Julio Fuentes Serrano, journalist and writer: born Madrid 12 December 1954; married 1997 Mónica García Prieto; died Sarobi, Afghanistan 19 November 2001.
A 12-page supplement published in the Spanish daily El Mundo lauded the passion, commitment and professionalism of Julio Fuentes, one of the reporters killed in Afghanistan this week – but I think he probably would have been appalled. He would probably see it as a waste of newsprint better used to record the lives of the Afghan civilians who have suffered more than 20 years of war.
His house in Madrid is filled with the souvenirs of distant wars but no trophies. I don't know if he ever won any prizes – he was not motivated by fame or glory but by his desire to report honestly and humanely on the people he met, the stories he witnessed, in Nicaragua or Bosnia, in Iraq or Afghanistan, in Chechnya or even in the Spanish Basque country.
Fuentes, who was brought up between Argentina and Spain, had covered just about every conflict going in the past 20 years – Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Gulf war, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (he knew all the main mujahedin commanders, including Ahmed Shah Massoud and Abdul Haq, both killed in the past two months), Liberia, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya and this latest, his last, "War on Terrorism".
Unusually for a writer, he started in journalism as a photographer, working for the news magazine Cambio 16, then moved as a founder member to El Mundo, now the only serious rival to El País in Spain.
In 1989, he travelled with the Contras in Nicaragua – "ghostly warriors, enveloped in jungle mist, alone, without a future, unable even to argue their case coherently, waiting for a miracle that never comes". He thought he was going to die in that bitter civil war, pinned down for hours under fire with two colleagues, one English, one French. Bullets rained down and Fuentes prayed for salvation – the three survived, and he kept on working. Two years later, in the Gulf war, "a terrifed Iraqi soldier" surrendered to Fuentes, who found it "one of the saddest privileges of my life".
But, as for many of his generation, the war that most marked him was the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. "By the time this newspaper goes on sale in Spain, three new-born babies will have died in the paediatric ward of Kosevo Hospital in Sarajevo," he wrote in October 1992. "They will not be killed by a shell or a sniper's bullet, they will die inside their incubators for want of an electric current."
In the aftermath of the Bosnian war, Fuentes wrote his first novel, Sarajevo: juicio final ("Sarajevo: final judgement"), based on a (true) love story involving his translator and a soldier. "Although this is a novel, everything in it is true," he wrote:
It is not my story, which is of little worth, nor that of other foreigners in hell. It is
about anonymous people – soldiers, students, housewives, doctors, children, suicides, heroes and cowards – in a martyred city which Europe was not able or willing to defend, while mass graves were dug before her eyes and cities burnt on her television screens.
Fuentes had strong opinions and feelings about the situation in the Balkans, as about almost any story he covered, but he tried hard not to let his sentiments colour his journalism. He loathed Slobodan Milosevic's regime, but reported honestly and faithfully from Belgrade during the Nato bombing. He also enjoyed stirring up conversation by dropping some outrageous statement, then sitting back and watching his audience respond, a mischievous smile playing as his wife, Mónica, a fellow journalist, roundly informed him that he was barking mad.
His imagination was boundless, and usually very entertaining. His futuristic second and third novels, Resistencia Humana ("Human Resistance", 1998) and Rebelión ("Rebellion", 2000), envisaged a loathsome United Europe grown fat and dictatorial in the hands of its Eurocrats, controlling its populace through drugs and television, while a small band of rebels fought for freedom of thought and expression. Generous of spirit, Fuentes would do anything for friends. He was with Santiago Lyon, my husband, in Sarajevo when Santi was wounded by shrapnel and he made the call to Santi's father, to say that his son was hurt but OK, that he was going to be fine.
Most recently he donned morning dress to act as an usher at our wedding, in a village outside Madrid. But, since he wasn't on assignment, he didn't bother to look at a map – miles off course and panicking, he and Mónica had to change in a field, arriving 10 minutes late (but still ahead of the bride). When we finally knew for sure that he was dead, we pulled out the wedding photos, Julio grinning with relief as the best man pinned on his buttonhole, Mónica looking radiant, remembering their wedding at the Spanish Embassy in Moscow, where they had been based.
Julio Fuentes returned to Spain last year, but his rigorous reporting style was not in quite such demand when turned on the issues closer to home, so he moved back from home news to the foreign desk. He had begun to tire of life as a war reporter, and talked of moving with Mónica to the glorious house they had built on the edge of a national park in Spain, surrounded by craggy mountains and lush green hills. They wanted to start a family. He wanted to focus on his novels and to raise some children.
He came to our house for dinner just before he left on this last trip and told us that he did not want to go. We urged him to refuse this assignment but he felt compelled to go – "It is my job," he said. Yet Julio Fuentes was so much more than just a "war correspondent". He was a singular spirit.Reuse content