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Of War and Journalism — Foreign Correspondents Remember Their Slain Colleagues

By Hilary Mackenzie
Special to WashingtonPost.com
Thursday, April 17, 1997

Washington Post Foreign Correspondent Nora Boustany runs her delicate hand over the name of a colleague shot while covering the Iranian revolution.

The name, Jo Alex Morris, Los Angeles Times reporter in the Middle East, is one of hundreds etched into the Freedom Forum Journalists Memorial, a spiraling glass and steel structure honoring journalists
Geraldine Brooks, upper left; Nora Boustany, the author Hilary Mackenzie and Jacki Lyden in front of the memorial. Photography by Jennifer Welsh/WashingtonPost.com
who were killed while on assignment or were murdered to silence their reporting.

"Many people would like to think that being a war correspondent is something very glamorous," Boustany says while gazing up at the monument. "In a way it isn't. It's very hard. It's very demeaning, it's physically strenuous, it's emotionally quite draining — and this monument helps us remember why what we do, as horrible as it seems, is important."

Boustany and three other women war correspondents, this reporter among them, had gathered in front of the structure in Freedom Park in Arlington to remembered slain friends, lovers, colleagues, heroes, mentors and the dangers that cost them their lives. The four of us had forged our friendship in the crucible of the Persian Gulf War.

Embedded within 50 glass panels are the names of 934 journalists who died in the line of duty. From James M. Lingan in 1812, of the Federal Republican newspaper, stomped to death by a war-crazed, anti-Federalist mob in Baltimore to Rachida Hammadi, an investigative reporter with Algerian State Television, gunned down in 1995 by the radical Armed Islamic Group in Algeria for "showing pictures of their barbaric crimes against innocent women."

Dedicated in May 1996, the Journalists Memorial overlooks the nation's capital and adjoins the Freedom Forum's Newseum, the world's first interactive museum of news, which opens to the public on Friday April 18. The memorial is a reminder of the importance of journalism, Allen Neuharth, chairman of Freedom Forum, says. Recalling a time when reporters were afforded safe passage by both sides in a conflict, Neuharth notes that journalists are now often the target in wars. In May, 39 more names will be added.

Next to the memorial, visitors can see the journalists' faces and read the often-harrowing stories behind their deaths on an interactive database.

The Washington Post's Boustany, The Wall Street Journal's Geraldine Brooks, National Public Radio's Jacki Lyden and myself, then with Maclean's Magazine, Canada's national newsweekly, have covered conflicts in hotspots such as Somalia, Bosnia, Lebanon, Nigeria, Haiti and Iran.

At a time when journalism is disparaged as entertainment and stories like the O. J. Simpson murder trial make people think we are all signing multi-million dollar book deals, there is a poignancy to commemorating people who have covered war, disaster or crime.

"These are stories that people don't really want to hear, these are stories which governments probably want to dispute, that unravel some sort of ugly truth or deed about someone and they are not fun to hear," says Boustany.

"All these people believed that they had a responsibility to find out the truth under very hostile circumstances and they were willing to take the risk that cost them their lives to inform the world," says Jacki Lyden. Lyden, a veteran Middle East reporter, returns to Iran next week to cover the elections for NPR.

As we consider the monument and remember our friends, the midday sun dances over the coated glass panels casting a rainbow on the pavement and reminding us of the passion for free speech that had placed these journalists — and the four of us — in harm's way.

Sheltered from the wind in the database kiosk, Geraldine Brooks pulls up the black-and-white mug shot of Newsweek photographer Gad Gross, shot by the Iraqis in 1991.

Thinking of the time after the gulf war that they set out together to cross from Syria to Iraq to cover the Kurdish uprising, she recalls his courtly demeanour, his concern that she not travel alone in the mined and mountainous areas.

"He really looked so happy in that way you are happy when everything is finally worked out and you've managed to be in the right place and you're going to see history."

Working with no communications, not even cell phones, Gross, Brooks and two other reporters had to send all their copy and film out from Kirkuk with a Kurdish courier who would take it across the border to file in Turkey or Iran.

"You had no idea if it was getting out — it was a great act of faith," Brooks remembers.

On the day Gross was killed it was Brooks's turn to meet the courier in Irbil, Iraq. As she left, the city was tense. It was touch and go whether it would stand or fall to Iraqi troops.

Her voice quavering, she tells of leaving Gross in the middle of the road. He was shooting film on his first professional assignment for Newsweek and wanted to get frontline shots.

"He looked like a man completely satisfied with his life's work."

That night Kirkuk fell.

Iraqi helicopter gunships were overhead, strafing columns of fleeing refugees. Gross and the Kurdish guide ran to a house for shelter. Two other reporters dived for cover in a ditch. The Iraqi military went straight for the house and shot everyone inside.

WHY WE DO IT
"When you go out on an assignment like this, usually it's quite lonely," starts Boustany. "It's against the advice of your family, your editors are reluctant and you do it not for the thrill of it but for the commitment that you have."

It is a commitment that has stayed with Boustany for 18 years as she reported for The Post from war zones in Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Algeria, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Tunisia.

"Once you've covered something ugly like a massacre, you have a never-again feeling of rage that keeps drawing you back," says the diminutive Boustany, "because you have the underlying suspicion that something terrible is happening and the world doesn't know about it."

"Deep within you, you want to be the one to tell the story in this difficult spot," adds Lyden, pausing by the name of Nick della Casa, a BBC documentary filmmaker shot pointblank in 1991. In Amman, he once had dragged her to safety before she could be crushed by a mob.

SURVIVING
We had all suffered survivors' guilt — wondering why our friends' names were on the memorial and not our own.

"I used to suffer from this very addictive survivors' euphoria, when you got in a tight spot and you got home and you just loved your life so much — everything from dry socks to clean water seemed like a miracle," says the Journal's Brooks.

"You thought you'd never take anything for granted again. It would last about three weeks and then you'd be craving another hit. That kind of work does put your life in perspective. You value it much more."

Back at the kiosk, Brooks pulls up Neil Davis's name on the screen. "Killed September 9, 1980 in Bangkok, Thailand while covering a failed coup attempt." Davis was the cameraman who, years earlier, had stayed behind in Saigon when everyone else was leaving. He got the memorable shot of the Vietcong man climbing the roof of the U.S. embassy and triumphantly raising his flag. "He was someone who devoted his life to living those kinds of stories," says Brooks of Davis.

"To think of the things he survived."

Brooks, in fact, was inspired to become a foreign correspondent following the murder of Greg Shackleton of Australia's Channel 7. The young reporter was killed by the Indonesian army when they invaded East Timor.

"I never meant to be a foreign correspondent. But, hearing his story and seeing the last tape that he sent back woke something up in me. It showed me the importance of bearing witness."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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