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Hither and Yon

What Kenji Goto understood that his killers did not

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
The murder of journalists at the hands of ISIS forces shows how far a few daring correspondents will go to find out what’s going on.
Covering wars has always been hazardous, never more so than when highly resourceful, motivated reporters go beyond the protective cover of military units with which they are “embedded,” mingle with people of uncertain loyalties and affiliations and look for trouble — that is, the war they’re trying to witness. For those journalists, seeing is believing. That axiom applies especially to camera people, for whom there’s no substitute for recording the images on film.

The nature of the conflicts flaring across the Middle East if anything seems more dangerous than the wars that I remember first-hand in Southeast Asia or those that I’ve read about. Journalists were killed by shots and shells, when aircraft blew up or in accidents, but they didn’t have to range so far over uncharted territory to get close to the war. And there were no instances of beheading — the fate of several journalists, most recently the Japanese free-lancer Kenji Goto, at the hands of ISIS.

You have to wonder how dangerous it would be to cover Korea in the event of war. For years we’ve been writing about crisis of one sort or another — between North and South Korea or protests on the streets of Seoul — but journalists in Korea rarely face personal risks. You may be sure, though, the hazards would multiply rapidly in the case of a “second Korean War” or, for that matter, the “collapse” of North Korea, as forecast most recently by none other than President Obama.

If recent history is any guide, we may have to wait a while for the Korean story to turn dangerous. Right now the closest we get to North-South action is maybe a site from which North Korean defectors launch balloons from which leaflets and DVDs are dropped over the North. Despite threats from Pyongyang, chances of North Korean gunners firing in retaliation for a launch are remote. No one gets into the North Korean countryside to see what life is really like there beyond the reach of the telescopic lenses that experienced photographers use to give an impression they’ve gone beyond what’s visible from their tour van.

The hazards of covering a region ebb and flow. Years ago, you could go by car from the Syrian capital of Damascus to Amman, the capital of Jordan, with no concerns about ambushes or kidnappings. Similarly, you could drive from Baghdad in Iraq to the Turkish, Jordanian or Syrian frontiers while the dictator Saddam Hussein was in power. No one imagined the level of terrorism that would engulf the region even after the attacks of 9/11/2001 on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The U.S. response, in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, was to annihilate a threat that’s only increased in the years since then.

It’s easy to be deceived. I remember in Cambodia going down roads that seemed tranquil while Prince Norodom Sihanouk proclaimed that his country was an “oasis of peace.” The country turned into one of history’s bloodiest killing grounds in the decade after his overthrow in 1970. In Vietnam, you drove about as far as American and South Vietnamese troops were able to keep the road secure, but you weren’t always sure where the security ended.

During the North Vietnamese offensive of July 1972, Alexander Shimkin, an activist turned journalist, was killed when he and Chad Huntley, a journalist whom I came to know quite well, strayed into a North Vietnamese ambush off route one, the main North-South highway. Huntley told me much later that he had known enough to get away while Shimkin naively tried to talk to the North Vietnamese in Vietnamese.

Foreign correspondents aren’t the only journalists to risk their lives. The hazards increase for reporters who live in regions about which they’re writing. Hundreds of local journalists have died from the Middle East to Asia, notably in the Philippines. The killers, more often than not, are corrupt politicos whom the journalists have mocked, exposed, or just opposed. The single worst slaughter of journalists in history was the massacre in Maguindanao Province of the Philippines in November 2009 in which 34 reporters were among 58 people killed by gunmen for a local political machine as they were on their way to register the candidacy of an opposition figure.

War reporting takes a special desire to get up close to the drama. You never get used to the violence and suffering. “Hate is not for humans,” Kenji Goto wrote in 2010 in a tweet that’s now all over the internet. “Judgment lies with God. That’s what I learned from my Arabic brothers and sisters.” In retrospect, he was writing his own epitaph — one that his killers will never begin to understand.

Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com.
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