Those invisible scars to the soul
Beirut - Forget about the excitement of being, say, the first and only war correspondent to uncover that Saddam Hussein’s engineers were mining oil fields in Kuwait in August 1990, a scoop confirmed by US satellites and the Pentagon a few hours later.
Forget about the feeling of witnessing, in a front-row seat, history in the making in various Middle East theatres.
Forget about risking your life in places few other people, except for other journalists and fighters, go.
No amount of adrenaline, no illusory moments of professional glory and certainly not your protective helmet and flak jacket will shield you from a particular kind of wound, those invisible scars to the soul you end up carrying after being confronted with the unfathomable distress of helpless fellow humans, civilians trapped in conflict.
One such haunting moment was for me while reporting on a mass grave in the town of Hilla, 90 km south of Baghdad. A few weeks earlier following the US invasion, Saddam Hussein had gone into hiding. Mass graves across the country were being uncovered and Hilla was certainly the largest one. It was as if I were reporting from inside hell.
In an eerie atmosphere, thousands of remains — mostly sacks of bones — were next to huge holes in a vast sandy, sunny field. Distraught Iraqis carrying photographs of loved ones — smiling young men or women — sifted through remains, identifying sometimes a son, a daughter or a father by a wedding band or a garment.
I tried to keep my voice steady while doing my live broadcast from the scene as next to me was a sobbing old man, his lament ascending to the sky, carrying away, like a child in his arms, the skeleton of his son.
Nor will I ever forget the sad look in the eyes of four-year-old Maria, once a lively Palestinian girl from Gaza, being treated in an Israeli hospital in Jerusalem. Maria was permanently paralysed from neck down after suffering spinal injuries caused by a botched Israeli air raid against a car carrying Islamist militants. The child, who happened to be in a passing car, lost her mother, baby brother, grandmother and uncle in the raid. Maria’s only crime was to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Such was also the case of Ayelet, an Israeli teenager killed on her 15th birthday in a suicide attack in a bus in Tel Aviv and whose parents I met in an East Jerusalem hotel. Here they were on the Mount of Olives with other Jewish and Arab bereaved parents reaching out, sharing their pain irrespective of their political opinions. “Don’t wait to lose your son or daughter to start talking to one another,” was their — apparently lost — message to fellow Palestinian or Israeli citizens.
To many, war correspondents are by definition a cynical bunch who at the end of the day, after filing their reports, gather at the hotel bar for drinks. But this is only part of the story. Many of us have to live with haunting memories, such as children dying because they can’t get their dialysis in besieged areas or families sitting on the rubble of their bombed homes with nowhere to go.
War correspondents are not Red Cross or NGO workers. Their job is to report from the front lines while hoping that their reports might change things on the ground. Sometimes, they lose their lives doing so as was the case for veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin, killed during the siege of Homs in Syria in February 2012. Colvin was the ultimate war correspondent and certainly the bravest journalist I have had the privilege to know and whom I befriended more than 20 years ago.
Despite the casualties and the trauma, there are always war correspondents willing to take the risk, again and again.