The war reporter: Stephanie L. Freid
“Aren’t you scared?” It’s what most new acquaintances ask when the subject of my profession arises.
Yes. I’m scared. Terrified. The cotton-mouth, on-the-verge-of-vomiting, mind-racing, heart pounding, praying to the powers-that-be, hitting the ground or running for cover kind of fear that leaves me in stunned silence after-the-fact and invades my dreams at night.
Still, I consider myself lucky. I’m passionate about my job. I love what I do. And I’ve never been injured, kidnapped, beaten up or held hostage.
I have been detained and questioned countless times by rebels, soldiers, officials, opposition forces and weekend warriors manning checkpoints who fail or refuse to activate weapon safeties. I’ve been caught in crossfire, held at gunpoint and threatened by gunmen in Eastern Ukraine, stranded in hostile terrain in Libya and trapped inside vehicles and buildings surrounded by angry mobs trying to beat their way in on the Turkey/Syria border and in Cairo.
It may seem counter-intuitive but covering conflict has not gotten easier with time, training or experience.
And I’m one of the “fortunates”. I’ve participated in hostile environment courses, combat first aid training, and I tap into numerous online conflict journalist forums where colleagues openly share concerns, pose questions and discuss technical and logistical challenges of covering specific war zones.
I also contract for a network with a relatively healthy budget. Yes, I am urged to cut costs on flights, accommodations and expenses. But if necessary, I can tap into the luxury of consulting security and intelligence experts on specific hostile areas, and I can elect to work with personal security detail - as was the case while covering the Libya uprising and Iraq.
I have a full set of protective gear – helmet and flak jacket with level IV plates, a gas mask with two filters and a strap-on medical kit containing tourniquets, coagulant powder, liquid adrenaline and hypodermic needles and bullet wound sealants.
Some freelance colleagues, not privy to those same benefits, worry constantly about budget as they shell out money from meager earnings to cover costs of accommodation, food, fixers and transport. Adding pressure to the already high stakes mix, competition drives decision-making.
We are all driven by different things. Altruism, a driving need to inform, even adrenaline. But many of us are pressed into making our war-cover decisions by the needs of editors and competition. If I don’t go into zone X or Y, someone else will. There’s always someone willing to get closer to the frontline fighting, steal across a porous border under the cover of darkness or chance traversing enemy terrain to get an exclusive interview.
And many who take those risks are under-trained, inexperienced and under-equipped, not necessarily by choice but by default of lacking budget.
While working in Aleppo, Syria, for example, a colleague had neither flak, helmet or a winter coat in single digit temperatures. At the time, government airstrikes were routine and there was no heat or electricity anywhere in the vicinity. Snipers were rampant.
Luckily we had my budget to rely upon. We slept in a different abandoned apartment each night to avoid being detected and ratted out by government loyalists and paid for tech-savvy locals to set up generator-run, internet hotspots to transmit material.
At night we slept in every layer of clothing we had brought with us and huddled beneath multiple blankets for warmth.
Beyond the constant fear of being caught in air strikes or accidentally encountering rebels hostile to western journalists, a niggling internal debate persisted: Can I trust my fixer? Is he/she reliable and knowledgeable about the area, in with the “right people”, will he/she turn me over for ransom and what about the fighters the fixer has set up for interviews?
In every hostile situation, choosing locals to work with on the ground is a gamble. The element of risk can be narrowed down by consulting colleagues and securing recommendations in attempting to find people who are trustworthy and reliable. But conflicts and attitudes shift. And sometimes the inherent desperation of war leads to betrayal. Steven Sotloff was not green nor was he foolhardy or whimsical. He was a friend and he was betrayed. It can happen to any of us.
Budget cuts foster dangerous decision-making. There’s no doubt about it. A young, just-starting-out freelancer working on his or her own in a conflict zone hoping to get an image, video or print story that will appease editors is operating under very different conditions from a hostile-environment-trained, staff correspondent outfitted in full protective gear and accompanied by security detail who is providing streaming intel updates and GPS coordinates.
As the “cover field” narrows, driven by the proliferating threat of kidnapping and death at the hands of extremists, the job of providing information – and appeasing editors – poses a constant conundrum of risk versus benefit.