The black Mercedes lurched forward and sideways, a thick grey cloud erupted at its rear and its boot flew open. The thump of the detonating Israeli tank round reached me 300 yards away as I looked on from the Jewish settlement of Metulla.
There was a cheer from local residents, who had gathered to watch the withdrawal of their army from southern Lebanon after 18 years, from the relative safety of Israeli territory. An Israeli army sniper directed the tank’s heavy machine-gun towards a building off to the left. I sat on the grass hitting the redial button on my phone. I was trying to get through to Abed Takoush, who was working with the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen.
The Mercedes was the second car I’d seen hit by an Israeli tank that morning. I knew Jeremy and Abed were in the area — I wanted to warn them to stay away. But Abed was dead behind the wheel of the black car. Jeremy was pinned down by the Israeli tank, and wasn’t answering my calls.
Abed was a ‘fixer’, like Sultan Manadi, who was killed last week during a Nato operation to free the British journalist Stephen Farrell from Afghan kidnappers. ‘Fixer’ is an ignoble title. The word is sleazy and demeaning: it implies the local people hired by the foreign media are mere higglers. The reality is that without a worldwide network of local freelance drivers, translators and general all-round fixers, there would be a lot of dead journalists, and pretty soon no foreign news at all.
Any nitwit, and I am living proof, can be a ‘war correspondent’ if they are lucky enough to come across a great fixer. These men and women usually earn no more than $100 a day. For that they provide introductions to gangsters, war lords, terrorists, politicians — all the sociopaths who drive world events — as well as navigate, drive, and give instant tutorials in Albanian politics, Somali clan rivalries, and Balkan history. More important, they keep us alive. Behind our backs they apologise for our cultural insensitivity, anticipate our needs before we know that we’ve got them, and from time to time literally lead us through minefields.
In Mogadishu, during the hunt for Mohammed Farrah Aidid, an increasingly bloody mess during the early 1990s, I worked with a pair of cousins both of whom, conveniently, were called Abdulahi.
They were unfailingly good-humoured because, in a city in which gunmen were either wide-eyed and raving, or hung-over from khat (a stimulant like cocaine), Abdulahi and Abdulahi were always stoned — on old-fashioned local weed. They drove a dilapidated Fiat with no doors and were the only Somali pacifists I’ve ever met. They did have an AK47 rifle but Big Abdulahi refused to buy bullets for it, and anyway he had bent its barrel with a spanner.
The three of us were considered freaks — we could therefore cross front lines between gun battles because we were unthreatening and comical. And once, when Big Abdulahi overheard threats being made against me from within an angry crowd, he threw me over his shoulder like a sack of rice, chucked me across the back seat of the Fiat, and lay on top of me while his cousin drove us away.
A month earlier a mob had murdered four journalist colleagues. Abdulahi was giggling as he saved my life and risked his own to do so. We grew to love one another with something like the bond between soldiers who have shared the horrors of front-line combat. For the time we foreign hacks are in the field, our fixers become our dearest friends and our mentors. For as long as we are in the field.
I was kidnapped in Iraq six years ago. What a staggeringly vain phrase: ‘I was kidnapped.’ As if Saif and Qais, my driver and translator, were not also people and were not also forced to their knees, had guns shoved into the backs of their heads, and prepared to die. Saif was a part-time mechanic. Qais had a masters degree in English literature and hoped, one day, to visit the ‘land of Milton’, as he put it.
We all survived. But I left Saif and Qais at the Jordanian border penniless (because we had all been robbed), and returned to a Baghdad in turmoil.
Qais’s last words to me were ‘stay safe.’
Fixers are too often edited out of our narratives. How many reports on the television news from Iraq or Afghanistan credit local journalists with filming the aftermath of bombings or Taleban interviews which no foreigner could dare contemplate? None. Almost every minute of every news piece of any value from Iraq filmed over the last five years has been filmed by a local — earning a pittance and getting no credit.
When nursing either ingénues or veterans around the world’s conflicts, fixers take greater risks than we do. Crossing Helmand in 2007, the Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo must have assumed that if he got into trouble his government, with its record of paying off kidnappers, would get him out. He was right. Five Taleban fighters were freed from prison in return for his release. His driver, Sayed Agha, and fixer, Ajmal Naqshbandi, were both beheaded. At Ajmal’s funeral his brother, Mussadaq, sobbed: ‘For a foreigner, they can release five Taleban. For a local and a Muslim, they can’t release any.’
In Kabul this month, when Sultan Manadi was buried, his Afghan colleagues and family accused the British special forces who freed Farrell of ‘double standards’ and ‘disrespect’ because they left his body behind. This is not fair on soldiers who should not have risked their lives for a dead man. But inevitably there are double standards, because in the end we hacks can leave. We part from our friends with tears, long hugs, and an extra wad of cash. But we go home to our happy families in a land that is not at war.
These days some media groups try to be honourable and secure their fixers contracts and occasionally insurance. The BBC and Bowen went to great lengths to compensate Abed’s family even though, when he died, he had no formal relationship with the broadcaster beyond a passion for the story and an affection for Bowen himself. But more often than not the fixers who provide the most important service and give the best value for money in the news-gathering game are at the bottom of the media food chain.
I have stayed in touch with Saif and Qais; they are still in Iraq, both are now married and have successful business careers. I don’t know what befell the Abdulahis, but I doubt they are still alive. The sad truth is that one way and another, we abandon our fixers in the end. Perhaps this is because we know, deep down, that we owe them too much.