U English professor recalls front-line reporting dangers

Shira Kantor

As a journalist mired in the war-torn jungles of northern Sri Lanka in the late 1980s, Qadri Ismail – now a University English professor – lay wounded on the ground with no feeling in his body from the neck down. Temporary paralysis from the shrapnel that seared through his neck left him frozen and bleeding.

A reporter for Time magazine and the Sri Lankan Sunday Times newspaper, Ismail was shot by a passing Indian army helicopter as he tried to leave the restricted war zone he had snuck into just days earlier.

Ismail could hear the helicopter overhead as it looped back to survey the damage, but he refused to look at his attacker.

“I was thinking, ‘OK, if they’re going to kill me, let them kill me; I’m not going to look at this damn thing,'” Ismail said.

Ismail survived.

But his plight is relived every year as journalists face dangerous, often life-threatening situations in their work.

Abi Wright, a spokeswoman for the New York-based nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists, said 37 journalists worldwide were killed last year – an increase from the 24 killed in the preceding year.

“Scores of journalists are imprisoned every year because of what they have reported,” she said. Hundreds more are attacked or threatened.

The British-led international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan issued a warning to journalists in Kabul on Wednesday that a credible threat had been made to kidnap foreign reporters.

According to a CPJ release, International Security Assistance Force officials said “the threat appears to be related to the U.S.-led offensive against Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in eastern Paktia Province.”

The warning came two days after a Toronto Star reporter was seriously injured as she traveled on a road between Kabul and Gardez in Paktia Province.

According to a Washington Post article published Tuesday, an interpreter overheard two Afghan gunmen as they plotted in Pashto to kidnap a group of Western journalists gathered nearby.

The journalists retreated to their cars, but the gunmen followed them and lobbed a grenade at the group, wounding reporter Kathleen Kenna.

While the current war on terrorism has groups such as CPJ increasingly concerned for journalists’ safety, Wright said reporters are constantly at risk.

“Things have been dangerous for a while,” Wright said. And a war situation isn’t always requisite for the danger.

CPJ was founded by a group of U.S. foreign correspondents in response to the brutal treatment journalists often bore at the hands of authoritarian governments, Wright said.

But she said journalists are being directly targeted more than they have been historically.

“Things have really been changing dramatically in terms of no longer being seen as nonpartisan,” Wright said.

Ismail knows that well.

Though he left for the United States to complete his education – he went to Columbia University in New York in 1989 as a Fulbright-Hays junior fellow – Ismail said he planned to return to reporting in his native Sri Lanka.

But as the Sri Lankan political situation continued to deteriorate, Ismail said, journalists lost freedoms and grew vulnerable. Ismail ultimately gave up journalism when his good friend and colleague, Richard DeZoysa, was killed at the hands of the Sri Lankan government.

“That kind of changed everything,” Ismail said.

DeZoysa had been reporting for the Inter Press Service, documenting human rights abuses and reporting on government impropriety.

“People in Sri Lanka knew what was happening,” Ismail said, “But internationally, the government continued to deny that it was violating human rights and indulging in mass murder.”

DeZoysa began to receive threats, Ismail said, and eventually was kidnapped by Sri Lankan police in the middle of the night. His body was discovered the next day after it washed ashore on a beach outside of the capital city of Colombo.

“This was fairly routine practice,” Ismail said. “They would kill people and then take the bodies by helicopter and then drop them into the sea.”

In the few hours before DeZoysa was found, several journalists pursued international help. CPJ got involved. Ismail, who was in New York, contacted the Sri Lankan embassy to protest.

“Initially, one had some hope that they would just rough him up and release him,” Ismail said.

But police didn’t release DeZoysa, Ismail said. Colombo citizens buried him, and a few hundred people attended his funeral.

“They didn’t even know Richard,” Ismail said. They came “just to protest against the government, to tell them this is one way of saying, ‘We disapprove.'”

The government had changed hands – and grown more restrictive – since Ismail’s reporting days.

DeZoysa was killed under the presidency of Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was considered much more repressive than his predecessor, Ismail said.

“The thing about Sri Lanka (prior to Premadasa’s rule) is that we had a reasonable amount of freedom of the press,” Ismail said. “I could say pretty much whatever I wanted to say about the government.”

The bullets that flew at Ismail when he was hit by flying shrapnel a few years earlier weren’t discharged because he was a journalist.

The Indian troops who shot at Ismail were supposed to be acting as peacekeepers between dueling ethnic groups – the Singalese, who governed post-colonial Sri Lanka, and the Tamils. But the Indians had become engaged in a guerilla war with Tamil militants; specifically, the largest militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

“I knew if they saw me they would think I was also one of the Tigers and they would just shoot me for the fun of it,” Ismail said.

Waiting for his attackers to return, Ismail said, all he could think about, oddly, was the book he hadn’t yet written.

“I wanted to write a book about Sri Lanka and the war and what it was like,” Ismail said. “The thought that went through my mind was, ‘This helicopter is coming to kill me, but I can’t die because I haven’t written my book yet.'”

In the meantime, the taxi driver Ismail had been traveling with got into his cab and left Ismail but came back moments later with help.

The driver took Ismail to a makeshift hospital nearby, where he recovered from his injury.

“My mother called me from the States once I had got to a hospital,” Ismail said. “Her first question was not, ‘How are you doing?’ but just, ‘When are you giving up journalism?’

“But I enjoyed it too much,” Ismail said.

However, the psychological scars he suffered from his own near-fatal incident as well as DeZoysa’s death eventually took their toll.

Ismail opted to stay in the United States and earn a doctorate in English.

But he misses reporting, he said.

“Sometimes, just following events in this country, I think, ‘If I had any sort of a column, wouldn’t that be fun?'”

Ismail has been working on a book that explores the way the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict has been documented by historians and novelists.

It’s more academic than the book he had in mind as he lay wounded as a reporter in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s, he said. It will probably be published next year.

“I’m finishing the book about Sri Lanka,” he said, “but I’m not yet ready to die.”

Shira Kantor welcomes comments at
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