Nieman Class of 2007
A war correspondent and author, Filkins became a New Yorker staff writer in January 2011, after spending more than a decade at the New York Times, much of it covering conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He won a 2009 Pulitzer for team conflict coverage out of Pakistan and Iraq, and his book, The Forever War, about Afghanistan and Iraq, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Nonfiction Book. Major newspapers, including the Times, named it one of the best books of the year. Prior to working for the Times he wrote for the Miami Herald and the Los Angeles Times (he was that paper’s New Delhi bureau chief). He spent part of his Nieman year working on Forever War, and stayed on at Harvard the following year, as a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. He has twice won the George Polk Award and thrice the Overseas Press Club Award. At this year’s New Yorker Festival (Oct. 4-6), Filkins will appear with fellow reporter Jon Lee Anderson, to talk about reporting from conflict zones and to show artifacts from those assignments.
—”The Syrian Question,” a recent blog post about the current turmoil in Syria. His opening:
This time it’s different.
For months, Bashar al-Assad, in Syria, has been suspected of using chemical weapons against the rebels who are trying to remove him, in violation of international treaties and the Obama Administration’s threats. Syrian opposition groups say that Assad has used chemical weapons as many as thirty-five times, often with low concentrations of sarin gas. In each case, the attack appears to have been intended to cause as much panic as death, and without provoking a Western response. The result—carefully calculated by the Assad regime, no doubt—is that the death toll from chemical weapons has been kept low. In June, Benjamin Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, said that between a hundred and a hundred and fifty people had been killed in all of the gas attacks together. This, in a fratricidal war that has killed more than a hundred thousand people.
But Wednesday’s early-morning attack appears to be something very different in scale. According to reports from the scene, four large rockets landed in the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta at just after 2 A.M. This time, the gas appeared to be more concentrated: on Thursday, the Syrian Support Group, a rebel advocacy organization in Washington, put the death toll at 1,302, with nearly ten thousand others contaminated. Two-thirds of the dead were women and children, the group said. You don’t have to believe the Syrian Support Group, but a look at videos posted on the Internet—here, here, and here—seems to support their account, and suggest that something new and terrible is happening in Syria.
—”My Long War,” from the New York Times magazine, about reporting from Baghdad. Excerpt:
One afternoon later in the summer, another Iraqi youngster pulled alongside me as I made my way down the street. She, like Hassan, was about 9 years old. Her name was Fatima, she said, huffing next to me and looking up with enormous brown eyes. She wore sandals, and she was very dirty. She kept up the pace.
Fatima and I ran for a couple of miles, her sandals making a scraping sound on the pavement. After a time, she indicated that she needed a rest. We stopped at one of the open-air fish restaurants. Everyone seemed to know Fatima; she seemed to know them.
A man walked out onto the sidewalk, put a hand on Fatima’s shoulder and ran a finger across his neck. “Mother, father finished,” the man said. He pointed to the sky, as if to suggest they had been killed by bombs.
“Fatima live here,” the man said, gesturing with his hand to encompass the restaurant and its environs.
Then a second man walked up, twisted Fatima around and gave her a long and ugly kiss on her lips. He laughed and walked away. Fatima looked at me with very sad eyes, and I suggested that it was time to go.
We ran some more, and then, after a time, Fatima stopped. She suggested, without saying so, that it was time for her to go back.
“Bye-bye — tomorrow, O.K.?” Fatima said, and she turned and walked up the street. I never saw her again.
—“The Journalist and the Spies,” about the revenge killing of a reporter in Pakistan. Excerpt:
On May 30th, as the sun beat down on the plains of eastern Pakistan, a laborer named Muhammad Shafiq walked along the top of a dam on the Upper Jhelum Canal to begin his morning routine of clearing grass and trash that had drifted into the intake grates overnight. The water flow seemed normal, but when he started removing the debris with a crane the machinery seized up. He looked down and saw, trapped in the grates, a human form.
Shafiq called some colleagues, and together they pulled out the body. Occasionally, farmers and water buffalo drown in the canal, float downstream, and get stuck in the grates, but never a man in a suit. “Even his tie and shoes were still on,” Shafiq told me. He called the police, and by the next day they had determined the man’s identity: Syed Saleem Shahzad, a journalist known for his exposés of the Pakistani military. Shahzad had not shown up the previous afternoon for a television interview that was to be taped in Islamabad, a hundred miles to the northwest. His disappearance was being reported on the morning news, his image flashed on television screens across the country. Meanwhile, the zamindar—feudal lord—of a village twenty miles upstream from the dam called the police about a white Toyota Corolla that had been abandoned by the canal, in the shade of a banyan tree. The police discovered that the car belonged to Shahzad. Its doors were locked, and there was no trace of blood.
The previous afternoon, Shahzad had left his apartment, in the placid F-8/4 neighborhood of Islamabad, and driven toward Dunya studios, about five miles away. It was five-thirty; the television interview was scheduled for six. According to a local journalist who talked to a source in one of Pakistan’s cell-phone companies, Shahzad’s phone went dead twelve minutes later. His route passed through some of the country’s most secure neighborhoods, and no one had reported seeing anything suspicious. Some Pakistanis speculated that Shahzad might even have known the people who took him away.
—“After America,” from The New Yorker, about what will happen in Afghanistan after the troops withdraw.
Early one morning in April, an Afghan police officer on a motorcycle drove up to the gate of the Afghan Army’s base in Kushamond, a barren town fifty miles from the Pakistani border, and yelled for help. His men were in a firefight with the Taliban, he said, and they needed the Americans to bail them out.
Under the new rules, when members of an Afghan police unit got in trouble, they were supposed to call the Afghan Army—not the Americans. But the Afghan police told me they had no radios to call either the Afghan soldiers or the Americans.
When the word came, the local Afghan Army commander, Lieutenant Mohammad Qasim, jumped out of bed. “Let’s go, let’s go!” he shouted, and his men began to move. It was still dark; the moon was high.
Then came another problem. Three of the unit’s Humvees were broken down. With only two functioning vehicles, Qasim went to the quarters of the presiding American officer, Captain Giles Wright, and woke him up.
“O.K., let’s go get the bad guys,” Wright said. He took twenty-one of his men and dashed out the door. Qasim took twenty of his, crammed them into the two Humvees, and followed Wright. What was supposed to be an all-Afghan operation quickly had become an American-led one.
By the time Wright and Qasim arrived in the village of Chowray to help Abdul Rehman, the police chief, the Taliban had departed. We could see them in the distance, watching from motorcycles. Rehman had left, too, but no one knew where, since there was no way to call him.
“We still have some kinks to work out,” Wright told me.
That was just the beginning. Like the Afghan police, Qasim, the Afghan platoon leader, had no radios. As he moved on foot toward what he believed to be a Taliban position, Qasim directed his men by whistling, with two fingers in his mouth.
“Move it!” Qasim said, following one of his whistles, waving his hand. “Move!”
—The Forever War, his book. Excerpt:
The Marines were pressed flat on a rooftop when the dialogue began to unfold. It was 2 a.m. The minarets were flashing by the light of airstrikes and rockets were sailing on trails of sparks. First came the voices from the mosques, rising above the thundery guns.
“The Americans are here!” howled a voice from a loudspeaker in a minaret. “The Holy War, the Holy War! Get up and fight for the city of mosques!”
Bullets poured without direction and without end. No one lifted his head.
“This is crazy,” one of the marines yelled to his buddy over the noise.
“Yeah,” the buddy yelled back, “and we’ve only taken one house.”
And then, as if from the depths, came a new sound: violent, menacing and dire. I looked back over my shoulder to where we had come from, into the vacant field at Falluja’s northern edge. A group of marines were standing at the foot of a gigantic loudspeaker, the kind used at rock concerts.
It was AC/DC, the Australian heavy metal band, pouring out its unbridled sounds. I recognized the song immediately: “Hells Bells,” the band’s celebration of satanic power, had come to us on the battlefield. Behind the strains of its guitars, a church bell tolled thirteen times.
—Watch him talk about war reporting on University of California Television:
The Featured Fellow series highlights Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling, and honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 this month. For more installments, go here.