Unanswered questions

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DavidOntheWall_Chipsm

National Public Radio photojournalist David Gilkey’s name those of other journalists killed in 2016 on the Journalists Memorial at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The memorial was rededicated on Monday, June 5, 2017. Gilkey and his translator Zabihullah Tamanna were killed in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on June 5, 2016. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Copyright 2017

The first text came at 9:01 a.m. Friday, June 9, 2017.

“Just a word of warning–tough story on NPR today about Gilkey.”

I hadn’t heard it yet.

David Gilkey and I had been friends since our college days at Oregon State. We both became photojournalists who covered conflict. On June 5, 2016, David and his Afghan translator, Zabihullah Tamanna, were killed in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

“David and Zabihullah were on assignment for the network traveling with an Afghan army unit. They were in an armored Humvee driven by a soldier of the Afghan National Army. All three were killed after the Humvee was hit by rocket propelled grenades in an apparent ambush.”

That’s the initial report by NPR’s Eyder Peralta on June 5, 2016. It continues.

“NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman and producer Monika Evstatieva were also in the convoy, traveling in a separate vehicle. They were not injured.”

After the initial story last year, I called my friend, the same friend who texted me about the recent story. He’s served in combat. I had one question.

I want the answer and I don’t want the answer, I said. He understood the question I hadn’t asked. It’s impossible to know, Cheryl. If it’s an RPG, the concussion of the explosion likely knocked him unconscious. He likely died quickly.

The texts continued throughout the morning.

“Did you read/listen to the story posted today?”

“From NPR News: Sorry to share this. Wondered if you read it.”

Not A Random Attack: New Details Emerge from the Investigation of Slain NPR Journalists

I hadn’t read it. In the afternoon, the story aired during “All Things Considered.” I sat tucked in a chair in my friends’ D.C. living room, crouched next to the radio, listening.

I had traveled to D.C. days earlier to attend a ceremony at the Newseum, a rededication of the Journalists Memorial.

“Journalists last year faced unprecedented dangers as they strove to report the news, often in countries where press freedom is imperiled or nonexistent,” said Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute. “The journalists recognized on this memorial laid down their lives in their effort to serve the public, many of them continuing to work after being attacked or facing death threats.”

The latest NPR story revealed new details. And raised more questions.

“Tamanna did not die from a rocket-propelled-grenade attack, as originally reported. He was shot. This fact was suspected by other NPR journalists who saw his body shortly after the attack and is now confirmed by the Afghan Ministry of Defense.

And unlike Gilkey, Tamanna did not suffer any burns, a fact that further casts doubt on the original story of a sudden, random attack by hand-launched explosives.

New reporting confirmed by Afghan officials indicates that Gilkey died inside the vehicle, and Tamanna died outside.

Gilkey died of severe burns to his upper body. It is unclear whether his vehicle was struck by an RPG. Aside from the burns, he did not have any injuries that would indicate close proximity to a blast.”

The story had audio clips of both David and Zabi’s voices woven into the reporting by Tom Bowman and Monica Evstatieva. Neither has since returned to Afghanistan.

After the story ended, I went downstairs. A while later, my friend came down. She peeked her head in the door. I wanted to see if you’re all right, she said.

My friends are both retired radio reporters. She’d listened with me in the living room. Her husband had arrived home while the story was being broadcast and stayed in the car to listen to it. Between all of our years of reporting, we’d covered stories that mirrored the stories David had covered in Iraq, Somalia, Rwanda, Liberia, Bosnia, South Africa. Famine. War. Natural disasters. Elections.

In the year since David’s death, I had the comfort of knowing he had lived a life he loved. He loved his work and he’d made a powerful contribution to our world. I also took comfort in the thought that he had died doing what he loved. And that he hadn’t suffered.

The radio report yesterday seemed to reveal otherwise.

The messages on Facebook and the texts continued to arrive. When I woke the following morning, I found more messages.

“How are you…NPR is covering David’s death again…I’m sobbing,” my friend wrote across many time zones. “I only listen to NPR when I drive, so I’m parked.”

I exchanged messages with another friend.

“Yes, that is very hard/unsettling to hear,” she wrote. “I sort of hope that his parents don’t hear it. Too many open-ended questions, the sense of betrayal, and the condition in which David’s body was found are all very upsetting.”

Betrayed. Burned to death.

David and I covered many of the same stories and countries, never at the same time. We came and went from each other’s lives over the years, though not with the regularity of the Perseids meteor shower that lights up the summer sky in our beloved Oregon each year. Years and miles flowed between us and our encounters. Yet we remained always in each other’s lives, even when we didn’t have eyes on.

As a correspondent, I know how to seek cover. As a civilian, I know how to seek shelter.

In the days and year since David’s death, I have found shelter among my tribe of journalists, specifically international journalists. More specifically, those who have covered conflict, risked their lives and mental health to shine a light in the darkness.

Before the Newseum memorial, a group of David and Zabi’s friends and colleagues gathered on a Sunday afternoon across miles and cultures to eat, drink and share stories.

The day after the memorial, I went for a 13-mile walk, with trees, a river and birdsong for company.

Late in the afternoon, I returned to my friends’ home. After sharing a meal of good food prepared with love, we lingered on the porch long after the light left the sky.

To be an international correspondent. To cover conflict. To witness and document both the brutality and beauty of our world. That’s the choice both David and I made, as have other journalists. Journalists whose names are on the memorial at the Newseum. Journalists who continue to take the risks to report in our neighborhoods and around the globe. Journalists who live to tell the stories.

The choice is not a reckless one. It’s an eyes-and-heart-wide-open choice.

It’s not a death wish. It’s a life wish. A life of purpose. A life of service. A life freely chosen.

And in David’s case, a life taken.

 

 

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Wheels up, David

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NPR photojournalist David Gilkey

NPR photojournalist David Gilkey sticks out his tongue and strikes a pose as he prepares to leave from Pittsburgh International Airport at 5:48 a.m. on Sunday, March 6, 2016. Gilkey was the opening night speaker at the Welcome a Stranger Journalism Conference and Multimedia Workshop at Allegheny College March 3-4 2016. Gilkey died on assignment in Helmand Province, Afghanistan on June 5, 2016. Photo by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2016, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Outside the Box, by Cheryl Hatch. Copyright 2016

Wheels up.

My friend David Gilkey sent me a text as he left Washington, D.C. last March. He’d already posted a photo of sunrise from his plane window as he sat at the gate waiting to taxi to takeoff.

David spoke and wrote in short, efficient phrases. Understood. Roger that. He’d covered the military for years and the precision and cadence stuck.

When I’d written him months earlier to invite him to speak at Allegheny College, he responded, “I’m in.”

David did not give many public lectures. He came because I asked him. He came because he’s my friend. He came because he said he would, despite the fact that he’d only just returned from three weeks on assignment for National Public Radio in scorched, ravaged South Sudan.

David was the keynote speaker on March 4, 2016, at our “Welcome the Stranger” journalism conference and multimedia workshop.

Three months later, on June 5, 2016, the Taliban killed David and his Afghan translator and friend, Zabihullah Tamanna, near Marjah in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

David and I had known each other since college. We both worked on our student daily newspaper. We both wanted to be photojournalists.

After college, I went overseas first. I went into conflict first—the civil war in Liberia. David followed and then, over the years, surpassed me. We worked in some of the same places—Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan. But we were never in the same place at the same time.

And when I eventually opted out of covering conflict, David hit his stride. In his youth, his anger, in part, drove him. As he matured, it was his indignation and resolve to witness; and, through his photographs, show the world the entire spectrum of what he’d witnessed. Depravity. Death. Joy. Resilience. Love.

David first visited Allegheny College via Skype. He was the subject of the news writing students’ interview for their final exam in December 2014. While he was talking with the students, he asked for a moment to take a call. He returned and finished the interview. He remained available for the students’ questions throughout the three-hour exam.

I had a question. Gilkey, what was the call? It was a notification: our friend and fellow photojournalist, Michel duCille, had died of a heart attack on assignment covering the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.

David was the first person I called when I started planning my trip to Liberia, scheduled for later that December. He’d already been one of the first journalists on the ground in Liberia and he’d traveled to Sierra Leone and Guinea to cover the epidemic. I asked for his advice.

Rubber boots, David said. Take rubber boots. And don’t get close, Cheryl. It can kill you.

David knew the risks of his work. He accepted them and mitigated them to the best of his ability. He wasn’t reckless by nature though he did love a good shot of adrenaline: downhill skiing, scuba diving. And covering conflict and natural disasters.

In March, we had four hours before we’d return to the airport to collect Carrie Kahn, another speaker and NPR correspondent in Mexico City. We headed to Primanti Brothers in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. David’s idea. He knew more about the city than I did and I’d be in Pennsylvania nearly four years. We ate the classic sandwich with fries wedged between the slices of bread. At David’s memorial service in July in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, his friends told stories of his love of food, from “street meat” to fine dining in pricey, celebrated restaurants.

That was David. He enjoyed the fine things in life: a pair of hand-stitched leather boots and first-class travel. And he could live in the most grim and challenging conditions. He could sleep in the dirt and cold and go for weeks without a shower.

When David and I met, we wouldn’t share war stories. On our last visit, we talked about our aging parents and our concern and love for them. We talked about our Humpty-Dumpty hearts, each shattered by a beloved. A sanctuary and sacred trust violated. For both of us, the betrayal marked a profound wounding and trauma that pierced us to our core and persisted.

David spoke about his work and legacy. He had a keen desire to see the bulk and span of his work in Afghanistan edited, collected, shared and preserved. David had traveled to Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. He humped through the country with Marines and soldiers at least once a year, often more, throughout the entire 14-year war, the longest in American history. He was committed to the story. And he died covering it, long after the gaze of the public and media had turned away.

He showed me photographs on his phone of his new home in D.C. It was a beautiful space, a photographer’s home, full of windows and light. My house is your house, Cheryl. You’re welcome any time, even if I’m not there. I told him I’d come see him as soon as he got back.

I was home sick and wide-awake the night of June 3, 2016. It would have been June 4 already in Afghanistan. On an impulse, I sent David a text, must have been the fever. I had no idea if it’d reach him. He responded immediately.

I was still in bed the next day when Carrie Kahn called me, sobbing. David’s dead.

Later, I checked my phone to see if I’d written “I love you” in that last text. I hadn’t.

I know I said it at the airport three months earlier. Since David’s death, I make a point to say I love you to friends and family, when I finish a phone call or part company. Some were uncomfortable with it at first. “It’s my tribute to David,” I would offer and they would understand.

Last March, we needed to leave Meadville at 3:30 a.m. for his 7 a.m. flight. You don’t need to take me, Cheryl. Get some hung-over student to drive me there. No way. I insisted.

We arrived bleary-eyed and laughing at 5:45 a.m. It wasn’t a long good-bye. David grabbed his bags. I grabbed a selfie. We hugged. I told him I’d see him in D.C.

With my phone, I snapped a couple frames of David in the dim light in front of the departure terminal. He kicked up his leg, stuck out his tongue. And left.

Wheels up, David.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/outside-the-box-i-love-you-tribute-to-friend-killed/article_7d68b5c8-c179-11e6-b064-ab17766afd1e.html

Giving hearts and lives to bear witness

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Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2014

When students arrive for their news writing final, they learn the name of the person they’ll write about. They have a few minutes for research before they interview the subject of their profile. They write their stories and file them on deadline. The three-hour exam is a legitimate, real-time test of their journalism skills.

This year David Gilkey joined the class via Skype from Florida, where he was on assignment. Gilkey is photojournalist and video editor at National Public Radio, who has covered a broad range of stories, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The students peppered Gilkey with questions about his background, career and his personal life. They focused on his recent coverage of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Wait a minute. Hold on, Gilkey said, at one point in the interview. The students watched as he removed his earphones. He paused, looked up toward the ceiling for a moment, then put the earphones back and returned to the interview.

Was that breaking news or a phone call? I asked. A phone call with news, Gilkey replied.

Gilkey completed the interview and gave the students his email address and responded to questions they had during their final. He stayed in contact with the students for the full three hours.

After 45 minutes, most of the students broke away to begin writing their stories. I opened my computer and read that Michel du Cille, a Washington Post photojournalist, had died of an apparent heart attack in Liberia at the age of 58.

I must have gasped or blurted something. A student looked up. Are you OK, Professor Hatch?

Yes, thanks. Focus on your work. I’ll explain after the exam.

I sent Gilkey a text.

He told me that the call he’d taken during the students’ interview was from Nikki Kahn, du Cille’s wife, also a Washington Post photojournalist, telling him that his friend and colleague had died.

All the students hit their 10 p.m. deadline. A number stayed late and read du Cille’s obituary posted online. We discussed his work and commitment to it.

Du Cille had received three Pulitzer Prizes for his photography, two while at The Miami Herald and one at The Washington Post. He was known for his compassion and his big heart.

“He was renowned among journalists for his ability to look inside a crisis and find enduring portraits of sorrow, dignity and perseverance” wrote Post reporter Matt Schudel.

Most recently, du Cille had focused on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where he had covered the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 1990s.

In an article in the Post in October, du Cille wrote about his experiences.

“Sometimes, the harshness of a gruesome scene simply cannot be sanitized…But I believe that the world must see the horrible and dehumanizing effects of Ebola. The story must be told; so one moves around with tender care, gingerly, without extreme intrusion.”

On Sunday night, my phone dinged with a message from JR Ancheta, a friend and former student. We’d worked together in Afghanistan.

Happy Solstice.

He sent a message with a photo of a surfer silhouetted against a lavender sky tinged with flamingo pink clouds. Returning to shore, the surfer had his board tucked under his arm, the water a band of brightness and sparkles around him.

JR was at his family home in Sitka, Alaska, when he noticed the light. He grabbed his camera and dashed to the water’s edge.

JR had been through some tough times lately. Making the dash for sunset light, photographing the twilight moment reminded him of the joy and reverence he has for photography—and the beauty that surrounds us.

It’s really easy to get stuck, JR said. The world is full of nastiness, muckiness, ugliness. We forget to see. Forget to look. Forget to find beauty.

Looking. Seeing. Finding those little snippets of beauty everywhere. Photographers find beauty in the nastiness and muckiness.

It’s a gift, JR said.

Then he surprised me with a gift.

“Thank you for teaching me to watch the sunsets—and the sunrises,” JR said.

My first column this year was about Dave Martin, an Associated Press photographer, who died on the job, at 59, of an apparent heart attack. In April, I wrote about another AP photographer, Anja Niedringhaus, assassinated in Afghanistan. She was 48. And, in my last column of 2014, I remember Michel du Cille, who died covering a story and people he cared deeply about.

Photojournalists and journalists know the risks and accept the dangers of covering a some stories. We open our eyes and our hearts to the suffering and the beauty in our world. We witness and return to bear witness.

To quote Michel du Cille: “This is what we do.”

We give our hearts—and sometimes our lives.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/giving-hearts-and-lives-to-bear-witness/article_180de8f2-8d59-11e4-b1f4-0f9521438772.html

 

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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