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To the Front and Back, Please

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A scene from the Syrian War by Carsten Stormer

The first time I met Carsten Stormer was if I’m not mistaken on a Thursday night at M Café. It was one of those evenings where the beer was deliciously cold, the music was great and the crowd even better. I had always been fascinated by his work, travelling the world reporting and documenting things that mattered. Whenever I speak to him about his current assignments, there is always this little twinge of envy. This is a guy who lives his life the way I thought I would when I was fresh out of high school. I had always wanted to be a real journalist. To leave everything behind, see the world, make a difference. But to be honest deep down inside of me is something that I call the “Developing Country Syndrome.” Growing up in the developing world you tend to hold on to your security a little more. Some may call it cowardice but I was always hesitant to put myself truly at risk because of all the people I love and the sincere gratitude I have for every blessing I receive. I had often always blamed being a woman as well and despite having a rather independent mind and spirit, theirs is still that inner conflict with my traditional Filipina upbringings.

Here is a man who’s done it. Who has let go and chased the story, not only for himself but for the sake of humanity. His recently published book “To the Front and Back, Please” where he shares his stories from the frontline is now available in English on Kindle through Amazon. Click here to purchase.

He took the time to answer a few questions for us right before he left again for Syria.

book cover profile

Stephanie: Fresh out of school what pushed you to go straight to Afghanistan? There was no slow ease into the industry but a solid jump into the unknown… If I can be frank, from my experience young adults that grow up in developed countries have this urge to find their purpose. To leave the comfortable life and find a way to make a difference…. (as compared to those who grow up in developing countries who tend to hang on more to their security) can you describe how you grew up? and was this the case for you?”

Carsten: “That was totally the case for me. I had no urge for security. I was desperate to fill my life with some meaning, find a purpose. My parents were far from rich but German middle class. I started working when I was 15 to finance my traveling and my studies, pay rent, etc. I was washing hair in a hair solon, cleaning floors in a hospital and worked as a bartender in techno clubs. It gave me financial independence. I wanted and still want to make a difference. Try to leave this world a little bit better than I found it. I gave up comfort, security, a career (as in climbing up the ladder), even the chance to ever become rich. Journalism does not pay. But its one of the few professions where you can always grow as a person and a human being.”

S: “How much traveling did you do before you started working? Was this a factor in choosing your profession?”

C: “Oh, I did a lot. I travelled for two years as a backpacker through Asia and South America. Mostly off the beaten track. There I saw in which state mankind and the world actually is. I could not ignore it. Once you know you cannot close your eyes again. Ignorance is often bliss. And I worked in Cambodia and Myanmar.”

S: “When you arrived in Afghanistan how much of a shock was it? You’ve obviously learned to deal with the horrors of war… What keeps you going? And how do you not come home feeling like humanity has failed?”

C: “It wasn’t much of a shock at all. I saw poverty and misery before. And in 2004 the war was still far away from Kabul. You simply did not feel a war. I travelled through Afghanistan by Taxi, hitchhiked with strangers, smoked pot on the top of the destroyed Buddhas of Bamyan, did cliff jumping into the ice cold waters of Band-A-Mir. It was wild.  And I was naïve. I had no idea what war feels like. So I knocked on the doors of an American press officer and asked if they can take me to the frontlines. Two days later I jumped on a helicopter that dropped me on a hilltop deep in the south of Afghanistan – Taliban land. That’s how I started. On my first mission I spent two weeks in trenches, got shot at and was encircled by a bunch of Taliban. I was young, and when you are young fear is replaced by excitement. I did not know better. Dying simply was not in the script of my life.”

“What keeps me going? The fact that people can do the most horrible things to each other… Oppression, exploitation, murder, killing, rape. We cannot stand by, keep quiet and watch. We must speak out. Bear witness. I try to do that with my reporting.”

“What war taught me is that humanist has not failed yet. It sounds weird, I know. But there is still more good than bad in this world. It is just very good in hiding itself.”

somalia 2

Photos from Somalia by Carsten Stormer

S: “In times of war there will always be the bad guys and the good guys and it all depends from where you are standing. Have there been any moments when you had conflicting feelings? That suddenly you don’t know who the good and the bad are anymore? And conversely, also times where you just couldn’t help but pass serious judgment? And how has this affected your ability to paint a clear objective picture as a journalist?”

C: “There are good guys and bad times on both sides. I saw that in every war zone. I saw rebels in Darfur stealing from peasants who hardly had anything for themselves. I think objectivity in journalism is an illusion. It contradicts itself. I write from my personal experiences, try to pass judgment. In Somalia I had no idea who the bad guys were and who are the good ones. There was a kidnapping risk. And one Islamic fighter threatened to execute me. I got lucky, but I made a bad judgment call there.”

S: “What was the most difficult assignment for you and why?”

C: “No doubt, that’s Syria. I have never seen such brutality. I saw hundreds of people getting killed. Children torn to pieces… And the risks of reporting there are incalculable. You are in constant fear. And basically can lose your life anytime, anywhere.”

S: “If I can relate one of your assignments to Pandora’s Box, can you describe a moment where there was that glimmer of hope in the bottom?” 

C: “Always! Hope is the one thing that never fades. It’s the only thing people have left. And there always people who stand out, a light in the darkness, people who put their lives before others. It’s a very humbling and rewarding experience. War brings out the worst in people, but also the best. I saw incredible acts of humanity in war zones. Unlike in “normal” places where people tend to be selfish and indifferent. In Syria I saw a juvenile getting a woman to safety after she was wounded by a sniper. The sniper kept firing but could not kill the boy. In Chad I saw a super poor refugee sharing his last nuts, the only thing he had left to eat, with new refugees coming from Darfur.”

S: “What is the most beautiful place you’ve been to (both culturally and geographically) that sadly many may never be able to visit?”

C: “All of these places have incredible beauty. Afghanistan is a nature wonderland, Burma was closed off for decades. Syria has a 4000 year old history. So has Iraq. Its insane that this heritage gets destroyed by war. I often wonder around Manila and get sad by the state of the city. This was once one of the most beautiful cities in Asia – until it got bombed. Mankind creates beauty, idiots destroy it.”

S: “Now that you’re married and about to be a father, will things change? Suddenly you are no longer young with nothing to lose… Where does your career go from here?”

C: “I am going back to Syria in a few days. I am scared and frightened. I want to meet my son. I want to be with my wife. I have built a home here. It does not get easier. But my job is also a passion, it’s my purpose. It made me the man who I am. I can’t change that. It would be like losing a limb. I need this work to exist. It’s risky, it’s dangerous – but if I change, I would change the person who I am now. It would not be me. And eventually I would lose everything that is dear to me. I need to be true to myself.”


Photo of Aleppo by Carsten Stormer


Carsten Stormer is a German Asian correspondent, writer and photographer based in Manila. In the past he has worked with the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia and the Myanmar Times in Rangoon, Burma. He has studied journalism in Bremen, Germany and Chennai, India. Since 2004, he has been reporting on wars, conflict, human rights and social issues in Africa and Asia. Carsten’s pieces appear regularly in German and international magazines. Amongst his clients are: Stern, Focus, Rogue, FAZ, FR, Cicero, Playboy, Marie Claire, Amnesty International, Readers Digest Asia, etc.



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