Media: The survivor who didn't: More and more journalists are being murdered, and they're not all raw recruits, says Robert Fisk

I met Alexandra Tuttle in Sarajevo this summer. A bubbling Francophile American, she travelled with the French press, flak jacket dangling nonchalantly from her shoulder as she set off from the Holiday Inn each morning for the familiar, dangerous routine of reporting on the front lines and hospitals.

Gregarious would be the word that comes to mind. Alexandra was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, for whom she had written more than 70 first-rate, analytical stories. We had a silly row one night when she claimed that Iran was a threat to 'Saudi democracy', and I tried to convince her that, for all its sins, Iran at least had a parliament while Saudi Arabia, for all its money, had none.

But she was generous enough to take my English cynicism in good heart. She wanted to know about my own home base of Beirut, about why I thought the Gulf war was a tragedy. My answer - that all wars are a tragedy because wars are primarily about death - met with her total agreement. Then I left for northern Bosnia and she returned to her home in Paris, where she kept a much-talked about dog called George.

A survivor, I thought. We journalists judge people like that these days. Alexandra Tuttle would survive.

So when I flew into Beirut from Cairo a few weeks ago, it was hard to believe the lonely little paragraph I read in the Lebanese papers. Alexandra Tuttle had been killed in Sukhumi, burnt to death in a military aircraft that had been hit by a ground-to-air missile.

Impossible. Survivors don't get killed. But true. Alexandra, one of her close friends told me, had boarded the flight in Tbilisi on 22 September, anxious to conduct a second interview with Eduard Shevardnadze who was still holding out in Sukhumi. A German photographer on the flight had second thoughts and disembarked before take-off, urging Alexandra to do the same. She refused.

She had not even told her news desk of her plans; so she lay for five days in a grave near Sukhumi airport before her employers, and her parents in Maryland, realised she was missing. The plane had broken in two when the Abkhazian missile hit it. Everyone in the front half died; Alexandra was in the cockpit.

The airport was under artillery fire at the time, but someone found her shredded US passport and a crumpled photograph of her dog, George. With permission from the victorious Abkhazians, her family and friends are still hoping to repatriate her remains, if they can find her grave.

Even if we have never met those of our colleagues who pay so terrible a price for their vocation, the statistics of journalistic fatalities are now truly shocking. In 1992, 61 of all nationalities were shot, bombed or knifed to death - the largest number in Turkey, which always heads Index on Censorship's monthly list of countries in which journalists are murdered.

In the past 21 months, 37 journalists have died in the former Yugoslavia alone, many killed deliberately by snipers. David Kaplan, of ABC News, was shot dead near Sarajevo airport on 13 August 1992. The bullet entered his car between the T and V of the 'TV' sign pasted on the side; he was not wearing a flak jacket - which is why we all now clank around in 10kg vests and helmets.

Time was, we fondly believed, when we could claim some immunity: neutral observers of the truth, respected by all sides. Death would be generous and pass us by.

Maybe it started going wrong in Lebanon when journalists became the prey of kidnappers, who did not care about the press. Eighteen journalists died there, many of whom I knew. Clark Todd of Canadian Television, killed in the Chouf mountain war in 1983, wrote a last message of love to his family on a pillow case as he lay dying in the village of Kfar Matta. Robert Pfeffer, a German magazine reporter, was shot dead in front of his wife by Palestinian gunmen in Beirut. Toufiq Ghazawi and Bahij Metni, a CBS Lebanese crew, were torn to pieces by an Israeli tank shell near Kfar Melki after surviving 10 years of war.

Survivors do die, which is why many of us have developed weird habits. Martin Bell of the BBC wears mismatching socks in Bosnia. I try to avoid leaving for a dangerous location with any remark that could be remembered as 'last words'. Never, never leave for a battle with comments such as 'Don't worry, I'll be OK,' or 'I hope the desk knows the risks we're taking'. We all know we may not be OK, and we all suspect (sometimes rightly) that our news desks do not know the risks.

The younger we are, the more exposed we are. The first time I drove into Israeli tank fire in southern Lebanon in 1978 - in those days we had no flak jackets - I was so frightened that I started saying crazy things to myself like 'Death can't be that bad', or 'Well, at least if I die, I'll have another story tomorrow which won't be so risky'.

I have often wondered whether the first journalists to die in Croatia, then in Bosnia, did so largely because they were young and inexperienced; because many of them knew only the Hollywood variety of war, where the stars always survive the death of their characters. There is a little Somme waiting for all innocent journalists.

In northern Kurdistan, a young American freelance on his very first war assignment was murdered by Iraqi soldiers. Gad Gross was a driven, brave young man who turned up briefly in Beirut before the Gulf war embraced the slaughter of the Kurds, then set off for the killing fields of northern Iraq in the hope of selling his pictures to an American news magazine. He was shot dead after screaming in rage at the Iraqi soldiers who had just murdered his Kurdish guide.

How should editors react? After three Reuters and an Associated Press journalist were killed by mobs in Mogadishu, most reporters pulled out of Somalia. A few weeks ago the last American journalist left, to the relief of the blundering US forces. In some news rooms, thankfully not all, there are those who question the worth of sending reporters to Bosnia.

But if we journalists have any reasons for our existence, the least must be our ability to report history as it happens. And history is dangerous. Beirut, Bosnia, Georgia. And Moscow: the siege of the White House killed Rory Peck, a British cameraman working for German television. I remember years ago how Sean McBride suggested that journalists must have special status, special protection. The Red Cross once mooted a white badge for war correspondents.

Yet we are not, and should not be, a special breed. Journalists have been dying for decades. One of the first foreign correspondents on the Times was hacked to death on the banks of the Nile by followers of the Mahdi, while trying to carry to Cairo a scoop on General Gordon's defiance upstream. In the Second World War, journalists accepted the deaths of their colleagues with sadness but inevitability: an AP reporter who dropped into the Balkans with the US Special Forces was put in front of

a German firing squad with the American soldiers, despite pleas for clemency.

As our lives become steadily more dangerous - and the wars of Eastern Europe become ever more savage - we should rage against the deaths of our colleagues. And we should demand every protection. But the necessity of recording human suffering on an epic scale is worth the risk. And if editors came to feel otherwise, they would be providing a miserable memorial to those who have died.

Put painfully, we've just got to go on covering wars. And those are not last words.

'From Beirut to Bosnia', a series of three films on Robert Fisk's reporting for the 'Independent' in the Middle East and the Balkans, will be shown by Channel 4 on 7, 14 and 21 December.

(Photograph omitted)

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