The hazards of war reporting from the other side of the world

Inspired by Alastair Leithead’s very insightful piece on The hazards of war reporting from the Libyan frontline, I’ve been meaning to write about my own experience of the Libyan revolutionary war as a journalist. Now that the world has witnessed the end of Muammar Qadhafi in all its grimness, I can’t put this off any more.

I am part of a team of people who do this role. We’ve all experienced this conflict and dealt with it in different ways. We all depend on each other for support in dealing with it on a day-to-day basis, something which has made the experience far less painful than it could have been.

Am I really part of this?

Unlike Alastair, I’ve never got my “boots dirty”. I have absolutely no concept of what it’s like to be in a war zone. Part of me is glad of this, part of me feels like a fraud, this being the first war I’ve been properly involved in reporting in a newsroom and being a foreign correspondent still being something I might aspire to becoming.

The nearest I can claim to have been to a hostile environment is a survival weekend being chased around the woods around Aldershot, as a Royal Marine cadet when I was at school. Having been a military cadet and shot rifles throughout my school years, I understand how loud gunfire and munitions are but I’ve never experienced it in a conflict.

That is ultimately of little relevance when I’m sat at a desk in west London, connected only to events on the ground by a network cable, a screen and a phone line.  To some I am a proxy, reporting a war by remote control, no better than a drone. Sometimes it can be hard not to feel like one.

The war reporter on the ground can witness what is within their eyesight. They can say “I saw these events today”. I can only say that I have seen videos and spoken to people, both of which describe events but I am unable to independently verify that this is indeed what happened.

I can tell you pretty definitively which corner of Tripoli Street in Misrata was the place in which a tiny group of civilian resistants turned the tide against the full force of Qadhafi’s military. Until I see that street with my own eyes, I will always feel that there is something missing in my experience and understanding of the events.

The objects are familiar: shipping containers, 4×4 trucks, sand, shops and domestic dwellings. But some days it feels difficult to comprehend warfare in that space without the experience of senses like the smell and physical presence of them.

As you walk along the street today, look up at the trees and tops of buildings. Consider how much your sense of their scale and relation position is shaped by the physical sensations of bending your neck, turning your head, having to step back to see them better.

You don’t have to get shot at to be traumatised

But the war has been very close to me, too close sometimes. When the sound of gun fire, mortar explosions and screaming explodes into my headphones it still makes me jump.

Sometimes it’s diegetic and you can pre-empt it, others it’s only a vicious crackling noise somewhere around my head, like a swarm of wasps in a tin. I can take the headphones off, I can step out of the war, but that feels like a betrayal of the people who risk their lives to document their experience in my absence.

Long ago I lost count of the number of casualties I’ve seen this year, but many of the injuries are hard to forget. It’s not always the most graphic ones that are hardest to deal with.

An empty house, a market devoid of stalls and food, the stillness of a dead body prepared for burial. All these can be as visceral as the sight of a gaping wound.

Viewing the videos that emerged in the hours after Qadhafi’s capture and death was uncomfortable, because the information emerging  as I viewed them already gave a sense of the likely course of events and what the deposed despot’s fate had been.

Watching the clips uploaded by Misrata Post (ripped from Al Jazeera Arabic) and Freedom Group Misrata was tough. I was viewing events before many people in the newsroom, and before some of those on the ground in Libya would have been fully aware of them.

Viewing them in a corner of the newsroom on a screen with nobody else sharing the experience at that moment is a dissociative experience. The process of analysing it, effectively repeatedly exposing myself to the same brutal events, does not make it easier.

In the field, where these events happen in realtime and with real physical danger, you see a blast once and run for cover. At a desk, you watch it over and over, looking for clues and markers, trying to decipher the information to place it in context.

In the field  you will be with a cameraman and/or producer, plus a local fixer if you don’t speak the language and likely a security adviser. They all share in that experience in a way that doesn’t exist for those of us away from the events, where we’re analysing video material and contacting eyewitnesses.

(I know that some people on the ground were shown these clips by members of the al-Gheryan Brigade and other units from Misrata who captured him, but they emerged online before they appeared through agencies.)

This is traumatic and we’ve all had to learn how best to deal with what we’ve witnessed. I ride my bike and use that time to process events or to simply forget about them. I intend to write about the issue of dealing with prolonged exposure to distressing material at length elsewhere.

In the place next to the witnesses

In a strange way we come closer to seeing what is happening than some correspondents. Sometimes we see events before them, as I’ve mentioned already.

We watch the videos of people bleeding to death on our screens from about the same distance as many of them have been filmed. You can’t speak to them or say anything to a bunch of pixels darting across the screen. That in itself can be traumatic.

That much of this material is shot point of view and handheld does have an impact. When this sort of video is edited, it’s pretty easy to treat it simply as “material”. When it is a single continuous shot, there is something about its unified perspective – as the point of view of a real person, not of a piece of a broadcast – that can be difficult to cope with.

This isn’t journalists trying to sort facts and report “the story”, this is people showing you what they are experiencing, as if to say:

“I don’t understand why this is happening. Why are they doing this to us? If I show you, then perhaps someone will explain what is going on.”

When it was material from armed fighters on both sides, I would frequently find myself asking why they felt a need to film the events. Battlefield filming is as old as moving pictures, but this new point-of-view filming by combattants is far removed from what was the norm before digital devices shrunk to become portable.

Intimacy and responsibility

Telephone conversations are usually intimate by their nature. Two people, in isolation, communicating with each other, telling each other things they might not otherwise share.

For all the advances of video-conferencing and Skype, the bread and butter of finding out what was happening in places where journalists couldn’t go in Libya was audio calls gaining eyewitness accounts.

Feb17Voices are the most incredible example of this, their brilliance in documenting of events in hard to reach places is one of the most underrated pieces of journalism to emerge from the Libyan war. Lots of bigger organisations have benefitted hugely from the work of John Scott Railton and the rest of the team.

I’m sure that they have also developed relationships with the people that they have spoken that go beyond simple binaries of reporter and witness. Their use of trust networks to gather material means that the person on the ground is always speaking to someone who they either know directly or who is contacting them through a trusted intermediary.

This is different to the traditional mode where people aren’t known until they get in contact. With Libya that has changed to a degree in that many contacts came to us via friends or family and they entrusted to us private numbers to reach people on the ground.

As with any contact, the more you speak to them, the more a relationship develops as you become familiar with them. Additionally, talking to them in a time when they may feel isolated and threatened means that the nature of your conversation is intensified by circumstance. What they are saying is massively important to them, so you must treat it with equal importance in your engagement.

In Benghazi the late Mo Nabbous personified that energy. I spoke to him several times in the middle of the night as he explained what he had seen and how he had documented it. At the time of his death our team were in contact with his wife trying to reach Mo.

It’s difficult to explain how others feel, but I felt there was a collective sense of being unsettled by it. We always tell people not to take risks for us, but Mo wasn’t risking his life for us, he was risking his life for what he believed in. How could anything we could have said stopped him?

In Tripoli, Niz Mhani was an internationally renown source of information. It’s fair to say his email list was said to be notable for the news organisations not on it, rather than those on it.

A testament to the relationship we built with him is that he was willing to risk meeting Wyre Davies while Tripoli was still under Qadhafi’s control, as you can see in this video report. I believe this was possible in part because we took responsibility for the BBC’s relationship with Niz.

What usually happens when a contact becomes available to outlets is that everyone wants a piece of them. For Niz, it was an endless stream of calls that cut into his time. We decided that to reduce the stress for him, he only had to take calls that were agreed through our team or the producer who was his original contact.

Then we agreed to put him in direct contact with producers on the ground and allowed the judgement on when he felt safe to contact them to be entirely his own. Again, this relies on trust between all involved.

For me it was the people we spoke to in Misrata whose voices stick in my mind most. “Dr Abdullah” was one of our most faithful witnesses at a time when there were no journalists in Misrata. Almost nightly he contacted the BBC to speak about what he witnessed in a city under brutal siege.

Without him, other medical staff and civilians such as Isra, what happened in that city would have gone far less reported. They provided us with information that allowed us to locate events, both in space and time, and to confirm the veracity of video material.

Simple things such as: the location of buildings; the types of weapon they could see and hear being used; the weather; the number of casualties reported. All these informed reporting of the battle for the city when international journalists could get no closer than the junction near the bottom of Tripoli Street, and then only under regime escort.

Every time I spoke to Abdullah I would end our long conversations about what was happening by telling him “please stay safe and don’t take any risks on our behalf”. He would reply with words to the effect of “Thank you for your concern Alex, but who else is going to document what is happening here?”

I’ve never found an answer to that but I made sure that whenever he made himself available to speak to the BBC, I tried my hardest to make sure programmes found time to speak to him.

Why it matters

Foreign deployments to high risk environments are expensive and obviously dangerous. Increasingly few organisations are willing to pay for the benefits that it brings to reporting of conflict.

There’s a rise of freelancers self-funding their presence in conflicts but, for all their benefits, there is a power that big news organisations have to force their way into a story – both in confronting authority and safely deploying people – that they lack.

The digitalisation of media has pushed the barrier to entry in generating reportage material down to several pounds where it used to be several thousand. On an economic level, the business aspect of news will always look at ways to reduce cost.

People like me are no substitute for people on the ground, and if you don’t have to pay for them, then there are plenty who will take that option. It’s a stark analysis of one option, but it’s an option that I’ve seen become fairly widespread in less than a year.

Engaging with the people formerly known as the audience cannot be a one way transaction. Conflict reported in this way will become the norm for an increasing number of journalists.

We need to start understanding how it works and how it affects everyone involved, regardless of whether we designate them citizens, journalists, activists or eyewitnesses.