For war reporters, safe passage always a gamble
For correspondents, wrong choices can mean capture, death
Note: This article originally ran on Jan. 6, 2013, shortly after news of James Foley’s abduction was reported.
It was July 2011, and I was in northern Afghanistan with a story to report: the return of the Taliban to a region that had celebrated the Islamists’ defeat in 2001. A translator I had met only a few days earlier was offering to set up an interview with village leaders who were trying to keep out militants who had taken control of nearby towns.
It would be quite a coup, but there was a catch. Afghan police barely patrolled the area. NATO forces had no presence there. To avoid capture, I would have to dress in Afghan clothes, speak only Dari in public, and not tell anyone where I was going. If I did not stay long, I could probably get my story and get out before the militants discovered I was there. Or so I was told.
I would also have to put my faith in people whom I did not know. Could I trust them? Was this piece of the story worth the risk?
This is the kind of delicate calculation reporters in war zones make all the time. James Foley, the freelance journalist whose family in New Hampshire last week reported him missing in Syria after he was kidnapped on Thanksgiving Day, has had to face similar choices. For the past three years, he has reported on conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan for Boston-based GlobalPost and other media.
Twice it has not worked out. In 2011 Foley was abducted while reporting in Libya and held for 44 days. The news of his latest capture has raised questions about the risks he took.
Were there precautions he could have taken?
Why put himself in harm’s way a second time?
Why travel, presumably unarmed and unprotected, in Idlib Province, the site of fierce fighting between Syrian government forces and rebel groups of various loyalties, where there are no clear battle lines and, therefore, no truly safe places?
Why even work in the country where at least 28 journalists died on assignment last year, making it the deadliest place in the world for media in 2012?
These are legitimate questions. And any journalist who has decided the story is worth covering has already answered them.
“The job is just very dangerous, no matter how you approach it, no matter how experienced and well-equipped you are,” said Matt McAllester, a senior editor for Time magazine who has covered conflicts in the Balkans, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa. “And 99 times out of 100 you get away with it without any damage to your person. When that happens you get told you’ve done well and, often, your career progresses. It’s only after the times it goes wrong that anyone mentions mistakes.”
I met McAllester in Baghdad in 2003, just days before the US-led invasion of Iraq. And, as it turns out, just days before we both got in trouble with Saddam Hussein’s regime. I was thrown out of the country for using my satellite phone at the wrong time and place. McAllester was one of several journalists rounded up and held for eight terrifying days in Abu Ghraib prison. Afterward, he was asked if he would have done anything different.
“I did what I did through an endless series of calculations and risk assessments all throughout the month leading up to that period,” McAllester said. “I would do the same today as I did then.”
* * *
In Afghanistan in 2011, I had to consider my translator’s proposal carefully. As a reporter in Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Iraq, I had learned, often through missteps, that the best first step before entering a war zone is to talk to other journalists who have been there.
The trouble was that no journalists had been to this village in Sholgara district in some time. It is in a remote valley in the southern edge of Balkh Province, where there has been little violence compared with other parts of Afghanistan. It mattered to me because I was retracing the route I had taken in 2001 as I reported on the Taliban’s defeat. The story of the militia’s return here was the point of my trip.
Before I arrived in the north, I asked for advice from people who are based in Kabul. One Western aid worker showed me a map of the north, indicated a highway that I would need to use, and said “No one goes here.” He wished me luck and asked me to let him know how it went.
In Sholgara, the best intelligence came from the assurances of Syeed Shafe, a security guard for a cellular phone company that has a tower near the village.
I had placed worse bets. In the fall of 2003, I worked with a translator in Iraq who dressed me and a photographer in traditional Iraqi clothes and spirited us into the insurgent hotbeds of Fallujah and Ramadi for a rare, and harrowing, interview with a Sunni fighter who was mounting attacks on US military convoys. It was a risky move, but I thought it was important to relay what America’s enemies on the ground were saying, and it seemed like the safest way to do it.
I felt less safe when the same translator later told me, “As a friend I like you, but as an Iraqi, I want to kill you.”
* * *
In the post-9/11 world, reporting from war zones has only gotten more dangerous for journalists. Charles M. Sennott, executive editor and cofounder of GlobalPost and a former Globe reporter who has covered conflicts for more than 20 years, reminded me how journalists used to write “PRESS” in fat letters on their flak jackets and helmets, and use duct tape to write “TV” on their vehicles.
“There was this experience that you were protected by that,” Sennott told me last week. “We are no longer protected by the fact that we are out there to bring home the truth.”
This sense of unclear boundaries and loyalties is magnified in Syria, said Sennott, who calls it “one of the most treacherous war zones that we’ve heard about in post 9/11.”
“There are no front lines,” he said. “You have the Islamists, you have the rebels, you have the Syrian government forces, you have criminal elements. You don’t know really who’s who.”
Like many media organizations, GlobalPost has responded to the increased threat to journalists by offering first aid training and detailed guidance in how to work in a hostile environment.
GlobalPost has an online field manual that emphasizes caution and safety, and includes a column written by Foley after his release from captivity in Libya in 2011.
He wrote that he was travelling in a small group of journalists who were relying on a pattern that had been true until the day they were captured: Mornings were quiet and fighting heated up in the evenings. Even after the group passed burning vehicles on the road that morning, he wrote, “we didn’t step back to take a better assessment, and we should have.”
When forces loyal to Moammar Khadafy drove up and started shooting, it was too late to escape. One of the journalists was killed, the rest taken into captivity.
Foley wrote that he was glad to be back on the front lines to tell the story of Libya, but he planned to be more cautious. “Do I need to go down that unknown road, past that last checkpoint?”
* * *
In the summer of 2011, I agreed to the conditions for the interview in Sholgara district. The ride in was easy. We had heard of kidnappers who surround cars with motorcycles. But no one bothered us.
In the town, we sped past villagers who eyed the strange vehicle with curiosity and went straight to the house of Lal Mohammad, one of the village leaders. The interview went well.
Then we started breaking all the rules we had set. Lal Mohammad took us outside to a hill overlooking the Balkh River, and pointed out a cluster of parched mud-brick huts shimmering in the heat on the other side. This was a town where militants had appeared. He took us down to the banks of the river to show us his crops, which meant walking around in plain sight.
At a certain point, Lal Mohammad mentioned to the translator that he was not worried for himself, but we might consider leaving. Anyone could have seen us and phoned the militants in the village across the river. They could be on their way. We kept shooting pictures and videos.
Soon, Lal Mohammad said he was starting to worry for himself, too. It was time to go, and we left. This was one of the 99 times of 100 that you get away with it.
After the story was published, someone asked me if the trip had been dangerous. I told him that nothing had gone wrong, so I do not really know.