On the front line

Foreign correspondent Eric Campbell is the first to admit that ‘most journalists have a book inside them and some believe that’s the best place to keep it’. Keen to avoid clichés, Campbell has produced, in his first book, Absurdistan, an adventurous and personal tale of life at the journalistic front line.

From 1996–2003 Campbell was the only ABC reporter assigned to cover Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia—effectively one-third of the world’s total land mass. Working in tandem with a cameraman, Campbell covered some of the biggest international stories of the last decade: the rise and fall of Boris Yeltsin, the Chechnya crisis, and wars in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. ‘It is a 24/7 existence and you can’t relax on your days off,’ Campbell said from his comparatively peaceful home in Sydney.

In Absurdistan, the reader travels with Campbell as he arrives in the former Soviet Union with only a stack of news clippings and a Russian-English dictionary. It may take a few months, or in this case, chapters, but the reader slowly sees Campbell’s passion for reporting develop during his first international posting in Moscow. He admits that the job is an all-consuming, obsessive affair that cost him a marriage and meaningful friendships.

‘If you weren’t covering the major event, like wars, you felt left behind … I’d reached a stage where I no longer thought it strange to leave a wife and baby to go to war,’ he writes.



Despite working as an international correspondent for more than five years, Campbell was thrust into the broader media spotlight in 2003 when his cameraman and friend Paul Moran became the first Australian casualty in the Iraq war. The devastating bomb blast provides Campbell with sombre bookends to his story, but also lends gravity and a sense of humanity to what is a compelling read.

The standout feature of Absurdistan is that the story is about more than the craft of journalism—Campbell’s vivid descriptions also serve as an empathetic survival guide for any person suffering a fish-out-of-water feeling. While not overly laboured, his astute descriptions of decadent Muscovites, or Novi Russkis, in the months during Russia’s economic devastation in the late 1990s are delightfully picturesque. ‘Hundreds were dancing in a miasma of heat and sweat that extinguished the –10 C draughts blowing through the cracked windows … young women in bizarre retro space-age clothing promenaded through it all in what was apparently an organised fashion show … there was an end-of-the world feeling.’

But Absurdistan is not without its critics. A week before the book was launched, ABC TV’s Media Watch panned the book, exposing one of Campbell’s sources as a fraud. While reporting from Afghanistan, Campbell sought expert advice from a disgraced former US Green Beret, Jack Idema—a man infamous among media circles for selling bogus footage of terrorist training camps to Western journalists.
While Campbell admits that trusting a con man for factual evidence was not ideal, he told Media Watch that the use of Jack’s commentary in his stories was not intended to be misleading.

‘In war zones, the people you glean information from are very often mass murderers, rapists and thieves … on that scale dealing with someone convicted of business fraud in the US eight years earlier was not something to be unduly shocked by,’ he said.

In Absurdistan, Campbell writes of his doubts about Jack and the dilemma he faced in constructing the story: ‘It was tempting to simply dismiss Jack as a fantasist and a con man. After a couple of uncomfortable days, I decided that it was safe to go ahead with the story—the footage was just too good to ignore.’
With the benefit of hindsight, Campbell is more pensive: ‘Journalists always get things wrong. Only dishonest ones say they don’t.’

Such insight provides the reader with a sense of the perils of working as a journalist in a war zone. In one of the more extraordinary anecdotes, Campbell tells how his colleague hid forbidden camera tapes inside the metal casing of a flak jacket to dodge inspection from merciless Taliban customs officials.

Another amusing aspect of the story is how Campbell compares life in Australia to the former Soviet Union on his holiday breaks. He recalls being amazed at how Australians complained about radical social change in Sydney over the past ten years. Additionally, he is surprised that despite the constant stream of international news stories, the Australian appetite for current-affairs television, and indeed, ratings for news programs, is waning.

‘There is a theory that there is a “war on terror” fatigue,’ he said. ‘Straight after September 11, people wanted to know what was going on in the world but now they are tending to retreat to their plasma TV screens to watch rubbish.

‘I’ve never seen Desperate Housewives, but people say it’s very good.’

Campbell is sensitive to this and also to the personal strains of living far from home. There is a personal undertone to Absurdistan as Campbell recounts feelings of bitter homesickness, loneliness, personal injury and love.

Curiously, for enthusiasts of Silk Road history, despite the title Absurdistan, there is little mention of the -stan countries themselves—Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Campbell said that as a first-time writer, it was a tough editing decision to trim the book to 334 pages.

‘My publisher felt that I’d probably described enough shoddy Soviet architecture, Lenin statues and dingy nightclubs,’ he said. ‘The thing about the Soviet Union is that while it is an infinitely fascinating place, because of Communism many things, even though miles apart, can look very similar.’

Absurdistan is a thrilling, emotional page-turner. While there is no doubt that Campbell’s account is an absorbing and important text about the craft of journalism, it also will evoke an empathy with any reader who has been lost or confused in an unfamiliar land.                      

Absurdistan, Eric Campbell. HarperCollins, 2005. isbn 0 732 27980 1, rrp $29.95

Eric Campbell is now the host of ABC TV’s Foreign Correspondent. Kate Stowell is a final-year journalism student at RMIT University.

 

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