Rageh Omaar: You Ask The Questions

Rageh Omaar was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1967 and lived there until he was six years old, when his family moved to the UK. He attended Cheltenham Boys School, before studying Modern History at Oxford. He began his career in journalism in 1990, with a traineeship at the black newspaper The Voice. He began freelancing for the BBC in Ethiopia in 1991, before becoming its Africa correspondent, based in Johannesburg. He became a household name as the BBC’s correspondent in Baghdad during the Iraq war last year. He lives in London with his wife and two children.

You have two very young children. Was there ever a point during your postings in Iraq or Afghanistan when you questioned your choice of career? Do you feel that you missed any important moments in their lives?
Jess Robinson, London

I have questioned my choice of career many, many times. My profession is many things; exciting, challenging and privileged. But it is also incredibly selfish, as it is those you love the most who suffer from the long absences and the agonising fear that one day you will be badly hurt or worse. Yes, I feel I have missed out on watching precious moments of my children’s first years, but thankfully they are still very young. I know I don’t want to be an absentee father.

Were we right to go to war against Iraq?
Sian Hussey, by e-mail</i>

The stated reasons for the war – weapons of mass destruction and clear links with al- Qai’da – have not been proved. The end result of the war has been to rid Iraq of a terrible dictatorship, yet ordinary Iraqis now have a country that is under military occupation, wracked by violence and with an uncertain future.

Do you think you are the greatest, and best-looking, living Old Cheltonian?
Chris Simpson, by e-mail

What? You mean there isn’t a stained-glass window of my beatified features in the college chapel?

You accepted the version of events in Baghdad as supplied by the Iraqi minister of information, apparently without question. But, at the same time, you remained highly sceptical of the same events presented from the coalition forces’ point of view. Why?
Peter Bolt, Redditch

On 7 April last year, with US Marines clearly visible 600 yards across the Tigris river, I remember asking the minister how he could say US soldiers were not in Baghdad, to which he replied that they would be imminently slaughtered. I never accepted what Mr al-Sahhaf said in his briefings wholesale, as the barest examination of any of my reports would show. As for remaining sceptical of the coalition forces’ point of view, some of the things they claimed were happening in Baghdad were not true, like being fired on from the Palestine hotel. But, as I never had access to coalition briefings, the sceptical questions came from the other Western journalists attending the briefings.

What are your strongest memories of Somalia?
Lindsey Davis, Barking

The house I grew up in; growing up with relatives from my extended family, many of whom are now also in the UK and the US; sleeping out under the stars near Kilometre 4 in Mogadishu; the military parades by the former dictator Siad Barre; the surf and powder of the beaches; family picnics in the savanna land near Afgoi; the enormous sky.

One newspaper embarrassed you by printing a letter in which you sucked up to the director of the Iraqi information ministry. How much lying is needed in order to be a successful foreign correspondent?
Naveed Khan, by e-mail

I have told many lies and half-truths on assignments – at Taliban checkpoints in Afghanistan, to rebel commanders in eastern Ethiopia, to Iraqi officials, whether at the border or in the ministry of information. But I have never told a lie in any of my reports.

How much personal grooming is necessary before a rooftop broadcast?
Leila Thorpe, Keighley

Just a quick dab of a tissue to wipe away any stains from the occasional meals of self-heating dried rations.

Do you think your colour makes your job easier or harder?
Iain McIntosh, Glasgow

My colour is a central part of who I am. It cannot be separated from my identity as a journalist, a father, a friend. Sometimes people I have met on my travels have liked me; sometimes they have despised me. The colour of my skin has at times undoubtedly been a factor in both kinds of reactions.

Have you always been a big hit with the ladies?
Becky Wyatt, Andover

No.

Have you ever had nightmares about the slaughter you’ve witnessed? How do you deal with the trauma of war?
Betty Smith, Totnes

I have had nightmares, sometimes. I deal with them by talking about it with friends and relatives. But I also have memories of enormously uplifting and humane moments. Acts of mercy and compassion, however small, are also a part of witnessing wars and human upheaval.

You had a very privileged upbringing in Britain, but I understand you have relatives who became refugees after being driven out of Somalia. How did you reconcile the two very different experiences in your mind?
Kate Hunneman, London

War forced many Somalis to reconcile themselves to an end to the lives they had known. My family, like many others we knew, led very comfortable and privileged lives in Somalia, but the civil war and consequent famine [between 1988-1993] killed thousands of Somalis, drove hundreds of thousands into exile and destroyed the property and life’s work of millions.

Refugees come from all walks of life. They are no different from the readers of this newspaper, and I’ve come across all of them in refugee camps over the past decade.

What is your favourite way of wasting time between bombardments when reporting from a war zone?
Nina Taylor, Dublin

Spending time with other people: colleagues or strangers who show you kindness. Human contact is the thing I most crave at such moments. Also, unfortunately, having a cigarette. I smoked too much in Iraq. I have, however, since kicked the habit.

Who was your icon of the Iraqi conflict? The Iraqi minister of information? Colonel Tim Collins? Jessica Lynch?
Ewan Humphries, Belfast

There are many icons of the conflict for me – none of them a public figure, most of them Iraqis, several of them reporting colleagues.

Would you consider going into politics? Rageh Omaar, Britain’s first president, I can see it now.
Charlie Sheldon, Norwich

Absolutely not. The politics of the TV news business is blood-curdling enough.

‘Revolution Day’ by Rageh Omaar is published by Viking (£17.99)

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