Fixers risk their lives helping to shine light on the evils of war

Jeremy Bowen pays tribute to the locals who help journalists to work in war-zones – and defends Stephen Farrell after the deaths of his colleague and a British soldier
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The Independent Online

Imagine if a war broke out in your home town. Checkpoints would be set up at the place you used to cross the road to get to work. Soldiers, or just bands of men with guns, might dig themselves into the park where you played football. A boy you knew at school might resurface as the local militia commander.

Imagine, too, an invasion of foreigners – aid workers, UN types – and reporters. Most wouldn't speak your language. Many of them would never have been to your town before. But they would all need local knowledge, and they would need it fast.

To find a way into what was happening in your town, to get all the things they didn't understand, they would need a fixer, and they would be prepared to pay well. What do you do? It would be safest to stay at home. But even in a war – especially in a war – you need money, and a job.

When the civil war started in Lebanon in 1975, a young taxi driver called Abed Takkoush did a few jobs for the TV news people setting up in Beirut. Abed was good, sharp and streetwise, so they put him on a retainer. He liked the work. He didn't want to sit at home with the women, or drink tea with the old men. It was exciting and well-paid to work with reporters and camera crews, to show them his city's secrets, to take them out filming and bring them back safely.

By the time I worked with him, in another war in 1996, he was a veteran. He carried a business card that said he was a "driver-producer". In the glove box of his dusty Mercedes he carried his old press cards, including the first one, from NBC news in 1975, like campaign medals.

Abed Takkoush was the best fixer in Beirut. As a newcomer in 1996, I was very glad to have him on my side. I was even gladder to have him there when, as he always put it, we were under the shelling.

By the time the Israelis were pulling out of south Lebanon in 2000, Abed and I were a team – we were friends. He would show me the best restaurants, take me to the Hezbollah press office, to the battlefields in the south and even to the ski slopes. But spending time in dangerous places is a numbers game. The more you do it, the more likely it is that something bad will happen.

Abed was in a high good humour on 23 May 2000, the day that he died. He was boasting about his driving ("I am like Schumacher") and about how he always got his crews out of the shelling and back to Beirut. He was killed when an Israeli tank crew fired a shell at short range into the back of his car. I had just got out, with another Lebanese colleague, the BBC cameraman Malek Kanaan. Through luck, we survived and Abed did not.

I didn't kill Abed. An Israeli gunner did. But I decided to stop at that place, at that time, so I share responsibility for his death. Explaining what had happened to his widow and his teenage sons at his funeral in Beirut the next day was not easy.

I can only sympathise with Stephen Farrell of The New York Times, seeing his interpreter, Sultan Munadi, cut down in a hail of bullets in Afghanistan last week. Farrell must be replaying what happened endlessly, going over the decisions he made about covering the story, wondering if he could have done better, if there had been a way of avoiding the whole sorry, tragic mess.

On the Today programme the other day I heard someone criticising Farrell and other journalists for ignoring warnings from the military, among others, that it was dangerous to go to the area where he was kidnapped.

If journalists in a war listened to every warning they wouldn't get out of bed. Despite all the safety training that news organisations give the people they hire these days (there was none when I started) there is no safe way to cover a war. There are grades of risk that individuals accept. Every patch of a country at war is not equally dangerous. But the dangers are never far away, and sometimes they rear up in places and at times you would not expect.

Work like that is not for everyone. But it is vital. There are dark corners in the world, full of violence and evil, and someone needs to shine a torch into them. No higher function exists for a journalist than finding the truth. But sometimes you have to get close before you can see what the truth looks like, and that can get very dangerous.

Foreign correspondents would get nowhere near the truth without the fixers. And even if no one dies on their assignment, then the fixers usually stay behind when we have gone back to our comfortable and safe homes, working with the next crew in, providing for and protecting their families, and trying to survive until a better day.

The author is the BBC's Middle East Editor. His fee for this article has been donated to the Frontline Club's Fixers' Fund.