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What I Learned as a Freelance Journalist in Iraq

Earlier this year Chris Shearer hopped a flight from Melbourne to ISIS-ravaged northern Iraq, where he hoped to learn the ropes of war journalism.

by Chris Shearer
Mar 30 2016, 12:00am

The author (left) with a Peshmerga colonel, Masao, and Soran. All images by author

On March 6, 2016, I hopped an unsurprisingly cheap flight to Erbil, the capital of northern Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region. The plan was to spend a week with a Japanese photojournalist named Masao, who has covered conflicts as a freelancer for the past 40-odd years. I'm a freelance journalist in Australia, which is obviously safer and infinitely more comfortable than anything Masao was covering in Iraq. I'd briefly visited the region years earlier, but I'd come back with Masao as a mentor on how to work in a war zone.

I didn't expect to be "in the shit" as it were, but northern Iraq remains a troubled place. Since 2014, the Kurdish Regional Government has been fighting ISIS; not only halting its advance across northern Iraq but going on the offensive to recapture lost ground.

A good fixer is the difference between life and death

Working in a foreign country, a fixer is the journalist's most important resource. Not only do fixers know the area and the language, but they can also set up meetings, organize accommodation and transport, and—as their name would suggest—fix things when you get "in the shit."

Masao's fixer was an Iranian Kurd named Soran. He looked like a cross between Lenin and Hagrid, and was happy to argue with officials on our behalf for hours at a time to ensure we could do and go where we wanted. When I wanted to spend a few days in Sinjar on my own, he even found me an interpreter.

Soran (right) at the office of Domiz refugee camp in Duhok

Barjis (left) and a Yazidi fighter talk in front of a destroyed ISIS tank in Sinjar.

It was in Sinjar that I met Barjis, who demonstrated for us what a bad fixer is like. He oversold his language skills, constantly paraphrased answers during interviews, and was moody as hell—souring at the simplest direction. But at $100 a day, he was dirt cheap. He was also the only guy available, and without him, I would have been completely fucked. And he was a Yazidi, which—as both Masao and Soran told me—meant he wouldn't sell us to ISIS at the first opportunity.

A Peshmerga soldier asks us where we are going. This one image sums up a lot of the trip.

You'll need a fake press card

There are few job titles in the whole world that inspire less confidence than "freelance journalist." Not only do you come with the baggage of the privacy-invading, quote-distorting, your-pain-is-my-paycheck stereotypes, but you're unimportant to boot. Masao and Soran knew this. Soran carried a few press cards, some of which had been valid at one point, and others that he just made himself. In Erbil, we made a fake one for me: A cheap passport photo and laminate job. It worked wonders. Doors were opened, permissions granted, and checkpoints passed.

In Sinjar, I found myself alone at a checkpoint, being interrogated by a Peshmerga officer on how I got into the area without official permission. Even if I'd said I was a freelance reporter, and shown him my passport, there was a good chance he wouldn't have believed me, and I would've ended up sharing a cell with Mohamed Jamal Khweis. But a few moments after flashing my (very fake) press card, I was a free man.

A Peshmerga soldier on the front line

Have cigarettes, the right ones

"A lot of soldiers smoke," Masao told me once, offhand. And without fail, every time we sat with anyone for more than two minutes, soldiers were lighting up. Barjis explained that he thought people who didn't smoke were untrustworthy. Even though he'd quit smoking, Masao would sometimes bum a cigarette from an officer during an interview to strike up a rapport.

Back in 2013, I'd traveled to Syria and found a couple packs of Marlboro Reds earned me a handy bit of goodwill, so this time I grabbed a carton at duty free. But no one wanted my American garbage sticks. Everyone smoked Arden Lights, which I've never seen outside Iraq. Whenever I'd offer a Malboro to people, they'd crinkle up their face and wave their hands at me before offering me one of their Ardens. On the few occasions I insisted they take one of mine, I got a look that I roughly translated to, "Don't make me regret being nice to you, Australian."

A Yazidi man and child at a temple. The Yazidis have been an ISIS targets since 2014.

Get used to a blasé attitude to death

Obviously, being at war for the better part of 15 years will affect a country's relationship with death. But I was not prepared for how much everybody's casual attitude to the human toll would affect me.

At a Peshmerga special forces base in Sinjar, an American volunteer named David happily showed me pictures on his phone of dead ISIS fighters "stacked up like firewood." I mustn't have looked all that impressed because because David quickly offered to take Masao, Soran, and I to see some mass graves just out of town.

A mass grave of Yazidis, killed by ISIS

David, the American Peshmerga volunteer, points out a bullet hole in a hip.

There were three of them—mounds of dirt covered in grass, weeds, clothing, bullet casings, and bones. Three or four hundred people would've been buried there. "This is a bullet hole in the skull," David said, almost like a tour guide. "Here's one in a hip. This is a girl's braid. This hip bone probably belongs to a child of three or four." While the Peshmerga picked through the bodies and their belongings, the three of us snapped photos. I knew I should've felt more disturbed than I did. But it was as though someone was showing us their vegetable garden.

Shoot first, ask questions later

I'd never had a problem taking people's photos until I visited a refugee camp in Duhok. It became quickly apparent people were trying to avoid my camera, and I began to feel awkward. Who was I to jam a camera in their faces and ask them to tell the people back in Australia how shitty their lives were? Soran saw me struggling, and as an experienced documentarian, he offered a few words. "Sometimes it's better to just start filming and then ask permission," he said. "If you start filming, people are more likely to talk."

A refugee at the Duhok camp

A few days later, all three of us were in a Yazidi temple waving our cameras around as the people there prayed for the release of their women from ISIS. It still didn't feel right, documenting their intimate grief. But following Masao's lead, being just a fly on the wall, I didn't feel I was intruding as much as I did before.

Throughout our time together, Masao kept saying he didn't think he had anything useful to teach me. But I learned a fucking a ton in that week. A lot of it wouldn't make the cut in an article like this, but it's essential stuff for getting the story and not dying. It's dirty, expensive, and sometimes dangerous work being a freelancer in a war zone, and hardly anyone will care what you did or saw over there anyway. But I went a full week without thinking "why the fuck did I become a freelance journalist?" In northern Iraq, I found a steady supply of the passion that led me down this road. I can't wait to do it again.

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