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.

North & South - - In This Issue - ERBIL, IRAQ

Kiwi jour­nal­ist Campbell Mac­di­armid cov­ers Mid­dle East con­flicts from his base in Erbil, Iraq. He talks to Fraser Crich­ton.

Campbell Mac­di­armid Skypes me from Erbil in Kur­dish Iraq. He’s sit­ting barech­ested 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 English­language 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. 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.

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.

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. +


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

Above left: Mac­di­armid (cov­er­ing his ears) with fixer Ma­keen Mustafa (seated) and Span­ish jour­nal­ist Lidia Pe­dro in West Mo­sul. Above right: On the edge of the Old City in Mo­sul. Op­po­site: 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.”

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