Years ago, a colleague rang me for advice. She was being sent to Baghdad in advance of a US threat to attack Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But should she go? Were the dangers simply so great that she should not risk her life? I gave her the only advice I could – the decision was up to her, but she should remember one thing: she was going to Baghdad to report, not to die.
That’s what I said to myself last month when I headed back to Syria. I’m going there to report, not to die. I said this during the Lebanese civil war, during Israeli invasions, in the Algerian war of the 90s, in the Iran-Iraq war, in the 1991 liberation of Kuwait, in the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, in Bosnia and Serbia and in the Armenian-Karabach war. But is it really that simple?
I used to ponder an interesting equation. If you drive fast when you are under shellfire, are you safer than if you drive slowly? The faster you go, the more places you can be hit. The slower, the fewer – but there’s more time to be hit. Work that out. And here’s another one: the more wars you cover, the more experienced you are in staying alive. But of course, the more wars you cover, the greater are the chances of being killed.
When in 2001 I was beaten by a mob close to the Afghan border – and they were trying to kill me – I do remember asking myself how long it would take to die. Then I recalled a friend in civil war Lebanon who told me that when in trouble, “whatever you do, don’t do nothing.” And I bashed one of the attackers with my fist. I knocked his tooth out; the scar is still on the back of my hand. And it allowed enough time for a Muslim cleric to intervene and save me.
But there are no set rules. Wearing a flak jacket is often good advice, though I remember a colleague who was killed because he was wearing one. The bullet penetrated his neck and then became trapped inside him by the steel jacket, revolving round and round until it had destroyed his torso. Besides, I don’t like turning up on a street corner among dozens of unprotected civilians, the flak jacket sending a vicious message to every man and woman there: this man’s life, this Westerner’s life is more precious, more valuable than your miserable lives. So yes, I often prefer to wear my ordinary clothes, no flak jacket, no helmet, just merge in with the rest. Faster on my feet, too. Running with a cumbersome jacket on is not easy – though the foreign editors who insist that you wear it rarely discover this.
But then again, back to the old question. Is it worth it? Every time I come back from a dangerous assignment, I do get that extraordinary feeling; that I got my story and came back alive. Churchill captured it quite well when he said that there was nothing so satisfying as being shot at without effect.
But. I’ll repeat that. But. But surely none of my colleagues who died reporting wars ever felt a premonition of their fate – or if they did, I don’t recall them talking about it. Some, in Lebanon, I knew well. One was stabbed to death with an ice-pick. Several were killed by shells. One died in an air crash. Another either died from shrapnel wounds – or was shot to death as he lay wounded. We never found out. Another committed suicide after he had left the Middle East. And of course, their deaths are a warning to us all. Life is not cheap. Death is.
A lot of journalists were killed at the start of the Bosnian war. Was this bad luck, the ferocious nature of the Bosnian war or because there were too many first-time war reporters covering the conflict? I fear a lot of the younger journalists who die arrive with only one experience of war: the cinema. And if you believe in movies, well, the hero usually survives, doesn’t he? War is survivable after all. At the end, you just go home. Warning: you are not in the movies.
Bouts of “hostile environment” courses might help. I’m not so sure. In Beirut in the late 1980s, when journalists were being abducted almost by the week, I adopted the Fisk method of staying free. Drive fast. And never, ever let them grab you. The one time they tried – a beaten up old car in Madame Curie Street, guns waved from the window – I was by immense good fortune recalling an interview I’d conducted that very morning with a Lebanese man who had been kidnapped. That was the moment their car tried to drive me off the road. So I pretended to slow down, then accelerated past them, crashed the front of their car and sped off through the streets. It took me several minutes before I realised they didn’t know the area as well as I did. But I was sure I had been wounded. There was a film of moisture all over me. It was my own perspiration.
The trouble is that being bombed from the air has always been my greatest danger in Lebanon – usually by those warriors of the Israeli air force in their attacks on civilian targets. Unfortunately, however, the lads and lasses running the ‘hostile environment’ courses generally don’t tell you what to do in an Israeli air raid. Or, in Serbia, a NATO air raid. Odd, isn’t it? I suspect that they see the Israelis and NATO as the ‘good guys’. So they only train you to confront the horrible, generally Muslim ‘bad guys’ who might want to spirit you away for a few years – or kill you if their demands are not met. The Hizballah never touched me in Lebanon – mainly, I suspect, because I knew many of the kidnap gangs. So those courses – if they had existed then – wouldn’t have been of much help.
I also fear that we journos make too much of our own suffering. Not those who die. They are indeed ‘our’ martyrs. They belong to us. They remind the world that reporters should be honoured for their sacrifice. But I’ve also met a few who say they suffer from psychological problems. Quite possibly true. But I have an unhappy problem with journalists who have to ‘come to terms’ with what they see, who need ‘closure’ before they ‘move on’. Because if they don’t like covering wars, they can fly home business class with a glass of champagne before takeoff. The people who do suffer are the ordinary people whom we report on. They often have pariah passports, unable to flee their own land, fearing each day the death of their loved ones and themselves. No ‘closure’ for them, unless they die.
For reporters – and those that work with them, drivers, fixers, translators – I fear that wars are becoming more lethal. Bombs are bigger, more destructive. More bullets fill the air. More and more precedents – the bombing and shelling of hospitals (Israel in Lebanon, NATO in Serbia, Syria in Syria), of whole civilian villages, of road bridges and shops and factories – mean there are fewer and fewer safe places for us to go. Most armies use civilians as ‘human shields’. Not just the Hizballah but the Israelis too – why else did they hide their tanks beside homes in southern Lebanon during their five invasions of Lebanon? I even recall ringing the Lebanese army in 2006 and pleading with them to move an armoured vehicle seeking cover beneath a tree opposite my apartment block. They rightly paid no attention to my whinging. Soldiers – not civilians or reporters – come first in war.
But yes, there is something we can do to make ourselves safer. Tell the world, repeatedly, that we are decent people, we journos, that recording the massacre of the innocent might lessen the chances of the next massacre, that talking to all sides is not an unworthy cause, that sometimes being neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer is also a good thing. When I started reporting wars in 1976, we were not targets. But we have become so. In Lebanon in 1983, a Palestinian gunman threw my press card onto the road because he no longer respected journalists. Then reporters became kidnap victims. Then targets for militia firearms – in Bosnia, especially – until a dead journo wasn’t so unusual after all. Hardly a war now goes by without one of us dying. Or two. Or more. Think Iraq. Think Syria.
Yes, I suppose it goes with the job. Reporters were killed in the Second World War. Richard Dimbleby survived a fire-bomb raid in a Lancaster over Hamburg but Ernie Pile was killed in the Pacific and an AP man who dropped behind enemy lines with US commandoes was executed by a German firing squad. Reporting wars is not romantic. It’s awful.
But at least we are witnesses. At least no-one can say afterwards: we didn’t know, nobody told us.
Voices in Danger, which aims to highlight the plight of journalists working in difficult conditions around the world.