Someone had to take Peter Brysky’s camera home.
Peter Brysky was from Toronto; he was a free-lance stills photographer who was killed at Karlovac in Croatia on October 6,1991. A team from “The Journal” was in Croatia covering the war at the same time, staying at the same hotel, the Intercontinental in Zagreb. The hotel manager brought us Peter Btysky’s camera to take home to his parents.
We made some phone calls about Peter Brysky. The Croatian press office said he was accredited to Associated Press in London, but AP said no, he was a stringer, working entirely on speculation: no official connection. AP knew nothing about him. He had been in Croatia four days.
There are people who are war junkies. They travel toward battles the way birders travel across continents when they hear of the sighting of an exotic sparrow. They are mostly amateur, and mostly crazy: they work the black markets in U.S. dollars, file stories for obscure hometown papers, take close shots of bodies and sell them to editors with strong stomachs.
The junkies come to grief in stupid, heedless ways, rushing at death, but Brysky, at twenty-eight, was too old for that, and didn’t die that way. Although he wasn’t an experienced war photographer he had the kind of bad luck that catches professionals of long standing. He was with two Croatian soldiers by a bridge, near the fighting but not completely exposed, when a tank round from a federal army barracks landed near them. He was the 12th journalist to die covering the war in Croatia, which was then four months old. The war has since shifted to Bosnia. The death toll among journalists covering the fighting throughout the former Yugoslavia for 1992 was 27. This is a level of lethality far beyond Vietnam, far beyond any war journalists have ever covered.
We called our families in Toronto when we heard about Peter Brysky to say a Canadian journalist has just been killed here: it’s none of us. It seemed many nights during that campaign someone was making a call like that to some city in the world. After sundown journalists and crews sat in the bar of the Intercontinental, comparing notes: the BBC was out near Osijek today, nothing happening; Reuters took two rounds through the engine block on the road toward the coast.
Everyone agreed that there were two strange and dangerous things about this war. First, there were no lines, no warnings: you could cruise through a peaceful village straight into a lacing of machine-gun fire. Second, the profession was no defence. It seemed the Serbs in particular were targeting journalists.
I was a relative baby in this crowd, and 1’d already reported from war zones in Mozambique, the old Rhodesia, and Nicaragua. The routine in that war was automatic: in the parking lot of the hotel on the first morning of work a crew member ceremoniously taped the letters TV on the side windows of the van. We trusted this totem to protect us against everything but accidents and mines, and in general it did – in Nicaragua it was possible to drive slowly from the Sandinista zone up the mountain roads to the rebel positions, and do it nervously but in relative safety.
Now, the word among the journalists who cover wars for a living is that the Yugoslavian war may be a model for conflicts in the future. The technology is changing the relationship between wars and war reporters, because the fighters and the audience are no longer in different rooms. CNN, Sky News and other satellite services broadcast our work straight into the offices of the generals directing the battles. Word about the hostility of the Western media gets to the gunners very quickly.
There are still people prepared to work in places like Sarajevo. There are still reporters like Robert Fisk of the British newspaper The Independent who are prepared to defy the kidnappers to live in Beirut, and to drive around the military censors to get to the front lines in the Gulf War. But there are no schools of combat journalism, no courses in how to recognize trouble before it develops and how to get out of it when it does.
You learn about combat journalism by doing it, by travelling with people who know more than you do and learning the very rough rules. You learn to judge the risks you must take to get a story, the risks you should take to make the story better, and the risks you should reject even though your ego is pushing you into the line of fire.
Some of the rules apply to one war only. In Rhodesia, if you found the road filled with sheep or cows you were smart to reverse and get out fast-it was likely a roadblock, the start of a kidnapping or an ambush. And you didn’t drive across dirt that had drifted out across the road: the drift could hide mines.
Some of the rules are general. Don’t get caught between the lines; stay with one army or the other. If you’re in a village and notice the children have vanished, something’s up so get under cover or get out of the zone.
Now there are new rules for working in Yugoslavia, issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international organization based in New York City. Travel in groups with at least two cars, in case one breaks down. Don’t cross into Serb-held territory if your car has Croat plates. Don’t mark TV on your vehicle: that may draw fire. Don’t ride in the backseat of a two-door car-too hard to get out. If things look especially dangerous, drive slowly with your car door open so you can ditch fast. Watch your lights at night. If you’re shooting video, drape the camera so nobody can target the blue glow leaking from the eyepiece.
The old neutrality is over; journalists are now targets, just like the people they’re covering. Most reporters who haven’t been in combat look forward to it a little, expecting that it will make them feel braver and more capable than they were before. One experience usually ends that. Under fire you feel helpless, afraid, furious at the pride and pompousness that got you into this in the first place. You may get used to this, and even get over it, although I haven’t. The one time I had to record a standup, a piece to camera under fire, I couldn’t help flinching and cringing when a round exploded nearby-and the only brave part of that was leaving the evidence of my fear in the documentary we produced.
I’ve pretty well had it. I’m working in regional news now, reporting on Metropolitan Toronto, and although there are many dangerous things to be found here, none of them to date has involved tanks. I’m content.
You’re welcome to my flak jacket. And don’t travel alone. .
Bill Cameron is the anchor of The CBC at Six for CBLT. He is also a free-lance writer and contributor to CBC network programs. He has been with the CBC for 10 years.