In The Line Of Fire

The constant risk of conflict zone reporting. Where a journalist can easily be mistaken for the enemy.

It’s maddening when you see it all happen in front of you. Anti-aircraft guns blazing hundreds of rounds, each one capable of cutting a human body in half. Mortars and rocket-propelled grenades fired with impunity, thousands of rounds of heavy machine-gun fire. Nothing I can tell you, nothing at all can gear you up for this sort of kinetics.

It’s the “ballistic crack” and the “thump” of bullets they teach you at hostile environment courses. Most journalists undergo hostile environment courses to help them survive conflict zones. At Sky News, it’s mandatory before we venture out to these places. But even all the teachings from former marines and military officers cannot prepare us for the kind of fighting we witness. The Arab spring has taken this to a much higher level.

I have been going to Afghanistan since the war on terror began, but in all those years I have not witnessed the kind of kinetic that has taken place in Libya, Tunisia, and is ongoing in Syria.

Reporting of a conflict has changed. There are no demarcated lines from which journalists can keep a safe distance. Once you step into the country, you are game. These are killing zones for all, there is no distinction being a rebel or a journalist. In fact, the opposition see you as much a threat to them as a fighter brandishing a Kalashnikov.

The kind of images which we have seen on our television screens over the last two years have been unbelievable. Journalists are pushing their luck far beyond one can imagine. Footage of anything less than a doomsday scenario goes down on the run order. The pictures have to be exclusive, and never seen before. This unfortunately has been the cause for the deaths and injuries of many journalists.

War veterans like Tim Hetherington, Marie Colvin, Mika Yamamoto have lost their lives trying to tell a story. Tim, a veteran who covered Liberia, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan was killed a day before we reached Misurata, Libya. Gaddafi’s soldiers had them in their sights. They were supposedly in a safe place according to one of the rebel guides who I spoke with. A mortar hit this group of journalists killing Tim and another Pulitzer-prize winning photographer. The Times correspondent, Marie Colvin, a war veteran of almost all the conflicts of the world, was killed when a mortar hit the house where she was staying in Homs, Syria. There is a very strong suspicion that the Syrians had zeroed down on the house because a satellite phone was used one too many a time.

Japanese war reporter Mika’s team which included her husband as her cameraman was killed when it was led down the wrong road and got ambushed.

Not knowing where you are headed “to find the story” is dangerous. We rely entirely upon the rebels, who may or may not know what lies around the corner. Their communications are almost non-existent. On so many occasions in Libya we were led to areas that were still in range of mortar or tank fire and even a Kalashnikov. In Sirte, the hometown of Gaddafi, our vehicle was sent forward by rebels manning one of the checkpoints telling us that it was safe till the next 10 kilometres. Within five minutes of driving down this desolate road we came under heavy tank fire. I’ve never seen a driver take a U-turn at such a speed. The vehicle nearly overturned. We were very lucky. Innumerable times the thud of mortars and RPGs have landed behind us. You can hear them fired but you can’t outrun them. You know you’re in the zone and the only priority is to get out of range. Nowadays footage of bullets whizzing overhead does not even make it to the edit table. Only the big bangs make the final piece.

Being with the opposing side is extremely unsafe. But to get the story you have to embed with them. Most of the fighters are just ordinary civilians with no prior military training. And so it’s like Dad’s army. One little bang and everyone is jittery. Our vehicle nearly got shot by a young rebel soldier in Libya. Not knowing that these huge guns have a foot pedal as a trigger, he put his foot down and let off about 60 rounds missing us by a meter! Some rebels carried grenades in their jacket pockets as if they were non-lethal objects. The military inexperience of people that have taken up arms is another grave danger that one deals with.

Then there are the more sinister experiences doing the rounds about Syrian rebels who were using international news crews as bait. A western journalist killed or injured would mount the pressure and turn the attention on Assad’s killing machines. But unfortunately it never did. And we’ve seen it with the deaths of some very well-known journalists.

Security for teams that venture into conflict zones is of utmost importance for news organisations. A very experienced security advisor accompanies the team all the time. His role is to keep the team safe and help get the job done. As a producer, I work closely with the security advisor on planning and plotting our routes in and more importantly out. To have a getaway option is most important. In my experience, the security advisor is integral and his knowledge of military hardware is invaluable. He knows the range of guns, rockets and tank artillery, or which way the battle is heading. In Sirte, Libya, our security advisor read the battle plans of the rebels which helped us be the first journalists inside Gaddafi’s home town and able to report on his capture and death. They are all experienced in first aid and can save our lives. As journalists we go into conflicts with blinkers on – just for the story – unaware of the hundreds of dangers that are omnipresent.

These dangers have increased manifold and every conflict is throwing up new possibilities. Now journalists are being kidnapped by fighters for reasons that were only used by terrorists. A British photojournalist was kidnapped by Jihadists in northern Syria.

Journalists covering conflicts do take unprecedented risks to themselves and their families. They are committed to telling the story of misery and grief of thousands of people caught in between warring factions. Living in constant danger in very rough conditions and staying focused and alert for those long waking hours is definitely not easy. It only looks glamorous in films.

Images By: Neville Lazarus

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