LIVING IN THE DANGER ZONE
From 1991-1994 I was a reporter in Russia, as the Soviet Empire ripped apart; living mostly as a (well off) Russian, and immersed in a very foreign culture. The day I arrived, Chechnya declared independence- within 2 months the Soviet Union would collapse into 14 Republics, the Cold War would officially end, the Communist Party would be banned, Gorbachev would be tossed out of the Kremlin by Yeltsin on Christmas Day, prices would go up 4 fold in 2 weeks, 26 fold by the end of 1992, and I would be kidnapped at gunpoint by Mafiya goons in St. Petersburg, driven in the woods, and stripped of everything but my life… and that was… negotiable. The leader was a dead ringer for German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer (Out of Africa)- one trusts movie stars, and every Russian wanted to drag you home to food, drink, and family- Americans were near royalty in the euphoria over their sudden freedom.
One of thousands of Moscow assassinations
After that, I went incognito, dressed in a ratty coat, didn’t speak English or admit I was American, and claimed to be Polish or Baltic if pressed. Security was dominant- and safety lay in anonymity. Until Iraq, the former Soviet Union was the most dangerous place in the world for journalists- contract murders and attacks by beatings, ax, or acid… were common by Mafiya, businessmen, or government people enraged at reporters' stories. Radio Free Europe counted 120 dead journalists from 1992-2001. In Ukraine a once reformist President was allegedly taped plotting the murder of a critical reporter- whose headless corpse was discovered months later. No one is ever caught or punished. My semi-professional video camera, worth a lifetime's income to Russians who then made $8 a month, didn’t come out much in public after that.
They had my notebook with itemized video gear, addresses and phone numbers, 7 good picture ID’s, and a map showing my apartment. A week later, a skinhead thug followed me and my girlfriend home on the last subway, and like something straight out of The Hitcher, hopped into our cab after we thought we’d given him the slip. We waited 2 minutes on the brightly lit curb as the cab pulled up 100 ft, idled, then finally roared off in a U-turn. He knew which street I lived on and my world got smaller and colder.
Moscow subway Chechen bombing victim at Pushkin
The overt approach, in Iraq: traveling in bulletproof SUV’s, armed convoys, chase cars, machine gun toting security guards.. shared the same failing as the covert- it was completely isolating. Whether being low-key or traveling in battle formation, one couldn’t question the people as a reporter. Like courageous poor Jill Carroll, I chose the covert approach- I could observe, occasionally question people, and be relatively safe. But there were constant trade-off’s. I couldn’t buy furniture, or a color TV ($3 for new 27"), or a stereo, or even a mirror; because I didn’t want taxi drivers to see where I lived, lest they tell the wrong people. Assassinations always happened at the entrance to apartments. Getting into the 85% private vehicle “cabs” was now difficult, especially late at night.
Russian road rage
After I’d almost gone like a sheep to slaughter, I resolved to fight, no matter what- and successfully resisted Georgian muggers when midnight strolling on Moscow’s Ring Road in July, and street punks in Irkutsk who demanded money. Fight or flight was a difficult decision. A Russian high-strung magazine financial manager carried a gun in his briefcase, though I thought he'd hurt himself first. Guns were so common, they’d be checked at the fancy nightclubs along the coat racks like umbrellas. In the '93 Gang War, bombings and shootings happened regularly by Pushkin Sq., where I wrote for 2 papers.
2 years later, strolling home the Ľ mile from the subway in a secluded residential area, a BMW slowed down by me, then went on. 100 feet from my apartment door at 1am, 4 huge guys appeared on an intersecting course, this was it- I’d dreamed of this in nightmares… but one of them didn’t want to do it, and I speed-walked to the entrance, sprinted to the 4th floor, took the elevator to 8, and sent it down to 6. Within 30 seconds, they camped on my landing, loudly chatting- with the first crash of the splintering door, I hoped to swing down off my balcony onto my downstairs neighbor’s. By then I’d criticized the Mafiya gangs (scrl rt.), the Communist Parliament, Yeltsin’s crushing of other powers, and the rampant corruption in articles in 5 Moscow English newspapers. It didn’t happen- maybe it was a message, but in Russia, the threat was a constant low grade fever, erupting into serious danger maybe 10 times. Forbes editor Paul Klebnikov, machine gunned leaving work in 2004, was the brother of an editor of mine.
TV host + CEO Vladimir Listyev- Russia's Ted Koppel + Johnny Carson
Freelancers like Jill Carroll have to be twice as good, yet get a fifth the money and respect of staff reporters, who often huddle in the Green Zone and repeat official pronouncements. Suffering from the lack of power, water, food, health, finances, and security- freelancers are unable to afford bulletproof cars or security guards. Says CSM Iraq contributor Christina Asquith, "Baghdad on a budget brings only trouble, as the majority of Western reporters kidnapped or killed in Iraq have been freelance... In early 2004, I considered hiring two armed guards to proved round-the-clock protection for the house I shared in Baghdad. The lowest amount we were quoted was a prohibitive $30,000 a month.. Like most newspapers, The Monitor paid a set amount per story, plus the cost of a translator and driver. Adding security would have more than treble the costs. I feared the editors might reject my story as too expensive. So I never asked for it; they never offered." Carroll speaks Arabic, something I doubt 90% of official staff correspondents there do, and knows the country well enough to make people taste it and feel it. Such excellence often isn’t appreciated by editors who want reporters to write in the dry football game style of US media- who’s up; who’s down- just give me the score without the shades of grey. But in a complex roiling place like Iraq or Russia, that’s foolish, and wasteful of her talents and sacrifice.
-35 weather in Russia now
In Russia, it’s deeply painful to see every press venue crushed by Putin, even the most powerful billionaires. Without a free and vibrant press, democracy doesn’t work- something to think about when one wonders why it took the press 4 years to notice the mounting Administration and Republican scandals. Besides deadly threats, 7 month winters with –10F every second day and 4 hours of daylight, lack of Western movies or TV, 5 weeks of bronchitis-pneumonia, abusive clerks (pan right) and officials; I suffered giarrdia for 2 years- the water was endemically contaminated and I didn’t realize my chemical treatments weren’t effective- treating it with drugs just meant the bugs would develop resistance.
Journalist Danny Pearl
61 reporters have been killed in Iraq, according to Committee to Protect Journalists, 77 including assistants says Reporters Sans Frontiers (CNN's Jordon counts 102*), almost as many as the entire Vietnam War (66) or World War II (68) in a much smaller area in less than 3 years. The anarchic terrorists have targeted journalists directly, although once they’re gone nobody will care what the insurgents do- terrorism requires media- and the exposure of the violence is turning Americans against the War. If they’d succeeded with that 3 truck bomb attack on the central Baghdad reporter hotel, almost all media would have fled. Carroll’s nightmare is made more heartbreaking by her youth, beauty, and obvious sensitivity. "A gentle unicorn, bringing good to an evil place," an editor calls her along with the other 3 women aid workers murdered. I forced myself to watch those hideous beheading videos, because I almost toured the area for 6-12 months, and thought I had to see what these terrorists could do. Murder is the leading cause of death among journalists in 2005.
Journalism is so savagely competitive that sometimes the best way to get a job is to go the most remote extreme place where something huge is happening… and create one. Some do it for adventure, some do it for ambition- but most do it because of a obsessive passion to see what is happening, and a burning need to tell people about it. It is a calling and an honor. So the next time you scorn the overpaid coifed beauty or suit on TV, remember that for every one of those, there’s an host of producers, writers, assistants, and freelancers who get little money, glory, or recognition for putting their lives on the line…. just to tell you about it over your coffee and Danish. As the late great David Brinkley said, “Any military action is ultimately done in the name of the American people, how are they supposed to be know what they’re supporting if we don’t tell them?Jill Carroll - Christian Science Monitor
So say a prayer for Jill, and thank your
lucky stars she's there providing an
honest clear eyed view, when everyone else
has a spin and an agenda, that brutalizes
P.S. US officials released a number of Iraq woman held, apparently as hostages to cause insurgents to surrender, a terrible precedent that will lead to even more journalist kidnappings. A sobbing Jill Carroll was shown again in a soundless video Jan 30th and a second dead-line passed in February.
*Eason Jordon rightly claims Journos killed by disease and accidents, and vital assistant/reporters, like Carroll's translator aren't counted by CJP.
Michael Hammerschlag’s commentaries + articles have appeared in Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Honolulu Advertiser, Columbia Journalism Review, Media Channel, and Capital Times. He reported from Russia for 2 1/2 years from Murmansk to Kiev to Lake Baikal, wrote for Moscow News, Tribune, Guardian, Times, and We/Mui; did radio reports for several stations, and questioned almost everyone in the Russian government. His web page is http://HAMMERNEWS.com , mail: email@example.com