May 1, 2010
An Heroic Journalist in Harm’s Way
Most journalists – and I am certainly one of them – work behind a desk. A few brave souls among us, however, insist on putting themselves in harm’s way. War correspondents have always been authentic heroes, no less so than the men and women in uniform whom they write about, and we have always depended on them for news from the front.
Daniele Mastrogiacomo is that kind of journalist. A longtime correspondent for the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica, he has reported from Baghdad, Tehran, Mogadishu, and the frontlines of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. Precisely because he fearlessly puts himself where the action is, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time — Mastrogiacomo was taken captive by the Taliban while covering the war in Afghanistan in 2007 and forced to witness the beheading of one of his Afghan colleagues.
Mastrogiacomo allows us to relive his ordeal in “Days of Fear: A Firsthand Account of Captivity Under the New Taliban” (Europa Editions: $15.00, 181 pps.), expertly and lucidly translated from the Italian by Michael Reynolds. It’s the most harrowing of memoirs, a tale of adventure and survival, and — above all — a first-hand account of the special terrors that he endured as a prisoner of the Taliban under the constant threat of death by decapitation.
Mastrogiacomo returned to Afghanistan at a moment when, “for the first time in the history of Afghanistan, suicide bombers had appeared on the scene.” He wanted to find out “whether new blood is running through the Taliban’s veins.” And he felt obliged “to tell the story of this war that the world feels is far away, to measure reality against what passes for reality in the official bulletins.” Exactly here we see the sense of duty that explains why some reporters go to war: “My profession demands it.”
The book reads like a Graham Greene novel played out in real life. The landscape through which we move in Mastrogiacomo’s book is both beguiling and menacing, populated with colorful but dubious figures, rich with exotic sights and smells but always full of peril. At the cross-roads where he is to meet the Taliban for an interview, everything goes suddenly and terribly wrong — Mastrogiacomo and his Afghan colleagues are taken for spies, locked in the trunk of a car, and spirited away. We do not know until the end of the book whether any of them will escape with their lives. Some do not, although Mastrogiacomo lived to tell the tale.
What makes his book especially rewarding is that it allows the long-running war in Afghanistan, which we glimpse only in headlines and death notices, to snap into sharp focus. American lives are being lost in that far-off place every day, but we have only a faint notion of why we are there and what we are hoping to accomplish. Mastrogiacomo, at the risk of his own life, shows us exactly what is at stake.
I had the opportunity to meet and work with Mastrogiacomo at the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, where he appeared on a panel that I moderated. He is ruggedly built and matinee-idol handsome, and he speaks English in the richly musical tones of his native country. If they ever make a movie of his book, he could play himself.
At one point during the program at the Festival of Books, I asked him if he had felt safer in Afghanistan because he was Italian, and he answered that all Western journalists are equally at risk. “The Taliban thought I was American,” said Mastrogiacomo, and a member of the audience cracked: “It must have been the accent.”
Mastrogiacomo joined in the laughter, another measure of his poise and courage. But his book, and the lessons to be learned from it, are no laughing matter.