''Orhan Dzhemal’s position is close to me. War can be loved for sincerity''
Famous Russian war correspondent Semyon Pegov about the murder of journalists in the CAR, specifics of profession and love for war
It became known on 31 July three Russian journalists including Orhan Dzhemal who went to the CAR to shoot a documentary about the Wagner Group were cold-bloodedly killed in the Central African Republic. Realnoe Vremya discussed with famous Russian war correspondent Semyon Pegov what had happened. The interlocutor gave his own version of the murder, told about the intricacies of being a war correspondent, remembered the most terrifying business trips to hot spots and explained why one could love a war.
''A human's character becomes evident at war, life opens up right there''
Semyon, why did you decide to become precisely a war correspondent? It's the most complicated specialisation in a journalist's work.
When I started working as a journalist, our profession's reputation was so-so. We were called journos. Graduating from the institute, I thought if I stayed in this profession, I would need to choose a decent sphere. For me, life has always been interested in its extreme forms. I don't like to visit press conferences and retell what's going on there. It's interesting for me to find stories and then tell them. A human's character becomes evident at war, life opens up right there. This is why I aspired to get there. In the end, I moved to Abkhazia in 2008, the conflict with Georgia was coming to an end. As time went by, other hot spots appeared in my life: Egypt, Syria, Donbass.
How do people usually become war correspondents?
Editorials don't recruit war correspondents deliberately. When I joined Life News, I was working an ordinary correspondent and fulfilled any tasks. Everything changed after a flood in the Far East in 2013. Then I showed myself as a person who was ready to work in extreme conditions. I became a candidate to go on a trip to hot spots. My first trip was in the same year – during the unrest in Egypt. Then I showed myself again, and this sphere gradually stuck with me. Later I opened my own war news agency WarGonzo, and now I not only go to hot spots myself – I have two correspondent offices in Syria and Donbass.
Does it turn out no professional military preparation is needed to become a war correspondent?
There are special courses – Bastions, but I personally didn't take them. Of course, it's good and preferable but not compulsory, by the way, as well as higher education to work as a journalist. In my opinion, journalism is in the glory days now: a diploma or additional links aren't needed. If you are really talented, do everything on the Internet – all journalism is going there.
''Later I opened my own war news agency WarGonzo, and now I not only go to hot spots myself – I have two correspondent offices in Syria and Donbass.'' Photo: dailystorm.ru
''I was walking and recording a stand-up, while dead and injured bodies were falling from all the sides''
Semyon, I'd like to go back to your work experience in hot spots. Did Cairo really become a baptism of fire for you?
Yes, it's true. When I was shooting in Abkhazia, it always was post factum: a terrorist attack or clash has taken place, after which we come immediately to almost literally tell what has happened. In Egypt and Cairo, I turned out directly inside the unfolding events. It gave a lasting impression.
What has etched on your memory most from the Cairo episode?
In general, I remember this story quite bad – it seems adrenalin ran too high. I remember that we just landed in Cairo and were going on a taxi to get to the hotel. On the way, we saw a big crowd was gathering in the street and decided to ask the taxi driver what was going on. Our driver explained the people were gathering for a protest (they were supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood), and probably there would be a conflict with the police, which was going to get power back.
Having left the things in the hotel and taken the equipment, we ran to the place where people were gathering. Shooting began when we hadn't worked even for 15 minutes. Instead of standing aside and shooting at a distance like all smart people did, my operator and we went to the thick of the action. I was walking and recording a stand-up, while dead and injured bodies were falling from all the sides. It's good we were wise enough to stop and understand we had enough material and there was no sense in keeping shooting.
Semyon, can you remember other moments when you were on the razor's edge?
There were many situations of this kind. As time goes by, you simply don't imagine which of them will be more or less dangerous. When you work in Syria on the side of the army and shoot military actions directed against the terrorists, the major artillery power, as a rule, is on the side of the pro-government forces. I remembered I was shooting there, a tank was attacking inimical positions. And in Donbass, on the contrary, I was in a situation when a tank was shooting at me. The feelings were completely opposite.
On the one hand, it's more dangerous in Donbass because the technical power is really colossal. On the other hand, it's very easy to be captured in Syria – even accidentally when moving from one city to another. Terrorists can pop up on the highway and kidnap you. It might seem it's easier to survive in Syria technically, but you lose more nerves there. Everything is relative.
One of the most dangerous and awful moments was when we woke up in Slavyansk, while the city was completely cordoned. In addition, the militia and the garrison were already out (the garrison commander didn't warn us he was going to leave for some reason). At the moment, we were three Russian journalists. The city was wiped off the face of the earth.
All other editorials revoked their correspondents, including us, of course, but we lied and said we couldn't go out. We wanted to stay till the end very much. We were wanted. If the Ukrainian army had entered, while we hadn't had the time to go out, nobody would have been nice with us. We had to go out there by the back door.
''On the one hand, it's more dangerous in Donbass because the technical power is really colossal. On the other hand, it's very easy to be captured in Syria – even accidentally when moving from one city to another.'' Photo: e-news.su
By the way, didn't you think: ''Thank God, I've survived, I will never go on a military trip''? Do you often think it's time to leave this business?
No, I didn't. I thought I needed to be careful. In general, now I choose a point for a trip in a more thorough and careful way. Previously, it was spontaneous, with a juvenile drive. Now I make more rational choices. For instance, Derzkaya summit is the creepiest place in Donbass. To get there, you need to go on foot within sight of Ukrainian militants. That is to say, you can be caught and shot in the open field, I went on such a ''cruise''. I wouldn't go there now because I understand it's become much more dangerous there. Yes, it's a headline-making topic, but I don't go there until there is a safe way.
What memories and stories linked with Donbass do you have?
First of all, it's friendship with such people as Motorola, commander Mikhail Tolstykh as well as Aleksandr Zakharchenko whom we got acquainted with before he became an admitted leader of Donbass. We climbed in trenches, he himself participated in fights together with ordinary fighters. Friendship is the most precious thing. I haven't enumerated many people, it's tens of people, might they not take offence.
''War cured me of any kind of dull teenager depressions''
Eduard Limonov called you ''the bravest war correspondent in Russia''. What qualities do you think a war correspondent must have?
First of all, I'm very thankful to Limonov for such an opinion about me. As for your question, in my opinion, firstly, one must be sociable, as the success of journalist events depends on your ability to establish trustful relations with people. To cancel the protocol isn't a too big achievement of war correspondents. I don't offend the guys' dignity – they all do a great job, there is a ten of such war correspondents. And there is a handful of those who shoot exclusive videos, so to speak. Sociability, awareness of the topic and control over a situation are the most important things.
Can you agree that the absence of fear of death is the main characteristic a potential war correspondent must have?
To tell the truth, I don't understand completely what a fear of death means. I can't explain it to myself.
Don't you have it?
Yes, I probably have it. I have a fear of heights, but I'm not afraid to go to shoot under bombardment. These mechanisms work differently in every person. For instance, when it's very dangerous, I become anomalously calm, I want to sleep.
Does it mean it's the way you fight against the fear?
It's not me, the organism itself. Instead of worrying or becoming hysteric, I have the opposite reaction. This is why it's comfortable for me to work under stress. I calmly make decisions and work. And when nothing threatens me, on the contrary, I become more uneasy. It's the specifics of my psychological type.
''It's comfortable for me to work under stress. I calmly make decisions and work. And when nothing threatens me, on the contrary, I become more uneasy.'' Photo: instagram.com/war_gonzo
Has your attitude to death changed after so many years of working in hot spots?
I appreciate life and live greedily. Many guys and a serious number of friends have died in front of my eyes. This helped me to learn the lesson about how important it is to appreciate every instant you live, every joy. War cured me of any kind of dull teenager depressions.
The preparation of material from a hot spot is quite a labour-intensive process – it's important to be as objective as possible in such a topic. Still, have you never had to omit some facts and not include them in reports?
Of course, I omit a big number of facts for a simple reason: there can't be trustful relations without it. When I said trust was the most important thing in our profession, I meant the skill to keep silent. For instance, I knew through guys there would be the final assault of the Donetsk airport. I know about it 12 hours in advance. The Donetsk airport is the place that the whole world discusses. Is it cool if I reveal this information? It's very cool. But will the guys take me to the assault? No, of course. As this is quite a specific type of activity, you don't have a possibility to tell about everything that's going on. First of all, it threatens the lives of people who are with you on the front. And your life too. This is why there are many things that leave behind the report.
''I paid attention to Sasha Rastorguyev's bullet wounds: he has three shots accurately at his heart''
After the murder of three Russian journalists in the CAR, power remembered about the bill that urges to protect the workers of editorials serving in hot spots. Do you think it will really help? And if it were adopted earlier, do you think it would be possible to avoid the recent tragedy?
I don't know what's written in this bill. How will they protect us? I don't understand this. But if they adopt a law according to which the family of a journalist who died in a hot spot will be provided with financial support, it will be super. When I worked, our employer insured us. If the country cares about it, it will be great. But I don't understand how the country can ensure a journalist's safety who is going to a hot point.
There is a question on this topic. There have been expressed several versions of the reasons for what happened (their professional activity, robbery, etc.). Which version seems to you more real? Probably you have another view on what happened.
To be honest, I'm not a big expert. But I when I looked at the photos from the scene, it seemed (I emphasise, it seemed) to me Orhan's body had traces of knife injuries. And if there are traces, it can be probably called tortures. It wasn't an instant death but as a result of the execution. I paid attention to Sasha Rastorguyev's bullet wounds: he has three shots accurately at his heart. There can't be such an accurate shot when people are executed in line.
It's likely they talked with them before and then purposefully shot them. In other words, in my opinion, the version of the robbery isn't valid. I think the guys got into trouble: they were accidentally stopped, then after they talked and understood it's Russian guys, they mocked because of the developing conflict between instructors and local groups. It's one of my versions, but there can be a pile of versions, of course.
''When I worked, our employer insured us. If the country cares about it, it will be great. But I don't understand how the country can ensure a journalist's safety who is going to a hot spot.'' Photo: russian.rt.com
Orhan Dzhemal who died in the CAR frankly said he loved war. What do you think of his attitude to this terrifying occurrence? How can one love war and consider it as ''freedom''?
His position is close to me. War is interesting, it can be loved for a certain degree of sincerity, which is present only there. Temperamental people (like Dzhemal) like these conditions. In addition, a journalist's task is to create a fair line, a fair story of what's going on there in fact. War can be loved for its aspiration for justice.
Haven't you thought of stopping working in war journalist after what happened to your colleagues in the CAR?
No, of course. In general, I think of going to the CAR.