Four or five years ago, long before it occurred to me to visit a war zone, I heard Anderson Cooper give some career advice. He had just finished a talk in which he had described how, after graduating from Yale with no particular thoughts on what to do next, he got a camcorder and went to Somalia. As often occurs at these kinds of talks, a journalism student asked what he’d recommend for those just starting out (and presumably hoping to end up like Anderson Cooper). But Cooper did not endorse his own particular path. “The world’s battlefields,” I remember him saying, “are littered with the bodies of freelancers who tried to make it.”
This includes informal battlefields such as those in Pakistan, which is in the grip of a virulent insurgency along the Afghan border, and which, as Salman Masood detailed in The New York Times on Monday, is one of the most dangerous places in the world to do journalism.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, so far in 2013 Pakistan has been the country with the third-highest number of journalists killed, after Syria and Egypt—and well ahead of “formal” war zones like Afghanistan, that attract foreign journalists in large numbers. By CPJ’s count, between five and seven journalists were killed in Pakistan in 2013. All of them were local, rather than foreign, journalists. In fact, these kinds of local correspondents, who happened to be there when the fighting started and kept doing their jobs where they lived, made up 89 percent, or 39 of 44, of all journalists killed worldwide so far in 2013, according to CPJ’s data. They did not leave comfortable lives in the West to record someone else’s tragedies; they wrote about, filmed, and photographed their own.
CPJ’s count doesn’t include my friend, the freelance reporter and translator Arif Shafi, who was killed in a suicide bombing in late April this year. Arif’s hometown of Peshawar, where he was killed, was significantly more dangerous than Kabul, Afghanistan, where I met him in summer 2011. He worked as a translator for a local news organization where I worked as an English editor. It was my good fortune that my desk happened to be across from his.
Arif, I was to learn, chafed at translating other people’s writing and longed to do his own, as he had done for various Pakistani outlets before coming to Kabul with the promise of a more steady income from the international donor-backed organization where we worked together. He hoped to be able to find a reasonably paid journalism gig closer to home so that he could support his wife, son, and two daughters without having to be apart from them.
And it was there at home, having worked as a freelancer for several months but having just secured full-time work back in Kabul, that he was killed by a suicide bomber, a blast that also killed nine others. He wasn’t on assignment at the time; he had stopped to buy a newspaper on his way to work. His death in particular, amid one of the double-digit death tolls that have become common in Peshawar, did not make the major papers. As Masood writes, given how dangerous certain areas of Pakistan are for reporters and everyone else, “the death of a reporter sometimes barely makes the news.”
So Arif was a freelancer who tried to make it, albeit in the modest sense of earning enough, through a job he liked and was good at, to keep his family fed. Arif had not chosen a vocation called “war correspondent,” and he hadn’t sought out violence to bear witness to. Indeed, his decision this year to return to Kabul wrenched him. But a grim truth of the higher media profile Afghanistan has earned through its war is that there are now better job opportunities for reporters there.
Arif was the only one I knew personally among the Pakistani journalists killed this year, but it seems likely that the other local reporters killed there similarly were not covering war, so much as their homes, where conflict had become one persistent feature.
And just as they didn’t necessarily choose to go where the action was, they also didn’t necessarily get to choose whether or not to stay depending on the risk, which is another comparative luxury enjoyed by foreign war correspondents. As Judith Matloff noted in the Times Book Review this weekend, foreign correspondents engage in “a collective process involving editors and those on the ground” in evaluating the risks of getting a good war story. Matloff was writing about the work of Marie Colvin, an American journalist who accepted the risk—“‘Covering a war means going into places torn by chaos, destruction, death and pain, and trying to bear witness to that,’” Matloff quotes her as writing—and lost her life in Syria last year.
Of course, what drives foreign correspondents to war zones is often more complex than a compulsion to bear witness; particularly for freelancers, it can involve the same kinds of financial pressures Arif would have recognized. As the Italian journalist Francesca Borri memorably described in CJR this summer: “The truth is that the only job opportunity I have today is staying in Syria, where nobody else wants to stay.” And she also recognized longer-term economic motives at work for Western freelancers trying to make it in a war zone: “Really we are here just to get an award, to gain visibility.”
And sometimes, as Cooper and Borri can attest and Colvin no longer can, it works. But Arif’s journalistic motivations, revealed through our two-year correspondence, were more quotidian than that, even if vanity played its inevitable role. Really he was a curious person and a good writer who liked talking to people—the same qualities that motivate local journalists everywhere. I’m glad, in a way, that he lived amid violence just because that’s where his home was, and not to gain visibility. Because in the end, he didn’t get any.