Dangerous business, far from home

Assignment: Foreign correspondents' pursuit of truth during wartime often puts them in harm's way.

November 25, 2001|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

FRIENDS HAVE ASKED in the last couple of months if I didn't wish I were still foreign editor of this newspaper, a job I held for 10 years until the end of last August. The answer's no.

Others have asked if I didn't wish I were still a foreign correspondent during this most important conflict since the Vietnam War. Emphatically not.

In my 10 years as foreign editor, the Soviet Union collapsed, the Balkans disintegrated in a blood bath unprecedented in Europe since World War II, the United States kept bombing the bejabbers out of Iraq, half a million people were massacred in Rwanda, Zaire renamed itself Congo in a blood-soaked revolution, NATO went to war against what was left of Yugoslavia, the Israeli-Arab conflict seethed on and on and on.

Foreign editors have to tell correspondents to go to the places where this sort of thing is happening. Ordering people into harm's way is not a happy task. Most correspondents receive these calls with some ambivalence. On the one hand, covering war is the epitome of a foreign correspondent's ambition. Soldiers are not the only ones whose reputations are made or broken on the battlefield. But it usually involves enduring the harshest conditions - front lines rarely come with four-star hotels; electricity and running water are considered luxuries. And it's terribly dangerous work.

Four reporters killed

All of this became horridly real last week when four journalists - three Europeans and an Afghan - were murdered on the road from Jalalabad to Kabul. They were riding in a convoy of vehicles full of news people - reporters, photographers, cameramen - all trying to get to the Afghan capital where much of the story was developing after the Taliban rout from the city. In a narrow mountain pass, a half-dozen men carrying automatic weapons stopped their vehicle.

The unwritten rules of conduct in situations like this suggest that it's best to stop when confronted by people who are armed, but these rules are being re-unwritten every day in Afghanistan. Whether they stopped voluntarily or not, the journalists' decision in the pass on the road from Jalalabad to Kabul was fatal.

The four were taken away and shot dead. They were Harry Burton, an Australian cameraman for Reuters, Maria G. Cutuli, a reporter for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, Julio Fuentes of the Spanish newspaper El Mundo and Azizullah Haidari, an Afghan photographer for Reuters.

According to an eyewitness to the executions, the gunmen shouted before killing the journalists: "What, you think the Taliban are finished? We are still in power, and we will have our revenge."

Add their names to three European journalists killed a week earlier while riding atop an armored personnel carrier ambushed by the Taliban. And add those to the journalists who have been killed in all the other wars.

Sun reporter unharmed

As I write, no American journalists have been killed in this war, but some came terrifyingly close in that convoy last week from Jalalabad to Kabul. One of them was Dan Fesperman of The Sun.

He was traveling in a vehicle with two Americans and a Briton. Having urged their driver to speed up, their car was at the head of the convoy when they reached the point where the armed Afghan thugs were. They wrote their own rules at that moment and did not stop as they were motioned to do. Instead, they sped past the gunmen and around a corner before the gunmen could get off any shots.

But for that split-second decision, Fesperman might not be alive to tell his story today.

I did not send Fesperman to this war, but I have sent him to others and he is about the coolest character imaginable. In 1991, during the Persian Gulf war, 10 Iraqi soldiers surrendered to him and another journalist.

He covered the war in Bosnia and came out with some of the best stories of all - not of the bang-bang, there was plenty of that for him to do - but of people carrying on with their lives with some semblance of normality in spite of the war. He managed to do some fly-fishing in Yugoslavia and eventually to write a novel set in Sarajevo.

Some journalists seem to thrive on war. Christiane Amanpour of CNN and Peter Arnett, a war correspondent for four decades, come to mind in that respect. Most people covering a war would rather be home with their families. Most editors would prefer not to have to order them into harm's way.

But this is their work and their passion.

Telling the truth about war

At some point in this conflict in Afghanistan, the press is going to discover something that Washington and London don't want them to know, or more important, something they don't want the rest of the world to know.

It's happened in all other conflicts covered by the press: Revealing deliberately undercounted American casualties, collateral damage that exceeds even the wildest estimates of the value of the actual targets, equipment malfunctions that make the military look like fools, decisions by generals (often ordered by politicians) that end up costing hundreds of American lives.

If the Pentagon follows its usual instincts when these stories get out, the dump on the media will be powerful and nasty, as if the messenger were responsible for the bad news.

It will be a good time to remember that the people who go out to get the truth about what's happening in Afghanistan are risking their lives to get it right.

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