Two memorable interviews

I’ve changed blog servers. The posting below was originally written on 12/18/06
There are some days that you know you are going to remember for a long time, and today was one of those days.

I’m working on an interactive package for Yahoo! News. A series on three of the biggest stories of the year: the Iraq war, the war between Hezbollah and Israel in Lebanon, and the illegal immigration debate and marches.

Yahoo has this new initiative on citizen journalism. So as part of that, my interactive packages are supposed to incorporate photographs that non-journalist average folks posted on Flickr (a Yahoo property) and combine those images with audio of those people talking about the events as they excperienced them.

A simple concept that could be very powerful if done right.

Well, I finished the interviews for the immigration package last week, and today I had my last two interviews – the second person to be interviewed for the Lebanon story, and the only person to be interviewed for the Iraq story.

First, it was the Iraq interview.

I found a soldier, Spencer Batchelder, who is serving on a base in Ramadi, Iraq – part of the dangerous Sunni triangle. Spencer has a profile on Flickr and has put up some incredible images. He’s also very outspoken on his blog.

Spencer had been trying to call me for days, but first he was sent on a last-minute assignment and then there was an electrical storm that disrupted communications. Finally, today, we connected and I conducted a one-hour interview with him on the phone. It was a long interview (he was very patient), because I felt I needed to take the opportunity to get as much of his story as I could.

In some respects, Spencer spoke like you would expect a soldier to speak: short answers, short sentences, not too much elaboration. But in many ways he was more eloquent than the most sophisticated of interview subjects with slick coaches training them on how to speak with the media.

What sticks in my mind the most about our conversation was when I asked Spencer about his mood and the mood of the soldiers that serve with him. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, that he and some of his colleagues are at some level resigned that they will never be able to improve the situation in Iraq no matter how hard they try. He said, we are not fighting a conventional enemy; how do you fight an idea – that idea being Islamic terrorism.

Spencer spoke with such humility and non-chalantness about things that I would consider unimaginable: being out on patrol and a roadside bomb going off under the vehicle in front of him; having one more month to go in his deployment and finding out he’s been extended for another month and knowing he may be extended again; dealing with the daily reality that all the hardship and sacrifice may be for naught since the Iraqi people don’t welcome U.S. soldiers anymore; and dealing with the realization that no matter what they do, it is likely not to be enough to stem the tide towards further deterioration in Iraq.

Spencer sounded resigned, tired – “war weary” as he put it. He sounded skeptical even of the good work that he was proud of – the humanitarian missions to bring medical care to outskirt villages. We blew up your neighborhood, but here’s some medical care – that’s how he put it.

After our conversation, I was left with feelings of both sadness and respect for this soldier, a profound realization of how little I understand about his sacrifice, and a more potent understanding that sacrifice doesn’t come only when a soldier gives up his life or is wounded.

My second interview was with a 20-year-old college student in Beirut, Lebanon – Rami Chehab. Two days after the month-long Israeli air raids stopped this summer, he went to Beirut’s southern suburb, where the bombings were the most intense and where unexploded shells still littered the area, and he took photographs to document the devastation. (Last week, I had interviewed a freelance journalist who did similar work on the Israeli side.)

Rami told me that when he was out there taking photographs (because he felt what happened had to be documented), he saw body parts on the street – a head here, a stomach there, a heart somewhere else. The ninth floor of one building had collapsed two stories under ground. Everywhere around him was rubble – an entire suburb wiped out.

During our interview, Rami kept saying how this war came upon them so fast, that it was shocking. I got the sense that as a 20-year-old who had known relative peace and prosperity during his lifetime, he was traumatized by what happened. Rami kept saying he hoped people would see his photos and not repeat what happened there in Lebanon. He kept saying that his hope was for peace.

Two interviews. Two stories that I have trouble comprehending. How foreign the notion of what happened in Lebanon is to many of us. How foreign the idea of the sacrifice in Iraq.

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