Tips for survival in war zones

Freelance television producer/director Cassian Harrison addressed the December Branch meeting on the subject of reporting from Afghanistan. With reporter Saira Shah, Harrison made a much-admired documentary, Beneath the Veil during - as it turned out - the last days of the Taliban regime. The programme was shown last June on Channel 4.

"Is it true," asked a Branch member "that if you get into trouble in a war zone, you should say you're from the BBC?"

Cassian Harrison advised against this (unless you really are) but admitted that it isn't that easy. Most people he came across in Afghanistan insisted that he was a man from Auntie, however much he denied it. He blames the World Service.

Beneath the veil owed its success to its production team's sensitivity and background knowledge. Journalists should remember, Harrison said, that in Afghanistan and other parts of the Islamic world, "our idea of news is not theirs... You think you're doing the right thing - but if you go into camps and among the poor, saying you're going to tell their story to the west... it's a bit insulting... people are desperate, and that makes them aggressive and resentful." After all, they see it as the West's fault they are where they are. "No one is going to be grateful to you."

The Islamic world feels that the West is trying to take it over and impose its values - people won't appreciate a journalist who seems to want to do just that.

Afghanistan, he warned, may seem like a glamorous and "sexy" place to make your name - but don't be seduced by the myth. It's dangerous (more so since the end of the Taliban regime), and there are lots of people with guns, who are quite happy to use them.

What's the secret of getting a good story as safely as possible?

Have a clear idea of what you are doing and how you are going to do it - be "desertwise" as you might be streetwise in London. Work with local people with care. Afghans, despite the guns, are incredibly hospitable and eager to help. Don't ask anyone to put themselves at risk for you, because the customs of hospitality compel them to do just that, and they could get killed for your story. Go for eyewitness accounts rather than exclusive images that could end up with your own death or that of others. Don't be bullied by newsdesks back home wanting things that are impossible.

Remember that your gender will make a difference to what you can do - in Afghanistan, as in much of the world, men can get plugged into the bureaucracy and the official line, but can't get into people's homes and private lives. For women, it's just the opposite.

Preparation is vital. For Beneath the Veil the Channel 4 team had approached the UN in Islamabad, and NGOs, including the Red Cross (which publishes material on survival in war zones). It's not the BBC - but there was still back-up from a major media company - including insurance, and the "fixing" they needed. Working solo would, Harrison thought, be much riskier.

As a postscript, he explained his own eccentric entry into war reporting - via corporate videos. One was for the Royal Mail - and he found himself filming a gun attack on a relief convoy it had sent into Sarajevo.

We all have to start somewhere.

Last modified: 22 December 2001 - © 2001 contributors
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