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Another, more subtle source of trauma: The suffering of others

Whenever war correspondents hear about the risk of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), they think of bullets flying overhead, or mortars landing too close for comfort. Or the bomb that explodes as their vehicle passes by.

But there is another source of trauma that can be just as damaging - witnessing the suffering of people who’ve lost loved ones. That can lie dormant as you do your job, too busy to process everything happening around you.

During my three-year posting to Baghdad after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein, numerous bombings and battles made headlines.

Most war reporters became immune to the violence, partly because it never seemed to end. Also, our job was to try to explain the mayhem under constant deadline pressure.

When I look back at that period and at my later assignments to Iraq, I realise how that more subtle form of trauma eventually affected me.

I remember the chaos of a Baghdad hospital after a big bombing in the early stages of the insurgency. There were no restrictions on access for reporters. You could join relatives, nurses and others in run-down, dirty operating theatres and stand beside surgeons as they extracted bullets and shrapnel. On this day, relatives prayed. They wailed in hallways. Rescue workers wheeled in more victims at an alarming rate.

But one day haunts me more than any other. Even more than being kidnapped in 2004 in Baghdad and held at gunpoint for several hours. It showed how the suffering of others - not just the horrible, senseless violence of the moment - can be as devastating as cheating death in a war zone.

On 28 August 2005, reporters called the bureau to say they believed US soldiers had killed Reuters soundman and driver Waleed Khaled in west Baghdad. A bear of a man who protected colleagues at violent protests, Waleed was compassionate and much loved. Panic and anger rapidly spread through the newsroom.

I quickly went to the Hay al-Adil district to find out what had happened. Waleed and cameraman Haider Kadhem had gone there to cover the aftermath of an insurgent attack on Iraqi police. US troops on a nearby rooftop mall opened fire on their car, killing Waleed and lightly wounding Haider.

US soldiers had detained several other Reuters journalists at the scene and forced them to sit by the roadside, about 100 feet from Waleed’s bullet-ridden car.

Our colleague and friend sat lifeless in the driver’s seat. Bullets had entered his chest through the Reuters identification badge he was so proud to wear.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. Seek help so that subtle form of trauma doesn’t creep up and hit you one day

Eventually, the US military said we could take Waleed to a morgue. As I and the other Reuters reporters put him in a body bag, some of Waleed’s cousins happened to drive by. They stopped when they saw us and got out. They broke down. A Reuters cameraman who was close to Waleed cried like a child.

When I returned to the bureau, Waleed’s brother, who also worked for Reuters, wept. The entire bureau was devastated, and furious at what had happened.

But there was one sound I will never forget. It came from a room where the drivers often enjoyed tea together.

One driver screamed over and over, then cried when he was too exhausted to wail. The cameraman friend of Waleed’s sank to his knees and clung to me.

I wondered why I didn’t shed a tear. Alastair Macdonald, the bureau chief at the time, asked if I wanted to take a break for a few hours. “No”, I snapped. “I will continue working”.

For years I wondered why I didn’t react like the others. It really bothered me. Am I cold hearted? In hindsight, I couldn’t deal with it. I lived in denial.

In 2006, my bosses told me to leave Baghdad, concerned along with friends and colleagues that I had become too comfortable with war. They were right.

A senior editor in London gave me the business card of a therapist who specialised in PTSD. The therapist asked a few questions, like how I felt when on the London Tube. “I get startled by loud noises, I feel threatened. But there is nothing wrong with me,” I said. I foolishly ignored his suspicions I had PTSD, too macho to be sensible.

It was only 10 years later, in 2015, on a brief assignment to a much more stable Baghdad that I felt the full impact of Waleed’s death, especially the deep suffering of others who were devastated by his loss.

I was doing some research on Google when I came across a story on Sabah al-Bazee. Sabah had worked as a Reuters stringer in the Iraqi city of Tikrit for many years. Sabah was covering a provincial meeting in Tikrit when gunmen attacked the building on 29 March 2011. He was killed.

My head dropped into my hands. I ran upstairs and sobbed. I could hear that piercing scream from the drivers’ room as I lay in bed for three days.

On another assignment, I drove to the spot where Waleed had backed up his car at high speed, leaving tire marks on the road, trying to escape death as the soldiers opened fire. That didn’t help me. On many occasions I would sit in the drivers’ room and stare at a large, framed photograph of Waleed and other colleagues who have been killed in Iraq working for Reuters.

The suffering of the people around Waleed - the screaming driver, his younger brother, the broken cameraman - fills my mind whenever I think back to those violent, turbulent years, or whenever a journalist is killed.

The macho in me prevented me from discussing that tragic day for years, from seeking therapy.

Finally, after that assignment to Baghdad in 2015, I talked with a psychologist about Waleed. He told me to go home and write about the five most disturbing incidents I experienced in Iraq and other war zones. I wrote about Waleed, and my feelings over what happened to him. It helped a lot. Indeed, research shows that writing about trauma can be very therapeutic.

I have since mostly come to terms with Waleed’s death, but it took more than 10 years. I will always remember that scream.

Don’t make the same mistake I did. Seek help so that subtle form of trauma doesn’t creep up and hit you one day.

An independent inquiry commissioned by Reuters concluded in April 2006 that the attack on Waleed Khaled and Haider Kadhem was prima facie unlawful and breached the US military's rules of engagement. The US military detained Haider for several days after the shooting. The Pentagon’s inspector general said in 2008 the soldiers reasonably responded to what they thought was a threat but that the army's investigation of the incident was flawed because evidence went missing.

Michael Georgy is Reuters deputy Middle East editor and special Middle East correspondent. He has covered just about every conflict in the region for the last 22 years. He was Cairo bureau chief from 2012 for three years. Before that he served as Pakistan and Afghanistan bureau chief and worked in Southern Africa. This article, written as a blog for sharing with colleagues across Reuters, is published here with his permission.

Waleed Khaled

Sabah al-Bazee ■