Sandro Contenta – Coming Out In One Piece

Few events in our business are as disturbing as a reporter killed in a war zone. Equally upsetting, at least in my mind, are the murmurs that inevitably follow an appropriate period of respect, which in one way or another blame the journalist – he shouldn’t have been where he was, she took too many risks, he ventured too far – that kind of thing.

More often than not, they’re the mutterings of people who have never worked in conflict zones, or of editors trying to justify sending reporters in harms way. You’ll rarely hear war correspondents talk like that. The journalist in the field understands that the reason he or she is at the bar having drinks, while a colleague is in a wooden box, is due to a long string of circumstances encountered, and decisions made, during a day at war. It can add up to a matter of luck or fate, whichever you prefer. And it’s one reason some war correspondents eventually decide they’ve had enough. No matter how experienced you are, each new conflict pushes your luck, and sometimes your luck runs out.

One day in northern Iraq, during the 2003 U.S.-led war, an Italian colleague and I were driving toward the Iranian border, where U.S. war planes had hours earlier bombed bases of Ansar al-Islam, a group the U.S. accused of links to Al Qaeda. We suddenly spotted what looked like a decent restaurant and decided to stop for tea. We were back on the road 30 minutes later.

We came to an intersection with the smoldering and mangled remains of a suicide car bomb attack that, minutes earlier, had killed 39-year-old Australian cameraman Paul Moran. Journalists had been at the spot to film and interview Kurdish refugees fleeing villages in the Ansar-controlled territory the U.S. had bombed. The refugees had to stop at a Kurdish militia checkpoint there, so it was the best place for reporters to get the story – the place where my colleague and I would have been, when the suicide bomber struck, if we had not stopped for tea.

Days later, we found ourselves in the Iraqi town of Kifri. The Kurdish town had been shelled by Iraqi forces the day before, and several people had been killed. Most of its 26,000 residents had fled. We spent a couple of hours interviewing the families of victims. As we were ready to leave, a commander with the Kurdish militia, the Peshmurga, invited us to see an Iraqi position vacated two days earlier when it was bombed by U.S. warplanes. We already had plenty for a story, and had a long drive ahead of us. So we took a pass.

A BBC crew arrived in Kifri at about 3 p.m., the time we were leaving. It received the same invitation and decided the elevated military position was a good place to do a live videophone broadcast. The crew went to check out the site with a Peshmurga guide. Seconds after parking, the BBC producer stepped out of the SUV and hit a landmine, blowing off part of his foot. Hearing the explosion, cameraman Kaveh Golestan jumped for cover, landed on a landmine and instantly died. A decision that was not right for my colleague and I was right, under different circumstances, for the BBC. In war zones, even right decisions can get you killed.

The simple point is that reporters in conflict zones are made vulnerable by circumstances both within and beyond their control. Being cautious, and a little afraid, will help you stay sharp. Your top priority is to come out in one piece. Besides, an injured reporter is a reporter who can’t get the job done.

Staying alert is another of those common sense safety tips. Complacency can creep in, especially in conflict zones where bombs aren’t falling – Cairo, for instance, during the revolution last January and February. It helps to consciously remind yourself where you are, and to consider the possible dangers you face. In Tahrir Square, The Independent’s Robert Fisk, one of the most experienced conflict reporters around, was doing just that the day he walked up to me and described his escape route – a nearby doorway where he could safely watch the action – if all hell broke lose.

A hard lesson for me came at the start of the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000. It was the first Friday of the uprising and I was on the Haram al-Sharif /Temple Mount. As expected, young worshippers filed out of the mosque and immediately began throwing stones at Israeli soldiers below.

The rioting went on for hours. I had more information than I could possibly use in a story. Yet we – I was with a colleague from the Chicago Tribune – continued to do interviews. At one point, a group of angry young men, clearly frustrated by how ineffective their stone-throwing had been, asked what papers we worked for. My friend barely got the word “Chicago” out before anti-American shouts rose up, and he was swarmed. I intervened, and became collateral damage. Eventually, I managed to stagger away, and saw my colleague saved by two burly Palestinian security guards.

We were both badly beaten. We lost our notebooks and cellphones. We made it back to our offices, recalled as much as we could, filed stories, and headed straight to a medical clinic. The next day, I could barely move.

My American colleague learned to call himself a Canadian for the rest of the intifada. I learned the perils of dawdling. In conflict zones, get your story and move on.

Don’t travel at night. Hook up with a colleague, even a competitor if that’s your only choice. Together, you’ll make better choices, get better stories, and when one person’s energy level dips, the other will pick up the slack.

Get the best translator/fixer you can find or afford. The good ones will save your life.

In Gaza, when Israeli aircraft slammed several dozen missiles on a panicked and blacked out city, my Palestinian fixer steered me to the safest spot around – a residential neighbourhood without any Hamas or Palestinian Authority buildings, which in the rest of the city were being targeted.

In Iraq, my colleague and I found ourselves in the unsettling position of coming under mortar fire. After the third shell, we crawled out of the ditch and made a run for it. Afraid of possible landmines in the fields, we stuck to the road, which made us easier targets. Our fixer at one point grabbed us, pointed to a plowed patched of land and said, “This way, it’s safe, it’s farmed.” We ran across it like the wind.

Finally, consider the example of GlobalPost reporter, James Foley, travelling with three other journalists during the Libyan civil war. In this video,

Foley says rebel forces at the last checkpoint before the front line were reluctant to let journalists pass, presumably for safety reasons. They pressed on. South African photographer Anton Hammerl then says the situation feels unsafe, even “crazy.” Next, a group of teenagers tell them that Gaddafi forces are 300 metres away. “I didn’t want to be the guy that said, ‘Let’s turn around,’” Foley says, suggesting that’s exactly what his instincts were telling him. They next thing they know, they’re under fire. Hammerl is killed, and Foley and the two other journalists are detained and beaten by Gaddafi forces for 44 days. Foley describes the event as “a huge, huge mistake.”

In conflict zones, ask yourself how close you need to be to the action to get the story. If you’re writing about the experiences of combatants, the answer might be, fairly close. Even then, you’ll find that bombs falling and bullets flying rarely make more than a paragraph or two.

The stories I tend to focus on are about the suffering of civilians, or the people who, against all odds, decide enough is enough and make a stand against a dehumanizing authority. Putting a name to a body torn to pieces, recovering a little of the dignity and humanity snuffed out, documenting war crimes – those are the most rewarding aspects of war reporting. And you don’t have to get too close to the action to do that.


Sandro Contenta has been a Toronto Star staff reporter since 1981. In 1998, he was appointed its Middle East bureau chief, covererd the second Palestinian intifada and reported regularly from Iran, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. In 2002, Contenta was appointed the paper’s London-based, European bureau chief. He has covered wars in Kosovo, Iraq and Lebanon, conflicts in Yemen, and bloodless revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia. In 2011, he reported on revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. A former education beat reporter, Contenta is the author of the book, Rituals of Failure: What Schools Really Teach.

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