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A return to Iraq

For Molly Bingham, award-winning freelance photographer captured and jailed by Saddam's Iraqi forces during the war, there was no question about going back to Iraq. A look at her recent work.
Freelance photographer Molly Bingham, sitting beside Newsday editor Jim Rupert, talks with reporters in Jordan after her release from Abu Ghraib on April 2, 2003. Bingham and Rupert were among the group of journalists being released from an Iraqi prison.
Freelance photographer Molly Bingham, sitting beside Newsday editor Jim Rupert, talks with reporters in Jordan after her release from Abu Ghraib on April 2, 2003. Bingham and Rupert were among the group of journalists being released from an Iraqi prison.Dusan Vranic / AP

Award-winning photojournalist Molly Bingham was arrested by Iraqi police while covering the Iraq war last year. "They drove us to a place I didn't know where we were going," she says.

That place turned out to be Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison.

"Every other moment of every day it was like, are they going to kill me?"

Bingham recalls the torturous sights and sounds from inside Abu Ghraib.

"You could hear they were in physical discomfort," she told MSNBC's Deborah Norville.

After her release, Bingham insisted on returning to Iraq, and in the wake of Saddam's fall, she did some of her best work, infiltrating the Iraqi insurgency and capturing some startling images of its bomb makers at work. She's been chronicling their exploits with her cameras, as well as in a recent article for “Vanity Fair.”

Bingham shared some of her thoughts with MSNBC's Deborah Norville on Tuesday. Below, is a transcript.

On having been in Abu Ghraib
DEBORAH NORVILLE, HOST:  What went through your body and your mind as suddenly you realized, “I've just been taken hostage”? 
MOLLY BINGHAM, PHOTOJOURNALIST:  I didn't really have any sense of how it was going to play out. It was just the moment-to-moment anxiety of not knowing, “Are they going to kill me?  Are they going to dump me in the river?  Are they going to chain me to something important?  Are they going to take me to a site where Saddam Hussein is and say you can't bomb it because we have Western journalists here with him?”

I didn't know.  And really it was about five or six hours from the time I was first detained to the time I was taken away.  And that period was very difficult, because I didn't know where I was going.

NORVILLE: You didn't know if you were actually being kidnapped in the beginning, right?
Well, I didn't know whether I was being taken prisoner.  I didn't know whether I was being taken to the Syrian border.  I didn't know whether I was going to a prison or to a detention facility of some kind. 

And when I arrived at Abu Ghraib, I didn't know where I was because I had never been there.  I knew it was clearly a prison once I got inside, but I didn't know that was about it.  So it was all a big mystery.

NORVILLE:  When you see the videotape that we've seen quite a bit of since those notorious photos came out, do you see things that look familiar to you? 
BINGHAM: Sure.  This was the prison that I was in.  I was in the Arab and foreigner section, which was isolation chambers, which were 6-by-9-foot cells with a metal grate door with no facilities in it.  So you had to ask.  There was a bathroom down the hall to go to the bathroom.  And you were fed in the cell.  So it was quiet, no conversation, and alone for eight days. 

NORVILLE:  And yet, you could hear other things that were going on in the prison that was pretty horrific. 
BINGHAM: Yes.  In particular, there was one night, there was another prisoner, I presume, who was being beaten pretty badly by the other guards in the hallway right outside of my cell. 

NORVILLE:  So that would have been a foreigner or an Iraqi? 
BINGHAM:  I don't know.  I literally turned my face to the wall and didn't watch and didn't want to be seen to be hearing anything or seeing anything. 

I think all of us had the same reaction.  And Matt McAllester wrote about it in his book as well.  You just wanted to ignore it.  You wanted to be seen ignoring it and not be interested. 

NORVILLE:  Ultimately, how were you all released? 
BINGHAM:  We were all released one day, on April 1.  They were going to drive to us Jordan.  They were going to take to us Baghdad first and get our passports stamped.  And on the way, driving out of the prison, the airstrikes started on the road to Baghdad. 

And so they said, “Oh, okay, you're not going to leave right now.”  And they put us in another cell all together for the first time, with all of our gear, all of our suitcases and everything.  And we ended up staying overnight the last night.  And so the next morning, they put us in GMCs and we were driven to the border, to the Jordanian border. 

Freelance photographer Molly Bingham, sitting beside Newsday editor Jim Rupert, talks with reporters in Jordan after her release from Abu Ghraib on April 2, 2003. Bingham and Rupert were among the group of journalists being released from an Iraqi prison.
Freelance photographer Molly Bingham, sitting beside Newsday editor Jim Rupert, talks with reporters in Jordan after her release from Abu Ghraib on April 2, 2003. Bingham and Rupert were among the group of journalists being released from an Iraqi prison.Dusan Vranic / AP

And being a photographer and being in prison for eight days during really the most important part of the days of the war there, and then missing the few days after—I felt like I needed to go and do what I originally went to do.  I thought, “Okay, now it will be different and I can go and work there and I won't have that sort of oppression and fear that I had before and tell the stories that I want to tell.” 

The first story I went back and told was about female political detainees under Saddam's regime and finding some of those women and talking to them about their experiences.  And part of that was very helpful to me in getting through my understanding of what happened to me and my feelings about that, and just building relationships with Iraqis and having the kind of journalistic experience that I hadn't been able to have there before. 

On insurgents
NORVILLE:  Over the past year, you’ve tried to find out what causes ordinary Iraqi men and women to become insurgents. You talked to everyday people who have made that decision—teachers, shopkeepers, mothers.  You’ve been chronicling their exploits with her cameras.  One of the things, Molly, that I think I don't understand is, who are these people?  We say insurgents, as though they wear a sign that says, “Hello, my name is insurgent,” and we can lump them all together. 

BINGHAM:  Right.  I didn't know exactly what I was going to find when I went.  And I thought it was important to understand who these people are who are opposing the occupation of the country.  And what I found was largely that they are normal people.  Some of them hold down day jobs.  Some of them move weapons.  They use whatever skills they have.  Some of them are fighters.  Some of them are sort of thinkers and policy strategists who are figuring out what to do. 

They're very normal people. They don't have sort of insurgent stamped on their forehead or horns growing out of their heads.  They're very normal people who really have one ambition.  And that is self-determination for their country, which is defined by American and foreign military and political influence withdrawing from their country. 

NORVILLE:  You've had very intimate conversations with a lot of people over the last year.  How do they square the notion that they wouldn't have the possibility to self-determine their political future if the Americans hadn't come in?
BINGHAM:  I think the 15 or 20 people I spoke to, some people actually liked Saddam Hussein.  Some of them never liked him.  Some of them never liked him and now like him and think he is great and appreciate what he did for the country.  Almost all of them said, “We didn't invite to you come here.  We didn't want to you come here.  The people that asked to you come here are exiles, people who didn't live here.  They didn't suffer through what we suffered through.”

They also say, “We want to determine what our own choice is.  And either Saddam Hussein would have died.  We could have taken care of that ourselves.  But now that you've done it, OK, it is history.  Leave us alone.  Let us do this ourselves.” They all share that. 

NORVILLE:  You say that the insurgents have a huge advantage over the American military.  For what reason? 
BINGHAM: I think it's a psychological advantage.  They're obviously militarily at a disadvantage, because they don't have the kind of firepower.  But, as one of the characters said to me, “This is our field.  We play as we choose.  We pick the time.  We pick the place.  We pick the weapon.”  And they've done that, I think, quite effectively.  It started off early on with very simple attacks, AK-47s, sometimes RPGs. That developed into IEDs and bombs used on the roadsides.  And they actually changed that tactic.  Many of them told me they changed that tactic because of the number of civilian casualties that were getting hurt when they were attacking the Americans. 

NORVILLE:  So they realized they were hurting their own people in the process of fighting the Americans.
BINGHAM:   Exactly.  And in that process, the Americans and the Iraqi police built higher walls, put up concrete blast walls, and sort of pushed back from the population.  So they started using bigger bombs, car bombs, mortars.  So, they were responding.  They're very flexible and very intelligent in about how they're going about it. 

NORVILLE:  You also say the Americans can't say why they're there, but the Iraqi people can say why they’re fighting. 
BINGHAM:  Certainly.  One of the characters in Iraq said to me, “We know what we're fighting for.  The American soldier that's here, he doesn't know what he's fighting for.  And when he dies, he'll to go hell.  And if he survives, he will live in hell here in Iraq.  For me, I fight.  I die.  I go to paradise.  If I don't die, I fight and I go to paradise later because I'm fighting jihad.” 

NORVILLE:  There are two people who you give names to, because anybody who spoke to you for the record would have been killed for sharing their knowledge with you.  One of them you call “the teacher.”
BINGHAM:  Teacher is a very interesting character.  He spent his entire life in education.  He didn't like Saddam Hussein because he found that the level of education in his field went down significantly over the last, particularly over the last years of his reign during sanctions.  And he had no love for him.  He said,  “He never did anything for me.  I was a simple guy.  I wasn't interested in politics.  I wasn't interested in doing anything.”

And when the war came, he saw foreign fighters came, Fedayeen fighters came to his area of Adamiyah of Baghdad and were fighting for God.  They were fighting for Allah and they were fighting against the Americans.  And he saw this battle unfold in front of him.  And he ended up helping some of the Arab fighters to find their way around, navigate the streets of the city, which they didn't know. 

And in seeing them lay their lives down for defending Iraq, he was inspired by that, literally.  And he said, “I didn't know my way to the mosque before.  I wasn't a particularly religious guy.”  He was really created by the American occupation—by the war and the American occupation.  He wouldn't have done and been involved in any of this before. 

So he said:  “Within a week, I was lucky enough to find a group of people I agreed with, within a week after the end of the war, find a group of people I agreed with.  And I started moving weapons for them.  I do weapons procurement for them.”

NORVILLE: You have been back and forth into Iraq a number of times over the last year.  What do you think the final resolution of this saga is going to be? 
BINGHAM:  It's a great question.  I think, without full political and military independence, certainly the people I spoke are going to keep fighting.  And they're keep fighting and dying and killing until they feel that they've reached a level of self-determination, independence. 

NORVILLE:  Molly Bingham, it is a terrific article in “Vanity Fair” magazine.  And the photos are amazing. 
BINGHAM:  Thank you.