Praised for His Humanity & Exposing Horrors of War
HAVANA TIMES – On Sunday, the US journalist and filmmaker Brent Renaud was shot dead near Kyiv while working on a documentary about refugees. He is the first foreign journalist known to have been killed in Ukraine since the Russian invasion. Ukrainian officials are accusing Russian forces of his death.
We discuss Renaud’s remarkable documentary work and feature part of an interview he gave on Democracy Now! after he was embedded in Iraq with the National Guard from his home state of Arkansas. We are joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ann Marie Lipinski, who got to know both Renaud and photographer Juan Arredondo during their time as fellows at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, which Lipinski curates.
“Brent was a very, very special journalist, yes, but also person,” says Lipinski. “He just brought a very, very rare humanity and patience to the work.” We also hear from Cora Weiss, former board of directors chair of Downtown Community Television, where Brent and his brother Craig started their filmmaking career in the same former firehouse building that housed Democracy Now! for over a decade. “He shouldn’t have been killed,” says Weiss. “Brent was terribly important as an educator for all Americans to understand the horrors of war and the unnecessary expense in life.” Carlos Martínez de la Serna of the Committee to Protect Journalists says Renaud’s killing amounts to a war crime.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
On Sunday, the award-winning U.S. journalist Brent Renaud died after being shot and killed near a Ukrainian checkpoint in the city of Irpin, that’s just outside the capital Kyiv, where there’s been heavy fighting as Russian troops advance on the capital. Ukrainian officials accused Russian forces of killing Brent, though Agence France-Presse reports the exact circumstances are unclear. The Peabody Award-winning filmmaker was 50 years old. At the time of his death, he was with photographer Juan Arredondo, who was wounded in the attack. Arredondo briefly spoke to an Italian reporter from the hospital before he was taken into surgery.
ANNALISA CAMILLI: Tell me, please: What is your name?
JUAN ARREDONDO: Juan.
ANNALISA CAMILLI: Juan?
JUAN ARREDONDO: Juan.
ANNALISA CAMILLI: Where are you from?
JUAN ARREDONDO: The U.S.
ANNALISA CAMILLI: U.S.
JUAN ARREDONDO: Mm-hmm.
ANNALISA CAMILLI: What happened to you?
JUAN ARREDONDO: We were — we crossed one — the first bridge, in Irpin. We were going to film other refugees leaving. And we got into a car. Somebody offered to take us to the other bridge. And we crossed a checkpoint, and they started shooting at us. So the driver turned around, and they kept shooting. It’s two of us. My friend is Brent Renaud, and he’s been shot and left behind.
ANNALISA CAMILLI: And how is he?
JUAN ARREDONDO: I don’t know. I don’t know.
ANNALISA CAMILLI: You don’t know. You don’t know what happened to him, do you?
JUAN ARREDONDO: He was — I saw his being shot on the neck. And we got split, and I got pulled into the —
ANNALISA CAMILLI: And who brought you here?
JUAN ARREDONDO: An ambulance. I don’t know.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the photographer Juan Arredondo, who was wounded Sunday in a shooting in the Ukrainian city of Irpin, just outside Kyiv. At the time that he was speaking in the hospital, Juan didn’t know that Brent Renaud was dead. Brent is the first foreign journalist known to have been killed in Ukraine since the Russian invasion. At the time of his death, Brent Renaud was working on a documentary for Time Studios about global refugees. In a statement, Time Studios said, quote, “We are devastated by the loss of Brent Renaud. As an award-winning filmmaker and journalist, Brent tackled the toughest stories around the world often alongside his brother Craig Renaud.”
Over the past two decades, Brent had reported across the globe, including in Colombia, in Mexico, Egypt, Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Haiti, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Brent and Craig Renaud both appeared on Democracy Now! a number of times to talk about their films, including Off to War, about the deployment to Iraq of National Guard from their home state of Arkansas.
BRENT RENAUD: We arrived in Baghdad with a National Guard unit —
AMY GOODMAN: Brent.
BRENT RENAUD: — with the Arkansas National Guard, in these same sort of unarmored vehicles. Right away in April, which was one of the bloodiest months of the war, when we arrived, there were, right off the bat, a lot of injuries and deaths.
AMY GOODMAN: We were broadcasting from DCTV at the time. Brent and his brother Craig Renaud started their filmmaking career at DCTV — that’s Downtown Community Television — here in Manhattan. For over a decade, Democracy Now! was housed in the same old firehouse. In a statement, DCTV founder Jon Alpert said, quote, “We had the honor of working alongside Brent for many years. We were and are inspired by his commitment to bring his camera to capture scenes the world needs to see — no matter the difficulty or the danger. Brent is a hero who sacrificed for all of us. He deserves to be celebrated. Not murdered,” Jon said.
Later in the show, we’ll hear more from Brent in his own words on Democracy Now!, but first we’re joined by Ann Marie Lipinski. She’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. She got to know both Brent Renaud and Juan Arredondo when they were fellows at the Nieman Foundation in 2019.
Ann Marie Lipinski, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about —
ANN MARIE LIPINSKI: Good morning, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: — how you found out what happened? And our condolences. Our condolences also to Brent’s family, to his brother Craig and the whole family, to you, because you knew him, and really to the world, because this is such a loss. Talk about Brent, how he came to Nieman, and how you learned what happened. And then also tell us about Juan, who’s been injured but is alive.
ANN MARIE LIPINSKI: Brent, as you well know, Amy, was a very, very special journalist, yes, but also person. And I still remember the interview with him the year he applied to become a Nieman fellow. And he always — he grew up as a shy and socially awkward child, and he still wore that as an adult. I think situations like an interview for a fellowship were difficult for him, more difficult than covering a war. But his central and just very sort of profound humanity came through in that interview.
And his work, obviously, was excellent. And anyone who has watched any of his and Craig’s documentaries can see that. But what you could also see in Brent was that he just brought a very, very rare humanity and patience to the work. He would tell us that the goal of his journalism was thoughtful stories about disenfranchised people. And I think he lived that credo every day.
I found out he had been killed yesterday morning. I woke up simultaneously to a social media post and my phone ringing. Nate Payne, one of Brent’s fellow fellows from that year at Harvard, was phoning me from Traverse City, Michigan, where he’s editor of the local newspaper. He was a very close friend of Brent’s, and he also had just heard the news. And so, we were kind of finding out together. And a little bit later in the day, the class and I and another colleague from Nieman got together on Zoom and talked for a long time about Brent and his work and the impacts that he had had on journalism, of course, but really on all of us as individuals.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you tell us about Juan Arredondo? Clearly, when he gave that interview as he was being prepped for surgery — he had been whisked away to a hospital, Brent died on the road — he didn’t know that his colleague had died. Tell us about Juan Arredondo.
ANN MARIE LIPINSKI: Juan, like Brent, is just a really brilliant visual journalist. He was mainly a still photographer and really developed his videography, partly during his year at Nieman and, really, in good measure, because of Brent, and they became very close, not just friends but partners on stories. And they have traveled together a number of times. I think what’s remarkable about that video is you hear in Juan’s voice — that is Juan. He is just the picture of calm and kindness and patience, and he sounds very much like he often does, although you can also feel the strain of what he has just been through. Our understanding is he went into surgery for what was believed to be shrapnel or a bullet in his leg but that a bullet was not found. He has recovered from surgery. He will need to stay hospitalized for a handful of days. And then, there is a group that —
AMY GOODMAN: Is he in Poland or Ukraine?
ANN MARIE LIPINSKI: He is in Ukraine. And there are people working to then evacuate him back to the United States and also to return Brent’s body to this country.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you having trouble — is the family having trouble getting Brent’s body back?
ANN MARIE LIPINSKI: I don’t know that they are having trouble. I know that there are people working on this, including another fellow from that — there were two fellows in that class who are Ukrainian. And so there’s a lot of support and a lot of people working on this to return him home.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to look at some of Brent Renaud’s remarkable work. In 2003 and 2004, Brent and his brother Craig — we called them the Renaud brothers all the time at the firehouse — they’re both from Arkansas, embedded with the Arkansas National Guard as they were deployed to Iraq. After months of filming, the brothers produced the 10-part documentary series Off to War: From Rural Arkansas to Iraq. They did it for Discovery Channel.
NATIONAL GUARD SOLDIER 1: Mama, Mama, can’t you see?
NATIONAL GUARD SOLDIERS: Mama, Mama, can’t you see?
NATIONAL GUARD SOLDIER 1: What this army is doing to me?
NATIONAL GUARD SOLDIERS: What this army is doing to me?
NARRATOR: As the war in Iraq enters its second year, nearly 3,000 soldiers from the Arkansas National Guard are called to active duty.
NATIONAL GUARD SOLDIER 2: Most of these guys, before we got activated, we held a civilian job.
NATIONAL GUARD SOLDIER 3: If the turkey houses get sold, then so be it. It’s out of my hands right now.
DAUGHTER: I don’t want him to go.
NATIONAL GUARD SOLDIER 4: Yeah, they’re going to target you, because they think you’re just a bunch of lazy, fat National Guardsmen who don’t know how to do their job.
NATIONAL GUARD SOLDIER 5: Get inside! Get inside!
NARRATOR: These soldiers are part of the largest deployment of National Guardsmen since the Korean War.
KATHLEEN BERGER: The military has confirmed that four Arkansas soldiers are killed in Iraq this weekend.
NARRATOR: Fifty-seven of the Arkansas Guardsmen come from the town of Clarksville. This is their story, as they leave home and family behind to serve in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt of Off to War, directed by Brent Renaud and his brother Craig. This is another clip featuring Sergeant David Short of the Arkansas National Guard.
SGT. DAVID SHORT: Suit up and go out on a mission today. What we’re supposed to be doing is security and stability operations, which we basically have just tossed that out the window. There’s no security here, and there is no stability here. You know, it’s basically a full-fledged, very hot combat zone. All right, guys, let’s go ahead and move on out. Another wonderful day. Woohoo!
RADIO: The situation is a vehicle pulled up to a U.S. checkpoint. Military-age male dismounted from the van, produced what appeared to be a weapon. That weapon turned out to be a toy gun cigarette lighter. A gunner from the Diamond Element opened fire with 50-caliber fire. Break.
NATIONAL GUARD SOLDIER 6: A 50-cal., you don’t get shot anywhere with a 50-cal. and not be seriously wounded.
RADIO: The ensuing fire resulted in three Iraqis killed, seven seriously wounded.
NATIONAL GUARD SOLDIER 7: The people are going to be pissed off that we shot up a bunch of innocent people.
NATIONAL GUARD SOLDIER 6: Any children or women?
SGT. DAVID SHORT: I think there was a woman in the rear vehicle who went into labor.
NATIONAL GUARD SOLDIER 8: I think this stuff is crazy, man. I really don’t want to be here.
SGT. DAVID SHORT: Unfortunate, but they’ve got to know that we’re serious about this. We’re getting our people killed, and somebody wants to jump out with a toy, a toy pistol, and start brandishing it like he’s a big boy. He’s going to get treated like a big boy. Lock and load, gentlemen. OK, let the good times roll. I’m not into going out, meeting the people, you know, pressing the flesh, you know, trying to help them out and see what their needs are. They haven’t given me time to see what their needs are, because they won’t quit attacking me long enough for me to find out what their needs are. I really wish we would have trained more for combat operations — train for the worst, expect the best. Well, we trained for the best, and the worst happened.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the documentary series Off to War: From Rural Arkansas to Iraq, directed by Brent and Craig Renaud. In 2004, the Renaud brothers appeared on Democracy Now! several times to talk about their time embedded with the Arkansas National Guard. This is Brent Renaud.
BRENT RENAUD: We arrived in Baghdad with a National Guard unit —
AMY GOODMAN: Brent.
BRENT RENAUD: — with the Arkansas National Guard, in these same sort of unarmored vehicles. Right away in April, which was one of the bloodiest months of the war, when we arrived, there were, right off the bat, a lot of injuries and deaths, particularly with Echo Troop, who you just saw on the clip. Within that group, there were a number of guys who refused to go out on missions almost immediately, after they had seen their friends and their fellow soldiers die right in front of them. Fortunately for them, Sergeant Short, who you see in the clip, the one talking in the Humvee, handled it internally, gave them time off, allowed them to get it together and to get back on the job. But I would say, right off the bat, I witnessed about three to four guys who were just saying, “It’s too dangerous to go out there. We’re dropping like flies,” as you also heard it in the clip. This is pretty widespread sentiment.
AMY GOODMAN: I think it’s something new to the American public, when these National Guardsmen are saying, “We’re not going to go, because we don’t have the armored vehicles.” What do they mean?
BRENT RENAUD: Well, the way it works is that you — the units, when they go over to Iraq, bring their own vehicles from their home state. A lot of them, most of them, were never in combat. They were doing things like, you know, helping people after floods, cleaning up after tornadoes. They didn’t have combat-ready vehicles. But since every unit brought their vehicles with them into Iraq, at least initially, that’s the vehicles that they had to do their missions with. And the regular Army, by and large, took their vehicles back to the United States with them.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Brent Renaud, speaking on Democracy Now! in 2004, when we all worked at the firehouse at Downtown Community Television. Brent was killed yesterday in Ukraine, where he was working on a documentary about global refugees. That interview, yes, took place at the firehouse, which housed for many years both Democracy Now! and the whole DCTV crew, including Brent. See, Brent began his career with Downtown Community Television.
We’re joined now by Cora Weiss. She’s the former chair of the DCTV board of directors, a position she held for 40 years. She was also president of the Hague Appeal for Peace and has been nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in the international women’s and peace movements, particularly focusing on relations between the United States and Russia — at the time, the Soviet Union.
Cora, our condolences. We just played those clips of Off to War that the Renaud brothers did. They lived at your house in Bridgehampton for a year working on that series. Can you talk about, first, your response to hearing the news, and what Brent and his work has meant, and how it epitomizes independent media that came out of your Downtown Community Television, founded by Jon Alpert, the great filmmaker?
CORA WEISS: Thank you, Amy. And first, I’d like to express my feelings about this unbearable crime of killing Brent to his parents and his brother Craig. Brent and Craig lived in a summer house — that means it wasn’t built to sustain a winter weather. They lived there for almost a year editing Off to War. And we got to know two remarkable human beings. Brent spent his life working in film, trying to teach us all the truth about the evils, dangers, horrors of war. And it inspired my work for peace. Brent’s loss is huge, absolutely huge, and it was unnecessary, because this war is unnecessary.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you cross so many bridges. In fact, one of the works that the Renaud brothers did, one of their films, was the Bridge to Baghdad, and they went together with our colleague Sharif Abdel Kouddous in 2003 to Iraq to make that. And, Cora, you are the epitome of building bridges. So, if you can talk about where Brent’s life was ended, in Ukraine? All the details are not exactly clear yet, this horrific moment where he was stopped at a checkpoint with Juan Arredondo, his colleague, and then he was shot dead and left in the road. If you can talk about how — if you see parallels between what is happening now between Ukraine, Russia, the United States and NATO — you so long fought for peace — and what he was doing back then, covering the War in Iraq, the horror of the U.S. invasion?
CORA WEISS: The Iraq War was built on a lie about weapons of mass destruction. It was unnecessary. It was avoidable. All of the wars since the end of the Second World War should never have happened. And it was possible that they didn’t have to happen, because we’re also — we’ve also become very experienced in diplomacy, and we’ve learned an enormous amount about prevention of violent conflict. And there are laws about preventing violent conflict. So, this didn’t have to happen. I don’t know anything about where or why he was killed, but he shouldn’t have been killed.
Brent was terribly important as an educator for all Americans to understand the horrors of war and the unnecessary expense in life, in lives and in money for the wars. So, you know, when you’ve spent your life trying to prevent war and this happens, you feel pretty discouraged. But I guess we can’t afford to be, and we just have to keep trying, because war doesn’t help anyone except the weapons manufacturers, who are probably the only happy people in the world today. We’re using so many weapons which destroy. Or the construction workers — not workers, but the construction owners, who will have to repair the damage, are probably pretty happy, too.
AMY GOODMAN: Cora Weiss, you began —
CORA WEISS: But otherwise —
AMY GOODMAN: You began your work in 1961, your work for the abolition of nuclear weapons and fighting for the ending of the Cold War. How concerned are you about the prospect of a nuclear war or an accident that could lead to this?
CORA WEISS: As long as there are nuclear weapons and as long as people like President Biden and Putin say nothing is off the table, there is a possibility that they could be used, either used because of an accident or deliberately. And that is the most frightening, frightening thought, because we know that all it takes is one nuclear bomb, and it’s goodbye. Goodbye, everything. You know, we talk about climate change. Climate change and nuclear weapons are the apocalyptic twins. And we have to prevent one and get rid of the other. We have to abolish nuclear weapons immediately. There should be no question about it anymore. They’re too dangerous and unnecessary. And who wants to destroy the world and the lives of everybody in it?
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn now to Last Chance High. That was the film that Brent and Craig Renaud won a Peabody for in 2014. This is Brent speaking at the Peabody Awards ceremony.
BRENT RENAUD: When Mark Allen, a development producer at Vice, brought us in to meet with Jason Mojica and hear about his plans to launch Vice News, we pitched a project we didn’t really expect that they would greenlight: a multi-episode series that would take almost a year to produce about a Chicago school for kids with severe emotional and behavioral disorders. It’s a school that the principal described as the last stop between jail, the mental institution or the city morgue. But I remember vividly Jason saying this was exactly the kind of storytelling that Vice News was going to become known for. Over the last decade, more people have been killed in the city of Chicago by gun violence than U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. Most of these shootings involve teenagers. Last Chance High is about what we feel is a severely underreported correlation between mental and behavioral disorders and the tragedy of youth violence.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Brent Renaud —
CORA WEISS: Brilliant.
AMY GOODMAN: — speaking —
CORA WEISS: Brent was brilliant.
AMY GOODMAN: Cora, can you wrap up by talking about what his work meant, whether he was in Somalia or detained in China, whether he was in Colombia or he was back in his beloved Arkansas, whether he was in Mexico, in Egypt, whether he was in Iraq, his philosophy of filmmaking?
CORA WEISS: Brent spent his life helping us to understand the evils of war, the unnecessary wars, and the destruction not just to property but to people, how it destroyed our minds, our lives, our children. And he did it unceasingly. He just did war, war, war, no more, no more, no more. And that’s a huge loss for all of us. We should all see Brent’s films over and again. The 10-part series that he and Craig did, and edited at our house for a year almost, is unique. Nobody has ever made a film with such detail and through the perspective of the young men who are being asked to go and kill and fight it — and now women, too, of course. So, his loss is enormous. And it’s a tragedy that should not happen again. Another mother and father should not have to bury their kid because of a war that didn’t have to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, in denouncing the shooting, the Committee to Protect Journalists called for the killers to be brought to justice. We’re joined now by Carlos Martínez de la Serna, journalist and program manager for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Thank you so much for being with us, Carlos. Can you talk about what you understand at this point happened to Brent, and if you can talk about what other journalists are facing right now, whether in Russia or in Ukraine?
CARLOS MARTÍNEZ DE LA SERNA: Sure. Thanks for having me.
So, piecing together some of the information that was made public yesterday, different testimonies, including Juan Arredondo’s own testimony from the hospital, but we can — what we understand is, as Juan described, they were going through a checkpoint, moving from one place to another in the city of Irpin. That’s northern Ukraine, very close to the capital city of Kyiv. And at some point during that process, they were shot at, and then Brent was hit in the neck, I believe, and was left behind, as Juan said. There was a testimony of a journalist who passed by the body later. He was, she described, as a body there covered by a blanket. And then others were rushed to the hospital, as Juan. Those are the two journalists that we know were affected by the attack. There is a police report from Ukrainian police that says that the responsibles were Russian troops. That’s the only report we’ve seen so far, as you mentioned, so far. There are still details missing, so we cannot categorically say who’s responsible for the killing.
But we need to — what we can do definitely right now is reiterate and clearly emphasize what are kind of the rules of war that are such regarding journalists. So, journalists, under international humanitarian law, are civilians, and civilians are never a legitimate target. So, what happened to Brent amounts, at least on paper, as of today, as a war crime. That’s the situation that civilians in Ukraine are facing all the time. This is a war where there are so many places under attack. And those are changing all the time. The situation is extremely threatening to civilians, as — of course, as well as other people, as well, but, for instance, civilians and journalists and civilians, as well. So they are exposed to attacks like this all the time. Yesterday there were reports about the city of Irpin being banned from reporters after this killing of Brent and the incident. So, this situation is changing all the time. Journalists need help and advice when they’re just trying to move from one place to another. It’s extremely fluid and extremely dangerous —
AMY GOODMAN: Carlos —
CARLOS MARTÍNEZ DE LA SERNA: — as you can imagine in a war zone. Yes?
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what happened on February 28th, Russian soldiers firing on a team from Sky News in the Kyiv region, the capital region?
CARLOS MARTÍNEZ DE LA SERNA: Yeah, that’s one of the reports that clearly seems very similar to what happened here. They were reporting. There was a TV crew from Sky News, and they were filming, so you can clearly see how they came under attack. And they were shot at by — it seems, by the Russian troops. There are other reports, as well. At the beginning of the war — which seems years ago, but it’s only been three weeks — there were two Danish journalists that were also shot at, and they recovered, and I believe they left the country. They moved back.
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, I watched them interviewed from a hospital outside the country.
CARLOS MARTÍNEZ DE LA SERNA: Yes, so they’re back in Denmark. And there are — there’s the report of a Swiss journalist, freelancer, who also was attacked and allegedly robbed by Russian troops. There are many incidents. There’s a Ukrainian journalist that was killed in the shelling of a communications tower in Kyiv. So, there’s — yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, so often it’s the local journalists who face the most danger.
CARLOS MARTÍNEZ DE LA SERNA: That is. So, most of the journalists killed in conflict are usually local journalists. And also journalists killed because other reasons are also usually — I mean, other settings — there are never reason to kill journalists — but other settings, other circumstances are usually local journalists.
AMY GOODMAN: Carlos —
CARLOS MARTÍNEZ DE LA SERNA: But also — yes.
AMY GOODMAN: We have to go, but I just want to ask: What are you calling for now?
CARLOS MARTÍNEZ DE LA SERNA: There needs to be a credible, transparent investigation. And whoever is responsible for this needs to be held accountable. This amounts to a war crime. This is — justice in this case, and in other cases of killed journalists, is essential to really bring things to a place where we can see, well, there is some kind of closure, despite the tragic event, the loss for the family, the loss for the journalism community and the loss for the public. Brent did an amazing work that he won’t be able to continue. And as you said before, his testimony has been so powerful, as well as other journalists. We need to protect the other journalists by bringing those who are responsible for Brent killed to justice.
AMY GOODMAN: Carlos Martínez de la Serna, I want to thank you for being with us, journalist and program manager for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Coming up, as NATO accuses Russia of flying warplanes out of Belarus, we’ll speak to a leading Belarusian activist, who’s living in exile, about the Russian invasion and the escalating repression inside Belarus. Stay with us.