Levon Sevunts, the Montreal Gazette‘s foreign correspondent, felt lucky when Northern Alliance commander General Bashir offered to carry him and some other foreign correspondents aboard his armoured personnel carrier to some newly captured Taliban trenches. It was November 11, 2001, just after the fighting had subsided and the Taliban had begun their unexpected retreat from the Shatarai front, in northeastern Afghanistan. Sevunts, the other five foreign correspondents, and some Alliance soldiers stood atop the APC, hanging on to cannons and hooks to steady themselves, as it ventured into a densely mined territory. General Bashir boasted to Sevunts and the other reporters that all Taliban fighters had been cleared out and the ride was safe. “It felt as if we were offered a front-row seat to see evidence of war-Taliban positions before the Northern Alliance had a chance to plant some evidence or tamper with it,” recalls Sevunts.
It was already dark when the APC crossed the second line of vacated trenches. Then a group of Taliban fighters popped up on the right just 25 or 30 metres away and opened fire. The driver made a sharp left turn and headed down a steep hill. The reporters could see red trails streaming through the air in their direction. Some jumped off the vehicle. An ex-Soviet soldier, Sevunts flattened himself on the APC and held on to a cannon, opting to avoid the heavily mined roadside. He realized right away that they were being ambushed; after two more rounds of fire, three of his fellow journalists and some soldiers were missing, and General Bashir was on the radio shouting for backup. Soon the lost soldiers caught up with them. Later that day, when they were sent to comb the area, they found the body of Radio France Internationale reporter Johanne Sutton. The bodies of French radio station RTL reporter Pierre Billaud and German freelance magazine writer Volker Handloik were recovered the following day, their dead bodies stripped of their belongings. They were believed to be the first western casualties in Afghanistan since the American attacks had started on October 7, 2001. By the time the first American soldier was shot on January 4, 2002, nine journalists had already been killed, a further nine arrested, and others wounded. Later, on March 4, the Toronto Star‘s East Asia bureau chief, Kathleen Kenna, was seriously injured in Gardez, Afghanistan.
And right from the start of this spring’s Iraqi campaign, journalists came under fire.The first known casualty was Australian Broadcasting Corporation cameraman Paul Moran, who was killed by a suicide bomber on March 22; at the time, Paris-based media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said the bomber appeared to have targeted the journalists.
Of course, war reporting has always been dangerous. But what has changed in the past decade or so is that reporters are increasingly targets rather than accidental victims on battlefields that lack clear front lines. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that of the 389 war correspondents killed between 1992 and 2001, only 62 died in crossfire; another 298 were direct targets, some shot at point-blank range.
In the days of Ernie Pyle, the quintessential American World War II reporter, things were different, and safer. Then, it was usually clear where the frontline was and reporters always accompanied troops. Few ventured behind enemy lines, since no one on “our” side questioned the justice of the cause against the Germans or the Japanese. But today’s wars are fought in unconventional ways. While western troops rely on air strikes and the opposition is often made up of irregular militias who do not like their activities to be observed, journalists roam the mined and lawless lands, expected to report both sides of a conflict. With few or no friendly troops on the ground, journalists can bear the brunt of the anti-western resentment of locals.
The National Post’s Marina Jim?nez vividly recalls her experiences in October 2001, while reporting from the Pakistani border city of Peshawar on the Afghan refugee influx. She and her translator often found themselves among angry Muslim demonstrators holding effigies of George W. Bush and chanting anti-western slogans. “Young boys came close to us and spat on us, while organizers pushed us back,” says Jim?nez. Another time, when she was investigating a story at a truck stop where truckers from Kabul brought their produce to sell, her translator felt trouble in the air and urged her to get into the car. “I felt hated and angry at the same time,” says Jim?nez of these incidents. “They saw you as a representative of the west and not as an individual reporter seeking the truth. Being westerners and working for the western media, we were considered part of the package.”
Jim?nez was four months pregnant with her first child at the time. Would she consider such assignments now her son is born? “It’s problematic when you have a young child at home, but I wouldn’t completely rule it out,” she conceded in the fall. By late March, though, she was reporting from the Middle East.
Still, despite the increasing chance that a would-be scoop might turn into a deadly assignment, there’s no shortage of volunteers to cover wars, even if they’re inexperienced. In November 2001, for example, Montreal computer-programmer-turned-freelance-war reporter Ken Hechtman was captured by Taliban forces a little more than a month after arriving in the country. Hechtman, who reported for the Montreal alternative paper Mirror, was freed only after considerable diplomatic intervention. Stewart Bell, the National Post’s chief reporter, and others like him believe a committed journalist shouldn’t walk away from a story just because it’s a bit risky. As Bell, who has covered stories in Africa, South Asia, and Afghanistan, puts it: “Firefighters and soldiers don’t abandon their duties when it gets too hot for their comfort.” Sevunts speaks of the same dedication. “It’s like having one of your fellow policemen die in a shootout. Do you quit the job?” he says matter-of-factly.
I have asked myself much the same question.
A cold autumn breeze sweeps through the Caucasian landscape, and the echo of distant mortar fire punctuates the silence. The ill-fated Azerbaijani city of Aghdam, where fierce fighting between the Armenian and the Azeri forces had taken place months earlier, lies open to us, in ruins. It is September 1993, and three other journalists and I are in a convoy entering the newly captured Aghdam, just outside the eastern borders of the disputed enclave of Nagorno Kharabakh. Trying to avoid the mines strewn on the road, our driver follows a track left by the first Armenian tanks to enter the city. Sprawled on a barren stretch of land, Aghdam tells the story of its defeat: abandoned tanks on the roadside, burned out tires littering the road, blackened building fa?ades, and plundered one-storey houses. The city was set on fire by the retreating Azerbaijani troops and the looters have even scavenged its wires and pipes.
Next day, when I’m told an armoured personnel carrier has just exploded on the same road to Aghdam, a shudder passes through my body. “That could have been me,” is the most common thought a journalist has in those moments. But luck had been on my side again. It was the same luck that stayed with me during Lebanon’s civil war, while others ran out of it. No amount of precaution would have saved me from the bullet that pierced the hood of the car my friend and I were leaning on, outside our newsroom in Beirut, striking just two inches away from my right arm. It was 1990, the last phase of Lebanon’s 15-year-old war, during which two Christian leaders fought for dominance over Eastern Beirut.
At that time, I was a reporter for Aztag (“Factor”), the largest Armenian newspaper outside Armenia, published in Beirut. My job was not something distinct from my life as a citizen in a war-torn country. I had grown up witnessing the devastation of the land I was raised in, and after graduation, journalism seemed to be my natural calling. Like millions of others who have lived and worked in the heat of a civil war, I took for granted the ever-present danger-mined roads, the car bombs. Working as a journalist wasn’t much more risky than the life I was living already.
Then, in 1993, I was assigned to report on the war the Armenians and Azeris were fighting over the enclave of Nagorno Kharabakh, put under Azerbaijani control by Stalin in 1921. I looked on my assignment both as a life-changing experience, for I was going to witness history firsthand, and as a mission: I could bring into focus a war waged far away on the Caucasian mountains and ridges nobody cared about. I believed it was my duty to report on my people’s plight, which had been long forgotten under the tight Soviet rule. At the front, my fear dissolved in the face of the chance to make a difference in a war that was supposed to correct an injustice.
But those were my wars. I was, in a way, involved. I still wasn’t sure why foreign reporters risk their lives to cover other people’s conflicts.
Levon Sevunts has one answer. “Wars involve human drama; they are very compelling human stories,” he told me last October. At the time, he was on standby to leave for Kurdistan, as American troops prepared to attack Iraq. “When you go to cover a war, what you’re doing is witnessing turning points of human history, because wars are milestones of history.”
Sevunts has witnessed a lot of turning points. In the late 1980s, as a citizen of the Soviet Republic of Armenia, he served in the Soviet army. And when the Soviet Union started to disintegrate in 1989, he returned to Armenia. A year later he started to write for the country’s newly independent media. In 1992, when the Armenian authorities began to exercise direct control over the news media, he moved to Canada. He studied political science at McGill and started submitting stories to the Gazette. What propels him and others to the battlefields is the intense experience of being part of that raw form of human drama played out at the edge. “It’s been said that the war brings out the best and the worst in people. But I believe it brings the real people; it takes off layers of culture, customs, everything that you were brought up with and conditioned to behave.” In October 2001, Sevunts took up the Gazette’s Afghanistan assignment without reservation.
For NBC’s Jim Maceda, idealism is a motivating factor. He studied at Stanford and the Sorbonne and has been covering conflicts for over a quarter of a century, from Belfast and Beirut to Panama and Yugoslavia. “I come from a generation [the ’60s] that grew up with a sense of social commitment. I like to think that my work just might make a little bit of difference. That matters to me.”
Maceda challenges the idea that journalists are being deliberately killed because they’re journalists. “We do become targets, but that goes with the turf of warfare,” he says. He recalls one occasion when NBC’s armoured vehicle and body armour were stolen by Serb forces at a checkpoint outside Sarajevo. “That was banditry, not some anti-journalistic statement.” Another incident he remembers occurred in the Maglaj Pocket, toward the end of the war in Bosnia. An NBC News team he was with came upon a group of Mujahedin fighters-“the best fighters on the Muslim side,” he says. “We were nearly killed-not because we were journalists, but because we were western and arrogant.” Maceda suggests that if there appears to be a trend toward victimizing journalists in wars, “it’s more to do with their deep pockets than their journalism.” He points out that “we are known to carry large sums of money, travel with expensive equipment, and probably are inept at protecting ourselves,” by which he means most are unarmed.
The Ottawa Citizen’s Mike Blanchfield shares Maceda’s belief that reporters aren’t being purposely singled out. Blanchfield, who also reports for CanWest Publications, believes journalists, including himself, made themselves legitimate targets in Afghanistan after the fall of Taliban. When he climbed a hill overlooking Taliban positions with Alliance soldiers or when he crossed a stretch of land under snipers’ control to reach an Alliance bunker, he took what he terms “calculated risks.” “I got the material I needed and left because I saw no reason to remain in a place which was a legitimate military target,” says Blanchfield. As for the ambush that Levon Sevunts was lucky to survive: “When my friend Levon was ambushed, it was because he and the fellow journalists transformed themselves into a military target by riding an APC. They knew the risks when they did that and weighed them accordingly.” As in any risky situation, only in hindsight the picture becomes clear. I asked Sevunts why they trusted the commander. “At that time it seemed like a very safe trip; the fighting had died down. At no point was there a question that groups of Taliban were hiding in the bunkers.” And, of course, “the idea of being the first reporters to speak to actual Talibans, to see for ourselves, was tempting.”
British foreign correspondent Robert Fisk has worked in the Middle East for 25 years, first for the LondonTimes and, currently, The Independent. He suggests another reason why battlefields are claiming so many journalists’ lives: since the Vietnam War, reporters have increasingly behaved like combatants. As he wrote in The Independent in February 2002, on the occasion of the death of Daniel Pearl: “It was in Vietnam that reporters started wearing uniforms and carrying weapons-and shooting those weapons at America’s enemies-even though their country was not officially at war and even when they could have carried out their duties without wearing soldiers’ clothes.” He continued: “This odd habit of journalists to be part of the story, to play an almost theatrical role in wars, slowly took hold. When the Palestinians evacuated Beirut in 1982, I noticed that several French reporters were wearing Palestinian kuffiah scarves. Israeli reporters turned up in occupied southern Lebanon with pistols. Then in the 1991 Gulf war, American and British television reporters started dressing up in military costumes…as if they were members of the 82nd Airborne or the Hussars… In Pakistan and Afghanistan last year, the same phenomenon occurred. Reporters in Peshawar could be seen wearing Pushtun hats. Then Geraldo Rivera of Fox News arrived in Jalalabad with a gun….It was the last straw.” By “dressing up in combatant’s clothes” or “adopting the national dress of people,” Fisk warned, journalists were “helping to erode the shield of neutrality and decency which saved our lives in the past.”
Sevunts disagrees. Showing me his Afghan beret made of camel skin and an army camouflage jacket, he says, “These saved my life. The day I was ambushed I was wearing them and they made me look like an Afghan soldier atop the APC.” He says the cardinal rule while reporting from war zones is “Among civilians look like one of them or at least be an impartial presence.”
There will be as many points of view regarding what to wear and how to conduct yourself as there are journalists. “Who knows what works?” says Brendan Howley, a journalist based in Stratford, Ontario, who freelanced for Saturday Night in eastern Bosnia and northwestern Montenegro during the summer of 1993. He avoided donning military gear, instead preferring a flak jacket, but “the biggest fear I had had nothing to do with clothing-a mine will blow you to smithereens no matter what you’re wearing,” he says. “Chance is everything in these situations.” Maceda agrees. “No survival skill or body armour will work without sheer luck on your side.” Sevunts is equally fatalistic. “I don’t think we control what happens to us. When your time comes, you can’t do much about it.”
This philosophy will accompany him to Kurdistan, for which he was preparing to leave in late March. In the midst of danger, he will think of the people whose lives are about to change forever in a remote area of the world-and of his family. In 2001, the day he was ambushed, the first thing he did, before filing his now famous story, was try to find a phone to call his wife.