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Friends and colleagues, gone but not forgotten

Kurt Schork, an inspirational Reuters journalist who I worked with in East Timor, was shot dead in an ambush in Sierra Leone in May 2000 along with Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora of Associated Press Television; two other Reuters colleagues survived the ambush after a harrowing escape. I learned a huge amount during the few weeks I worked with Kurt as part of the Reuters team in Dili, based in a flooded and partially burned ground-floor room of the Hotel Turismo. He always behaved with disarming humility and respect, as a colleague and an equal, when in fact he was a legend and I was a clueless rookie. I found out he was dead when I sat down at my desk in Reuters Jakarta and saw that one of his most famous stories from Sarajevo had been reissued that day on Reuters screens; wondering why, I clicked on the headline to read the story, and then I knew.

Harry Burton, an Australian journalist and cameraman who was a much loved member of the Jakarta bureau and also worked with us in East Timor, and Azizullah Haidari, a brave and witty Afghan colleague who I worked with in Pakistan, were killed on a stretch of highway between Jalalabad and Kabul in November 2001. A gang of armed bandits tried to halt a convoy of media vehicles heading for the Afghan capital, and managed to force one car to stop. Harry and Aziz were in that car, along with Maria Grazia Cutuli of Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, and Julio Fuentes of Spain’s El Mundo. They were taken out of the car, led a short distance away, and then shot. I was in Islamabad helping anchor our coverage of the war in Afghanistan that followed the terrible events of September 11 when al Qaeda hijackers used airliners as giant suicide bombs to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Confused reports started to come in that the convoy had been ambushed, but most of the cars had got away. One by one, those cars arrived in Kabul, and we waited for news that the Reuters car was among them. I knew that Harry’s partner Joanne Collins was at work at her desk in the Reuters Jakarta bureau and not yet aware of what was happening, and I called the bureau chief there and asked him to get her out of the office and arrange for somebody to sit with her at home. A little later, we knew that the only car not to have reached Kabul was ours, and the driver of a bus that had travelled the same highway said he had seen four corpses near the road. Over the next few days, I learned about the grim logistics of recovering bodies from remote and dangerous places. I had to find a refrigerated truck so Harry and Aziz would not start to decay during transit, and I had to find coffins; for Aziz, a simple wooden coffin in accordance with Islamic tradition, and for Harry, a Western-style casket, much less easy to find in Islamabad.

While I was doing this, I was also exceptionally busy working shifts of 18 hours and upwards - and on two occasions working 36-hour shifts without sleep from morning right through the night and into the following evening. I remember feeling strangely emotionless about the deaths of Harry and Aziz - Harry in particular as he was a personal friend - and I wondered at the time whether maybe there was something wrong with me because I should be more upset. I only cried once, very briefly, when a very helpful British official at the UK embassy in Islamabad who I had asked for assistance phoned me to say he had a few coffins and to ask how tall Harry was, so we could decide which sized coffin would be best. There was something so jarring in the matter-of-fact discussion of necessary little details about a friend who had died so suddenly and horribly that it got through my defences and I broke down in tears and had to hang up the phone, and then composed myself and rang back. After that I just carried on working, in Islamabad and then onto a dangerous assignment in Kandahar. Everybody praised me afterwards for how well I had kept my head in such difficult circumstances and done such a fine job, and at the time I thought that was something to be proud of. It was only many years later that I suddenly was hit by the full emotional impact of what had happened, as well as shame that my response at the time had been so inadequate. I spent a long time trying to make peace with what happened. Even now I can’t discuss or write about Harry without breaking down. I should add that I consider that to be a normal and healthy reaction and I think it represents progress. 

During my time in Kandahar I got to know Taras Protsyuk, a Ukrainian cameraman brimming with energy and optimism. We rode around Kandahar in a battered old car with Taras wearing a cowboy hat, and joked about how strange it was to not have seen a woman for weeks - women in Kandahar start wearing a burqa in public as soon as they reach puberty. One day our Afghan fixer Najeebullah, a rich young Kandahari who was always seemed to be either grinning or obsessively combing his carefully oiled hair, wanted to take a detour to go and see his girlfriend in the walled compound of a wealthy family just outside Kandahar. Taras and I sat in a courtyard outside, chatting, and we kept seeing sudden flashes of vivid colour and hearing giggles as the women in the compound, wearing richly coloured clothes at home in contrast to the dour blue burqas they put on when they go out, repeatedly peeked out of windows to look at the scruffy foreigners. Taras told me how much he was looking forward to seeing his beautiful wife. A little over a year later, in April 2003, Taras was killed when a US tank fired a shell at a tall building in Baghdad which soldiers believed was a snipers’ nest. They were wrong: the building was the Palestine Hotel where most of the international media was based during the US invasion of Iraq, and the gleams of light the soldiers had seen were from the sun reflecting off camera lenses, not sniper sights. The shell hit the 15th floor balcony of the room used as the Reuters bureau, where Taras was filming. Jose Couso of Spain’s Telecinco was filming from the balcony below, and also died. Three more Reuters colleagues - Samia Nakhoul, Paul Pasquale and Faleh Kheiber, were wounded. Taras left behind his wife, Lidia, and his son, Denis, who was eight when Taras died.

A month after that, I started a two-year assignment in Baghdad, where I was bureau chief for Reuters. Over those two years, working conditions for journalists became almost unbearably extreme. The Reuters bureau was a house on a small side street near the Tigris River in central Baghdad. As an independent media organisation we did not base ourselves within the protective confines of the US Green Zone - we were in what US officials referred to as the “Red Zone”, which basically meant the entire country outside their heavily guarded compound. We were across the river from the Green Zone, which it turned out was not the best place to be during the several lengthy periods when the Mahdi Army, a radical Shi’ite militia which drew wide support from the dispossessed and angry young men in the vast slums in the east and northeast of Baghdad, rose up to fight US forces. The mortars fired daily from the Shi’ite slums towards the Green Zone were not aimed with the most careful precision, and shells that landed short of their intended target would often land with a shattering explosion very close to us. It was in Iraq that I learned about the effects of explosions on the human body; a blast even some distance away would quite literally shake all the bones in your body as you dived under your desk in the office. I saw plenty of people who had been even closer to explosions, of course, and saw what had happened to them. I don’t think I need to say more about that. ​

It was in Iraq that I learned about the effects of explosions on the human body; a blast even some distance away would quite literally shake all the bones in your body as you dived under your desk in the office

As Iraq tumbled deeper into savage violence, doing our jobs and protecting our people became more and difficult. It was not an easy place to be bureau chief for Reuters. I was painfully aware that a bad decision by me could lead to terrible consequences for my colleagues. I woke up every morning as Reuters news teams in Baghdad and all over the country went out in their cars to report the news, and I relaxed a little late each evening when I knew that everyone had come home safe. But of course, sometimes they didn’t come home. Mazen Dana, a Reuters cameraman from Hebron in the West Bank, was shot dead in August 2003 outside the Abu Ghraib prison compound just west of Baghdad. The US soldier who shot him mistook Mazen’s camera for a rocket propelled grenade launcher, an issue that was to lead to several more tragic deaths of journalists for Reuters and other organisations, and continues to haunt cameramen working in combat zones. Mazen left behind his wife, Suzanne, and four young children. I went to see Suzanne a few years later in the West Bank town of Ramallah, and met the children too. Suzanne is a very brave and impressive woman, and her courage left a lasting impression on me. 

Dhia Najim, an Iraqi freelance cameraman working for Reuters, was shot in the head not far from his home in Ramadi in western Iraq in November 2004, almost certainly by a US Marine sniper, as he went to film clashes between insurgents and Marines a few blocks away. I never had the chance to meet Dhia, and that fact has troubled me in the years since he died. 

I left Iraq in the middle of 2005, and became the managing editor for Reuters in the Middle East, a region where, it hardly needs to be said, many of our staff face great danger very often as they go about their work. In August 2005, Waleed Khaled, an Iraqi who worked as a driver for our journalists in Baghdad, was shot and killed by US soldiers on a nearby rooftop as he drove into an area of the capital where insurgents had attacked Iraqi police. The drivers who worked with us in Iraq were probably the bravest of all of us, and Waleed was among the bravest and best loved of the drivers. He was almost exactly the same age as me and had been a major in the Iraqi army. He was a natural leader, a man with real presence and charisma, and when sectarian hatred ripped Iraq apart and threatened to cause dangerous tensions among Shi’ite and Sunni staff in our own bureau, Waleed played the biggest role in helping resolve the situation, thanks to the respect he had earned from everybody and his integrity and good humour. The day before I ended my assignment in Baghdad, our Iraqi drivers threw a surprise party for me in the garden of our Baghdad office, with one of the office cleaners spinning Arabic dance tunes on a DJ deck, and a huge cake with my name spelled in icing sugar on the top. Most Iraqis are enormously hospitable people, and I lost count of the parties our staff arranged for me in the last few days I lived there. All I know is I ate a lot of cake. Waleed took me aside and gave me a gift, a gold chain to wear around my neck with two gold charms attached, one in the shape of Iraq, and one the letter A. The best thing of all about the career I have been so fortunate to have had for the past 17 years is that I have been able to meet and work with and get to know so many people who have enriched my life. When Waleed was killed he left behind his wife Randa and four-year-old daughter Heba. Nine weeks later Randa gave birth to a son. He was named Khaled Waleed, in honour of his father. 

In June 2007, Reuters driver Saeed Chmagh and exceptionally gifted young photographer Namir Noor-Eldeen were talking to a group of men on a street in northeastern Baghdad near an area where Shi’ite insurgents had earlier battled US troops, when suddenly and without warning a US Apache helicopter opened fire on them with a 30 mm calibre machinegun. Their deaths have been seen by millions after WikiLeaks released footage of the attack from an onboard camera in the Apache. Namir was killed very quickly. Saeed somehow survived the initial hail of armour-piercing bullets but was grievously wounded; the video shows him trying to crawl away along the side of the road. A few times, he tried to stand up, but he couldn’t. I’ve seen the photographs of his body in the morgue, among the evidence we looked at in our investigation of the incident, and so I know why he couldn’t stand: one of his legs had been virtually torn off below the knee and was twisted almost backwards and attached only by some ligaments and scraps of flesh. On the video, the crew of the Apache can be heard saying they hoped Saeed would pick up a weapon as he tried to crawl to safety, which would allow them to kill him under their rules of engagement: “Come on, buddy... All you gotta do is pick up a weapon!” But of course, Saeed was unarmed. Reuters staff do not carry weapons. A minivan pulled up nearby, driven by a brave Iraqi trying to save Saeed. The driver’s name was Saleh Matasher Tomal, and in his van were his two young children and some unarmed Iraqi commuters. By picking up Saeed and loading him into the minivan, the people who tried to save him became legitimate targets according to US military rules of engagement. The Apache helicopter opened fire on the van. Saeed was killed, along with the minivan driver and several others. He is survived by his wife and four children. 

In April 2008, Palestinian cameraman Fadel Shana set up his camera and tripod on a rural lane in the Gaza Strip to film Israeli tanks on higher ground about a mile away. A crowd of curious children gathered around him, something that often happens when journalists are filming, everywhere in the world. Soldiers in one of the tanks apparently believed Fadel’s camera and tripod were some sort of weapon. The tank fired an anti-personnel flechette shell. This is a special kind of shell designed specifically to kill a group of people: the shell explodes in the air before reaching the target area and releases a lethal swarm of thousands of metal darts. Fadel’s camera captured the firing of the shell: a flash can be seen in the gun barrel of one of the tanks, and then a few seconds later, everything goes dark. Fadel’s head was almost severed by the flechette darts that rained down on him. Several of the children around him also died. I travelled to Gaza City as soon as I heard the news, joining Alastair Macdonald, Reuters bureau chief for Israel and the Palestinian Territories. We visited the spot where Fadel died; there was still some blood on the road, and flechette shells scattered around. And over the three-day traditional mourning period for Fadel we sat in the funeral tent his family had set up outside their home in the town of Khan Younis, drinking tiny cups of bitter coffee and shaking hands with the hundreds of mourners who filed past us to pay their respects. 

Finally, on March 29 this year [2011], at the same time that I learned that David Fox had been fired as a result of his reply to my chat room comment, I learned that Sabah al-Bazee, a freelance journalist who worked for Reuters and who I had hired during my time as bureau chief, had been killed by shrapnel as he covered an attack by insurgents on a local government building in Tikrit. Sabah was regarded with great affection by those of us who knew him. He was a rather eccentric young man but very committed and brave. His family owned an Iraqi perfume factory and shortly before I left Iraq he gave me a bottle of aftershave they produced. The name of the aftershave, in big letters on the bottle, was “Napoleon Mafia Boss” - I think they had been aiming for a sophisticated brand name and just hadn’t got it quite right. Particularly because of the name, it was a present I treasured. A few days after Sabah died I couldn’t bear having it in my apartment any more and threw it away. And then, of course, a few days after I greatly regretted doing that too. 

That’s all.

Andrew MacGregor Marshall joined Reuters as a graduate trainee in 1994, and was trained by George Short and Andrew Hill. After postings in Dublin, Frankfurt, Jakarta and Bangkok, he became Baghdad bureau chief from 2003 to 2005, and Middle East managing editor from 2006 to 2008. He ended his Reuters career in Singapore, where he was chief correspondent for political risk from 2008 to 2010, and deputy editor-in-charge for emerging and frontier Asia from 2010 until his resignation in June 2011. He wrote this personal note in May 2011, a week before he resigned. He now works as an independent journalist, author and corporate investigator in Asia. ■