May 15, 2007
By TONY CLIFTON
The New Zealand-born war correspondent Kate Webb, who has died of bowel cancer in Australia aged 64, was one of the most remarkable women in her trade. Her passing comes 36 years after she first read her death notices in the world's newspapers.
On April 7 1971, Kate, then a reporter working for the American news agency United Press International (UPI), was with the Cambodian army in the Kirirom mountains when she and five other civilians were ambushed and taken prisoner by a unit of the North Vietnamese army. This turned out to be a lucky break, because the usual enemy were the brutal Cambodian Khmer Rouge, who invariably killed their prisoners.
When she was captured, Kate recalled, she was interrogated by an older man, who said, "Do you realise you are a prisoner of war, and that one shot through the head could finish you, just like that?" "That's up to you now," Kate told him. "I can do nothing about it. Besides, I don't consider myself a prisoner of war, I'm not a soldier." "Then consider yourself an invited guest," said her interrogator, and they all laughed.
But her colleagues had assumed it was the Khmer Rouge, and that she was dead. After about three weeks, the first obituaries began to appear. Time magazine reported that a white woman's body had been found in a shallow grave with a bullet in the head, and another in the chest. "Webb is the 10th journalist known to have died in Cambodia," the magazine reported. Her family held a memorial service for her. She stumbled out of the jungle after 23 days. And soon after, she went down with malaria -- which nearly killed her.
Unlike most of her well-paid western colleagues, Kate always lived very simply, knew and tried to speak to the locals in their own languages -- including Korean and Indonesian -- and gave a lot of what she earned to adults and children whose lives had been ruined by war. She covered wars and politics from Indochina through Afghanistan to Iraq -- and points in between -- and like the French photographer Catherine Leroy (obituary, July 21 2006) she opened the way for the legions of young women who now routinely report wars.
Kate Webb in 2000 (AFP Photo)
Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, Kate was the daughter of academics who moved the family to Australia in 1951, settling in the federal capital Canberra, where her father was chairman of the political science department at the Australian National University. In 1956 the family visited Europe, but subsequently her parents died in a car crash when Kate was 17 or 18. She blotted it out, she said. Graduating in philosophy from Melbourne University -- symbolic logic was her main subject -- Kate soon after began that career which had a lot of symbolism to it, but not all that much logic.
She trained on Australian newspapers, working on Rupert Murdoch's Daily Mirror in Sydney, then, seeking adventure, arrived in the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon. She began working for UPI in 1967, mainly to cover Vietnamese politics, because there were then hardly any women out on the battlefield. But she found herself filling in when male reporters came back for rest from tough assignments. And Kate was a beautiful, softly spoken young woman, dark haired and elfin. This combination of beauty and steely toughness fascinated an almost all-male press corps.
She worked in Vietnam for more than six years, in those days when reporters in Indochina lived lives straight out of a Graham Greene novel, becoming UPI's bureau chief in Cambodia in 1971. The foreign correspondent Jon Swain recalled that the only time he ever saw Kate out of her usual baggy pants was in Chantal's, the famous Phnom Penh opium den, where clients always changed into sarongs. Kate was such a famous customer that a group photograph of her, Swain and the photographer Kent Potter, shot down and killed in February 1971, was the parlour's sole decoration.
UPI photographer Kent Potter (UPI Photo)
Kate was a curiosity to soldiers back then, but was accepted immediately. "If you don't make a thing out of being a female," she said, "if you don't demand special privileges and don't ask where you plug in your hairdryer, you have no problems."
By 1973, following the Paris peace accords, the US was pulling out of Vietnam, during what was called the "Vietnamisation" of the war. Kate moved on to Hong Kong. But in April 1975 she was back, as South Vietnam collapsed and the last US personnel were evacuated.
After Vietnam she continued to work across Asia for UPI until 1977, and later spent 17 years with Agence France Press (AFP). She reported on the Tamil Tiger uprising in Sri Lanka, and covered Pakistan, the Philippines, East Timor and Nepal. She nearly lost an arm in a Delhi motorcyle accident; in 1981, she was attacked in her office in Kabul, Afghanistan, by a drug-crazed Uzbek bandit chief. Eight years later, she was covering the Soviet withdrawal from that country -- and was there for the fall of Mohammad Najibullah in 1992.
In 1990-91 her work included the first Iraq war, the fall of Bangladesh's President Ershad and the assassination in India of Rajiv Gandhi. In 1994 she had an exclusive on the death of North Korea's dictator Kim Il-Sung. In 1997 she was there for the end of British rule in Hong Kong. Her last big story came in 1998 -- reporting on the collapse of President Suharto's regime in Indonesia.
Kate loved the speed and competition of wire services, but she grew to hate the constant demands for updates, brought about by the advent of mobile phones that can reach a reporter under fire. "It's like we're all mosquitoes dancing on the surface of a pond. We have to move so fast that reporting has suffered," she said. "It's nowhere as meticulous as it was."
In 2001, Kate quit. The only kind of journalism she liked, she observed, was frontline reporting, and she was too old for it. She headed back to Australia and settled north of Sydney, on the Hunter river. But subsequently she spent time as a visiting professor of journalism at Ohio University.
Kate was a good writer, but her value for future historians will be that all her best stories were written from the heart of the struggle, in the heat of the battle, in conversation with the major players -- whether generals, grunts in foxholes, peasants in their fields, rulers in their palaces or guerrillas in their caves. Those historians will pass over the prognostications and predictions of desk-bound pundits to read Kate -- knowing she was really there when it all happened.
Catherine Merrial 'Kate' Webb, journalist, born March 24, 1943; died May 13, 2007.