Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning University of Wisconsin alumni don’t visit often, but when New York Times foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid returned to UW Thursday night he described an Iraq many people never see.
More than 150 people gathered at the Pyle Center to hear Shadid speak about his experience in the war-torn country every American knows by name, but few truly understand.
Shadid’s story centered around the small Iraqi town of Thuluyah and those who lived there. While he never saw Thuluyah on a map prior to visiting it, the people he met there came to haunt him.
He described the town as he first saw it in 2003, when he spoke to a family whose son died during a raid, describing their primary emotional state as grieving, uncertain, and most of all vengeful.
“For the judge and dozens of these other mourners the boy’s death was simply a tragedy. To the rest of Iraq it was little more than a statistic…to a war and its aftermath that has dragged on for more than seven years,” Shadid said. “I think sometimes the best journalism is sometimes about footnotes, when we write about something small to say something big.”
Shadid told the story of what happened in Thuluyah following the Peninsula Strike, a U.S. military operation that left three town residents dead, including the 15-year-old boy.
The major turning point for the town was the murder of a young Iraqi man who had become an informant for the U.S. military, and was blamed by the other townspeople for causing the deadly raid, Shadid said. The townspeople told the informer’s family they either had to kill him, or everyone else in his family would be murdered. Although some spoke out against the measure, the man was eventually killed by his father and brother under this terrible pressure.
Shadid said the act, a father being forced to murder his son, opened the floodgates of violence in Thuluyah. Local tribal leaders took over the town, and life there fell into bloody chaos, eventually coming under Al-Qaeda control. The number of Al-Qaeda members in Thuluyah eventually grew from 9 to more than 500, including a preacher Shadid came to know.
Shadid said he tells this story not to validate the false notion that people in the Middle East are inherently more barbaric, but to examine the actions that led to the downfall of the town, from the U.S. military’s deadly strike to the townspeople’s insistence on vengeance.
Thuluyah does have a somewhat hopeful ending. The townspeople eventually realized Al-Qaeda was causing more violence and problems than providing solutions. People started working more with police and rejecting the power of the insurgents, and a measure of peace and balance was eventually brought back to Thuluyah, Shadid said.
Despite the dwindling numbers of troops in Iraq, Shadid said the war is far from over.
More than eight years of experience reporting in Baghdad proved to him it would be some time before the war is over, and he said the sectarian divisions within the country will not be healed until the next generation takes power.
The deep divisions among the sects became deeper after the U.S. invasion, Shadid said. Prior to that, sectarian identity did not define people as completely as it does in Iraqi society today.
“There are no politics other than identity…I think that’s disastrous for the body politic,” he said.
UW senior Adam Sheka said though he isn’t a journalism student, he attended the event to learn more about the war in Iraq from someone on the ground.
For Shadid, the stories of the people, no matter how small, say everything.
“In the end it’s about stories,” Shadid said. “If I’ve learned one thing I think in 15 years of being a foreign correspondent, it’s that only stories really matter.”