How It Ends

A journalist reflects on reentering the U.S. after being a war correspondent in the Middle East.

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The windows are open, and I'm driving my mother-in-law's car, a turquoise compact number that's festooned with bumper stickers like "Namaste," "Peace," and "Save the Tatas." I'm free, free from my child for the first time in weeks, free from my husband, free from the little rented bungalow on the adorable street where the blue skies are almost oppressive. I've been back in the U.S. for exactly two weeks, and this trip away from it all, up Venice Boulevard, feels like a Carnival cruise.

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I'm kind of a terrible driver. Turns out I haven't spent much time at the wheel of a car in the past handful of years. For a long time that job went to other people: cynical, sarcastic, sometimes burly, sometimes handsome, always charming men — men I would hire by the day or the week or the month.

There was Ahmed, in Baghdad, who drove NPR's armored Toyota pickup. He was big and round and baby-faced and soft-spoken and reasonable, with a Hitler-like mustache you would recognize if you've spent any time in Iraq. I want to say we were as close as siblings, but I knew that could never be true. Still, from the day I met him, my first day on the job as Baghdad bureau chief in 2010, I knew we would die for each other if we had to.

And later, there was my driver in Beirut, with his bronze armored Mercedes. It had a leather interior and a sun roof; a car in which I spent hours driving up and down the Mediterranean, a car that made me want to pretend the world wasn't falling apart around me. As my driver told it, he'd been strafed by Israeli planes in that car, had escaped militias in that car. And he always, always knew the exact right thing to do.

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The night I first sneaked over the border and into Syria, back in 2011 when the protest movement was clearly turning into a civil war, long before I had any idea what I was getting myself into, our Syrian contacts were furious to hear that my driver's wife was from the nearby village, which meant she was a Shia, which meant she was the enemy. Our contacts were Syrian rebels, and they were Sunnis. These were guys with guns and hard stares, but my driver just smoked and laughed at them under his breath.

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"They don't even know who I am," he mumbled. We had stopped at a roadside coffee shop made of corrugated steel in one of those crappy towns near the Lebanese-Syrian border. It was midnight. "My wife might be that. But I am not. I drink! I've had girlfriends!"

Hours later, the argument with the Sunni rebels had been settled and I was about to get on the back of a rickety motorbike with a Syrian girl whom I'd hired as a translator and who had never done anything this stupid in her life. I looked back at my driver and said, "Girlfriends, eh?," and it was clear that was all that needed to be said. He knew me already — just another Western journalist in his stormy homeland. And now I knew one of his secrets. It was as good as being bonded in blood.

He knew me already — just another Western journalist in his stormy homeland. And now I knew one of his secrets.

Turning left and heading toward Santa Monica, I pass streets with names like Palms and Rose and Ocean Park. I thought my destination was a college, but it turns out to be a fancy private school. It's all windows and staircases and sunset-orange walls with earthy accents. The event is a film screening and fund-raiser for an international human-rights group. After the screening I'm supposed to address the audience. Organizers are excited to see me, give me a name tag, and send me upstairs for cocktails and hors d'oeuvres.

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There are lawyers and filmmakers and women who are ten years older than me but better rested and groomed than I have been in a really long time. I'm 50 pounds overweight and the bags under my eyes no longer disappear after a few nights of good sleep. I eat too much cheese and mop my cheeks with a cocktail napkin and listen to the organization's top field researcher imploring those gathered to donate. Then we head into the theater.

The lights go down and there it is, the film about the photojournalist Tim Hetherington, the guy I didn't know who was with a guy I did know the day they both were killed in Libya. I knew this was going to be a film about Tim, but I guess I didn't really think through what was going to happen on the screen. First there are a few scenes of him talking about what it's like to be a war photographer, a few shots of him doing his job. Such a kind face, such care he took to tell people's stories.

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Then it's Libya, and it's footage from the last day the two were alive, and they're in a car, and the Bee Gees are singing "How Deep Is Your Love," and the driver has an AK-47 with the Libyan rebel flag on the handle and a grenade on the dashboard. The car tries to speed through a checkpoint, and the street is totally deserted in the way that can only happen when there's a war. Tim says, "Which way is the front line from here?," which is the title of the film. They see a bombed-out building and they're laughing, doing that thing you try to do, which is laugh at everything because maybe you're trying not to be scared or maybe that's just what our bodies do.

The car tries to speed through a checkpoint, and the street is totally deserted in the way that can only happen when there's a war.

Then they're at the front line, and everybody is serious except the Libyan rebel who is just firing and firing at a building that's pocked with huge black holes from rebel rockets. He has this shit-eating grin, hamming to the camera, because of course the fighters are laughing, too, and scared, too, and he says, "Good? Crazy!"

At first I'm feeling pretty cool, sitting there and watching this, because I know what it's like to be in the shit and still laugh and smile. I know how vivid those incongruous moments can be in a war, when everything around you is mostly bad and the one slightly striking thing can seem so beautiful because it's the only good thing.

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Like that night-blooming jasmine bush I passed in Syria, when I was embedded with the rebels in 2012. They were heading out to a battle and we were all running through this centuries-old, mud-brick medina, and the smell of the jasmine hit me first. I stopped and looked up and realized there was an entire ceiling of the stuff growing above us. I buried my face in the tiny white flowers that only bloom after sundown, each one a little starburst. I was convinced they were the most miraculous thing I had ever seen, a god-given moment of truth.

I was convinced they were the most miraculous thing I had ever seen, a god-given moment of truth.

Like the Bee Gees playing in that rebel's car in the film. Which I'm fine with. Until I realize that rebel's shit-eating grin is only funny if you don't know the end of the story. But I know the end of the story. Oh fuck, I think, I'm about to watch Tim — and my friend, Chris — die. I'm not prepared for this. It's about to get ugly.

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It happened in April 2011. Tim and Chris were covering the Libyan uprising against Muammar Ghaddafi. It was the Arab Spring, which at the time was probably the most exhilarating, dynamic, dangerous story that any of us could imagine: millions of protesters calling for the downfall of dictators were flooding the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain. In Libya, the whole thing had devolved into a civil war, with NATO backing the rebels and Ghaddafi digging in with loyalist soldiers and mercenaries.

I was stuck in Baghdad, cooped up in a grand house on a secure street that NPR shared with McClatchy, The New York Times, and others. Armed guards were posted in towers and at the ends of the street to search cars. Reporters were only allowed to go out for work. Nearly all the other Iraq-based correspondents were long gone by then, most of them in Egypt or Libya.

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I wanted to go, too. I kept writing my boss: "Put me in, Coach?," but the answer was no, we never miss a day in Baghdad as long as there's an American soldier on Iraqi soil. One night I had a few people over for dinner, and as they were getting ready to make it home before curfew, a friend got a message on her Blackberry that some journalists had been killed by shrapnel after a rocket attack in Misurata, the latest and most brutal front in the Libyan war.

It appeared that Tim Hetherington, the guy with the big heart who'd just collected an Oscar for Restrepo, a film he made with longtime war correspondent Sebastian Junger, had bled to death in the back of a pickup truck. Longtime photojournalist Chris Hondros had survived a major head injury, but the situation did not look good. A colleague was handed Chris's blood-filled helmet before he died.

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Chris was a lovely guy whom I'd sat with on a panel, gone drinking with a few times. He was one of those guys who are almost universally loved by the tribe. That's what we call ourselves, foreign correspondents who work in dicey places. The tribe. Losing Tim and Chris was very bad for the tribe.

That's what we call ourselves, foreign correspondents who work in dicey places. The tribe.

By the time I am sitting in that dark theater, my wish to get in the game, to become a real hard-core Middle East correspondent has come true. And I am about to have to start reckoning with the consequences.

On the screen, Chris and Tim are still very alive, in a building that's right on the front line, and the rebels are using these little hand mirrors attached to sticks or car antennae to look around corners and see if the enemy is waiting. Then the music gets ominous, and a rebel guy puts his fingers to his lips to shush them as they go up the stairs, and they burn tires so they can see in the dark.

I know exactly what happens next. I have run that story over and over and over, online that night as I watched it unfold while I was in Baghdad, and at bars and parties with tribe members ever since. My breath starts coming fast, I am rocking in my seat. I love this scene because I know how it feels, but I hate it because I know how it ends.

I start to feel very, very bad. I'm shaking and weird in a way I have never been. I realize I can no longer be in that seat. I bolt out of the theater, out past the interns, out the door of the perfect little school, out and away from the drought-resistant landscaping and the guys setting up the taco truck.

I'm shaking and weird in a way I have never been.

I find an alley, the only place that looks remotely dirty and bad. There's lawn equipment and fertilizer and old shoes. Coughing, crying, retching, vomiting — or maybe I just think I'm vomiting. Either way I'm doubled over, and I hurt behind my eyeballs, an emotional hurt, a death hurt, a fucking punch-it-out-of-the-side-of-your-head-if-you-only-could hurt. The alley is brown and dusty and I need that, but it hurts me too, and there's nothing I can do to make it stop hurting.

And I'm furious at myself for not being more complicated at this moment, for having no frame to the problem, that after all this time it's just so childish and simple, that the question that keeps spilling out, over and over, as ridiculous as it sounds through the sweat and tears, is why. "Why?" I scream it, and I'm sure the taco guys hear. Stupid white lady.

Back inside I've smoothed the dress, licked off the mascara, reassembled the smile. The event organizer tells me how sorry he is. Is there anything he can get me? I ask for a quart of Jack Daniels and a carton of cigarettes. He laughs, a little afraid, then looks around nervously. Nobody is smoking. The interns pretend to go look but I know they won't come back. Fucking California. I knock back a few white wines and head into the theater.

I will watch the rest of the film, and I'll get in front of all those people and tell them that yes, my job was dangerous, but it's important to be a witness to history, to document the atrocities, to put yourself at risk to tell the truth. But then sometimes you have to quit while you're ahead and pass the baton to someone else and leave the crazy.

I will put it into sound-bite-size paragraphs, and there will be thoughtful questions and applause. And I will feel like I am lost at sea, caught between the life I know I am supposed to want and the oblivion, back there, that I so loved. And then I will get back in the turquoise car and drive myself to the place I am trying to call home.

Kelly McEvers is a host of NPR's "All Things Considered" and the podcast "Embedded."

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