The Digital Journalist
Killing 2004
January 2005

by Michael Kamber

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Late at night on the deserted Port-au-Prince streets, Lionel, the fat taxi driver, reminisces about the early months of 2004: "I was the head driver for one of the networks. I would get up early, 5 a.m., go out and find the good fresh bodies, the real fresh ones, still bleeding. Bring the crew back to film them; they were very happy."

Switching subjects, he leers at me, "You ever been with a Haitian woman?" He nods at the girl seated next to him, who looks to be 18. "This one here's good. She's my girlfriend, but if someone wants to do something nice for her, I don't stand in the way." Times are tough for Lionel.

The killings have dropped to a routine two or three a day and the press has moved on to other stories. Last February, when Aristide fell, the foreign press corps numbered a hundred or so. Ten months later, it is down to a handful of freelancers and an occasional staffer passing through town.

Meanwhile, the rebels control the entire Central Plateau and at least eight towns. The chimeres, Aristide's supporters in the slums, are making forays each day into the downtown area, turning Bel Air and La Saline into low-intensity battlegrounds. The hope last year--that Haiti had turned the corner--is gone. Many believe the country is in the first days of a civil war.

February/March 2004, Haiti

Photo by Michael Kamber
Up in the hills one night, some friends took me to an exclusive restaurant. The entire clientele was light-skinned or white. As the city burned below, they danced in a conga line, looked at pictures of themselves on the TV taken by a house photographer, ate lobster and shrimp. "Things were much better when Duvalier was here," a prominent businesswoman told me. "We didn't have all these problems, no one was being kidnapped." No rich people were being kidnapped is what she meant.

I made six trips here this year and became intimate with Gonaives, Cap Haitian and the capital. I learned enough French and Creole to do basic communication, made acquaintances on both sides of the fighting, found sources in the government and among the U.N. staffers. Each country has its layers, you stay awhile and begin to peel them back and peer beneath.

18 May, 2004, Baghdad, Iraq
Sadiq Zoman (far left), a 56-year-old senior Baath Party official who was arrested by U.S. troops and suffered a stroke while in custody after what his family said was extensive questioning and confinement in hot and dangerous conditions.

Photo by Michael Kamber for The New York Times
This year I've become perhaps even more disillusioned with the press corps (myself included), jetting in and out of hot spots, but I'm beginning to realize it is the more the public indifference than the fault of the press. The last week of 2004 brings a tsunami claiming more than 150,000 lives, battles raging in Iraq, elections looming in Israel. People back home have jobs, kids, lives. There is only so much time for other people's distant crises.

I did another stint in Baghdad this year, random street work and a tour with the troops in Sadr City, a month that passed like dog years. We got hit every time we left the gate: RPGs, roadside bombs and artillery. It got to the point where you wished for someone to shoot at you with just an AK. Then we got back to the base and got mortared some more. Guys were wounded going to mess hall, sitting in the shitters.

I learned to write on deadline as well as photograph, an achievement I'm happy with.

I want to have learned something profound, something to keep me and other journalists safe. It did not happen. A roadside bomb exploded a moment late, missing my Humvee; mortar rounds fell in front of, and behind, me as we covered fighting at a Baghdad police station. There is nothing heroic about it; the nature of war is chaos and chance. You stay alive because you are lucky, little more.

25 May, 2004 Baghdad, Iraq
American troops evacuating a badly wounded female American soldier from a Baghdad police station after it was attacked by rockets fired from an apartment building across the street.

Photo by Michael Kamber for The New York Times
Dexter Filkins, Ashley Gilbertson, Joao Silva and Tyler Hicks have done incredible work for The New York Times, just hung in there month after month, through Najaf, Karbala, Fallujah. Others for their papers and networks as well. I can't fault my colleagues for not caring about Haiti; our hands are full in other places.

2004 was a bloody year. Was it worse than the years of Iran/Iraq, Ethiopia/Eritrea, the Balkans? Or is it just that, this time, America is deeply enmeshed in the bloodshed?

For Christmas dinner, my brother seasoned a hunk of lamb the size of a football. It was shiny, viscous, bloody. I'd seen it before, a body part somewhere, and I run through the bombings and killing, trying to place it.

People ask me--real concern in their eyes--how I'm doing. It's hard to explain that really I'm doing fine. I have the best job in the world, one that matters, one that challenges and changes in some small way. I witness history. I'm OK. It's the people back home--going about their lives as the world burns--that I worry about.

© Michael Kamber

Michael Kamber is a freelance photographer and writer whose work regularly appears in The New York Times.

Dispatches are brought to you by Canon. Send Canon a message of thanks.