It is not often that you find yourself smiling on TV when you cover Iraq: I should know, I have only done so twice. The first time was when the Iraqi football team won the Asia cup, the second was when it became apparent that five-year-old Youssif was going to get help. Youssif’s story is an example of the pure evil that has been unleashed here. An innocent child, playing in front of his home, was doused in gasoline and set ablaze by masked men. All that was left unscarred were his large dark eyes, peering out of his deformed face with an unnerving lifelessness. It was his desperate father who found CNN and asked us for help.
I was nervous that the story wouldn’t get the attention that Youssif deserved, questioning if we had done it justice and anxious that the risk the family had taken by talking to us would not prove worth it. What I did not expect was the overwhelming level of generosity that Youssif’s story generated.
I remember reading as comments started coming into CNN.com in response to the story, posting messages that they wanted to help. And then the emails and phone calls began as it rapidly snowballed into something so big we – across CNN – could barely keep up. As I write this, a smile breaks across my face to remember what it was like to know that we’d be able to call
Youssif’s father and say ‘your child is going to get help”. The tremendous outpouring of support also brought the realisation that there are still people who care about Iraq and that compassion does exist for the people here.
And much as it meant to me, it meant even more to our Iraqi staff who were crucial to putting this story together. Iraqis feel that the rest of the world has abandoned them, that the numbers of dead are often just that – numbers – and that this is a war no one wants to know about anymore. Day after day we try to condense the intensity, complexity and tragedy of Iraq into our stories. We try to tell stories of the struggle, pain and sorrow of individuals in the hope that we can create some sort of bridge that will cause those outside this nation to care about what is happening to those within.
Reporting Iraq is an increasingly difficult process and one that can be agonisingly frustrating. Not just because of the global desensitisation towards Iraq, but because of the countless security concerns that restrict us. Yet with Youssif, we found a case that touched millions. And, in direct response to our journalism, we know that this boy will get the surgery and care he needs. But there is also a reality that the exposure means that he and his family are now more of a target. With the euphoria comes an equal sense of anxiety about getting the family out.