A few years ago, I sat in the Gandomak Hotel in Kabul, trying to find an Afghan “fixer” who would take me to Kandahar. But the violence had gotten so bad it was almost impossible to find someone credible to take me around.
“Forget it,” one man told me over the telephone. “Nobody wants to get kidnapped.”
It frustrated me to no end to find myself stuck in Kabul, far from the story I was trying to get. But in retrospect, I was lucky the wrong person did not say “yes.”
It’s particularly tough for me to read the account of how Steven Sotloff, who was beheaded on film by a member on the militant group ISIS, was kidnapped last year, after picking a fixer whose identity may have been compromised. An excellent piece in The Daily Beast describes how Sotloff, a veteran war reporter who spoke Arabic, may have been endangered by a foolish photographer. It’s a reminder of the tremendous risks that journalists face every day when they are trying to enlist help in reporting from a war zone.
The author of the Daily Beast article, Ben Taub, met Sotloff at Hotel Istanbul in the border town of Kilis, Turkey, last August shortly before he was kidnapped. Sotloff had had a near-death experience on his last trip to Syria: A sniper shot at him through a bathroom window as he sat on the toilet. He was ready to hang up his flak jacket and go to grad school — “but he wanted one last Syria run,” Taub wrote.
Surely, Sotloff knew the danger. Since 2011, 39 professional journalists and 122 “netizens” and citizen journalists have been killed, according to Reporters Without Borders. At least 13 journalists are imprisoned.
In the end, Sotloff was held hostage by people who wanted to use him as a pawn in the war that he had gone to report on. (In the video showing the decapitation of James Foley, ISIS threatened Sotloff’s life if President Obama did not stop bombing ISIS, a demand that no US president could give in to.) We couldn’t save Sotloff. But we can ensure that his death was not in vain. He risked his life knowingly, so the rest of us could understand a terrible war better — so that the rest of us could read more, think more, and understand more about Syria. We owe it to him to do just that.