In scrawled handwriting on a page torn from a reporter's notebook, the notice that went up at the conference room in Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel late last November was a cri de coeur. "Bad News. Our beloved colleague and friend is dead. Ulf Stromberg, news cameraman for TV4 Sweden was shot dead ...."
Ulf had opened the door of his room in a house in Taloqan, northern Afghanistan, and men in uniform had assassinated him under somewhat mysterious circumstances. By then, the war had already moved on to Kabul and other parts; Taloqan was a forgotten front and most of the press there were already on their way out. Perhaps it was just a last opportunity to pull off a robbery, but when Ulf reflexively slammed the door shut, the gunmen opened fire. "Ulf lived for just another 20 minutes," his colleagues wrote in the notice to the press corps. "Our thoughts go to his wife Angela and his three lovely kids. He was a hell of a cameraman. One of the greatest ever. We loved him. Our sorrow is indescribable."
That sort of bad news became almost depressingly routine late last year. Colleagues were picked off on the road to Kabul and on the front lines outside of Khoja Bahawaddin, near the northernmost Tajikistan border. Nearly all of those covering Afghanistan had used one of those two routes in, and so it could have happened to anyone. By the end of November, when eight Western journalists had been killed, the press body count was higher than the American military's own death toll. Since then, that's changed; 16 American soldiers have lost their lives in the conflict. But by any measure, it's been a bad war for the working press. "Working in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the journalistic equivalent of diving the Great Barrier Reef," says Melinda Liu, Newsweek's Beijing Bureau Chief, who covered Afghanistan last year. "Great adrenaline and breathtaking scenes and a thrilling sense of achievement once you get out. But below the surface lurk things with big teeth."
After September 11, Afghanistan was closed to most journalists. The Western press flooded into Pakistan, an obvious listening post and staging area. But Pakistan was dangerous for Westerners, too. Americans had been assassinated in Karachi and, earlier, even in the capital of Islamabad. As recently as 1999, Kashmiri extremists of the Harakut-ul Mujahideen the group suspected of involvement in Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's kidnapping, had fired off rockets at the American center, killing Pakistani guards there. Virtually no Western expatriates were based in Pakistan any longer, despite scores of major American and European businesses in the country. Western businessmen came, did their work and left as soon as possible."One of the most dangerous things about Pakistan is the veneer of Westernization , which lulls us into a sense of security," says Liu. "You think you can work normally in Pakistan. But in fact residents in some areas, especially the tribal regions, are as anti-American as they come."
Compared to Afghanistan, though, Pakistan came to feel like a secure haven. In the first weeks of the conflict, journalists were routinely stoned and verbally abused at street demonstrations around Pakistan. But that sort of harassment disappeared as the Taliban's fortunes waned and Pakistani public opinion swung toward the West. In Islamabad, the Marriott Hotel initially installed anti-car bomb baffles outside the entranceway, and metal detectors in the doors. But the baffles came down after the Taliban were defeated, and guards routinely ignore the metal detector alarms as people breeze straight through them, pockets loaded with cellphones, cameras--or whatever.
The most dangerous time for any journalist is when everyone's guard drops. That was arguably the case in Ulf Stromberg's death, and even in the deaths of the other seven journalists. "When I heard that one of my friends from Khoja Bahawaddin had been killed shortly after the fall of Kabul, I caught myself thinking how surprised I was that it hadn't happened earlier," says NEWSWEEK's Moscow bureau chief, Christian Caryl, who is now in Kabul. His friend was one of a group of three, a German newspaper reporter and two French radio journalists, who thought they were going to be taken to see empty trenches from which the Taliban had earlier fled. They were so relaxed some were sunbathing while waiting for their tour to begin. When it did, Taliban fighters turned out to still be in the trenches. The journalists were ambushed, tragically.
Only eight days later, when Taliban sympathizers killed four journalists on the road to Kabul on Nov. 19, they probably thought they were not at any special risk at all. Many of their colleagues had preceded them in the days before without incident. Two of them, Italian Maria Grazia Cutuli of Italy's Corriere della Sera and Julio Fuentes of Spain's El Mundo, had just come from what probably seemed a much more dangerous assignment: investigating an al-Qaeda training camp that had only just been abandoned, where they discovered evidence of Sarin canisters. It was, at the time, a worldwide scoop. They were both dead within a day of it.
"Western journalists working in Afghanistan and Pakistan walk around in a bubble of privilege, protected--or so we believe--by our 'foreignness' and our role as observers, not participants," says NEWSWEEK's Jerusalem bureau chief, Josh Hammer, who was caught in a traffic-jam-turned-mob-riot along the Afghan border in November. "Many of us don't realize how easily that bubble can burst, how quickly the mood can change, how vulnerable we really are." NEWSWEEK's Bangkok-based Ron Moreau has survived close calls in Vietnam and Cambodia, Kurdistan and Iraq. He found Pakistan particularly worrisome. "Most of us think the risks we are taking are well calculated... that you are fairly sure you know the environment you are working in and that the story is worth the effort and the risk." But he's mystified by Pearl's last story. "For an American journalist to try to probe Pakistan's terrorist underground immediately after America's military might had made mincemeat out of its comrades-in-arms seems to me not a calculated risk, but simply an error of judgment."
Liu's not so sure. "We're trained all our careers to jump on top of elusive sources with hot stories to tell," she says. Adds Caryl: "The potential stories are so huge that almost any risk seems negligible by comparison. The idea of finding Osama bin Laden's hideout or a cache of al-Qaeda weapons of mass destruction well, you'd be willing to lose a limb for a story like that. I fear that some of us will lose more than that before it's all over."
One thing is certain. Threats by Pearl's kidnappers to kill American journalists has had only one effect. Until this happened, Pakistan's foreign press corps was on it way out. Now they're back in force, Americans and all.