By Farnaz Fassihi
The ambulance carrying Kaveh Golestan's body snaked into the scenic mountains of Northern Iraq toward the Iranian border yesterday. At the various checkpoints along the way, the Peshmerga guards stepped aside to let our convoy pass and gave salute to a man they did not know. But perhaps they did know one thing: That the journalist had died in honor. He had died while telling the world stories about their people. He had died doing what he loved best. As far as they were concerned, he was a hero and worthy of a hero's salutation.
The passing of the ambulance toward the border has become a familiar sight to the Kurdish soldiers. It is the third in one week, carrying home journalists who've died on assignment in Kurdistan.
But Kaveh's death was different and the emotional impact of his loss on the foreign press corp here has been heartfelt and severe. Within minutes of hearing the news, every one of us rushed to the Emergency Hospital in Sulaimaniyeh. We were all crying. No one wanted to believe Kaveh was gone. Even when the doctor told us there was nothing we could do, no one wanted to leave.
Amidst her tears Kate Brooks, the photographer for Time magazine, articulated what were all thinking: "Why him, why him? He was the nicest and sweetest person here."
Kaveh was a rare breed in journalism. He was accomplished and experienced in his field with a Pulitzer Prize to his name for a photo he took of the Kurdish uprising. Yet, there was never a trace of arrogance in his behavior toward colleagues. He always smiled and greeted everyone with affection. He was courteous and maintained his calm when the rest of us freaked out on deadline and in hairy situations on the field.
But most importantly Kaveh had no qualms about sharing his institutional knowledge of the region with others. Some he had just met here and many others he knew from his decades of covering the Middle East.
"When Kaveh was someplace you knew that's where you wanted to be," says Chris Chivers, the reporter for the New York Times here. "He was always the first cameraman on the scene. Nothing held him back."
Our paths had crossed on several stories over the past two years. First in Herat, Afghanistan last Fall during the war where I was in my first war. He had the aura of a person who had been around, who'd seen it all and done it all. He told me I could go to him for advice or if I needed any thing. Every night over our peasant dinner of boiled eggs and bread, Kaveh sat next to me and asked with great care, "Khanoum, so how was your day today? What is your story?"
I saw him again during the student uprisings this winter in Tehran and shared many meals and good times with him over the past two months in Kurdistan.
He took special pride in us, younger Iranian journalists. He encouraged us to march ahead, to break taboos, to be brave and adventurous and to aim high. He followed our careers and made glowing comments to others about our work. I wasn't even a photographer but he read my stories on line and told me how proud he is of my work.
In Iran, Kaveh, who also taught photography at Tehran University, had a huge following among young journalists.
"For us there was only one person in Iran like Kaveh and that's why his loss is so tragic. We are all in this business because of him," says Newsha Tavakolian, a 22-year-old freelance photographer, who enjoyed Kaveh's mentorship for years.
"He never said no to any of us. His home was always full of young journalists, he shared with us every thing he knew from how to frame a photo to how to sneak past security officials. He taught us to go after the story and pursuit it till the end," says Kambiz Karimi, a cameraman for NBC news here and another of Kaveh's students and close friends.
Kaveh won recognition for a photo documentary essay about the prostitutes in Tehran's red light district, where the women's sadness and misery were transparent through his images. He further won international acclaim for a documentary film titled "Recording the Truth," that was aired on Channel Four in London about freedom of press in Iran. He was a still photographer until ten year ago when he switched to making documentaries. For the past three years he has been the BBC's cameraman in Tehran, as part of a two- person team with the organization's Tehran bureau chief, Jim Muir.
In his tenure, Kaveh covered the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, the Kurdish uprising in Iran and Iraq and the war in Afghanistan to name a few.
He had said many times to all of us that Kurdistan was his favorite story and that the Kurds held a special place in his heart. He was one of the first photographers on the scene when Saddam Hussien gassed the village of Halabja in 1988.
Kaveh died on "Sizdeh Bedar." Before setting out to the frontlines in Kifri that day, he had insisted that the crew of four have a little picnic on the beautiful green fields on the road to Kifri. He had packed a simple lunch of tuna fish, bread and tomatoes and cucumbers. Jim Muir says after lunch Kaveh had declared, "this is the best meal I've had since I got here."
Shortly before he died, Kaveh told Jim that covering Kurdistan was his favorite story and that he felt most himself while doing this.
His death creates a huge whole in the Iranian media and in all our hearts. But perhaps we can find solace knowing he died doing what he loved best.
May his memories live forever and his passion for life and journalism set an example for us all.
Middle East correspondent of the Wall Street Journal
Sulaimaniyeh, Iraq April 4, 2003
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