Chris Hondros: The human cost of war [The Fayetteville Observer, N.C.]
(Fayetteville Observer (NC) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 22--In the late 1990s, Chris Hondros sent me an email from the war zone in Kosovo, one of the first places he went to pursue his career in war photography.
He'd had a scare -- not from a bomb or a bullet, but from a dirty needle. He'd been accidentally stuck by the needle while on the ground in a trench or some other dangerous place.
Did it carry a disease? It gave him pause, made him take stock.
I wish I still had that note, lost on a long-ago crashed computer hard drive.
Chris didn't get sick from that needle and he didn't let the fear get to him. Few things set him back.
Those first war photos, his subtle framing and focus brought out the intensity in the faces of the soldiers ducking for cover and pain in the eyes of the civilians burying their dead. There I first saw his skill and talent to capture the human cost of war.
I already knew about his talent and drive to do great work, to live greatly. To charge ahead with smiles and draw his friends ahead with him.
He died Wednesday, struck in the head by shrapnel during intense fighting between rebel and government forces in Misrata, Libya. He was doing a job he loved and thought important: Showing the world the reality of war.
Earlier Wednesday, Chris filed compelling pictures of burning rooms and rebels firing at government soldiers.
We first met in the late 1980s at N.C. State University's student newspaper. We became friends when he moved back to Fayetteville in 1996 from Troy, Ohio. He had the talent and drive to go someplace bigger, more prestigious, someplace better-paying. But he told me later that he returned to his hometown to be near his father, who was battling cancer and died in 2000.
He began building a personal library, filling his shelves with books on history, recent wars, music, photography, religion, philosophy, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov's take on Shakespeare. When I last visited him in January, he had an annotated copy of the Sherlock Holmes stories on his nightstand.
That visit was cut short -- the day my plane landed, Chris had to go to Egypt to cover the unrest there. He said he would see me in a month or two when he brought his fiancee to see Fayetteville for the first time.
Chris loved classical music and introduced me to the works of Gustav Mahler, a favorite composer. He loved to discuss the nuance and phrasing in classical pieces. In his delight, he would wave his hands like a conductor prompting the strings to one side and the kettle drums to the other. "Dah-dah-dah! Bom-bom-bom!"
He even dabbled in teaching himself to play the piano and composing his own symphony.
I loaned him a small Casio piano keyboard for a few years. He liked that it had an LCD display showing the musical notation as he played to help him learn to read music. Eventually, he bought a better one and, later, acquired a battered old upright, a century old and beyond tuning.
On the job, Chris focused and pushed further than most.
While the winds of Hurricane Bertha still whipped the trees of a Bladen County farm, Chris climbed a two-story tower in search of the best angle on the farmer's flattened crops. A few months later, he perched on the apex of a church roof while a crane lowered a replacement steeple into place. He and I climbed inside the clock tower of the Market House in an attempt to get a picture from the top.
Chris left the Observer in 1998 to take a temporary job in New York and pursue his dream.
He loved the city, a vital world capital, and frequently invited friends and friends of friends to stay at his apartment. After a party in April 2004, celebrating several major journalism awards he won that month, his roommates woke to approximately 10 out-of-town houseguests.
A few years later, Chris decided he wanted his own place and no roommates. But a friend separated from his wife and needed a place to stay. Chris took him in for at least a year.
Soon after moving to New York in 1998, Chris found work in Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania, some as a freelancer, some on a contract assignment for the U.S. Agency for International Development. That resulted in an exhibition of American efforts to help the refugees. It was called "The Darkest Days of Spring."
After 9/11, he went to ground zero and captured some of the haunting photos we still look at today. By December, he was with the native anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan who allied with the United States against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In between firefights, Chris got online via his satellite phone to send pictures back home and chat via AOL Instant Messenger with me and his relatives in North Carolina.
He didn't focus exclusively on war. He frequently had more routine assignments around the city and around the country. In 2004, he followed Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign.
But he's best known for the wars and disasters over the years that took him to Nigeria, Liberia, Angola, the West Bank, New Orleans after Katrina, Haiti after the earthquake and, of course, Iraq.
We thought we lost Chris during the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003. He and several other journalists entered Iraq as "unilaterals" -- journalists roaming on their own instead of being embedded with the military.
Word reached the U.S. that the group had run into an Iraqi checkpoint and were fired on. They fled and hid in the desert, Iraqis in pursuit.
We published a short account in the paper, and that afternoon I received a yelling, curse-filled call from him at my desk at the General Assembly press room in Raleigh. Chris was on the satellite phone in the desert, angry because the newspaper report scared his mother.
Over the years, he estimated that he went to Iraq and Afghanistan at least 20 times.
Chris' friends and family always worried. But after so many years, it's something you get used to.
I last heard from him on Sunday. News of the North Carolina tornadoes had reached the middle of a city under siege in North Africa. He sent an email titled "tornados."
"How is it? Very bad? I'm in Misrata in Libya, but saw a few reports even here."
I told him about the destroyed homes and businesses. I sent him a map of the path of destruction.
On Monday morning, I emailed him again. The news on the radio that morning was all about the tornadoes in North Carolina and chaos and failing conditions in Misrata.
"It sounds bad there. Hope you're OK."
And when I didn't hear any more from him on Monday and Tuesday, I worried some more.
Staff writer Paul Woolverton can be reached at email@example.com or (910) 486-3512.
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