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Q&A: Tom Masland

Newsweek's Africa correspondent on shrapnel in his arm and the life of a foreign correspondent.

By David S. Hirschman - August 5, 2003

Newsweek's Africa correspondent, Tom Masland, was covering Liberia's raging civil war two weeks ago when he was injured by shrapnel from a rebel rocket-propelled grenade. He was rushed to the U.S. embassy there, where he was treated for his wounds, and gamely stayed on in Monrovia, the country's capital, to finish reporting a story on the escalating crisis over President Charles Taylor's leadership. Usually based in South Africa, Masland spoke to mediabistro.com last week from Ivory Coast about his injury and the life of a foreign correspondent.

Tell me about what happened.
Nine days ago, three days after this LURD [Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy] offensive had advanced to Monrovia, they were trying to cross to lagoon that separates the city from the mainland and from an island. The city is on a peninsula and therefore hard to capture. I went with three photographers in a 4-by-4 to a place called Waterside, a market on the peninsula, and the bridge there was one of three bridges that has been fought over. These rebels were on the other side of the bridge, and the government people were on the city side of the bridge. There was quite a bit of shooting going on, but we had a long row of buildings between us and where the shooting was coming from—long, narrow buildings separated by narrow alleys. These were shuttered businesses. They had locked metal shutters and overhanging balconies and then in the street there were wooden market tables in the African style, covered over. So while the photographers went up to the end of the street, which was right next to the bridge, to get a vantage point on the bridge, I stayed behind and hung out with government fighters who were using these market stalls as a dormitory, basically. It was raining, and they were under cover. They were resting and waiting their turn to go across the bridge or to fight. At that point the government had a little foothold on the far side of the bridge as well.

So I hung out with these soldiers for a couple hours. Rockets would pass overhead and sometimes hit a street or two away, and there was plenty of shooting going on, outgoing mostly, rockets and machine guns. I hung out with these guys and just talked to them and then I wandered up to where the photographers were and checked out a little more action. As I was there, a few pickup truck-loads of government soldiers pulled up with young guys who were supposed to deploy and go across the bridge. They were probably very high, because they were doing cocaine and smoking grass, and a photographer told me that these soldiers had shot the head off of some dead enemy soldier and were having fun with the head. But I decided not to go check that out. So it was a pretty wild scene as these guys were preparing to go across the bridge. They started backing these two trucks across the bridge and fighters were running alongside the trucks, deploying across this unprotected bridge, and when they started backing the trucks across, the rebels on the other side shot a whole lot of RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] onto the area where these government people were deploying, probably to try and knock out the trucks.

We decided to leave. I ran back to where our 4-by-4 was waiting for us, and the photographers came up a little bit after because there was a wounded guy who was being carried off and they were photographing that. So I was up ahead of them some 50 yards or so, and I went against the wall again and about 20 feet past one of these alleys. The alleys were dangerous because it was an opening facing where the rebels were and an odd bullet could come through. So as I was there waiting for the Jeep and photographers to come up, an RPG came through one of these alleys, the one closest to me, and landed.

Had the rebels come across the bridge, or did the RPG just come up and over?
It was from across the lagoon. It was long-range stuff they were shooting, and this RPG came through the narrow alley and landed pretty much on the sidewalk on the protected side. So I was close enough to get some shrapnel from that, but I was not in front of it. If I had been in front of it I would have been killed, because a number of people who were on these market stalls and around the end of the alley did get killed. But I was perpendicular to it. And the stuff that came out sideways didn't have a whole lot of impact. It wasn't like being in front of it. So I got deafened by the explosion for about 24 hours and these three pieces of metal landed in my arm, from the RPG wrap. One of them was sticking out of my arm and I yanked it out. It was still quite hot, hot enough so that I couldn't hold on to it, so I dropped it. The Jeep came up and we all jumped into the Jeep. I had brought along a first aid kit that I travel with, so I wrapped up my arm wound in a bandage, tight around the places that were bleeding and we took off and drove to the U.S. embassy.

Only a few minutes later—within about 15 or 20 minutes of my being inside the embassy—there was a big crowd out in front, and they had dragged the bodies of 18 people in front of the main entrance, right under the noses of the Marine guards. They were having a big demonstration, and they started throwing rocks across the wall. After waiting around for a while, I was taken to a medical station they had set up in the Marines' workout room, and they treated the cuts and put a bandage on, told me how to take care of it, and I had to wait around a couple more hours after that for the demonstration to quiet down. When I left, the bodies were still piled in front of the gate.

It was about the world's cheapest purple heart. These shrapnel wounds are still bad, though. One of them was quite deep, the one I pulled the hunk of shrapnel out of. But, as I say, it was really quite minor injuries. I mean, I've had as bad injuries at home. But it was dangerous.

You have a wife and three kids; do you worry about going into these kinds of situations?
I do it extremely sparingly; I do the minimum of this kind of thing. And if I am going to do something like this, I get in and out. I don't work like the photographers. They really expose themselves to a lot more danger than I do. Obviously they have to get a clear line of sight for stuff that is happening, but, to me, it is worth it to witness what is actually happening because I see things that I wouldn't otherwise, in terms of the way Charles Taylor's fighters were performing. I got stuff I wouldn't have had by just going to hospitals to see the wounded brought in or taking another tack on covering this offensive. I mean, the effect on civilians is probably the most compelling aspect of the story, because the mortaring of these refugees who are packed into the other side of town was quite awful. But, at the same time, I felt I would gain something from going to and passing by the front there. So I thought it was worth taking a small risk, and I try to be very careful about it. There is a way of doing dangerous things carefully.

When you're in a place like that, how can you differentiate what's being careful and what isn't? It's chaotic, and everyone has got guns; how do you know that some people won't shoot at you?
Well, the combatants themselves are very much interested in staying alive, and the way they are protecting themselves is with any means available. But Monrovia is not a very hostile place. The people are not hostile to Americans or foreigners in the slightest—even Charles Taylor's people are very friendly, in fact, so it's not like a Mogadishu situation where you are just going to be torn to pieces by a crowd.

Are people eager to tell you their stories?
Yeah, everyone is dying for the U.S. to come in there and save them, almost to a pathetic degree, and these guys I talked to were quite open about their life stories and their names. One of them asked me to call his mother in Ivory Coast, which is where I am now, and a couple of hours ago I did phone her and passed along the message from him that he was all right and wanted to see her. It's not the kind of thing I have done a lot, but he wrote the phone number down and a little message. Here is a guy, 28 years old or something, and he's a Charles Taylor loyalist, not going to take someone's head off, but thinking about him mom, and so I thought I'd let him write his note—and I'll write about it—and I called his mom and she was very happy to hear from me. But it's not something I ordinarily do, getting that personal.

Has this changed the way you think you will report?
It's not going to change the way I behave. I will still keep doing this thing in very small doses, when I think it will add something to the reporting. But it's not something that I seek or thrive on particularly. I am not especially a war reporter; I'm just a regular feature writer, really, a correspondent, and every now and then something like this comes up and I do it. I have for a long time.

Do you ever think, "Wouldn't I be off better off sitting in an office in New York?"
This kind of thing goes with the territory of being a correspondent. People often ask me if it's dangerous to be a foreign correspondent, and over the years I've evolved the answer that I think is accurate: The most dangerous thing about it is riding around on questionable roads in funky taxis. Getting killed in a car accident is still probably the biggest risk, the same way it is in the United States. And getting sick is also dangerous. I have had malaria twice, fortunately not the very dangerous kind. But it's hard to match the job of being a correspondent. And maybe it's not for everybody, but you have an awful lot of latitude and scope, and it's a kind of assignment I thrive on, that I think I'm best suited for. I did work in the office. I worked at Newsweek for 10 years as a writer and editor, and I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I've been a reporter since 1973, and I've never regretted being a reporter.

David S. Hirschman is mediabistro.com's news editor and a freelance writer and editor.



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