In Iraq, Journalist Richard Engel Sticks to the Story
Thursday, October 26, 2006
NEW YORK -- After struggling for years to make it as a Middle East journalist, Richard Engel was living in Cairo, married to his college girlfriend and itching for a new adventure.
As the Bush administration geared up to invade Iraq, Engel decided he had to be there and bought an illegal visa. Once in Iraq, he became so absorbed in the conflict that his marriage became a casualty of war.
"There is no personal life," he says. "This is what I do all the time. It's not a solitary existence like I'm riding a camel in the desert, but you just don't have any personal space."
At 33, the baby-faced Engel has logged more time in Iraq than any other television correspondent, chronicling 3 1/2 years of carnage for NBC and shrugging off several close calls. As nearly all television correspondents rotate in and out of Iraq, Engel has stayed .
"In an era of instant media criticism, he calls balls and strikes in the middle of a war zone," says NBC anchor Brian Williams. "He is completely unbothered by any Web site that may have problems with his reporting while he's over in Iraq dodging bullets. . . . He is the most agenda-less person I've met in our business, I think, in the past 20 years."
On a rare visit home, Engel looks slighter than he does in flak-jacketed appearances from Baghdad, as if he doesn't quite fill out his suit. He speaks with an air of resignation about the worst that human beings can do to each other.
Earlier this month he interviewed a woman whose 13-year-old son was kidnapped. After she paid the $12,000 ransom, the boy was tortured and killed anyway.
"It's horrible," Engel says. "I've seen hundreds of dead bodies -- rotting bodies, bodies buried in shallow graves. One time I watched a dog carry a severed human head in its mouth. You're smelling bodies, you're seeing people who are so angry and insanely distraught. The people who are being killed are too old, too stupid, too poor, too young or too weak, socially or otherwise, to leave."
Engel frequently hits the punching bag as a form of therapy. "There are images that I would rather not have in my head," he says. "You can't let your guard down. . . . You have to go out every day assuming you're being hunted, that people want to take you for ransom."
Among the small circle of journalists who risk their lives in the region, Engel commands considerable respect.
"I admire Richard because he's passionate about the story, and he cares," Lara Logan, CBS's chief foreign correspondent, says from Iraq. "When he was a freelancer with no real support, he wasn't afraid to stay on his own in Baghdad for 'shock and awe.' He's also a really decent guy."
Why does he stay? When NBC made Engel its Middle East bureau chief over the summer, he agreed to a new contract and moved to the relative calm of Beirut. Days later he found himself covering a fierce war between Israel and Hezbollah -- and was suddenly reenergized. This, for better or worse, is what he does.