What did I learn? Never be so arrogant as to presume you must be right. Always expect the unexpected. Think more about what you don’t know than what you do. Consider the worst case scenario, and imagine it really happening. Ponder the impact on each of your loved ones. Challenge yourself about whether the story is worth the risk. Why are you doing it?
Eleven years ago, after the Gulf War, I was a young stringer with a big ego when, with two other young Western stringers, I snuck into northern Iraq. I had traveled to the region from El Salvador, where I wrote for both print dailies and weeklies, but I made most of my money from CBS News Radio. It was never much, as they paid me only $45 every time either my voice or any “actuality” – like “bang-bang” – was aired; during sustained combat I sometimes negotiated for a “danger day rate” of another $250. I paid my own health insurance through the only company I could find that did not exclude injuries from “acts of war.” The network’s appetite for combat sounds financed many time-consuming print stories, especially human rights investigations, and it paid the rent in Central America.
It was later in the Middle East during a broad uprising against Saddam by his own people after the Gulf War that I told CBS Radio that I was going into northern Iraq from Syria. Thirty minutes later, a radio producer in New York told me, “Television would like to talk you.” I was expecting just that. I knew CBS had a video-8 camera in their Damascus office where I was, and, while I had never before used one, my colleague, free-lance photographer Gad Gross, had made videos as a student at Harvard. Gad and I agreed to split the television profits, while Gad’s photo agent, JB Pictures, agreed to represent us in any negotiations over footage with CBS News and others.
“We’d like you to take the high-8,” said a CBS TV producer over the phone, “on a right-of-first-refusal basis.” In other words, we will lend you our equipment if you allow us before any other networks the option to buy any footage you may shoot. Price is of course negotiable on a case-by-case basis. Since I did not have a satellite phone and could not represent myself over each tape, I brought in Gad’s agent in New York to tip the negotiating balance in our favor. We used both volunteer and paid couriers to send out footage from inside Iraq, including some light combat that I had shot in Kirkuk, a Kurdish city on the front line between Saddam’s forces and Iraqi rebels. I recorded the “bang-bang” separately on both video and audio tape along with my own voice making a new non-negotiable demand.
“CBS, I prohibit you from airing this tape or any other tape including the video” of the same combat “unless you agree to pay me a danger-day-rate of $250 today and every day after, including if I were imprisoned, until I get out of Iraq.” I had been filing for CBS radio for three years, and I knew the radio producers would honor my request – and that if they did, so would television. The first producer who heard my offer on tape said he said out loud in the studio, “Cheap, Frank. Cheap.” While radio gave me the day-rate, JB Pictures and CBS still disagreed on the price of the video footage. The CBS Evening News ran it anyway.
Our world changed forever shortly thereafter. A few groups of journalists, including an ABC News TV crew, came to Kirkuk to film a dateline and leave soon after. But myself, Gad Gross and Alain Buu, a French free-lance photographer, all elected to stay. The battle lines between Iraqi troops and anti-Saddam rebels had not changed for days, and rebel commanders told us that the only reason the Iraqi troops had not yet retreated was because they would be shot by Republican Guard troops who were no doubt deployed behind them.
I asked one rebel commander, Fahdil, on camera whether Saddam’s troops were planning a counter-attack. “No,” he replied shyly, as if he did not want to embarrass me for asking what he obviously thought was an uninformed question. “Today we are here. Tomorrow we will be there,” he said, pointing southwest toward Iraq government positions.
I believed him and made the same case to my colleagues; none of us was expecting the worst. Saddam began his northern counteroffensive in Kirkuk, using helicopter gunships followed by tanks to decimate the rebels. There were thousands of armed rebels still in the city, along with thousands of civilians. I filmed lines of walking women carrying or towing tearing children following roads out of town as the city was falling.
We hitched a ride with one rebel and drove straight into an ambush. Gad ran off toward some houses with our armed Kurdish guerrilla guide, another young man named Bakhtiar Abdel al-Rahman, while Alain and I dove into a nearby ditch.
In the morning, soldiers captured two people among the houses and executed them within minutes – one after the other. We heard a loud scream in between and afterward, peaking out from the ditch, we both saw a soldier walking away with Gad’s camera bag. I felt like I was a little boy who had agreed to play a deadly game of hide-and-seek with some bigger kids, and I had agreed that they could kill me if they caught me as I foolishly thought that would never happen. Alain and I laid in opposite directions in the ditch to try and surrender if we were spotted. Soon he jumped up and said, “Sahafi” or journalist. “What are you doing?” I asked as I reluctantly followed.
Soldiers rushed us like dogs around weaker prey. They threatened to kill us and seemed close to doing so when a tall Iraqi officer wearing the solid green uniform of the ruling Ba’ath party intervened, insisting we be saved for interrogation. We were blindfolded during many interrogations, but fortunately we were never tortured. Yet while we remained off-limits for abuse, we were imprisoned in a large facility West of Baghdad where we saw Saddam’s guards torture many Iraqis accused of disloyalty to Saddam, including one adolescent boy.
Finally, after 18 days in captivity, Alain and I were released under Saddam’s personal orders on the last night of Ramadan, or the holy Muslim month of fasting.
We told colleagues about Gad. The money he and I made together from CBS News after post-broadcast negotiations amounted to $12,000 that I split with his mother. She has yet to bury Gad, her only son, and Saddam’s regime now controls Kirkuk. The Kurds built a statue of Gad further north in Iraq. The figure’s hands are placed around a camera hanging from his neck as if he were trying to protect it from harm.
It took me years to be able to even really talk about the experience, let alone write about it. The kicker is obvious. Everyone is responsible for their own actions, and each of us is defined in life by every choice we make.
Frank Smyth also covered the Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq for The Economist and The Village Voice. He is a free-lance journalist and Washington Representative of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.