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You Can Thank These People for Everything You Know About the Fight Against ISIS

Journalists might report from battle, but they often wouldn't be able to get there in the first place if it wasn't for these fixers.

by Helen Nianias
08 August 2017, 7:45am

Fixer Barzan on the job

If you ever find yourself in need of a flak jacket at midnight, or want to get through a checkpoint manned by particularly surly guards, you'll need to get yourself a fixer. These are the locals who guide foreign journalists through any and all sorts of situations, from meth labs in the Philippines to active war zones in the Middle East.

A good fixer will know everything there is to know about the security situation, how to access hard-to-reach places and be able to find stories on the ground that nobody else yet knows about. However, they get almost zero recognition for the dangerous work they do. In Mosul, they've been a huge part of how the war against ISIS has been reported, often going to the frontline every day of the week, making hundreds of dollars a day for doing so, despite the fact many of them are still in their early twenties.

Now the fight against ISIS in Mosul is over, I spoke to some of the people who have helped to define how the battle was reported.

STELLA, 22

Journalists sometimes ask for things you can't expect. In Mosul, on the day the operation to liberate the west started, I was with a journalist who insisted on going very near the frontline while three suicide bombers were missing, the area was full of snipers and the army was shooting an ISIS drone nearby. It was dangerous, but he didn't understand.

I've been a fixer for almost one year. I got a job at an NGO after university, so when I had time I did fixing just for fun. My mother worries about me, so I don't usually tell her where I am or what I've seen.

I've had a lot of training in psychological first aid – which is how you assess trauma – and mental self-care. When I first heard the stories of ISIS survivors, I couldn't sleep or work properly. But now I can see that the NGO I work for has started to help them and I feel better.

Nothing is predictable, but you have to be confident – it's Iraq life. Even if you don't have the permissions, you have to convince the guards to let you through. I do worry about fake checkpoints, though, because we have so many militias and army groups it's difficult to know if a checkpoint is real or not. Some people, maybe ISIS or other groups, set up fake ones, and many people have been killed at them.

I can't go through checkpoints without a man because it's not safe, plus the guards will ask for my number and take selfies with me. It's annoying, as it means I always have to split my fee with a male driver or interpreter, so I can never make as much money as the boys.

Do I ever feel fixers don't get enough credit? Sometimes, yeah. But at the same time, we're getting paid well. This is life.

BARZAN, 23

I spend a lot of time on the frontline, and once I spent ten days in Mosul. One day we entered the city with the Golden Division, an elite army unit. After a few minutes they told us to go back to the base outside the city because it was too dangerous, but as we drove away, the wheel of my car was damaged. I let the journalist go back in the armoured cars, but because it's so valuable, I could not leave my car. This meant that I was inside Mosul completely on my own for one hour, which is the most dangerous thing I have ever done.

Despite the fact that I work in such dangerous places, the only training I have is a first aid course I did in 2013. I've learned everything on the job.

As Mosul ends, I am preparing myself to start work in Hawijah as the fighting intensifies there, which doesn't worry me because I have better contacts there. Contacts are really important, and while some fixers might have rivalries with each other, when we come back from Mosul in the evening we have a drink together and share what information we have.

I am studying engineering and fixing at the same time, which is quite a lot to do, so I try to fit in the fixing work at the weekends, but it doesn't always work out that way.

Most importantly, my work is part of the fight against ISIS. I am the reason that the media is able to tell the world what ISIS is really like, and it makes me want to keep doing my job.

BEENAR, 26

The first and foremost quality in a good fixer is honesty – you have to honestly explain to journalists what the risks are and check everything you do with them. In addition to this, you have to have excellent communication skills. You need to have intensive connections, political awareness, stay updated on the situation all the time; you need to be the first to grab the stories and sell them to journalists. You must be quick, flexible – very flexible – ready to work long hours and not let it bother you.

One of the first things I have to tell foreign journalists is about proper behaviour, which is understandable because we're not familiar with each other's culture. You need to observe religious traditions, like not drinking water in front of people during Ramadan, and you can't say "fuck" as locals might know that word.

Sometimes I feel really sad about things that happen. I've lost friends, and sometimes I've lost people I met that day, but I try always to take rest when I need it, and stay away from emotions, because this is just the kind of job I do.

MAJD, 22

I've been a fixer for a year, since the Mosul operation started. At first I was a driver, while my girlfriend was an interpreter. I only found out what fixing was after a friend told us about it. Now, I do it full-time, usually working very long hours seven days a week, taking journalists to the frontline. I earn good money, more than enough to survive. That's why I risk my life every day.

The job can be very dangerous. One month ago, when I was in a group trying to reach the Old City frontline, I realised we were actually over the line and in ISIS territory. The federal police officer had taken us to the wrong side, and we only realised it when we were creeping through the small gaps between houses.

The psychological pressure is huge, and it's been the hardest thing for me. I can never stop thinking about work, and I can't stop thinking about death. It means that I get very angry, even if it's over something small, like someone disagreeing with me.

The thing that makes me feel good about my work is that I have helped people in Mosul with first aid and even saved lives. That makes me feel great.

When I'm at the frontline I take many photographs and lots of footage. I want to be a filmmaker after the fighting is over, and I'm lucky to work with many amazing journalists and see how they operate.

@helenniannias

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