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My Job is to Report What I See, Not What People Want to Hear

3 November 2001

This was the week when a CNN manager felt obliged to remind his troops in the field to remember the scale of what happened to America on 11 September. Many of you might think it strange that he should feel it necessary to issue such an injunction.

The media is certainly a fickle and promiscuous creature. In the world of 24-hour news nothing lasts for long. But 11 September was of a different order, an event so vastly murderous that we have not begun to come to terms with its impact on our collective psyche.

Walter Isaacson told his correspondents and producers that concentrating too much on the plight of Afghan refugees and civilian casualties might seem perverse in the context of what happened to the US on 11 September. The audience should be reminded that the Taliban harbored terrorists and was using human shields. The former statement is absolutely correct, the latter has yet to be verified.

A Pentagon general was more blunt. When asked for his response to the news of civilian casualties, the general replied that the military always tried to minimize such casualties. But then he added that when he thought of civilian casualties, he thought of the thousands of people who had been killed in the attacks on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. In the context of what America suffered on 11 September, there are those who would say his was an understandable reaction. But the tone of such comments seems decidedly out of step with the twin-track military/humanitarian campaign pledged at the outset by our own Government.

The real problem about setting the refugees' story in the context of 11 September is that none of them had any responsibility for the terrible events of that day. A refugee crisis existed in Pakistan before the war, and it has been exacerbated by the bombing. The bombing in turn was a response to the actions of al-Qa'ida. Fair enough. But to insert lines at the end of a report, which in some way enmesh the refugees in America's tragedy, is to run the risk of blaming people however subtly for an event in which they had no part. The place to set the context of what America suffered, and its arguments in justification of the war, is somewhere else in your news bulletin.

This strikes me as a very different argument to the issue of proportion and fact. Certainly what is needed is rigor and accuracy, a determination to get to the truth of the assertions being made by the refugees themselves, by the non-governmental organizations and by the various governments and factions involved in this war. The Taliban will not allow any foreign journalists into Afghanistan except on carefully chaperoned tours. They make frequent claims about large numbers of civilian casualties that nobody can possibly confirm or contradict. But as the war drags on, fewer journalists believe them, relying instead on the eyewitness evidence they can piece together from refugees leaving the country. So if, as wars go and I made this point on the BBC's Six O'Clock News this one is as difficult to report as they come, that's largely because of the Taliban.

In Britain, we have had criticisms from people such as Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary. I don't see any reason to fulminate against a minister protecting his Government. That is his job. My job is to report the truth of what is happening to the refugees as best I can, recognizing that in the fog of war, there are things you miss, and there are things that the government of your country will not like. But I don't think any government minister really believes we should be in the business of qualifying our refugee stories with direct reference to 11 September, or playing them down because they can't compare in anguish to what happened in America.

In the dream world of some newspaper editors, war should be about our boys getting the baddies and returning the world to normal. As the mighty Sun put it: "KICK ASS, TONY.'' But when war turns out to be messy and brutal, and when the media reflects this fact, it is not only liberals who become queasy but also the gung ho. Their unease is reflected not in a spirit of open self-questioning, but in a wish to deny the reality of warfare. Spare them the imagery of desolate refugees or children with their bodies shredded by shrapnel. In their fantasy world, the Northern Alliance consists of a noble band of warriors, the recently deceased Abdul Haq was the great hope for a new Afghanistan, the exiled king a figurehead who could unite all Afghans. These who know Afghanistan don't know whether to laugh or to cry when they read this rubbish.

War is nasty and brutal. And in this war we will unintentionally kill innocent people. Many others will become refugees. When bombs fall, people flee. Anybody who believes that we will fight according to some ancient chivalrous code in set places at set times is sadly deluded. That is not to say that different combatants do not have different rules. Yes Allied bombs are going astray on occasion and civilians are being killed, but this is a very different proposition to the war run by al-Qa'ida in which civilians are the primary target.

What should make our society different from the lunatics who follow bin Laden is the ability to feel unease when confronted with the sight of wounded women and children. In the Second World War, one might have described it as the difference between a man such as Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke and Heinrich Himmler. The SS leader reveled in slaughter and had not one ounce of compassion for his victims; the Chief of the Imperial General Staff on the other hand suffered the anguish of one who was very good at making war but loathed its inherent inhumanity.

I have always believed that recording the stories of the smaller voices in war is a crucial responsibility. I learnt that nearly 20 years ago in a tent in the mountains of Eritrea watching a child writhe in agony from napalm dropped by Ethiopian MIG fighters. Such stories are an essential part of the history of our times. Those I interviewed on my trip to Pakistan included a family who described a bombing raid on their home village, an old man who had been shot by the Taliban, a man who described how the Taliban were forcibly recruiting men in the mosques, a doctor who had treated the dying son of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, and many others who described simply how they were frightened and hungry and angry at having to leave their homes.

Much of what I and other correspondents have reported has to do with the shambolic situation that greeted refugees when they arrived at the border. Until a week ago there was nowhere for them to go. So those who had money bribed their way into Pakistan and the others sat in the dust and misery of no man's land or tried to cross by remote mountain tracks.

All of this is relevant to the war and critically to its aftermath. We will be part of an effort to put Afghanistan back together. It is well that we know what is involved and how the people of the country regard us. And if what we preach is a society based on human rights, then it is right to tell the stories of the refugees and, in doing so, recognize their humanity.

Fergal Keane.
Published in the Independent.
2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.

Index page on Response to attacks in US


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