On June 20, 1979, during the Nicaraguan Revolution, American journalist Bill Stewart, of ABC-TV, was stopped at a roadblock in Managua. He knelt and begged for mercy, but a Nicaraguan national guardsman ordered him to lie flat and then shot him in the head, killing him instantly.
I’d seen the video of Stewart’s murder on TV, and four years later, when I was a notorious drunk, I decided to go to the civil war in El Salvador as a journalist. I’d never taken a course in journalism or written a word of it. I’d never even been outside the United States, much less to a war zone, but I begged the editor of my local paper to give me a letter saying I worked for him, even though I didn’t. And that was how it began.
I was nervous, of course. I knew that an American freelance journalist, John Sullivan, had been kidnapped on his first night in El Salvador, but my Spanish was what worried me the most. About all I could do with it was order a meal or find a bathroom, so before I left Alabama, I memorized two important phrases: Soy periodista and No me dispare, por favor. “I’m a journalist. Please don’t shoot me.”
On my first morning in country, I was headed to the hotel lobby for breakfast when a woman on the elevator introduced herself as a correspondent for the BBC. She asked if I wanted to go to Tenancingo. I told her I’d never heard of the place.
“It’s a town that’s been overrun by the boys.” Boys was a code word for the FMLN guerrillas, who were at war with the Salvadoran government. “We need warm bodies,” she added.
So I said, “Sure.”
Altogether, there were six of us. We took two cars in case of mechanical problems. I was in the second car with Joe Frazier, the Associated Press bureau chief. He was a Marine combat veteran of Vietnam, and when I mentioned that I heard a thunderstorm in the distance even though the sky was blue, he said, “That’s not thunder, Dennis. It’s war.”
Joe told me that his wife Linda was also a journalist, but he’d ordered her to take their nine-year-old son and leave El Salvador because it was too dangerous for them. But Linda Frazier didn’t want to go, and they argued about it. Finally, she acquiesced. She got a job with The Tico Times in distant Costa Rica.
Costa Rica was democratic and peaceful, with excellent schools for their son and some of the finest healthcare in Latin America. The best thing, though, was that there was no war in Costa Rica. They didn’t even have an army, only unarmed national police. She and their son would be safe, but still, Joe said, he missed her.
When we got to the outskirts of Tenancingo, Joe showed all of us what we needed to do. We walked together, out in the open, up a hill and into town, past the pairs of boots on the freshly dug graves of the Salvadoran soldiers who’d been killed in the fighting and past the blood and urine-soaked mattresses in the rooms where they’d made their last stand. We were followed by shirtless, shoeless, and dusty children, who were taking turns rolling a metal hoop up the hill with a stick. The air was filled with the distant staccato of automatic weapons and the whump of mortar rounds.
Joe stopped us, listened, and then said that the mortars weren’t being walked our way, so we continued to a dilapidated store at the top of the hill, where two young guerrillas in mismatched boots were loading bags of salt onto the back of a one-eared horse. The guerrillas were armed with German-made G3s, and they didn’t respond to questions. The storekeeper, on the other hand, wouldn’t stop complaining about the theft of his salt, while the children sat on a bench in a web-covered corner. On the wall hung a calendar with a faded portrait of Jesus. They looked up at it and smiled. These were the children about whom He had said, “Forbid them not, to come unto me; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”
I believe the children of Tenancingo changed the course of my life. I sobered up, for one thing, and whatever war I went to after that, it would be the children who would show me what I needed to see.
That December, on my second trip to Salvador, I met Newsweek photographer John Hoagland at an impromptu airport news conference with Vice President George H. W. Bush. Bush was a favorite with the press. He respected us, and we respected him, so he just rolled up his sleeves and talked passionately about the horror of the Salvadoran death squads. Instead of taking a photo of Bush, though, I took a photo of Hoagland taking a photo of him.
Five months later, on March 16, 1984, John Hoagland was killed in crossfire on the road to Suchitoto. He’d been one of a number of foreign journalists whose names had appeared on a death squad hit list, so some of his friends questioned the circumstances.
We tried to retrace Hoagland’s trip to Suchitoto, but there were signs that the road had been mined. We decided to turn back, probably for the best, since two other American journalists, Dial Torgerson of the Los Angeles Times and Richard Cross of U.S. News and World Report, would later be killed in Honduras when their own car ran over a remotely detonated mine.
Then two months after John Hoagland’s death, the unthinkable happened.
On May 30, 1984, a terrorist bomb exploded during a press conference at a place called La Penca, on the banks of the Rio San Juan, the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Seven people were killed, and many others were injured. Three of the dead were journalists.
Joe Frazier was staying at the InterContinental Hotel in Managua when he got the news that “a red-headed foreign lady, a correspondent” had been found "sin vida," without life. He knew it was Linda, and he said his first thought was that he would have to go to Costa Rica and tell their son what had happened, and that was something he wouldn’t wish on anybody.
Years later, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias would declare May 30 the National Day of the Journalist.
In the fall after the La Penca bombing, my photographer friend, Jim Neel, and I wanted to interview Salvador’s greatest artist, Fernando Llort. He lived in La Palma in northernmost Chalatenango Province, guerrilla-held territory and scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. I asked the Miami Herald reporter, who had just been up there, what the situation was like. He said it was calm. The fighting had moved somewhere else, he said.
So we got hold of Rudy Riviera, our translator and driver, and told him our plans. Rudy had been recommended by the BBC correspondent, and I’d happily used him before. He was fun to be with, full of tales of Salvadoran lunacy, but calm and collected when the going got tough.
Just south of La Palma, we saw some guerrillas on the side of the road, and we stopped to interview them. I’d asked only two questions before we and the guerrillas came under semi-automatic weapons fire. Jim and I ran for a ditch, with its share of raw sewage, and hunkered down while, for twenty minutes or so, Salvadoran soldiers poured fire toward us and the guerrillas.
I knew I was going to die. Jim got a great photo of two guerrillas under fire, but I just stared at a tropical praying mantis in the bottom of the ditch and concluded it was the most beautiful, and probably the last, thing I’d ever see.
When the shooting finally stopped, I heard Rudy yell for us to come out of the ditch. He’d hidden behind a tree and was now in the middle of the road with his hands behind his head. I thought the soldiers were going to shoot him on the spot. I think the only reason they didn’t was because he was with us.
“Do you want to ask these guys any questions?” he said.
I said, “Hell, no. I want to get the f**k out of here.”
Jim and I hung out the windows of Rudy’s car and hooped and hollered all the way back to the capital. Greatest adrenaline high I’d ever been on. The younger journalists at the hotel were envious because we’d achieved the newbies’ dream: “to get shot at without getting shot.”
One experienced journalist, though, was irate. He said we should have stuck with the guys who’d been shooting at us and followed the story from there.
Next day, though, that same journalist saw us in the hotel lobby and apologized. He said he was still recovering from being next to a guerrilla who’d gotten his brains blown out by gunfire from a helicopter gunship. “Had a hard time getting all the blood off of me,” he said.
In time, I’d see more blood in Salvador and other places than I ever wanted to see. Always, it was the strength and courage of the children that astonished me. And broke my heart.
When our President refers to American journalists as “enemies of the people,” he reminds me of the Salvadoran colonel who said in print that any journalist caught interviewing guerrillas ought to be considered an “enemy combatant.”
America went to war on 9/11.
Among the nearly 3,000 dead that day were photographer Thomas Pecorelli, who was on American Airlines Flight 11 as it crashed into the North Tower, and Bill Biggart, who was photographing the fall of the North Tower itself. Robert Stevens, a tabloid photography editor, died during the anthrax scare that followed.
Then Daniel Pearl, of the Wall Street Journal, was kidnapped and beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002.
Michael Kelly, who’d worked for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Republic, the Atlantic, and many other periodicals, died in Iraq in 2003, as did American television journalist David Bloom.
Military journalist James P. Hunter died in Afghanistan in 2010.
And Marie Colvin, one of the most experienced and battle-hardened American journalists, died in 2012 in Homs, Syria, after being individually targeted by Bashar al-Assad’s artillery.
I happened to walk into Northern Syria in 2012, two days after American journalist James Foley had been kidnapped there. He’d previously survived kidnapping and imprisonment in Libya during the Gaddafi years, but this time, in Syria, he would be tortured for nearly two years before being beheaded by ISIS in August of 2014.
American journalist Steve Sotloff would also be kidnapped by ISIS in 2013, on the same road to Aleppo that I had taken a few weeks before. Like Jim Foley, Steve would be tortured for many months before ISIS beheaded him in September of 2014.
But American journalists haven’t just been killed overseas or in wartime.
Manuel de Dios Unanue, Dona St. Plite, James Edwin Richards, and Chauncey Bailey were all murdered at various locations in the United States by the subjects of their articles.
And in 2015, Roanoke television reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward were shot to death on-air by a disgruntled former colleague, who then killed himself.
But the most recent, and most horrifying, murder of American journalists occurred less than two months ago, on June 28, 2018, when a deranged gunman blasted his way into the offices of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, and shot to death Gerald Fischman, Rob Hiaasen, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith, and Wendi Winters.
Perhaps someday we’ll have a president who declares June 28 National Day of the Journalist. But I think the real Day of the Journalist, the one that will mean the most to members of my trade, will be the day when an American president is elected who refuses to incite violence against the press.
Photograph above: Children on tank in Azaz, Syria. Taken by Dennis Covington.
Author Photograph: Taken by Rebecca Howell.