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From the frontlines: Are stories worth dying for?

Joydeep Sengupta /New Delhi
joydeep@khaleejtimes.com Filed on July 31, 2021

For journalists reporting from war zones and conflict areas, death is only a gunshot or bomb blast away. What is it that makes them put their lives on the line?


"You cannot get near the truth without being there.” That was intrepid late foreign correspondent Robert Fisk, 74, who chronicled conflicts from war-torn territories for almost five decades.

The line came back to haunt us when Danish Siddiqui, 38, the Reuters photographer who’d won the Pulitzer prize for covering the 2018 Rohingya refugee crisis, was killed in Kandahar province on July 16 while covering clashes between the Afghan National Army and the Taliban.

His death has raised questions about the lurking danger for media persons who have been covering conflicts and putting their lives on the line. Like when, in February 2012, Sunday Times’ reporter Marie Colvin and award-winning photographer Remi Ochlik were killed when a makeshift media centre in conflict-hit Syria’s Baba Amr district was shelled.

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Nevertheless, several media persons continue to follow in their footsteps and tell the tales of conflicts as they are — often at the cost of personal safety and security.

Where are the limits?

Lyse Doucet is the BBC’s chief international correspondent and has been reporting for the British public broadcaster for more than 30 years. During her long and illustrious career, she has been stationed in Abidjan, Kabul, Islamabad, Tehran, Amman and Jerusalem.

Reminiscing her hair-raising experience of reporting from war-torn Afghanistan, a year after 9/11, when then US President George W. Bush had unleashed the war on terrorism, Lyse says, “Danger can shatter your day when you least expect it… In September 2002, we travelled with President Hamid Karzai to Kandahar for the wedding of his half-brother Ahmed Wali. We were filming ‘a day in the life of the Afghan President’. It turned out to be a day of his near-death, as he narrowly survived an assassination attempt.

"We were the only journalists with the President," Lyse continues. "My colleague Phil Goodwin filmed the shooting incident from start to finish. The eyes of the world were on Afghanistan then and, in particular, on President Karzai as the post-Taleban leader. Our anxious editors called from London [to ask] ‘Were you wearing flak jackets (body armour)?'; ‘We were at a wedding!’ I replied.”

There’s the risk of not being certain what could lie ahead. “In 1991, the Afghan mujahideen commander Jalaluddin Haqqani captured the strategic city of Khost from Soviet-backed forces. They told me the BBC was welcome, but they couldn’t take women to the frontlines. I suggested a way out: I’d dress like a man. They agreed. We spent the night in a building in Khost under constant aerial bombardment. As it turned out, they lodged us right next to an arms depot. When we left at first light, we were chased by Russian helicopter gunships,” she recounts.

Lyse cites a maxim in covering conflict: “No story is worth dying for. But when Syria’s war erupted in 2011, the brilliant chronicler Anthony Shadid came up with a caveat: ‘But there are stories worth taking risks for’.” (Tragically, Anthony died of an asthma attack while travelling in Syria.)

Lyse says these are the best and the worst of times for the media. “Most media, including the BBC, now have staff dedicated to assessing and mitigating risks on every deployment. But this is also a time when armed actors, state and non-state, act with growing impunity. Never have we taken so many precautions to keep ourselves safe; never have we been in so much peril. Journalists worldwide are being killed and kidnapped, attacked and arrested, in record numbers,” she says.

“But, even with all the sharp tools at our fingertips, even with all the dazzling technological developments, and the explosion of social media platforms, which allow us to report remotely, there is still no substitute for good old-fashioned journalism: conversations in the heat and dust, on the ground, when and where it is happening. A journalist’s job is to ask questions. One of the most important questions we always have to ask is: where are the limits, to keep ourselves safe, to tell this story (of a conflict)?” she wonders aloud.

The fear of the unknown

Nic Robertson, International Diplomatic Editor, CNN, recalls his own tryst with two hair-raising incidents during his over three-decade-long distinguished career of covering conflicts from global hotspots.

“In Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004, I climbed aboard a US Marine armoured personnel carrier to drive into the city during a major US military offensive. We were supposed to be getting dropped off with a unit advancing through the city’s back streets, but instead we got diverted into the middle of a fire fight to rescue injured marines. The gunfire was very intense and, to get the story, I had to get the camera out of the vehicle. I knew I had to be calm, not think about the worst that could happen, and hold the camera out of the top of the armoured vehicle. Fortunately, it worked, but it was one of those rare moments when you’re tested to the limit, and you walk away feeling more confident because you sort of passed a test you never wanted to take…

"In Baghdad, during the first Gulf War in 1991, I was afraid of the bombing because I had never experienced it before; it was the fear of the unknown. While I was there, a US cruise missile got shot down and impacted not far from where we were standing inside a hotel. The floor-to-ceiling window got blown in and we were thrown to the ground. We were lucky because the missile was shot down and its full explosives didn’t go off. There was no time to feel frightened, just react and throw ourselves to the ground.

"On the first day of that war, I was sent to the TV station alone in the centre of Baghdad to try to send our video of the first night of attacks out to Atlanta (CNN headquarters) over microwave links, but the links had been blown up. The Iraqi staff at the TV studio wouldn’t let me leave and I became quite concerned because I knew the TV could be a possible target. After being kept there for about four hours, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein walked past me. I had been held so that I could verify he was alive and had survived the bombing the night before.

"As soon as I had seen him, I was allowed to leave and eventually got back to the hotel after driving through the city and getting to see the bomb damage. When I got back to the hotel, I was able to report what I had seen. The whole experience was quite nerve-wracking."

Twelve years later, he adds, during the second Gulf War, he was set up on the top floor of his hotel to film the shock-and-awe bombing of Saddam Hussein’s presidential compound, which later became the famous ‘Green Zone’.

"When the first bomb hit, I was filming its huge flash and ducked back inside the room to hide from the blast; there were a few seconds of wondering what would happen. The windows blew open, dust spewed out of the ceiling, but we were alright... From that moment, I knew we could cover what became known as 'shock and awe' in relative safety, if a stray missile didn’t hit us. I was much more confident in 2003, as compared to 1991 because I had had so many more battlefield experiences.”

Nic had covered the civil war in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995, where he was in the line of fire several times. “Once, a bullet impacted the right of the driver’s head on a sniper alley in Sarajevo. He was saved because the vehicle had armoured glass, but it cracked the window and left the lead of the bullet embedded. What I did find very frightening one day was when we were filming near a remote village and allegiances had been changing among the three factions.

"A young soldier came up to us and said, ‘You must come to the mothership’, which we understood to come to see his commander. He took us to a remote house on the hillside. This was new to us and had never happened like this before. We’d always get to checkpoints and either get turned round or get through. On this day, the checkpoints had mostly gone because of the new allegiances. This situation was unknown, and although we were never under any threat, we were held on that hillside for an hour or so, maybe more, before the commander arrived to tell us off,” he recounts.

Nic says he would not knowingly risk his life or limb for a story. “I’d take carefully calculated decisions based on all the information available, particularly from local sources or those with the best knowledge,” he says.

Conflict reporting has become more dangerous because reporters are no longer seen as unbiased, he notes. "In some cases, they’re judged to be protagonists, which professional reporters are not supposed to be. We uphold very careful standards of ethical and editorial behaviour. But whether it’s on the streets of Belfast, where I was a few weeks ago, or some more remote places in the world, reporters are judged by some to be their enemies. It may only be a minority in any of these places but that alone is enough to put journalists in potential danger,” he adds.

In the fast-changing media landscape, he has a word of advice for fellow media persons, who cover global conflicts: “We have to stand up for the values of journalism, we have to call out those who unjustly seek to damage our reputation. We have a very important role in our societies as a counterbalance to hold the powerful to account and help our fellow citizens make informed decisions. Our best defence is to do our best work and, in so doing, improve people’s lives.”

A built-in risk to life

Barkha Dutt, undoubtedly India’s most prominent TV journalist, started working in 1994 for a news show originally broadcast on the country’s pubcaster Doordarshan. Her entry into journalism coincided with the birth of private TV news channels in the country.

As she writes in This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines, which was published in 2015, “I’d get so consumed by an assignment I was on (I still do) that almost nothing else would matter. I spent days and days on the road, often in some of the most violent and perilous parts of the world... I thought nothing of crossing over illegally from Egypt into conflict-torn Libya, accompanied only by my much-younger producer, Ruby, and cameraman, Manoj, without bulletproof vests, any knowledge of Arabic or even one local contact to guide us. We didn’t even have the satellite phone that all the other international crews were armed with.

"The stranger with the cold, vacant stare whom we finally requested to take us around Benghazi carried a knife and a gun. Anything could have happened. And yet, when a Michael Jackson song filtered out of his car stereo and he wordlessly handed us a bar of Snickers each, the nervousness ebbed away to be replaced by that familiar sensation of excitement welling up inside. The anticipation of adventure is one of journalism’s many blessings in my life.”

Barkha, perhaps the only Indian journalist to have reported from most of the troubled hotspots in the world in the past 25 years — from the 1999 Kargil war to insurgency-torn Kashmir, to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya and Iraq — says the risk to life is built into an assignment.

"I don’t think you can be a war correspondent or a conflict reporter if you do not see that risk as an occupational hazard and then be as responsible as you can within that framework. Even reporting on Covid-19 from the ground was like modern-day conflict reporting. For instance, I travelled 30,000 kilometres across India, covering 14 states, during the national lockdown. So yes, risk to life and limb are inevitable.”

In retrospect, she says conflict reporting in India has come a long way. “When I reported the war from the frontline in Kargil in 1999, I didn’t even have a bulletproof vest. Subsequently, I spent years reporting from (Indian-administered) Kashmir without a bullet-proof vest. Now, at least you have equipment that offers some protection. Also, technology makes it easier to transfer footage, no matter where you are.

"Again, while reporting the Kargil war, mobile phones were still barred in (Indian-administered) Jammu & Kashmir those days, and there were no broadcast vans at the frontline. One of the big challenges was how to send the tapes back to the newsroom. We’d walk miles in search of a chopper — and then beg the pilots to carry our footage along with the body bags and coffins of Indian soldiers that were being flown out. Today, the logistics and safety are much easier — though, of course, a story like the pandemic can come along where none of the old rules apply,” she adds.

Intoxicating adrenaline rush

Wajahat Saeed Khan, an Emmy-nominated editor and correspondent based in New York and reporting for Nikkei Asia, who has covered the Afghan-Pakistan conflict for years, has had close shaves with death while reporting in his native Pakistan. “War is a product of both man and machine. If the men won’t get to you, it’s the machine that will,” he says.

Wajahat — who has reported on conflict and politics for NBC, The Times, India Today, and Pakistani media outlets from over 15 countries — has had "a couple of close calls" on board helicopters. He recalls one such “low-flying mission" over Balochistan, where he was travelling with a senior Pakistani Army officer.

"We heard tap, tap, tap on the chopper’s fuselage and realised, a few seconds later, that we were being shot at from the ground. Obviously, the weapon wasn’t an effective one. But it was the first time that I had been shot at. The fact that I was protected by a moving flying cage was both a good feeling and a bad one because to be shot down over Balochistan in a helicopter is not the way I thought I’d go. But it got close.

"Eventually, we assessed the damage and came to the conclusion that if the weapon was of a higher calibre, it’d have done some serious damage," he recalls. "It also went on to highlight for me the vulnerability of equipment and the realisation that all the budget in the world can't take away the determination of a solitary sniper taking you out. That was the first incident, where I was shot at, and it has stuck with me ever since.”

Wajahat’s second close shave occurred in Peshawar in December 2014, when the Army Public School massacre was carried out by Tehreek-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) that led to the killing of 132 pupils and nine others. Wajahat was among the first Pakistani journalists to reach the spot, which was yet to be fully sanitised in the aftermath of the dastardly terror act.

“Even though there was no kinetic action going on in the ground, it was a hair-raising incident because it felt like being on a frontline. Yet, it was not a frontline but a school auditorium. The smell of gunpowder from recently used high-powered weapons and that of burning and bleeding bodies was in the air. The stench of death had hit me even before I saw the extent of damage in the carnage. This will always stay with me. But what was most disturbing was that it was close to home. Not in Waziristan or Kandahar, but in a major city,” he rues.

Wajahat weighs in on whether headline-grabbing news is worth the headache. “A journalist has to do a cost-benefit analysis of taking on the risk, rely on training and follow one’s instinct,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Some of us get addicted to the action; it happens to many on the frontlines, and they become war junkies.”

The adrenaline rush can be intoxicating. “There’s something exciting about... flying over a conflict zone, landing and seeing the action on the ground from close quarters. But it can be harrowing... It’s like going hungry to a Las Vegas buffet. A frontline is a very story-rich environment. but you must know that if you stick around too long, it’s going to be bad for you,” he adds.

A close shave

Altaf Qadri, who works for Associated Press and has been based in the Indian capital of Delhi since 2012, drifted into photojournalism, thanks to the benevolence of one of his “online” friends, Yuhanis Lockman, a Malaysian national.

In March 2011, he had crossed into Libya, through the Egyptian land port of Salloum, the main border point between Egypt and Libya, to cover the revolution.

He spent the first night in Tubruk, a small coastal town in eastern Libya, before heading towards Benghazi, which was under the control of journalist-friendly rebels.

The rebels were composed primarily of civilians, such as teachers, students, lawyers, businessmen and oil workers, and a contingent of professional soldiers, who had defected from the Libyan Army.

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The Battle of Brega-Ajdabiya road was one of the many that was raging during the Libyan revolution between forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi and the rebels, for control of the towns of Brega and Ajdabiya, respectively, and the Libyan coastal highway between them.

Altaf recounts his brush with death in graphic detail on his website. “I heard bullets whizzing through the air and hitting the sand as I was running for my life. I rolled myself down the sand dune and ran back to the gas station, which was still about 500 metres away. By the time I got there, all the rebels and journalists had already fled, including [the] driver.”

While running towards the gas station, he briefly looked back — only to find Gaddafi’s forces, riding their pickup trucks and other military vehicles, firing heavy machine-guns indiscriminately in the direction of the gas station. Upon reaching the station, he paused briefly at the door to the mosque just a few metres ahead and started praying, wondering where to hide.

It struck him that there might be some rooms at the back, as gas stations usually have toilets located behind the main building. Running behind, he found three storerooms, a toilet and a small dark room with a shattered tinted glass door.

“The door was locked so I crawled into the room from under the shattered tinted glass. It was a very small room, but dark to my advantage. It had been used as a kitchen before. There was a portable gas stove. I lifted the lid of the stove to further darken the room and placed it just near the shattered part of the door so no one could see me inside. All this while, gunshots and grenade blasts were drawing closer and closer,” he adds.

Not long after, he heard Gaddafi’s forces rushing towards the back of the gas station, hunting for rebels. After searching the other three rooms, they began walking towards the small room he was hiding in, shattered pieces of glass being crushed under their boots as they approached.

“I was sure they’d shoot me, then ask for identification. I said my prayers, remembered my family, and asked Allah for forgiveness. I was hopeful that my prayers wouldn't be rejected.

"All of a sudden, they stopped just near the door, discussed something in Arabic for a few seconds, and retreated back to the front of the gas station without firing a single shot into the room. I took a deep breath and thanked Allah, the Almighty, as I lived to see another day because the rebels rescued me, when they recaptured the town the next day,” he recounts.

joydeep@khaleejtimes.com

Joydeep Sengupta





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