were first aimed at attacking Americans now it was Iraq on Iraq violence. The engine and the fuel [of the violence] is very different."

Tavernise talked of a current debate over whether Iraq is currently involved in a civil war. She made a comparison to the break-down of Yugoslavia.

"It [Iraq] got pretty bad and it is pretty bad now. There are people buying tomatoes but they are confined to their own neighborhood," she said. She added that the neighborhoods are very sealed off now and they are guarded by suspicious people.

Tavernise spoke of militants in Baghdad stopping buses and pulling people off that were of the wrong sect and killing them. She spoke of suicide bombers who were rumored to have handcuffs on at the time of the explosion posing question as to if they were coerced into the bombings but no evidence at this time proves that.

"We are laboring under the issue that we will bring peace and everyone will shake hands," she said. "I don't think ultimately that is an expectation that we should have."

Tavernise said that people were so oppressed under Saddam that she did not believe if asked that they [Iraqi's] would want to go back to that time of rule.

Tavernise said that when the Americans came in, salaries went up and there was initially interaction between Iraqi children and soldiers but that is no longer.

"Our newsroom made up of upper middle class [Iraqis] are deeply saddened, they don't understand what is happening in their country anymore," Tavernise said.

"The city is pretty poor where these people [middle class Iraqis] have no place," Tavernise said. "Unfortunately, if the violence stopped by one-third or one-half it would be difficult to build a society because the middle is gone. If you have the means to get up and go you will because you wonder if your kids will come home from school at the end of the day."

"Americans have a role to play," she said, "that there are not large scale killings. But I am not sure if our military officers have the same view."

Tavernise will now be relocating from Baghdad to Istanbul, Turkey as the Istanbul Bureau Chief. She received an honorable mention in the 2003 Kurt Schork awards for her reporting from Russia.