Sometimes in journalism, you run down so many dead ends you wonder if you’ll ever find a road that actually leads anywhere again. These include story tips that prove untrue. Sources who fizzle out. Fragments of facts that don’t fit together.
And then there are stories you hear which go deeper and further the more you dig — stories like the one we told in the Stuff Circuit documentary Life + Limb.
In 2017, while working on the documentary series The Valley, we heard children in Afghanistan had been wounded on a firing range used by New Zealand soldiers during their 10-year deployment to the country to help with the rebuild after the Taliban had been overthrown.
The team was involved with the construction of infrastructure and other projects. As this was a military-led mission charged with the responsibility for the security of the region, the New Zealand soldiers operated a series of firing ranges on which they could test and train with their weapons.
This made the tip we received in 2017 seem feasible. Initially, however, it didn’t seem like there was much to the story, except for some small details that had already been reported at the time. The information we received never made the cut for The Valley.
But something about it didn’t make sense. And so we kept digging. The more we looked, the more it seemed the official explanation didn’t make sense.
Tracking down the truth
Every major investigation has a major breakthrough. For Life + Limb, that came one afternoon in 2019 during a phone call from our offices in Auckland to a source in Kabul. The source told us that there had, in fact, been incidents caused by unexploded ordnance on the firing ranges used by the New Zealanders. We learned there was even a database of these incidents — and the source was willing to send that to us.
What arrived was a compendium of sadness — 17 civilians had been killed or injured in explosions the United Nations said was connected to the firing ranges. In one explosion in 2014, seven children between the ages of 5 and 12 were killed when one of them picked up a device and brought it back to a village to play with.
All in all, there were nine bloody incidents the New Zealand public had never been told about.
To find out about the incidents, and to have such a detailed database, was a breakthrough. But that was really only the beginning. To be able to tell the story in a compelling way for the video format that Stuff Circuit specialises in, we had to be able to find people who could tell us about what happened, and to show us the evidence.
Which meant travelling back to Afghanistan.
Help on the ground
Fortunately, with the support of excellent local fixers, on-the-ground sources, and experienced colleagues, we were able to return to the country and find the people we needed to speak to.
Sitting in a village with the three mothers who’d lost their children in that 2014 explosion was a moment none of us will ever forget. Filming with them at the gravesites was an emotional wrench, but enabled us to convey to the New Zealand public the human toll the incidents had caused.
Back in New Zealand, editing the documentary required a delicate touch, conveying the full scale and evidence while also telling the human story, without straying into mawkishness.
To support the documentary, we built a series of online resources that enabled people to explore other aspects of the story. The full package — a video documentary, online interactives, and print stories — was released on Sunday, November 17, 2019.
Within 24 hours, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had called military leaders in to explain what had happened, and ordered them to have the firing ranges properly cleared as soon as possible.
Life + Limb enabled the voices of those mothers to finally be heard.