On Jan. 17, 2007, a group of armed insurgents ambushed and killed an idealistic 28-year-old American who was working in Baghdad for the nonprofit National Democratic Institute, along with three private security contractors who were accompanying her. Bef ore her death, Andrea (Andi) Parhamovich and NEWSWEEK reporter Michael Hastings had been preparing to announce their engagement, and the tragedy impelled him to write a book about this extraordinary woman and the vision that took her to Iraq while the bloodshed was at its worst. In this excerpt, Hastingsreconstructs the day she died.
Andi wakes up Wednesday morning in Baghdad. She takes an hour to get ready. She showers, brushes her teeth, and thinks about placing a Crest whitening strip on her smile. She eats only a Zone bar, high nutrition, and drinks a bottle of Ocean Spray cranberry juice from her small refrigerator. Her room is in the Ramal Hotel off Karrada Street on the fourth floor. It is a two-star establishment pretending to be four-star. Lots of gold and dark reds. There is only a single bed in her double room; she asked for the second bed to be taken out to make space for her yoga mat. The drapes on her window overlooking the compound are always closed. She puts on her jeans, a long-sleeved white button-down shirt, and a navy blue blazer. She checks her email on a laptop with a wireless connection, sends a message to her friend in New York, giving advice on relationship troubles. She grabs her black bag and folder with pen and paper. She closes and locks the door.
Andi walks down the four floors, says good morning to the owner of the hotel, who stands behind the front desk in a suit. She waves at the boy who cleans her room and brings her room service, light meals of hummus and tea. She steps around the metal detector at the hotel entrance, checks to make sure she has her mobile phone, then steps out into the isolated world of her compound. It is a self-contained fortress: two barely functioning hotels facing each other across a narrow, closed-off street, an entire city block taken over by the organizations that live and work inside the compound.
There is sun today, a clear sky, but at this hour it is still chilly. Her office is inside the compound, protected from the main avenue by checkpoints and tall concrete walls. It takes her only a minute to walk there. She passes about a dozen vehicles, some armored white SUVs, others armored sedans, parked underneath an awning. She arrives at her desk about 9 a.m. She has a trip planned for this morning, her first in her new job at the National Democratic Institute. Compound life can be stifling, and she is looking forward to getting out into the city. She sits down and calls her interpreter, who tells her the meeting is still on. The interpreter will meet her at the Iraqi Islamic Party headquarters in Yarmouk, a neighborhood on the other side of the city. She calls the head of security, telling him she'll be ready to go soon. The security team is waiting outside, four European private security guards and three Iraqi drivers.
Across the Tigris River, other men are preparing for her arrival. A few of them were up earlier, most likely for prayer. They have names, though most don't use them. They are cousins and brothers. They drink chai and start to move to their cars. They stash weapons—AK-47s, grenades, and a heavy machine gun—in the trunk of an orange and white Opel. They load up two more cars.
The leader's cell phone rings. The ring tone is an Islamic prayer he downloaded from the Internet. The rest of the men are used to it, they know it is his phone. He gets confirmation.
She is coming. She is blond, American. They even have a name.
The first thing out of the mouth of anyone I talk to— Iraqis, my journalist friends, my military contacts, the security personnel—is, how could this trip to such a dangerous place have been approved? It seems like a clear f–––up. Yarmouk is considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Baghdad. There was no need to meet members of the IIP, a party known to have ties with insurgent groups, at their headquarters. Bad things happened at their headquarters. Two Iraqi journalists were killed while leaving a press conference there—kidnapped and executed—six months ago.
I know all this. I know the Iraqi Islamic Party is shady. I know they are hypocrites. I know most political parties in Iraq are complicit in the killing that is taking place in the country. Why did I not put all of it together when Andi told me she was going to visit with the IIP days earlier? All I said was, Be careful.
I know, I know, I know.
You cannot blame yourself, I am told. Yes I can. I can blame myself and I can blame everybody. Blame is easy. Blame is easier than living with this terrible sadness and despair.
This afternoon, a few security guards from NDI dropped off Andi's belongings at the NEWSWEEK bureau. Two large black trunks—the trunks I had brought to her two weeks earlier. Four suitcases. Two unopened cardboard care packages—they arrived on Thursday—FedEx boxes from her family and my family. Her laptop bag with her personal computer.
In her laptop bag I find pictures of her and her two nieces. Folders from work. Letters that my father has written her. Gifts I have given her: a small gold Kurdistan pendant and a necklace I had bought for her from a woman in the West Bank, the digital camera I gave her for Christmas in Vermont. A few books: Marie Antoinette, Twain's Joan of Arc, the biography of Empress Sisi I bought her when we were in Vienna. I open up the care packages, and inside are finger paintings from Kayla and Abby, her nieces, with yellow hearts saying LOVE ANDI.
I take out her clothes—the blue sweatshirt of mine she liked to wear, my favorite top of hers, the white one she wore when she met me in Vienna, her blue scarf and mittens. I take her perfume.
I find a plastic bag of extra large men's T-shirts, including one that says HUNGARIAN INTERNATIONAL SHOOTING CLUB. I assume it belongs to the dead Hungarian guard who was in Andi's car.
Later that afternoon, the security manager from NDI calls.
"You don't happen to have T-shirts, do you? Extra large? They belong to the bodyguard in the third car."
"Yes, I do."
"I'll come by and pick them up," he says. And then, "He's agreed to meet with you if you want. He's at the NDI compound in the [Green Zone]."
"I'd like to talk to him."
A few hours later, I drive with NEWSWEEK's security manager "X" to meet the surviving guard. Let's call him Jacob. He was one of the two survivors in the third car. He's from a small town in Hungary. His English is okay. He was shot in the arm, but is doing fine.
"I'm sorry we couldn't do more," he says, and then he starts talking, and I stare at him, listening.
He's a thick six feet two with a square head and soft brown hair. He's wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt. He has a cut on his chin and what look like stitches. He seems a bit shaky.
"She wasn't the only one who was killed, you know," he says.
"My friend, he was in her car. He died, too, he was like a brother to me. He has a wife and a two-year-old baby back in Hungary."
"They don't give a s––t, you know, a [bodyguard] from Hungary gets killed, then it is no big deal, but she wasn't the only one who died.
"And you have to understand," he says, in broken English, "that I am usually in the client car. For the past six months I have been in the client car. I was not in the client car, my friend was instead. Brother to me."
So what happened?
They were at the IIP compound for about an hour and a half. He says he has been there seven times. That the last trip there was a month ago. I have talked to people with post-traumatic stress disorder before, watched as they recounted their experiences in combat, and he gets the same look as he goes through the events of that day.
He is about 15 meters behind her car. For whatever reason—it is unclear to him, or he can't say—her car stops. Four or five men run at the car. At this point, there is a massive amount of shooting. Or maybe there is shooting before, too. The sequence of events, from his telling, is hard to pin down. There is an explosion. The car he is in crashes. Crashes into what? He can't say. The car is receiving fire from all directions—above, to the sides, everywhere, from what he guesses has to be at least 30 shooters. The security team leader, a Croatian, is sitting shotgun in the third car. The Croatian steps out of the car to move toward Andi's vehicle. It is unclear whether the explosion has happened yet, whether there still is a vehicle to move to. The team leader, says Jacob, is almost immediately killed. His boss, shot dead. Bullets are now pouring into his car. There is smoke everywhere. Jacob is in the backseat. The driver of his car, an Iraqi, has also been shot. Two hundred rounds hit our car, says Jacob, maybe more.
It is hazy, he says, foggy. He doesn't really know what happens next. It sounds like he stays in the car, in the backseat. It seems like he does not return fire or make any attempt to move to Andi's car. Maybe it is too late. Maybe he is in shock. Maybe the training does not kick in, and he is overwhelmed by what is going on. He hunkers down in the car and waits, and at some point he leaves the car to hide in a building with the wounded Iraqi driver of his car.
X has been listening carefully to the conversation. "There is tunnel vision," he points out. "When s––t like this happens, it's hard to see everything."
I ask if the guards from the Iraqi Islamic Party compound responded.
He smirks and shakes his head, no.
He tells me a second team of NDI guards arrived maybe 20 minutes after the ambush started.
"Twenty minutes is an eternity," says X.
Jacob repeats his points.
"I am lucky to be alive," he says. "He was a brother. I am sorry we couldn't do more."
I nod, yes, lucky.
I take down his email address and I thank him for his time.
I go back to the bureau, and think about what he told me, and I come to the harsh conclusion that he failed, he froze, he did not return fire. He hid in the backseat. He told me that he was fortunate to have survived. I agree, he might not have been that fortunate had he been doing the job he is paid to do, which is to protect his client, even if it costs him his life. That is why he gets paid. I am sympathetic to his own shock, his own trauma, and I am probably being unfair, but I don't really give a s––t that he lost a friend, another mercenary. I don't give a s––t that he is usually in the client's car, and it was only the fate of switching with his friend that saved him. I care only that Andi is dead, murdered, and that she was not protected.