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War reporter recalls 'worst moment of my life' covering fighting in Haiti

By Clark Gregor
Special to freedomforum.org

09.27.01

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ARLINGTON, Va. — Reporting on U.S. involvement in Haiti's civil war "was the worst moment of my life," USA TODAY reporter Tom Squitieri said.

U.S. troops had just arrived in 1994 to restore overthrown President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. "The pro-Aristide side and the anti-Aristide side met in a street clash with guns and machetes, rocks and all sorts of weapons," Squitieri said. "It was like the last gasp of the fighting."

He and a photographer ducked behind a porch. "Just before we went down, we saw some poor Haitian guy sort of frozen in the street, so we just grabbed him and pulled him to safety with us."

They waited until the scene had cleared. As they rose from hiding, some of the rebels turned and came back toward the trio.

One man "had a pistol and was preparing to aim right at me, and I knew he was going to shoot me," Squitieri said. He waved his hands to distract the man, then jumped out of the way. The gun fired, killing the Haitian man the journalists had just saved.

War correspondents often face such quandaries, trying to decide whether to help those around them or remain as eyewitnesses. "It's an ethics issue. We're not supposed to be involved; we're supposed to be observers and reporters," Squitieri said. But "most of us are [at times] confronted with, 'I'm a human as well as being a reporter.' "

Squitieri said that he hoped his work would improve the outcome of violent conflicts. He said the impact of his work was evident after his Haiti story ran. "[The story] really capsulated the (U.S. soldiers') frustration, and because of that incident and the news stories of that whole day, it prompted the U.S. military to take a stronger hand and bring order."

When covering foreign conflicts, reporters also face the challenge that many Americans consider foreign news inconsequential. Squitieri tries to "write about the people involved in the conflict and stay away from the politics, which often go back years and years."

"While it is relevant to why that conflict is occurring today, to get readers to understand and empathize with those people, I try to find common traits [that] people can associate with," he said. "My theory is that when a baby is crying, that baby doesn't cry in Serbian or Croatian or Bosnian; it's just crying. And any parent — any person — can understand that," he added.

Seeing the scourge of war so close motivates reporters to write good stories, but it also makes it more difficult to be objective. "Objectivity is different than recognizing who's good and who's bad," Squitieri said. "Put the story in the paper, and let the readers decide. That's where it takes experience and professionalism to paint both sides of the story fairly and let the readers make their judgment [about] the people operating in extremely difficult circumstances."

The Sept. 22 program was held in conjunction with the Newseum's exhibit, War Stories, on display through Nov. 11.

Related

War Stories events coverage
Coverage of discussions relating to Newseum's War Stories exhibit.  07.31.01

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