Nephew of Westhampton Woman is Front and Center on the TV News
Janet Lee Berg

“Mom, Im in Kuwait. But, dont worry, Im a writer. Im here to write, not to get shot at.”

In our family, we happen to have a reporter in Iraq, my 28-year-old nephew, Marc Santora, who is still a wet-behind-the-ears rookie at the Metro desk for The New York Times. Like many families who have loved ones in the Middle East, we cant wait for his safe return. We watched him evolve from a goofy kid, to a well-educated adolescent, known for his zany sense of humor that matured over the years into one of suavity.

When he first started reporting, we couldnt help but smirk at his stealth silhouette, gliding by on the streets of Manhattan in his wrinkled, Columbo-like trench coat. “Have you been living in a car?” we’d ask.

Then, we stood back and took a second look, as every week following, this boy was producing front page articles and was given spectacular assignments that were actually featured as segues for prime time news. Why, he even got to hob-nob with big celebrities. The next thing we know, Marc is sent to London to Boot Camp for Journalists. There, he learns how to be a War Reporter training in first aid, preparing for attacks of chemical weapons, and learning how to cope with combat scenarios. He called my sister soon after, “Mom, Im in Kuwait. But, dont worry, Im a writer. Im here to write, not to get shot at.”

He loves Kuwait, describing it as a very beautiful, cosmopolitan city. In a recent New York magazine column, Marc is described by Maureen Dowd (who he was formerly an assistant to at the Times desk in Washington DC.) “He’s always been dying to smoke cigarettes and drink martinis in exotic datelines,” says Ms. Dowd. Next phone call home, his voice is up another octave, “Mom, Im in Iraq. Im watching the troops march in as we speak.”

Then, another call; on short notice, our entire family is instructed to turn on the TV to the McNeill Report, where he will be interviewed. There he was for almost ten minutes, answering questions like a pro. Here in Westhampton Beach I was slappin’ whoever was sitting next to me, silly with excitement. “Is that really him?” I asked in disbelief. What happened to the goofy kid who made those funny faces and loved practical jokes? Seems like yesterday he was running around the suburbs donning a Halloween mask, and now, hes running around in a foreign land donning a gas mask.

How does he, and so many others, especially those in the armed services, change so quickly into solemn thinkers, and responsible adults? The answer which keeps coming back to me is life before 9-ll and life after 9-ll. For Americans, especially New Yorkers, it’s two different worlds. And the young people in this country do not take freedom for granted, as they fight to keep it alive, here and abroad.

As the troops have been moving forward over the past few weeks in dismantling the Iraqi regime, in one of the worst sandstorms in years, my nephew finds himself in a one-man tent in the desert; living on cans of tuna (which he never liked back in the good ol’ US of A) and rations of Trail Mix. He will surely appreciate his fathers cooking when he gets home.

As we’ve been following the war and Marc’s articles, we are amazed at what takes place. He shares his story, as he observes Iraqi civilians while the British cargo vessel carrying relief supplies docks at a southern Iraqi port. Twice the Kuwaitis have been met by crowds that quickly turn into mobs, desperately taking whatever they could, climbing over each other like animals. He is deeply saddened to see the faces of the children.

There are cries heard from the crowds. Many have not eaten and are in need of basics. One 18-year-old, named Ahmed, from a town of 5,000, said we need food and shoes. We’ve been without water for over seven days, since the pipe supplying Safwan was damaged.
Another man, by the name of Abu Zahra, said Mr. Hussein’s soldiers remain loyal to him, and still lurk in the streets. The sight of them disgusts the people, even though some are friends and cousins.

Again, we read what this young reporter writes, this time from the outskirts of Basra. He describes rocket-propelled grenades launched at British troops, exploding above civilians on the highway, who run for cover, but an unknown number are wounded. The troops move closer to Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, hoping to avoid a street fight, which could be very ugly. The people leave the city in the morning and return in the evening by donkey-pulled carts filled with tomatoes. Or in orange and white carts that used to be taxis. There is a continual mass of black smoke from oil fires and the sound of sporadic machine-guns.

In Sunday’s paper, we read Marc’s article about the discovery of mass graves by the British soldiers, where there were remains of thousands of bodies at an abandoned military compound. The bones are obviously quite old in this part-jail, part-military makeshift morgue, where they also found a catalog containing black and white photos of the dead; many bodies had been mutilated beyond recognition. Others were shot in the head, obviously placed in the courtyard used as a firing squad. We’ve all heard about the horrors under the regime of this man, Mr. Hussein the brainwashing, the torture, the slaughtering of his own people.

Without a doubt, we have to stop the evilness of the Hitlers, and Osama bin Ladens and Sadam Husseins. It’s not pleasant, no matter what side you’re on, or how well you do; it’s hell and war will always be hell.