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Why do journalists risk their lives in war zones?

In a devastating blow to journalism, award-winning photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed while covering a battle between rebels and Libyan government forces in the city of Misrata on Wednesday.

Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent, has spent over a decade reporting from war zones across the Middle East, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, and most recently on the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. 
In a phone interview while driving back into Libya from Egypt after a brief break, he discussed the tragic deaths of Hetherington and Hondros and why war reporters do what they do.

When something like the deaths of these two photojournalists happen, people always ask why do war reporters do it? What motivates them to risk their lives to tell the story?
Engel: I think Tim and Chris were doing this because they clearly loved it. They were in a position to experience world events first-hand and to make a difference. Their work portrayed war in a close-up fashion that showed the world what conflict is really like, what it’s like for the victims and what it’s like for the soldiers.

I think that unique experience and perspective compelled them to do what they did. And it inspires all of us to do it. And in this community of reporters, their loss is very deeply felt. There is a palpable feeling of loss among their colleagues today. 

Did you ever work with either of them?
Engel: Tim was one of the co-directors of the documentary “Restrepo.” He and Sebastian Junger spent a lot of time in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. Coincidentally it was the same outpost that we made a documentary about it called “Tip of the Spear.” So I know what they went through because we also spent a great deal of time at the same outpost called Restrepo.

It was an incredibly dangerous place with very poor conditions – hiking for hours a day up and down mountain sides. To do this kind of work it takes tremendous dedication, tremendous willingness to put yourself at risk and tremendous physical stamina. Tim was 41 years old, but he was running up and down mountains alongside U.S. troops  who are on average 22, 23, 24 years old.

I unfortunately never had the pleasure of knowing Tim, but I know his work and was envious of the incredible material he got. We were at the same place, but he got so many pictures that I wish I had gotten myself.

Chris was definitely a part of the community of reporters;  everybody knew him. There is a very small group of war correspondents – people who you consistently see. In Baghdad, in South Lebanon, in Afghanistan, in Libya now – there are maybe a couple of hundred people – and that includes Europeans, Americans – that’s it.

Chris Hondros / Getty Images

In this photo by Chris Hondros a rebel fighter celebrates as his comrades fire a rocket barrage toward the positions of troops loyal to Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi on April 14, 2011 west of Ajdabiyah, Libya.

Our community has taken an incredibly hard blow since 9/11. Every few months it seems, or certainly every year – but it seems now more like several times a year – we lose somebody. And that is difficult. Some new people join, but I’ve been covering the Middle East for 15 years and I can’t remember another period where every few months it seems like we lose another colleague. 

Iraq was terrible, Afghanistan has been terrible and Libya has been very rough on reporters.

Chris was one of the guys you saw everywhere. He knew everyone. We’d go out to the same restaurants and often hang out together in the same hotels. So there is a definite bond. While soldiers talk about a bond that develops in a platoon,  among this small group of reporters there is also the same kind of solidarity and feeling of family that grows.

Do you think that feeling of community among the reporters makes it possible to do what you do?
Engel: I think we definitely look out for each other. I’ve been in many circumstances where fellow colleagues put themselves at great risk to help other colleagues.

I remember in Iraq, a good friend of mine stayed behind and stopped reporting so he could try to get his colleagues out of jail. You see things like that.  In Iraq, when one of the media hotels was bombed, it was reporters who carried fellow reporters down the steps and into vehicles to try to help them get some medical attention.

And again yesterday, it was reporters, as well as some Libyans and hospital officials, who were carrying their colleagues to safety  to  this triage center in Misrata. So there certainly is a feeling of not only community  but of support. You are trying to look out for each other because when you are out in a war zone behind an enemy line,  there are only so many people you can rely on.

And this conflict in Libya is very different from Iraq or Afghanistan. Most of the time in Iraq or Afghanistan when Western reporters went out on the front lines, they went on embeds with American troops. Here you are going with the rebel movement that doesn’t have medics with them or any of those kinds of support mechanisms.

Tim Hetherington / Panos Pictures

In this photo taken by Tim Hetherington a rebel soldier controls a crowd during the Ivory Coast Patriotic Movement (MPCI) uprising at the beginning of the civil war, which began with a rebellion by army mutineers on 19th September 2002.

I know you are driving into Libya right now, but do you ever get scared? Think to yourself, 'Gee, should I keep going?'
Engel: I wouldn’t say it scares me or changes my perspective. I accepted this kind of life long ago, so I know what the dangers are. What I really feel today is a tragic loss for these colleagues.

It’s an incredible loss for their families, Chris was about to get married. Yes, it could happen to any of us, but yesterday it happened to them. It’s such a terrible event. My heart goes out not only to them individually, but to their families.

They were both young but so experienced. And there is nothing you can really do when you are running around in a war zone and people are firing shells from the sky and RPGs on the streets. You can take precautions – and I’m sure they did try to take cover – but you need to be there to get those images and to tell the story of what’s going on. Sometimes you can’t avoid the dangers and you are just exposed.  

The whole point of going to these places seems to be the hope that the stories and pictures have an impact? Is that what keeps people going?
Engel: I think we are all to a degree motivated by the fact that people will see these images and understand what war is all about. That people will understand what is happening right now. The costs that are associated with our military actions or military inactions. And I think that desire to expose current events for what they are motivates us.

No one who is professional – and these two were certainly professional – is motivated by some sort of chasing of a thrill or the adrenaline rush. Both Tim and Chris had been out there long enough that any naïve desire to chase adrenaline was long gone.

These were serious people who were professional and had tremendous experience. Maybe some people start out with the excitement of war – it seems new, it seems exciting, running around with flak jackets behind enemy lines. Once you’ve done that once or twice and you decide to stick with it, you are sticking with it not because you are chasing adrenaline, it’s because you believe what you are doing is important.

Otherwise, you could go bungee jumping for a living – it gives you much more of a rush and it is relatively safer. For these guys  that’s not what it was about.

The amazing thing about Libya is that you’ve got people who are really experienced – the New York Times journalists who were detained by Gadhafi’s forces and abused were among the most experienced reporters you could get. Tim and Chris were also among the most experienced war photographers that you are going to find anywhere. That is certainly sobering,  but at the end of the day it is just more tragic. They are a loss to their families and a loss to journalism.

But would the world be worse off if people didn’t have access to war zones and didn’t know what was going on in places like Misrata? Who would benefit from that? I can only imagine it would be war criminals, murderers, rapists, dictators, war profiteers – they would be the ones who would benefit by a lack of exposure in conflict zones.

We are heading into Tripoli now. Obviously when something like this happens you have to take precautions and think about what you are heading into. But I don’t think you are going to see a mass exodus quitting their profession.

I think people are mourning this loss. Certainly people are reflecting on the loss of a friend, a loss to our very tightly knit, but dwindling community. People are just very sorry about what happened. 

Related links:
See a slideshow of Tim Hetherington's photographs
See a slideshow of Chris Hondros images from Libya 
PhotoBlog: A loss for photojournalism