Mr. Dirck Halstead;
July 4, 2003
I have always seen letters, stories or columns in print and online that start off with saying, „Your latest piece really hit me, it moved me, and it was like you were talking directly to me. Well this is true for me with your Commentary: Coming Home.
There I was at 1:00 a.m. glued to your site, The Digital Journalist, reading every word once, twice and then some more. Your words really did hit me, they touched me, and I did feel like you were talking directly to me. I sat there wishing that I were reading these words 10 years ago when I came back home from my life-threatening and life changing trip to Somalia. Most of all, your column has inspired me to write the following; thank you Dirck for publishing and sharing it with the world.
Dirck, your latest column, Commentary: Coming Home, really hit me deeply last night. Maybe it was the fact that when I found the piece it was really late at the end of another 18-hour day? I doubt it. You see, the subject you talked about, being a freshly returned war photographer was very personal.
It is true,”history repeats itself„”the more things change the more they stay the same “.”Everything happens for a reason” use all the clichés you want, they all fit in here.
How about, „”knowledge was meant to be shared so history does not repeat itself in such a useless way” I am not talking about the politics of the war, whether it was or was not the right thing to do. It is a done deal, even if the killing and dying will continue for years to come, the war and most of the battles are now over, so that is a stupid argument and a waste of time at this point.
I am talking about the personal battles of getting better, the healing that many of the photographers that made the trip over to this conflict will have to wage over the next several months.
You are correct that there are a lot of „”newbies.” In fact there have been more new war photographer veterans exposed to this one fast killing field then ever before in the history of this world, thanks to the new “embedded photojournalist” position. The pictures were incredible, spectacular, gripping, graphic and endless. Dirck, you and David Leeson of the Dallas Morning News are correct, they are back home, back with the family and friends doing day-to-day tasks, jobs and duties once again. They may be back in one piece physically, but what about being back in one piece emotionally and mentally? Will life ever seem or will the world ever look the same again? Probably not, but should it after being through something like this? How or even if these shooters deal with getting back to “normal” is where the danger lies; after all we are supposed to be these tough, hardnosed, relentless journalists. We cannot let anyone see or show any cracks in our armour, can we? So thank you for telling this new crew that it is okay to not feel “normal” right now.
Here is another cliché for you, “„suck it up; what does not kill you will make you stronger.” I really hate that one big-time. It should be, “what does not kill you, will make you stronger, but first it will make you weaker and it could in fact kill you anyway!” Thankfully, today I am stronger, way stronger. Life and the world look better, way better, in fact better than they ever have.
I was in Somalia back in November/December 1992 before the UN invasion and over 10 months before Blackhawk Down. Dirck, I am a passionate community guy, not a war photographer; if anything I am the accidental war photographer!
I live my life one way and that is "failure is not an option." Problem was, it almost got me killed this time.
I went to Nairobi with my reporter (yah I love the sound of that) for what was going to be a week to do a feature on the local Canadian Forces pilots and crew delivering food to the starving next door in Somalia. We were not there to cover a civil war; we were not prepared or equipped. But things changed in a big way. We needed to find and get pictures of the starving people at the end of the food deliveries that everyone was seeing on TV and in publication. But there were none to be found. They were gone for the most part. So to get what we needed, we broke the agreement we had with the Canadian Forces by walking away from the plane after landing in North Mogadishu. As the reporter begged the Red Cross guy for a ride into town, the pilot was asking me to not go and finally he just asked, “Do you have any last words I can take to your wife?”
We made it to the edge of town to a prison that the Red Cross had converted to a hospital. I photographed the wounded and sick. The next day we went into town to document the refugees. It all seemed surreal, like it was fake or a movie set. We returned to our five-star hotel in Nairobi without ever seeing any starving people. We headed in again, this time by “B-Sing” our way onto a U.S. C-130 heading to Baidoa. We were told this was the “City of Death” and the starving were there. They left out the part where journalists were no longer welcome there.
While heading into town, we got caught in the middle of an ambush of the Pinto Bean trucks that had just left the airport, bullets flying just over our heads. After making it into town, we did in fact find the starving that we came half way around the world to document, along with the dying from the earlier gun battle. It was after firing off two frames of these unlucky souls that I found myself up against a cement wall with an AK-47 stuck between my eyes and an angry and screaming Somali at the other end of it. To this day I still do not know why he did not pull the trigger. I made it out of that dark room to be “arrested” by one of General Mohamed Aidid's local governors for being a journalist in his town without permission. With some fast-talking and a ton of more good luck, a local Red Cross worker was able to negotiate our freedom by nightfall. We made it out alive and with all my film in tact!
I just wanted out of Africa; that was it for me, I had had it. But after a good night sleep and a few beers with breakfast, I cancelled my flight home and went back into Mogadishu one more time - the day after the U.N. had sent in the troops. I thought that if I ran from things I was afraid of, I would ruin my whole life and I did not want that.
I came back home just before Christmas and on the first night back, I had a few more beers and finally I was letting it out emotionally. Telling my wife Birgit the truth (I’d lied to her in earlier phone calls) about just how close I really came to literally biting the bullet, I ending up in her arms in tears. I never cracked once over there; it seemed like I was in a bubble ready to burst big-time when I came back to my home. I told Birgit, "I do not know why the guy with the AK-47 did not pull the trigger? I am already dead, every day from here on in is a bonus for me; I have to make a difference and I must make the best of everyday that I now have left.” I was very emotional.
Anyone that knows me is well aware that you cannot shut me up once I get going, but this was different; I really did not want to talk about it. People were saying, ‘”You are so lucky; I wish it was me or it should of been me over there. What was it like to almost die? Tell me everything. You are going to win awards with all the pictures you took.” I just felt numb; it just did not, I did not feel right. I did not feel normal.
Then Christmas came. I was sinking fast. It was hell - family, gifts, food, happiness, hugs and kids laughing while pointing and shooting sparks out of the toy guns at each other that they had just opened from under the tree. There I was with my back pinned up against a wall again; this time drinking beer with sweat rolling down my forehead. all I could see was the Somali kids with their guns, their bleeding, their crying, their burnt flesh, their missing limbs in hospital and in the refugee camps, their beautiful smiles of joy while they played with their ripped, dirty clothes and nothing of value to their name. This did not feel like Christmas at all, I felt sick - no appetite, no talking, just this really ugly dark feeling.
It got worse too; going to assignments where people were bitching about stuff or protests where people yelled for more. I kept thinking that these people just do no know or even care just how good they really have it in Canada. I know now that I sank into depression or PTSD; whatever it was, it was horrible. Some days there was little will to live, never mind getting out of bed and going to work. It really sucked, but I never gave up!!!
Luckily in Canada we have really tight gun laws - like we have none! In the States I worry that there could be some photographers that are just not going to make it through this darkness that they may find themselves in one piece.
A year after I came back from Somalia, my wife Birgit gave birth to our beautiful son, Nicholas. Four hours after he was born, the wheels fell off - it turned out that he had had a pre-birth stroke. The war zone was back big-time but this time it was worse. Nicholas, who is severely disabled and medically fragile, has had close call after close call ever since. He is now 9 years old and under 24/7 care.
One thing that kept me going a decade ago was that I kept my word of that first night back. I started working more on my charity projects in the community and have continued to head-up and develop better student programs at the Edmonton Sun; there are a number of students now working as full-time photojournalists because of these programs. While most of my work is of the small scale some of the projects that I helped get going have gone on to raise millions of dollars for the community locally and beyond.
Last October I was awarded the Queen‚s Golden Jubilee Medal from the Governor General and the Federal Government of Canada for the seven years of dedication and work I have done for the Rosecrest Home and the children that receive services there; my son Nicholas being one of them.
This past April I co-produced Edmonton’s first
ever screening of the documentary
Dirck as you know, no matter how low you get there are so many good reasons to stick around this crazy and at times shitty world. We need to continue to tell any of these new war photographer veterans that any dark times they may be going through will not last and it can be beaten. One last cliché,”Time heals all wounds!”
Thank you Dirck for your inspirational site, you just never know with the work that you do who you could be saving, maybe a shooter named Ryan or maybe just another child named Nicholas and other children like him.