Cover image for Ambushed : a war reporter's life on the line
Ambushed : a war reporter's life on the line
Stewart, Ian, 1966-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Chapel Hill, N.C. : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2002.
Physical Description:
xx, 310 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
Published also as: Freetown ambush : a reporter's year in Africa. Toronto, Ont., Canada ; New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Penguin/Viking, 2002.
Personal Subject:
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PN4913.S764 A48 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Ian Stewart has reported from some of the most dangerous places on earth, but none more dangerous than Sierra Leone. When he was named West Africa bureau chief by the Associated Press, Stewart accepted his new assignment with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. He was one of the AP's youngest bureau chiefs, and over the next year he reported from the front lines of the war-ravaged countries of the Congo, Guinea-Bissau, and Sierra Leone and coordinated news coverage of some twenty-three others.

AMBUSHED is a fascinating, in-depth look at the extraordinary day-to-day life of a war correspondent. Stewart presents a compelling portrait of the often surreal world that journalists inhabit as they bear witness to violence and give voice to the unspeakable. Appalled by the level of cruelty he witnessed, Stewart was shocked by the indifference of the outside world. Though his stories were sometimes buried deep inside the daily papers, or published not at all, he kept reporting the truth. When armed rebels entered Sierra Leone's besieged capital of Freetown, Stewart and two of his colleagues were ambushed while driving down the street on assignment. One of his colleagues was killed instantly, and Stewart, shot in the head, had a twenty-percent chance of surviving. Astonishingly, he did. With frankness and courage, Stewart tells the story of his extraordinary recovery and the tremendous risks he and other journalists take to give us the news.

Author Notes

A graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, Ian Stewart has reported from more than forty countries. At the age of twenty-seven, he was appointed bureau chief of UPI's South Asia bureau. He later joined the Associated Press and was named bureau chief of its West Africa bureau in 1998. He lives in Berkeley, California.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

A self-described "war junkie," Stewart found himself craving dangerous assignments, starting with a trip to Afghanistan and eventually a posting covering several war-torn countries in Africa. As the Associated Press' West African bureau chief, Stewart witnessed firsthand the horrors of war in Guinea-Bissau, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sierra Leone. What he witnessed was beyond his worst imaginings--pregnant women brutally slaughtered, men burned to death, and children either maimed or trained to kill. In Sierra Leone, Stewart's life was changed forever: a rebel soldier shot him in the head. Stewart's chances of survival were slim. He was rushed to a hospital in London, where the doctors worked tirelessly to save his life. Paralyzed on the left side of his body, Stewart struggled to regain some movement on his left side and also to reclaim his life. Both an important account of the unimaginably appalling violence in Sierra Leone and other African countries and a deeply personal retelling of a man's struggle after a terrible injury, this is an unforgettable memoir. --Kristine Huntley

Publisher's Weekly Review

A self-confessed "war junkie," Stewart covered the frontlines in Kashmir, Cambodia and Kabul before being appointed chief of the Associated Press's West Africa bureau in 1998. Single, in his late 20s, Stewart freely admits being addicted to the "adrenaline rush" of covering dangerous situations; he loved the edginess of beating other reporters to a hard-to-cover story. Apart from the thrills, he had a journalist's sense of mission: that by telling the world about what's happening, he could awaken the public conscience and make a difference. Stewart's game ended at a checkpoint in Freetown, Sierra Leone, when a renegade soldier fired on his vehicle, killing fellow journalist Myles Tierney and leaving a bullet in Stewart's brain. Stewart tells of his recovery: airlift out of Africa, surgery in London and therapy in the U.S. and Canada. He discusses at length his struggle to rehabilitate his torn body, but it's his understated battle to make peace with his uneasy soul that grips the reader. While the adjective-loaded, gung-ho approach to danger in the book's first half may turn off some readers, they'll be rewarded if they sit tight. By the second half, when Stewart's in a hospital bed paying more than his dues, a wiser person begins to emerge, less of a hot-dogger, more thoughtful about the human terms of situations. Readers can then remember that the real story is not the reporter, but the people they were sent to cover. (Oct. 4) Forecast: In the wake of the Daniel Pearl tragedy and any other war atrocities that may hit the front pages, this confessional should be popular, especially with the extensive TV and radio publicity that's planned. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



BEGINNINGS I SUPPOSE I WAS DESTINED for a career in journalism. It was in my blood: in the 1960s my great-aunt Dorothy worked briefly as a writer for the now-defunct Ottawa Journal , while my aunt Heather wrote the social column for the erstwhile Toronto Telegram during the 1970s. Then, of course, there's my uncle, Brian Stewart, who rose to fame as a foreign correspondent for the CBC and later NBC. As a young man at Queen's University, I was introduced to Canada's media elite: Brian's friends included Peter Mansbridge, also of the CBC, and Mike Duffy, now with CTV, though at the time an influential CBC reporter on Parliament Hill. Brian inadvertently influenced my decision to enter print journalism. Not wanting to live in his shadow, I chose to stay away from television to avoid charges of nepotism. If I were to become a journalist, I wanted to do it on my own. Eight years before setting off for Africa as a bureau chief and foreign correspondent, I was a mediocre graduate student at Columbia University's renowned journalism school. While at Columbia I lived on Manhattan's Upper West Side on 122d Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue-just three blocks south of Harlem's Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. My graduate housing at Columbia was austere, a two-bedroom apartment that I shared with writing student Charlie Rogers. Still, it was a vintage brownstone, and it was a thrill for someone who had grown up in the suburbs of Toronto and Montreal to be living in Manhattan. For the first time in my life, I experienced true ethnic diversity, and I was exhilarated by the bustle and excitement of New York City. Together, Charlie and I endured Columbia's grueling course schedule as it wreaked havoc on our social lives; romances sputtered and failed. Having finished my master's degree in 1991, I began applying to Canadian daily and weekly newspapers from coast to coast, but I found that jobs in print journalism were scarce. Most major North American dailies were locked in a hiring freeze, or were cutting back on staff. Soon, rejection letters papered the walls of my apartment. I applied to any newspaper I could think of for a job as an entry-level general assignment reporter. This is the kind of reporter who covers all news and is not confined to a "beat" such as cops, courts, or business. Coming up empty, I lowered my sights and began applying for internships at the larger metropolitan newspapers that could still afford to run their apprenticeship programs. Through the cash-rich 1980s, internships had been an accepted route into full-time journalism. But by the early 1990s, internships had become a low-paid source of extra labor to supplement shrinking editorial staffs at newspapers. Employment at the end of an internship was an unlikely prospect. After I had been interviewed by some half-dozen larger newspapers in Ontario and Quebec, my break finally came at the Toronto Star . There I got my first taste of life in a major city newsroom. Like a scene out of the film The Front Page , the seasoned pros in the newsroom called me "kid," even though I was twenty-five. I was frequently assigned to overnight duty in the "box." Filled with police, fire department, and ambulance scanners, the box was a stuffy eight-by-ten-foot room off the main newsroom. Veteran reporters used the box for news tips or to follow breaking stories, but interns typically monitored the radios and alerted the more senior reporters to possible stories. For most of the summer of 1991 I sat in the box from 11 P.M. until 5 A.M. listening to the police handling domestic disturbances and petty thefts. Occasionally I picked up on a shooting or other serious crime. It was mind-numbing work that almost snuffed out my desire to be a journalist. In fact, I'd have quit and sought out another vocation had it not been for my other overnight duty that summer: taking dictation from the Star's foreign correspondents. Over the phone I met Stephen Handelman, Olivia Ward, and Peter Goodspeed. They and the Star's other foreign correspondents often asked me to scan the wires for news tips on breaking stories in their regions. I soon became very familiar with Canadian Press, Associated Press, and Reuters wires. Possibly the purest form of reporting, wire service, or news agency journalism, began over 150 years ago with the AP's first network of telegraph wires linking major American cities. Today, the "wires" are a global network of high-speed telephone lines and satellite uplinks that transmit news from around the world in seconds. News from the wires arrives in newsrooms via computer terminals or dot matrix printers, replacing the slow Teletype machines that dominated the industry into the early 1980s. Although the cost of transmitting news articles has dropped dramatically over the years, wire service journalists have retained their brief, concise writing style. I enjoyed the crisp dispatches, but the real lure of the wires was the exotic datelines that I had long dreamed of visiting. I read about events taking place in Colombo, Kabul, and Phnom Penh. That sense of adventure captured my imagination, fueled with images of my favorite book, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness . I saw myself as a young Charles Marlow steaming up the Congo River in search of adventure and intrigue in forbidden places. The wires also had that true sense of urgency that I had always expected in daily journalism. They rekindled my resolve to be a journalist, only now I wanted to be a wire service reporter working overseas. When my summer internship ended in late August, I again began looking for work. Nine months and some three hundred applications later, I landed a job as a reporter covering the health beat for the Watertown Daily Times in upstate New York. For ten months I honed my skills at the Times and saved enough money to buy a one-way ticket to China, where my girlfriend at the time was working as an English teacher. Then I packed my bags in the early summer of 1993 and set off for Beijing to find work as a freelance reporter. While still at Queen's in 1989 I had been horrified when the Chinese government used the military to disperse unarmed student protesters. The Tiananmen Square Massacre became one of the driving forces behind my zeal to get to Asia. The People's Republic of China, with its xenophobic perception of the foreign media, was not the best place to launch a freelance career. Although I had arranged to sell articles to several newspapers in North America and Europe while doing radio commentaries for several broadcasters, I found it difficult to obtain government press credentials, making even routine reporting almost impossible. Within two months, I set off for Hong Kong and immediately found work with the Hong Kong Standard as a copy editor. Weeks after that I was hired by UPI (United Press International) as a news correspondent covering preparations for Hong Kong's 1997 transition from British to Chinese rule, as well as other regional stories. For the next eight months I traveled to Taiwan and throughout southern China. I was sent on assignment to the Philippines and Thailand. Getting my first taste of life on the road as a foreign correspondent was everything I had dreamed of. Under the tutelage of Paul Anderson, UPI's regional editor, I learned the ropes of wire service reporting. There was nothing fancy about it, just plain and simple writing about the daily events of Asia. Hong Kong, like much of Asia, was booming economically and people were optimistic about the future. After years of post-colonial turmoil and war, Asia was finally on a path of development and growth, and reflecting this good fortune, most of the people I met were happy and friendly. Most of my reporting was done from UPI's Hong Kong bureau in Telecom House, overlooking Victoria Harbour. I wrote simple stories about economic growth and newly made millionaires who were cashing in on Hong Kong's burgeoning Hang Seng Stock Index. I lived in a clean, two-bedroom apartment on Lantau Island, a thirty-minute ferry ride from Hong Kong proper, and I made great friends with whom I went out for dinner at fancy restaurants or loud, thumping nightclubs. Soon I joined the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club, or FCC. This colonial institution, founded in 1943, was an oasis of dark wood paneling and black leather chairs that offered refuge from the frenetic streets of Hong Kong's central district. Here I played pool and sipped gin-and-tonics. In khaki pants and brown loafers I played up the image of what I thought was the quintessential foreign correspondent, loving every minute of it. Within a year of joining UPI, I was sent to India. At the age of twenty-seven, I was the New Delhi bureau chief in charge of South Asia, zipping about the Indian subcontinent with energy and zeal, often making up my own assignments. I met Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, and drank tea with Tibet's exiled leader the Dalai Lama. I traveled south to Sri Lanka, and spent a day in Pinawalla at an orphanage for baby elephants. Amid towering palm trees on rolling tea plantations lived several dozen elephants-the youngest at four months came up to my waist-whose parents had either died or abandoned their young. The orphanage raised the baby elephants to young adulthood, and then they were donated to Hindu temples in Sri Lanka or India, where the animals would live like worshipped and pampered gods. MY FIRST REAL FLIRTATION with danger came in the spring of 1995 in Afghanistan, the most turbulent part of my turf in the Indian subcontinent. Fighting between factions of the once-unified and-Soviet mujahideen rebels had ended months earlier and a tenuous truce was holding. It was a simple assignment: I was to travel to Kabul to report on the plight of tens of thousands of displaced residents. A light dusting of snow blanketed the Afghan capital of Kabul, which already looked like a movie set for Blade Runner or Mad Max . Eighty percent of the city lay in ruins, leaving the few remaining inhabitants to wander aimlessly in search of food and shelter amid the piles of concrete rubble and twisted metal. The day I arrived, a late-season snow squall had blown in from the Hindu Kush. Children wandered barefoot through the snow, wearing threadbare blankets for warmth. My Pakistani translator, Behroz Khan, and I checked in to one of the few operational rooms at the Kabul Inter-Continental. Although it had no heat, no running water, and no electricity, the Inter-Con's manager still fleeced us $120 a night. In the morning, we prepared to set out for a day of interviews for a story on how city officials would rebuild Kabul. In the hotel lobby, a shifty-looking man in black pants and a black leather coat sidled up to Behroz and began chatting with him. I ignored the exchange and headed for the door. "Ian, wait!" Behroz called behind me. Impatient to begin my interviews, I rolled my eyes. "What-" I turned to see Behroz standing at gunpoint, his hands in the air. A teenager had appeared with an AK-47 trained on his rib cage. "We've got a problem," Behroz said calmly. "They think I'm a spy." "Screw that!" I snapped. "Let's get out of here." I began walking. Behroz tentatively followed me. We both froze when the man in black shouted "Stop!" in English and Dari. The man in black then explained that his name was Eshan Ullah and that he worked for the government. (I found out later he worked for KHAD, the Afghan secret police.) "This is the condition," he said. "We need to wait for my superiors to check Mr. Behroz's papers. And then you can go." "How long will that take?" I asked impatiently. In the excitement of the moment I had forgotten that three Pakistani journalists accused of supporting the new Taliban militia had been summarily executed in Kabul just weeks earlier. News of the executions had been slow to filter out of Afghanistan, as the government repeatedly denied any knowledge of the journalists' whereabouts. "We'll wait here," Eshan Ullah replied impassively. We did wait, hour after hour. As word of our arrest spread, colleagues from the BBC and the Associated Press visited the lobby of the Inter-Con where we were held at gunpoint. Photographer Craig Fuji, a friend of mine from New Delhi, pointedly took a series of photos of both Behroz and me. He made it clear to Ehsan Ullah that if anything happened to us, our faces would be on the front pages of newspapers around the world. Peter Greste, the BBC's Kabul correspondent, did the most to help, slipping me notes of encouragement and meeting with senior government officials to try to negotiate a speedy release. At nightfall Eshan Ullah told us we could return to our room; we would meet his superiors in the morning. Armed teenagers escorted us upstairs and stood guard through the night. At six in the morning Behroz and I wandered down to the lobby, our rifle-toting teens just behind. Eshan Ullah was waiting for us and ordered that we move to the front parking lot. My eyes squinted against the bright sunlight reflected by the snow-covered peaks of the Hindu Kush. An old Russian Lada squealed up to the front door. I assumed it was Eshan Ullah's shadowy superiors arriving to question Behroz, but three men in army fatigues jumped out of the car and began waving AK-47s in our faces. "Get in!" Eshan Ullah barked at Behroz. "You can go now," he said, waving me off like a pesky fly. I turned to leave, then hesitated, looking closely at Behroz. He was here because of me. I couldn't abandon him now. "No. I want to stay with him," I said, my heart thumping in my ears. Eshan Ullah shrugged, opened the car door, and shoved me as I bent to step in. Behroz and I sat in the back with a guard on either side of us. As we neared the city's outskirts, the blindfolds came out: fetid, raw burlap was tied around my eyes and nose. I began to hyperventilate as my world was reduced to the sweaty space of dappled light in front of my nose. "Behroz?" I asked. "Yeah." "You OK?" "I'm scared," he said. Continue... Excerpted from AMBUSHED by IAN STEWART Copyright © 2002 by Ian Stewart Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Map of Africap. xi
Author's Notep. xiii
Prologuep. xv
Part 1
1 Beginningsp. 3
2 Into Africap. 28
3 "The Worst Place on Earth"p. 46
4 The Strongman and the Popep. 70
5 Africa's Forgotten Warp. 90
6 From Kurtz to Kabilap. 115
7 Tu Va la Guerre La?p. 136
8 Into "the White Man's Grave"p. 161
9 A Sunday Drivep. 187
10 Wilberforcep. 201
Part 2
11 A 20 Percent Chancep. 215
12 Left of Centerp. 228
13 Myles Is Deadp. 243
14 My Own Two Feetp. 252
15 Beginning Againp. 271
Epiloguep. 299
Bibliographyp. 303
Acknowledgmentsp. 307