Iraq war reporter teaches the trade

Nathan Halverson

Less than one month ago, Paul McEnroe was running from an Iraqi militiaman who was trying to kill him with a grenade. In a couple of months, he will be teaching University students advanced reporting techniques.

McEnroe, a University adjunct professor, recently spent more than three months in the Middle East covering the war in Iraq for the Star Tribune. He also covered the Persian Gulf War.

McEnroe, who has been teaching journalism courses at the University since 1991, has lived through harrowing experiences he uses to motivate and educate students.

Only a few months ago, McEnroe was stuck on the Iraq-Turkey border after being denied access to Iraq. He was one of the few journalists reporting from Iraq who was not embedded with U.S. troops.

Stymied for days, he and Star Tribune photographer Richard Sennott turned to an American Kurd living in Minnesota whom McEnroe had contacted before leaving. The source provided the name of a Turkish banker who arranged for them to be smuggled across the border in a ratty old truck, hidden under bags of potatoes, which were precariously arranged to form a small compartment.

It worked. The lesson for students: “You have got to do pre-reporting,” McEnroe said.

The six-hour truck ride across the border provided another lesson.

While the truck was stopped at a checkpoint, Kurdish guards climbed on board and began poking long sticks into the piles of potatoes, potentially compromising their hiding spot.

McEnroe feared they would be discovered, so he motioned for Sennott to put his hands up in a nonaggressive fashion to quickly placate the border guards. The mood was intense, but they were prepared for the worst.

This lesson: “Don’t let the fear paralyze you, but stay afraid,” he said.

The truck eventually began rolling again. Their hiding spot was not compromised.

McEnroe does not stand on a soapbox when he delivers his experiences as instructive tales. He de-emphasizes himself.

“It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about getting the story right for the reader.”

But the personal relationships McEnroe forges help him bring stories home.

McEnroe met Peshmerga fighter Tariq Gogjai on a mountain in northern Iraq that was being heavily mortared. A mutual respect formed as the two stayed through the night, toughing out the weather and the mortar bombs.

When they ran into each other again in Gogjai’s home town, Gogjai welcomed McEnroe and Sennott into his house. He provided a cook and a bodyguard – the latter necessary because Gogjai’s house was sometimes attacked.

But the respite in Gogjai’s house could only last so long; soon the two journalists were off covering more stories.

Gogjai headed out too. He was on the front lines of an attack against terrorists who had made northern Iraq their home.

When events brought McEnroe back to town, he headed to his friend’s house. Gogjai was not there – only crying women dressed in black. Gogjai had been fatally shot in the stomach.