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Chicago journalists in the Middle East

Three local reporters share what it’s like to cover wars, protests and revolutions across Egypt, Iraq and more.

Borzou Daragahi near rebel-controlled Zintan, Libya, on June 28, 2011
Anna Therese Day in Cairo, Egypt, preparing to go on camera.
Anna Therese Day with a man who was shot by Egyptian police with a rubber bullets repeatedly at short range.
Kelly McEvers
Kelly McEvers in southern Saudi Arabia, at the Yemen border, during the Yemen civil war, late 2009-early 2010.
 (Photograph: USA SGT. Caleb P. Barrieau)
Photograph: USA SGT. Caleb P. BarrieauKelly McEvers during an interview
By Laura Baginski, Marissa Conrad and Zachary Whittenburg |


Anna Therese Day, 23
Freelance journalist based in Cairo

Borzou Daragahi, 42
L.A. Times’ Beirut bureau chief

Kelly McEvers, 40
Foreign correspondent for NPR’s Baghdad bureau

Anna Therese Day
Freelance journalist based in Cairo

Day, 23, was only an eighth-grader at St. Francis de Sales school in Lake Zurich when September 11 shook America. “My family was vacationing in Spain, and I remember a [Spanish] woman approaching my little brother in tears, grabbing his cheeks [in sympathy],” she says via e-mail. But in Gibraltar, her family had to seek safety when a band of Moroccan immigrants marched by, chanting anti-American slogans while hoisting a burning American flag. “I remember being frightened but equally curious,” she says. “Why did these people hate us? What did we do to them?” As a student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Day traveled abroad to study, work and volunteer in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories; since graduating last year, she has been reporting throughout the Middle East with a focus on women’s issues and youth movements. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post, The Nation and more.—MC

Borzou Daragahi
Beirut bureau chief, L.A. Times

“I’ve swallowed so much tear gas this year,” Daragahi says with a laugh. The Iranian-born, Chicago-raised journalist (he also spent some of his childhood in New York) has been covering the Middle East since 2002, most recently the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Morocco. Now, the fluent Persian speaker (he’s also learning Arabic) is focused on Syria and western Libya, churning out at least six stories a week about government attacks on Syrian protesters and Libyan rebels’ victories in the west. A three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his work in Iran and Iraq, Daragahi, 42, has been faced with ethical challenges while reporting the uprisings. “One of the things I’ve been talking about with other correspondents is, How objective should we try to be when a government armed with tanks and guns and aircraft fires on unarmed demonstrators?… Maybe we should just call evil what it is and not try to do this phony ‘balance,’ ” he says by phone. “It becomes barbaric to say 75 people were killed in gunfire by security forces, [but] the government denies it and says it was all the work of armed terrorists. You’re giving the side that’s obviously full of lies equal time to the side that’s lost 75 people in one day.”—LB

Kelly McEvers
Foreign correspondent, Baghdad bureau, NPR

A native of downstate Lincoln, McEvers, 40, didn’t do much traveling until she moved to Asia 12 years ago. “I’d been to Mexico and to Canada and done my backpacking trip through Europe, but there was just that desire to get far away from home,” she says. In 1999, after two years on the metro beat at the Chicago Tribune working under former chief of correspondents Howard Witt, McEvers contacted the publisher of the Cambodia Daily, finagled a meeting and began work as a freelance foreign correspondent in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. After stints in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, she moved to the Middle East in 2008, traveling among Beirut, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf and writing for outlets including Slate, Esquire and The New York Times Magazine before NPR tapped her in July 2010. “[Iraq] is a pretty emotionally taxing place,” she says via phone. “I want to tell every single family’s story. I want to stitch that whole messy, ugly, horrible narrative together. I’m trying to do it, piece by piece by piece, but, oof. It’s hard. [People] tell you the most gruesome, gruesome stories as if they’re just talking about going to the store.”—ZW


How has hearing about journalists’ murders, or reading about what happened to colleagues like Lara Logan and James Foley, changed what you do or your outlook on your job?
These stories are terrifying, particularly as a young female journalist. I think war reporters, however, are invaluable commodities. Journalists illuminate the realities on the ground. They give a face to the decisions made by politicians, reminding them that war is not a video game.
I’m very cautious, try to blend in and don’t go anywhere alone.
There was a lot of soul-searching in the community after Chris [Hondros] and Tim [Hetherington] died in Misrata [Libya, in April]. I wondered, What are we doing? Is this just hubris? I think that those who say that [being a foreign correspondent] is 100 percent pure and good and benevolent, I think they’re wrong. I think that there’s personal glory in it, [in] seeing your name in lights. There’s nothing like being in a speeding car, going from some rebel camp to some other place you’re not supposed to be. Adrenaline is a drug. If you’re honest with yourself, you have to acknowledge those things in addition to the fact that you’re doing something good for the world.

Was there a moment when you realized the value your reporting can bring?
When I told colleagues in [coastal Libyan city] Benghazi that I planned to head back east in the midst of a bombardment of [western city] Misrata, they thought that I was crazy. However, while the men were off fighting, the women [in Derna, Libya] were beginning to rebuild their war-torn society. The scenes reminded me of stories of American women in World War II filling traditionally male roles for a common cause. The women were also quick to speak out regarding horrific stories of rape, abuse and war crimes committed against women and children—stories that faded into whispers when my male colleagues entered the room. I was able to document some of these stories and contact human-rights organizations upon my return to Egypt.
Very early on as a freelancer in Afghanistan [in 2002], I wrote about torture by the Western-backed governor [Ismail Khan]. It brought attention of human-rights groups to the abuses going on there. Eventually the U.S. and others got sick of Ismail Khan’s antics and pushed him aside. Here was a story no one in the world was writing about, and I was able to shine a light on it.
People will write to me and say, “I heard your story about X and I wanna do something,” whether it’s a psychiatrist offering advice for a traumatized child, or someone giving money to Christians who were displaced from Baghdad because they were the targets of bombings.

Why do Americans need to be more informed about what’s happening in the Middle East?
The terrorists of 9/11 were from countries that are considered America’s allies: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt. In these countries, the U.S. supported heavy-handed dictators who persecuted all opposition groups—many of whom had legitimate grievances, some of whom were maniacs, and some of whom were vulnerable and manipulated by those maniacs. Our government’s actions push moderates to the margins, creating a security threat for all of us. It’s important that Americans understand and scrutinize the actions of government abroad to ensure that its actions are in all of America’s interest, not just American companies’ interests.
I most recently reported in Bahrain, so it’s the one most fresh in my mind. I would point to Bahrain and say that one op-ed in a Washington-based newspaper, one meeting in Washington, one word in a speech [such as Obama’s in May condemning the Bahraini government and calling for the preservation of Shia mosques] really does make a difference. There are dozens of people languishing in prison, people being tortured, people being held without charge, and so these seemingly small things that happen at the hands of our countrymen actually have a big effect on [the people of Bahrain].

What has been your scariest experience?
On the night of January 25, the first night of the Egyptian revolution [in Cairo], my taxi got to one of the bridges over the Nile and cars were turning around on an eight-lane highway back in our direction. It was chaos. I jumped out of the cab and started running across the bridge toward the action. I could see a [phalanx] of riot police marching up the ramp of the other side of the bridge, shooting tear gas over the fleeing crowd. Gunshots echoed across the Nile and then bullets, hailing from the sky, landed on the windshields of the cars stuck on the bridge. Panic erupted, and I found myself right between a line of police and a line of fleeing protesters, 30 yards between each side, suspended on this bridge over the Nile—and I had to get a photo. I snapped the shot, and the flash went off! Time froze. And then dozens of police were rushing me. Fortunately, in all of the chaos, my hair had fallen out [of its bun], so my blond hair was blowing in the wind over the Nile, and I began screaming bloody murder, waving my passport, yelling “I’m American!” Had they not seen my hair, I think they would have shot me point blank. “Look before you shoot” was not protocol during the revolution.
I’ve had so many I don’t bother to count. Here’s a recent one: crossing the Turkish-Syrian border [illegally] on foot to get to a refugee encampment inside Syria. After a fairly grueling hike over a mountain, you run across a paved road where the Turkish military patrols, then dash through a hole in a barbed-wire fence. On the way back from the camp, a Turkish patrol spotted us and ordered us to stop. Our guide told us to just keep running, so we did. My heart must have been racing at 220bpm.
I don’t think things are scary, until maybe after the fact. I was detained in Dagestan, a [Muslim] republic in the Russian Federation. They held me for three days and interrogated me and intimidated me and threatened me and treated me pretty badly, so that sucked. I wasn’t afraid, like, These people are going to kill me. I was just like, Jeez, this is so mean and so wrong and so frustrating! And then, looking back, I was like, Oh my God, they totally could’ve killed me! And dumped the body and just called it a terrorist attack.

Have you ever refused an assignment, or is there one place you wouldn’t go?
I was unwilling to jump on a fishing boat strapped with explosives en route to besieged Misrata. Other colleagues did do this—the banks in East Libya had nearly run out of money, and it was the only way for many to get into Misrata, the front lines of the Libyan war. I’m very close with my family, and all of my decisions take their sanity into consideration.
Yes, Tripoli. I refuse to go back to Tripoli as long as I have to remain under the control of Gadhafi’s minders [people hired by the Libyan government to monitor foreign journalists; Daragahi chronicled the harrowing six weeks he spent in Tripoli for the L.A. Times].

Is there a story you haven’t told yet but want to?
The story of the youth opposition movement in Bahrain is remarkable. The crimes of the Bahraini government’s crackdown are staggering: attacks on professionals, women and children, kidnappings, torture, abuse. Despite the severity, youth organizers have continued their activism online, through hunger strikes and through other nonviolent coordinated actions. When I asked about their inspiration, one organizer said, “We saw the power of social media in ’08, you know, Obama ’08, and we knew we had to figure out how we could use it!”
Would love to do a story about the Caucasus, just tour Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. I only visited Georgia once during the 2008 war and feel I haven’t spent enough time there.
I’m dying to get [back] to Yemen. They won’t give me a visa. I would do a story about how the U.S. is focusing too much on its own security concerns at the expense of the Yemenis. The president [Ali Abdullah Saleh] is clearly using American-trained counterterrorism forces to do his own bidding in an increasing civil war, and I think that the Al Qaeda threat in certain parts of the country is a way for him to gain the upper hand against people who have legitimate political concerns about how to reform the country.

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