Journalist gets personal with iraq video diary


NEW YORK -- As a journalist carrying an American passport and holed up in Baghdad awaiting the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Richard Engel was wondering just what he had gotten himself into.

The freelance reporter had entered the country on the sly a month earlier, making his way to Baghdad, where he found himself virtually alone among Western journalists. Almost everyone else had fled, and Engel wondered if that wasn't the best course. He had no support, no steady employer, no way to call for help if things got bad.

"There were 1,000 horrible scenarios that I was thinking about," said Engel, now NBC News' chief Middle East correspondent. "Most of the reporters had left or been pulled out of Baghdad and I was left alone, wondering, 'Is this is a good idea? Have I bit off more than I can chew?' "

Engel tells how he got through those days -- and others during the four years that he has spent covering the war -- in "War Zone Diary," an hourlong documentary that airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET on MSNBC.

"War Zone Diary" began as a personal video journal that Engel started in those early days in March 2003 in his room at the Palestine Hotel. The documentary begins with Engel talking about the danger while his camera pans over a plastic bag carrying syringes of atropine -- an anti-nerve gas agent -- that he hopes he'll never use. He wonders whether he's taping his own obituary.

It continues through the American occupation of Iraq and Engel's personal videos of key events from those times, including the destruction of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad and the hopes and dreams of ordinary Iraqis who are feeling freedom for the first time.

He joined NBC full-time around June 2003 and, even as he reported for the network, continued to compile the video diary whenever he could.

Engel said he always hoped that the diary would become something beyond a personal record but that, until last year, it was nothing more than boxes of videotapes in his apartment and at the oft-bombed NBC News bureau in Baghdad. A two-minute version appeared on the "NBC Nightly News" last year. But with support from NBC News senior vp (and now "Nightly News" executive producer) Alex Wallace, he began to dig through the tapes with an eye to the hourlong documentary that will now air. It was assembled by producer Madeleine Haeringer, who works with Engel in the Middle East and whose interview with Engel is the only narration.

The result is personal history intermingled with day-to-day life in Iraq for Iraqis, American soldiers and the journalists who now are threatened every day. Much of it never appeared on NBC, and some of it -- a blown-off hand, the bodies of people killed in attacks -- is more graphic than what appears on the evening news.

"I'm often asked what it's like over there, what does it feel like, what do you eat, what does it look like on the streets," Engel said in an interview last week. "This is sort of an answer to that question. I don't think (the documentary) is pro-war, I don't think it's anti-war. It tries not to be judgmental."

But he doesn't apologize for the graphic nature of some of the shots.

"This is it. I'm not trying to hide these from you. It's not the quick cuts, the quick, tight story (you see in typical news reports)," Engel said. "This is the view on the ground. It could have been much more graphic."

Engel's story plays out not only as one with a tremendous amount of death and misery on all sides but also personally: His marriage crumbles under the weight of what he's doing as he and his wife grow further apart. The breakup is dealt with in the documentary, though it's not dwelled upon.

Engel said he was tempted not to mention it all but thought it was important because it mirrors what was happening to Iraqis and the American soldiers and their families back home.

"This is very much a journey that Iraq has gone through, from this period of nervous anticipation to exploration to civil war and where it's going from here," Engel said. "If these four stages have been captured in my experience, they're representative of what's happening to many people. I didn't want to deflect it back on myself ... but it has been part of the journey, and many people's personal lives have been affected."