In the midst of the Iraq war - and always on the phone
Hand-held satellite phones have become indispensable to war correspondents trying to file stories, catch the latest scuttlebutt - or get tips on avoiding danger
HEAVY SHELLING, WE'VE GONE 4 LUNCH IN KALAK.
As I scroll through the text messages on my Thuraya satellite phone, they seem a more telling picture of covering the war in Iraq than any image on my digital camera. This particular message was sent by a British colleague I was trying to meet with while we monitored US air bombardments around the northern city of Mosul. I cannot bear to erase it, if only to appreciate how absurd it now looks.
The Thuraya - ablack-and-blue phone no bigger than an eyeglass case - has become the indispensable tool for every reporter covering wars in this part of the world. Never before have so many journalists relied on a single piece of equipment to keep in touch, not just with their editors and the folks back home, but with other reporters facing common dangers on the road to regime change.
We use it to file our stories, send out photographs, chat with TV and radio hosts for live Q & As - all while standing on a remote mountaintop or barreling down a highway. In placesshort on telephone lines and mobile phone services, we use the Thurayas to share the latest scuttlebutt. And in a profession famous for its competitiveness, The Thuraya is being used as a tool of camaraderie - a way for reporters to help each other find safer ways to cover a war.
Sometimes, a saved message can become a snippet of momentous history.
KK (Kirkuk) FALLEN. U THERE?
DID YOU HEAR ANYTHING ABOUT TANKS LANDING IN HARIR OVERNIGHT?
CONTINUED HEAVY BOMBING OF KHANEQIN & KIRKUK MON NITE & TUE MORN. PESH STAY PUT.
The last message came from Borzou Daragahi, a Tehran-based correspondent for the Associated Press who covered northern Iraq during the war. A day or so after my arrival in the country, I started receiving regular text messages from him, which he would mail out en masse.
"I'm the wire. I try to keep everyone up to date, so I would just make up a quick text message and send it to the other reporters, so no one misses anything," says Mr. Daragahi. He once covered technology at Money magazine and, donning his computer-geek hat for a moment, says the Thuraya's sound quality is remarkably good - considering our voices have to bounce up and down from a satellite 22,236 miles above the earth.
"[The Thuraya] is absolutely vital for safety," he says. "You just send out a note saying, 'Do not go down that road.' Or, 'Do not bring pesh merga with you.'" (Traveling with the Kurdish fighters, often abbreviated by foreigners here as "pesh," can make reporters more of a target in Arab areas.)
The day Tikrit fell, friends warned me not to drive there from Kirkuk without a convoy: Reporters' cars had been shot at and surrounded by an angry mob on the way. A week earlier, I had learned that Baghdad was falling via a Thuraya message from my Monitor colleague Cameron Barr; I was in the rural hinterlands of northern Iraq at the time.
In many countries, text messaging via mobile phones is wildly popular because it's still considered rude to yammer away in a public place. Moreover, the fear of rudely interrupting someone in a meeting is diminished by simply sending a text message. But working in places without other phone services, the Thuraya text function takes on even greater importance.
Thuraya, whose name in Arabic means the constellation "The Pleiades," is based in the United Arab Emirates. The company's website says Thuraya's launch in October 2000 marked the first satellite initiated from the Middle East. The phones gained favor with journalists and aid workers a year later during the war in Afghanistan.
During the Iraq war, the US Central Command in Qatar said that the security of the Thuraya network had been "compromised" and that the phones would no longer be allowed on battlefields in Iraq. Fortunately, none of us "unilateral" - unembedded - journalists were affected. This sometimes meant that we had better communications than the soldiers.
Meanwhile, Iraqis have come to see journalists as walking phone booths. As I checked into the Dar es-Salaam Palace soon after the fall of Kirkuk, a young woman approached me at the reception desk. She wanted to use my phone, and, nearly begging, said it was urgent she call her father. I looked at thedesperation in her eyes, and told her to please make it quick: It was my newspaper's phone. I explained the phone only worked outside, and into the street we went.
"Dad!" shouted the young woman in Arabic to her father, whom she reached in Tripoli, Libya. "Everyone is fine!" Then I saw them, 15 or 20 more people, closing in on me like a scene from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," holding up phone numbers scribbled on scraps of paper, pleading, "Just one more."
I hovered close to the caller, growing nervous that my precious Thuraya would be snatched and carried off into the sidestreets of Kirkuk. But when the woman finished, I took the phone and announced in my best broken Arabic: "I'm sorry, but this phone does not belong to me. It belongs to my company, and I am forbidden to give it out." They kept pleading but kindly let me slip back into the hotel.
The Thuraya works in satellite mode in about 100 countries - an impressive start. Alas, the US, where I recently paid far higher per-minute prices to rent a shabby, last-generation cellphone at JFK Airport in New York, is not one of them.