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2005-03-23

Wounded Spanish Journalist Olga Rodriguez Describes the U.S. Attack on the Palestine Hotel That Killed Two of Her Colleagues

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On April 8th, 2003, the U.S. military opened fire on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, killing two journalists: Taras Protsyuk, a Reuters cameraman from Ukraine, and Jose Couso from the Spanish TV network, Telecinco. We speak with Spanish journalist Olga Rodriguez, who was wounded in the attack. She says, "I never imagined that American troops were going to attack journalists living in a place protected by international law." [includes rush transcript]

Two years after the invasion of Iraq, we are also approaching the second anniversary of the U.S military shelling of the Palestine Hotel. When people in this country think about images of the war, they probably remember the iconic moment of the U.S military tearing down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square on April 9th.

What is not remembered as much is that the day before–April 8th 2003–when the US military opened fire on the Palestine Hotel right across from that square–killing 2 journalists: Taras Protsyuk, a Reuters cameraman from Ukraine, and Jose Couso from the Spanish TV network, Telecinco. Several others were seriously wounded in the attack.

This week the brother of Jose Couso–Javier–has come to the United States to call for an independent investigation into the death of his brother and the prosecution of those responsible.

Today we spend the hour with Javier Couso, his translator, and Olga Rodriguez. They came into our studio yesterday. Olga is a correspondent for Cadena Ser–one of the leading radio networks in Spain. She was two floors above Jose in the Palestine Hotel and was literally saved by the bell. I asked her to tell us about that day.

  • Olga Rodriguez, Spanish radio journalist with Cadena Ser–one of the leading radio networks in Spain. She was wounded in the attack on the Palestine Hotel.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour with Javier Couso, his translator, and Olga Rodriguez. They came to our studio yesterday. Olga is a correspondent for Ser, one of the leading radio stations in Spain. She was two floors above Jose in the Palestine Hotel, and on that morning of April 8, 2003, was literally saved by the bell. I asked her to tell us about that day.

OLGA RODRIGUEZ: Well, I woke up at early in the morning, and it was a day in which we knew that American troops were in front of our hotel, because already we saw for the first time those troops like 36 hours before the attack against Palestine Hotel. It was the day before the attack — the day before, it was 7th of April. We were in the balcony. We were living in that hotel, approximately 200 journalists, Europeans, American journalists. That day before the attack, we said even hello to the troops. They were in the other side of the river, Tigris River, and they were there looking around as military people. They were trying to know what —- which buildings were surrounding them, and that was the day before. The 8th of April, we woke up early in the morning, and we saw some tanks already on the bridge. They were not hiding. They were there. When the attack happened, I saw them the first time like four hours before the attack on the bridge. I was in the 16th floor of Palestine Hotel, and I was waiting for a phone call from my radio station in Spain, because I had to be on the air, and I was on the balcony. Suddenly, my phone rang, so I went inside the room. And when I was doing that, the attack came. At first, I thought that I was dead. I felt completely empty inside me. I couldn’t hear anything. Then five seconds later, I reacted. I started to touch myself. I discovered some blood in my leg, and I decided to run. I went to the other room where some Spanish journalists were, and I said, I cannot hear anything. We have been attacked. And after that, we went stairs down. When we arrived to the 14th floor, where Jose -—

AMY GOODMAN: 15th?

OLGA RODRIGUEZ: In the 15th floor, there were Reuters people. One of them, Taras, was dead, immediately, in that attack. But we didn’t know that. When I arrived to the 14th floor, an Italian journalist who was a friend of mine was shouting, "Jose is injured. Jose is hurt." And after that, we went to look for him, we saw that he was really injured in one of his legs here...

AMY GOODMAN: On his jaw. On his chest.

OLGA RODRIGUEZ: And we started to run looking for a hospital. At first I thought it was an attack coming from Iraqis, and I remember that I met with a guy who was working for Saddam Hussein’s regime. We didn’t like him at all. That was a dictatorship, and their behavior sometimes was really nasty. He was saying American troops have done this. And I looked at him saying, "What the hell you are saying?" Like one hour after that, I talked with Spain by phone, and my boss said to me, "The Pentagon has recognized that it was an American attack." And I couldn’t believe it, because I knew that they knew that that hotel, as everybody in the world knew, that hotel was the place in which were living 200 journalists from Europe, from America, and they were not far away. They didn’t arrive ten minutes before the attack. They were there before, 36 hours before. They knew exactly where the Palestine Hotel was, even from the bridge. They could — you can go to the bridge in Baghdad, and you can see Palestine Hotel in English in the building.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what happened? You went to try to find a hospital. Did you see Jose carried out?

OLGA RODRIGUEZ: Yes. He was — he was talking. He was saying something about his wife and his children. Well, his aspect was not very good, but at first we thought that he was going to resist. I went to the hospital at first, and then I came back because I was not feeling very well. I had lost hearing in my left ear, and I was really dizzy, and I couldn’t think. I couldn’t stand up. So, I came back to the hotel, and somebody told me the doctor has said to us that Jose has to be operated, and he is going to lose one of his legs. And I —- at that moment, I looked at three Iraqi women. They were sisters of one of our translators in Iraq. They were crying. The day before they had lost one of their brothers, and I looked at them and suddenly, I realized that I was not journalist. I was like them in that moment, that I was—— suddenly, I was this in the other part of the scene. Suddenly, I was a victim. Jose was a victim. But at the same time I felt guilty because my suffering was not so big as theirs. Because I knew that sooner or later, I could come back to Spain. Even — even now with this case, with Jose Couso’s case, we always say the same, at least we have the opportunity to ask for justice, to ask for an independent investigation, to say to the world that if this case is not solved, what the message that America is transmitting to the world is this can happen again. We don’t mind about the freedom of information, which is one of the foundations of freedom societies and democratic societies. At least we can ask for justice. We can ask for an independent investigation. We can ask for the protection of the good journalists, but Iraqi people cannot do that because they are still there in the war. And I thought all of these things when I looked at these women. And I thought of Jose without a leg, and I — I was really sad. I was completely destroyed. And two hours later, the doctors said to us that Jose could not resist the post-operation. He lost a lot of blood, and he died.

AMY GOODMAN: How did the military respond afterwards? Did you talk to them? Did you interview anyone? Did you immediately leave?

OLGA RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, because a day after the attack, they arrived to the heart of Baghdad, and they came to the hotel. Some of them stayed in the hotel. Some of them were really young. The first time I met an American soldier, I went to him, and I said to him, "What’s your name? Have you arrived to Baghdad right now?" And he said to me, "Is this the center of Baghdad?" And I said to him, "Yeah." And he said to him, "Do you know how many time more I have to stay in this country? Do you have some news about when the government of United States is going to decide that we can come back home?" He was — I mean, he was really young, and I think he was really tired. And we talked with some soldiers more — with a lot of soldiers, and we talked about the attack. Some of them said sorry. Most of them didn’t know what happened, because they were not part of the same division which was on the bridge. And some of them said, "War is war." George Bush said that when he was asked by Spanish journalists about the attack against the hotel. He said, "War is war." But I don’t agree with that, because we are not primitive societies. We are part of a civilization — civil societies, and there are rules even in wars. There are international laws that protect civilian people and journalists. And those rules have to be respected. It’s very important for societies to be able to receive information, free information. Because, me, as a journalist, I don’t know what I’m going to do if there is another war and my boss says to me, "Go to this war." I don’t know what I’m going to do, because I know that even if I am in a place protected by international law, as the Palestine Hotel was, I know that American troops, which means "friendly fire," can attack me again, because nothing happens. Nothing has happened. This case is not solved. I mean — and this is very important, because we are talking about freedom and information, which is a foundation of democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Olga Rodriguez, with the Spanish radio station Cadena Ser, survived the U.S. attack on the Palestine Hotel on April 8, 2003. We’ll come back to the interview with her, as well as with Javier Couso, whose brother Jose Couso died in that attack. We will also play an excerpt of the Telecinco documentary, Javier’s brother’s Spanish TV network, Telecinco’s documentary, Hotel Palestine: Killing the Witness.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: As we go back to April 8, 2003, when U.S. forces opened fire on the Palestine Hotel in Iraq, killing two journalists. Moments after the shelling, U.S. Central Command spokesperson Vincent Brooks held a news conference in Qatar.

VINCENT BROOKS: Initial reports indicate that the coalition force operating near the hotel took fire from the lobby of the hotel and returned fire.

REPORTER: Continuing on the point you made there, if you are claiming fire was coming from the lobby of the Palestine Hotel, why was this tank round directed at an upper floor?

VINCENT BROOKS: There’s intermingling that happens along the battlefield, and I don’t have enough information to say exactly how the dynamics of the battlefield came together today.

AMY GOODMAN: CentCom spokesperson, Vincent Brooks. Spanish radio journalist, Olga Rodriguez was wounded in the attack on the Palestine Hotel. I asked her to respond to Brooks’ comments.

OLGA RODRIGUEZ: When I listened to that explanation, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it, and nobody of the Palestine Hotel could believe it. I remember a lot of — I have a lot of good American journalists who were there staying. We were —- we were like astonished, because the explanation was, "There were Iraqis shooting from the Palestine Hotel, and because of that, we decided to attack the Palestine Hotel." That was not true. Washington had to change that first explanation, because there were 200 journalists saying that is not true. We didn’t hear any shot coming from the Palestine Hotel. There were nobody shooting. That was the first explanation, and we didn’t accept that explanation. Four months later, after an investigation made by the American army, the conclusion of that investigation, in which no journalist is interviewed, no witness who were living in the hotel was interviewed, the conclusion is that someone in a balcony of Palestine Hotel was using monoculars -—

AMY GOODMAN: Binoculars.

OLGA RODRIGUEZ: Binoculars, and was telling through a radio the position of the tanks. And because of that, they decide to shoot, to attack. I don’t accept that explanation. And I’m going to tell you why. The tanks were on a bridge that is one of the main bridges of Baghdad. You could see them. They were not hiding. You could see them from anywhere in the center of Baghdad. So, I think it was not a threat at all.

AMY GOODMAN: The spokesperson for the Pentagon in the United States, Victoria Clarke, who went on to now be a CNN consultant, said that Baghdad is not a safe place, that you should not be there. Your response, Olga?

OLGA RODRIGUEZ: Well, I became a journalist — first, my parents are journalists. I come in a family of journalists. And I believe in good journalism. And I became a journalist because when I was a child and I was a teen-ager, there was a journalist who told me things in a way that they — that way in which they told me those things made me think and made me to become more interested in news and in the world and in the others. I believe in the necessity of the persons of journalists in wars. When I went to cover Iraq war, I knew that I was exposed to a lot of dangers. I knew that I could die walking on the street, because suddenly a bomb falls on me. I knew that maybe fire, crossfire could harm me. And I could die because of that. I knew and I was really afraid that I could be kidnapped by Iraqis when American troops were close to them. And I was — I didn’t mind. I mean, I wanted to be there covering that war, but the only thing that I never imagined was that American troops were going to attack journalists living in a place protected by international law.

AMY GOODMAN: You went to Washington as part of a — to hold a news conference at the National Press Club. Almost no one came — American press — came yesterday with Javier Couso, Jose’s brother. The response in Spain to the killings was very different to the response of the press in the United States. Can you talk about the one-day strike, about how people responded in Spain, the journalists?

OLGA RODRIGUEZ: Well, the next day after the killing of Jose, my mother phoned me and my boss phoned me to Baghdad, and they told me, "This is incredible!" The Prime Minister, Jose Marie Aznar, who supported the war — 90% of the Spaniards were against the war, but the government decided to support the war —- the Prime Minister went to the Congress, and when he arrived there, all of the journalists, every journalist, put their cameras on the floor, turned and gave him the back. I don’t know the expression -—

AMY GOODMAN: Turned their backs?

OLGA RODRIGUEZ: Yes. To him, asking him to ask Bush for an explanation as Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister has done now, after the attack against Giuliana Sgrena. There is a huge difference between the behavior of Aznar and the behavior of Berlusconi. Berlusconi immediately asked for an explanation to the American government. The Spanish government didn’t do that at all. After that, the family of Jose Couso decided to organize a strike, to organize a concentration — a demonstration in front of the American Embassy in Madrid. I was still in Baghdad. But when I arrived to Spain, I realized that all the society, Spanish society, was really, really, really touched because of this, and the society, the whole society, was asking the government for an explanation and for an independent investigation. Almost two years ago now, still every month there are a lot of people in front of the American Embassy in this demonstration that the family of Jose Couso organizes every month, the 8th of every month. And now the government has — the Spanish government has condemned the attack.

AMY GOODMAN: The new government.

OLGA RODRIGUEZ: The new government.

AMY GOODMAN: Zapatero?

OLGA RODRIGUEZ: Yes. And they has given a medal to the family, has decided to give every correspondent’s — died correspondent’s family economic compensation because of their deaths, because the government has decided — has said that it’s really important, the labor, the job of war correspondents.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you go back to Iraq?

OLGA RODRIGUEZ: I don’t know. I don’t know. Right now, I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think of the response right here in the United States as you come here to talk about Jose Couso’s death?

OLGA RODRIGUEZ: I think I have a very good friend of mine who is a journalist in this country when the attack happened against the Hotel Palestine. He phoned me. He was in Jordan. He told me nothing is going to happen, Olga, because there is not an American journalist between the hurt people or dead people.

AMY GOODMAN: Say that again. He said?

OLGA RODRIGUEZ: He said nothing is going to happen because between the injured people or dead people are not American journalists.

AMY GOODMAN: Because there are no — right — who have died.

OLGA RODRIGUEZ: I love this society and this country. I have been living in New York for a while, but I think he was right in this. Maybe it would have been different if an American journalist were between the victims of that attack. I hope — I hope that never an American journalist is injured or that I hope — Insh’allah, as Arabic people say. But to get that, to protect journalists, societies have to look at what is happening to all journalists in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Spanish radio correspondent, Olga Rodriguez. She survived the U.S. military’s attack on the Palestine Hotel and wrote the book, Baghdad Aqui Baghdad, and it was published in Spain.

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