The frontline club

As a new exhibition celebrates the great war correspondents, from Martha Gellhorn to John Simpson, Kim Sengupta reflects on life in the field and pays tribute to the fixers and locals who make the job possible

We went to Misrata on a fishing boat which was barely seaworthy and had a top speed of six knots an hour. It took more than two days to cover a voyage of 250 miles during which we spent most of the time being violently sick.

At one point a Canadian Sea King helicopter, part of a Nato force enforcing an embargo, ordered our boat to turn back. The ship's captain barely spoke English so I had to go on the radio to try and persuade the aircraft to let us proceed. While I gabbled, members of the crew held up – some while throwing up over the side – onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and an artichoke to prove the cargo was humanitarian. Meanwhile my satellite telephone number, written on a piece of cardboard with the message "Call Me", was being waved from the deck. After a while the Canadians, deciding we were more mad than bad, let us proceed.

Our travails, however, were not yet over. The rebels in Misrata had not been told that we were arriving and took our boat for a sneaky amphibious assault by Muammar Gaddafi's forces. We were greeted by gunfire, bullets smashing into the hull amid shouts of "Allah hu Akbar", before the confusion was cleared up, but not before one crew member had been shot in the leg.

My trip from Benghazi, the rebel capital of "Free Libya", to Misrata was a lesson in how not to do such things. It had seemed a good idea at the time. There were only a few journalists at the besieged port and it was undoubtedly an important story, but the checks I should have made about the boat had been no more than perfunctory. But get there we did in the end, and Misrata proved to be very productive for copy.

I mention this episode in an attempt to show that there remains a somewhat hapless and absurd aspect to modern "war reporting" not very far removed from the experience of William Boot in Scoop, Evelyn Waugh's masterly comic novel from 1938 about journalism. We do not have the specialist knowledge of our subjects required by, for instance, medical or environmental correspondents. We are, instead, enthusiastic amateurs armed with a certain amount of knowledge of the country and conflict we are supposed to be covering, some basic survival skills, and a lot of faith in luck.

This week the Imperial War Museum North presents War Correspondents: Reporting Under Fire Since 1914, an exhibition which will look "in depth at some of the century's most celebrated war correspondents, revealing dramatic true stories, the pressures they have faced and the changing nature of war reporting from 1914 to the present day." The works of James Cameron and Martha Gellhorn, Nicholas Tomalin and Michael Herr and those of their many fine successors should, of course, be celebrated. It should be of great attraction to journalists and, hopefully, the wider public as well.

But one needs to separate the myth from the reality. There is a tendency to declare, after a journalist is killed covering a conflict, that he or she was a fearless figure who sacrificed their life in the pursuit of truth and justice, seeking a holy grail. These journalists – some of whom I knew – were brave, resourceful and doing something worthwhile. But none sought martyrdom. The lure of what they did, and those of us in the same branch of our trade continue to do, is that it is also an exciting, wonderful adventure, and, at times, great fun.

A book accompanying the exhibition states "the story of the war reporter began just a century and a half ago". This helps set a time frame, but graphic and often gory accounts of wars have been around for a long time, mainly because people like to read such things.

No less than half of The Iliad is taken up with descriptions of battles. Alexander Pope, in the preface to his translation of 1715, marvels that Homer supplies "such different kinds of deaths that no two heroes are wounded in the same manner... that every battle rises above the last in greatness, horror and confusion". Josephus, a Jewish renegade with the Roman legions, describes the horror of siege warfare in Jerusalem in AD70. An account of the Battle of Agincourt, in 1415, by Jehan de Wavrin, charts the fluctuating fortunes on St Crispin's Day. And, an enticing example of intrepid foreign reporting comes in the description by Ibn Fadlan, a Persian, of a Viking funeral on the shores of the Volga in 922.

The advent of newspapers made such reports accessible to a large number of people and William Howard Russell was the first modern war correspondent. His dispatches of bungling in the Crimean War and the privations faced by the troops caused outrage and eventually led to reform. The sales of The Times soared and soon other newspapers throughout Europe and North America were sending reporters to provide for a voracious readership colourful accounts of action in the field.

That is no longer the case in the age of 24-hour news. Stories from Afghanistan on the front page tend to lead to a drop in sales of newspapers. Newer conflicts – Libya, Egypt – and the exotic ones – Darfur, Somalia – command the headlines and airwaves for a while but then fade away. It is a common gripe of reporters filing from difficult places that they would get much better shows were they writing about consumer affairs or showbusiness. A cliché perhaps, but with an element of truth in it nevertheless.

There are props of media history at the exhibition – a bullet that deflected into Kate Adie's leg in the Lebanon; the burka worn by John Simpson going into Afghanistan; one of Martin Bell's white suits from the Balkans; Saddam glove puppets found by Jeremy Bowen in Baghdad. Some journalists are compulsive collectors. My friend Lindsey Hilsum from Channel 4 News recently added a button from a Gaddafi soldier's uniform in Libya to her pistol bullet from Abu Ghraib and two "lucky" marbles from Fallujah which she carries with her all the time.

I have steered clear of gathering such things after I was arrested. A drunken Serbian major had given me bullets from his Makarov pistol after a rather tense stand-off with some Nato soldiers at the restaurant of the Grand Hotel in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. I tossed them into holdall where the bullets slipped under the cardboard base of the bag and lay for a year until picked up by a recently upgraded security system at Belfast airport. The Special Branch officers accepted that I was not connected to the republican or loyalist paramilitaries, but it still took long hours for the official formalities and questioning to take place. The police were appalled to find out that the bullets in the bag had been in ministerial flights undetected. I subsequently received a letter from the RUC warning me on the inadvisability of "war souvenirs".

In any event, such is the load one needs to carry for combat zones now that anything extra appears to be an added burden. This is especially so in the case of embedded reporting where one is expected to carry a plethora of kit, food rations and water as well as body armour and helmet. Communication equipment provided by modern technology such as BGAN, a mobile system for filing stories and pictures where internet connections are not readily available, are heaven sent, but they all add up to extra weight.

I had gone to Libya cutting short an embed placement with British troops in Helmand. The route was through Egypt and at Cairo airport, customs officials confiscated my body-armour set and the BGAN as both items remain banned in "Free" Egypt. Chris Hondros and Guy Martin, both experienced photographers, also had their flak jackets confiscated at Cairo. Covering the fighting in Misrata, on Tripoli Street, a particularly violent stretch, they were among a group of journalists hit by mortar rounds. Guy was severely injured and Chris died, along with the celebrated photograher Tim Hetherington, who was setting off on a promising career of film-making. His documentary about an assignment with US forces in Afghanistan, Restrepo, was nominated for an Oscar.

I had run into Tim on returning to Benghazi from Misrata, where he was headed a few days earlier. We briefly discussed what was involved in what we faced and agreed that at least in Libya we were not facing the constant threat of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) one gets in Afghanistan. But, he pointed out, it is never risk free in such situations and we had to, at the end, stay lucky.

None of us is sanguine about the hazards involved. Other friends had died covering conflicts. I was in Sierra Leone when Kurt Schork, an American journalist, was killed in an ambush and in Iraq when Terry Lloyd, of ITN, died on the road to Basra. Rupert Hamer, a reporter with the Sunday Mirror was killed in Helmand at the end of 2009; Phil Coburn, a photographer accompanying him suffered severe leg injuries. They were in a 15-ton armoured carrier, a Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected Vehicle (MRAP) used by the US Marines, considered to be one of the best protected against roadside bombs. It was a reminder that one could never be entirely safe when covering an insurgency.

You cannot shut the door to the war in a place of strife. I was in The Independent's apartment in the Hamra hotel – outside Baghdad's Green Zone but until then relatively safe – when it was blown up by suicide bombers one morning. I lay on my bed having the bizarre experience of seeing the room fly around me. There were claims that the attack had been ordered by a senior member of the government who had got fed up with foreign journalists writing about the "death squads" he ran. "He tried to blow us up just because he didn't like some stories we are writing," a colleague exclaimed in wonder. "Even Alastair Campbell at his worst would have thought twice about that."

None of us was seriously injured. Outside the hotel, the Iraqis without the protection of the blast wall had no such luck. When the wild gunfire that seemed to follow all bombings had ended, we ventured out to discover that a row of houses had collapsed. About a dozen people were killed, two of them children, and another 60 injured. On the same day, two bombs killed 77 people at a mosque. The cuts and bruises suffered by a few reporters should really be viewed in that context. It is the local people who pay the heaviest price in these conflicts and among them are local journalists, fixers and drivers on whom we depend so much for getting the material we need for our reports.

Nour al-Khal, a brave female journalist I had worked extensively with, was abducted by men wearing police uniform in Basra, shot and dumped on the roadside. Despite being hit by four bullets, she fortunately survived but had to leave Basra. Sultan Munadi, an interpreter, had travelled with Stephen Farrell of The New York Times to Kunduz in northern Afghanistan to investigate the killing of a hundred people by Nato air strikes called in by German forces. They were abducted by the Taliban and in a subsequent rescue attempt, Sultan and a British soldier, Corporal John Harrison, were killed.

I was in Afghanistan at the time and it was only on my return to the UK that I saw the vilification, even by some journalists, directed at Stephen who was being unjustly blamed for the death of Corporal Harrison as "irresponsible" for going to a violent area. Blaming Stephen distracted attention from what lay behind a botched rescue attempt. We were told by those involved in negotiations with the kidnappers that release was imminent. Sultan's father, Karban Mohammed, told me his son had called him 90 minutes before he was shot to say he would be home soon.

Gordon Brown, the then prime minister, had basked in the limelight of a successful mission indicated by initial reports. When details of the death emerged, Downing Street insisted that the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, had ordered the raid – something both the men categorically denied.

We come back from conflict zones and prop up bars telling "war stories". Our betters have exhibitions lauding their achievements. Perhaps in the future, Imperial War Museum North would consider a production focusing on these local journalists, the silent heroes, without whose help it would be impossible for us to work in places of danger.

War Correspondent: Reporting Under Fire Since 1914. Imperial War Museum North, 28 May, 2011 to 2 January, 2012