By Robert Brown and Carlos Olloqui
VICE News War Correspondent Kaj Larsen is the only journalist to report from the front line of Nigeria’s war against Boko Haram, the militant Islamist group relatively unknown until it kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls in April 2014. A year later, Larsen embedded with Nigerian forces during their invasion of Bama, one of the last militant strongholds in the northern part of the country.
“In front line conflicts, you have to balance the risk and cost with the merits of the story,” Larsen said. “Often times you have to convince the news agency that the risk is worth it. In this particular case, because not a single journalist had been able to penetrate the actual conflict zones, we determined, despite the risks, that this story was worth it.”
The Nigerian government denied journalists access to conflict areas, but Larsen was able to get past that through his own military connections.
Larsen is a former U.S. Navy SEAL, and during that time, he ran some missions with South African mercenaries– the same guys who the Nigerian government eventually hired to help its army fight Boko Haram. The mercenaries, now private contractors, started a company called Executive Outcomes and were paid $80 million dollars to do the job. They invited Larsen to tag along and report from inside the combat zone.
“In order to get these guys comfortable with me, I spent almost a month on the ground without even pulling out a camera, just going on missions,” he said.
Larsen told the War Reporting class about the incredible risks he took to produce his VICE News documentary, The War Against Boko Haram.
Two journalists from Al-Jazeera tried to gain access into the conflict zone but were arrested and spent three months in a Nigerian prison.
At first, Larsen worked alone and shot his own video. Once he earned the military’s trust, he brought in Jerry Brunskill, a Hollywood cinematographer who had never been to a war zone.
“Initially I went by myself, without a cameraman,” Larsen said. “It’s good to have someone else to watch your back, someone to watch out for you.”
While embedded with the Nigerian Army in Konduga– about a mile from enemy forces– Larsen lived in trenches and used his flak jacket as a blanket as mortars exploded close by during the night.
“You develop a bond with the people you’re with, but they also have another job to think about,” he said. “You need someone whose primary job is to think about you and the information you are trying to collect. It’s good to have a partner. It’s hard to be out there totally solo.”
After three failed attempts to take Bama, the Nigerian soldiers were determined to give it another go. But on the approach to the city, the mission was halted for another day after a Nigerian Army unit accidentally attacked one of its own convoys, killing two soldiers. Larsen was safe but said the army didn’t have a protocol to identify friend or foe.
“The Nigerian army looked like the Mexican Navy with a hangover on their worst day,” he said.
When operations resumed, Larsen accompanied forces in a Soviet-era MI-24 Hind helicopter gunship, capable of shooting 4,000 rounds per minute.
“The pilot was bat shit crazy,” Larsen said. “He would zigzag through the trees instead of flying above them.”
After the air assault, ground forces moved in. The Nigerian army won control of Bama and drove Boko Haram out, scattering its members and making them harder to target.
After nine weeks in Nigeria, Larsen left but returned later to be the first journalist to interview one of Boko Haram’s leaders.
“A decade ago I would be hunting these guys down,” Larsen said. “It was tough not to reach over and strangle one of the fighters. I was scared. When you first go through the door, whether you are doing it in a kinetic combat situation or whether you are doing it as a journalist, walking into an unknown room is the most dangerous moment.”