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Remembering Anthony Shadid, the former Globe reporter who died in Syria yesterday

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  February 17, 2012 02:42 PM

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The phone rang early on Easter Sunday morning in 2002. Charles Radin, the Boston Globe’s Jerusalem bureau chief, told me the news: our reporter Anthony Shadid had just been shot in the shoulder while covering clashes in Ramallah in the West Bank. We knew only that Anthony was alive but badly wounded. He was being treated in a crowded, chaotic Palestinian clinic.

I had been the Globe’s foreign editor for all of a month. Anthony had traveled to Israel from his base in our Washington bureau to help Radin cover the worsening intifadah and Israeli crackdown. Anthony got into Ramallah with Said Ghazali, the Globe’s Palestinian reporter, through a maze of Israeli checkpoints. Anthony was shot as he walked down the center of a deserted street, apparently hit by an Israeli bullet; he and Said were wearing flak vests with the letters "TV" taped on them to declare themselves journalists.

Globe editor Martin Baron and I worked with Radin to negotiate safe passage for Anthony out of the West Bank and back to Israel. We involved embassies and consulates and State Department contacts.

But Anthony refused to come out of the West Bank without Said. He feared that Said would face grave danger from Israeli soldiers if left on his own. It took many hours to arrange for them both to come out together. Missteps followed that left their ambulance ducking gunfire on the way out. Anthony finally made it to the safety of Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, where Baron visited him a day later.

It took time to realize how grievous the wound was. The bullet went in one shoulder, tumbled a half-inch from his spine and out the other shoulder. He had 12 dangerous shrapnel fragments embedded in him. By the time I met him in Washington when he was able to return home a couple of weeks later, he was still in much pain.

But he was already back at work. With his arm in a sling, Anthony wrote a gut-wrenching account of what he had seen in Ramallah. His 5,300-word piece in the Boston Globe Magazine ran on May 12, 2002 — just six weeks after he was shot — full of lyrical accounts of the Palestinians he encountered. He wrote sparingly about his own injury, devoting only enough space to it to explain what it said about life in the West Bank.

That article foreshadowed the quality of work that would distinguish Anthony’s next decade of extraordinary reportage, from Lebanon to Egypt to Libya to his final reporting trip in Syria that ended with his death yesterday at the age of 43.

As in Ramallah that day, Anthony was never deterred by checkpoints or national borders. He got to the story, wherever it was happening. He wasn’t careless; he understood the risks he was facing and weighed them closely. But risks were inevitable for a reporter who needed to see and hear for himself. He learned Arabic, reclaiming his own Lebanese heritage, so that he could speak to Arabs himself, unfiltered.

I grew to know his work well over that year, until he finally gave in to one of the many offers he was getting from bigger papers, and joined the Washington Post in early 2003 with the dream assignment of roving Islamic affairs correspondent.

I knew him as a reporter’s reporter, who argued frequently with me and other editors about word choice, nuance, and context. He was soft-spoken but steel-willed and precise in his use of language. He once said that too much writing about the Middle East is bland because the issues are so politically sensitive that editors end up over-cautious. He fought that blandness throughout his career.

He wrote long, and he had the chops to sustain it. He used to plead with me to get him more space in the paper, and in those post-Sept. 11 days we often could. Throughout that year of bloodshed in the Mideast and ramp-up toward war in Iraq, Anthony produced a rare blend of people-driven reporting from the ground combined with sophisticated, often critical analysis of the Bush Administration. He broke stories about the State Department’s prewar planning that anticipated chaos in Iraq in some scenarios, advice that was largely ignored by the Pentagon and White House to our lasting regret.

Anthony’s body of work that year won him the prestigious George Polk Award for international reporting. It was the first of many top awards he would win in the ensuing years, including two Pulitzer Prizes. I accepted the award on his behalf because he was, naturally, on assignment in Iraq.

I will always remember his soft-spoken insistence. He insisted on being there, he insisted on listening to others (editors included), he insisted on treating the subjects he wrote about with compassion, honesty, and respect.

James F. Smith was the Globe’s foreign editor from 2002 to 2007. He left the Globe in 2010 to become communications director for the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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