A man who seemed to be immortal


WHEN I heard the news that Kurt Schork and Miguel had been killed in a road ambush by RUF rebels, I was horrified, saddened and shocked, but on another level, hardly surprised. Kurt, more than any war correspondent I knew, took risks and always went further "down the road" - a euphemism for covering frontlines - than anyone. But Kurt's death also stunned me because he was a symbol to all of us who do this job: of bravery and fearlessness. In a sense, he always seemed untouchable.

To die on a road in Sierra Leone because he had simply gone too far is a terrible waste. In Sarajevo in 1992 there was a French journalist who used to ride around in a soft-skinned car, on the side of which he had painted: "Don't waste your bullets, I am immortal." That journalist, sadly, got shot. Kurt used to laugh at that car but it was he, more than the French journalist, who seemed immortal.

Foreign correspondents all know each other; we see each other all over the world, read each other's stuff, know about each other's lives. Some are more visible and legendary than others, but everyone knew Kurt and Miguel on first-name basis. "Who's there?" is the first question you ask when you're being sent off somewhere risky. Inevitably, if it was dangerous, the answer was: "Kurt's already there."

At the risk of sounding clichéd, Kurt was a great journalist. Perhaps because, at 53, he was older than most war correspondents - he had lived many lives before becoming a journalist in his 40s - his reporting always had a finer-tuned analysis and sensitivity, along with a penetrating sense of humour.

I had dinner with him a few nights ago in Freetown, and we laughed about the latest UN disaster. I remarked that we should write a book about all the lies the UN had told us during conflicts. "That," he said with a straight face, "would be a very long book - perhaps several volumes."

He then turned his attention to the wildness of reporting in Sierra Leone, and talked about the danger of the place. It was Kurt who had warned me, a few days earlier, about checkpoints being manned by "West Side Boys", a renegade bunch of teenage soldiers fighting on the side of government forces, who wielded RPGs and British-made rifles as if they were toys. "Man, those guys are like a pick-up basketball game," he said. "Everyone shouting and yelling - I want to play centre!" The image was stunningly correct.

I first met Kurt in Sarajevo in 1992. I had arrived alone without any contacts. Nervous and self-conscious, I wandered into the Reuters office. He introduced himself and said there was a battle going on up the road, near the airport in a suburb called Otes. He asked me if I wanted to go.

It was Sarajevo where he made his name. He loved the city passionately and stayed longer than anyone - four years. He stored his stuff in a room at a hotel in Istanbul. For years he did not have a real base. It could not have been easy, but it was rewarding: it was his reporting, his questioning and his tireless quest to get the story out when the world had tired of Bosnia that kept the story going.

Miguel, like Kurt, was also legendary. When I was in Padesh with the Kosovo Liberation Army, under heavy bombardment last year, Miguel was the only other journalist. His television pictures of the carnage after that attack are classic war reporting, as was his work this year from Chechnya. When I went to Grozny this year, it was Miguel I phoned for advice. His words were chilling: "The shelling is worse than Sarajevo," he said. "It will drive you to the point of madness." He warned me that I would get paranoid about being taken hostage, and told me that getting out of Grozny when I wanted to would take at least a week longer than I thought.

These are the kinds of things that are invaluable to pass on to other journalists, and Miguel knew that.

I knew Kurt much better than Miguel, but I will miss them both, as journalists and friends.

Their deaths will provide a terrible vacuum in war reporting - who else will take the chances that they did?

JANINE DI GIOVANNI