Six years ago, when a friend and colleague, Norwegian journalist Torgeir Norling, last visited another friend, journalist and author Daniel Pedersen, he told him: “There’s no heroes here, why should I give a fuck? And why bother? There is no reason.” A week later Tor was dead after falling or throwing himself under a bus in Bangkok in the early hours of the morning not far from the bar he had run.
We, his friends, never knew if it was suicide or not, but Tor, who had shared so many dangers, hardships and fear with us, was gone.
Tor was a journalist’s journalist. I had covered East Timor with him in the late ’90s. Like me, he had gone on to cover Iraq, Afghanistan, Aceh, Sri Lanka and Burma. At the worst of times he was there, feverish and sometimes panic stricken, a diet of Coca-Cola and cigarettes adding to his anxiety as we waited for the inevitable militia attack in East Timor or warily approached another armed roadblock with the near certainty of arrest and detainment by hostile authorities in a host of conflicts.
Why did he do it? Why did some Western journalists feel compelled to risk their lives to report what many journalists and media organisations in Australia, the US and the UK would directly contradict? I believe he did it because he thought it mattered, that people needed to know what was being done in their name. I’ll never forget his advice to me in 2007 when I met him in Bangkok as I headed back to Iraq. He had been on an embed — i.e. attached to a military unit — near Baghdad with the American troops and said simply: “Be careful, it is insane what is happening now. They are getting hit all the time.”
Back in East Timor in the late ’90s I was trying to report on the nascent movement for independence, as was Tor. There were seldom any other journalists there, and those who were did not stay long. The story simply didn’t sell. It was going nowhere. Two dead here, three there, a shooting on a Sunday afternoon by the Indonesians who, almost to script, denied responsibility and blamed the East Timorese for the gunshot-ridden bodies that lay in the streets surrounded by crowds that screamed and yelled at us, the journalists, that the Indonesian police and military were the ones who had done the shooting.
Why were we there and why did we report it? Why and how did we later report on the humanitarian catastrophes of the US led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and their aftermaths? There are journalists who still try to make a difference and work within a system that is deeply flawed and try to present a reality that often runs counter to the dominant media paradigm dictated by the political, economic and ideological constraints of the 21st-century Western media landscape.
Why did journalists go to such lengths to report these two conflicts? Those who bore witness were driven mad, permanently disabled and even killed by these wars. The answer, in all honesty, was to find that nebulous perception of reality known simply as “the truth”.
Without putting too fine a point on it the ramifications of the decisions, developments and implementations of the policies that Tor and I and a small group of journalists tried to examine continue to be felt globally today. This week Reuters reported 35,000 Syrian refugees stranded on the Turkey-Syria border. I have been there this time of year. It is cold. Damn cold. Think of the worst mornings in an Australian mid-winter. And 35,000 people sleeping outside. In tents if they are lucky.
The highest influx of unauthorised immigration to Europe since the second world war is ongoing. They come from the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, among others. The rise of Daesh and associated domestic terror threats dominate the news and have spread globally. The Iraqi government has lost control of vast swathes of territory in the north and west of the country, the very same areas I and Tor spent years trying to report from. The ideological motivations for Daesh come from this time and mark the beginning point of this movement of the disaffected Sunni former elite of Iraq that has become radicalised and has morphed from the battlefields and coalition prisons of Iraq. Think Abu Ghraib outside Baghdad and Camp Bucca near the Kuwaiti border — thousands held by the coalition without charge then released in the 2000s to form the movement that we (the US and allied countries) are still technically fighting today.
Similarly, in Afghanistan, the regular attacks on the remaining foreign forces and the contractors they employ continue into 2016. Despite the deaths of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, the country is still in a state of constant war. Areas in the south, where hundreds of US and British and 41 Australian soldiers lost their lives, such as Helmand and Uruzgan, are now slipping back into Taliban control. The journalists have left with the foreign forces, and such reversals are barely reported. The truth of the situation — which governments, militaries and some sections of the press spent so many years trying to deny — has been revealed. But very few are telling that story now, which is why I have written this piece.
I could quote many examples of how commentators, journalists, academics and politicians have begun accepting and repeating many of the fundamental truths and facts after years of deriding and contradicting those who earlier published the same observations. Countless examples reveal how flawed assessments from the military and a sympathetic Western media led directly to the same problems faced today in both countries and now Syria. These problems are now, through the spread of those fleeing these conflicts and also by those who are adopting the ideologies spawned by the insurgents, becoming international issues.
I’ll never know if Tor died as a result of his trauma from Iraq or a simple accident, but I do know that for those few of us who tried to cover and tell the stories of these wars that we saw this coming. We saw the hate our governments, the US, Australia and the UK, were creating.
As British Air Marshall “Bomber” Harris said when asked by the BBC why he had carpet bombed German civilians in the final years of World War II: “They sowed the wind, and now, they are going to reap the whirlwind.” The same can be said now in relation to our actions leading to the Islamic extremism we now face and have to live with. What can I say? We tried to tell you. Some of us died trying.