The journalist with nine lives

Having been kidnapped twice already, in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stephen Farrel was 1 of 4 ‘NYT’ correspondents captured and brutalized by Muammar Gaddafi’s troops in Libya.

Stephen Farell_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Stephen Farell_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
You were a single man when you were kidnapped in Iraq; you were a newlywed when the Taliban took you prisoner in Afghanistan and British commandos rescued you; and you were a new father when you were taken prisoner in Libya. Is it time to stay behind the front lines?
I think, yes. There’s no question about that. Apart from the status of being single or married, when you have been so close three times and other times, close in ways that didn’t involve kidnapping or abduction, you have to accept, certainly for me, that there’s only so many times you can come that close and risk death without it being slightly perverse to continue risking it. The other factor is, at some point, you become so high-profile that you risk targeting yourself and endangering yourself and others around you.
Certainly there is plenty in the Middle East now. In fact, the front-line nature of reporting is not particularly significant anymore. In the Middle East, what we see now is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, where Egypt is going to go, is very much a place where experience and knowledge of the language and reporting on politics, culture and social matters is at a premium – reporting where the society goes from here and the pitfalls and possible upsides at the end of all these conflicts.
What happened in Libya?
We were reporting from as close to the front lines as we felt safe in a town called Ajdabiya, which was one of the main rebel-held towns. Gaddafi’s forces were advancing and we pulled out, and it turns out his forces had actually encircled the town and were on the exit route. So as we tried to fall back from Ajdabiya back to Benghazi, they were right there on the road at a checkpoint, and they held us when we arrived.
Five seconds after we were held, not more than two or three paces from the cars, the rebels opened fire on that same checkpoint, so we faced a double threat... We were being held by Gaddafi forces who were extremely hostile to us, and the bullets were flying in from the rebel forces, and we risked being killed just being where we stood as we were caught in the very heavy exchange of fire.
You talked about several days of great difficulty, some of you blindfolded; all kinds of very harrowing things that occurred. Were there moments when you thought there was no way you were going to get out of Libya alive?
Yes, there were. Certainly, in the first two minutes when they took us and they were binding our hands and feet and forcing us to lie facedown on the ground, we thought that would be an execution and that was a moment that imminent death really seemed to be staring us in the face. Then, after they had taken the decision not to execute us because we, or at least my colleagues, were American, they strapped us upright in soft skin, you know, normal cars — Mazdas, Toyotas – and the rebels kept attacking, and these cars couldn’t stand up to fire like that for an instant.
So you’re sitting in a completely unprotected vehicle with bullets coming toward you from left and right and Gaddafi’s forces firing back, and for seven or eight hours, there was an on-and-off gun battle and mortars coming in and rocket-propelled grenades, where we felt that we survived the initial encounter but we could very well meet our ends right here, right now. And later on, once we were in the hands of the regime in Tripoli itself, we were a little nervous we would be used as human shields.
Once the no-fly zone was enforced, we were actually being held on a huge Libyan military base in the middle of Tripoli – exactly the kind of military installation that the coalition warplanes were attacking.
We could hear the bombs going off all around us and the anti-aircraft fire from the Libyans; so yes, there were several times when we felt, “This is really not good.”
In the account the four of you wrote about your experience in Libya, the big question comes out: “Is it worth it?” Can the story be told without the extreme risks? Would your readership believe you any less if you said Libyan troops could be brutal if you had not been beaten by them yourself?
Well, obviously, that aspect of the story – we didn’t try to get ourselves captured in order to get an inside account of Gaddafi’s forces. That reporting of what happened to us at the hands of Gaddafi’s troops was a by-product of the capture; it wasn’t an intentional piece of reporting.
What happened in Libya was that we found ourselves on the front line in a position to assess the anti- Gaddafi forces and inadvertently, because we were captured, the strength and nature of Gaddafi’s forces at exactly the moment when the world not only wanted to know what is the likelihood that the anti- Gaddafi forces will be able to overtake this regime, but also the moment when the West was about to commit blood and treasure, their own servicemen and women, over-flights, no-fly zones being imposed... special forces and intelligence agents on the ground, in an effort to boost these sources.
So it became incredibly important as a matter of international politics to see if we’re going to step into the conflict, exactly what we are stepping into. Who are we helping? What is the nature of these people? How strong are they? Are they likely to be strengthened enough by the help countries are giving, or not? All of that information was suddenly and directly relevant to the Western powers because they were going to intervene.
Not just an assessment of a conflict going on in a country far away between combatants of whom we know little.
When you were captured, did the Libyan troops know whom they were taking?
No, we were just one Libyan driver and four Westerners, and we were pulled out of the car at gunpoint. They knew we were journalists because our driver, Muhammad, shouted, “Journalist, journalist,” and then he was dragged out of the car to the left on the driver’s side, and we were all going out of the car on the other side, and we lost him at that point. We don’t know what happened to him.
We were dragged off to the right-hand side of the road and interrogated. It gradually dawned on them that they had four foreigners; they had our passports in their hands. We were screaming, “Journalist! Correspondent! Photographer!” and we don’t know that they necessarily believed that. Who knows who they thought we were. But as we got up the chain into Tripoli, it became clearer to them that we were journalists. And then when we got back to Tripoli, they saw us on CNN with our pictures and our newspaper identifying us as journalists, so by then it was obvious we were New York Times correspondents.
Why were you spared?
We think we were spared on the ground because we were Americans and the soldiers or the militia there feared that if you just execute four Americans on the spot, then there are going to be consequences, both in terms of the American reaction but also in terms of their commanders, who might be very angry.
They didn’t want the responsibility of just killing in cold blood four foreigners with foreign passports.
Why were we spared back in Tripoli? Why did the regime decide not to use us as human shields in the conflict with the Western powers imposing a no-fly zone? I think while we were assuming we might become human shields, the regime, or elements within, were sophisticated enough to realize that it would not be a good idea to mix our fates with that of the nation. Others, including officials, said to us, “We are careful to distinguish between four journalists who have come into a country without official visas and a matter of global politics, an issue of a no-fly zone. You will get the appropriate penalty for what you did.” I think they were afraid that if they used us as human shields, they would be seen as more of a pariah then they were already.
When you were held, did you expect commandos to come helicoptering in to save you again as they did in Afghanistan? What were your thoughts?
No, we neither expected nor hoped that, because we were in the middle of a huge Libyan military base in Tripoli, and I think it was extremely unlikely that any force would try and parachute into an area like that. We had been told that if we stepped outside the front door of the building in which we were being held, we’d be shot dead, so we all thought that if anything like that were to be launched, and it was extremely unlikely it would, then we would not have made it out alive. They would have just come in and killed us before anyone could have possibly come in for us. That wasn’t a consideration this time. We all knew that no one was coming for us.
This tremendous value placed on a journalist being in a country of conflict and reporting – can you give me an example of a story that you could not report without being there?
I can, exactly. In Iraq, in 2004, I was in Najaf, which is one of the holiest cities for the Shi’ite population in Iraq and, indeed, around the world. We were in the middle of the city that was being held by the Mahdi militia. At one point, the government forces reported that the main shrine in Najaf was no longer in the hands of Muqtada al-Sadr’s forces. This was being reported by CNN and BBC as a claim.
I was standing very close to the shrine in the middle of the city when I got a call from BBC and CNN repeating the government’s claim that the shrine is no longer in the hands of the forces and, of course, that means the government has retaken it. And because they weren’t in the city, they had to report this as a claim. And of course, the forces would have to telephone and counter that, so nobody would have been anymore the wiser – there’s just this vague, “he said-she said” kind of journalism. Whereas when you’re actually standing next to the shrine, and you know full well that there’s been no battle and you walk right into it and you see Sadr’s forces sitting around with their RPGs and their Kalashnikov machine guns and pictures of Sadr on the gun stop, you’re in a position to pick up the telephone and say, “This is not true, the government is either lying or misinformed.”... I am there on the spot, in the shrine. “Nobody has retaken the shrine; Sadr’s forces have not left it; I am an eyewitness and you can take it as a fact.”
The story was killed stone dead within about a minute because I was there and a reporter from The Guardian was there. It was a claim made for whatever reason. It was just false and nailed immediately. So that’s a very good example.
Have you ever said to an assignment editor that to do what he asks is too dangerous?
All the time. In Iraq, when you were sitting in the Baghdad bureau between 2004 and 2008 or so, there would be bombs going off all the time. I mean six, seven, eight bombs a day. You would be making an assessment. Is that an area we can go to at this time? And sometimes there would be two, three days in a row where every single time it was fairly obvious that no, you cannot go there. You would want to find out what was happening on the ground, but there were just areas that would be suicidal to go to. You wouldn’t make it halfway there, and if you did, you would be grabbed off the streets immediately. That’s a decision that’s taken all the time.
Some argue that in wars past, correspondents who were killed were unlucky – a bomb fell near them or they were caught in cross fire – but now journalists wear targets on their backs. What do you think?
I think the danger of a journalist being caught in cross fire at the wrong place at the wrong time is as much a risk as it has ever been. One of my colleagues was recently killed in Misrata, Libya. I don’t know if he was targeted or not, but it could have very well been he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Journalists have been targeted in conflicts past.
That applies even more to [local] journalists in these countries. Iraqis, Afghans – they really are targeted.
People know where they live, where their families live, the routes they drive to work each day, and the risks they face as a result of that are even more than the risks that foreign journalists take. We’re all acutely aware of that. We face those risks.
The phrase “blame the messenger” is not a new one, certainly in the Serbian conflict many years ago.
Journalists who were driving in those long, narrow passes to get into Sarajevo, I think, were fully aware that they were being targeted by one side or another because they didn’t particularly want any more foreign reporting. If you go back in history, I’m sure you can find cases where people did not want accounts of failures or defeats or opposition victories getting out, so journalists would have been targeted as well.
In an interview I did with you some time ago, you described the act of writing as “communicating the extremes of human nature” to your readers. You said you write “to explain things” to yourself. So what have you learned after three brushes with death?
You do learn things about yourself and others. What I’ve learned is that people’s resilience is extraordinary. In extremes, you can be making decisions quite calmly for courses of action which come down to, “Should I do the thing which will probably get me killed, or should I do the thing that will possibly get me killed?” For instance, I was standing in the road in Libya, arguing with a Libyan soldier who was saying, “Why are you holding a camera; why are you being a journalist here?” and you can see the bullets flying around you coming in from the rebels. And you know if you stand up in the middle of this road having a conversation with a Libyan soldier, you’re going to get a bullet in the back and die in a few seconds, but if you run away from him while he’s interrogating you, he can shoot you in the head because he has a gun pointed at you, so you have to make a decision: Which is the most likely course of action to get me killed? In fact, standing in the street was the more dangerous course of action, so I just went anyway, hoping that the soldier would realize he should be running away as well. It’s not often in ordinary life that you get to make decisions like that, either “dead or possibly dead,” and it’s not addictive, it’s not a thrill. It’s a horrible situation to be in, and I never want to be in it again. But you do find out things about yourself and your colleagues alongside showing huge bravery in getting through situations like that.
What you learn about other people is th at even in places where the world is paint ing them black and white, it’s very much not the case. My captors showed extraordinary kindness to me in Iraq. There was one in particular who went along with w hat the others did, but as soon as he had me on his own, he ripped the blindfold off of me and said, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. You have to understand we’re ju st villagers. These people have taken over our town. We didn’t want this to happen to you. We have no argument against you. I’ll get you to safety now as quick as I possibly can.” And for the six hours bef ore that you just assumed he was one of t he thuggish psychopathic killers who wer e ranting and raving, but really he was jus t sitting there waiting to step in and do th e decent thing – which is what he did. He delivered us to safety.
One of the two Taliban who held me captive raised his gun to shoot us when we refused to go with him. He then looked at us, sort of shrugged and ran off.
He decided to spare us for no reason. He just didn’t see the need to kill us. You do appreciate that things on the ground are not as monolithic as they are painted by others.
Do your readers appreciate the risks you take to keep them informed?
I don’t know. It wouldn’t be something I would raise. I don’t appreciate the long hours of hard work, sweat and toil that they go through in their jobs in order to keep our society running smoothly. They don’t know or care about the many hours and days I spend researching the minutia of Israeli-Palestinian politics or Iraqi Sunni- Shi’a religious divisions in order to deliver a story about those religious divisions that involves no danger to myself. That’s just part of the process of the work I do, and people only see and know the finished product. I don’t expect lionization or condemnation for what I do. It’s part of what we do.
How do you feel about the self-appointed experts who opine on their blogs without getting as dirty as you do?  How should readers view them?
I think the digitization of news and the phenomenon of the Internet in which people can turn to many more outlets than just the traditional mainstream media is, in my mind, almost always a good thing. People have more perspectives.
I’ve thought about this a lot. Is a blogger any less useful because he or she is thousands of miles away from the action? Well, that depends. There are many different types of blogs, many different types of writing and many different types of correspondents.
The correspondent at a major outlet sitting in Washington can have an extremely valuable view of what’s going on because he or she has access to policymakers with expertise.
I would break it down like this: It’s entirely possible that someone sitting in the US can know more about weapons systems, or the particular nature of the politics or religion of the dispute that’s going, and can provide really good insights into what’s going on – even more than I do when I’m sitting in the middle, right there. So there are people you would read because they have expertise they bring to bear: technical, religious, social, political, cultural, which is not affected by their proximity to the conflict.
There are others who are trying to second- guess what’s happening on the ground from five or six mainstream reports and a few on-the-ground-blogs that bring... no expertise or critical faculties to bear other than their opinion, and obviously they are less important.
Couldn’t that wreak havoc in the future for the quality of news reporting – particularly for those who don’t know the difference?
You have to trust the readership to mark the difference between those who are on the ground and who aren’t. Let’s take... my colleague, Chris Chivers, who has written a book about the Kalashnikov [assault rifle].
Now, Chris can be in the middle of Afghanistan and be shown a picture of a weapon that’s been captured thousands of miles away in Libya, and can instantly tell you from the serial number or the shape of the barrel that this weapon comes from such-and-such an area, was made in suchand- such an area, what its history is and how it likely ended up there thousands of miles away. He has expertise, and I wouldn’t begin to assess weapons to the same degree he has.
There are others who spent all their life in these parts of the world and know the language, know the different dialects in these conflicts better than I do. You would pay careful attention to the nuances of what they are telling you about clerics and so on and so forth. I trust that they are sensible enough to put their knowledge out there in their posts for people to see, and over time people will realize that a particular blog or newspaper, Web edition or e-mail alert, is providing them with useful and valuable information, while others are just providing an opinion which may or may not have any basis in valuable experience.
Your reporting in Libya was cut short. If you were to go back again, what would you go back to report on? What’s missing? What’s not being told?
I think we’d be reporting on exactly what we’d been reporting on before. We were trying to get a sense of who is likely to win. Is it likely to be a stalemate? [Would Western] intervention have any effect, or would we be miring ourselves in a conflict that’s going to be back-and-forth for months or years?
What drives you?
Just what drives every other journalist: to tell people what is going on on his beat, on his patch, on his watch.