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War Reporters: In the Line of Fire? - 2003-04-09

No journalist wants to become a story in the coverage of war. But it is more likely to happen in wartime because the very business of war reporting is inherently dangerous. VOA Pentagon Correspondent Alex Belida, who was shot in covering Somalia, has these thoughts on a day when several journalists in Baghdad have been killed and wounded.

War reporting may not seem dangerous to the listener, reader or viewer for whom "scattered exchanges of small arms and mortar fire" are just words. But for the reporter in a combat zone, getting in position to witness events like a firefight can be a matter of life and death.

I know because exactly 10 years ago, I was shot and wounded in Somalia, shortly after the start of the U.S. led military intervention there.

Like several of the latest journalist casualties in Baghdad, I was hit while staying in a hotel for reporters. I was also the victim of what the military considers a regrettable accident.

In my case, instead of U.S. military fire, I was shot by a Nigerian soldier, a member of the international peacekeeping force in Mogadishu. He apparently had an argument with a fellow soldier and decided to take out his anger by grabbing a vehicle mounted machine gun in the hotel parking lot and pretending to unleash a barrage of fire.

Except the machine gun was loaded and when his finger touched the trigger, several bullets were released. They slammed through a wall of the Sahafi Hotel dining room, where I was waiting for my evening meal. The table exploded. The dishware shattered. Like other journalists across the room, I dove to the floor and crawled to a nearby wall.

When the firing stopped, I noticed blood on my trousers. A cameraman made his way carefully across the dining room, pulled out a knife and cut off the legs of my pants. He said I had been shot through both legs.

Soon the Nigerians arrived, panicked. They promised to organize transport to a military hospital run by Swedish forces but took so long other journalists piled me into a car and rushed me there.

The doctors took one chunk of twisted lead from behind my right knee and left another embedded in my right thigh. They clean up several other wounds on my left leg and stomach caused by smaller bullet fragments.

That night, back at the journalists hotel, few reporters slept well. Though the hotel had been caught up in firefights before, no one had ever been hit. The affair was just too unsettling -- but within months, it would get worse when journalists in Somalia were actually killed.

In the years since, many more journalists have died, many of them in war zones. Most thought they had taken as many precautions as possible to avoid death or injury.

But a battlefield is always a dangerous place, especially in this war where journalists accompany soldiers to the front lines. The unexpected can always happen, no matter how many precautions you take, no matter how safe you think you are.