Fixers – an enormously important, if often unsung breed of journalist – act as first responders in conflict zones salvaging facts on the ground before they suffer truth’s fate as war’s first casualty. They take other journalists into their worlds, leading us to the frontlines of every war.
On my last trip to Iraq, I could not have filmed my “Fault Lines” episode, Iraq Divided, for Al Jazeera America without the help of a young fixer I met in Erbil, Mohammed Ismael Rasool. Now at this very moment he is being held in a Turkish terror prison, charged with aiding the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
— VICE News (@VICENews) September 12, 2015
A little more than a week ago, Rasool and two British journalists from VICE News, with whom he was working, were arrested outside their hotel in Diyarbakir, Turkey.
A strikingly handsome guy, Rasool possesses a cocksuredness that only a twenty-something as a gifted and brilliant as he could.
He speaks excellent English, Arabic, Kurdish and Turkish. Compassionate and fearless, he guided me into many refugee camps across northern Iraq; each one sheltering a different ethnicity or sect of people who had been driven from their homes by the war: Sunni, Shia, Yazidi and Christian.
Simple act of kindness
One day while filming refugees in Dohuk, I was resting in our van when an old man, stooped at the waist, joined me. I asked if I could help him, but my English wasn’t much aid to either of us, so we awkwardly sat next to each other for about 10 or 15 minutes before Rasool returned to the van.
When he realised I had no idea who my new companion was, Rasool easily struck up a conversation before grabbing my pad and pen. He quickly wrote something down, ripped the page from the pad and gave it to the older gentleman, who immediately climbed out of the van. I couldn’t imagine what he could have written that so easily resolved the situation.
Rasool said the fellow’s back was aching from sleeping on concrete floors, and he had thought we were some sort of shuttle to a medical clinic. So Rasool, whose father is a pharmacist, wrote him a prescription for Ibuprofen. I asked if the prescription would work and Rasool shrugged my question off: “Of course. It looks official.” It was a simple act of kindness. It was brash and sweet. It was well-intended, if possibly misguided. It was an effort to be humane in a situation that challenged the very value of humanity. For Rasool, it was commonplace.
Along with refugee camps, Rasool also took me to several different fronts with ISIL. We witnessed an Iranian artillery unit shell a village near Jalawla, while the Kurdish fighter group, Peshmerga, aided by US airstrikes, held it seige. It was a tale of uneasy alliances occurring along the shifting frontline, an important story for Americans to hear as the US plunges back into the battlefields of Iraq – and one I couldn’t tell without Rasool.
At a Peshmerga base in Makhmur fighters proudly showed us their up-armoured Humvees, bullet-riddled but still running. The Humvees had originally belonged to the US, but were left to the Iraqi army after the US pulled out. ISIL won them when they conquered Mosul and the Peshmerga acquired them in their own recent battle with ISIL.
The chain of possession of these combat vehicles told an important story about the nature of the war in Iraq and Syria, a lesson the US would be wise to heed as it arms different groups fighting ISIL – and one I couldn’t offer without Rasool.
These stories are as important to tell as they are dangerous to witness, but when I head home the risks for me cease. For fixers, like Rasool, they remain in the line of fire, often with the next set of journalists looking for the story, and, these days, from their own governments as well.
After international backlash Turkey released the two British reporters arrested with Rasool though he remains behind bars facing an uncertain future. The move looks like a play stolen from Egypt’s book – two Egyptian journalists employed by Al Jazeera languish in prison, while their Australian colleague, apprehended alongside them, was released.
This trend sends a chilling message to local fixers: work with Western reporters and you will be one that pays the price.
But without journalists like Rasool, these stories can’t be told. And sadly, that may be exactly what Turkey wants. It ranks 154th in the world for press freedoms, according to an annual index by Reporters Without Borders.
Turkey could start improving that dismal rating by immediately releasing Rasool and acknowledging that journalism is not a crime.