Unsung 'Fixers' Protect War Reporters

'Fixers' are local people who live in the war zones that correspondents cover.


May 18, 2007 — -- Almost nobody knows their names except for their close friends, their immediate family and those whose lives depend on them.

In the trade they're called "fixers."

They're the local people who live in the war zones we cover. They speak the language of the combatants, and they keep the often clueless correspondents from getting shot. No one but the recklessly stupid ventures forth into a combat zone -- Iraq, Gaza,Bosnia, for example -- without a fixer or two at his or her side. They are indispensable.

Sometimes they serve only as translators. Sometimes they are photographers or soundmen. Sometimes they are the ones who know somebody powerful who can spring you from jail, or they know a restaurant that stays open all night to combat starvation. And sometimes they are all of the above.

Imagine walking into a Gaza refugee camp as a clash erupts between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian rioters. Tear gas fills the air. Bullets "ping" off the Dumpster behind which you've taken cover. It's the fixer accompanying you who can spot the safe house in the rabbit warren of a hostile neighborhood. He knows who's inside -- or at least knows a room where you can take cover.

When you come to a checkpoint manned by drunken "Chetniks" (the nickname for Bosnian-Serb militiamen) on the outskirts of Mostar, the fixer is the one who approaches the heavily armed and menacing group while you stay back in the car.

A really good fixer knows all the right people. Indeed, when I was in Honduras back in the mid 1980s, our ABC News fixer on the ground in Tegucigalpa seemed to know everyone in the country -- by their first and last names!

More than once have I been ushered onto a plane for a flight out of hell without the benefit of a ticket for my seat. On one occasion, when my son was born prematurely in Washington while I was in Israel covering the long-running conflict, a fixer leapfrogged me over a long line of Israelis waiting impatiently to check in at Ben Gurion Airport. They were not amused. But I was as I made my way back to the states.

In a more serious vein, the fixers are the ones who tell you, "This far and no farther."

Really good fixers -- Iraqi, Palestinian, Bosnian, Honduran or whatever -- can smell trouble around the corner. Their network of informants can alert them to trouble long before I can hear the faint echo of gunfire.

Sometimes the fixer works for the government. That's not an ideal situation, bu t… welcome to the real world.

There are countries that don't like newsmen, believe it or not. There are governments that prevent you from filming even bucolic scenery without the proper paperwork. Enter the fixer.

The fixer is distinct from another breed of helper known as the "minder." A minder very unapologetically is in cahoots with the government. Right up front, the minder will tell you what he's doing with you. He will set out guidelines, usually designed to keep you from embarrassing his country, or more important, his ruler. A reporter then spends the rest of the day trying to break down his resolve. Getting a little wiggle room from the punctilious observation of rules and regulations can often be the difference between getting a story or going home empty-handed.

In my nearly nine years in the Middle East, fixers -- including my camera crews -- literally saved my life. They got the shots, the soundbites, the tips that were turned into stories. I got many pats on the back for my work as a result. The fixers may have gotten a phone call from higher-ups once a year. Pay? Not great, but working for us was probably a better job than most jobs in their native lands.

I would tell you their names, but you wouldn't know them.

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