Journalists tell their experience in conflict zones.

By Kirsten Jacobs

“As I walked, they pulled the trigger. One of the first shots was missed. There was a second shot which hit my right leg…they removed their helmets and started hitting me with their helmets…they tried to chop my arm off. But at that time, I had this instinctive urge to resist”. Umaru Fofana’s first experience in a war zone is just one example of the dangers journalists face in conflict areas.

In a panel entitled ‘Covering Conflict’, three journalists detailed their experiences in conflict zones. Catherine Wambua of Al Jazeera opened the session with her experience covering the South Sudanese war. Journalist commonly face issues of access, safety and trust in conflict zones.  Her presence as a woman in a male-dominated zone adds another element. Wambua detailed her methods of negotiating power dynamics in such spaces, explaining that reading a situation and knowing when to resist versus when to submit is key. She advised journalists to use locals to gather information and build databases, “because they act as your eyes and ears on the ground”. Wambua described the death of American journalist Christopher Alan in South Sudan, which could have been prevented had he kept in contact with the locals.

Umaru Fofana, BBC correspondent, gave a grueling testimony of his first experience in a conflict zone. His attempt to gather information during the Sierra Leone civil war turned into a night of dehumanizing abuse, during which he was severely beaten, shot at and tortured, narrowly escaping death. This experience impacted on his mental health resulting in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder which also involved his family.  He stressed the importance of working through the trauma. “The BBC offered counselling sessions which really helped.”

Mokhtar Alibrahim, editor of the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, has been covering the Syrian war. A Syrian himself, Alibrahim has had to tread the delicate line between nationalism and honesty. His proximity to the war adds a personal element to his coverage, encouraging him to tell the real stories of the people unseen in commercial coverage.

Conflict zones and trauma cannot be separated. The impact this can have on journalists on the front line cannot be ignored. Building coping methods and learning negotiation tactics is key to minimizing the devastating after effects.  With one question, Wambua summed up the discussion: “Try and get the story, yes, but is it worth your life?”.

PHOTO: (From left) Catherine Wambua, Vivienne Walt, Mokhtar Alibrahim and Umaru Fofana discuss resilience and resistance in conflicted zones. Photo: Junior Khumalo.