In Death, Hetherington and Hondros Stand in Mute Witness to Mankind’s Latest Savagery

The bodies of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros—the award-winning journalists killed earlier this week in Libya—were blessed Friday in a small ceremony held at the Benghazi Medical Center in the country’s rebel-held east. The service offers the cold comfort of closure to millions around the world deeply affected by the pair’s death even as they were unknown to many before their untimely passing, and who are but two of the countless victims claimed thus far by Libya’s civil war.

Their death was recounted in a remarkable piece by the Washington Post’s Leila Fadel:

On Saturday evening, Tim Hetherington, the director of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Restrepo” and Chris Hondros, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated photographer, hitched a ride to this besieged city on the Ionian Spirit, where they prepared sandwiches for refugees and talked about their plans back home. On Wednesday evening, the ship ferried the bodies of the two renowned journalists back to Benghazi.

The two journalists were fatally wounded during an attack by Moammar Gaddafi’s forces against rebels in Misurata. Two other photojournalists suffered injuries, some critical, according to doctors at the hospital where they were treated…

Guy Martin, a British freelance photographer who was wounded in the attack that killed Hondros and Hetherington, was out of surgery Thursday, conscious and in stable condition. Michael Christopher Brown, another freelance photographer wounded in the attack, was also recovering.

The journalists had accompanied rebel fighters to Tripoli Street in the city center, which Gaddafi’s forces pounded with mortar fire in an attempt to retake the strategic road that divides Misurata. An ambulance took Hetherington and Martin, 28, who was working for the news agency Panos, from the battle to the triage tent next to the Hikma hospital about 5 p.m. Hetherington was bleeding heavily from his leg and looked very pale.

“Come with me. Come with me. Everybody is injured,” an American photographer who had seen the attack shouted to ambulance drivers, imploring them to return to the scene. Her bulletproof vest was splattered with blood. “I’ll come with you. I’ll show you where they are.”

As she sought help, doctors attended to Hetherington and Martin, who had suffered a stomach wound and underwent surgery Wednesday evening. About 15 minutes after the ambulance’s arrival, doctors in the tent pronounced Hetherington dead.

About 10 minutes later, another ambulance carried Hondros and Brown [the fourth journalist injured in the attack], who also suffered shrapnel wounds, to the triage unit. Doctors examining a scan of Hondros’s brain explained that shrapnel had hit the photographer in the forehead and passed through the back of his head. They asked a reporter at the hospital to look after his battered helmet. Brown’s medical condition was considered less dire…

Last week, Hondros and Hetherington joined other colleagues on the Ionian Spirit, dispatched to evacuate foreign workers from the embattled city. During the 20-hour voyage, Hetherington ate chips while Hondros told the colleagues about his recent engagement to a woman from New York. “I don’t want to be a really old dad,” he confided.

On Wednesday evening, that same vessel waited at port in Misurata for another cargo of migrant workers but was enlisted for a different mission. Before Hondros died at 10:45 p.m., Human Rights Watch reached out to the ship’s handlers and asked whether it could be used to transport him and Martin back to Benghazi for additional medical care. Instead, the bodies of Hetherington and Hondros were due to leave aboard the Ionian Spirit on Wednesday evening.

There’s little to add to what’s already been said of Hetherington and Hondros—of their artistic brilliance, of their fearless determination to bear witness to humanity’s savageries time and again, of their decency as men. So perhaps it’s best to simply arrange what has been printed by their friends, colleagues and loved ones into a small collage of affection, admiration, and respect.

From Sebastian Junger, collaborator and friend of Tim Hetherington:

I’ve never even heard of Misrata before, but for your whole life it was there on a map for you to find and ponder and finally go to. All of us in the profession—the war profession, for lack of a better name—know about that town. It’s there waiting for all of us. But you went to yours, and it claimed you. You went in by boat because the city was besieged by forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi (another name you probably never gave much thought to during your life) and you must have known this was a bad one. Boat trips are usually such nice affairs, but not this one. How strange to be out on the water off a beautiful coastline with the salt smell and the wind in your face—except this time you’re headed toward a place of violence and killing and destruction. You must have known that the unthinkable had to be considered. You must have known you might not ever get back on that boat alive.

You and I were always talking about risk because she was the beautiful woman we were both in love with, right? The one who made us feel the most special, the most alive? We were always trying to have one more dance with her without paying the price. All those quiet, huddled conversations we had in Afghanistan: where to walk on the patrols, what to do if the outpost gets overrun, what kind of body armor to wear. You were so smart about it, too—so smart about it that I would actually tease you about being scared. Of course you were scared—you were terrified. We both were. We were terrified and we were in love, and in the end, you were the one she chose.

At Foreign Policy, Christina Larson remembers Chris Hondros, the photographer and the friend:

His long list of awards — from being nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for breaking-news photography (2004), to winning the Robert Capa Gold Medal (2005) for “best published photographic reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise” — attest to Chris’s skill and legacy as a photographer. As one of the many journalists privileged to have known and worked with Chris personally, I wanted to add a few words honoring the qualities that lay behind his work: tenacity, humor, thoughtfulness, and deep loyalty to colleagues and friends.

I met Chris in the spring of 2007 in Washington, D.C., on the rooftop of the Beacon Hotel, at a reunion for alumni of the International Reporting Project (IRP) at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Chris, who had traveled to Nigeria in 2001 as an IRP fellow, had taken the train from New York to participate in a panel on reporters in war zones at the reunion. (I was a newbie, just back from China, as a spring 2007 IRP fellow.) Chris was a loyal alumnus to the IRP program—always willing to lend a hand, go out of his way, or offer advice to younger journalists—just as he was loyal to most any organization he was affiliated with, and most of all, to his friends.

Among journalists working on many continents, Chris was well-known and well-loved for being a careful listener. Despite all his many commitments, projects, ambitions, and dreams, Chris always made time. (Last night, quite last minute, I emailed Chris to ask whether he was in New York to meet up. He wrote back quickly, at 1:49 a.m. U.S. Eastern time, “I’m still in Misurata, alas…. Sorry to miss you. We could have had a nice lunch.”)

The magazine also ran a stunning retrospective collection of the photographer’s work, and the Atlantic Monthly assembled his final photographs from Libya in a collection no less moving.

The last word, however, goes to the New York Times’ CJ Chivers, who presided over Friday’s ceremony. In a shell-shocked blog entry posted just hours after the bodies of the slain reporters were evacuated from Misrata, Chivers reminds us that even in the darkest moments of cruelty and barbarism, the better angels of man’s nature offer, if not a counterweight, then a salve against the devastation and human wreckage of war.

We’re numb here as the clock nears 4:30 a.m., and we’re not quite sure what to do. The deaths of Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington on Tripoli Street still seem unreal. Bryan just walked off from the little space we’ve been huddled in, working. He’ll sleep soon, I hope. The work kept us busy enough to hold the worst of the feelings away. But now the work is almost done, and it will hit again with the same shock as the first word.

Before that happens, a few words should be typed.

These:

Everyone who admires Chris and Tim, and everyone who loves them, has a debt of gratitude to Human Rights Watch and to the International Organization for Migration, who together, on extremely short notice, bent the world to get Chris’s and Tim’s remains on the Ionian Spirit, the evacuation vessel that by chance was briefly in Misurata port tonight. The vessel delayed its departure to take them aboard and begin their journeys out. Tim was brought down first, while Chris clung to life. When Chris died, there seemed no time to get him there. But HRW worked the phones, pleading by satellite call to the pier to have the ship held up again. They simultaneously urged one of Chris’s and Tim’s colleagues at the triage center to get Chris’s remains en route through the besieged city by ambulance, assessing — correctly as it turned out — that if they could honestly say that he was on his way that no captain would leave the pier.

They were right. Chris and Tim are at sea now, heading toward Benghazi, which means, in the indirect but solemn ways that the fallen travel from battlefields, that they are heading home.

One more thing must be said. None of this would have happened without Andre Liohn, the colleague in the triage tent mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Andre worked all afternoon and night to get word out about Chris and Tim, who are lost, and Mike and Guy, who are wounded. At the end, it was Andre who tended to the details at the hospital to put them in motion toward their families. Without Andre, Chris and Tim would still be in Misurata, in conditions I do not care to describe. Their friends and families would know little, and Chris and Tim would have been off-the-grid, and hard to reach, and the delays in their travel would have been painful for all who want them back. Andre was a savior tonight. He brought hope and humanity to a chaotic, devastating day.

If you want to know a little more of Andre, let me say this: When I spoke to him a short while ago, I asked if he has been wearing his flak jacket, which I had carried into Misurata for him last week. Tripoli Street is a hell of flying bullets and shrapnel, and he’s on it almost every day. No, he said, I am not wearing it. I asked why not. “I gave it to an ambulance driver,” he said.

These are the organizations and the people—HRW, IOM, Andre—who make it possible to imagine, on days like these, that we are people still, just as Chris and Tim did in the work that defined their lives.