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April 16, 2014

Journalists in combat zones ‘write with light’ while risking their lives

Writer’s note: I am a journalist in academia, a woman who has traveled among many cultures. I live outside the box and I like it — and I want to share my perspective with you every Thursday.

I first heard the news on National Public Radio on my car radio.

On April 4, the day before elections in Afghanistan, an Afghan military officer walked up to a car in a convoy and opened fire. Anja Niedringhaus, a staff photographer for The Associated Press, died instantly. She was 48. Her colleague, Kathy Gannon, sustained multiple injuries and lived.

That weekend, I was attending a journalism conference at Boston University. On Saturday morning, the conference opened with a remembrance and a moment of silence for the veteran photojournalist.

Anja was a colleague. We’d both been staff photographers for The Associated Press. We had both covered conflict. I knew her work; I didn’t know her.

In the days that followed, I felt a sense of sadness I couldn’t shake. I walked along the ocean shore, sat and stared at the small, breaking waves, hoping the salt air and the soothing sound of the surf would wash over me and through me.

The sadness is cumulative and elusive. It’s been with me for decades, long before I noticed it, probably since my first war. It goes into hibernation and awakens every few years, usually on the cusp of spring.

On April 20, 2011, I was in Fairbanks, Alaska, when I noticed the status updates on Facebook. Getty photographer Chris Hondros, a friend and colleague, had been mortally wounded in Misrata, Libya. He was 41. Chris had been covering the uprising in Egypt and opted for one more assignment before returning home to the U.S. In the New York cathedral where they had planned to wed in August, his fiancée gave his eulogy.

I was eating breakfast in Oregon one morning in March 1994, when I read a brief in the small section on world events in our local paper: an Italian journalist was killed in Mogadishu. I contacted a mutual friend, an Italian journalist I’d met in Somalia and worked with in Mozambique. He sent a fax and confirmed the worst.

Their Somali guards had abandoned Ilaria Alpi and her Slovenian cameraman Miran Hrovatin. They were stranded in their vehicle when gunmen ambushed them and opened fire.

“They killed her like a dog. She had just the time to raise her hands to her face.”

Ilaria, a television reporter for RAI-3, murdered. She was 32.

The last time I’d seen Ilaria, we’d sat on the roof of a dilapidated building that served as a hotel for journalists in Mogadishu. We’d talked and laughed, listening to the gunfire in the streets, watching the tracer fire in the night sky. We’d shared stories of being women journalists and agreed to meet in the summer and share a bottle of wine on the balcony of her Rome apartment.

Once, in Somalia, I was traveling in a car behind a truck loaded with grapefruit. A Somali woman wrapped in a flowing, rich yellow fabric walked past the truck. From the back seat of the car, I stuck my camera with a long lens out the window. I liked the repetition of the yellow, something light and bright in a dark place.

Brakes screeched. Three Somali gunmen bounded from the truck and began screaming and shoving their AK-47s through the windows at me.

I didn’t have the language to explain that I hadn’t seen them, that I was photographing the fruit.

“Maya, Maya,” I said in Somali as they gestured that they would shoot. “No, no.”

I smiled, put up my hands and kept talking in English.

They didn’t shoot. I was lucky.

There but for the grace of God.

The thought flickers across my mind when I read stories of journalists, friends and colleagues killed covering conflict.

Liberia. Iraq. Somalia. Eritrea. Afghanistan. I got out alive.

Yes, journalists assume risks when they work in conflict zones. Injury. Disease.

Now assassination is a risk. Shoot the messenger.

It’s uncertain and under investigation whether the April 4 shooting was a random act of violence or a targeted killing. Both women were well known in Afghanistan for their years of reporting in the region.

Nearly 20 years to the day of Ilaria’s death, the Italian government is considering declassifying secret files related to the journalists’ deaths. It’s been suspected that the journalists were killed to prevent them from revealing a high-level conspiracy to divert Italian aid to an organization trafficking in weapons and toxic waste, according to reports in the Italian press last month.

The Committee to Protect Journalists posts a tally of the number of journalists killed each year. This year, 17 journalists have been killed as of April 14. In 2011, 47 journalists, including Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington, were killed. In 1994, 66 journalists, including Ilaria and Mirvan, were killed.

In his remembrance of Anja, AP Director of Photography Santiago Lyon called her “a lighthouse guiding us to safety.”

I have always liked that photography comes from the Greek for “writing with light.” I think of all journalists — and particularly those who work in conflict zones — as writing with light. Bearing witness. Shining a light into dark places. Revealing the truth.

Last Saturday, I was driving back from a pie run to Westfield, N.Y. It was a sunny, warm day. I was thinking about this column. Remembering Anja, Chris and Ilaria.

The CD deck switched to a Mavis Staples’ CD, “We’ll Never Turn Back.”

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

I rolled down my window and turned up the sound. I sang along with the phrases that resonated. For my friends who’ve died. For the journalists who continue to shine their light.

The road is dark. The way was long.

Don’t give up. Don’t back down. Don’t let the liar turn you ’round.

All in the streets, I’m gonna let it shine. On the battlefield, I’m going to let it shine.

When it shines, freedom shines.

When it shines, no more sorrow.

When it shines, no more pain.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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