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Journalist Campbell Macdiarmid on the lure of war reporting

Campbell MacDiarmid on the Peshmerga frontline in Khazer, before Mosul was liberated. His translator is pointing out Isis-held villages across the plain.

Freelance journalist Campbell MacDiarmid, who grew up in Wellington, has spent the past three years reporting on the battle for Mosul and life in Kurdish Iraq. He talks to Fraser Crichton.

Campbell MacDiarmid Skypes me from Erbil in Kurdish Iraq. He’s sitting bare-chested in the sun on the deck of a white weatherboard house. It’s quiet, apart from birdsong. There’s no crack of sniper fire or roar of American warplanes. A dog barks occasionally.

Just 85km to the west of him is Mosul: Iraq’s second-largest city, now a shattered hulk. The city that fell to Isis in June 2014 has been retaken – officially liberated on July 10 – after a nine-month-long offensive by Iraqi government forces, Kurdish fighters and other militias, assisted by US-led coalition warplanes and military advisers. Much of western Mosul has been destroyed, wiping out 15 of 54 residential neighbourhoods. More than 700,000 people are homeless, 320,000 of those in camps without electricity in temperatures that can reach 50°C.

According to MacDiarmid, the future for Mosul now depends largely on how much is invested in rebuilding and whether serious steps towards reconciliation are made. He’s not optimistic. Summary executions continue. A neighbour makes an allegation against someone, who is interrogated, then possibly shot in the head and the body dumped.

MacDiarmid, 32, has been reporting on the conflict in Iraq since 2014 for Al Jazeera, the BBC, Daily Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald, among others. Born in Wellington, he went to Wellington College and worked briefly as a nanny in France on his OE. But his child-minding career was cut short after five months when he broke his leg playing rugby for the local team. “They kind of assumed because I was from New Zealand, I’d automatically be good at rugby,” he says.

Back in New Zealand, he studied political science and law at the University of Otago, and was admitted to the bar. MacDiarmid’s latent passion for journalism had been sown by reading Michael Herr’s Dispatches, Tim Page’s Page after Page and Peter Arnett’s Live from the Battlefield in his early teens – but his first job in the media, with the New Zealand Law Society, was “really boring”.

So, he headed overseas in 2011 and ended up working for the Daily News Egypt, an independent English-language newspaper. In October, 2013, he made the headlines himself after being arrested in Cairo while covering protests by supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi. He was accused of being a spy, but was released the same day.

MacDiarmid (covering his ears) with fixer Makeen Mustafa (seated) and Spanish journalist Lidia Pedro in West Mosul.

How did you end up in Erbil?

The Arab Spring was massive for a lot of young journalists, but the story in Egypt started getting a bit stale. I had friends working in Northern Iraq, and I visited them in May 2014. I found it pretty interesting and there were very few journalists living in this part of Iraq at that time. I went back to Egypt and about 10 days later, Mosul fell to Isis. I’d applied for a journalism fellowship at the University of Toronto, which I got, so I didn’t get to Erbil until October 2014. I thought Isis would be in control of the city for a couple of months, and I was expecting the whole thing to be over by the time I got there. The strange thing was, any time a journalist turned up in town they thought Mosul was about to be retaken.

Most people would assume you’re in a dangerous job?

Obviously, bits of it are, but I’d like to think I’ve developed a nuanced approach to risk assessment. It’s more of a constant calculation you’re making, rather than thinking you can’t go to Iraq because it’s dangerous. You’re thinking, “In the next hour, what are the major risks? If I go forward, what are the increased risks and what does the potential payoff mean?” The same people asking, “Isn’t Iraq dangerous?” wouldn’t think twice about hiring a scooter on holiday in Thailand. I guess my glib response is the most dangerous thing in a place like this is driving on the roads.

What can you do to help keep yourself safe?

I’ve done a couple of risk [mitigation] courses. There are a lot of good resources out there for freelance journalists. There’s the Rory Peck Trust in the UK. Peck was a cameraman who was killed in Russia in the early 90s. The trust awards bursaries to freelancers working in dangerous areas, so they can do hostile environment training. It’s useful because increasingly editors won’t take [stories] from freelancers in conflict zones unless they have hostile environment training.

There’s another training programme set up by [American writer and filmmaker] Sebastian Junger, whose colleague, [photojournalist] Tim Hetherington, was killed in Libya in 2011. There was a suggestion he might have had a survivable injury, so Junger set up this foundation to provide medical training to freelancers.

I think with young journalists eager to start out, there was a time during the Arab Spring when taking bigger risks to get the story was one way you could distinguish yourself from the pack. That’s changed to an extent; editors will now tell you not to take any risks. But I think if you come back with a good story, they’ll still take it; it’s a bit of a wink-and-a-nod kind of thing.

On the edge of the Old City in Mosul.

What motivates you to work as a conflict journalist?

I guess everyone has a mixed-up bag of motivations for doing this work. I get suspicious when people are a little too earnest about wanting to shed light on things and bear witness... I don’t think anyone does it purely for that. It’s actually quite hard to unpick your own motivations. You can sometimes see it more in other people… what they’re getting out of it.

What’s your personal perspective on Isis and recent terrorist attacks in the UK?

They’ve figured out how to tap into very disparate veins of frustration across the world. They’ve managed to set the agenda to the point where everyone is playing by their playbook. I think it’s very much a goal for them to create this idea of the clash of civilisations, which is how a lot of right-wing people in the West are responding to Isis. That’s all part of what they want; to create this idea that we are unable to live together.

For me, it’s very clear the overwhelming majority of Isis’s victims are Muslims. One major shortcoming of the coverage of Isis has been the blinkered demonisation of them. Treating them as monsters and psychopaths ignores the personal histories a lot of them have. Many of the young men here have had really bad experiences with the security forces; their brothers and relatives have had really bad shit happen to them, and they’ve then got locked into this cycle of violence and hopelessness.

What role does a Western journalist serve in contrast to the local media?

What you have is a level of objectivity. You don’t have as much skin in the game. There’s a different view of journalism here; it’s much more partisan. The local journalists see themselves on the frontline, fighting Isis. But it’s not possible to be totally dispassionate. I don’t think you can report well on a place you don’t care about, and I do care about this place. I like the people I meet and it breaks my heart seeing the situation people are living in. It’s unfathomable to a kid who grew up in Brooklyn, Wellington.

Mustafa, translator Dara Saieed (both seated) and MacDiarmid, with Iraqi Emergency Response Division fighters. “The only interesting thing I remember seeing in the building were a number of Isis improvised explosive device booby-traps left poorly concealed in the rubble.”

What’s an average day like for you, if there is one?

It depends on whether I’m reporting in the field or not. Typically a lot of my day is spent at my laptop in my shorts under a fan at home. I normally get started around 8am with a coffee. There’s the usual stuff – dicking around on Reddit, procrastinating, catching up on emails, sending pitches, reading the news, doing admin stuff on the Kurdistan Logistics Facebook group I help run, as well as typing up notes and writing stories. In the afternoon I try to get out on interviews; I might meet a friend for coffee and do some exercise on the roof of my apartment. Evenings are actually a good time to meet people, normally just hanging out in the local beer gardens. I get a lot of good story ideas and make contacts this way.

I try to get out in the field at least once a week. It’s usually me and a photographer, if we can get a commission that pays both our ways. I usually work with Cengiz Yar, an extremely talented [American] photographer who’s really made his career in the last nine months in Mosul. We mostly travel with a fixer, too. No security personnel. We leave around 5am to drive to Mosul. I have coffee in a travel mug, a vest, a helmet and everything else in the back of a pick-up. It’s a few hours’ drive, depending on checkpoints, where there’s lots of waiting while negotiating access. Getting access to a frontline or first interview could take until 2pm or 3pm. If I have to file, we drive back at night and I write when I get home or early the next morning. Sometimes we stay in an army base and I file from there.

Do you miss anything about home?

Yeah, I’m a massive outdoors guy, so I used to do a lot of mountain running and hunting. I really miss the New Zealand bush, the connection to the mountains and the land there.

Do you still keep up with New Zealand news?

No. I hate reading the political stuff from home. The issues aren’t trivial, but the level of debate and reporting seems to be so superficial, and elections get treated like horse races. It also seems like we’re racing towards destroying what we have at home in terms of natural environment – like pumping up dairy at the expense of the environment. Not taking issues like rising inequality and poverty seriously; not formulating serious responses to climate change.

Where do you go next?

I’m curious about what’s going to happen here over the next year. A lot of the other journalists couldn’t wait to leave as soon as they declared victory in Mosul, but I think the day-after stuff is really interesting. My sister lives in the Democratic Republic of the Congo… I’ve always been interested in going there.   

This was published in the September 2017 issue of North & South.