There are many ways to make a living. Some of us take risks and a few actually like what they do. Most of us opt for a nice office and a short commute. My good friend Babak Behnam is someone who really likes what he does. He likes it so much that he is willing to risk his life each and every day he goes to work: Babak is a front-line news producer and sometimes reporter for NBC.
Whenever the world erupts in an orgy of violence and mayhem, Babak and his crew fly right into the midst of it. They are the people that set-up the cameras and plan the interviews. They also secure accommodations and ensure security before the TV newscasters fly in and are filmed looking fearless in front of fire.
Once the job is done, they are the ones that clear up and rush to the next hotspot. It's a hectic, dangerous and unpredictable way to make a living. Perhaps even more distressing is the carnage and acts of extreme cruelty they witness. But it is also exciting, rewarding and possibly, important enough to influence opinions and therefore, actions. After all, if a picture says a thousand words, what does a video of a post massacre scene in Kosovo say? It could say enough for us to take notice.
I have known Babak for a long time. We became friends in Washington DC in the mid 80s and early 90s when we were young, restless and clueless on what to do with ourselves. Most Saturdays we locked horns playing American football with a motley crew of students, bouncers, cops and restaurant workers, and most evenings were spent in one watering hole or another.
Although large in physique and quite strong, I recall Babak as a big teddy bear. I took advantage of his reluctance to engage in mindless confrontation (as one does) by bullying him during sports scrimmages (while fully realising he could crush me like a flea if he truly desired). It never occurred to me that Babak would ever make a living dodging bullets.
Whilst most of us were either students or working in our first mindless jobs after graduating, Babak was working as a production trainee with NBC by day and organising after-hours parties by night. By the early 90s, he was managing production operations and showing competence and in 1996, was transferred to London to practice his trade.
In London, Babak and I became closer friends, spending many hours discussing the past, present and future. It was also during this time that I became spellbound by his stories from Rawanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and the Middle East. It was hard for me at first to visualise the 'teddy bear' being thrown into a stinking jail in Africa, or threatened by a drunk Serb militiaman or narrowly escaping injury by the hands of Israeli soldiers in Palestine.
I found Babak's experiences truly fascinating. And equally exhilarating. I found myself questioning my own limits. Could I also run around with a camera and a microphone as bullets whizzed overhead? Did I have the courage to overcome fear and the unknown?
But I did understand one thing: If I am so intoxicated by these stories, surely young people may find them spellbinding, if not outright inspirational. Perhaps inspirational enough to pursue a career in news production or journalism. Perhaps inspirational enough to try and make a difference. September 11th gave me a chance to find out.
An Opportunity Borne from Terror
The events of September 11th were as visually surreal as they were horrific. In the few days following, the war against terror took shape, and Afghanistan became the latest hotspot. Inevitably, my wife Roxane and I heard from Babak that he would soon be going to Kabul. We always worry for his safety, but this time we also knew that there would be serious fireworks.
As American-Iranians, Babak and I also understood the unpredictable and dangerous nature of the Afghan conflict. It didn't help that this hotspot had a crazed lunatic Mullah calling for a holy war, a maniac terrorist threatening mass destruction, several thousand suicidal fighters, hordes of local bandits and terrain similar to Mars. Add daily bombings, millions of landmines and no infra-structure whatsoever, and you can see why this time we really were worried.
As a native Iranian, Babak speaks Farsi, and this meant he would be taking an even more pronounced role during this campaign as a translator and facilitator. To me, it was quite clear. It was imperative that his experiences somehow filter to people back home. Interestingly and unbeknownst to me, Babak's brother, Behdad, also felt the same way across the Atlantic. The result was three people bringing together different components that have helped create a very lively online community on the Internet.
At first, Babak was on the phone often to say he was bored and was planning to be home by Christmas. However, as the war gained rapid pace, Babak was suddenly impossible to track. Naturally, we worried when emails went unanswered and the phone calls stopped. My anxiety was heightened as journalists became targets and news teams were attacked. Soon, it became clear this was no ordinary war.
On November 12, Johanne Sutton of Radio France Internationale, Pierre Billaud of France's RTL radio station and Volker Handloik, a freelance writer for the German magazine Stern, were killed when the Taliban ambushed the Northern Alliance armoured personnel carrier they were riding on. It was an outrageous act. But it was to get worse.
On November19, Harry Burton, an Australian television cameraman with Reuters; Azizullah Haidari, an Afghan-born Reuters, Grazia Cutuli, a reporter with Italy's Corriere della Sera, were all killed when gunmen ambushed the convoy they were travelling in. Eight journalists had been murdered in the space of one week.
Our fears for Babak's safety were legitimate, yet I was also very much intrigued in how he was surviving the war. I voiced my concern to a peer at work, and it was then that the penny dropped: Why not have Babak's experienced chronicled on one of Europe's leading online communities for schools, Schoolmaster.net? With over 400,000 registered members worldwide, it was bound to generate interest and most importantly, this opportunity directly addressed my desire to create an inspirational platform for young people.
An Online Community to Track Babak
A campaign was kicked off, and questions were gathered online from community members. Interest was high, and Babak was very keen on the project. But very soon, it became clear that tracking Babak was not going to be easy. Not only was it hard to track him, it was equally frustrating trying to predict when he would be able to make contact with us to answers the many questions.
In effect, we needed a full-on project manager in touch with Babak at least 2-3 times a week to make the campaign dynamic. The problem was logistics and resources. And then came a timely email from an old friend in Detroit. He had come across an article about the brother of a journalist and thought I may be curious, as the name sounded Iranian.
I could not believe what I was reading:
“Detroit, 5:29 p.m. EDT October 26, 2001 – Behdad Behnam's concern for his brother, who happens to be in Afghanistan, led him to the Internet. Behnam set up a website to allow friends and family members to keep up with his brother, Babak Behnam, in the midst of the U.S. military response in Afghanistan. The United States and its allies have been bombing the country in their fight against the Taliban for three weeks. Babak Behnam is a producer for NBC News on assignment in the Middle East. Behdad Behnam speaks to his brother regularly, and updates the site with comments from their conversations. He has also included maps and other links to further inform visitors about the nation. Behnam also created a guest book in which visitors to the site can leave messages that he will post for his brother to read when he returns from his Middle East assignment.”
I emailed Behdad immediately, we too were old friends and I explained that his website was the missing piece of the puzzle. The process chain was now complete. Babak was our 'content provider', Behdad became the 'content manager' via his dedicated website and I had the audience through Schoolmaster.net. Behdad's site in effect became the mini-portal I required to make the campaign dynamic.
The production team at Schoolmaster.net created a number of 'teasers' and promotions within the many pages of their online community as well as post promotions in chat and discussion forums. We sat back and watched the fireworks. The questions for Babak poured in, and the traffic to Behdad's website hit the roof. Typically, the questions delved into queries on front-line conditions and the fear factor.
Sophie Palmizi,14, asked; “Do you ever fear for your life being so close to the front-lines?” The response from Babak was; “Sometimes we have to be very close to the fighting in order to get a better understanding of the story. But we take many precautions to insure our safety. We wear Kevlar helmets and flak jackets. If we are able to, we travel in bullet-proof cars. We research the area we visit and gather as much intelligence as possible. Eight of my colleagues have been killed so far in this conflict. But with the proper preparations we try to minimize the risks we confront in covering war stories.”
There were even questions about exams. Mario Pisaneschi, 15, of Western Isles of Scotland asked: “Do 15 year olds in Afghanistan sit exams?” Babak's replied: “The Afghans take pride in their attempt to educate the youth despite all the obstacles that stand in their way. In the Panshir Valley, many students attended classes. But they also had to work in the fields in the morning. There is a shortage of books and the teachers are poorly qualified. In Kabul the situation is somewhat better. There is even Kabul University with a large campus and many professors. But the bombing campaign has taken its toll and it will be sometime before the schools will be fully functional again. And yes, even in Afghanistan, students have to sit exams.”
The cultural insights provided by the campaign have allowed members of Schoolmaster.net an educative and eye-opening window into Afghanistan. Maybe this is what the Internet is really all about – a community vehicle enabling better understanding of one another through a border-less medium.
For me, the most telling exchange was with thirteen year old Chris Marr who asked Babak if he were scared. Babak's answer was potent in its simplicity; “Covering a war is always scary. You have to always be careful because trouble can be around every corner. Being scared prevents you from making a stupid mistake and keeps you alive. Anyone who says they are not scared is not telling the whole truth.”