The recent beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steve Sotloff, and British aid worker David Cawthorne Haines have particular resonance for some of us this week. I remember the night 15 years ago when the phone rang, and I was told my best friend, a Dutch reporter named Sander Thoenes, had been murdered.
Sept. 21 will be the 15th anniversary of that moment that changed me forever, of that call I still remember vividly like it was yesterday. I feel for the friends and families of Foley, Sotloff, and Haines, and the countless others who have gotten “the call” they wish never came.
Sander and I met on our first day of Hampshire College in Amherst and quickly became soul mates. We had similar names, reverse birth dates (7/11, 11/7), and both of us dreamed of becoming witnesses to history as foreign correspondents. We graduated in the early 1990s and moved to Moscow just as President Bush (the Elder) was coining the phrase “peace dividend,” and Eastern Europe was becoming known as an “emerging market.” We came of age as journalists when Russian President Boris Yeltsin bombed his own White House, with his Duma members — and the two of us wearing gas masks — inside the building.
From Russia, Sander moved to Kazakhstan and from there, to his dream job as the Financial Times stringer in Indonesia. On Aug. 30, 1999, with United Nations support, East Timor overwhelmingly voted in favor of independence from Indonesia. The Jakarta-backed paramilitary violence started immediately. For three weeks the armies raped, murdered, and burned everything in their path.
Sander was not an adrenaline junkie, and he had no interest in becoming a war correspondent, but he believed in the power of the pen. So, on Sept. 21, 1999, despite his trepidation, along with a planeload of journalists, he flew from his home base in Jakarta to Dili. The UN had supposedly quelled the violence and secured the capital. So Sander hopped on the back of a motorcycle and went out to witness the brutality of Indonesia’s scorched earth response to Timor’s attempt at self-determination.
A few hours later, he was murdered.
Depending on which report you read, Sander was either still on the road, and shot in the back, or shot while running into the woods attempting to flee. Either way, his body, found in the woods by the side of the road, was mutilated, and his wallet, filled with cash, was left intact. The message of Battalion 745 (Investigators know who Sander’s killers were) was clear — Sander was killed because the military disapproved how western media portrayed their post-election tactics.
No journalist has delusions that they can stop war, and there is no denying the cynicism that permeates after being on the ground for a while. But hope dies last. There is always hope that a good story will change the perception of “the other” so eventually, we can sit at the same table and break bread.
Just as Sander wanted to portray the Timorese as human to the Indonesians, Foley and Sotloff felt that same need to humanize innocent Syrians to their readers. Ironically, this need to humanize is often what gets the best-intentioned reporters killed.
New York University’s Jay Rosen articulated the importance of these stories in 2000 at a Hampshire College memorial for Sander. “Media,” explained Rosen is about “getting our attention.” Journalism on the other hand, is about “making that attention productive.” The product of great journalism “is public understanding.”
Journalists like Sander — and James Foley and Steve Sotloff — “died doing what the media has stopped doing, that is, ‘serious on-the-ground reporting from distant and troubled lands.’ By telling their stories,” Rosen reminded us, “we not only keep their memories alive, but we are acknowledging that ‘big things matter.’”
There is no blueprint for grief. For a decade and a half I have struggled with Sander’s death, and watched in despair as dozens of other journalists have been killed in the line of duty. Healing (for me at least) came from accepting that in the end, we don’t heal.
Instead, we adapt and we find ways to pay tribute. Rosen proposes how to best honor slain journalists: Tell their tale. Tell it often and explain why it is important. Wonder out loud — why are there so few correspondents today and what has happened to resources for international news coverage?
If you care about good people like Foley and Sotloff (and Thoenes and all the others), then pay them the ultimate tribute: Read, know, and engage with their successors who are there now, on the ground, risking their own lives so that the stories of the innocent and the oppressed can be properly told.
Sandy Wolofsky is a freelance journalist currently working on a project to honor ethnomusicologist Ruth Rubin.