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"I'm not going down that road"

Charlotte journalist on risks in Afghanistan

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Had he been in the shoes of Danny Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter recently kidnapped and murdered by Islamic extremists, foreign correspondent and Charlotte native Dan Fesperman would have pursued that same fateful (and as it turned out, fatal) interview Pearl had sought.

"He (Pearl) was on the trail of a shady character who had been caught on that flight with explosives in his sneakers," Fesperman recently told an audience of about 200 people at Winthrop University. "He wanted to track down the story in Pakistan where this fellow had apparently been radicalized. . .He had e-mail exchanges with people who proclaimed to be part of a group connected to the radicals."

We know today that as a result of that e-mail communication, Fesperman noted, Pearl met with a source in a public place in Pakistan. That source presumably told the Wall Street Journal reporter that the source's leader would talk to him, on the condition that Pearl go with him (the source) in a car to meet the leader.

"And nobody has seen Danny Pearl since," said Fesperman, a Baltimore Sun correspondent who himself narrowly escaped death late last year on a road to Kabul, Afghanistan. An ambush on that route resulted in the murder of four of his fellow journalists.

"But Pearl played by the rules," Fesperman said. "He did what most any journalist would have done."

A 1977 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, the 46-year-old Fesperman has worked at the Fayetteville (NC) Times, the Charlotte News, Miami Herald and, since 1984, for the Baltimore Sun. He got his first overseas assignment as a journalist in 1991, covering the Persian Gulf, and thinks Islamic extremists didn't target Pearl just because he represented a free press -- what some see as the cornerstone of democracy in America.

"It just so happened that Pearl was a reporter, and they used him to make a statement," said Fesperman, admitting that he himself is "in a lot of ways a coward at heart. . .

"It used to be that the biggest danger you faced in this kind of reporting was being caught in some kind of crossfire. . .You just had to not be a fool. . .and to avoid roads that might be mined," added Fesperman.

He says that working up to 20 hours a day in Afghanistan, and reporting in Pakistan, have taught him about changes in the old dangers that came with being a foreign correspondent.

"In Afghanistan, where there's been so much fighting (and where, Fesperman noted, thousands of people are walking on stumps for legs -- the result of stepping on landmines), journalists started to be viewed as walking ATM machines" -- susceptible to robbery and murder.

So have western journalists consequently changed the way they do their jobs? Doubtful, says Fesperman. When those four correspondents were murdered on a road to Kabul, the very next day, according to Fesperman, "You had journalists saying, 'I'm not going down that road.' People say it will change the way they do things as a journalist, but three days later they were going down that same road."

On covering America's current campaign against Al-Qaida and Taliban forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Fesperman said one of the first things that hits you when you're working in that part of the world is sensory bombardment.

"A parade of the daily routine," he said, consists of mosques, turbaned tribal chiefs, highways lined with tall eucalyptus trees, camels on their haunches, herds of goats, the smell of sewage, traffic that's an unbelievable mess, honking horns and a blinding haze of dust -- "unlike any place you'll ever experience in the United States." *

Larry Timbs teaches journalism at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC.

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