Tuesday, 24 June 2014

In praise of journalists

Marie Colvin, National Portrait Gallery

Yes, I did say that -- in praise of journalists. On a day when several people who worked as ‘journalists’ have been convicted of the appalling practice of phone hacking I want to remember some of our number who deserve our tributes, rather than our contempt.

Today also, several Al-Jazeera journalists have been jailed for seven years in Egypt, just for doing their jobs and doing them well.

And many hundreds have given their lives over recent decades in the cause of telling us about countless atrocities across the world. As Marie Colvin, who died while reporting for the Sunday Times in the siege of Homs in Syria in 2012, said:  ‘We have to keep telling the stories or the massacres will be worse, we have to keep getting the information out.’

She and many hundreds of other reporters have died while reporting conflicts in Gaza, Sarajevo, Iran, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Colombia, Israel – the list is limitless. Without them, the traumas may indeed be worse.

These killings aren’t accidents, journalists are rarely victims of crossfire. I am talking here about journalists who worked as war correspondents in modern times and were targeted. They knew they were targeted and they lived with that knowledge every day, every hour, every minute, much of it under fire. Marie Colvin and journalist colleagues from around the world were sheltering in a ‘safe house’ in Homs when it was targeted and blown up. She and a French photographer died.

I wrote this prose poem recently in memory of Marie, who was the last war correspondent in Homs representing the British media when she was killed. She was 56.

The italics are her words in her notes sent home at that time. The rest is based on her reports for the media and on information she sent back to friends and colleagues.

Her last post

Finding the widow’s basement was one of the worst moments. I stopped in the doorway,
and saw women hugging their children as far as I could see into the distance. Three hundred frightened women holding weeping bundles all in the humid dust beneath the factory.
Two weeks they had been there, hiding from the relentless shelling, while their husbands and fathers were killed outside.
And all I feel is cold, ice in my core -
and a terrible need to speak.

Syria - the cruellest place on Earth. I watched a baby die today. I watched as his tummy heaved and heaved, full of shrapnel; the doctors could only stand by - until he stopped.
And all I feel is cold, a stone in my heart –
and a terrible need to speak.

I thought I would die when I was shot in the head; and as I lay in the burning dust, that was when I first felt the cold - winter through my bones – while the hot blood poured out. But I was lucky that day, and I could still see clearly with one eye.  For ten more years of horror and terror I saw it all. I should be hardened by now, but I am feeling helpless, and cold, so cold, as I sit in this house.

There is a terrible need to speak. If we do not tell the stories the massacres will be worse, we have to keep getting the information out.

Homs, February 19, 2012. The scale of the bombing is shocking, shells are going off everywhere in all the civilian areas, all around us; but I don’t feel the fear any more, just cold, cold inside cold, and frozen words block my throat where I should speak.

The house trembles, walls collapse, dust explodes everywhere and fills my eyes and lungs, the ceiling falls, I can’t breathe,
and I can’t see any more.

I need to find my shoes …