’Covering conflicts will change you forever’

 By Leonie Rothacker

Source: Johanna Maria Fritz

Benjamin Hiller works as freelance journalist in conflict zones such as Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Ukraine, Afghanistan and Syria. When he’s not traveling in those areas, he lives in Berlin, Germany. His work has been published in several important European newspapers such as Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Le Monde Diplomatique and International Business Times.

 During my youth one day refugees from Yugoslavia arrived in my small village due to the Yugoslavian War. That sparked my interest in regards of conflicts and why people had to flee their home countries. I was always a political person and interested in journalism and during my studies of Anthropology at the University Heidelberg, I decided that I wanted to get into conflict journalism for good. I saw it as important because there should be witnesses to show the world and readers what is happening on the ground. Furthermore it is important to collect evidence on human rights abuses so that after the conflict has ended, human rights groups can pursue to find the culprits of these crimes and hopefully bring them in front of courts. 

 How often I travel to conflict areas depends on money and local situations. I worked part-time as a photographer in Berlin to finance the trips. Sometimes I was traveling for several months a year, sometimes only two to three times. I tried to stay minimum four weeks, maximum eight weeks, as I think overstaying in a region can bring the problem of loosing ‘distance’ to the conflict as well as raising the general dangers and bringing a higher psychological toll on you.

 On my journeys, I definitely felt threatened sometimes, but rather in ‘low intensity warzones’ like Turkey where critical reporting was an easy way to get the state onto you. But also sometimes in conflict zones when you did witness things the combatants did not want you to see. So I would say that happened in Turkey a lot, then also in Syria, Crimea (more subtle), Iraq as well as in Afghanistan (once). 

 Sometimes I even fear for my life. Though often you realize the danger of the situation afterwards when you are back in a safe zone.  And you think for yourself ‘What the hack has happened there? And how did I get into that mess’. Especially in Syria where the frontlines and allegiances where always in flux and you could be suddenly at a frontline under heavy fire without having a proper plan to get out of there safely. 

 But threat is not the only thing that makes my work difficult. I found it in general always hard to interview refugees in IDP camps and sometimes listen for hours to their horrible experiences, including rape, torture and executions of beloved ones – and afterwards you go back to your safe zone and you’re always thinking about what happened to the people you interviewed. That can be sometimes really hard to stomach.

 But then there are different stories, like for instance when I covered with a colleague Deir ez-Zor in Syria in 2013: We met the owner of a small internet cafe. It was the place where we skyped with the editors and filed our stories. He was really helpful and we owed him a lot. A few years later, while I was working on a story on the Syrian refugees arriving in Berlin, I suddenly saw him again – he had to flee from Deir ez-Zor after the regime bombed is cafe and ISIS took over control of the city. Now he was in Germany and it was my turn to try to help him as good as I could. 

 Those experience help me to deal with the difficulties better. It’s not only the work itself, it’s also that it’s hard to earn enough money to even continue working as a freelance conflict journalist. Since June 2017 I am studying again for two years to become a specialist for computer systems integration with a special focus on Cyber Security. This is due to the struggle earning a proper income as a conflict journalist.

 My job also affected my private life. It was hard to keep relationships going for a longer time and often, after a few months, they broke down. Hobbies where also hard to continue on a regular basis. And it was always hard to ‘fit in’ again into the ‘normal society’ after coming back from a war zone – meaning that sometimes you overstepped boundaries of friends or loved ones as you had a different ‘viewpoint’ on what to say and how to act than them after returning. It takes time, adjustment, a lot of reflection and talking to work things out and go back to ‘normal’, though I think everybody covering conflicts for a long period of time will be changed forever.