Alum discusses reporting from the trenches

Maclean’s senior writer Michael Petrou, ArtSci ’97, knew he wanted to be a journalist since his days at Queen’s

Petrou was sent to Afghanistan within weeks of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Petrou was sent to Afghanistan within weeks of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Foreign correspondent Michael Petrou of Maclean’s almost decided to forgo a career in journalism in favour of academia. But then the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks happened.

Petrou, a Queen’s alumnus, was an intern at the Ottawa Citizen in 2001 and had grown weary of working on the cop desk. His day-to-day routine involved listening to the radio scanner for reports of crime or accidents, and then fleeing to the scene or interviewing bereaved relatives.

“It’s a horrible, horrible, parasitic way to make a living, so I was reconsidering whether I even wanted to be a journalist,” said Petrou, a former Editorials Editor at the Journal.

“It wasn’t what I had imagined doing when I was writing self-righteous, indignant editorials at the Queen’s Journal. I thought journalism was something nobler.

“And then September 11 happened and that changed everything.”

Petrou, who will be on campus Wednesday to deliver a talk about his career and his new book, had travelled the greater Middle East shortly before the attacks.

Just weeks after 9/11, the young journalist convinced his editor at the Citizen to send him to Afghanistan, where he found himself embedded in the heart of an active war.

Petrou spent a month not with Canadian troops, but with Afghan men who were fighting the Taliban.

“I had absolutely no idea [what I was doing]. None of us did,” he said. “I went into a war zone with no flak jacket, no helmet, no life insurance. I had blankets that I had stolen from a hotel, 25 litres of water and a couple notebooks and a satellite phone. And immediately we were right in the thick of it.” While in Afghanistan, Petrou witnessed attacks by the Taliban and experienced the warfare from the trenches.

“They would blast villages and trenches dug into the ground and you’d kind of sneak forward and you’d crouch down so you wouldn’t expose your head,” he said.

“Occasionally you’d peak your head over the top of the trench and see the Taliban peeking over and look over at you from 1200 metres away. They’d be shooting back and forth and mortaring and rocketing and occasionally Americans would come over head and bomb the Taliban … Of course I wasn’t ready for that. How could I have been?” That experience inspired the name of his recent book, Is This Your First War?, which he will discuss in his Alumni Review-hosted talk.

“The bulk of the book deals with the decade after Sept. 11 and a lot of the changes that have happened to the region since then,” said Petrou, who dabbled in scholarly pursuits — including a PhD in history from Oxford — before committing to his current career.

Petrou’s visit will be the third in the Review’s authors series, which has also brought writers Tanis Rideout and Andrew Westoll to campus.

Petrou, ArtSci ’97, said his interest in reporting dates to his time at Queen’s.

“I was lucky in that I more or less knew that I wanted to be a journalist because of my experience at the Queen’s Journal,” he said.

“The Journal kind of planted that drive into journalism which never really faded.”

His journalism career has taken him around the world. His experiences as a correspondent include reporting from Iran, which he entered after telling the Iranian embassy that he wasn’t a journalist.

“I met up with a lot of these dissidents and I talked with these people who were so frustrated with the theocracy they lived under,” he said.

“In 2009 that frustration, that desire for a more decent, a freer way of life just exploded in those mass street protests against the stolen elections and then of course we have the upheavals in the Arab Spring.

“The subject was changing as I was trying to get a book out of it.”

Petrou, who returned to Afghanistan in 2011, has been present for many of these changes the region has seen in the last 12 years.

“I think I had some good stories that I wanted to get onto paper,” he said.

Petrou will speak in conversation with professor Carolyn Smart in Stauffer library (Speaker’s Corner) tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.

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