Happenstance protects war correspondents

CAIRO, Egypt When Winston Churchill was about my age, he travelled to revolutionary Cuba. After a bullet passed between his mouth and a drumstick…

CAIRO, Egypt

When Winston Churchill was about my age, he travelled to revolutionary Cuba.

After a bullet passed between his mouth and a drumstick of chicken, he remarked that “there is nothing so exhilarating as to be shot at without effect.”

The afternoon we first arrived in Beirut, photographer Jonathan Giesen and I travelled — although we did not realize it at the time — to what was the epicentre of Hezbollah activity in Beirut.

As we contemplated driving down a barricaded road, armed men in civilian clothes arrived by scooter and asked for journalistic credentials, which we did not yet have.

We fumbled nervously for our passports; a cellphone call to some headquarters was placed.

Without warning, there was a massive detonation down the road we had wished to take.

The windows on Liban Poste across the street oscillated violently. The Hezbollah men ran for the middle of the intersection and I followed them: They had experience under fire.

When, after 15 seconds, there was no further blast, they ran back to their scooter. Just before he sped off, my eyes met those of the driver.

For a split-second we understood each other: We both wanted to survive.

It was my first time under fire and I was exhilarated.

Fate — for it certainly was nothing I had done — spared me. Hezbollah had stopped us from going down a road where we might have been struck by a shell.

The shell then saved us from whoever was on the other end of the telephone line. Of course, when the effects are felt — by people other than me on that day — they are far from exhilarating.

It is hard to describe this exhilaration without seeming crass, voyeuristic or unethical.

Imagine there is a flow of energy, time and outcomes that shapes our lives but with which we are normally only in indirect contact.

War is violent and painful, but like exposure to all risks, it brings us closer to this unknown world. It is like being cut deeply then plunging the raw, white nerve endings into that flow.

You feel a throbbing, painful, but electrifying connection to a realm that injects mere minutes with a lifetime’s possibilities for destruction and escape.

It leaves a deep scar, but you feel so alive.

Two weeks later, Jonathan left Lebanon, headed to Georgia. There was no reason to stay in Lebanon; things were over. We heard there might soon be fighting over Abkhazia, Georgia’s new breakaway republic.

As he accelerated down the road, my emotion was stronger than it should have been at the parting of two men of such short acquaintance.

A shared, challenging purpose, however, is to people what a magnetic field is to iron filings — it aligns us in unexpected and beautiful patterns.

It is not that it is lasting. Later, having lost the engine that drove them, these relationships often only go on as reminiscences.

But while they last, they have a fleeting, present intensity that makes other forms of connection to human beings seem trivial.

It was not the prospect of being apart, but rather the knowledge of just how close it is possible to be to another person — and the realization that most of life is not lived in that way — that was the source of my sadness.

The evening of Jonathan’s departure, I had dinner with two Greek relief workers from an organization called Médecins du Monde.

They had arrived one day before the cease-fire.

“Were you disappointed?” I asked their logistician.

“No, how can you be disappointed at the end of a war?”

I pressed her: Come on, you weren’t just a little bit disappointed?

“Well, OK, maybe a little bit. But I am still glad the war is over,” she said finally.

The medical doctor who was with her had come for only two weeks. I asked if this was long enough to do important work.

“To do something really significant, probably not. However, it is long enough to see some patients and give out some medications.

“I only have four weeks of holiday per year and I have already used one. I must keep at least one more to rest, so I could only come for two weeks.”

It is great to take a break from work and do some good at the same time, but you always have to save some vacation for yourself too.

The two Greeks planned to travel to the south the following day, but I suggested that they should, instead, stay in Beirut and enjoy themselves.

Hezbollah, I suggested, did not want their aid in any case, nor did they probably need it.

“Well, I prefer to be in the field,” said the logistician.

I prefer to be in the field, she said.

Undoubtedly this was true, more true, perhaps, than any desire to make a difference in Lebanon.

The next day, Middle East Airlines claimed to have re-established daily flights from Beirut to Amman.

With me in the travel agency when I booked my ticket was another Canadian journalist, who wanted to travel to Japan.

He sipped a Starbucks coffee and complained that it would take two days to get from Beirut to Tokyo. Things were really getting back to normal.

I was not prepared to believe that there would, indeed, be a flight until I boarded the aircraft. But Monday evening I was in Cairo.

There were 11 other flights, including one from Amsterdam, on the arrivals and departures screen at the airport.

My plane was not even two-thirds full.

I fell asleep in the air and it took the stewardess some effort to rouse me for the meal. I was very tired.

As I ate my little triangular sandwich with the crusts cut off, as the British like them, I thought of what Robert Fisk had told me.

Fisk is one of the longest-standing and most famous modern Middle East correspondents.

The day before the ceasefire, he met two friends and me for tea at his apartment overlooking the Mediterranean. He had recently returned to Beirut after spending 17 months in Ireland working on his latest book, The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East.

He told us how tired he had become while in Ireland working on the book. But now that he was back in Lebanon, going out to get the news every day like he had always done, he felt energized again.

He, too, preferred to be in the field.

When I got back to Cairo — a place I had previously thought about not as a city but as a sensory bomb — all seemed quiet. Where had everyone gone? I collapsed and slept for 12 hours.

Jamie Furniss is a Whitehorse resident and Rhodes Scholar currently traveling in the Middle East.

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