SEPARATING FACTS FROM FICTION IN CONFLICT REPORTING
Dr. Kurt Pelda
When I reported from the mountains of Afghanistan or the bush war in Angola in the 1980s it could take weeks and in some cases even months for my articles and TV films to be published. News, at least from such remote or exotic places, was much slower than today because there was no affordable satellite communication and no internet.
This, of course, has changed dramatically. But at the same time it has become much easier for states and non-state actors alike to monitor journalists and impede their travel. Today, it is a matter of minutes for a customs official or a militia commander to check a journalist’s name on Google. This makes it more difficult for reporters to travel under the camouflage of tourists or business people to countries with conflict zones. One thing has not changed though: Most conflict parties want to prevent inconvenient facts from coming out. In the mid-eighties the Soviet ambassador to Pakistan told journalists that they would be killed if they travelled illegally to Afghanistan to report about the struggle of the rebels against the Soviet invaders. I went there anyway but I was warned.
What we hear today from the regime in Syria and its allies, Russia included, is not much different. Journalists were a target then and they continue to be a target today. In addition, when I travelled with Afghan rebels in the 1980s, kidnappings of journalists for ransom or even grisly executions of reporters were practically unheard of.
In places like Syria the risk of being kidnapped by Islamist extremists or simple criminals has become much bigger than the danger of being killed or wounded by air raids or in the fighting.
So if someone wants to report accurately from a war zone, he first needs to face all these challenges because only a journalist who is free and alive can bring the story out. Doing research in a war zone is much like going after facts in Europe or America were it not for the hazards mentioned such as the risk of being kidnapped. Getting from A to B can be a challenge in a war zone because there might be a frontline in between and then there usually are cultural differences as well. In the Middle East or in Africa it is, for instance, pretty useless to interview people on the phone or via Skype unless you really know them well. You have to meet face-to-face because in those countries people do not discuss important topics on the phone or online. When talking to an old man, a high-ranking officer, tribal leader or rebel commander, you do not start the interview by asking personal questions. Pressing for answers regarding military secrets or human rights abuses committed by the interviewee’s fighters could arouse suspicions that you are a spy. And this can become really dangerous.
First, you have to show your respect by drinking tea and exchanging courtesies for quite a while. A good reporter is patient in a situation like this. Do not refuse an offer to eat with the interviewee, even if the food contains meat and you are a vegetarian. This could be considered very rude. Explain what you are doing in the conflict zone and why your work might be important for your interview partner and his organisation. Do not ask obvious or stupid questions. Asking a prominent warlord basic questions such as how he spells his name or what his exact age is could be disrespectful as you are supposed to know the answer already. If you do not, you ask one of his subordinates later, thereby hiding your own ignorance and not losing face in front of the ‘big man’. In order to survive and to get the information you need, you have to win the sympathies and respect of the people that accompany and protect you. That means that you even might have to lie when it comes to personal questions asked by the locals. Admitting that you are gay, Jewish or atheist, for instance, can get you in serious trouble in some parts of the Middle East or Africa.
All of this sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how many Western journalists I met in war zones that actually did ask stupid questions or gave away personal details that could endanger them. It helps a lot if you have done your homework and know a little about the interviewees, the region where they live, their organisation, the military situation and so on. You should not only fake respect when meeting a potential war criminal but also get his respect by showing him that you already know a few things. I recently interviewed a very powerful Islamist warlord in the Libyan capital Tripoli who rarely speaks to Western journalists. After I waited a long time for him and showed my respect by talking around the bush while drinking tea – without mentioning his past as a drug dealer and petty criminal – I started asking him questions about the Islamic State (IS) in Libya. As I had done a lot of research and had spoken to quite a few other interesting Libyans about the topic, I could ask precise questions about the recruitment and supply routes of the terrorists.
The warlord, a bitter enemy of those extremists, then started to give me a lot of valuable details about the organisation and modus operandi of the Libyan branch of the IS. Later on I heard from one of his subordinates that the man was surprised. He apparently said that
he had never before met a journalist with so much previous knowledge about Libya. If I need his assistance in the future, he will remember me.
Subordinates of warlords or top military chiefs can often be a better source of information than the interviewee himself. They often do not know about how certain questions are sensitive. Once in the Kurdish part of Syria I was interviewing a high-ranking officer of the Kurdish militia fighting the IS. During the filming of the interview, one of the subordinates said that the officer had received years of military training ‘in the mountains’ of neighbouring Iraq by the Turkish-Kurdish workers’ party PKK. The PKK is considered a terrorist organisation by the US and most European governments, so the commanders became furious that his subordinate had given away information that he had intended to keep secret. The poor guy who had spilled the beans later begged me not to include his statement in my report. As it did not fit my story anyway, I left it out and sent him a copy of the broadcast to prove that I kept my promise. This way I found a friend in Syria who will go a long way to help me on future assignments. Still, the information proved valuable as it strengthened my personal conviction that the Kurdish militia under the banner of the Syrian PYD party is simply a branch of the PKK. I am including this here to show that to be successful and safe at the same time, you need a network of friends and sources that cannot only give you information about important developments but also warn you about impending dangers. One of the most important factors is therefore building trust. It is a long-term investment in a region where you want to build a network of friends and sources. They are not only indispensable during a trip to a conflict zone but also very useful for gathering or verifying information when you are far away in your home country. All parties to a conflict disseminate propaganda and, of course, they try to misuse journalists for their needs. They might show you only what helps their propaganda and hide the rest from you. The risk of being misled is especially big when you are ‘embedded’ with a highly organised and centralised force, be it a regular army or a rebel group. If you are depending on one group only for your travel needs, interview partners and so on, you might be manipulated into believing false information. Interview partners might have been coached. Assume, for instance, an armed group or army unit brings you to a destroyed village that they just conquered recently. The fighters allow you to interview a family that claims to have lived here before the population was massacred and points to the destruction of the houses. They also say that the killers were terrorists and that they feel safe with the fighters that you are travelling with. What may strike you as odd is that the statements of all the family members sound very similar, especially when it comes to praising the fighters you are ‘embedded’ with. Then your war experience might be telling you that the damage in the village stems from air raids and the ‘terrorists’, the armed groups accused by the ‘witnesses’, do not have an air force. Simple questions testing the interviewees’ local knowledge like who used to be the priest or imam or where did you buy your groceries, or questions about the history of the village can help you to decide that the witnesses are in fact plants trying to fool you. They might have been brought to the village from far away with the only purpose of blaming the massacre on the other side, the enemy, the terrorists or whatever they are called.
Sometimes you do not know the area yourself and it is hard for you to verify answers about the geography or topography of the place. Ask those questions anyway and try to find the right answers later on. Compare them with what you heard from the witnesses. Geolocating the places mentioned in the interviews combined with a close look at satellite pictures and testimonies of independent persons with knowledge of the area can help you to debunk fake interview partners or misleading answers. Once, in the Western crisis region of Darfur in Sudan I was taken to a group of African rebels to a hill that had been used before as a military camp of a militia or the army. Some trenches, spent cartridges and food tins as well as Arabic writings on some rocks pointed to a former military presence on the hilltop. People in neighbouring villages told me that government militia took villagers away and brought them to the encampment. There, they were interrogated, tortured and many were killed and buried. The rebels showed me a few alleged mass graves. To be sure about the content we should have opened the graves and checked on the bodies. There was no time for this but I took the GPS position of the place and after coming home I had a close look at satellite pictures of that hilltop. I could immediately spot the suspected mass graves; they were actually much bigger compared to what I had seen on the ground.
Because all sides of the conflict want to feed journalists with their own propaganda, the most important factor remains the visual inspection, the appearance. If you have experience from several war zones, it might become difficult to fool you. One has to be very careful about alleged massacres unless you have had a look with your own eyes at the crime scenes and unless you have spoken to several witnesses independent of each other. One should be especially careful if the only evidence presented is photos or videos of the atrocities on a smartphone. Even if the pictures are genuine, they might be old or from a different place than alleged. For example, photos purported to show the destruction caused by Israeli fighter jets in the Gaza strip turned out to be instead from Aleppo in Syria. Once I spent a lot of money for a promising story about defectors from the IS. I travelled to Şanlıurfa, a Turkish town near the Syrian border. There I met a middleman who said that he made a business smuggling the defectors out of Syria. I could speak and film several women and men whose statements seemed genuine and made sense. But then I asked the middleman for physical evidence, pictures proving that the interviewees had been members of the Islamic State. He gave me a few photos that I found suspicious immediately. Some showed women in black niqabs with Kalashnikovs. They were wearing headbands with writings in Arabic. The eyes on the photos did not match those of the veiled women I had interviewed. Although the photo quality was too poor to decipher the writing on the headbands, their design reminded me of those in use with the Palestinian Hamas. When I did a Google reverse search I could find most of the photos on sites not related to Syria or the IS. They were used before in a different context and the middleman had just downloaded them from the internet. It might have been that only the photos were fake and not the defectors themselves. Nonetheless, I never used their statements or the video footage. I should have asked for physical evidence before making the trip.
How disastrous it can be to rely on witness statements only without any visual inspection of the site in question is shown by the experience of a German daily newspaper. In 2012, a big massacre of civilians occurred in the central Syrian region of al-Houla. Although UN investigators quickly blamed the army and government militia for the killing of more than 100 civilians, the correspondent of the newspaper told a completely different story. Based on some ‘witnesses’ that he interviewed in regime-held areas, he claimed that it was in fact the rebels who had committed the crime. When I first read his account I stumbled over one sentence. First, the reporter quoted an AP story (Associated Press) in which a witness said that the perpetrators had their heads shaved bald and were wearing long beards. He then concluded: ‘This is how fanatic jihadists look like and not the government militia.’ Had he checked the Facebook profiles of a few of those militiamen he would have known that these people like to wear long beards and shave their heads bald. His ignorance concerning this detail made me doubt the whole story. His badly researched account was later debunked by a German news magazine whose correspondent had made the effort and travelled with the rebels to al-Houla to get a personal impression and witness statements. The UN also published the report of its commission of inquiry into the massacre. It said: ‘The commission found that Government forces and militia were responsible for the killings in al-Houla’.
Occasionally I met other Western journalists in war zones who refused to travel in cars with fighters bearing arms. It may be that such a refusal might make sense under certain circumstances, but in general dyed-in-the-wool pacifists should not go to war zones. War reporting has a lot to do with weaponry. For your own safety and for the sake of the quality of your stories you should have at least some basic knowledge of infantry weapons, tanks and airplanes generally used in today’s conflicts. These are usually older equipment and they can all be found on Wikipedia. A journalist who cannot distinguish a US-made M 16 assault rifle from a Soviet-era AK-47 or an American F-16 fighter jet from a Russian Sukhoi Su-25 should probably not report from a zone of conflict. First, you need to know the impact of the weapons used in the area you are covering. This helps you to decide which kind of cover is sufficient and which is not. A car or a brick wall usually do not protect you against infantry weapons. A house protects you against tank shells if you choose the right side of the building but it might not help against mortar fire because mortar bombs travel high into the sky before falling down on you. Basic knowledge of weaponry also helps you to avoid making grave journalistic mistakes. For instance, since the Russian intervention in Syria lots of reports have emerged blaming Russian pilots for the bombing of hospitals and other war crimes. Now, both the Russian and the Syrian air force use old Soviet-era attack aircraft such as the Sukhoi Su-24. Witnessing an air raid by such a plane does not help you to decide whether it was Russian or Syrian because the jets usually fly much too high. It is therefore not possible to identify the insignia on the wings. To be sure about a Russian air raid means that you need to be able to distinguish between different types of airplanes like the Su-25 or Su-34 which are in use with the Russian air force but not with the Syrian.
War reporters should not only have some knowledge about arms and military tactics but also about the kind of wounds inflicted by different weapons. This helps to avoid drawing wrong conclusions regarding who might have been responsible for the deaths of civilians, prisoners of war or victims of massacres. The terror attack of the IS on the Bataclan theatre in Paris of November 2015 is a sad but enlightening example. There, it was not journalists but police not used to seeing battle injuries who were jumping to conclusions. They had seen bodies of victims without eyes and limbs and they believed that the terrorists had chopped off heads and gauged out eyes. This in turn lead some media and right-wing outlets to speculate about torture and other atrocities committed at Bataclan as if the terror attack was not cruel enough already. The details were included in more than 900 pages of an official investigation report, and it was one police officer who claimed that there had been torture at the Bataclan. The British Mail Online concluded, for instance:
‘French government “suppressed gruesome torture” of Bataclan victims as official inquiry is told some were castrated and had their eyes gouged out by the ISIS killers.’ Islamophobes used such reports to agitate indiscriminately against Muslims. Journalists who had read the whole report would have known better though. For instance, it later turned out that the police had not found a single knife or other sharp object suitable for chopping off heads or limbs of human beings. The police officer in question did not see the corpses himself but was told about them by another officer. But that witness might have seen impacts of shots fired by AK-47s from a short distance. A shot fired to the head can rip out an eye, leaving a gaping wound. A suicide vest can tear off limbs. But such wounds look much different than when limbs are chopped off with a knife. To gain some experience with wounds caused by fighting or during massacres I recommend that journalists have a closer look at corpses on the battlefield and to visit hospitals in war zones. This is, of course, gruesome but it helps you do a better job. Ask doctors and medics in those hospitals about what kind of weapons cause which kind of wounds. Having a look at the dead and wounded will remind you each and every time that war is a terrible massacre even if it is called ‘war against terror’ and when modern precision weapons are used. The ‘collateral damage’ of those so-called smart bombs, the disfigured civilians who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time do not look much different from the victims of suicide attacks. Both of them were definitely innocents. In the end, visual inspection and appearance is the most important tool of a war reporter. Coupled with knowledge and experience it will help you to distinguish facts from fiction and propaganda.
About the author:
Kurt Pelda reports since more than 30 years from war zones all over the world. He travelled to conflict zones from Afghanistan, via Liberia, Somalia and Congo through to Darfur, Libya, Syria and Iraq. He worked for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (2002 – 2010) and the Financial Times in New York (1999 – 2001). Pelda received his PhD from the University of Basel in 1998.