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No Ordinary Assignment
by
Jane Ferguson

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No Ordinary Assignment

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No Ordinary Assignment
A Memoir

Copyright © 2023 by Jane’s Media, Inc.

Part I
1

Uncle Desmond Got Kicked by a Cow

Trotting around country lanes on my pony, I sometimes came across them walking in formation. If they saw me, they hid in ditches until I passed. I’m sure I was hardly a threatening vision—a little girl in corduroy and gum boots on top of a muddy pony, stopping to reach across hedgerows to pick wild berries. I desperately wanted to stare, but instinct stopped me. My parents’ whishts taught me that. I would push my pony, Lady, onward, keeping my eyes firmly on the horizon. In those moments, I obeyed the unspoken rule: acknowledging The Troubles only invited them in.

I understand now how the crack of bullets echoes long through the years, triggering a cascade of tragic events in individual lives.

Part of the secrecy was to protect us, but it was also a reflection of our stern Ulster Scots Protestant community. There was an unofficial insistence on discretion, a culture of cautious circumspection when talking about the violence around us. Hysteria was frowned upon.

I have known since long before covering wars as a reporter how there are often no good and bad sides, and that reality is a complex and harsh collection of truths. Morality bends.

Topic:

Morality

I took my cues from the adults. If they weren’t scared, then I wasn’t. When they showed fear, I was petrified. It was like watching air hostesses panic on a bumpy flight—suddenly those in charge seem not to be so in control after all.

Six years later, sometime during the summer break, a huge bomb exploded outside the police station, damaging the school and injuring a teacher who was there preparing for classes. It never occurred to me to ask why they didn’t move the school away from the police station. Children accept everything around them as perfectly normal, even the trappings of war.

Years later I would wander through makeshift refugee camps on the Lebanon-Syria border, settlements filled with Syrian children smiling and laughing, playing in the trash, covered in mud. As much as they had experienced appalling trauma, there was a duality to their normalization of everything.

Stories were my survival. Books didn’t just allow me to flee the farm, they let me slip out the back door and into a wider world. A bigger, better one where I had freedom.

Topic:

Books (general)

The more I read, the more I questioned authority. In the increasing insolence of my teen years, I argued with the male preacher teaching us Sunday school lessons about the Protestant Reformation and the errors of Catholicism. The preachers were always men, and they were often deeply bigoted against Catholic communities. [...] Calvinist Ulster Scots culture seemed inextricably intertwined with the men who were always in leadership positions.

Topic:

Authority

I was going to travel all over the world and keep going. I felt like the only way to crawl out of South Armagh was to make peace with my sense of not belonging. I don’t need to belong anywhere, I thought. I can belong on the road.
2

Chicken Shit

Suddenly American politicians were asking us to “trust them” about the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In Northern Ireland, politicians were just angry men driven by prejudice and personal agendas. Trusting them seemed like an act of willful stupidity to me.

My American classmates’ agnosticism toward the war in Iraq shocked me. I had come from a place so ravaged by sectarianism that the lexicon of ending conflict was second nature: building bridges, healing the wounds of war. The Troubles had been bound up in cross-community efforts, appeals for peace, peace processes, cease-fires. War was something everyone around me was always trying to stop, and here I was surrounded by people cheering on a new one.

Topic:

Politicians

I understood by now that there was no such thing as peace and justice. You had to pick one. To have lasting peace, there would be no justice. The man who shot my uncle Desmond and his mother was a mass murderer, and he was released from jail early on the terms agreed to with the British in the Good Friday Agreement that brought our war to an end in 1998. He walked free and returned to his home not far from my uncle’s. That’s what war is. It is killing and sacrifice until a monstrous bitter pill—the ultimate wound—must be swallowed to make it stop.

Topics:

Justice

Peace

Outside the wire fencing of the factory parking lot, the sectarian system still ruled their communities. Inside the fence, everyone was relying on the same $6 an hour. Tribalism doesn’t work on an individual level, when people are broken down into small groups of nominal enemies just trying to make a living. It works on a collective level, when larger-scale communities are separated.
3

The Highest Point

At twenty-three, I was mostly filled with fear, defiance, and a faint hope that what I was doing would work out. I had to find somewhere to belong.

Every call to prayer from that first morning on served as a reminder to me that many things in life can be trusted. That few people are out to hurt you. They may even care about your soul enough to call you closer to God, each morning. Maybe belonging had something to do with trust.

4

Dubai Girl

Their love came with something like an ache. Being unloved as a child makes love like this, as though you are nostalgic for something you cannot remember because you never had it. I so longed for love that receiving it made my heart hurt.

Topic:

Love

5

“Short Virgins Will Never Make Good War Photographers”
Tiny mud homes, each painted in a different bright color, dotted the mountainsides until the point where the incline became too steep. The poor of Kabul are like trees on a mountain, occupying the land up until they reach an altitude where there isn’t enough soil and oxygen to sustain them.

Page was the first person who really talked to me about journalism—real journalism. Stories about the people, the places, the heart of it all. This war, Page complained, has been photographed only from military vehicles and bomb blast sites. The photographer is forced to work under new pressures from editors and stiff rules imposed by the military. I wondered whether the same was true for reporters.

“You don’t really know what Afghans eat, how they sleep, how they conduct themselves, the wedding parlor syndrome—how much does it cost to get married?” he bellowed, now staring at me wide-eyed, as though looking for an answer. No, I have no idea, I thought. [...]

I was beginning to understand this job by realizing what I absolutely did not know. I knew little about Afghanistan beyond this war—not much about its people, its culture, its diversity. And worst of all, I hadn’t thought to ask. I had come to cover a war, not a country, a people.

Note (Hal’s):
Tim Page is a prominent British journalist, known for work during the Vietnam War.

— end note

Topic:

Journalism

7

Cross Fire

As I walked between the metal framed beds in that miserable excuse for a hospital I was learning that the official casualty rates of war zones are vastly underestimated. There are always so many more who suffer and die due to the unintended consequences of conflict: the collapse of economies and governments, and with these failures, the chances for any decent public health—sanitation, nutrition, or medical care.

I firmly believe that journalism, TV in particular, plays a crucial role in showing the rest of the world its own reality. I still believe that. But sometimes the peering at suffering and documenting it, chasing the “powerful nature” of images of others’ pain, is guilt-ridden work. War reporters see a lot of pain and ask if it’s okay to capture it. It is such a delicate, sensitive balancing act—especially for a twenty-five-year-old working alone with no other colleagues—and all we can do is be as compassionate and respectful as possible. To do that, you must allow yourself to be vulnerable. In those moments where I am witnessing the profound vulnerability of someone else, I also feel laid bare. You can only really get through it by sending as much love to the person you are filming as you can.

I read once that when you feel absolutely broken and defeated, when you have failed at something and the undeniable truth hits you, you should take one full day to mourn and feel unabashed self-pity. One day only, and then get back to the drawing board.

Part II
9

Homs
“You are a hero!” she declared. It took everything inside me not to throw up on my feet. I had never been misunderstood so spectacularly. My fear was all-consuming.

Topic:

Fear

11

Helicopters Under a Full Moon
I was shocked at Qais’s sudden flash of anger, his sense that this raid was an affront to these people. But as we flew back to the capital, bouncing along once more in the helicopter’s faint green light, it occurred to me that Qais’s own children were sleeping in their beds just a few hours’ drive from here. This was his country, and regardless of ethnic differences and perspectives on the war, these were his people. However much I came to love, understand, and empathize with Afghans, I would never do so like he does. For me, this was still a foreign war.
Part III
16

No Foreign Accents
I was coming to recognize that look in his face, when people watch their whole life’s work—for him the preservation of generations of history—disappear and know there is nothing they can do about it. I saw it again and again in the faces of archaeologists in Syria, businessmen in Iraq, women’s rights activists in Afghanistan. The sudden and heartbreaking reversal of progress that war brings.
17

Auditioning

My accent was becoming a complex part of me, a potential liability, yet a malleable projection. Every time I came close to getting the job I wanted, I was always compelled to change something about myself, and my accent was usually the easiest option. Sitting cross-legged on hotel beds around the world, I would read The New York Times aloud, with as American an accent as I could muster. Practicing.

18

Thumbing Humvees in Hell

Pete got a phone call with the news that the little girl had died on the way to the hospital. Despite all the children who had their lives stolen by the war, he and Derek saved an untold number of lives by giving soldier and civilian alike a fighting chance to survive their wounds long enough to get to a hospital. They helped young soldiers, barely men, know their lives were worth something more than cannon fodder. They risked their lives to provide fleeing civilians some hope they can find help. I had spent only one day with them, and the impact they’d had on others in front of my eyes was more than many of us will ever make in a lifetime.

Topic:

Heroes

When he came out, he held a baby in his arms, clearly ill, barely conscious. He reached for paperwork, doctors’ notes and prescriptions, and asked me to give him medication.

“He thinks you are a doctor,” my fixer explained. The man looked at me, and as he realized I could not help him, his eyes filled with confusion, then hopelessness. When I looked in his face, I felt a sharp stab of shame.

Those moments are the worst I ever faced as a war reporter—not the rough conditions and not the danger, but the feeling that I was not helping. I still don’t know the real solution to that, but I was coming to learn that doing the work well was a start.

19

A Relapse
The thing that truly spoke to me, that I adored most about my work, was talking to civilians and finding the humanity in troubled places. That was what this epic journey from the farm in South Armagh had been about. It was about helping connect people.
20

Women of War

The whole Yazidi community felt the choking betrayal. The rage that lived on inside the women who were enslaved and raped flashed for a second in these interviews. But their stories betray a deeper, more shocking treachery. The ISIS fighters that came for them weren’t some sort of foreign strangers from lands far away. Some were their neighbors, men from nearby Afghan villages. The one time Zahida truly looked me in the eye was when she told me that the boy who came to claim her was someone she knew. “My father had invited him in for meals with us,” she said, her mother nodding and staring at the floor. Something as simple as a crush by a boy from a nearby village had devolved into an unspeakable crime.

“I lost everything. This house is full of memories of mine, beautiful things, but not anymore,” she said, staring at the outer wall. I asked if she wanted to go in. “No,” she replied, her face hardening.

“There is something in our hearts, and we will never get healing for it, never,” she said angrily. “And it will never be forgotten.”

“You can’t forgive?” I asked.

“It’s difficult to forgive. It’s not easy.”

Topic:

Forgiveness

23

Ceremonies
That quiet, dangerous little question whispered to me when I was alone: What is the point of exposing war crimes and the appalling price of war if it is never going to stop it? Does my work make a difference? I still don’t fully know the answer, but I do know that maybe having an impact is something we cannot and should not look for. Maybe it’s our Western mindset, our individualism, that wants to witness and feel the influence we have on the world, to see results. Maybe it’s our ego. In all honesty, the only question I can answer is, Did I do my part?
Part IV
24

The Deal of the Century
The Trump administration had eased the rules of engagement when it came to air strikes just as it had in Iraq and Syria during the bombing campaign against ISIS. According to an in-depth study carried out by Brown University’s Costs of War Project, during the period from 2017 to 2019, the number of Afghan civilians killed in U.S.-led air strikes in Afghanistan increased 330 percent. Absolutely none of this was covered by America’s TV networks. News from Afghanistan seemed to bring with it overwhelming fatigue. Even at PBS I had to argue hard to get out on this assignment.
25

“There Is Not a Future for You Here”

People who find their homes turned into war zones, who have spent years here watching war devastate their communities, who live in constant fear, may appear well put together. But they are not, I argued. They’re merely surviving. We cannot tear that down just to get more emotion on-camera. My producer was angry and defensive; she felt patronized. She hadn’t been to war before, and she didn’t understand the emotional toll of ripping away those defenses. These people have no therapists, no escape, no hope. We don’t have a right to dig up their deepest anguish for our assignment, I said in the car ride back to the hotel.

“Jane’s right,” said Aleem, the fixer, looking out the window as we drove back to the hotel. “Everyone here looks normal, but we are all so affected deep down. It’s very bad.”

26

Taliban on the March

The worst thing you can do at a front line is drive around not knowing where you are. That’s exactly what we were doing.

There’s a common misperception that war zones are solely places of misery. But misery is unsustainable to the human spirit. Every day societies continue to function in their own way: on the front lines, fighters tell jokes; in refugee camps, couples make love; children play tag in bomb shelters. The misery, when it comes, provides a contrast so sharp the good times feel more meaningful, however cruelly they are parsed out. Witnessing the horrors of war, we find it hard not to appreciate even more the simple pleasures—an ice cream on a tough day, a favorite song on the radio, a good sunset.

Topic:

Humanity

Epilogue
The truth is, however much people lionize war reporters, we are not heroes. We are privileged to do this work. If it’s not something you leap out of your hotel bed or military cot or camping spot each morning to do, then it’s time to stop. Posing the question “If not me, then who?“ is a vanity. Behind us, back at the head offices of news organizations around the world, are armies of talented, brave, and brilliant young journalists waiting for their chance to tell these stories, too.
I know storytelling will endure because it’s so deeply entrenched in our DNA as humans. Since our ancestors spent their time etching tales on cave walls, we’ve needed to record our stories. The truth needs no defense, and those who pursue it doggedly, with humility and grace, may not have the most glamorous careers in the business, but they will do the most good.

Topic:

Journalism

text checked (see note) Aug 2023

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