A sometime war reporter reflects on Anton Hammerl's death in Libya

Condolences to Anton Hammerl's family, who waited 44 days to find out that the South African photographer had been shot dead on Libya's frontlines; frustration at the South African government's silent acceptance of the Qaddafi government's lies; and a reassessment of what it takes to do this job and stay alive.

Saturday Star/Independent Newspapers Ltd/AP
This undated file photo shows photojournalist Anton Hammerl, who has South African and Austrian citizenship and went missing in Libya in early April 2011. Hammerl's family says they now believe he was killed in the Libyan desert by Moammar Gadhafi's forces.

A few years ago, I was packing my bags, preparing for yet another trip to Afghanistan from my homebase in New Delhi.

Flak jacket: check. Music CDs for my driver: check. English books for my translator: check. A couple of long salwar kameez outfits for those long bumpy dusty Afghan roadtrips, and a couple of those stereotypical cargo pants that journalists seem to wear.

“Should I bring back some of those Afghan raisins?” I asked my wife, Kashmira, she of the steely nerves.

“Just come back home,” she replied.

When the news came in, early this morning, that South African photographer Anton Hammerl had been shot in early April in the desert front-lines of Libya, my thoughts immediately went to his family: his wife Penny Sukhraj, his daughter and two sons. I didn’t know Anton Hammerl, but as a sometime war correspondent, I could guess at why he felt the need to be in Libya, the emotional tug of war he must have felt between the need to cover a distant and confusing conflict and the need to make it back home alive.

Every journalist who goes to war zones understands the risks he or she takes, and does what he or she can to keep those risks to a minimum. Their families back home can only trust them when they say everything is fine, the risks are manageable. But wars are impossible to predict. Battle lines shift quickly; peace turns to bloodshed with the pull of a trigger. The deserts are full of the bodies of sons, brothers, husbands, and of daughter, sisters, and wives.

Hammerl went missing on April 5, during a visit to the rebel front lines near the Libyan city of Brega. When pro-Qaddafi forces opened fire on the rebels – who had escorted Hammerl and three other journalists to the front lines – the rebels fled, leaving the reporters behind. Hammerl was reportedly closest to the oncoming Qaddafi fighters and was shot.

James Foley, a reporter for Global Post, told his news organization that he called out, “Are you okay,” and Hammerl replied “No.” Moments later, as the soldiers took Foley, Clare Gillis, and Spanish photographer Manu Brabo away, Hammerl was silent, and apparently dead. His body was left in the desert. (Clare Gillis, who wrote for Atlantic magazine, has also written for The Christian Science Monitor.)

In the 44 following days, the most frustrating thing for Hammerl’s family and colleagues was the silence about his status. Was he alive, was he missing, was he dead? The South African government told reporters today that they asked the Libyan government about Hammerl, and the Libyans lied to them.

"We got assurances from his advisers, his son's advisers and, yes, Gadhafi himself that all the journalists were still alive," Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the foreign minister, told reporters at press conference of the South African Editors Forum.

South African diplomats fled Libya’s capital, Tripoli, at the height of a NATO air campaign to disable Qaddafi’s forces, which were increasingly being used to pummel rebel-held cities – including unarmed civilians – into submission. Later, South African diplomats returned, and they say they asked repeatedly about Hammerl’s condition. Ms. Mashabane, at one recent press conference, assured reporters that the South African government had “evidence” that Hammerl was alive.

Even in the remaining hours before the release of Foley, Gillis, and Brabo and an unnamed fourth journalist, many of Hammerl’s colleagues held out hope that the fourth journalist would be Hammerl.

It’s not hard to understand the emotions behind the family’s statement, released this morning.

"From the moment Anton disappeared in Libya, we have lived in hope as the Libyan officials assured us that they had Anton," the family said, in a statement. "It is intolerably cruel that Gaddafi loyalists have known Anton's fate all along and chose to cover it up."

I’m sure every war correspondent will be thinking today about Anton Hammerl, whether they knew him or not. They will run through the what, where, when, and how his life ended, and try to think of what they would have done, or will do differently. And then they will get back to work.

Rest in peace, Anton.

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