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A decade later, wounds have healed, but the memory remains raw

A decade later, wounds have healed, but the memory remains raw

By Ann M. Simmons

Dec. 31, 2003. I remember that day as if it were yesterday.

I was serving a temporary stint in the Baghdad bureau of the Los Angeles Times. It was New Year’s Eve and a group of foreign journalists and Iraqi staffers decided to ring in 2004 at Nabil’s restaurant, a popular hangout for journalists, contractors, embassy personnel and foreign aid workers.

Some of us drove to the venue in convoy. I was seated in the back seat of a small SUV driven by Baghdad bureau staffer Nasif Duleimy. Fellow L.A. Times correspondent Tracy Wilkinson sat in the front seat.

As we pulled up at the restaurant behind a vehicle carrying another Times correspondent, Chris Kraul, I placed my hand on the door handle, ready to exit.

The blast was deafening.

Ann Simmons Baghdad bombing 2003

Ann Simmons after the Baghdad bombing, Dec. 31, 2003. Photo: Tracy Wilkinson / Los Angeles Times

 

I’m not sure whether I passed out, but the next thing I knew I was gasping for air. My mouth was full of debris. My eyes were gritty with fragments, so much that I couldn’t see and thought I had been blinded.

Screams and shouts competed with the screech of sirens.

I heard a man cry out: “Ann! Oh my God, where’s Ann?”

Then came another voice yelling “Sudanese, Sudanese!” (I’m a tall black woman, and there was a sizable community of southern Sudanese immigrants living in Baghdad in that time.) Hands reached into the vehicle and pulled me out. I later learned an Iraqi policeman was among those who helped me.

I was hoisted onto the bed of an open-backed truck and lay next to Chris, who, it sadly turned out, was the most severely injured of our group. His left hand was broken, he suffered a severe concussion and he was blinded in his right eye.

Chris had seen a car barreling toward his vehicle on the wrong side of the street before it crossed his path and slammed into the back wall of Nabil’s restaurant. The car was packed with explosives.

Ann Simmons Baghdad bombing 2003

Ann Simmons photographed in the Los Angeles Times newsroom on Dec. 31, 2013. Photo: Tim French / Los Angeles Times

 

The blast killed eight people and injured at least 20. Among the wounded were many of our loyal and beloved Baghdad staff members who had joined us for the celebration. Nabil’s restaurant was destroyed and has never reopened.

Chris and I were taken to a nearby hospital, where we found Tracy. Our faces were bloody, ripped by scorching shards of glass, metal and gravel. An Iraqi doctor tried to suture a gash in my head, without anesthesia.

One of our Iraqi staffers commandeered an ambulance and transported Tracy, Chris and me to the U.S.-run military hospital in Baghdad’s Green Zone. We were grateful to the American medics who preliminarily patched us up.

Because I was a UK citizen, British Embassy officials took over responsibility for my well-being. I was flown to a British military base at the airport in Basra, southern Iraq.

Royal Air Force medics administered more healthcare and offered moral support — and cups of tea. I rested on a camp bed in a large tent. My aching body couldn’t stop shaking. The antibiotic ointment on my oozing face attracted swarms of flies.

I was eventually taken to the United Kingdom on a Royal Air Force cargo plane. Many of my flight companions were other “walking wounded” — injured British soldiers. The others being transported lay in several caskets, each draped with the Union Jack.

Ann Simmons Baghdad bombing 2003

The last image taken in the Los Angeles Times Baghdad bureau before the 2003 New Year’s Eve bombing at a Baghdad restaurant, taken 15 minutes before the blast. Left to right: Tracy Wilkinson, Salar Jaff, Ann Simmons and Chris Kraul welcome in the New Year with a Champagne toast. Photo: Los Angeles Times

 

1 Comment

  1. December 31, 2013, 10:20 pm

    A poignant reminder of the sacriface that is sometimes made for good journalism. I’m glad and your colleagues lived through it as many do not. Happy new year!

    By: Paula Lauren Gibson

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