Unembedded in Najaf: Oak Cliff couple photographs harrowing siege in Iraq

The cover photo from “Unembedded”: Photo by Thorne Anderson
The cover photo from “Unembedded”: Photo by Thorne Anderson

2 photojournalists from Winnetka Heights earned civilians’ trust to capture important moments of the war in Iraq.

Photojournalist Thorne Anderson was trapped inside the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf for three days in 2003: Photo by Kael Alford
Photojournalist Thorne Anderson was trapped inside the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf for three days in 2003: Photo by Kael Alford

Thorne Anderson’s gear included a white bandana. The bandana cushioned a lens, but also signaled a simple phrase when waved in war zones: “Please don’t shoot me, please.” He says he first carried one in Kosovo, then in Macedonia, Israel, Palestine, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.

“To this day, when I carry my camera equipment, I still have a white bandana in there. It’s a weird thing that I can’t get over,” Anderson says from his Winnetka Heights bungalow.

“Lot of good it does you now,” quips his wife, Kael Alford. She’s also a photographer and educator. They drive modest sedans to teach photojournalism: she, at Southern Methodist University, he, at the University of North Texas.

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They met 18 years ago in grad school and taught journalism in Bulgaria shortly after the Bosnian War. During subsequent conflicts in neighboring Kosovo and Macedonia, they found themselves being shot at while photographing refugees and rebels.

Sometimes they worked separately, not seeing each other for days, only to share a few moments at some border crossing before taking taxis in opposite directions.

“There are a lot of journalists that feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves, and they are putting their lives into the service of contributing to a broader understanding of these important events.”

Alford says there was some ambivalence in working tandem: They watched each other’s backs but were also competitors. Still, she says she preferred them together.

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“I don’t like it when I’m far away and he’s reporting,” she says. “I’d rather be there and reporting, too.”

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“Isn’t that a little superstitious?” Anderson asks. “Because I travel on my own all the time.”

“Yeah, but you’re better off when I’m around.”

Their work was often dangerous and rarely lucrative. So why do it?

“There are a lot of journalists that feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves, and they are putting their lives into the service of contributing to a broader understanding of these important events,” Anderson says.

Kael Alford, who now lives in Oak Cliff, served as an independent  photojournalist in the early stages of the Iraq War: Photo by Thorne Anderson
Kael Alford, who now lives in Oak Cliff, served as an independent photojournalist in the early stages of the Iraq War: Photo by Thorne Anderson

Four months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Anderson wrote a letter to friends and family saying, “Some of you have written to me with concerns for my safety in Iraq, but this was easily one of the safest assignments I have taken.” Ten years after the invasion, and having left Iraq, Anderson says, “On the whole, it was the most dangerous conflict I’ve ever covered.”

In March 2003, Alford and Anderson were freelancing in Baghdad, poised to photograph the Iraq War’s next installment. Their work and that of a few colleagues would later fill an unflinching photo book titled “Unembedded.” They were among several dozen Western journalists who opted not to embed with coalition forces. Instead, they based themselves in cheap Baghdad hotels to document the war’s civilian impact.

I think it’s important for us to see what it looks like on the other side of the line.”

But the popular Western narrative just after the invasion was about liberation, not photos of grieving fathers, dying mothers and dead children — or a nascent insurgency for that matter.

“Already in April 2003 there were attacks against the U.S., but that story was not really given much credibility in the U.S. media,” Alford says.

Still, Alford and Anderson spent weeks earning trust from civilians-turned-rebels in Sadr City who patrolled streets with Kalashnikov rifles, buried remote-controlled bombs and let their children play with a couple American photographers.

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A father shows his hand to snipers as he carries his terrified child across the frontline in Najaf, 2004: Photo by Kael Alford
A father shows his hand to snipers as he carries his terrified child across the frontline in Najaf, 2004: Photo by Kael Alford

Alford and Anderson later drew criticism for covering insurgency.

“We’re third-party observers,” Anderson says. “And I think it’s important for us to see what it looks like on the other side of the line. We feel like we’re contributing to the dialogue — an important dialogue — in understanding this war a little deeper.”

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By August 2003, sectarian rebellion thundered across Iraq. Thousands of disaffected Shiite Muslims rallied behind Muqtada al-Sadr, a cleric who opposed Iraq’s provisional government and the Americans supporting it. Al-Sadr and his militia, the Mehdi Army, had relocated south of Sadr City to Najaf, among the holiest cities in Shiite Islam.

A skirmish with U.S. Marines soon spiraled into a three-week urban siege with 4,000 American and Iraqi troops surrounding some 2,000 militiamen.

Temperatures neared 125 degrees in the siege’s second week, and along dust-colored city blocks, Anderson waved his white bandana. He, writer Phillip Robertson and their second translator successfully threaded through Najaf and across a final street before reaching the battle’s epicenter: the Imam Ali Shrine.

Robertson later wrote, “Fighters on the other side of the street took us in, and there was an innocent, human quality in this moment that I cannot describe even a year later.” The militiamen easily could have killed the Westerners, but instead escorted them to the shrine’s gates and turned them loose inside, where hundreds of civilians and militamen took refuge.

The ceilings and walls of the ancient gold-domed shrine were alight with a galaxy of multi-colored tiles. There, Anderson found a French journalist who’d been shot through the leg. She was evacuated by the ambulance servicing the shrine’s makeshift infirmary.

Anderson received word via satellite phone that Time Magazine wanted his coverage from inside the shrine. He thought he’d have 10 days to shoot and deliver, but was given only three. There was another inconvenience: The satellite phone was low on power and couldn’t handle transmitting photos. Charging wasn’t an option.

A boy watches his relatives repair a grenade launcher in Sadr City, 2004. Photo by Thorne Anderson
A boy watches his relatives repair a grenade launcher in Sadr City, 2004. Photo by Thorne Anderson

Despite having gone through great pains to get into the shrine, including an averted kidnapping and being pinned by gunfire, Anderson would have to leave the shrine and somehow pass through thousands of gunsights to beat his deadline.

Alford was outside Najaf’s Old City photographing civilians. When she and Anderson spoke by phone, she told him she wanted to join him.

“She kept asking, ‘How did you get in there?’ ” he says. “And I kept saying, ‘Don’t try to do what we did.’ So, I was worried she would try to get into the shrine.”

Conversely, Alford worried about Anderson getting out of the shrine, which was relatively safe. Though militiamen were disarmed upon entering the shrine, and U.S. Marines were precluded from killing those within its walls, anyone beyond was a potential target.

Without an escape plan, Anderson photographed among the shrine’s warriors and worshippers for three days. Some militiamen were from Iran, some in their teens, some barefoot and at least one bound to a wheelchair. So many stories, so little time.

And again and again, Anderson saw militiamen charge down Prophet Street only to “see those very same fighters come back in wheelbarrows in mangled, broken pieces.”

He also saw people cracking under combat stress. Some wept. Tempers flared. Explosions impeded sleep. Shrapnel whined like loose lawnmower blades into the shrine’s marble courtyard. And then there was the shrine itself, with its blood trails and broken toilet.

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“This beautiful shrine,” Anderson says, “which is the center of their religious identity, was falling into disrepair day by day by day.”

Anderson says the Iraqi government and American military “were both considering storming the shrine, which would have had really devastating consequence to the relationship between Shiite Islam and the West for decades — for generations to come.”

Anderson phoned Alford. He hoped to catch a ride out of the shrine in the ambulance, but it was disabled by gunfire. Before they solidified an exit strategy, the phone died. He was trapped.

The day of his deadline, Anderson says the militamen began chanting, “The journalists are coming! Don’t shoot!”

He ran to a gate and saw a pack of journalists walking toward the shrine. Robertson later described their arrival as “a species of miracle.”

Alford had brokered a ceasefire so a convoy of journalists could report from inside the shrine, and upon leaving, Anderson and his companions could escape the siege. Alford says it wasn’t a completely selfless plan: “Yes, I wanted to get him out and I wanted him to be safe. But almost equally, I wanted to get in.”

When the couple finally had a moment alone in the shrine, it would have been socially inappropriate for them to hug or kiss. Instead, they gently squeezed hands.

“And then,” Anderson says. “We went about working as we normally do.”

Reporters filtered through the shrine for photos and brief interviews. Robertson wrote, “Hundreds of fighters were at the gate as we left. They all knew us.”

At the Najaf Sea Hotel, there was no time for celebration. Anderson barely stayed an hour. He was on deadline and anxious to file photos. Alford was displeased. They both were.

“On the one hand,” Anderson says, “it’s what we had been doing as journalists in the last 10 years. But on the other hand, it’s still something to this day that I feel shitty about.”

A man walks down a ruined street near the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, 2004: Photo by Thorne Anderson
A man walks down a ruined street near the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, 2004: Photo by Thorne Anderson

So he waited with bated breath on the floorboard of a car as it motored toward Baghdad through Sunni towns notorious for kidnapping and killing journalists.

“I don’t miss all the anxieties and stresses of it, and the danger of doing it, but I miss the meaning of it. And it’s hard to find anything that’s convincingly as meaningful.”

The shrine never was stormed. The militia abandoned Najaf after surrendering its weapons.

One Marine Corps battle study claimed the militia suffered 1,500 fatalities while the U.S. lost 11 troops. No one knows for sure how many civilians died. Regardless, the Mehdi movement later gained major parliamentary traction despite U.S. opposition.

A few months after the siege, Anderson and Alford left Iraq.

“It seemed like we were starting to push our luck too much,” Alford says. Journalists increasingly became targets as security waned and Iraq slid toward civil war.

Readjusting stateside took years. Anderson says he feared crowds, fireworks, heavy traffic and less quantifiable demons. Alford says she actually misses covering conflict: “I don’t miss all the anxieties and stresses of it, and the danger of doing it, but I miss the meaning of it. And it’s hard to find anything that’s convincingly as meaningful.”

Given the disproportionate rate of divorce and separation among war veterans, perhaps it’s not only extraordinary that Anderson and Alford survived, but survived as a couple.

“I feel like my life is divided into parts: my youth, the time I spent covering war and my present life,”Alford says. “So, I’m glad to have someone nearby who helps connect those threads.”

Anderson sees his life differently, as one continuous experience, from having been the kid who crashed his wagon and broke his collar bone to being a husband having a beer with friends in Oak Cliff.

“I don’t feel like I need Kael to heal my past,” he says. “Rather, my present is the accumulative experiences of my past, and Kael’s a huge part of that. That feels awesome to me.”

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  • scott sura

    I am glad they are both now safe and our neighbors in the OC.
    S-sqrd.