Canwest journalist Michelle Lang, 4 soldiers die in Afghan blast
Canwest News Service — December 30, 2009
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — A Canadian journalist and four Canadian soldiers died in Afghanistan on Wednesday in the blast of an improvised explosive device that injured five others.
Canwest News Service reporter Michelle Lang, 34, was travelling with a provincial reconstruction team four kilometres south of Kandahar City when the attack on their armoured vehicle occurred.
A reporter for the Calgary Herald, she was just two weeks into her first stint in Afghanistan and was the first Canadian journalist to die there since the Canadian military mission began in 2002.
Lang was an experienced reporter and talented writer who had received a National Newspaper Award last May for her coverage of health care and medicine.
Wednesday was the third worst day for Canadian casualties in Afghanistan, surpassed only by two days in 2007 when six Canadian soldiers died in separate IED attacks.
A Canadian civilian worker was injured in the attack as were four other soldiers.
All of the injured were evacuated to the Role 3 Multi-National Medical Facility at Kandahar Airfield. They are undergoing medical examination and treatment, said a statement from the Department of National Defence.
Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean reacted with sadness to the deaths and injuries.
"This new tragedy, like all those before it, is shocking," she said in a statement early Thursday morning.
"It reminds us of the underhanded, blind, daily violence facing our Canadian soldiers, journalists and humanitarian workers in Afghanistan, who are working alongside the local population already hard hit by decades of terror.
"Our thoughts are with the families, the loved ones and the colleagues of the deceased. We also wish the injured a prompt recovery."
The Department of National Defence said late Wednesday the names of the four soldiers killed are being withheld pending notification of next of kin.
Their deaths bring the toll of Canadian soldiers to 138 since the mission there began in 2002.
"On behalf of all the soldiers, airmen, sailors and special operators of Joint Task Force Afghanistan, I offer our sincere condolences to the families and friends of our fallen," said Brigadier-General Daniel Menard, Commander of Task Force Kandahar.
Lang arrived in the country on Dec. 11 and was due to return to Calgary on Jan. 22. Friends and co-workers say she was itching to get outside Kandahar and report on the war.
"I'm travelling to the provincial reconstruction team for about one week," Lang wrote in an e-mail this week to an editor.
"Hopefully this will produce some interesting stories on the civilian/reconstruction side, as well as some military ones."
News of her death left a pall of shock and grief over the Herald newsroom.
"Michelle was an incredible person, and outstanding journalist," said Lorne Motley, Herald editor in chief. "She was kind-hearted, warm and always willing to give her all.
"When it came to journalism, Michelle was at the top of her craft . . . Her loss leaves a great hole in our family of journalists, whether they work at the Herald, Canwest or elsewhere.
"This is a devastating day, and our thoughts are with her family, her fiance and friends. We all knew, and loved, her."
Lang was recently engaged to Calgarian Michael Louie and was to be wed this summer.
Friend and Herald colleague Gwendolyn Richards said work was important to Lang, but nothing meant more to her than family and friends.
"I am sure you could count on two hands the number of times she left work on time," said Richards, noting the long hours Lang poured into her work.
"But I would argue that she approached everything with the same fervour."
Richards recalled how, in the days before leaving for Afghanistan and busy planning for the trip, Lang threw together an impromptu birthday dinner for Richards to mark the day.
"She was very sweet and thoughtful," she said. "She made sloppy joes . . . and she felt bad that they weren't better. She wanted it to be a great birthday."
On Wednesday, former chief of defence staff Gen. Rick Hillier hailed Lang's bravery as "golden and rare" for the ultimate sacrifice to tell the story of Canada's deadliest conflict in more than 40 years.
"The sometimes 'normal mistrust' between soldiers and reporters was usually quickly overcome when soldiers saw that accompanying reporters were taking the same risks as themselves to do their job," Hillier said. "Those who reported on war and did it from the frontlines, without which they could not get the story right, deserve a special place in our history."
"I've seen a lot of reporters come here who seem like action junkies or kind of 'Hey, look at me, I'm in Afghanistan'," James Murray, a CBC reporter who has been here on assignment in Afghanistan for the past six months, told the Canadian Press.
"She was the kind of journalist you would want to have here. She was kind and decent, and curious."
Only a handful of Canadian journalists cover the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan at any one time. As embedded journalists they live, eat and work on the base with soldiers of many nations, and are compelled to follow military rules on what can and can't be reported.
They have the option of staying on base or travelling out on patrol with Canadian troops — an assignment which offers reporters their only real glimpse of how ordinary Afghan civilians cope with war.
It's also risky. Taliban tactics rely heavily on bombs buried on roads and travelling can be the most dangerous thing you can do in Afghanistan. Last week, Lang travelled with Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk when he visited some of the Canadian bases outside the airfield; Wednesday was the first time she had joined soldiers on a regular patrol.
She showed little anxiety as she ate lunch before boarding a chopper that would connect her with her patrol, Colin Perkel reported for the Canadian Press. Hours later, she was riding in the back of an armoured military vehicle in Kandahar City as it struck an IED, killing her and four soldiers.
Reporters who travel outside the wire frequently find themselves earning the respect of their military protectors. A major speaking recently about the Canadian mission in Afghanistan spoke of his admiration for the journalists willing to take the risk to inform a war-weary public of their work.
"We soldiers are the most important," Maj. Andrew Vivian told the Canadian Press. "You, the media, are the second most important. Because, without you, no one would know what we're doing."
Between assignments, Lang would wander the base, talking to soldiers and civilians and drinking in the intense atmosphere of a combat facility at work. In the evenings she'd sometimes call her parents or her boyfriend back home.
To the journalists she met in Kandahar, she expressed her pride in her work. Real reporting, she would say, is what she wanted to do. She died doing it, Perkel reported.
Friends recall she felt there were important stories to be told in Afghanistan.
"She always felt that it was really important for journalists to tell this story. It was something she wanted to do," said friend Colette Derworiz, a reporter at the Herald.
"She just didn't want to sit in the base either. She wanted to go out and tell the real stories on what was going on in Afghanistan."
Lang worried about the dangers of the assignment before she left, Derworiz recalled, but didn't want those concerns to impede her from doing her job.
Originally from Vancouver, Lang had worked at the Herald since 2002, following previous reporting jobs in Regina, Moose Jaw and Prince George.
Lang was recently engaged and had planned to marry this summer.
Provincial reconstruction teams — or PRTs — are groups of civilians, government specialists and others who venture into the countryside with military escorts as they attempt to rebuild roads, dams, schools, hospitals and other elements of Afghanistan's battered physical, social, medical and political infrastructure.
"We are all devastated by the loss of Michelle and our thoughts right now are with her family and her fiance," said Scott Anderson, editor-in-chief of Canwest News Service. "Journalists need to — and do — put themselves at risk every day to report first-hand on important stories like Afghanistan. But that doesn't make this any easier."
Wednesday was an especially bloody day in Afghanistan. In addition to the attack on the Canadians, eight American civilian workers died in a suicide bomb attack on a U.S. military base close to the border with Pakistan, officials said.
Pentagon spokeswoman Lt.-Col. Almarah Belk said Wednesday that the eight Americans died Wednesday when an attacker detonated a vest packed with explosives on Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost province — a key Taliban stronghold.
Suicide attacks are a hallmark of the Taliban, who are waging a major insurgency to topple the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and regain control of the central Asian state.
"Four brave soldiers paid the ultimate price while courageously serving their country in Kandahar. They perished seeking to help the Afghans build a better future for themselves while working tirelessly to advance Canadian values. Their sacrifice will not be forgotten," said a statement Wednesday night from Dimitri Soudas, a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"Also fallen is a brave reporter, Michelle Lang, who lost her life reporting on the invaluable work being done by Canadian soldiers, aid workers and diplomats in Afghanistan. Her unforeseen and tragic death will be felt in Calgary and in communities across Canada.
"While not regularly the subject of news, those journalists who risk their lives reporting alongside the men and women of the Canadian Forces in one of the most dangerous regions in the world should not be forgotten."
Canwest columnist Don Martin, who has also reported from Afghanistan, said news of her death hit hard.
"Because I knew Michelle reasonably well, there's obviously the reaction as a journalist, but also as a friend — it's like you get that sucker punch to your gut," he said.
"When you get on the plane to get over there on the plane, you go, uh-oh, what am I going into . . . You always say to reporters 'be safe and keep your head up, because you are heading into a war zone.'
"I thought we were kind of past that because so many journalists have gone through the embed program already. We've had some close calls, but you almost don't expect anyone to pay that ultimate price anymore.
"You never thought this day would come."
Shortly before Christmas, Lang blogged about the atmosphere at the base.
"I am currently at Kandahar Airfield, the sprawling military base near Kandahar City perhaps best known for its dusty conditions and a very busy Tim Hortons. At the moment, Afghanistan's winter rains have turned that famous dust into a giant mud pit," she wrote.
"Life here, though, has been made considerably brighter by Christmas decorations. Many soldiers have decorated their sleep tents with Christmas lights. One bike near the media work tent has a wreath attached to its handlebars."
At least 17 journalists from around the world have been killed in Afghanistan since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to statistics maintained by the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent, non-profit organization.
Canadian journalists have had close calls in Afghanistan, but until Wednesday none had died.
In August 2007, Radio Canada reporters Patrice Roy and Charles Dubois were injured when the LAV III armoured vehicle they were in hit an IED during an operation against insurgents west of Kandahar City.
Two soldiers and an interpreter were killed. Dubois lost one leg below the knee.
On March 4, 2002, Toronto Star journalist Kathleen Kenna was in rural Afghanistan with her husband, Hadi Dadashian, and photographer Bernard Weil, when someone threw a hand grenade into their vehicle. Kenna was badly injured but survived.
In 2001, Montreal Gazette reporter Levon Sevunts was inside an armoured vehicle that came under attack by insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades and machine-guns. Three European journalists riding on top of the vehicle were killed.
In August 2008, National Post reporter Scott Deveau, who was covering the Afghanistan mission for Canwest News Service, was sitting in the back of an armoured vehicle with a Canadian Press reporter and a group of soldiers when their vehicle struck an IED.
One of the two soldiers in the front of the armoured personnel vehicle, usually used to transport troops, was seriously injured during the blast.
Deveau had trained for the Afghanistan reporting stint with Lang. "She was fantastic, she was a great girl. I did my training with her for Afghanistan, right. She was in that group. She was just a great girl, full of life, vibrant, energetic, enthusiastic. Everything. It's just . . . devastating.
"I was supposed to go at Christmas time and I switched myself because I didn't want to do it at Christmas and she took it," he added.
"It's a tough detail. There are people who are going to sit on the base the whole time that they are there and there's going to be people who go out and do things. Michelle was obviously going to do things because she's a good reporter, and unfortunately this happened."
Other correspondents with Canwest or its predecessor, Southam News, have died on overseas assignment.
On April 14, 1987, Christoph Halens was found dead outside a hotel in Tripoli, Libya. Author Warren Kinsella, who probed the death in his book Unholy Alliances, believes Halens was pushed from the roof because he was getting too close to a story the Libyans didn't want written.
Halens was in North Africa to cover a Libya-funded peace conference which was attended by about 100 Canadians. The Libyans have long insisted Halens' death was suicide.
The number of foreign civilians under government contracts in Afghanistan is increasing, with the strategy to defeat the Taliban placing more emphasis on development and aid.
The U.S. said last month it had doubled the number of civilian experts working in Afghanistan and was "on track" to meet its goal of nearly 1,000 by the new year. Many are to work in provincial military bases alongside military reconstruction teams.
On Monday, a repatriation ceremony was held in CFB Trenton for the body of Lieutenant Andrew R. Nuttall of 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, based in Edmonton.
He was on foot patrol and was killed by an IED near the village of Nakhonay in Panjwaii District, about 25 kilometres southwest of Kandahar City. The blast also killed a member of the Afghan National Army and injured an Afghan interpreter.
Other Canadians who have been killed in Afghanistan include government diplomat Glyn Berry and aide workers Jacqueline Kirk and Shirley Case, who were in Afghanistan with the International Rescue Committee.
Berry was killed in a suicide attack as he and a group of soldiers drove in Kandahar.
Kirk, 40, was a dual British-Canadian citizen from Outremont, Que. Case, 30, was from Williams Lake, B.C. They were in a car in Logar province when it was ambushed by small-arms fire.
Published in Remembering from Dec. 30, 2009 to Jan. 30, 2010
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