Dispatches from Afghanistan: Perceptions of a War Correspondent

Hollie talks about media coverage. Afghanistan ten years from now. And what it's like being woman covering wars.

  
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Welcome to another “Dispatches from Afghanistan” with Hollie McKay. Hollie is back in the US. This is a bit of a wrap up and I'm going to ask a few questions having to do with both the experience perspective on Afghanistan at this point. And, about being a war reporter in general. You ready for this one, Hollie?

Let's do it.

What is the biggest thing the American public believes about the war in Afghanistan that isn't true from your perspective?

The biggest thing is that we tend to view the Taliban through the eyes of an insurgency, which obviously they have been for the past 20 years. But it's important to remember, at this time, they are trying to be a government. They are trying to get that international recognition.

So, the actions targeting foreigners in terms of suicide bombings, attacks, and slaughtering people just aren't happening on the same scale that it happened as (it did during) an insurgency. And, whenever there are any retaliatory acts, they are very much the exception, not the norm.

I think as uncomfortable as it is, we must recognize that the Taliban, since they did take the presidential palace, are no longer an insurgency and we have to we have to get our viewpoints to this new era.

How much do you think the Taliban currently pay attention to the world outside of Afghanistan?

They pay a lot of attention to the world outside. They are very aware and are concerned about their public image and they have very much, since day one, been on a PR quest to try to prove that they're different; or try to prove that they have been misrepresented. This is why I go back to that same notion of making sure that they are represented accurately and that things are not exaggerated. That things are not blown out of proportion; and that we do view them outside the insurgency lens because, when we don't do that, and when news isn't accurate, that is just ammunition and rightfully so for the Taliban's to say, well, we're not being perceived correctly.

So, I do think it's important to just say it is without agenda, without exaggeration. I think that's something that has been lost a little bit in the coverage of Afghanistan this year.

A question asks, “What drew you so strongly to this place because it seems completely different from where you're from?”

Absolutely. I grew up in a small country town in Australia and I came to the US to study when I was twenty and have been here ever since. So, it certainly is different from my upbringing.

I think that's part of what drew me to these places, because they were so remarkably different to the childhood that I'd had. To be in, you know, the idea of growing up in a war zone where a bomb could be dropped on your house, or you could be targeted, or that your dad may not come home. Those things, and other things, that I had no worries about as a child.

I think that's something that really compelled me to want to understand how these people live. Their daily lives. How they become so resilient, how they build their lives again and again, despite it being destroyed.

That's just something that intrigued me because it was so far removed from my own life. I've learned so much from these people in their bravery and their strength and their resilience.

I think there's a huge amount of lessons that we can all learn; especially those of us who were fortunate enough to grow up in areas where there wasn't a war.

And I think there's so much to be learned from survivors and people that have lived through just incredible hardships. I think I'm I've always been in awe of that. I'm still in awe of that.

You’ve had one about a week and a half of separation from that place. The next internet question that was asked is, “What do you think life in Afghanistan will be ten years from now?”

I think it's incredibly hard to predict. Afghanistan is obviously for the past three to four decades, being in incredible turmoil, and in states of perpetual conflict and violence.

I really would love to see the Afghans get some kind of reprieve from fighting from conflict from constant war, but I think that's a very optimistic view.

I don't necessarily see that happening immediately, and despite the Taliban being in power, they still have threats from ISIS and goodness knows in 10 years what other groups may or may not proliferate.

The humanitarian crisis now is drastic, and I hope that the international community takes drastic action to support the Afghan people because they're the ones who suffer from this.

And I you know if that if that isn't taken care of now, it's going to be terrifying to think what happens in years to come.

Afghanistan has been an unlucky place in in many ways. The optimistic side of me wants to say that they hopefully find some kind of peace, a break from the violence, and from the cycle of poverty.

But these things take a long time to heal. I don't know that it will heal in ten years. I do think we will continue to see a lot of unrest coming from Afghanistan in the years to come.

Given your hopes, the next internet question becomes rather poignant, “If you could change one thing in Afghanistan, what would that be?”

Right now, it would be hunger. People have no money. They can't afford food. People are starving. It's tragic. So, if I could change one thing, it would be an ability for every family just to have the basics in terms of bread, oil, and rice. The basic things that Afghans need to sustain themselves. A lot of people can't afford that right now. So, what I would change is just making sure that people went to bed with something in their stomach.

A couple of questions ago. You went into what drew you to war reporting. One of the questions that was asked on the Internet what having to do with that is, “Was there any pushback that you received from loved ones or colleagues when you decided to go into war journalism?”

I think I don't think the pushback was necessarily from colleagues. I think most people were quite supportive of the work that I was doing. I had a great mentor in Los Angeles, a former reporter by the name of Dom, who has unfortunately passed. But he'd been a war reporter for a long time. And he's somebody who really encouraged me to follow that passion that I had. I'm very grateful to him.

I think obviously my parents had concerns about it. They still have concerns about it. It's so far removed from their life. It's always harder for people that love you to accept when you choose to go into dangerous situations.

I think it's always easier when you're the one doing it and it's much harder for people that care about you on the outside looking in and feeling helpless in these situations. I think it's not something that they're ever going to be completely comfortable with.

And then of course with work, at the time, it was always a fight. I think that especially when you're young and you're a woman, people write you off as not being, you know, the best choice for doing these things.

There's still very much this idea that it needs to be a man’s job and needs to be, you know, someone who's been out doing this for years. Hopefully, that is changing,

But I still think some of those preconceived ideas around war reporting exists; despite the fact that there really are so many women leading the charge in this particular niche now.

Yeah, that's true. So, experience wise, here’s a question. What is your most amazing experience or memory as a war reporter? What was the most memorable thing?

Gosh, that could go anyway. You could definitely point that, you know, in a positive way or a negative way.

Because there are just so many memories from every single trip that stick with you. And it's always sometimes, there's no real rhyme or reason for the memories that really that play at you. The ones that play in your mind and that you think about every night, because they just suddenly want to stay with you.

I think an amazing memory for me, I just remember being in in Iraq on one occasion and being at a displacement camp in the north, and these ladies were coming back after several years of being held as sex slaves; and I was sort of the first person to kind of see them as they were coming back. I mean, even before their children and aid workers.

Before, you know, when I was going in to interview them, I remember saying how incredible it was that they'd survived. But, you know, there's this sort of feeling of guilt about why? How was I in this position to be the first person to speak to them, even though really there wasn't any assistance there and there was nobody else. I just remember it being a bizarre feeling thinking it was important to me to tell their story. It just felt very strange.

It's just a very strange situation, and it's something I think about a lot. It's not right. It's not wrong. It was just a strange time. I think about those women a lot.

Yes, you do. That leads to the follow up question, which is, “How do you handle the emotional and psychological effects of covering these stories? Of seeing the things you've seen. How do you maintain hope and avoid burnout?” Another internet user asks, “Do you have difficulty sleeping because of what you witnessed?”

I think you know, as my friend Dennis, you know that I don't always handle it.  I think I would like to say that I always handled it, but that's definitely not accurate. I think there are definitely moments when it is a really big struggle. It's big dark cloud over my life. It's something that I have to constantly work through.

Sometimes, it's not necessarily a linear thing. You witness a lot of things and maybe those things don't hit you straight away. But, maybe weeks later, or even months later, you start to unravel a particular memory. And that's when it impacts you the most. So, there really isn't a how you deal with these things?

Uhm, I think that, for me, I need a lot of alone time. But not too much alone time. I also need to be in the real world to some degree. But I try to keep my life in the US as simple as possible. I don't like huge commitments to things. I don't necessarily do groups or clubs. I don't want to ever feel obliged or to have to be at certain places or do certain things because I think my life as a war reporter can be complicated, require a lot of logistics, a lot of effort, and a lot of stress.

So, when I'm in the US, I like to keep things as far away from that level of stress as possible to the degree where people always come say do this, or what are your hobbies. I've had to say no to a lot because I just want to have my time to have peace to work at my own pace, without a huge amount of obligation or complexity beyond that. So that's one thing I do to try to keep as sane as possible.

But you do sacrifice a lot when you go into this profession. Being a writer is a very lonely job. You don't have fellow soldiers. You don't have a big television crew. You don't have a lot of people around you as a support system. You have to be your own support system, and there's a challenge. I would be lying if I said that it was always easy. I love the work that I do, but it does come with a big personal sacrifice.

I'm well aware. We've been friends for a long time now, and I can tell you that Hollie McKay is very brave in terms of facing these kinds of challenges and stresses.

So, here's a serious question, and one I've wondered about myself, “Has there ever been a situation during your career when you felt you just could not continue? Maybe seeing too much pain, or misery, or fear, or frustration? Have you ever thought, if not me, nobody else will do this?”

I think there have been times when I've known that I have to take a break, that maybe my reactions to things are not normal, or that I am pushing the boundary too much.

I think you know with this last trip to Afghanistan I went to a place called Chaparhar, which is sort of the ISIS headquarters. That's where they plan a lot of their bombs. It's a Taliban no go zone, especially at night.

I was planning to go there. I wanted to see what was happening. I wanted to understand how much control that ISIS, or the Daesh, had over this particular area of Chaparhar, which is just a little bit outside of the capital Jalalabad.

And I remember going in, or planning to go in, and my photographer Jake, who is very an experienced war reporter, hesitated and said, I don't think we should do this. I remember feeling absolutely nothing about I'm going in. We worked out the logistics, and of course, Jake came too. And thankfully, things were fine. But I did think afterwards that, it was time to take a little bit of a break because maybe I was a little bit desensitized to those types of risks.

It certainly happens when you are in these volatile environments for weeks or months on end. So, there's certainly times in my career when I felt that, yes, I do need to take a break, but I don't think it's ever crossed my mind to stop doing it because I love what I do so much.

I'm very grateful to have a purpose in life. I think so many of us struggle with that throughout our lives and finding what our calling is, what it is that we're meant to be doing. I'm very grateful that I found that at a young age, and I love it. I honestly can't imagine doing anything else.

There you go. And yeah, I have to tell you on that one trip into ISIS country, I gulped too. After your experience there being able to go almost anywhere in the country, that was the one point where I also said maybe there's still a line outside the wire that's not worth crossing; but you did, and you picked up a pretty good story from it.

So, here's the next question. You wrote a book called “Only Cry for the Living” about your experiences and Iraq and Syria. The question from this Internet user is “How often do you cry for the living?”

Yes, and this is my book. I answered this in a video today, I cry a lot. I woke up this morning in tears. I think that's a normal reaction to processing a lot of heavy things. Again, going back to this struggle that I have, you know personally with a writer being a little bit lonely in my head, and you know, not having a huge support system. A few good friends, but my family isn't here. So, you bet. That is a struggle for me. So, you could buy all those things, and I think I do cry a lot.

I think we have this preconceived notion that somehow war reporters have to be these tough, chain smoking, swearing; and there's certainly moments when you've got to have a very thick skin.

Don't get me wrong, but I think it's also something that's an image that needs to change because the way that I like to write is in the way that I like to interact is to be very personable, to be a human before I am a journalist. To respond very naturally to very difficult situations. And to really come from a place of humanity.

We need women doing this job. We need mothers doing this job. We need people from all different walks of life doing this job; because we're going to come out with a very different perspective, often times, than our male colleagues, who perhaps, generally, are a little bit more hardened.

But I think the way that my writing style is to be to be very intimate and to try to put myself as in these people’s shoes as much as I can. That does require a huge amount of empathy. So naturally with that, I think crying and feeling all those things is something that I'm not ashamed to admit that I do.

No. You shouldn't be ashamed of it. I've heard you do it many times. It's heartfelt every time you've done it.

So, last internet question, “What is the kindest thing you've seen someone do for someone else?”

I think. I mean, gosh. I feel like so many of these places I work, you know, kindness is really the staple of how they function. I mean, when somebody doesn't have something to eat, it's the neighbors that step in. It's the family that steps in. It’s everybody trying to support each other.

But again, you need to go back to my experiences in Iraq. Seeing people, especially within the Yazidi community, selling everything they had, selling their livestock, selling their personal belongings, going to the neighbors, trying to raise money to pay ransoms to get some of the girls back.

You know these people that had nothing and we're still giving everything they possibly could. These were large sums of money that families needed to raise in order to get their wives, their daughters, their mothers back.

And you know, it wasn't something that that I could have helped with. You could not have helped; because to have helped them, it would have been considered by U.S. law, and the Patriot Act, as supporting terrorism. Because ISIS was on the back end of receiving whatever rents and funds it was. So that was always really challenging because I you'd be with these people, and I couldn't help them.

And yet you'd see them just selling everything they had. And working from dusk till dawn every day to try to make extra money. And children and everybody in the entire communities were involved in this; getting that money and trying to orchestrate that rescue. And that is what people do in times of war. This is that coming together.

I would like to think in the US that if something, Heaven forbids ever happened, that we as a community would help each other out in that way as well.

I hope so too. Well, with that, we’ve covered another set of questions and answers about the life story of Holly McKay as a war correspondent in some of the most difficult parts of the world. Thank you, Hollie, for this session. We look forward to the next one.

Thank you.

For those interested in learning more about the aftermath of war, please pick up a copy of my latest book “Only Cry for the Living: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield.”

Thanks again for your support. Follow me on Instagram and Twitter for more updates

Photos courtesy of my brilliant photographer @JakeSimkinPhotos.

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