Seasoned Journalists Dodge Landmines, Kidnappers to Report On Afghanistan War
By: Josh Bentley-Swan
“I’ve been shot at, RPG’d, masked gunmen kicked in my office door in February 2007… Dangerous things happen in a war zone.”
Not your typical day at the office. But events like these were common enough for The Globe and Mail’s Graeme Smith, who worked as the Globe’s lead correspondent in Afghanistan from 2006 until early this year.
Smith, along with CBC Television’s Susan Ormiston and award-winning photojournalist Louie Palu discussed the dangers and rewards of reporting from the war-torn country in a panel discussion at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto last Wednesday. The discussion was moderated by Anna Maria Tremonti, host of The Current on CBC Radio. The panel discussion was held to commemorate World Press Freedom Day 2009.
Canada’s military has been in Afghanistan since 2001, the year when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City ushered in an era of tightened border security and heightened terrorism fears.
Palu, whose photography assignments often necessitate trips to the front lines of combat, is well aware of the dangers he faces while documenting the war in pictures.
“My fear going out was landmines. I was terrified of having my legs blown off,” Palu said.
Soldiers advised Palu to keep a five-metre distance when trailing them because of the possibility of stepping on a mine. Avoiding landmines isn’t the end of his worries; Palu limits the time he allots to photo shoots when he’s outside Kandahar Airfield because he worries about being kidnapped by members of the Taliban.
“As soon as you walk out of the Kandahar Airfield, it’s almost more dangerous than going into a war zone. You are worth money; they can kidnap you.”
Ormiston spoke of the complexities of setting up interviews with locals. Translators, known to foreign correspondents as ‘fixers,’ who speak English and the local tongue, must arrange these interviews, and before leaving the airfield, all the risks of traveling the Afghan countryside on any given day must be considered.
“(I have to ask) What’s my risk tolerance today? It’s a very fluid situation,” Ormiston said.
“There’s an underground network of information that (foreign journalists) aren’t privy to all the time.”
Smith would often write his stories for The Globe and Mail in complete darkness, surrounded by the soldiers he was writing about. Usually the only light was coming from Smith’s computer screen as he typed away.
Despite the immense dangers, Ormiston, Smith and Palu all took away positive memories from their postings in Afghanistan. Throughout the discussion, the journalists and Tremonti kept returning to the point of how important coverage of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan is.
“Journalists always find a way… the stories will come out,” Palu said.
Palu’s work, which can be viewed online at — http://pa.photoshelter.com/c/louiepalu graphically documents the war and its’ consequences to civilians and soldiers alike. He told the Gould Studio audience of times where he had to put down his camera to care for someone bleeding on the ground in front of him.
“Some images are in your mind forever.”
Smith remembers being welcomed into the homes of Afghan civilians for tea and meals.
“Ordinary conversations (in Afghanistan) can last for three, four, five hours sometimes. In Canada the length of a thought seems to be 140 characters,” he said in a reference to popular social networking site Twitter’s character limit for status updates.
“I like that pace of life,” Smith said.
Ormiston told the audience about her experience covering the Sarpoza Prison, which served as a prison for several Afghan provinces. On June 13, 2008, roughly a month after Ormiston’s story ran, the prison was attacked, and several prisoners freed.
“You can’t cover a place like this without being impressed by the humanity… And humanity is really the core of reporting,” she said.
World Press Freedom Day falls on May 3. For more information, and to see the events planned to mark the occasion, you can visit Canadian Journalists for Free Expression’s website at — http://www.cjfe.org or contact CJFE by phone at: (416) 515-9622