By Atharv Pandit:
There is no time in the world, in the history of this living shrinking affair that a nation hasn’t been at war with either itself or with another nation, equally eager to bear the fruits of a successful conquest. Except, this dream of successful conquest remains just that, a dream. Once it has begun, war is nothing but chaos and meaningless killing and bloodshed, massacres and atrocities, shelling and bombings, sieges and constant chatter of gunfire- something which, in a nutshell, reveals to us the evil in humans, being undertaken under the pretext of a sugar-coated superior political motive.
And the ones which bring all this chaos and destruction to us- in the form of moving stories and anecdotes, shocking and shattering photographs, dangerous reporting as the bombs go off behind them- the ones which undertake this risk so that we, sitting in our apartments and bungalows, safe and sound, can realize that the world we are living in, the problems we are facing, they are all so comfortable and futile as compared to that little child who should have been crying over a broken toy, is rather crying over a broken limb, a broken house; as compared to the teenager who should have been out in the field playing soccer, is out in the field alright, but not to play, but to kill. The chroniclers of human beings at their worst put their life on line so that we know the fallacies of a totalitarian government, and what a heaven it is to be living and breathing in a democratic society. What a heaven it is to be walking along an alley which has a normal name, and isn’t called the Sniper Alley.
They are generally called war correspondents, sometimes scribes or freelancers who can be found roaming around the front-line, going in the direction of the interior, where conflict is raging hot. Sometimes they choose to write about all that suffering which innocents have to go through all because the leaders of their countries decided that they want more oil, more land, more everything. In this conquest for more of everything, more innocents are dying every minute of every day. Sometimes they choose to chronicle the horror through mute photographs which go on to tell a lot more than words- the photo Ron Haviv clicked during the Bosnian War of a teenage Arkan Tigers’ soldier kicking an already dead Muslim family butchered on the streets, the pictures of Normandy Invasion by Robert Capa, John Stanmeyer’s mesmerizing and award-winning photograph of African immigrants on the shore of Djibouti trying to catch a signal from the Somalian coast. There are many, many more. Not to mention the accounts of terror which journalists weave in through words- whether they be of the death of a fellow journalist trying to smuggle back to Turkey after an assignment in Syria, or the witnessing of journalists being tortured and beaten by soldiers at a checkpoint in Kosovo, war journalists have seen it all.
And there are risks involved. Lots of risks. Risks wherein one wouldn’t even know when a bullet pierced through his or her torso, and killed him or her.
Take, for example, the recent death of 26-year old French photographer Camille Lepage in Central African Republic while travelling with the anti-Balaka fighters. Her body was found by the French peacekeepers inside a car near the Cameroon border. This was only one of the many cases of journalists losing their lives in conflict zones in the past one year. It’s not, of course, as if journalists aren’t killed in war zones- obviously, there are bombs, there is shelling, there are gunfights, and then there are deaths. But the past two or three years have witnessed a lot of experienced reporters being killed in parts of the world which are engulfed in conflict. Marie Colvin, the legendary journalist famous for her eye patch had lost one of her eyes in Sri Lanka while covering the Civil War, and was killed along with another photographer Remi Ochilik at Homs, the Syrian front-line. Tim Hetherington, who once famously marched along with Liberian rebels during the Liberian Civil War, was killed by a shell in Misurata, Libya. Anthony Shadid, another legendary Middle-East correspondent for the New York Times, died while crossing in from Syria into Turkey.
Citing these deaths, many newspapers have been cautioning journalists against going inside those dangerous jungles and scratching deserts. The risks are not just physical, but psychological as well. Journalists returning from their work in the conflicted zones suffer through post-traumatic disorders, and generally don’t have a normal life to speak of. Like Janine Di Giovanni’s story, wherein she recalls in her memoir ‘Ghosts by Daylight: A Memoir of War and Love‘, her failure at settling into a comfortable and normal life of motherhood and housewife after years of covering conflict. She couldn’t do it. There are nightmares involved, guilt, and sadness creeping through the person. Yes, they can lead a normal life, but in most cases they don’t want to. They just want to go back to all the blasts and gunfire.
As I said, the risks are plenty, as are the stories. But the question here is: should war journalism stop because the wars are getting dirtier and journalists are being killed, sometimes purposefully targeted? Or, as David Schlesinger, the Reuters editor-in-chief asks, “As journalists we have an instinctual compulsion to be where the action is. Photographers and cameramen, in particular, need to get the shot to record reality for history. That’s a dictum that is fundamental to our craft. But is it fit for purpose? Is it fit for today? In an age when a gunship in the air can fire from up to four kilometers away, must the journalist be on the ground? In an age when a deadly drone can be piloted from half a world away, can the journalist justify the risks of being right in the midst of things?” Yes. A firm yes. Certainly, journalists get into the zones because they want a rush of adrenaline while doing their work, the thrill to jump around and photograph, or interview people while hiding in furtive bunkers. But they are also recording something which is very important to understand the landscape of this world, to understand the human behaviour in intense situations, to know the politics of a region being burnt, and to understand why it is being burnt. They are doing a job not many are willing to do. They are trying to show us the comforts of our lives. They are trying to point towards the politics of suffering. One can provide them with secured instructions about the what-not’s of covering a war zone. A journalist should, indeed, take care of himself as much as possible. But to discourage them from reporting from the front-lines is something I don’t accept.
To me, if there had been no scribe hitchhiking through a war-zone, I wouldn’t have possibly known what a peaceful life I am living. I wouldn’t have known what a cruel man Assad is (to put it in mild terms), I wouldn’t have known those Serbs which housed their Muslim neighbours during the Bosnian conflict to protect them from the massacring state-sponsored militias, and I wouldn’t have had an inkling of the suffering in this world. I wouldn’t have known all those heroic stories during war, all those anecdotes and the humanity of people under endurance. It is because the war journalists do their job that we realize that while we take our basic necessities for granted, somewhere in this world, they are being fought for.