Anne Garrels, covered Iraq and other conflicts for NPR, dies at 71

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Anne Garrels, a broadcast correspondent who was expelled from the Soviet Union, covered Central America’s civil wars and brought National Public Radio listeners into the heart of Baghdad during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, died Sept. 7 at her home in Norwalk, Conn. She was 71.

Ms. Garrels’s death from lung cancer was announced by NPR, where she remained an occasional contributor following her retirement from full-time reporting in 2010.

“I didn’t set out to be a war correspondent,” she said in a 2003 NPR interview. “The wars kept happening.”

Ms. Garrels became one of NPR’s most experienced voices from the field during conflicts and from flash points that included China’s 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy crowds in Tiananmen Square, Russia’s war in Chechnya in the 1990s and the fall of Kabul to Western-allied forces following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

With deft use of natural sound and a vivid descriptive palette, she became a master at what is often the most compelling kind of war reporting: moving beyond what foreign correspondents call the daily “bang-bang” and bringing stories about the people caught in the conflict and informed analysis on what is likely ahead.

Covering one of the indelible moments of the Iraq War — the toppling of a huge statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad — Ms. Garrels accurately noted that the euphoria of Hussein’s downfall would soon fade and the Pentagon would likely be in for a long struggle against opponents of Western forces.

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In an oral history published by the Columbia Journalism Review, Ms. Garrels said her editors in Washington wondered if she missed the story and should emphasize the celebration. She stood firm. “Many people were just sort of standing, hoping for the best,” she said, “but they weren’t joyous.”

She was among the few correspondents for U.S. media in Baghdad during the initial airstrikes in 2003 that the U.S. military called its “shock and awe” campaign. Her dispatches became a centerpiece of NPR coverage, describing scenes in the Iraqi capital amid the relentless air attacks as U.S.-led ground forces closed in.

On NPR’s “All Things Considered” on April 7, 2003, Ms. Garrels was asked by host John Ydstie to describe how Iraqis were coping with the chaos, blackouts and confusion about when American forces could enter downtown Baghdad and the strongholds of Hussein’s regime.

“People here are terrified. I mean this is what they feared most, that the war would be brought into the city,” she reported. “They are confused. They don’t know who to believe, what reports to believe. … They are just sitting there terrified.”

Ydstie asked Ms. Garrels to tell listeners what she can see and hear.

“A lot of artillery, bombing, heavy machine gun fire, which is really the first time we’ve heard that,” she said. “I saw a lot of [Iraqi] Republican Guard units outside the city today. … A lot more trenches have been dug or reinforced.”

The next day, as U.S. forces swept deeper into the city, an American tank fired a shell into the 15th floor of the Palestine Hotel, the base for Ms. Garrels and other journalists, overlooking the Tigris River in central Baghdad. The blast killed Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk and cameraman José Couso of the Spanish TV network Telecinco. An investigation by the Committee to Protect Journalists said U.S. forces were intending to target a nearby Iraqi military position, but added that “attack on the journalists, while not deliberate, was avoidable.”

Ms. Garrels, who was not injured, described how the battle unfolded from her window at the hotel.

“It was right in front of our eyes,” she said on NPR. “The fighting was incredibly fierce. … Iraqis tried to set oil fires to mask their positions.”

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During the height of the war, Ms. Garrels managed like other correspondents: keeping the bathtub full to anticipate water cuts, working by candlelight or generator, and getting by on snacks and, for some, smokes — Ms. Garrels’s favorites were Kit Kat wafers and Marlboro Lights.

Ms. Garrels’s personal account of the war, “Naked in Baghdad,” (2003) refers to her habit of working in her hotel room without clothes as a security trick. If Iraqi security came to the door, she explained, she could ask for time to get dressed — and allow her a chance to stash her satellite phone to avoid confiscation.

Amid her numerous accolades, including a George Polk Award in 2003, Ms. Garrels faced some criticism for a 2007 story on NPR citing statements by prisoners previously tortured by Iraqi Shiite militias, which claimed it was purging members for committing atrocities against civilians.

In an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, Ms. Garrels said she was unaware the militiamen planned to take her to the tortured men. She also defended the reporting, saying NPR made clear the men were abused in custody and corroborated their statements.

“We were not told we would see torture victims,” she said. “When we saw what we believe to have been torture victims, we reported it. And in the end, if you ignore the reality of what these groups are doing and do not say they torture these people, then that’s even worse.”

Anne Longworth Garrels was born in Springfield, Mass., on July 2, 1951. She moved to Britain with her family at age 8 after her father, a top executive at agrochemical giant Monsanto, relocated to London.

A longtime family friend, Peter Kazaras, director of Opera UCLA at the University of California at Los Angeles, said Ms. Garrels showed an early hint of the journalist at age 4 at Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International). As she waited with her older siblings for a flight to join their parents in Bermuda, she interviewed all the other passengers.

“She asked everyone from an 80-year-old woman to a young child who, as it turns out, was going to her father’s funeral,” Kazaras wrote in an email. “ ‘Why did he die? How did he die?’ demanded Anne. Her siblings tried to drag her away.”

After completing grade school in Britain, she graduated in 1972 from Radcliffe College with a bachelor’s degree in Russian.

Her language skills gave her many potential options during the Cold War, including government agencies. Her first job was with a British publisher, which led to journalism. In 1975, she started as a researcher at ABC News and later was posted to Moscow. Her reporting on Soviet life, including housing shortages and suicides, put her at odds with Kremlin minders.

She was expelled in 1982 following a tense period after her car struck and killed a pedestrian she described as “drunk.” She was cleared of any charges, but she claimed the investigation was used by authorities to keep her under pressure. I “found myself caught up in a political wilderness where there were no rules,” she wrote in the New York Times in 1986.

After Moscow, she was sent by ABC to cover the conflicts in El Salvador, where the United States backed the right-wing governments, and Nicaragua, where U.S.-aided Contras were trying to overthrow leftist Sandinista leaders. She returned to Washington in 1985 as NBC’s State Department correspondent, covering the Reagan administration.

Ms. Garrels joined NPR in 1988 in Moscow just as the Soviet Union was beginning to unravel. Amid the chaotic aftermath, she began following the lives of a group of people in Chelyabinsk, a city near Russia’s Ural Mountains. For two decades, she kept tabs on their lives. The result was the 2016 book, “Putin Country: A Journey Into the Real Russia.”

In the 1990s, she managed to reach the front lines in Chechnya for reporting despite Moscow’s controls on media access to the Muslim republic seeking autonomy. In Afghanistan, she traveled by bus to reach the Northern Alliance, a U.S.-backed force that was the first to push into Kabul in 2001 to topple the Taliban. (Twenty years later, the Taliban regained control of the country.)

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Her husband of 30 years, James Vinton Lawrence, a former CIA operative who became an illustrator for the New Republic and other outlets, died in 2016. Survivors include two stepdaughters, Rebecca Lawrence and Gabrielle Strand; a brother; and a sister.

During the Iraq War, NPR was flooded with letters, emails and voice messages applauding Ms. Garrel’s coverage and sending wishes for her safety. She downplayed her own courage and often pointed to the people caught in conflict as often showing true resolve.

She once recounted a time when she and her Iraqi assistant, Amer, pulled an injured man from a firefight.

“As Amer and I washed away the blood, [the man] looks at me with a smile and says with a certain amount of surprise, ‘You are very brave,’ ” she said. “I look at his suit, now covered with blood, and tell him the same.”

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