Iraqi Sunni Muslim insurgents celebrate in front of a burning US convoy they have attacked earlier April 8, 2004 in Abu Gharib, on the outskirts of the flashpoint town of Fallujah.
Iraqi Sunni Muslim insurgents celebrate in front of a burning US convoy they attacked April 8, 2004 in Abu Gharib, on the outskirts of the flashpoint town of Fallujah.
Credit: Karim Sahib / AFP / Getty Images
Nearly three years earlier, in late October 2001, my wife-to-be, Nadja, and I stood glaring at each other in the living room of our home in Jerusalem, having the first major fight of our 15-month-old relationship. An army of journalists was on its way to Afghanistan in preparation for the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The chief of correspondents at 'Newsweek' had called me earlier that evening, asking if I wanted to join the Northern Alliance in the Panjshir Valley for their assault on Kabul. It was one of those opportunities that few war correspondents would turn down, yet there was a catch: The high mountain passes surrounding the valley were freezing over, and journalists who made it in ran the risk of being trapped there for months.

"You're not going to Afghanistan," Nadja said definitively. In the next room, our three-month-old son Max stirred in his sleep. "You've got a child now. You've got responsibilities."

"What do you mean? Of course I'm going."

"No way," she said, her voice rising. "You think you can just walk out of here and leave me alone with Max for two or three months? Are you crazy?"

"I explained the deal when we started this relationship. This is what I do. This is my work."

She slammed a book down on our dining room table. A violinist from the former East Germany whom I had met at a 'Los Angeles Times' party in Berlin in July 2000, Nadja has an assertive personality and a sometimes fearsome temper. "That's bullshit!" she shouted at me. "You told me you were going to give up this life, remember? You said you wanted to settle down, write books, have three children. Was that all a lie?"

"It wasn't a lie, but . . ."

"But what?"

"But I – I didn't mean I was going to give it up immediately. I've got this stuff in my blood, and I can't just stop overnight."

"Oh, kvatch," she replied, using German slang for bullshit. She was in my face now. "Look, you lured me out to this shithole with the understanding that you weren't going to run off every two months to cover wars. That's one of the reasons I gave up my life in Berlin for you."

"But this is an extraordinary situation. Al Qaeda just destroyed the fucking World Trade Center! You want me to sit on my ass and watch this from here? There's going to be a major war."

"You want war?" she said, crossing the room and flinging open the front door. She stood on the landing above our garden, a fecund explosion of grapevines and citrus trees. "Look out there. You've got a war going on right outside your house." The Palestinian intifada, now in its second year, had entered a deadly new phase: Suicide bombings of Israeli cafes and buses were happening almost every week, and Israeli jets were making retaliatory missile strikes against the Palestinian Authority. Often we could hear the roar of F-16s over our house as they headed off to bomb police stations in the West Bank and Gaza. "Go to the territories. Go downtown to the Sbarro pizzeria. Get all the blood you want. But you are not abandoning me here with Max. If you do, I will walk out on you. I promise."

"Honey, who knows how long it's going to be? It could just be a few weeks…"

"That's bullshit," she said. "You and I both know that if you leave now, you're not coming back until after Christmas. Who knows if you'll come back at all? You'd better make your choice: a family, or Bush's war."

In the end, Nadja won a partial victory: I turned down the offer to join the Northern Alliance, settling instead for shorter trips to Pakistan, Indian Kashmir, and Saddam's Iraq. But each trip reconfirmed what I already knew: The rush that came from parachuting into Third World conflict zones, from observing and writing about violent human dramas, was as strong for me as the pleasures of domestic life. Nadja and I fought about it – constantly. She accused me of misleading her, called me an overage adolescent who was playing with his life. "Do you want Max to grow up without a father?" she asked me on more than one occasion.

Those words came back to me as I fidgeted on the couch in Falluja, listening to my captors argue about what to do with me. I thought about all the other times I'd run into serious trouble in my 12-year career as a foreign correspondent: the time an RPG slammed into a wall 20 feet above my head in Rwanda; the time drugged-up Liberian child soldiers threatened me at gunpoint on a country road outside Monrovia; the time I huddled under a truck for 45 minutes in the rebel-held hills near Tetovo, Macedonia, while government soldiers fired mortar rounds at ethnic Albanian guerrillas. I'd even been kidnapped once: In May 2001, I had been seized at gunpoint by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip and held for five hours in an airless room much like this one.

Each narrow escape had bolstered my confidence, led me to believe that I could venture farther and farther out on the edge and come back safely – with an amazing story to tell. Each narrow escape had convinced me that I had a special talent for this kind of work – and thus a responsibility to remind comfortable Americans what it's like "out there." It was my duty to be here – just as it had been my father's duty when he worked as a roving newspaper reporter, investigating the murder of civil rights workers in Mississippi, choppering into the jungle to observe the Vietcong.

King, with our Iraqi staff, came in as I sat there thinking about my father and my son. He sat down and looked at me tight-lipped, forlorn. I thought I could sense resentment in his expression, the unspoken message: Hey, this was all your idea.

"What is your country?" the young mujahid who had ridden beside me in the BMW asked King. The fighter's name was Mohammed. He appeared to be in his early 20s, with intelligent eyes, an athletic build, and a self-confident, polite manner. King hesitated, and I knew he was wondering whether he should lie.

"Be straight with them," I advised.

King sighed. "I'm from Memphis, Tennessee," he drawled, and sank deeper into his chair.

The insurgents separated King and me from our Iraqi drivers and guards, leaving us with only our interpreter, Samir. One fighter confiscated King's cameras and began flipping through the digital images, studying them. We were given bottled water and asked some routine questions about our work in Iraq. After about an hour, Stubble Face and Mohammed ordered King, Samir, and me back into the BMW. We turned down a deserted street and seemed to be heading toward a vacant, rubble-strewn lot. King and I exchanged terrified glances. 

I pictured a lonely walk through the lot at gunpoint, the cocking of the gun, the shots in the back of the skull. Will I feel the bullets? Will pain come before the blackness? I thought about other journalists I had known who died on the job: Danny Pearl, whom I had met at a rooftop party in Paris with his wife-to-be, Marianne, just before they left for Pearl's ill-fated 'Wall Street Journal' assignment in Bombay; Dan Eldon, a 22-year-old Reuters photographer who was beaten and stoned to death on assignment in Mogadishu in July 1993.