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REPORTERS COVERING WAR FACED FEAR, UNCERTAINTY

I was in southern Iraq near Umm Qasr when the text message came through on my phone. "Our cameraman in Baghdad killed." A colleague in Kuwait had just received news of the shelling of the Reuters crew by the U.S. Army in Baghdad.

Somberly, we drove on through the Iraqi desert, heading south for the safety of Kuwait.

Children at the side of the road waved at us as we passed by; many of them put their hands to their mouths to show us that they were hungry and thirsty. Herds of camels and sheep roamed across the stark landscape. Women in black chadors watched us from the doorways of their mud-walled houses.

We saw a group of Iraqis approach a U.S. roadblock. The soldiers motioned them to stay where they were. Their guns were at the ready. The Iraqis raised their hands. Fear and suspicion filled both sides.

The day was growing late, and our Kuwaiti translator was getting nervous. "We have to leave by dark," he said. "At night they shoot at us."

That was a typical day working as a unilateral reporter -- one not officially embedded with U.S. forces -- in Iraq.

Looking back on it all, I see now that many of us made a classic mistake -- our planning before the war began centered around what happened in the last Gulf War. This one was different, very different. It took us a while to see that. In my notebook I wrote down the first day of the war, March 20: "Report that US & UK troops take Umm Qasr. Heavy bombing Baghdad. Basra to fall later this evening."

That was the end of the illusions of the old war. Neither Umm Qasr nor Basra fell so easily. And for unilateral journalists, the situation changed when we heard the first reports that an ITN crew was missing, feared dead. No one has established yet precisely how they died, but they were caught in crossfire and were the first of more than a dozen journalists who died in this war.

Almost every day of the war, we heard the reports of more of our colleagues who had been killed and injured. Of course, journalists' deaths were not -- and are not -- the main focus of the tragedy of civilian deaths in Iraq, but knowing that so many of your colleagues have been killed affects you and the way you choose to cover the war.

There can be no question that many stories will never be told because, in those first crucial days and weeks of the war, it was often just too dangerous for unilateral journalists to get into Iraq and operate freely.

One night a group of unilaterals camped just inside Iraq were given minutes to flee by the British military. The Brits had suddenly lost control of that section of territory. Terrified, the journalists fled in the darkness. They had to leave camping gear and expensive television equipment behind.

After those first few days of uncertainty, the border was closed by the Kuwaiti military. When the fighting moved north to Basra, it became safer to try and get in. On some days huge sandstorms blotted out the landscape, and we would have to navigate by compass or GPS to find our way through the desert. In the end, we resorted to talking our way across the border.

The reaction of the people in southern Iraq to us was mixed. There was hostility and anger over the lack of water and power in towns like Umm Qasr and Safwan, but a surprising number of people cheered and waved as we drove past. In Basra we came across scenes of looting and carnage. Mobs of young men stood at the traffic lights armed with poles and stones. They would attack any car they thought was carrying the "ali babas" -- the looters.

In the center of town, we came across a group of looters trying to rob a bank. They had fired a rocket grenade into the vault, and the whole building was on fire. There were shots fired deep inside the burning building. At least two young men died in the chaos that afternoon. We filmed the body of one of them being brought out of the bank.

We went up to Nasiriyah for the very first talks on setting up a new Iraqi administration. We took a wrong turning into some marshlands. We drove into a clearing where a large Bedouin tent was pitched. Men armed with AK-47s stood outside. A machine gun post stood on the roof of a nearby school building. Further down the road was another machine gun emplacement.

"Who the hell are these people?" the cameraman I was with muttered. The truth was, we didn't know. We had driven unwittingly into an armed encampment.

It was the first time I have ever made that mistake in a war zone. But it was typical of the situation all over Iraq -- it was often impossible to tell where the danger was until you somehow blundered into it. We were OK; the armed men were members of the Al-Ghazi clan gathering to hear the outcome of the meeting.

Coming back that day, we got caught in a sandstorm and had to slow our progress so that we forced to drive at night through the empty desert landscape of Iraq. Every now and then along the roadside, a frightened group of American soldiers would loom out of the swirling sand, pointing their guns at us. And we had no idea who might be waiting in the darkness just beyond the edge of the road.

Finally we crossed the border into Kuwait, so relieved to get out -- nothing had happened to us, but there was another text message on my phone. Three journalists were killed by bandits on the road from Jordan to Baghdad that day.

Then we were driving down the highway through northern Kuwait, happy to be alive and uninjured, the memory of the Al Ghazi clan and their weapons swirling in all of our minds, a full moon gleaming on the desert sand, Janis Joplin on the CD player . . . "windshield wipers flapping time while Bobby sang the blues . . . " Those moments in this life on the road are emotional high points coming after the low points of fear and mourning for the dead.

A few days later, I left Kuwait. But that means more than just hopping on an airplane to go home. You have to work to get back to normal life.

In leaving the war behind, certain things become almost like rituals: handing in my gas mask and chemical suit, throwing away crackers and snacks hoarded in my backpack, folding the worn maps of Iraq for the last time.

You come back down to normality in layers, like shedding skins of the old self -- the war self -- and returning to the world.

HAMILTON WENDE is a freelance writer born in Buffalo. He covered the Iraq war for NBC News.

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