Monday, January 17, 2005

On The Frontline

Last night we watched BBC correspondent Jeremy Bowen's programme Jeremy Bowen - On The Frontline (BBC1 16/01/05), a one-off insight into journalists who cover wars, and how the experience impacts their own lives. Bowen is clearly very thoughtful (contrary to the popular perception of journalists...), and this was a fascinating and thought-provoking documentary. Among the colleagues - of different nationalities and news agencies - he recalled experience with was Fergal Keane, who covered the Rwandan genocide for the BBC, and whose book Season Of Blood: A Rwandan Journey (Penguin, 1995, ISBN 0-14-024760-2) is one of my all-time must-read recommendations.

Certain reflections really stood out for me (the 'quotes' below are not verbatim - I can't write fast enough! - but convey the gist of what was said):
"We were there because we thought our bearing witness would change became very disillusioning that our bearing witness didn't change things..." Allan Little, BBC Paris correspondent, on Sarajevo during the Balkan Conflict.
"If you want to report war properly, you have to report its impact on people...war is about is about thousands of acts of cruelty...the objective as a war journalist is to tell the truth...that's all you can do..." Jeremy Bowen.

I'm fascinated by the phrase "our bearing witness" [these were Allan Little's exact words], and whether or not it can change situations. I guess bearing witness of human cruelty cannot, in itself, bring about change - either by directly confronting the observed people with their actions, or by confronting other people (the global community) with their actions in the hope that those other people might confront the offenders. At the end of the day, we are all capable of the same - if this were not so, Bowen and his colleagues would not have had to report on so many wars in so many parts of the world. And yet, with the journalists, I don't think that this means we should stop bearing witness to human cruelty; in my case, in the hope that God might confront the perpetrators (and us, who are capable of the same) through the process...

...Which brings me to another bearing witness - bearing witness to God, in the midst of human cruelty (including that human cruelty committed in the name of God, whichever name might be being invoked). It is interesting that for many - including some war correspondents - exposure to human cruelty is considered as evidence that God either does not exist or does not care or is powerless to intervene or is behind the cruelty. Which is an incredible exercise in transferring blame from one party (with whom we are linked, by being capable of the same, even if we would not associate ourselves with their particular atrocities) to another (this game has been played for a long time, ever since Adam blamed Eve who blamed the serpent in Eden...). It is also interesting that the existence of a living, caring, interventionalist, blessing-bestowing God is rarely, if ever, deduced from exposure to human acts of selfless courage, overcoming devastating loss, rebuilding broken lives, and so on...For these, the human spirit takes the praise.

I live in a war zone - full of acts of little cruelties; little deaths; people whose lives have been constricted into smaller and smaller spaces...My responsibility to my neighbours is to tell the truth (yes, as I experience it; which is in part) and bear witness. I am a war correspondent.

(Bowen also interviewed journalist Anna Blundy, whose father was a war correspondent who lost his life reporting in El Salvador when she was 19, and who - obviously - has chosen a career that is the-same-as-and-yet-different-to his. Today is my son Noah's 2nd birthday. And yes, though I don't hope that he follows the exact path I have taken, I do hope that he too will follow in his father's footsteps.)

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