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What it's like to be a war reporter from ABC

Ever wondered what its like to be a war reporter on the frontline?

For Time Magazine correspondent Michael Ware, searching for the truth in Afghanistan has been a risky business.

This week, Michael reveals all about the difficulties in reporting from Afghanistan, dodging bullets as well as dodging the control of the U.S. military.

The Media Report: 9 January 2003 - Life on the frontline

[This is the print version of story]

Mick O'Regan: Hello, and welcome to The Media Report.

For much of the last year, news reporting became war reporting. The fighting occurred in remote places, like the barren terrain of Afghanistan, where local anti-Taliban forces, financed and directed by American troops laid siege to the mountain strongholds of their former rulers.

News of the fighting was tightly controlled, indeed many in the news media, both here and overseas criticised the lack of access that was provided to front line troops. But some people simply won't take No for an answer.

This week on The Media Report we'll hear from such a journalist: Time Magazine correspondent, Michael Ware, as he relates his account of reporting from the war that defined much of our current reality.

Michael Ware is Time Magazine's reporter in Afghanistan, and for 3-1/2 months was based in the southern city of Kandahar, the former headquarters of the Taliban. In trying to provide regular and up-to-date copy for his editors, I asked him to assess how difficult it was to access the information he needs in the middle of a battle zone.

Michael Ware: It's extraordinarily difficult. In peacetime, working in the West, you can hop on the phones, you can send faxes, you can make appointments, you can do a whole host of things. In wartime, that's simply impossible. Finding people can be difficult; frontlines are shifting all the time; access is frequently denied to areas or to individuals. So it's a matter of hard slog on the ground. It's a matter of physically going out either in a vehicle or on foot and searching, and it's a matter of asking this person where someone is, and then the next person and the next person, until you finally get somewhere close to them, and you can track them down. So when an editor says, 'Such-and-such is happening and we need a reaction or a response to this; can you just quickly grab it?' there is no such thing as 'quickly grabbing'.

Mick O'Regan: So does that mean that the relationship between the individual reporter, someone like you, and the whole machinery of Time Magazine in your case back in Australia, does that shift, are you really an independent operator once you hit the field?

Michael Ware: Pretty much, yes. They will give you some broad direction about particular issues they're interested in, or themes that they're looking at. But events happen so quickly on the ground and the situation changes in an instant. So you have to be ready and able to react to that. So most of the time you're simply following your nose as to what's going on. And in Afghanistan for instance, communication of course is very, very difficult, particularly where I was, based in Kandahar in the southern region. So it was impossible for anyone to contact me on the satellite phone. So once a day at a certain time I would call my editors in New York and touch base with them. So apart from that, apart from that one brief window a day, I was left to my own devices, necessarily so.

Mick O'Regan: Now through that window are the editorial team in New York saying to you, 'Now Michael, we need this, and this, we're doing a feature on this aspect of the conflict therefore we need to fit your correspondent's report into here.' Or do you just simply say, 'Look, this is where I am, this is the information I can get, this is what I'm going to write.'

Michael Ware: It's a little bit of both. Sometimes they will set an agenda at the beginning of the week and ask me to feed into that, as they ask correspondents in other places to feed into a broader piece. So you must address that. But also you'll be saying, 'Look, this has just happened; a mortar has just been launched on the US air base at Kandahar, I'm heading out there now, I don't know what's going on, but I will contact you in 24 hours.' Or other times I'll say, 'Look, yes that's obviously an interesting issue that you've raised, but in fact this is going on and I've cottoned on to it, and I have to make this journey to get it, but I believe it's important', and then they'll give me the green light.

The worst case scenarios, I'll ring them and they'll ask for something and I'll say, 'Look, in the last 24 hours this has happened and I'm now nine hours away from where I was, and I can't do that. This is what's going on.'

Mick O'Regan: Now the other group of controllers I suppose, are the actual military people who are trying to control the sort of coverage, the sort of information that's emanating from the theatre of war. Can I get you to talk about your relationship between the people on the ground from whom you need approval.

Michael Ware: Control is almost an understatement for what the military tries to do with regard to influencing the flow of information. They try to impress things upon your mind, obviously through subtle hints and through conversation, trying to guide your thoughts to a certain place. But that's the same as any other spin doctor. But there's also physical applications as well. They will physically prevent you from getting to certain places, and a certain place can include an entire district, which is enormous. And that's achieved through a number of tactics. It might be checkpoints on the road, it can even be establishing exclusion zones in which any vehicle or any movement is deemed suspect. So I have been hunted by Cobra attack helicopters.

Mick O'Regan: For being in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Michael Ware: Absolutely.

Mick O'Regan: Can you talk about that story?

Michael Ware: That was in a district around the provincial capital of Gardez, which is about two hours' south of Kabul. In that area there was a major battle and it lasted two to three weeks for the Valley of Shahi Cote. The Americans called it Operation Anaconda. In Shahi Cote there was anything from 800 to 2,000 al Qaeda and Taliban soldiers who retreated to what was once a Mujahadeen tunnel and bunker complex, which was used against the Soviets.

Mick O'Regan: So it was hostile territory for the allies?

Michael Ware: Absolutely. As Afghan soldiers I was with told me as we travelled through these areas, they're saying We don't know who's friendly in what house, and at any given moment driving through here, we expect and anticipate ambush. So once you pass through that area, you then come to a desert plain, which is about 3-1/2 kilometres wide, which you had to cross to reach the mountain valley. Before we crossed that desert plain, we made every attempt we could to identify ourselves as media, to the extent that we taped the letters 'TV' on the roof of our vehicle, and we put cloth and flags out the windows. We then crossed the plain in a very, very nervous drive that took us maybe 30 minutes over very rough desert territory. And two incidents occurred: the first of which, once we'd pretty much crossed the plain and were just coming to the foothills, an American B-1 bomber was flying overhead across the mountain range, and then either spotting us or acting on information, it deviated from its path, lowered its altitude and flew towards our position. So we immediately stopped the vehicle, because we're constantly alert to this possibility, and seven of us got out of the vehicle and stood a short distance away and tried to make a friendly presence. The plane circled, and then eventually continued on. We pressed on and we eventually reached another al Qaeda village, which was very, very active. It was right on the edge of the battlefield, in fact it was in the fighting zone. And what was happening in this village and many others, al Qaeda was coming down and the Taliban were coming down at night, they were eating, they were getting medical supplies, they were sleeping, and they were going back up in the mountains to fight. We entered this village, I interviewed a number of people and saw where in fact the Australian SAS had been 12 or 24 hours earlier, and they'd attacked or raided two compounds. In one there was an antiaircraft gun that they'd destroyed, and in another room there was an al Qaeda sleeping chamber, which they destroyed.

When we entered that village, we had maybe half an hour before we noticed rising up out of a gully, were two Cobra attack helicopters which then searched the village. And in doing so, they do not fly over the village houses, they literally fly through and around the houses, and they were searching for us.

Mick O'Regan: They're that close to the ground?

Michael Ware: Absolutely. So we went to great efforts to hide the vehicle and hide ourselves, primarily because I was worried that if intercepted, I wasn't sure that the Americans would allow us to release the information that we'd gathered, because it was about the nature, the very nature, of their operations, right on the front line, cutting edge, close to real time.


Mick O'Regan: My guest is Time Magazine correspondent, Michael Ware, who reported from the front lines of the war in Afghanistan. Given the military's control over information in the conflict, I asked Michael Ware if a basic difficulty confronting any journalist was negotiating over where he could go and what he could see.

Michael Ware: Absolutely. I found half my energies were devoted to not just figuring out how I could obtain information and stay alive, but to calculating ways to outflank the Pentagon and their Public Affairs officers and the cordons that they put in place to prevent journalists getting information. So much so, to the extent that often, and particularly during this three-week battle for Shahi Coat, I adopted Afghan dress.

Mick O'Regan: What, you actually put on Afghan clothes?

Michael Ware: Yes, I grew a beard over the 3-1/2 months that I was away, and I learnt enough Pashtu to be able to talk my way through a checkpoint. I could say Hallo, go through the greetings, I could tell you where I'd been, I could tell you where I'm going, I could tell you what tribe I am.

Mick O'Regan: Now this may fool a person from Minnesota or California, but you're obviously not going to fool anyone who's a born and bred Afghan.

Michael Ware: Well actually I did. In fact at one checkpoint encircling the battlefield, and I just spent my whole time circumnavigating the battlefield for three weeks, just prodding and probing, each time looking for a way in, getting closer and closer to the battle, getting further than anyone else who'd gone each time. And at one of these checkpoints, a Commander came over and I simply say Hallo and go through the greetings, and then I shut up because I can't really carry on much more of the conversation, and my translators and others with me continue the conversation, so I just blend into the background. And he insisted that I was actually from his tribe, and at one point I had to speak English for him, so that he could accept that I was in fact a foreigner. So if I just played it very low key and tried to blend in with who-ever I was with, I could often get away with it.

So what I would do is go to a checkpoint and we would just pose as villagers heading home, or heading out to our fields, or doing something else, and so we would be allowed to slip through. And really that's the only way I could get in to the front line at Shahi Coat.

Mick O'Regan: Now what would the American military authorities do if they found you using subterfuge to get close to the front line? What would their response be to discovering you in Afghan clothes?

Michael Ware: Well they tell you very much that you're risking your life because they immediately suspect that you're foreign al Qaeda. Because al Qaeda was made up of a lot of nationalities, as you can imagine. So it immediately raises the suspicion that you are al Qaeda. And I was questioned a number of times, in fact on one occasion special forces held me at gunpoint and grilled me and stripped our vehicle before finally releasing me. In fact they said to me that this is a battlefield, there are only two types of people in this area: one is combatants, the other are prisoners, 'which one do you want to be?'

Mick O'Regan: And what did you say?

Michael Ware: I said, 'Well I'm journalist and I'd just like to be here', and they said, 'We've given you your choices, if you don't leave, we're going to start shooting.'

Mick O'Regan: Now is that indicative of their attitude generally?

Michael Ware: Absolutely. Especially the special forces.

Mick O'Regan: Just remind listeners who the special forces are.

Michael Ware: The special forces are the elite troops used by the western military. In Afghanistan it's primarily comprised of American troops from Delta Force, from the Green Berets, from the Rangers, from the Navy Seals, but it also includes British and Australian Special Air Service troops.

Mick O'Regan: So these are the top flight commandos, the sort of action people.

Michael Ware: Absolutely. And their role in Afghanistan is primarily to seek out the enemy. That's through long-range surveillance and reconnaissance missions and then to lead Afghan troops in either covert or overt operations, to attack any enemy concentrations that they find. So you would have to deal with the media cordon, then you would have to deal with the special forces who were out doing their own thing, and invariably my mission editorially was strikingly similar to theirs. I would pursuing a lead on the location of Mullah Omar or a certain concentration of enemy troops. So I would be looking to find a particular Taliban commander for example. So I would be going to the district, asking questions, searching, searching. Which in turn they were doing as well. So frequently our paths would cross, and particularly near the battlefields.

So when I was attempting to go to Shahi Coat, after encountering these people on a number of occasions, I found ways to avoid them. And the only way that I finally got into the thick of the fighting in the valley floor itself, was to break through the cordon, once again cross that desert plain, and then driving up winding mountainous ravines, each corner stopping to check what was ahead, looking for signs of ambush. Slowly moving up. Eventually I came across a Mujahadeen convoy of maybe 20 or 30 vehicles, that itself was heading deeper into enemy territory. They too had stopped, because al Qaeda was seen on the ridges, preparing ambush. So they put out a response force. So I simply drove up and attached our vehicle to the end of their convoy.

We continued moving with that convoy. It took maybe an hour-and-a-half to travel 10 ks or 14 ks, because we had to constantly stop whenever al Qaeda was spotted on the ridges, moving or coming down the ridge. We finally reached what was that night their camp. In that camp there was a company of Afghan soldiers, which is 100 to 120 soldiers, accompanying and leading them were 12 American special forces. Now among these special forces there were Air Force spotters, there were explosives experts and then there were Green Berets and Rangers.

We arrived at their camp at about 3.00, 3.30 in the afternoon, there was fighting under way at that time; 600, 700 metres away was an al Qaeda cave complex which was being assaulted by 30 Afghan troops led by special forces. When that assault did not work B52s came in and bombed that ridge line and the assault continued. By nightfall, that little engagement was over, but the Americans, who were very angry at my arrival, and very much wanted to get rid of me, after communicating presumably with their command, they came back to me and begrudgingly said that I would be allowed to stay the night, simply because if they'd sent me back at that time, that late in the afternoon, they guaranteed that I would have been killed, because al Qaeda was out actively ambushing, and there was no way our single vehicle would have got out alive. So I was allowed to stay for the night. That's the only way you can get there, by simply lobbing up on them, in the middle of the battlefield where they don't expect you. Simply the only way to get there.

Mick O'Regan: My guest is Michael Ware who reported the conflict in Afghanistan for Time Magazine.

Public support for the war, especially in the US, was relatively strong. Indeed in the aftermath of September 11, very strong. And the US military was determined that information coming from Afghanistan would not diminish that public support, avoiding the so-called Vietnam Factor. So, did Michael Ware have any sympathy for the military officials who were trying to set limits on what journalists could do?

Michael Ware: Yes, I can understand their position, and I sympathise strongly with it, because I know the job that they're doing, and it is extraordinarily fraught with danger, obviously. And I'm not there to jeopardise anyone's life, and quite frankly if I was an Australian SAS soldier in Afghanistan, I'd have no time or compassion for the media either. So I can understand that. However, I'm not there to jeopardise an operation, I know that if an operation is actively under way, and if I report certain information, al Qaeda and others constantly monitor the western media, they can pick up real-time information that can be used tactically on the battlefield. So I'm sensitive to that. I'm careful about how I report things on the instant.

Mick O'Regan: So would you allow military censors to look at the information you're sending back to Time Magazine?

Michael Ware: Oh absolutely not, absolutely, never, never-never-never.

Mick O'Regan: So how can you be sure that the information that's going back to Time Magazine isn't going to be detrimental to the efforts of troops on the ground?

Michael Ware: Well I have to make my own judgements on what information I'm sending. They make their guidelines very clear, the Pentagon. However the Pentagon guidelines only apply, they can only bring sanction against you, if you are in their media pool, which I could join and leave at any given moment. But if you're in their pool, receiving their support, at their base, receiving the well-doctored information that they want you to have, then if you break any of the rules, you're immediately expunged and you're never allowed back.

Mick O'Regan: Is that where most journalists are?

Michael Ware: It's where a lot of journalists are.

Mick O'Regan: But you're outside that?

Michael Ware: Yes. And there were other who were with me. For instance, in Kandahar you had two choices: you either stayed at the Kandahar air base, where they would give you a floor to sleep on, they would feed you ration packs, they would help you with electricity so you could file. But what it meant was that not only were you beholden to them, but you relied solely on them for information, which is something I could never tolerate.

Mick O'Regan: Right. So from your observations and reading of other media, the people that were, as you say, beholden to the military officials, did you see a great disparity between the sort of reports that you were writing and the sort of reports that were coming from those people at the air base?

Michael Ware: Absolutely. I mean there were good journalists at the air base, but they had nothing to work with. And they had daily editorial pressures and the need to get out information so they're forced to just put out whatever they can get, and it was so badly skewed and often so off base with what was happening on the ground. Because I and a large number of other journalists, chose to stay in Kandahar itself, living amongst the people, facing whatever we faced.

Mick O'Regan: Just on those protocols, what would the military authorities insist upon for the people who were at the air base, who were receiving military-cleared information?

Michael Ware: There is a long list of do's and don'ts.

Mick O'Regan: What are the critical ones?

Michael Ware: The critical ones are that basically it's not to report anything that you see going on instantly in front of you that is in any way related to an operation. For example, there was an incident on New Year's Eve where there was an Associated Press photographer out with his American military minder, wandering the base, just taking photographs late in the afternoon. While he was on the tarmac photographing a refuelling, in the distance he saw 100 American special forces troops with full pack and combat gear boarding 4 Chinook helicopters, which then took off shortly before dusk, and headed in the north-west. He then filed those pictures immediately and that was sent out on the Associated Press wire. The Pentagon learnt of it shortly thereafter and that evening he was thrown off the base and never allowed back.

Mick O'Regan: Michael, how long can you do this sort of reporting, and if you don't mind me saying, you seem a person who lives a bit on his nerves. I mean I don't know you well, but you don't seem a relaxed person, put it that way. Now I wouldn't be relaxed either if I'd spent a whole lot of time in Afghanistan, but I suppose what I'm wondering about is how long can you subject yourself to that level of anxiety and expose yourself to that constant danger?

Michael Ware: It's a question I'm constantly asking myself. It is extraordinarily taxing, physically and mentally. I lost significant amounts of weight.

Mick O'Regan: How much? I mean you're not a big person now.

Michael Ware: No, in 3-1/2 months I lost 23 kilos.

Mick O'Regan: 23 kilos?

Michael Ware: Yes. That's due to a lack of food, or very poor food, and not constant illness but frequent illness. There's the enormous mental drain. Apart from trying to achieve simple things, and in a war zone and particularly in Afghanistan, nothing is ever simple. There was that constant drain of just trying to get things done. And then overlaying all of that, is the security concern. You have to be alive and alert 24 hours a day, watching your back at all times, constantly surveilling the circumstances around you to pick up any hint that the mood's about to change or that something's not right.

Mick O'Regan: And you're not armed, obviously.

Michael Ware: No. I never carried a weapon, although there was frequently made available to me.

Mick O'Regan: Did other journalists carry weapons?

Michael Ware: Some did, not many.

Mick O'Regan: Like hand guns or something.

Michael Ware: Hand guns, or maybe you'd have a Kalishnikov in the vehicle. I certainly always knew where a weapon was if we'd turned to a worst case scenario, but I never ever carried one or had one in my possession. What you would do if you were heading to a particular place or area that was extremely dangerous, you would obtain gunmen to go with you. Now when I was going into areas where no journalist had been that was still Taliban controlled areas where fighting was still going on, and there was token Afghan government troop presence, token meaning that they'd have a garrison in this town that they'd established two weeks ago, but they can't leave that garrison and in fact they don't control anything. When I was going to those places, sometimes I would have to take what would roughly equate to an infantry section, which is the basic building block of a military unit.

Mick O'Regan: About ten people?

Michael Ware: I would have to take nine to ten men that would include at least one, maybe two RPG, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, that would have one, preferably two, PK heavy machine guns, which is a section weapon, and then obviously Kalishnikovs and grenades. That kind of a force would have to travel with me, a vehicle in front, a vehicle behind, and at least one or two troops in my vehicle. That kind of a force, if we were ambushed or seriously attacked, they would not be able to repel or defeat the attack, but it's just in the hope that in such a situation, in the instants that we would have, we could throw up enough fire to be able to turn round and get the heck out of there.

Mick O'Regan: And possibly buy some time for more effective covering fire to protect your exit?

Michael Ware: Well only in the sense that there is no further support for you. So there's no-one to give covering fire, it's you and the men who are with you, and that's it. So you've got to be working on your wits and you have to rely on their judgement to some degree, but you also have to go against their judgements for the sake of getting to the story, which they would constantly ask you about, be it my translators, my drivers, or gunmen who were just terrified, and could not believe that I was trying to go to position X. Why on earth would you be going there? You will die, we will die. And I would say, 'That's where the truth is.'

Mick O'Regan: Which I have to say, here I am sitting as a desk-bound broadcaster, but it seems a very relevant question. I mean did it ever occur to you that in your pursuit of the truth, you're actually exposing other people to an unreasonable level of danger?

Michael Ware: Well to a degree that's true, but there's many things that go into it. For instance, it is a combat zone and everyone in that zone is at peril, so while you are raising that level of peril for those immediately with you, they live with it constantly anyway. The other thing is, they are soldiers, so to some degree that is their job, and as their commanders often said to me, 'Well they're only soldiers'.

Mick O'Regan: Charming.

Michael Ware: Yes. My more immediate concern was for people like my translators and drivers who were accompanying me, and became very dear friends over a long period of time through terrible circumstances.

Mick O'Regan: And for whom it's a job. They're not driven by sort of ideological desire to be at the front, they're trying to make a living.

Michael Ware: They're trying to make a living while there's money to be made from the journalist, and essentially set themselves up for life, because it's a king's ransom, that at the end of the day they're paid. But at each given point, I would give these people the opportunity to get out of the vehicle.

Mick O'Regan: It seems a very big price to pay for the pursuit of a particular truth in the conflict in Afghanistan; what are your feelings about heading back, because I understand you're actually going back for a second tour.

Michael Ware: Yes, I most likely am.

Mick O'Regan: Are you looking forward to it?

Michael Ware: On one level I am. As I said to my Australian editor on Friday when he asked me Are you willing to go back? I said to him, 'If I had to leave today I'd go, but I wouldn't go with a happy heart. In two weeks time I think I'll be fine to go again. I just need to recharge my batteries.' I know I'm going back, and if it's not to Afghanistan, it's probably to the Middle East or the war against Iran or Iraq develops, it'll be there, I just have to be ready. This is my job. This is what I do.

Mick O'Regan: Makes you realise that journalism's a lot safer in the humble confines of ABC Radio. We've been listening to Time Magazine reporter, Michael Ware detail the realities of reporting the conflict in Afghanistan early last year.

That's the program for this week. My thanks to producer, Caroline Fisher, and to technical producer, Jim Ussher. I'm Mick O'Regan, I hope you'll join me again next week for The Media Report.

Guests on this program:
Michael Ware
Journalist, Time Magazine.

Presenter: Mick O'Regan
Producer: Caroline Fisher

© 2003 Australian Broadcasting Corporation

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