By Katelyn Roudebush and Kellen Constantino
In April 2011, National Public Radio’s Peter Breslow and Peter Kenyon met up in Cairo to prepare for their drive across the border to cover the uprising in Benghazi, Libya. Without proper visas, they were entering dangerous territory with the risk of being arrested.
“You either had to go in legally or illegally,” Breslow said. “We went in illegally.”
Breslow is senior producer for NPR’s Weekend Edition with more than 30 years of journalism experience. He told War Reporting students at Humboldt State University that he and Kenyon drove into Libya through rebel-controlled checkpoints because other crews had previously made it in and out that way.
“Getting caught by government forces would have been problematic,” he said. “They would assume we were working with rebels because we came in on the rebel side.”
Breslow spent a month in Benghazi during the height of the Arab Spring. The rebels, who Breslow described as educated, were fighting the brutal dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi, and the city was in ruins.
“People were sick and tired of being under a ruthless government,” Breslow said. “It’s sad now to look at how much a mess it is, but they were hopeful.”
Breslow and his team kept a close eye on the front lines to make sure Gadhafi’s forces didn’t break through.
“It was a highway war. If they were in front of us, we could retreat, but if they got behind us there was no way out,” he said.
Each morning, Breslow would wake up and jog the streets around his hotel, which was only a few miles from the fighting.
“That was a completely stupid thing to do,” he said. “But I did it.”
During his time in Libya, he met U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
“He was an NPR fan and we were staying in the same hotel,” Breslow said. “So we had breakfast together every day.”
Stevens was killed a year and a half later in the September 2012 attack on the U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi.
“It was just absolutely awful,” Breslow said. “It’s a guy who really wanted this country to succeed.”
In addition to Libya, Breslow has covered conflicts in Afghanistan, Lebanon and Somalia, which he says is “the most dangerous place I’ve ever been.”
During the 1992 U.S. invasion in Mogadishu, Breslow and his team were driving through the city to investigate gun fire. On their return, the driver took a wrong turn and they were confronted by a mob. The driver panicked. As he hesitated on what to do next, the mob surrounded their vehicle, opened the car door and grabbed Breslow. The driver then stepped on the gas and they were able to get away.
“Other journalists were not so lucky,” Breslow said. “Sometime after that some Italian reporters and photographers found themselves with a mob after covering a fire fight. The same thing happened to them as did to us, only they were beaten to death.”
Breslow says NPR is more cautious about sending its journalists into war zones after the death of photojournalist David Gilkie and his translator in Afghanistan last June. Breslow says Gilkie was NPR’s first war casualty.
“It was such a shock, in all these years no one from NPR was killed,” Breslow said. “They’re not actually sending anyone to a shooting area now.”
NPR put Breslow through hazardous environment training before his assignment in Afghanistan. The course was taught in rural Virginia by former British special forces personnel. Breslow and his colleagues learned first aid and what to do at hostile checkpoints.
“The advice is don’t volunteer anything,” he said. “The idea is that you just become kind of a pain in the ass and so that they just go, ahhh go.”
He said the hazardous environment training was also good for peer bonding.
“We drank beer and played a lot of ping pong at night,” he said. “Training was fun.”
During the mock drills, Breslow was “killed” twice; once by an I.E.D. and again when he was shot trying to avoid trampling a pregnant woman while evacuating a van.
“It was the most fun I’ve had since I was a kid,” he said. “I got to play Army.”
Another important lesson was to keep the crew together. They were told never to let anyone, especially a female, to get cut off from the rest of the group. But a month after the training, that’s exactly what happened.
Breslow was in Beirut with fellow NPR-colleague Deborah Amos to speak with the commanders of rebel forces fighting in Syria. One of the commanders survived an execution and told the NPR team that he had a video of the execution at his home. While Breslow was distracted, Amos was swept away into the car of the commander’s assistant to retrieve the recording.
“I thought, she’s getting kidnapped!” Breslow said. “So we followed her, me and the translator. It turned out she was fine and the guy spoke perfect English. We had tea with him and his wife. But it was our first day there and we had already broken the golden rule.”
Amos was okay, but they never found the recording.
Breslow has covered stories all over the world, from climbing Mount Everest to playing underwater hockey. He believes that people make the story.
“I try to take my microphone where people don’t normally go,” Breslow said. “If I can get a good recording and make that scene come alive, I know I’ve done my job.”