The Vulture Club

Tim Hetherington was a member of a special, close-knit brotherhood: people who work in war zones.

View a gallery of Chris Hondros's extraordinary work.

GENEVA—Last Wednesday, I was in Geneva chatting on Skype with my photographer, André Liohn, who was at the Misrata hospital in Libya. André was in the middle of telling me about a group of Ukrainian doctors who had been hit by a mortar round in the city when he suddenly went silent. Ten minutes later, he came back and wrote, in his broken English, "Man, a shit happened."

"Tim and Michael have been hit by RPG. Tim is really bad. Mike is fine. Guy also fine. But Tim is bad."

I was puzzled. Just two weeks before, my friend Tim and I had left eastern Libya, and he had said he wasn't going back. So I chatted back, "Tim who? Not Hetherington?" And then, at 16:58, the words I never wanted to see popped up from André: "Yes. He died now. Just now. Chris also bad." And that was how the first word of Tim's death, and the eventually life-ending injury of his fellow photographer Chris Hondros, reached the world: on Skype.

André, Tim, and I were members a close-knit, but informal brotherhood -- I half-jokingly call us the Vulture Club, as we usually convene only when the blood is flowing. Bonds forged in war run deep. Many of us have known each other since the bloodshed in the Balkans in the 1990s, although there are a few older ones around who still think of us as "the kids" (and we tease them right back about their arthritis and fading hearing, the later an inevitable result of being too close too many times to the bomb explosions). My emergency team at Human Rights Watch spends a lot of time in conflict zones with these journalists and photographers, so we feel a special connection.

In war, we have to be able to rely on each other. We meet on the outskirts of the world, where the messiest of conflicts are underway, places like Chechnya, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The journalist I'm sharing a drink with in the evening may be the one applying a tourniquet to a potentially fatal wound if I am hurt tomorrow. It is not just the danger that draws us close, but also our time together and the experiences we share.

Over time, friendships forged amid conflict evolved into a worldwide network, providing lifelines of communication and safe houses around the globe. And the advent of the technological age has brought us even closer. Need to go to Central African Republic to cover a war? Send the word out and within minutes you'll have a driver and translator lined up, if not an appointment with the president. Over email, Facebook, and Skype, we're in constant touch with each other. When four foreign journalists disappeared from Benghazi more than two weeks ago, our network found their names by going to the hotels in town, then locating their families' contacts on the Internet by sending a friend request to one of their mothers. Within 30 minutes, colleagues in Tripoli, contacted over Skype, had informed the government spokesperson, as well as the personal assistants of Muammar al-Qaddafi and those of his two sons Seif al-Islam and Saadi, the ones who wield real power. By nightfall, after constant pestering, the government was forced to admit to Nick Robertson of CNN that they were holding the journalists.

The Vulture Club has its own code of honor. Rule No. 1 is that when one of us gets hurt, we put down our notebooks and cameras until we get our brother or sister out. And that's what I had to do last week. There was no time to even stop and mourn my friend Tim. The first priority was to inform the families before they heard about it on the news. As rumors of the tragic incident began spreading like wildfire on Twitter, we rushed to inform Tim and Chris's photo agents. We managed just in time: As I was on the phone with Tim's agent to confirm his death, she received a call from Tim's mother.

(Some criticized André for posting the news about Tim and Chris's death on his Facebook account before the families had been informed, but they should realize that because all other forms of communication had been shut down by the Qaddafi regime, for weeks André's only access to the outside world had been through Facebook and Skype. He took down the post as soon as I told him it was inappropriate, and then proceeded to offer us invaluable help in coordinating the evacuation of the bodies and the wounded.)

Chris Hondros/Getty Images taken April 20

I spent the next eight hours fighting through tears as I informed friends of our loss and spent my time, once again on Skype from Geneva, helping to organize the evacuation of Tim and Chris's bodies. There was no refrigeration in Misrata, no electricity, and I didn't want my friends or their families to suffer. Once again we went to Skype, setting up endless chats between our colleagues in Misrata, our team in Benghazi, the operators of a humanitarian ship that was docked in the Misrata harbor, diplomatic officials, and the doctors at the Misrata hospital. The officials of the International Organization of Migration, busy evacuating hundreds of trapped African migrants from Misrata harbor, couldn't have been more helpful, agreeing to hold their ship until we could get the bodies to the harbor. Many pitched in as we organized the death certificates necessary to release the bodies from the clinic, and attempted to find ice to keep Chris and Tim refrigerated on the 20-hour journey to Benghazi (impossible, as there was no electricity), and finally a full refrigeration unit to store the bodies on the ship. We made it just in time, organizing the delivery of the bodies to the ship shortly after midnight, nearly 8 hours after we first learned of the loss.

In the midst of the chaos, I was contacted even by the soldiers in Afghanistan that Tim and Sebastian Junger followed around in their Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo. As much as Tim meant to us, the soldiers told me he was also one of their own, and the U.S. generals at Africa Command were closely following our efforts and were willing to do whatever they could to help bring Tim home.

As I write, days later, we are still on Skype, finalizing the evacuation of the two wounded journalists, Guy Martin and Michael Brown by ship, as a storm brews off the Libyan coastline. And we have another colleague to worry about: A French journalist has been hit in the neck, and is likely to suffer paralysis or worse unless he is urgently evacuated.

Tim was one of the first photographers who had regularly gone on assignment for us at Human Rights Watch. There is so much to say about Tim and his work. He was a genius who understood that we were moving beyond the world of the still image, and was constantly experimenting with photos, video, sound, and whatever else he could think of, mixing it all up. When he covered something, he gave it his all. When he was covering the civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, he rented a local pad and moved to the region for several years. He was a hunk: On several occasions, single female friends inquired whether he was single after meeting him. He was in love when he died, telling me about his Somali girlfriend at our last meal together, just two weeks before.

But to us, he was first and foremost one of our greatest heroes and dearest friends. It may sound like a cliché, but he did seem immortal. When you ran into Tim on the front lines, with his calm and confident smile, you knew that you were in the right place but also somehow that it would also be alright, that we would go home safely at the end of the day and have a story to tell. Tim's and Chris's deaths shattered that illusion: None of us are safe on the front line.

Photo of Tim Hetherington Courtesy Olivier Bercault/Human Rights Watch, 2006


Thug Democracy

Nigeria is cheering its first legitimate and internationally praised election. But violent protests in the north make it clear just how divided the country still is.

KANO, Nigeria—Brandishing wooden planks and lighter fuel, young men and boys -- some hardly taller than the makeshift clubs they were wielding -- took to the streets of several northern Nigerian cities Monday, April 18, to protest the emerging results of Saturday's presidential election. As they waved their clubs, they shouted "Only Buhari! We want change!" echoing the campaign slogans of their fallen candidate, the onetime military ruler of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, who battled the incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan in the April 16 election. 

Saturday's vote marked a first for Africa's most populous country in its latest chapter of democratic rule. Nigerian and international observers praised it as the only election since 1999 -- when the country transitioned to civilian rule after decades of military dictatorship -- to break away from a history of chaotic, rigged, and violent polls. Unlike previous occasions, on Saturday there was no ballot stuffing, no "Elvis Presleys" or other fake names on the voters list, no hired thugs stealing ballot boxes from polling stations. Everything was on track -- right up to the moment when widespread, deadly violence broke out.

The first rioters flooded the streets Monday morning, as soon as word had spread that the results were expected to favor Jonathan. By the time the electoral commission certified his victory on Monday evening, the protests had calmed slightly, but by Tuesday morning, fighting had erupted once again in Kaduna and the Associated Press reported by midday that "charred bodies" lined the road on the southern outskirts of the city. Violence spread to some 13 northern states throughout the day Monday. The Nigerian Red Cross reported that 16,000 people had fled their homes, afraid that the violence would continue.

Quickly, what was meant to be Nigeria's first truly legitimate election has begun to look a lot like the clouded ones of the past, even if the votes themselves add up the way they're supposed to. And it's not at all clear that the protesters in the north who torched churches, looted vehicles, and smashed billboards are entirely to blame, given the behavior of their leaders in Abuja. More importantly, if Jonathan does not manage to address the broader issues raised by this violence -- notably the discontent among northerners with the status quo that includes a huge class of unemployed and marginalized youth -- he may find his term as president focused largely on putting out brush fires rather than initiating badly needed reforms.

Security forces in Kaduna, Kano, and smaller northern cities such as Sokoto and Zaria managed to restore calm on Monday by firing live rounds into the air to disperse angry crowds, but not before the youth rioters had torched the homes and vehicles of some actual or perceived supporters of Jonathan's People's Democratic Party -- including the emir's residence in Kano. In Kaduna, rioters set fire to the electoral commission's state offices. As the sun set on April 18 in Kano, an ancient Muslim trading center that's now Nigeria's second-largest city after Lagos, an eerie calm had settled, but heaps of burned tires and wood remained on the streets.

But it's far from clear that the police can keep the protesters quiet for long, and indeed protests picked up again on Tuesday. Nor, for that matter, will Nigeria's politicians be able to quell the discontent. In a country where political elites have so often run roughshod over elections by paying young, uneducated, and unemployed men to do their dirty work at the ballot box and in the streets, those same elites now have little credibility when appealing for calm.

Instead of urging his young supporters to put down their clubs on Monday morning, Buhari and his opposition party, the Congress for Progressive Change, first accused the ruling party of massive vote-rigging in its stronghold in the south. (He has since appealed for calm.) Claims of irregularities may hold some truth, for example in the president's native Bayelsa state in the oil-rich Niger Delta. Buhari's camp also alleged, in a letter sent to the Independent National Electoral Commission on Monday, that computer software used for totaling results had been manipulated in northern states. In the 2007 polls, such challenges took some two years in the Nigerian court system to be addressed; it is unclear how long the process could drag on this time.

More than anything, this week's events offer a potent reminder that elections are merely a first step to democracy. During his short time in office so far, Jonathan -- who took power last year after former President Umaru Yar'Adua died in office -- staked his reputation on holding a credible vote. But ending corruption at the ballot box was just part of the equation. Clean elections won't bring an end to local violence unless the country's leaders fundamentally change course. 

This will be Jonathan's primary challenge as he begins his first full term in office: to start changing a culture of thuggery and corruption that pervades the political elite. Many of the country's leaders have built their rule on a simple equation: steal money, pay off the most troublesome constituencies, and when it comes time for elections, buy votes. Threats are put down using "divide and rule" tactics learned from Nigeria's former colonial power, Britain. Ethnicities, religions, and even regions are pitted against one another, elites blaming the poverty of one group on the alleged state benefits garnered by another. This approach has been used on countless occasions to whip up anger among rival communities in the country's Middle Belt, where reports of sporadic violence have killed thousands over the last decade. 

After this latest north-south rupture, Nigeria's divisions are likely to seem all the more stubborn. Jonathan's victory essentially signaled the death of the ruling party's "zoning" agreement, which called for presidential power to rotate between a northerner and a southerner every eight years. When Jonathan, a southerner, took over after Yar'Ardua's death last year, northerners expected his reign as president to last only until the 2011 elections. Now that Jonathan has been elected for a four-year term, the north feels it has been dealt the bum lot once more. It's not as though ordinary southerners enjoy many benefits from their regional affiliation, but the perception among millions of northerners that they are second-class citizens will likely continue, if only because northerners do not view Jonathan as an ally.

Many northern voters who waited for hours on Saturday to cast their ballots for Buhari told me they just wanted "change." Their reasons for this were transparently clear; polling stations were set up in run-down primary schools and next to fetid open sewers. "Where is the money?" asked a 43-year old unemployed father of four, Mohammed Issa Jamal, who holds a linguistics degree and spoke eloquently about the nexus of patronage, politics, and violence in his country. For voters like Jamal, a Muslim man from Kaduna, Buhari's reputation as a former president who employed sometimes ruthless tactics to rout out corruption from the ranks of his military government is also appealing.

The sheer number of unemployed secondary school and even university graduates in this region also means that the angry young men I saw in the streets on Monday have little to lose. Their leaders have given them no good reason to wait for politics to bring about the change they seek. Nigeria's big men have rarely proved worthy of ruling their vibrant and intelligent populace, the vast majority of whom hustle every day to get food on the table for their families.

It remains to be seen whether Jonathan can mollify this angry class, but for now he is at least making an effort. Writing on his Facebook page on Saturday, the president vowed that "Do or die" -- the frighteningly literal campaign slogan of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, notorious for leading a crony republic -- "is dead forever." In his acceptance speech, he called his political opponents "partners" instead of speaking of them as enemies. But it may still be a stretch for many to see him as a reformer. Jonathan has not been personally accused of involvement in electoral (or other) misdeeds, but many of those around him have. And even as the new president was talking about national unity, Nigerian security forces, deployed to put down the unrest, relied on abusive measures, including public humiliation of those arrested, to quell violence. Such behavior may do little more than create a spark for future uprisings.

Perhaps Nigeria's greatest hope is that its youth, a new generation far more cosmopolitan, tech-savvy, and quicker to grow frustrated by business as usual in Nigerian politics, will take a stand against corruption. There are plenty of reasons to hope and believe that the younger generation has had enough of being manipulated and used by its politicians and leaders.

In the meantime, perseverance is not a unique quality in Nigeria, as I was reminded on Monday morning by the motorcycle taxi driver who had the misfortune of transporting me to Kano's main hospital while bonfires blazed around us. Passing me his handkerchief and covering his own mouth with his left hand, he revved his engine and drove into the black smoke, as democracy in Nigeria sputtered along for another day.