As I lay on the hood of a Land Rover, propped against the windshield and gazing into the marvelous night sky above Luuq, Somalia, I heard a swooshing sound followed by an explosion that shook the earth. My reverie was quickly broken.
My friend, cinematographer Burton Buller, came out of a tent and exclaimed, “They’re shooting at us!”
They weren’t shooting at us, and he was joking, but they were shooting over us at a bridge not far away.
We were in a refugee camp situated between opposing Somali forces in the Ogaden rangelands, documenting conditions the world cared little about and would as soon ignore.
I thought of this as I considered the deaths of British photojournalist Tim Hetherington and Getty photographer Chris Hondros in a mortar attack in Libya yesterday. Two other journalists were injured.
Getting the story, even under circumstances that are life-threatening, is a driving force for many journalists. They are drawn to the power of storytelling, the conviction that the world must know what is happening, especially in places where life hangs in the balance.
They have an unexpressed desire to make a difference, especially for those who lack the means to tell their own story. They enable others to speak of their experiences, hoping that perhaps the world will care, the policymakers will work for change, the guns will be silenced and the people freed to pursue their lives.
We need the storytellers. They remind us of both our capacity for inhumanity as well as our capacity for human decency. They hold before us the mirror of our humanity. And in doing so they remind us of our worst, and best, perhaps, in the unexpressed hope that by knowing each other more deeply and fully, we can become more truthful, just and dignified. We can become the people we say we want to be when we are at our best.
But to tell this story they must be in harm’s way, for it is in these places, places of extremes, that the drama is played out graphically and with the risk of ultimate resolution – where life or death weigh in the balance.
The Committee to Protect Journalists says 16 journalists have died this year – 44 in 2010. Journalists are under attack in Libya. Throughout the Middle East Spring, they have been among those who pay the price for the wrenching changes that are being pressed on authoritarian, corrupt regimes.
Yet they continue to tell the stories. They continue to remind us who we are and who we aspire to be. Let us pray for them all and be thankful they are reaching out to us, holding up the mirror of reality, and sometimes making the ultimate sacrifice that we may see and know, and care.