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Shooting the messengers

The life of a war correspondent has never been cheaper. Travel, equipment… even the pay cheque is lighter. But the rules of engagement are different in today’s street-level combat zones, where the press corps’ blue flak jacket offers little protection against conflicts and more journalists than ever are paying the ultimate price for the scoop.

The author of this article, Ed Caesar, has been named among AOAV’s 100 most influential journalists covering armed violence. He has reported from Congo, Iran, Kosovo and Nantwich for a range of publications including The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, The Sunday Times Magazine and British GQ. Caesar has garnered a number of prestigious awards for his journalism. These include the British Young Journalist of the Year Award in 2007, a One World Media Award in 2010, two Amnesty International Media Awards in 2010 and 2011, and a Foreign Press Association Award in 2011. This year, he was named Writer of the Year by the PPA, Britain’s magazine association

Sebastian Junger believed he knew about war. He had reported on conflict for nearly two decades: in the Balkans, West Africa and Afghanistan. He had been shot at. He had watched soldiers die. With the British photographer Tim Hetherington he had made Restrepo, an Oscar-nominated film about an American platoon’s 15-month deployment in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, and had written a book about the same experience. If ever there was a prototypical war reporter, he was it: blue eyed, square jawed; a writer of clean, telegram-ready prose.

But it was not until Hetherington died from a shrapnel injury in Misrata, Libya, on 20 April 2011 – alongside another outstanding photographer, Chris Hondros – that Junger understood conflict the way soldiers do. He and Tim were not only great friends but in the eyes of many were “professionally married” because of their work together for Vanity Fair and on Restrepo. In the gut-shot days that followed Hetherington’s death, Junger was avalanched with correspondence.

The email he remembers best from this period came from a Vietnam veteran. The man had admired Junger’s book, and felt it came close to showing both the cost and the appeal of war for young men. And in his email the veteran told Junger what he believed to be the harsh central truth about combat: not that you may be killed, but that you were guaranteed to lose people you love.


Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington at Outpost Restrepo, 2007

“And now,” he wrote, “you have lost a brother, and you know everything there is to know.”

Junger was at his apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, when he heard the news about Hetherington, and he didn’t need the Vietnam veteran to tell him what he already understood. Within two hours he made a pledge: he would never cover another war again.

“I watched myself grieve and I watched the impact on everyone else,” Junger says, when we meet in February. “And I just realised, on a very profound level, I didn’t want to ever risk being the cause of that kind of storm among the people that I love.”

Junger is 51 years old. He’s trim but solidly built, with short, greying hair and a thin beard. On this bright, cold day in Manhattan, he wears walking boots, a grey T-shirt and the kind of lightweight trousers favoured by ramblers. We’re in the Half King, a pub in Chelsea that he co-owns with another foreign correspondent, Scott Anderson. There’s an exhibition of photographs from the Niger Delta on the walls and a whiff of last night’s lager emanating from the wooden floorboards.

Two years on from his decision to quit conflict, he says he has no regrets.

“This is going to sound old-fashioned, but I feel like on some level a man’s job is to protect the people he loves. Risking your life is not protecting them – it’s exposing them to danger, emotional danger. And that’s not what a man does. There’s a point where you have to start putting other people first, and doing something that might give them a lifetime of grief is not putting them first. It looks like you’re gambling with your life, but you’re actually gambling with their lives, emotionally speaking. That’s not what a man does, and it was time to start acting like a man in that sense.”

Tim Hetherington

Tim Hetherington at a photo session in Huambo, Angola in 2002 / Image: Michael von Bergen

He has not completely abandoned his former beat, however. He has directed a documentary, Which Way Is The Front Line From Here? – a portrait of Hetherington that shows the handsome British photographer not only as brave and committed, but in possession of a searing talent. Junger is also encouraging journalists to learn more about basic first aid before they travel to conflict zones, with a project called Reporters Instructed In Saving Colleagues (Risc). Hetherington, it turned out, might have lived if one of the group with him when the shrapnel struck his groin had known how to stem the flow of blood. But, despite being in a warzone, none of his companions that day had the first idea how to help – and Tim’s chances of survival withered. He died a few minutes away from the hospital.

Hetherington’s story is tragic and instructive. Increasingly, journalists in warzones look like lambs among wolves. Indeed, it has been a miserable couple of years for reporters covering conflict. Since 2011 and the beginning of the Arab Spring, the toll has become impossible to ignore. In addition to Hetherington and Hondros, journalism has lost fabled characters such as the mythically brave Marie Colvin – the Sunday Times’ eye-patched foreign correspondent – who was killed last year by a Syrian government shell in the besieged city of Homs alongside the award-winning French photographer Remi Ochlik. But, as well as these stars, the trade has also lost teenagers of scant renown. For instance, in the same week and city that Colvin died, the 17-year-old Syrian freelance videographer Anas al-Tarsha was killed by a shell.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 2012 was the joint second worst year on record for journalists, with 70 confirmed dead worldwide and more deaths being investigated. Kidnappings are also on the rise. The question is: what has changed? Has journalism changed or has war? Are reporters taking more risks to tell their stories, or are the conflicts they now cover inherently more dangerous?

These questions are both old and new. War reporting was at a similar crossroads when Junger left the United States to cover his first conflict, in Bosnia. He was 31 years old. Previously, he had been writing local-news articles in Massachusetts and short stories that nobody read. It was, he remembers, work of “almost no consequence”. To make money, he had taken a job as a waiter. He felt it was time for a change.

“I grew up in a pretty affluent suburb [of Boston] and I went to college and had a lot of the pleasant things that life can bring,” he says. “And I felt on some level like I hadn’t become a man yet. I realised I’d never been tested in any way. I’d never been in a situation that I wasn’t sure I was going to survive or that would require strengths that I didn’t know I had.”

And so he, like many young people with no expertise or training, landed in Bosnia. He stayed six months in the Balkans and rarely saw the front line. He filed pieces for radio stations and newspapers and spent far more than he earned. Although he was “plankton” in the food chain of the news business, the experience was rich, and he vowed that once he’d written his book (a soon-to-be bestseller called The Perfect Storm) he’d find a way to become a war reporter who actually made money.

The work felt important. But there were also, he noticed, ancillary benefits to his new profession. “It is glamorous,” he says. “No point pretending it’s not. When I said I was a waiter, which I had to say for about ten years, the response from women… well, when I said I was a war reporter, the difference in response was pretty unmistakeable.”

For Junger’s generation, the Balkans was their Libya – “a stringer’s war” accessible to freelancers on a budget. Just as in Misrata, where dozens of inexperienced young people arrived to cover the Libyan uprising armed only with gumption and their iPhones, so cheap flights and the relative accessibility of the former Yugoslavia meant that freelancers could try their luck there. As Alex Thomson, the Channel 4 correspondent, remembers, “You could buy a cheap camera on [London’s] Tottenham Court Road on Monday and be in Gornji Vakuf [in Bosnia] on Wednesday.”

But in the early Nineties, unknown to the horde of bright-eyed youngsters, the rules of war reporting were about to change. Before Yugoslavia, journalists in warzones felt that the blue flak jacket of the press pack offered them some kind of immunity. Scott Anderson remembers that in El Salvador in the mid-Eighties – a “vicious, nasty war” – the fact of being an accredited, visible journalist was still a protection.


Maggie O’Kane reported Bosnia’s war for the Guardian

“You could tape ‘TV’ to your car and drive back and forth across no-man’s land,” he says. “Seven or eight years later, in Bosnia, it was dramatically different. Taping ‘Press’ or ‘TV’ to your car was like putting a bull’s-eye on it.”

Serbian paramilitaries had realised that journalists were not helping their cause. Blue jackets became like red rags to a bull. But why should the relationship between fighters and reporters have changed at that moment?

“My feeling is that with the end of the Cold War, so much of war became almost like mafia feuds,” says Anderson. “Like gangland: often between two groups, not between armies.”

In this environment, the rules changed. Serbian paramilitaries were one of the first armed groups to realise that there would be little recourse if they attacked reporters. And once the dam of inviolability was breached journalists working in warzones everywhere became more vulnerable. Now, in Syria, reporters disguise themselves as best they can.

Lynsey Addario, the Pulitzer-prizewinning photographer and recipient of the US MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius” grant who has documented conflict – and, particularly, women in conflict – for more than a decade, has been kidnapped twice for her trouble. The first time was in Iraq in 2004. The second time was in Libya in 2011. Both times, she escaped unhurt. Both times, she was reminded of how easily, and badly, her life might have ended.

It has always taken guts for a journalist to board a plane to a warzone. It takes even more to beat the competition when you land. As a result, every reporter or photographer who works in a conflict is constantly engaged in an argument about risks and rewards. Do I get on this truck with this bunch of rebels? If I move five miles to the west, will I become trapped? All of these decisions need to be taken on the basis of incomplete knowledge – because nobody knows exactly what will happen in a war. (I once took a trip through a rebel-held patch of eastern Congo while reporting for this magazine, having been assured by my fixer that the road was safe. After we had run into trouble – a high-speed car crash, a subsequent negotiation with teenagers carrying automatic weapons, the sound of approaching gunfire – I asked the fixer where he had received his obviously erroneous information. He answered: “I prayed this morning.”)

So, what guides a journalist’s decisions in these unlovely places? The frequently repeated maxim that “no story is worth dying for” rings a little hollow. The awkward truth is that, in this field, personal bravery is simultaneously discouraged and rewarded.

An example. As a group of Libyan rebels entered Tripoli in August 2011, the 28-year old Sunday Times correspondent Miles Amoore was with them. As these fighters approached Gaddafi’s base, Amoore was shot in the head by a government sniper. He was wearing a Kevlar helmet and survived. In typically nonchalant fashion, he dusted himself down and continued his work. A few hours later, he became the first reporter to enter Gaddafi’s compound.

With his entry into the Libyan despot’s stronghold, Amoore had a world exclusive. But that scoop only made the inside pages of the Sunday newspaper. On the front page, the Sunday Times ran a first-person account of Amoore’s near-death experience. This editorial decision may seem harmless enough, but it points to a wider truth about newspapers, particularly British ones. The reporter is often the story – and the braver his or her exploits, the better the copy. Indeed, many papers would have made the same calculation as the Sunday Times did in this instance. In a market saturated with images and videos of war, much of it shot by amateurs, there is a need to differentiate yourself from the competition, and highlighting the courage of a star reporter is one way to do this.


The Sunday Times’ Miles Amoore reporting from Afghanistan im 2011 / Image: David Gill

Again, this is nothing new. There is an anecdote (possibly apocryphal; I’ve seen it told in various forms) from when the Daily Express and the Daily Mail were arch rivals, ferociously competing over readers in the mid-market. After the Daily Mail correspondent suffers an injury while reporting on a battle, the hapless Express hack is upbraided by a cable from his editor in London: “Mailman shot. Why you unshot.”

The Express editor’s question was both funny and serious. Derring-do sells. In 1900, when Winston Churchill made a name for himself as a journalist during the Boer War, the Morning Post ran his account of a daring prison break under the headline “How I Escaped From Pretoria – And My Subsequent Adventures On The Road To Delagoa Bay, by Winston Spencer Churchill, Our War Correspondent.”

While the temptation to publish first-person heroics has proved a constant, it is now laced with a modern imperative: awards. Winning a journalism prize is important not only for a reporter, and an organisation’s reputation, but to protect budgets. While no sensible reporter is going to consciously put his or her life in danger for the prospect of winning a future award, correspondents at the sharp end may feel a kind of subliminal pressure.

“I take a very strong line on this,” says Alex Thomson. “This industry and this business has got a lot of hard questions to answer. I think there’s an awful lot of hypocrisy between news editors across this business, who on the one hand say no story is worth getting killed for and on the other hand that ‘bangbang’ wins awards. I don’t care what anyone says, there is a f***ing great conflict in those two views.”

Amid all the soul-searching about the numbers of journalists killed or kidnapped in conflict, one theme is returned to repeatedly. Because of lightweight digital-recording equipment, because the internet has provided an inexhaustible outlet for text and images and because of the relative accessibility of the countries involved in the Arab uprisings, the front line has been swamped with journalists of every type. In short, it has never been easier to be a war reporter. Staying alive is another matter.

Vice magazine recently published a long piece by a young British man named Sunil Patel. It ran with the headline “I Went To Syria To Learn How To Be A Journalist – And Failed Miserably At It While Nearly Dying A Bunch Of Times”. The article was Patel’s first published work. He had previously been employed as a community support officer for the Metropolitan Police and lived with his parents. Understandably, his suck-it-and-see attitude to reporting, in a conflict that had already claimed the lives of several journalists, received a mixed reception.

Patel’s story is only the most egregious example of a trend that is worrying seasoned operators. Nearly every established foreign correspondent I spoke to for this article had some shocking story about meeting a “kid” in Misrata or Tripoli who had travelled on their own dime and was – in the opinion of the veteran – hopelessly exposed.

One of these “kids” was Marie-Lys Lubrano, a 32-year-old French journalist who travelled to Libya from Cairo, where she had covered the uprising of 2011. She worked for several media outlets and was often paid as little as €100 (£85) a story by newspapers such as the French daily Le Parisien. She had no experience of conflict, no training, no insurance and – if something went wrong – no backup. When her laptop broke, she was forced to work without it.

“I had a lot of luck,” she says now. “I was really fortunate to come back safe and not hurt. I wouldn’t recommend to anyone to go like I did – to count on luck.”


Marie-Lys Lubrano, a French freelancer, covered the Libyan uprising in 2011

In Libya, Lubrano travelled mostly with rebel groups, and hardly spent a penny. But her lack of cash meant that she found herself in tricky situations.

“I had a lot of free help from the revolutionaries,” she says. “I surely must have made a lot of mistakes, but the biggest were because I had no fixer, no translators, no drivers. It was dangerous, but sometimes that is part of the job… I think it was more dangerous because I was not independent. I was in danger because I did not have enough money. I was always embedded. I couldn’t say ‘I want to stop, I want to go back.’ Because it’s not fair to do that if you have chosen to be embedded. You just have to follow and shut your mouth.”

This situation sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. But many reporters – Junger included – started this way. Sometimes, a stint in a conflict zone can be the catalyst for a superb career.

Ruth Sherlock of the Daily Telegraph is only 25, but she has already published outstanding work. Last year, she was named Young Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards. She began her career as a freelancer in the West Bank and then travelled to Cairo for the start of the uprising there. When she left Ramallah, she wrote a note for her housemates saying she’d be back in a few days. She was gone six months. From Egypt she decamped to Libya, where she worked for a string of publications. During this period, an editor at the Telegraph had noticed her talent, and she was given a more permanent position at the paper.

Libya was, she says, “incredibly dangerous… The country was full of weapons and nobody knew how to use them. I saw kids on the front line juggling with grenades.” But, by employing a conservative approach and sticking with experienced reporters, she managed to keep out of trouble – mostly.

Three days before Tim Hetherington arrived in Libya, Sherlock had travelled with a rebel group and another journalist to Tripoli Street in Misrata, then a scene of fierce fighting. Her plan was to spend a few minutes watching the battle, get some quotes and get the hell out of there. But when she and the older correspondent arrived, one of the rebels said to the journalists, “You must stay for lunch.” The senior journalist (whom she declines to name) accepted the invitation and Sherlock did not feel able to demur. Reluctantly, she pulled up a chair on the patio of a villa on Tripoli Street, with “shells and bullets whizzing overhead”. They ate macarona: spaghetti with beef chunks in a spicy tomato sauce. Sherlock remembers being so terrified she could hardly chew. And, eventually, this situation became too dangerous even for the rebels, who called off lunch halfway through. She is now working from Beirut, largely on the Syrian conflict.

For Ruth Sherlock, and other journalists who have moved from reporting on North Africa to Syria, the experience has been sobering. Syria might be the most difficult conflict to cover in a generation. Not only is the Government bent on maintaining its power by any means, but the opposition forces are loose, splintered and often ruthless. For instance, some weeks after Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik died in Homs, Alex Thomson and four other journalists were – they believe – led into a free-fire zone by a group of rebels. “I’m quite clear the rebels deliberately set us up to be shot by the Syrian Army,” Thomson wrote on his blog shortly afterwards. “Dead journos are bad for Damascus.”

Because of the difficulty of reporting safely in these conditions, some news outlets are starting to waver about accepting material from freelancers. It’s a problematic stance. Freelancers do extraordinary work. For example, the most spellbinding footage of the war in Syria has come from a 41-year-old freelance French photojournalist and videographer called Mani (he works without a surname for security reasons). Before he worked as a photographer in Niger, Pakistan, India and then Syria, Mani was a primary-school teacher in Paris. Recently, I met him in London and asked what had compelled him to go to the most dangerous warzone in recent memory.

“I met an old friend from Syria in Paris, and I took a decision to do it,” he says. His voice is soft and measured. He has a puckish smile. You could imagine him being an excellent teacher. “The reason I went… there was no press – at least in the opposition areas. There were no images, no pictures. If I could do it, I thought it was important… I was really conscious that something bad could happen. I could get arrested, I could get beaten, I could get tortured. I knew that. I am an Arab, and I thought they would be harsher with me.”

He remained uncaught and unhurt. Without Mani, much of the conflict in opposition-controlled areas would have been beyond view. In filming the furious close-quarters battles that have made his name, he fulfilled a central duty of the war reporter. And, because of his courage, millions of people had a view of what was actually happening in Syria: not only Government oppression of civilians, but also a ruthless fightback by the opposition and the conflict’s civilian collateral damage.


James Brabazon and Nick du Toit, subject of Brabazon’s bestseller ‘My Friend the Mercenary’, in Liberia in 2002

To generate a solution to the increasing toll of journalists, it would help to know the precise problem. James Brabazon has spent longer than most considering this issue. He is a war reporter of note and was a close friend of Tim Hetherington’s from the days when they covered Liberia together. Brabazon also produced Which Way Is The Frontline From Here? and is a trustee of the Rory Peck Trust, an organisation that exists to help and protect freelance journalists.

“It’s important to take a step back,” he says. “There isn’t one single catalyst that’s generated an increased number of casualties among journalists. There are several different, distinct factors that all interplay with one another and catalyse each other, and that’s why we are where we are today.”

Brabazon explains that those issues are, in short: low pay, ease of access, the development of lighter equipment, an insatiable demand for the images of war and an increasing number of conflicts to cover.

“What you have is people who will operate in a frontline capacity, often very badly paid, which tends to mean that the people who are most likely to be going to do it are younger and inexperienced, because they mind being paid less the least,” he says.

There is, however, a strong caveat to his diagnosis. Most of the journalists killed in warzones are locals, not foreign correspondents. Indeed, the everyday experience of a journalist in Juarez, Homs or Waziristan is likely to be horrific.

“If you want to look at violence towards journalists, that’s where the story is,” says Brabazon. “People like Tim [Hetherington] take up a lot of headline space… But Tim’s an aberration; he’s not the norm.”

He’s right. But should we demean the publicity that surrounded the deaths of Hetherington and Marie Colvin? Those tragedies alerted the world to the peril of witnessing war. And, regardless of this schism between local and foreign reporters, something nasty is happening to war reporting in general – particularly in Syria. According to the most recent statistics, 23 journalists and 54 citizen journalists have been killed in Syria since the war began in March 2011. Several reporters have been held hostage for months. However you want to slice them, these are troubling numbers.

Back in the Half King, with the winter sunshine streaming in, Sebastian Junger dissolves into the sofa and throws his feet up on the armrest. Whatever itch he had in his early thirties has now been scratched, but he retains his ardour for the trade he left.

“I can’t imagine a world where war doesn’t get covered,” he says. “Because then there’s all manner of human-rights abuses, which effectively will not officially have happened… Imagine Tahrir Square without reporters and all those citizen journalists with cellphones. Imagine taking cameras out of Tahrir Square and then hearing what Mubarak had to say about what was going on. It would be like [the difference between] the LAPD describing what happened with Rodney King and then them having to describe what happened to King when the video [of his beating] came out. I can’t imagine, with police brutality, with war, with all manner of evil, what would happen if there were no media scrutiny.”

The question is: are we reporting on war in the best way? Will there come a point when we have to rethink what a journalist can successfully achieve in a place like Syria?

“The financial reality of the established media is such that they can’t afford to send experienced journalists into Syria and insure them and pay them adequately,” he says. “For a news crew in Syria, it’s probably going to be hundreds of thousands of dollars a week. They can’t do that. They’ve got to use freelancers. If all the freelancers stop going to Syria, all you’d get, potentially, is propaganda coming out.


Reuters’ cameraman Ayman al-Sahili was shot in the leg while filming in Aleppo in December 2012 / Image: Reuters

“So you don’t want to stop that – Syria is a great opportunity for a lot of freelancers. But the industry that buys the work can insist on minimum norms: life and health insurance, evacuation cover, kidnap insurance. I mean, they could come up with a war-reporter package of insurance that covered it all, as well as medical training through my organisation or some other, adequate equipment, vest, helmet and medical kit.”

These suggestions sound sensible. Whether the Western news media, strapped as it is, will find it within itself to insist on “minimum norms” is another matter. For now, some uncomfortable realities remain. Wars are here to stay. The media has a duty to report on matters of moment, and conflict – particularly in its effect on non-combatants, in its implications for the future of nations, in its fury – is momentous. It’s likely that for all these reasons, freelancers will still take inordinate risks to bring home the story.

It is a cliché but a truth that journalists often become addicted to war. Because of this, it’s easy for armchair pundits to feel as if the trade is less honourable than it professes – to say that these men and women are all, to a greater or lesser degree, fulfilling a selfish urge. But this attitude seems wrong-headed. Junger started, and stopped, for selfish reasons. It doesn’t make the work he did less valid. As he says, it may be healthier for journalists to admit that – as well as the duty to “bear witness” – there is something personally satisfying in covering conflict.

Tim Hetherington was not gung ho. He, too, believed that no story was worth dying for. But he continued to return to dangerous places because he was interested in the raw life of a warzone: the way a rebel soldier kissed his wife goodbye; the way young men in war self-consciously imitated other young men in other wars; the stoicism of victims.

Perhaps his most famous series of photographs is from the Korengal Valley. It features soldiers fast asleep in their cots. There isn’t a gun in sight. In that small collection of images, Hetherington offers a humane, tender and profound view of the reality of war for the people fighting it. Anyone who sees the sleeping soldiers will wish that Hetherington had not died. But, if you were so moved, how could you also fail to love the way he lived?


This article was published with very kind permission of the author. His website can be seen here.
This article was first published in British GQ magazine.