After being abducted in Afghanistan in 2008, Fung reflects on her decision to leave CBC

41-year-old Mellissa Fung, who regularly reported on the Canadian military presence within Afghanistan, made headlines in 2008 when she was abducted and held captive for 29 days.

After her release, Fung says she faced unwanted fame, and new challenges in her career as a journalist with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Six years later, Fung has left the CBC and recently returned to Afghanistan to share the untold stories of the Afghan people.

Just coming off of a university tour with the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Fung is focusing on starting her new career as a independent journalist and author.

Fung stopped by Mount Royal University Nov. 13 for an interview with The Calgary Journal editorial board. In the first of thre installments, Fung discusses struggles she encountered as a journalist following her abduction in Afghanistan.

FUNG: PART ONE OF THREE

You had gone to Afghanistan for the first time in 2007, can you tell us what drew you to the assignment?

I think what drew me is what was drawing a lot of other journalists at the time and that was because our military was there. Our soldiers were dying and they were in combat. And as journalists we had a responsibility to cover their mission. Like every other working journalists at the time, I wanted to be a part of that. There were lots of opportunities because CBC and other news organizations were always rotating journalists through.

It was like having a full-time bureau in Kandahar at the time because we just had to be there. So there was lots of opportunity to go. We rotated people through on, sometimes five or six-week rotation, sometimes longer, and then another reporter would come in your place. So I think that it was a time where Canada was doing a lot of the heavy lifting and heavy fighting in Kandahar and that was a story that we really had to cover.

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How did you feel before going there?

We were pretty well prepared. They sent us to the hostile environment training before we went, so for me that was a week in the deep woods being eaten by mosquitos in Atlanta where they put us through scenarios. First of all you learn combat first aid, which you are really going to need if you are going to embed with the military. And then they run you though scenarios; what happens if you are with your fixer in a car and you reach a checkpoint, how do you know if those are government soldiers or if they’re Taliban, or what happens, God forbid, if you’re kidnapped. So pretty well every journalist is well prepared.

What has happened in the last couple years with you?

I left the CBC a year ago. It was just time for me to move on. I’ll quote a friend of mine David Rohde he’s the New York Times reporter who was kidnapped around the same area I was three days after I was released. So Dave and I have become very close. He is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist with the Times and he left a few years ago. I had just taken a leave of absence from the CBC and David said, “You know that sometimes organizations need to find a way to deal with their journalists or employees.” It might not be a news organization, it could be anything else. It could be private security firm, employees or journalist come back from any kind of trauma, but organizations really haven’t figured out to deal with us yet.”

The CBC’s initial reaction was just to protect me and keep me in Canada, keep me in Toronto. And really not let me do the stories that I really wanted to do and so that was frustrating for me for a very long time. So I took a leave of absence because I just felt like my career was being derailed a little bit because of what happened to me. And what happened to me wasn’t really my fault, so it was just a no-win situation. The CBC understandably went through hell to get me back and so they didn’t want to risk me or any other journalists going through the same thing. And so I really felt sheltered, sequestered. I would use the word quarantine but not a great word in these Ebola days. So David said to me, “You’ll find a time when it’s the right time for you to move on.” And so last year was a time for me. I’ve done this last story for them on education and the Canadian NGO that works in Afghanistan and that was my last story for CBC. So it was just time.

How did it make the journalist inside of you feel being held back and sheltered by a news organization such as the CBC?

Frustrated. Angry sometimes. It was probably misplaced anger because I never really held any ill will toward the men who kidnapped me because there’s just no point in in being angry with them. What can I do? I’m back in Canada. So I talked to my therapist about it a little bit when I got back and she said, “It’s okay if you want to be angry at the CBC. There’s some anger that probably needs to come out. So go ahead and direct your anger because you’re angry at the situation.”

When you came back, to what extent was there pressure for you to continue being the story?

The U.S. networks, went through a period where they really wanted the reporter to become part of the story. So you saw reporters who went to the earthquake in Haiti carrying babies and they really became part of their own story. And for me that’s not the narrative I was comfortable with. The one thing that I did do having been not allowed to leave the country, I went across the country and I went to almost every Canadian forces base in this country and did a number of stories on soldiers coming back and what their issues were. Whether it was traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress, I did a whole bunch of stories on their fights with Veterans Affairs, getting help. So I managed to secure an interview with Cpl. Billy Kerr (hyperlink) who is the only Canadian soldier to come back having lost three limbs. So he lost both of his legs and an arm when he stepped on a landmine. It was a few years ago for Remembrance Day and I spent quite a bit of time Billy and his wife, Tracy and their two kids. And it was just a beautiful story. Tracy is an amazing woman and it was just the untold story of the family of the soldier who came back. And so we put together a seven or eight minute story from Remembrance Day special. And one of the producers said to me, “But where are you in this story?” And I said, “What do you mean where am I in this story? It’s about Billy.” And he said, “We don’t see you at all.” And that was the only criticism of the story. So that kind of made me wonder about what our role as journalists should be and what I wanted my role to be. I wanted people just to see Billy and Tracy and their great kids. I didn’t want to be the one co-opting Billy’s story, that’s not right to me. I see that on 60 Minutes sometimes, the reporter is in almost every shot and that’s really not the type of storyteller I wanted to be.

What are you going to be doing next?

I did it backwards. I spent 15 years at the CBC and now I’m on my own, which is exciting and scary and all of that. But I know my publisher is really after me about writing something else. I’m researching the documentary in Afghanistan, I can’t talk too much about it, but I’m working with a production company in Ottawa that is very interested in working with me

And I’m doing some writing, I wrote that long piece for the Walrus last year and I’ve got another piece in the coming months for them based on this last trip to Afghanistan. So it’s a new world for me too. It’s exciting. I’m excited. I was talking to Susan Harada at Carlton the other day and she left after 20 years, and she said that it becomes a part of your identity. Mellissa Fung, CBC News. And to lose that it’s like cutting your tail off a little bit. And to lose that, it’s an adjustment. And I miss my colleagues. No matter what the criticism is about CBC the people are amazing and I’ve learned so much from all of my colleagues and I really miss working with all of them. That’s the hard part about not being there.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. This interview is one of a three part series on Fung’s interview with The Calgary Journal.

Photo by Ryan Rumbolt

bfong@cjournal.caksimpson@cjournal.ca