Caught in the crossfire
By Bruce Conover Posted Apr 1 2001
Four of us from CNN were at Karni Crossing in the Gaza Strip last Oct. 31. A blue Star of David flew over an earthen wall bulldozed to a height of three meters. In front of the wall about 100 Palestinian kids were tossing rocks and Molotov cocktails toward the Israeli forces there. Behind the wall Israeli tanks and cars were parked. We had been there only five minutes when suddenly long bursts of machine gun fire from a tank sent us sprawling for cover.
Along with others of the world’s media, CNN teams in Jerusalem and Gaza City went out almost every day to get video of the clashes. In the Palestinian-ruled territories, large groups of Palestinian kids were playing a game that seemed a lethal variant of “Cowboys and Indians,” by daring each other to get as close as they could to the Israeli soldiers and then tossing rocks and Molotov cocktails at them. We videotaped one of the kids sprinting up to the Israeli perimeter fence with a Palestinian flag, which he hung on the barbed wire, as several Israeli soldiers took aim at him. When the stone throwing got too rough, the Israeli soldiers responded with rubber bullets, and less often, with real bullets.
Karni Crossing had a reputation for being a particularly deadly spot, where live ammunition was fired frequently, and several Palestinian boys were wounded and killed each day. A long road delineating the boundary between the Gaza Palestinian territories and Israel was used by Israeli settlers to drive into their settlements in the Gaza Strip, and the Israeli army was on constant alert in the area because of earlier roadside bombs and sniper incidents.
I had been in the Gaza for two weeks already, and CNN’s Cairo Bureau Chief and fluent Arabic-speaker Ben Wedeman had just been sent down to us to strengthen our team. When the CNN crew heard rumors that a real firefight had taken place in Karni Crossing, we decided to cover the area. Our trip was supposed to be uneventful. The previous two days it had been relatively calm here, and so we went in for a quick reconnoiter to familiarize Ben with the territory where he would be working in the days to come.
Most of us in the media covered these daily clashes dressed in our heavy flack jackets and helmets. The equipment is hot and cumbersome, but even a rubber bullet can be deadly if it hits you in a vulnerable spot. We wore our protective armor and took a lot of good-natured ribbing from the completely unprotected Palestinian kids crouching next to us behind bushes and walls.
Suddenly, both sides began using more live ammunition. The Palestinian kids stopped ribbing us and started taking cover behind journalists wearing flack jackets.
It was clear that we were in the middle of what had turned from the usual daily exchange of rocks and rubber bullets into a full-fledged war zone, with .50-caliber machine gun fire spraying our location and rocket grenades being fired very close to us. From our vantage point, we looked out onto a wide road, which ran up a hill toward the Israeli position. We could see that the Palestinian kids were retreating down the hill and away from the outpost. The firing was almost continuous at that point, and I saw one of the kids pitch to the ground at a full run, clutching his leg and crying for help.
At a lull in the shooting, I raised my head to see where the firing was coming from. At that moment, to my horror, I witnessed a series of small dust-cloud explosions as one of the Israeli soldiers sent some rocket grenades toward a small olive grove about 50 feet ahead of where my cameraman, Dave Albritton, and I were lying, toward the place where Ben and cameraman Mohammed Ali were hidden behind some tree branches. Mohammed, who had been in the Jordanian army in his younger days, understood instantly that they had been seen and targeted and immediately jumped up and ran, yelling for Ben to follow. Ben decided to stay put and picked up the camera that Mohammed had left behind, intending to try and videotape some of the action.
Then the worst nightmare of any journalist working in a war zone became reality, as I heard a single, distinct shot and screams for help coming from the olive grove.
Ben had been shot in the back as he jumped with the camera and tried to run. He fell back down and lay there, calling for help.
Dave ran to Ben, and after the shooting seemed to have stopped again, helped him walk to a Palestinian ambulance that had raced to the scene. The ambulance rushed off with Dave and Ben in it, leaving me alone in the field, wondering how Ben was doing and where Mohammed had gone.
I was pinned down by more fire for another 15 minutes or so, before I finally got out. I stumbled away from the firing through a couple of olive orchards, found our car and Mohammed, and we drove like mad to the hospital to see how Ben was doing.
Amazingly, though the entry wound was almost right in the middle of his back, the bullet had circled around the outside of his body instead of penetrating straight through. His injury was not much more than a flesh wound.
Ben had been wearing a flack jacket and a helmet. Ballistics experts that CNN brought in later during the investigation think the flack jacket, though it failed to stop the bullet, changed its direction just enough that it became a moderately serious flesh wound instead of a deadly injury that would have resulted had the bullet gone straight through his rib cage and into his internal organs.
During an investigation of the day’s events conducted by CNN and Israeli army field commanders responsible for Karni Crossing, the Israeli army said they had been unaware that journalists were anywhere near the locations they had fired on. When I was later able to view some of the video shot on that morning, I realized that four or five rounds had missed my cameraman by inches, raising clouds of earth where they struck just in front of him.
The Israelis said they had only returned fire on points where they were
receiving fire from Palestinian gunmen. They also denied using rocket-propelled grenades. But I saw them being fired and confirmed their use by watching the videotape shot that day. The use of grenades contributed to Ben’s decision to get up and run and led directly to his being shot and wounded by what CNN concluded was most likely an Israeli sniper.
We learned many lessons that day and in the days that followed. The most important lesson was, in an environment where people are carrying and using guns, there is no excuse for not wearing protective body armor. It only saves lives if it is worn and should not be left behind in the back seat of the car.
Armored car use is a debated issue
The events of the day at Karni Crossing also raised another issue that is an important consideration for any media organization: Whether to use an armored vehicle in a war zone. We began to consider whether to import some of CNN’s armored cars to Israel, which were so effective in reducing injuries to our journalists in the sniper alleys of Sarajevo.
Several media companies already use them in Israel. At CNN, there were opposed schools of thought on the subject. Some CNN journalists feel the artificial security of being inside an armored vehicle can lead journalists to drive into situations and places where they ought not go. There are places in the world where gangs of bored militia are likely to take a pot shot at your armored car, just to see how well it holds up. Others hold that armored vehicles are lifesavers, perfect for escaping a story that suddenly degenerates into a shooting situation.
A key factor in deciding whether to use an armored vehicle is to analyze what type of weapons are being used in the area you need to visit. The vehicles CNN uses have different levels of protection. Some protect only against sniper fire from light automatic weapons, while others can protect against heavy machine gun fire.
All the armored vehicles available to the non-military sector are useless in protecting against mines and the many anti-armor weapons that have been developed specifically to attack an enemy riding in armored transport. If there are people out there with rocket-propelled grenades, and they don’t like journalists or might mistake your vehicle for an enemy car, then you should not be headed there.
I personally am convinced that in an environment such as Israel, where the army is well trained and presumably not likely to fire on journalists doing their jobs, an armored vehicle can provide a protected escape route from a situation that turns bad. It does protect the occupants from the automatic weapon fire that is the most common danger to journalists working in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
CNN has now moved an armored vehicle into Israel to provide maximum protection for our people working in the field.
I know now what I wish I knew then
After I returned home from Israel, the management team at CNN decided it was well past time that I attend a course that provides journalists with training to help them survive in war zones. The course was developed and is taught by a group of ex-British Special Forces soldiers, who gained their experience while serving in the legendary Special Air Service. The course, which runs for five full days, is specifically designed to train journalists to stay in control of the situation during the extremely tense moments when you are being shot at, bombed or otherwise not having a good day. They teach how to recognize the kind of weapons being used, how to give first aid to serious injuries that can occur in such situations and give knowledge and tools that save lives.
I spent a week learning to give first aid to people with major gunshot wounds and studying the military tactics and the psychological characteristics of the people we would be among in a war zone. I learned from the concrete experiences of journalists who had gotten themselves into lethal situations, and with the help of the training they received in this course, had gotten themselves and their comrades out alive.
I cannot recommend this course highly enough. Although I have been in many war zones over the past 15 years of working for CNN, there was an amazing amount of new and useful information for me. The instructors of this course are knowledgeable and the course curriculum is constantly being updated as other experienced journalists take the course and share their war zone experiences.