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According to ‘Reporters without frontiers’ twenty journalists have died since the beginning of this year in various conflicts around the world

09:00 on the 19th of November, a convoy of eight rough shod vehicles carrying a group of International correspondents covering the Afghan war, left Jalalabad en route towards Kabul. They had been wining and dining the night before in the broken down hotel Spin Ghar, exchanging anecdotes like most of their profession would, prior to embarking on one of the climaxes of their assignments. It was to be a fateful journey that would mark them for the rest of their lives.
Three of the vehicles had overtaken a bus and managed to speed ahead of the rest. Suddenly, a group of armed men appeared from nowhere and stopped the approaching vans. The first was able to accelerate away from the control leaving the other two to the mercy of the highwaymen. They were forced off the road and whilst the drivers fled, the remaining occupants were ordered out of the vehicles. Without warning, they were beaten and shot and left by the wayside.

Maria Grazia Cutuli of the Corrieri della Sera, Australian cameraman Harry Burton, photographer Azizula Haidari and Julio Fuentes, the Spanish reporter from the El Mundo were lying in a pool of blood in the middle of nowhere. It was Spain’s first correspondent casualty in the ‘War against terrorism’.

War correspondents are a special breed of journalists second to none. A combination of inbuilt intuition, writing skills and courage coupled with a constant urge to divulge information on whatever conflict is the flavour-of-the-day; they are a unique ‘group of anointed people’. From quilt pens to typewriters, from telegraphic access to modern day mobile phones and videoconferencing they have, throughout the ages, managed to open the eyes of the complacent public to the everyday horror of man’s inhumanity to man. They maintain a special camaraderie and bond, and seem to be a cut above the rest of the media world that is in constant competition for the first and best headline of the daily news. They are also mad!

‘Did you ever eat fish heads and rice, or try to keep warm in a C54 at 15000 feet, 20 degrees below zero? Did you ever get shot at, run over or sandbagged at night because somebody got unfavourable publicity from your camera? Try and find a raincoat in Brazil even when it isn’t raining! And… sometimes, the food you eat is made from things you couldn’t even look at when they’re alive!’ was James Stewart’s answer to Grace Kelly in the film classic ‘Rear Window’. Apart from being confined to a wheelchair and uncovering a murder, his character, war photographer L.B. Jeffries, couldn’t wait to get back to the front line.

But there are other war correspondents that went on to fame and immortality. Rudyard Kipling, the famous novelist and Nobel Prize winner, who wrote umpteen eternal classics, was a journalist in India for seven years. Sir Winston Churchill started his correspondent career in Cuba at the end of the nineteenth century, ironically reporting for the Daily Graphic on the Cuban/Spanish war. He continued his writing exploits on the northwest frontier in India as well as part of Kitchner’s expeditionary force up the Nile not to forget his brilliant coverage for the Morning Post of the Boer war in South Africa. We all know about his later achievements!

But today’s world is different. Regardless of heroics, war continues to claim the lives of those who try to keep us informed. According to ‘Reporters without frontiers’ twenty journalists have died since the beginning of this year in various conflicts around the world. From the Philippines to Paraguay, from Algeria to Northern Ireland, a cameraman, photographer or writer has been caught in the crossfire of the warring factions. Despite precautions such as bulletproof vests and guarded escorts, somewhere, someone will continue to meet a bullet or a bomb with his name on it. Why do they do it? Why do they continue to risk their lives in lieu of a plush office job in the newspaper’s headquarters?

Julio Fuentes’s colleagues may have the answer.
‘We’re not heroes or war punks! We’re not crazy. We hate war because we know it. We believe that with our work we could even end it’, said Gervasio Sanchez, co-author of the book ‘The eyes of war’ and a close friend of Julio. ‘War is invisible until it’s made cruelly visible by a tribe of correspondents’, added Manuel Leguineche, another Spanish expert on the Afghanistan conflict. ‘The journalist is always an uncomfortable witness,’ he concluded.

Despite the tragedies, the civilised world recognises the importance of war correspondents. Spain is no exemption. Still plagued by terrorism in the Basque country, it pays special tribute to those who fight and die with the pen. Julio’s body, together with those of his dead colleagues were taken by road from Jalalabad to Islamabad, Pakistan. From there his and that of Italian correspondent Maria Grazia Cutuli were flown to Rome in an Italian air force plane. His wife Monica, another journalist and the Director of El Mundo were with him on his return to Madrid, Spain.

Back home, he was received by a multitude of dignitaries ranging from the Spanish media to members of the government. His casket was taken from the craft and carried among others, by his own father. Minister Pio Cabanillas, said at the press conference: ‘He died for a value that is key to our democracy. That of the freedom of expression.’ A strange fate awaited Julio on his return as a dead hero. He was posthumously awarded the 2001 Godo Prize for Journalism. The jury’s verdict was simple: ‘In our view, Julio Fuentes has represented, in his professional career and the circumstances of his death, the efforts and sacrifices needed to serve his readers.’

International reporting as a whole is being transformed. Ever since the 11th of September, the American public in particular has recognised the need to be better informed about world events. An embryonic organisation known as ‘The Centre for War, Peace, and the News Media’ has appeared on the Internet. Their objective is a program that will work within the journalism profession to promote the rethinking of international coverage in the post-Cold War era. Their message is straight to the point: ‘Citizens are often left uniformed about forces impacting their lives, not ready to follow or contribute to national debates about fundamental international issues and ill-prepared to deal with the consequences when the world impinges on their lives, as it did on September 11th.’ Their ultimate aim sums it up: ‘A coordinated program to work with journalists interested in addressing the problems presented by a world increasingly characterized by cross-border flows of capital, people, information, ideas – and terror.’
Julio’s ultimate sacrifice may not have been in vane after all.

© James Skinner. 2001

Previously from James : Assault in Spain

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