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The picture that we seldom get to see
The Providence Journal


May 23, 2005

I talked to Mike Yon by satellite phone. It was a little scratchy at times and helicopters intruded occasionally. But it was worth it.

He describes himself as an author, explorer and photographer. He uses his camera as a notepad, he says.

And earlier this month, he took notes that were seen around the world.

He is in Iraq, he says, because he didn't quite believe what he was seeing in the news. He is a former Green Beret, and he wanted to see for himself.

He and I share the belief that we just aren't getting a full and honest look at this war - or even a steady helping of small, telling snapshots.

I was able to connect with him because of a mutual friend, Irene Pinsonneault. She met Yon when he spent six months last year in Westport, Mass., writing the final draft of his book about modern-day cannibals in India and Nepal. Now, he's in Iraq working on his next book.

After talking with him by satellite phone, I sent him additional questions by e-mail.

He went to Iraq late last year as an independent reporter and was with an Army Stryker brigade based in Washington state when I talked with him. He says he has been able to get where he wants to go in Iraq and that his military background probably helps.

"My background allows me to track better what's going on and stay safer on the battlefield," he said. "I have spotted enemy activity at times before the soldiers have, but usually I am just trying to stay out of the way."

He thinks reporters who gripe about the lack of access simply have to know how access is gained in the military. He thinks units that are seeing a lot of action are usually a better bet to welcome coverage.

"Car bombs? That's the cheap way to get the news," he said. "But it's not the whole truth. You have to get out among the people."

He thinks Iraq represents a turning point in modern history and that it is difficult to understate its importance. He has been in other places where there was a struggle to introduce democracy. It is a messy process, he said.

And he saw perhaps the worst of the struggle in the city of Mosul a few weeks ago when he was with the Stryker brigade on normal operations.

At first, he had a photo opportunity in front of him that seemed like one of those timeless shots of soldiers and civilians claiming simple human contact in the middle of a war.

Then, it turned crazy.

"We were in a neighborhood, and the kids came out," said Yon. "The Iraqi kids are really well-mannered, and they came out to see the soldiers.

"The car bomber went straight through them and hit the Stryker vehicle."

It was screaming, fiery, deadly proof - if any further proof were needed - that this war in Iraq has no safe places. Nothing and no one are out of bounds from the vicious, sneaky, suicidal enemy.

"One little boy was sitting there waiting," said Yon. "Then there was a fireball and the little boy just disappeared."

Two children were killed. Soldiers were wounded. Yon said the people there couldn't believe that more children didn't die.

He took pictures. He was taking his notes.

"When I start getting nervous, I start shooting pictures."

One of his pictures showed an American officer carrying the lifeless body of a little girl. Another showed a soldier helping a blood-spattered boy from the scene.

He saw what was left of the explosive-filled car. It was the engine block.

He submitted his pictures to military authorities for clearance. He wasn't sure he wanted them to go anywhere. He wasn't sure if he wanted to share what he saw that day with anybody.

But he did without even knowing it. The picture of the officer carrying the young girl started showing up in the nonstop, insatiable, worldwide news cycle. The problem was, the credit line was not Mike Yon. Other people, including civilian press agencies, took credit for his "notes."

"At first, and in the largest sense, it did not bother me that it was not credited to me. I was still feeling horrible about what the insurgents did to the children.

"My reaction to the initial interest from the media was explicit. I asked the Army (who had released it) to tell the outlets to kill the photo. I wasn't ready to share the experience with the world."

He is still sorting through the strange case of the photo that slipped from his control. But Army officials have told him something very good came from its release within Iraq. Iraqis saw the picture of a child killed by insurgents and started to come forward with information.

And others saw it, too. Intended or not, Yon has given us a look at innocents caught in the crossfire of a war without frontlines. He has let us see the other victims, the ones who die in far greater numbers than American troops but seldom claim a place in the nightly body count.

He has helped fill in a picture of the war in Iraq that has long been out of focus and sadly lacking in detail.


Bob Kerr can be reached by e-mail at bkerr(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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