Like any other junkie, Ian Stewart knew his addiction -- war reportage -- was perilous. But while few drug addicts imagine that their habit holds some greater purpose (say, spiritual enlightenment), Stewart was convinced that his did.
"I was really affected by what I saw of civilians affected by conflict," says the author of Ambushed: A War Reporter's Life on the Line, from his new desk at the San Francisco bureau of the Associated Press. "And I just felt it was too important -- I couldn't look away."
What finally pulled him back was an incident straight out of anyone's worst nightmare. On January 10, 1999, while working in Sierra Leone as AP's youngest-ever bureau chief, Stewart and two colleagues were waylaid in their car by rebel soldiers in the capital, Freetown. Stewart took a bullet in the head -- "five centimeters above what would have been a fatal hit between the eyes." AP television cameraman Myles Tierney died on the spot. With bullet lodged firmly in brain, Stewart was transported from Freetown to London, a protracted and arduous journey that he still marvels at having survived.
"In a brain injury," says Stewart, "there are seldom full recoveries. So I'd say I'm probably at 80 to 85 percent of my old capacity." Consequences of his injury include reduced stamina, a limp, and precious little movement in his left hand and arm. Yet it could have been so much worse. The last hundred pages of Ambushed document Stewart's recovery: long months of therapy, both physical and psychological, during which he had to relearn almost every basic skill -- even the simplest things, such as how to walk and how a telephone conversation works. He typed Ambushed with only his right hand.
"The editing took about a year and a half," he recalls, "because, quite frankly, the manuscript was a mess."
After finishing journalism school at Columbia, Stewart worked as a reporter in his native Canada, then in China, Hong Kong, and India. While serving as UPI's South Asia bureau chief, he had his first taste of danger in Afghanistan in 1995. Trying to leave his Kabul hotel one day with a Pakistani translator, the latter was accused of spying and the pair was held at gunpoint by shady government goons for more than 24 hours; eventually they were interrogated and set free. "When I returned to my base in New Delhi," Stewart writes, "I was high on adrenaline -- thrilled to be alive and raring to go on my next assignment." He changed jobs, taking a pay cut to work as an AP correspondent in Pakistan.
"I began searching out increasingly dangerous assignments," he writes, "pushing my limits, and testing my mettle under fire." His compulsion led him next to Vietnam before finally accepting the position in West Africa at the age of 27. The embattled continent provided fuel for both of Stewart's engines -- his dangerlust and his drive to inform the public. "I had to do my job as a reporter," he says, "and tell the world that these wars that are legacies of the Cold War and the colonial era are still having impact on innocent people."
What he saw in Africa appalled him. In Ambushed, he tells of maimed children, families brutalized, whole villages razed by warring factions. He writes of an entire generation lost: children abducted into rebel armies and forced to become soldiers, sex slaves, and human shields. In Sierra Leone, a Nigerian-led coalition military force was trying to oust a junta that had seized power from the elected president in the spring of 1997. The rebel army, the Revolutionary United Front, relied on such ruthless tactics as systematically chopping off civilians' hands. On top of all this was Stewart's knowledge that very little of what he was writing -- and for which he knew he was risking his life -- was being read. His reports were buried in the back pages of faraway newspapers, or not printed at all; editors would tell him their readers just weren't interested in "anonymous wars in Africa." This has changed some, says Stewart, since September 11, 2001.
"It's a typical rule of thumb in journalism that you have to make things local for people to care. Well, the United States now has the most local angle for any conflict in the world. ... I think [Americans] understand now why it's important to know what's going on in other parts of the world. We can't turn a blind eye to a place like Pakistan or Afghanistan, because that's where people like Osama bin Laden are recruiting from."
After finishing Ambushed, Stewart accepted a Knight fellowship at Stanford, studying the colonial legacy of conflict in Africa. His residence there coincided with the kidnapping and murder of fellow reporter Daniel Pearl, a Stanford grad -- a story that lends Stewart's an even more tragic authority.
Having flirted with front lines all over the world, Stewart now lives in Berkeley. "It just seemed like a very livable city," he says. "And, after all my experiences, I wanted somewhere comfortable to live. ... I sort of need that now."
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