What It’s Really Like to Report From a War Zone

In our 9–5 series, we ask boss babes what a day in their work lives entails. To celebrate the release of Tina Fey’s new movie, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, based on the true stories of war reporters in Afghanistan, we asked Crystal Goomansingh, a Global News anchor who spent time reporting from Kandahar, for a glimpse into her grind

Ishani Nath

war reporter

Age: 36

Education: Diploma in Journalism from Red River College

Length of time at current gig: I’ve been in journalism for nearly 20 years. In 2011, I did a six-week rotation in Afghanistan for Global News.

Why did you want to go to Afghanistan? When you have Canadian forces taking part in a joint coalition mission, it’s one thing to read about it and to use wire copy, but it’s completely different to be there witnessing it. I wanted to be one of those journalists who got to be there and, even in a small way, be able to tell those stories.

How did you prepare? I did hazardous environment training. It was really eye opening because you learn so many things that you may not have thought of, like not walking on a piece of cardboard on the ground because you don’t know what’s under it, or how to recognize the sounds of gunfire. It gives you an added perspective, which is why we need journalists on the ground.

Did other journalists give you advice before you left? I remember one of my journalist friends saying, “Just ask yourself: Is this a story you want to die for?” And it’s true. I had to consider: Is this story important enough to be my last one?

Where were you in Afghanistan? Kandahar Airfield (KAF) and I also convinced my producing staff to let me go outside the wire [in civilian speak, that means off the base].

What was it like when you first got there? Surreal. The first time I went outside the wire, and I was putting on my flak jacket [a safety vest made to protect against bullets and shrapnel], I thought, “I’m a five-foot-three girl from Winnipeg, and I’m gearing up to go out with the Canadian Forces.”

Where did you stay? On the base, we had a “sleep tent” and my room was a zipped-off zone with an army cot and a sleeping bag. The first night was horrible. It was pitch black and the sounds were nothing I recognized: I heard jets taking off continuously and gunfire. Eventually the noises became completely second nature and I got acclimatized to the nights there.

war reporter
Inside the sleep tent

When you’re dropped into a war zone, how do you find stories? I talked to a lot of people while I was there. The Canadian Forces pitched us stories, but Global also had a fixer—a local Afghani man who was a journalist for many years—who would tell us what was going on and what he was hearing. I relied on him so much because he had access I didn’t and could get interviews that I couldn’t.

You reported news about Afghanistan before, but what was it like to observe it firsthand? You understand the extent the troops go to in order to protect the units and help people. You also see the constant pull of wanting to be nice and engage locals, while also wondering if you are safe—wondering, “Is this the person that is ultimately going to take my life?” That dynamic is an incredible thing to witness.

What story were you most proud of? There was a village in a Taliban stronghold that had been blown up, and it was booby-trapped like crazy. Everyone had moved out so the troops decided the safest thing to do was to level it because they couldn’t deal with the IEDs (improvised explosive devices). They were starting to rebuild the village, replant pomegranate fields, and they had rebuilt a mosque in the center of the village. If you rebuild the mosque, you’re committing to rebuild the community, so that was an important story to tell.

war reporter
One of the work tents on base

 

What was your workday like? I learned to sleep in. You get up, get ready, go into the media tent, log-on, call your fixer and see what’s going on. The time difference is about 9.5 hours, so if one of my stories was picked up in Canada, I would work until about 3 a.m.

What did you wear? The suggested dress code was no bright colours, stick to greys, browns, greens and neutral tones. I wore steel-toed boots, cargo pants and button-down long sleeved shirts.

Did you cover your hair while you were there? Absolutely. I was in a foreign country with different values and, whether I’m on vacation or working, I respect that.

 

war reporter
Goomansingh suited up in safety gear

What about safety gear? We shared all our flak jackets, helmets and gear with the other media, so I always had to try and find one that fit me. I remember being on the chopper one day and one of the guys looked at me, pulled my over-sized vest up off my shoulders and said, “You know this isn’t going to protect you?”

Did the fact that you were a woman impact your experience? In that rotation, I was the only female journalist. When I went outside to the villages, I didn’t see women. When we were covering the opening of that mosque, I remember it was packed. There were villagers everywhere and kids running around but, I remember thinking, “There are no other women here.”

What was the best part of your day? Days that I got to go off-base or file a story.

What was the worst part of your day? The rocket attacks. Everyone thinks that on-base you’ll be safe, but there were frequent rocket attacks into KAF. I remember the first one was so startling. The alarm went off, and I was still asleep. My cameraman Jeff, who was on the other end of the tent, screamed to me, “It’s fine just get over here,” so I crawled over to his side. Another time, I was on the phone with my husband and the rocket attack siren went off and I said, “Got to go!” and I hung up. Eventually they give you the all clear and everything’s good and you go back to work. That was normal for us, but not for people back home. Your normal gets to be really weird.

How did you unwind at the end of the day? We watched movies on our laptops. It’s a dry base so there’s no drinking, but once in a while the media crew would be like, “Hey, 5 o’clock beers?” and we would pull our work chairs out in front of the work tent, the guys would smoke cigars and we would drink fake beer.

Would you go to a war zone again? Absolutely. Wouldn’t even pause to consider it.

More Women on Their 9–5 Grind:
What It’s Really Like to Work in Counter-Terrorism
What It’s Really Like to Be a Classical Musician
What It’s Really Like to Be a Professional Matchmaker
What It’s Really Like to Be an Artist
What It’s Really Like to Launch a Tech Start-Up

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