By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Not that Engel necessarily approves of military conflict.
"I think war should be illegal," he says. "I'm basically a pacifist."
* * *
Engel was taping a standup last week on Haifa Street, in one of Baghdad's most dangerous neighborhoods, where he was traveling with the 172nd Stryker Brigade.
Suddenly shots rang out. The unit was under sniper fire. "Let's go, go, go, go, go, go!" one soldier shouted. Engel scrambled for cover, but completed his report a few minutes later.
He has little patience for the notion that the media are suffering from Iraq fatigue because the story -- day after day of death and destruction -- has gotten so repetitive.
"Whether you agree with the war or not, I have a very soft spot for the guys who are out there. These guys have saved my life on more than one occasion, and they are dying at the rate of two a day, and they deserve to be talked about."
Danger lurks everywhere for Western correspondents in Iraq. Engel has survived two kidnapping attempts, one of which occurred when a pair of cars surrounded his vehicle, forcing his driver to make an evasive maneuver at 90 miles per hour with a third car in hot pursuit. And journalists' hotels are a periodic target. Engel's hotel room has been blown up three times in insurgent attacks, once collapsing the ceiling and another time blowing off the door as shrapnel filled the room.
"There's a fine line between fearless and crazy," Williams says. "Richard is not crazy. He has distilled risk to a science."
Few would have predicted that Engel would become an intrepid war correspondent when he was growing up on Manhattan's East 86th Street. He suffered from dyslexia and struggled in school.
"He was down in the mouth and low on self-confidence," says his mother, Nina Engel. "He lived in the shadow of his older brother, Mr. Perfect," who is now a cardiologist. In fact, she had only "a very faint hope" that he would be able to go to college.
When he was 13, Engel asked his parents to send him to a wilderness survival program in Wyoming. Frustrated by his learning disabilities, he was eager to escape the comforts of Upper East Side life and try a tougher environment.
He says he was "scared to death," especially when given a gun to hunt small game. Nina Engel remembers getting a letter from her son: "I just returned from my survival hike. I clubbed a bird to death and ate it." When the teenager returned, he told his mother: "I learned a lot about myself."
Engel says the experience began a transformation that largely enabled him to overcome his dyslexia and school problems. Despite his learning difficulties, he showed early promise in other ways.
"He was a great writer," says Ross Peet, who was a classmate at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx. "But he struggled with anything that had a number on it."
At 16, Engel spent a year as an exchange student in Sicily. After graduating from Stanford in 1996 with a degree in international relations, Engel says, he decided that "the Middle East would be the story of my generation." He announced to his parents that he was moving to Cairo, where the family had once taken a trip.
"Are you insane?" Nina Engel recalls asking him. "Do you remember what a hellhole it was?" When her son said he was also considering Damascus, she allowed as how Cairo was not really that bad.
The aspiring reporter took his $2,000 in savings, moved to Cairo, enrolled in Arabic classes and found an apartment in a neighborhood where donkeys and dogs roamed the dirt roads.
Engel did some local freelancing and caught an early break when he was asked to take over the English-language Middle East Times after the staff walked out in the wake of the editor's firing. He wrote all the articles -- making plenty of mistakes in the process -- and took the proofs each week to a printing press in Athens, as a way to avoid Egyptian censorship laws.
Engel ran into trouble anyway as he began reporting on the group that would become al-Qaeda. He says Egyptian authorities started following him and bugging his phone. Once, after a weekend trip, an official called to ask how he had liked staying in Room 17 of a hotel in Alexandria. Engel reported the surveillance to the U.S. embassy, to no avail.
"The embassy was useless," he says. "It was my first lesson that you cannot rely on anyone else. No one is coming to help you."
In 1999, Agence France-Presse hired Engel to go to Jerusalem and cover the Palestinians. As the intifada protests against Israel turned violent, he says, "I spent the next three years on my stomach, getting tear-gassed and shot at with rubber bullets."
Most people might consider that a miserable existence. But Engel brightens at the thought: "I was lucky enough to be on the fault line as history shifts and moves."
Friends were not surprised at his constant need for an adrenaline fix. "He has no interest in a 9-to-5 job," Peet says. "He's very much into living on the edge. I don't think he has much interest in having a normal life."
By late 2002, as war with Iraq loomed, ABC News and the BBC had hired Engel as a freelancer. But even though he spoke Arabic, Engel wasn't on anyone's list to get an Iraqi visa. The networks were concentrating their efforts on their bigger stars.
Undeterred, Engel took $20,000, went to Jordan and bought a human shield visa, meaning that he was pledging to chain himself to an Iraqi facility as a deterrent against U.S. bombing. Engel got the visa from an Iraqi official who knew full well he was a journalist but was swayed by a few hundred dollars and some baby clothing that Engel had bought for extra persuasion.
Once in Iraq, Engel bought a generator and some crowbars, souped up two Volkswagens so he could move fast without being conspicuous, and hired an off-duty police officer. On the eve of the Western invasion, most of the networks pulled out their correspondents for safety reasons, a decision that Engel could not fathom.
"You knew it was going to be horrible -- that's why you're there," he says.
As other journalists either withdrew, were expelled or clamored to get in, Engel was for a brief time the only American television reporter in Iraq. He found himself much in demand by ABC, which still identified him as a freelancer. He did the videotaping himself with a small camcorder. Once Saddam Hussein was toppled, ABC and NBC both offered to hire Engel. He retained a top New York agent and decided he would prefer a fresh start with NBC, "coming in the front door as opposed to climbing up the fire escape and breaking in the back door."
In the invasion's aftermath, Engel would drive each week to such cities as Najaf and Fallujah, poking around to find stories. But that gradually changed as the security situation deteriorated. Now, unless he is embedded with a military unit, Engel usually finds himself confined to the safer precincts of Baghdad, an experience he describes as "a noose tightening around us." He increasingly relies on Iraqi staffers who are from certain neighborhoods or members of the same ethnic group as a given area's residents. But even that can be problematic. "I've gotten rid of the ones who I think cannot be trusted," Engel says.
Not everything he covers involves bombs and bullets. Engel did a piece earlier this year on the plight of children at a Baghdad orphanage, which drew so much public reaction that "NBC Nightly News" aired it a second time.
"I don't look for good-news stories or bad-news stories. I don't have an abacus," he says.
But bad news has a way of finding journalists in Iraq. On Memorial Day, Engel heard a nearby explosion. He soon learned that CBS correspondent Kimberly Dozier had been badly wounded and her two crew members, Paul Douglas and James Brolan, killed by the blast.
His mother sent him an e-mail: "YOU ARE UNDER HOUSE ARREST UNTIL YOU CAN BOOK A FLIGHT OUT OF THERE . . . Mom's orders."
She writes him every day, but he has not followed her evacuation instructions. Still, there are psychological effects. Riding in an Army Humvee, Engel looked down at his legs and thought how fragile they looked. What if he lost them?
"You worry about how many lives you have and how many I've already used up," Engel says. "I don't think I'm invincible."