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Javed Yazamy, Afghan fixer and freelance journalist, slain in Kandahar

Tuesday 10 March 2009

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Javed Yazamy loved Hollywood movies, mostly action flicks.

For the Afghan freelance cameraman, reporter and "fixer" for media outlets covering Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan, pirated DVDs were a perfect way to sharpen his English. They were also a window on a world he often struggled to understand-and desperately wanted to join.

He never got the chance.

Yazamy - also known as Javed Ahmad but known to most by his nickname, Jojo - was gunned down Tuesday evening in a brazen drive-by shooting in Kandahar city. There was no ready explanation for the killing, nor any claim of responsibility.

Just days before his death, Yazamy had asked fellow journalists to write letters of reference for his Canadian visitor’s visa application, which he was to present to authorities early next month.

He said he wanted to see the country whose news coverage he helped shape during several bloody years in Kandahar.

The deaths of four Canadian soldiers in the last week forced his would-be references to put off his request, a setback Yazamy shrugged off with the refined understanding that the news comes before all else.
"Ya, it’s fine, bro," he said in an email, responding to the apologies of one journalist. "Get it to me next week."

Yazamy, 23, was shot in his vehicle along a main boulevard in Kandahar city, not far from the governor’s palace, when another car pulled along the passenger side and a gunman opened fire. He died instantly, said Dr. Qasim Khan, the physician who pronounced him dead.
Kandahar’s provincial police chief refused to comment on the killing Tuesday, but provincial governor Tooryalai Wesa said an investigation was underway.

"It is disgusting a journalist has been killed like that in the city," said Wesa, an Afghan-Canadian who was sworn in as governor only a few months ago.

Police were looking for a white Toyota Corolla - a ubiquitous description of one of Kandahar’s most common vehicles, and one that’s often heard in the wake of violent crimes in the city.

Yazamy worked primarily as a cameraman for CTV News, but was often hired on a day-to-day basis by other media organizations as well, including The Canadian Press, and routinely proved an asset to virtually every Canadian journalist working in the violence-racked country.

His extensive contacts and connections across Afghanistan, including with the Taliban, appeared to land him in trouble late in 2007 when he was abruptly detained by U.S. soldiers outside the gates to Kandahar Airfield.

Yazamy spent some 11 months in military custody and was publicly named as an "enemy combatant" by American forces before he was set free in September 2008. No explanation, either for his detention or his release, was ever proffered.

CTV News president Robert Hurst spoke fondly of spending several days in Kandahar with Yazamy, who toured him around the region to give him a sense of the country and its character.

"I found him a terrific young journalist who was courageous, (who) had a world view - we were very lucky at CTV to have him as a fixer," Hurst said Tuesday in an interview. Yazamy learned most of his camera skills during his time with CTV, he added.

"I think this is a loss for Afghan journalism, in addition to being a loss to international and Canadian journalism," Hurst said.

"JoJo, as our cameraman in Kandahar area, was directly instrumental in helping us bring the Afghan story home to Canadian living rooms every night. We’re deeply saddened by all of this."

The Canadian wing of the international advocacy group Reporters Without Borders issued a statement Tuesday offering condolences to Yazamy’s family and calling on Afghan authorities to investigate the shooting and bring his killers to justice.

"He was a talented and promising young journalist who had the courage to work with foreign news media," the statement said.
Several Afghan journalists have said they suspect Yazamy’s death was ordered by the Taliban, the statement added.

Yazamy worked for U.S. special forces in 2001, soon after the overthrow of the Taliban regime. It was where he acquired a taste for country music.

He swept floors at their compound, but having learned rudimentary English while in exile in Pakistan, the ambitious teenager soon found himself doing translation work.

U.S. television networks followed in the wake of the invasion and Yazamy began "fixing" for Western reporters, providing translation and transportation services. He soon came into his element as a journalist, conducting interviews and shooting video in places too risky for westerners.

His knowledge and advice on personal safety was universally respected by Canadian journalists in Afghanistan, many of whom had no qualms about putting their lives in his hands.

That was why his capture by U.S. commandos at Kandahar Airfield in October 2007, and the subsequent claim he was an enemy combatant, stunned those who worked with him.

Yazamy acknowledged that in his journalistic work he had occasional contact with the Taliban. But he denied ever having collaborated with them.

"I am innocent," he said in an interview last September, following 11 months in captivity.

He told Reporters Without Borders: "I feel even more of a journalist than before.

"I am very enthusiastic about the idea of going back to work. But above all, I want justice. I want to knock on all the doors, with my lawyers, so that those who detained and tortured me are punished."

He also said he’d been planning to write a book about the experience.

Copyright © 2009 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

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