How ISIS reporter copes with the demands of the job

  • Rukmini Callimachi, a correspondent for The New York Times, met with Iraq's Federal Police at the Mosul International Airport in the last week of February. "The airport was an important target for the Iraqi forces and taking it marked a milestone in the push to liberate the city," Callimachi said in an email.

    Rukmini Callimachi, a correspondent for The New York Times, met with Iraq's Federal Police at the Mosul International Airport in the last week of February. "The airport was an important target for the Iraqi forces and taking it marked a milestone in the push to liberate the city," Callimachi said in an email. Photo courtesy of Rukmini Callimachi

  • Rukmini Callimachi went inside an ISIS tunnel near Tidmur on the outskirts of Mosul in the first week of March.

    Rukmini Callimachi went inside an ISIS tunnel near Tidmur on the outskirts of Mosul in the first week of March. Photo courtesy of Rukmini Callimachi

  • Rukmini Callimachi, a correspondent for The New York Times and a former Daily Herald reporter, discussed her reporting in Mosul during a recent visit at Benedictine University.

      Rukmini Callimachi, a correspondent for The New York Times and a former Daily Herald reporter, discussed her reporting in Mosul during a recent visit at Benedictine University. Jeff Knox | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 3/12/2017 11:19 AM

Rukmini Callimachi decides to go for lunch at a popular spot in Mosul, but her British security adviser, a man with an Arabic nickname of 007, is uneasy.

It's their first trip into the eastern half of the city since Callimachi arrived in Iraq in early February. Iraqi forces have liberated eastern Mosul after months of heavy fighting with the Islamic State.

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Callimachi, a correspondent for The New York Times and former Daily Herald reporter, wants to stop for a meal at Sayidati al-Jamila, or "My Fair Lady." Her adviser concedes, as long as their driver stays with the car in case they need to escape.

Callimachi enjoys a lovely lunch -- a pastry with chicken and spices, she later writes on Twitter -- and the team leaves for their hotel.

Three days later, a suicide bomber attacks the restaurant.

Callimachi, who spoke at Benedictine University in Lisle last week about the threat of ISIS, has had other dangerously close calls in her career on the front lines of conflicts around the world. She writes about the Islamic State and the group's particular brand of terrorism. Nightmares, and sometimes anxiety, come with the job.

But Callimachi strongly dismisses the idea from her readers that she's courageous.

"I don't think of it as taking risks. I know people see it that way, but to me, I see it as telling the best story that I can," Callimachi said. "The point isn't to take risks. The point is to push to the edge of the story and try to see something for what it really is."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

So she prefers to work in the field, writing with vivid detail.

During her monthlong trip, Callimachi was embedded with Iraqi forces three times in western Mosul, where troops have launched an offensive to fully drive out ISIS from the city. She travels with a team that includes a "fixer," or translator, and keeps in frequent contact with the Baghdad bureau manager for the Times, a former Iraqi Army colonel.

On mornings driving with the convoy into Mosul, Callimachi was calm, even grateful.

"I'll just find myself literally praying in the car and just giving thanks for this unbelievable profession that I'm in where I get to see things that almost nobody else gets to see," Callimachi said.

The fatigue sets in when she returns home. She decompresses by re-watching episodes of "Modern Family," the ABC comedy.

"By contrast, I'm actually repulsed by and cannot watch violent movies," she said. "Even things like crime dramas that involve finding a dead body I literally can't watch. 'Game of Thrones'? Forget it. I'm like, what's the point?"

But Callimachi can't truly unplug. She tracks jihadist chatter on ISIS channels on Telegram and other social media. She has a Telegram account that's strictly for monitoring the prolific presence of ISIS on the instant messaging platform.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Mostly there are inconsequential threats. But after attacks, there are claims of responsibility on these channels, Callimachi said.

"It also means basically I can't go on vacation," she said. "If I leave for like a week, I'm then completely shut out" from chats that quickly replace those closed by Telegram.

Still, Callimachi is quick to say she can't imagine doing anything else.

"To me, it's the best job in the world," she said.

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