War correspondent calls reporting a citizen responsibility

Murray Brewster remembers the last interview he conducted with the mayor of Kandahar.

The award-winning war correspondent from Canada was standing with Mayor Ghulam Haidar Hameedi on the steps of the governor’s palace in Kandahar. Suddenly, Brewster noticed three men striding across the lawn in front of them. All Brewster could think of was the how they might be suicide bombers.

“The first thought in my mind was how the hell did these guys get in,” he said.

It turned out the three men only wished to speak to the mayor about getting into a reconciliation program for former Taliban members. Only weeks later, mayor Hameedi was indeed killed by a suicide bomber.

Murray Brewster is the senior defence correspondent for the Canadian Press. He spent 15 months on the ground covering the war in Afghanistan. On Wednesday, he spoke to Centennial College students in the journalism program about the difficulties of being a war correspondent assigned to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2006.

Murray Brewster speaking to student journalists at Centennial College. Photo Matt Wocks. (BREWSTER_SPEAKS2_E)

In Kandahar, Brewster had to go through hostile training to prepare for the events that would follow. He was put through a week of learning to cope with the bombings and first-aid training. He described how he experienced the burden of his duty covering the death of a soldier killed in combat.

“I became very conscious of the fact that this was the first and last time that these individual soldiers would be mentioned in the national media,” he said. “We were writing this person’s obituary and it was the first and last time that they would appear before the national audience. And it was a certain wave of responsibility that went with that.”

A journalist for over 25 years, Brewster said he learned the responsibility as journalist and civilian when he experienced first-hand the lives of the soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

“There was what I considered to be a burden that what went with covering the stories. A burden of responsibility to cut through a lot of B.S. that we were facing,” he said. “In war it’s cliché to say the first casualty is the truth. I witnessed it first-hand.”

Brewster also said there is a fine line between journalist and citizen and the duties that each carry out when faced with situations such as reporting on the war.

“We are all citizens… We have the responsibility to tell the day-to-day stories, but tell the really important stories,” he said. “I think that we just have to be this and that was the big motivating factor.”

The death of the mayor of Kandahar just weeks after his interview at the governor’s palace, has stayed with Brewster. He even had to re-write part of his book, The Savage War, to include the most up-to-date information about Mayor Hameedi.

“I don’t think about it often. I think of it as what a waste it was,” Brewster said. “I’m sad because a little part of what we were hoping for, a little part had died. He was there to fix it.”