Who Makes the Story Possible?
We were already roaring down the road when the young man called to me over his shoulder. There was a woman seated between us on the motorbike and with the distance, his accent, the rushing air, and the engine noise, it took a moment for me to decipher what he had just said: We might have enough gas to get to Bamurye and back.
I had spent the previous hour attempting to convince someone to take me on this ride while simultaneously weighing the ethics of the expedition, putting together a makeshift security plan, and negotiating a price. Other motorbike drivers warned that it would be a one-way trip. “If you go, you don’t come back,” more than one of them told me. I insisted we turn around immediately.
Once, I believed journalists roamed the world reporting stories on their own. Presumably, somebody edited the articles, but a lone byline meant that the foreign correspondent was the sole author of the reporting. Then I became a journalist and quickly learned the truth. Foreign correspondents are almost never alone in our work. We’re almost always dependent on locals, often many of them, if we want to have any hope of getting the story. It was never truer for me than on that day when I was attempting to cover an ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign in South Sudan.
As the motorbike driver was topping off the tank with gasoline from a plastic water bottle, I had a final chance to think things over. We were going to cross the border from Uganda into South Sudan so I could gather evidence of a murder by government troops in a village garrisoned by those same soldiers. The driver hailed from one of the ethnic groups being targeted by South Sudan’s army. If we were found by soldiers, he would likely be the first of us killed. The woman, Salina Sunday, was my guide. She was confident that she would be safe and didn’t show an ounce of fear, even though women were being raped and killed as part of the ethnic cleansing campaign churning through the southlands of South Sudan, including her home village, Bamurye.
Within minutes we were off again to find, if we were fortunate, the mutilated body of the murder victim; if we were unfortunate, his killers as well. I had met Sunday barely more than an hour earlier. I had laid eyes on the driver for the first time only minutes before we left. They were strangers and I was risking their lives for my work, for “my” story.
The Fix is In
When it comes to overseas newsgathering, it’s the “fixers,” those resourceful, wired-in locals who know all the right people, who often make it possible. Then there are the generous local reporters, translators, guides, drivers, sources, informants of every sort, local friends, friends of friends, and sometimes — as in that trip of mine to Bamurye (recently recounted in full in the Columbia Journalism Review) — courageous strangers, too. Those women and men are the true, if unsung, heroes behind the bylines of so many foreign correspondents. They’re the ones who ensure that, however imperfectly, we at least have a glimpse of what’s happening in far-off, sometimes perilous places about which we would otherwise be clueless.
So when the great Iona Craig dons a black abaya and niqab, inserts her “brown tinted contact lenses to cover [her] green foreigner eyes,” and blows the lid off a botched U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Yemen that killed at least six women and 10 children, she does it with the aid of fixer-friends. They are the ones who make the arrangements; who drive and translate; who, in short, risk their lives for her, for the story — and for you. When Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Daniel Berehulak produces an instantly iconic New York Times exposé of the brutal war on drugs launched by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, veteran journalist and uber-fixer Rica Concepcion is also behind it.
If you read the reporting of the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson, Leila Fadel (then of the Washington Post), or Nancy Youssef (then of McClatchy) on Libya, you likely benefited from the work of fixer Suliman Ali Zway. Eyder Peralta’s powerful report on a doctor’s strike at Kenya’s Kiambu County Hospital that you heard earlier this year? The late Jacque Ooko, a veteran journalist who worked as National Public Radio’s bureau assistant in Nairobi, got Peralta in the door. And that August 19, 2017, front-page tour de force by Ellen Barry of the New York Times about a murder in a village in India? You can thank her colleague Suhasini for it, too.
Canadian journalist Deborah Campbell is no different. Like so many foreign correspondents, she’s also leaned on fixers. Unlike most of us in the trade, however, she’s written a beautiful book-length love letter to one of them — her vivid, captivating A Disappearance in Damascus: Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War. Campbell’s award-winning memoir-and-more offers a unique window into the life and work of foreign correspondents and the relationships they forge with those they rely on to help them do their jobs.
Unlike the New York Times’s Jeffrey Gettleman, whose recent Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War, and Survival oddly fixates on both his ardor for his girlfriend-turned-wife and his infidelity — “As we tumbled into bed, a firefight erupted… We didn’t stop” — the love in Campbell’s book has nothing to do with eros. Nor is it an obsession with place, though Campbell’s affection for the beauty she finds in Syria is evident. Instead, what drives A Disappearance in Damascus is the story of the deep bonds of friendship that formed between Campbell and her fixer in Syria, a remarkable Iraqi refugee named Ahlam. While Gettleman’s book is sold as “a tale of passion,” the burning desire in Campbell’s pages is most felt when, in the second half of the book, she launches a relentless search for her fixer and friend after Ahlam disappears without a trace.
Campbell, a self-described “immersive journalist,” traveled to Damascus in 2007 to cover the deluge of Iraqis flooding into Syria as a result of the American invasion of their country and the carnage that followed. There, she found the resilient Ahlam, elevated to a position of leadership in the Iraqi refugee community by popular acclaim. She was a charismatic figure who exuded confidence, knew all the right people, and got the job done — the very qualities that make for a top-flight fixer. While supporting her husband and two children, fixing for Campbell and other journalists, and solving the problems of beleaguered refugees, Ahlam even managed to set up a school for displaced girls. It’s little wonder that Campbell took to her and that those two strong, driven women became close friends.
The power of their personal bond, the blessing of their friendship, however, turned out to be a curse as well. When Ahlam was suddenly disappeared by the Syrian regime, Campbell became convinced that she had been targeted because of their work together. Ahlam had, in fact, aided journalists from al Jazeera, the Wall Street Journal, the BBC, and other media outlets, worked for multiple foreign aid groups, and even the U.S. military (in Iraq), which meant that there were myriad reasons why the Syrian government might have arrested her. Still, Campbell couldn’t shake a deep-seated feeling that she was at fault.
In a profession typified by countless anxieties, fear for your fixer (or driver or source) is a special one that may manifest itself in an acidic churn deep in your gut or racing thoughts that you can’t slow down as you stare up through your mosquito net at a wobbling ceiling fan. Have you endangered the people who devoted themselves to helping you do your job? Have you potentially sacrificed their welfare, perhaps their lives, for a story? As Campbell puts it:
“I could accept the knowledge that nothing I wrote or would ever write would change a thing and that the world would continue to create and destroy and create and destroy as it always did. I could accept living without a relationship. I would still be okay. What I could not accept was Ahlam being gone. It was unthinkable that she had been missing for almost seven weeks. Unthinkable that she could be lost and never heard from again. Unthinkable that I could do nothing.
It called to my mind a time when a driver-turned-friend of mine was smacked around and taken away by angry government officials. I’ve never forgotten my fear for him and the abject sense of powerlessness that went with it. It’s a special type of anxiety that, I suspect, many foreign correspondents have experienced. (My driver was luckily released a short time later, a far different outcome than Ahlam’s arrest.)
Campbell responds to her friend’s disappearance by utilizing the very skills that make her a great journalist and begins to investigate just what happened. At times, it turns her book into a first-class detective story and, for that very reason, provides a useful primer on how reporters practice their craft.
For those who know anything about the sparse literature on the subject, A Disappearance in Damascus calls to mind perhaps the most iconic tale of this type — another story rooted in platonic love, deep affection, and the sense of responsibility that grows between a journalist and a fixer (even if that fixer was officially a “stringer”).
“I began the search for my friend Dith Pran in April of 1975. Unable to protect him when the Khmer Rouge troops ordered Cambodians to evacuate their cities, I had watched him disappear into the interior of Cambodia, which would become a death camp for millions,” wrote New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg. “Pran had saved my life the day of the occupation, and the shadow of my failure to keep him safe — to do what he had done for me — was to follow me for four and a half years.”
That magazine-article-turned-book — both titled “The Death and Life of Dith Pran” — and the movie adaptation, The Killing Fields, chronicled Pran’s long journey as he navigated and survived the unthinkable horror of the Cambodian autogenocide and also stands as a testament to his enduring friendship with Schanberg. A Disappearance in Damascus brings to mind some of the same themes of friendship and responsibility, raises some of the same questions about duty and loyalty, and evokes some of the same emotions, though I won’t give away whether Ahlam, like Pran, makes it out alive. In war — or even its shadow — nothing is certain. (At least until you read the book.)
Someone Has to Open the Door
When they meet again in 1979, after Pran has survived the unimaginable and trekked through Cambodia’s killing fields to safety beyond the Thai border, Schanberg asks his friend if he can ever forgive him. “Nothing to forgive,” Pran replies, offering him something like complete absolution.
Not all relationships with fixers, of course, blossom into Schanberg-Pran, Campbell-Ahlam love stories. And not all fixers are fantastic and fearless. There are the incompetent ones and the lazy ones and those allergic to schedules. Others come to see you as a bottomless wallet — and who can blame them, given our privilege and relative riches? But this can lead to unrealistic expectations, as it once did for me, when I received an email from a fixer I’d worked with many times asking for a stipend of $500 per month in (more or less) perpetuity. And that, in turn, can result in hurt feelings when you explain that you simply can’t do it. These are, thankfully, the exceptions.
While largely unknown to the public, fixers might finally be getting some much-deserved recognition — albeit in small ways. A Disappearance in Damascus is a shining example. These days, foreign correspondents seem to be acknowledging those who helped them more openly, offering warm tributes to and remembrances of their fixers. Perhaps this is evidence, as reporter Aaron Schachter put it, of a greater willingness to admit the “dirty little secret of foreign correspondents: We don’t do our own stunts.” Late last year, Roads & Kingdoms, a digital magazine “publishing longform dispatches, interviews, and global ephemera,” began a series called “Unbylined” in which fixers from Mexico to Haiti, Afghanistan to Libya, get their say through thoughtful interviews focused on their craft.
Still, even fixers are just part of the story. Where would foreign correspondents be without great drivers? Probably stranded on some wretched stretch of road. I can’t count the number of times I’ve stayed too long doing interviews, leaving my driver to try to make up the time to the river before the last ferry departs for the day or get off a dangerous road before dark. These are the guys who know all the shortcuts, the complex language of car horns, and how to make good time on bad roads. Along with them, depending on where you travel, there are the motorbike drivers and the men and women who pilot boats, as well as those who fly the puddle jumpers and helicopters that get you where you’re going. And that’s just to begin a list.
There are precious few Africans (or Afghans or Iraqis, for that matter) of much depth in Jeffrey Gettleman’s Love, Africa — another in a list of reasons the book has been panned by many and excoriated in his own newspaper’s book review. But in his discussion of “Commander Peacock” (the man’s own nom de guerre), an Ethiopian who is treated as a person and not simply a prop, Gettleman offers up important insights into what he calls “the transitive property of trust.” He observes:
“Reporters deposit their lives in it all the time. People I’d trusted had hooked me up with people they’d trusted who hooked me up with people they’d trusted. Peacock and I were simply two terminal points on a long line drawn by trust.”
This form of faith — based on a sequence of relationships — is often key to overseas reporting, but it isn’t the only type of journalistic trust to be found out there. There’s trust of another sort, trust that’s earned, like that between Schanberg and Pran or Campbell and Ahlam. And then there’s the trust that’s freely given, a faith that you can only hope someday to be worthy of.
That’s the trust of the Salina Sundays of this world, of those ordinary people who exhibit extraordinary courage, place their confidence in you, and even risk their lives because they believe in what you’re doing, in the stories you hope to tell.
When I met Sunday — a gimlet-eyed, middle-aged woman with a strong bearing — on what she reckoned was a somewhat safer road, she was setting off into South Sudan on a difficult journey to try to salvage a few of her belongings for what she expected would be a long exile in Uganda. She was in desperate circumstances, homeless, a woman without a country. Still, she took the time to stop and speak with a stranger. And she told me about a friend who had been murdered by rampaging South Sudanese troops, a man whose corpse she had only recently seen by the side of the road.
I asked if she would guide me to him and she readily agreed. In the midst of an unfolding tragedy, that is, she upended her plans and decided without hesitation to lead a foreigner she had just met down a more dangerous path, literally and figuratively. She didn’t know a thing about me — not whether I could get a story published or had any hope of doing justice to this particular horror or would even bother to write about it. But she made a leap of faith and put her life on the line for the sake of my story — and so for me as well.
I tried to live up to her confidence, to make the risk she took worthwhile. I think this is a common experience for many journalists. You feel a deep responsibility to the people you interview and to your fixers, drivers, and translators — to everyone, that is, who sacrifices and takes chances to make your work possible.
I don’t know what Salina Sunday would think about the stories I’ve written, but I hope she would approve. She wanted the world to know just what had happened in Bamurye, what South Sudan’s soldiers had done to her friend. She wanted people overseas to grasp the grim nature of the war in her homeland. It’s exactly what drove Ahlam in her work for Deborah Campbell, the reason she took risks to tell stories that could turn her into a target. “Someone,” the Iraqi-refugee-turned-fixer said, “has to open the door and show the world what is happening.”