Monday, July 03, 2006

Danger, Reality and Covering War

Gaza City
July 3rd 2006

The other day I wrote a very short piece about what happened to us on the ridge overlooking the orchards towards Sederot, from Beit Hanoun in Northern Gaza.

And only now feel that with reflection can I write about what it is like to be that close to live fire coming it at you. It is one thing to film tanks or artillery firing out, and this I have done on countless occasions, with honestly very little thought about what it would be like to be at the other end of live fire.

Filming out going fire is nothing more than a mechanical action of a few standard shots in the news terms, it is wide shots and close ups, big bits of metal making noise basically, you only hear the initial boom and that is it.

The other day with correspondent Mike Tobin and our Gaza fixer/producer Neal we were at the other end of the boom.

The first thing is the noise, in the distance you do hear of the shell being fired, like a dull thud in the distance, it is almost muffled, it is not a crisp or sharp sound like a bullet. But a thud that lasts nearly a second.

Then you wait and suddenly the air becomes alive with a whistle, high pitched and fast. You immediately tense up and wait for impact for that sound is coming and this when you say a silent prayer. It is traveling so fast that you cannot see it coming.

I remember in Iraq during the war when I was almost killed when a RPG round landed about 5 meters away from Greg Kelly and I, I still to this day can picture the RPG in slow motion as it impacted next to us, before it blew us off our feet. I do not have nightmares or reflect on it much anymore, as in the scheme of the war I was to see and experience far worse. But to this day I still can replay the slow motion impact of the RPG almost hitting us.

Artillery Shells though are another thing, these rounds are big fast and deadly, at the same time we all have images of bomb craters the sizes of meteors, whilst in reality these shells when they hit can leave a pothole in a tarmac road the size of a small Childs swimming pool and about half a meter deep, and given Gaza road conditions there are bigger potholes.

The thing with artillery though is the constant barrage when it comes in waves it is almost never ending, like a metronome ticking slowly they land explode and send clouds of dust dirt and debris in the air a hundred feet, that is if they hit nothing but dirt that is. If they hit any solid object it is destroyed.

We had set up to go live from this outpost and had watched a salvo land in a field nearly 1 km away, it was thud, whistle explode and repeat and the rounds were landing in close proximity to each other, so the feeling of danger was not that great for the moment.
You must trust your instincts and remain relaxed, as bizarre as this sounds remaining calm under fire is the way you stay alive. Your instincts become extremely focused and this is the only way you can work in our job in these situations. Every action you take becomes very calculated and the importance of each member of the team is to focus on what your role is.

You are in this situation because you are there, and at that moment in time remaining calm will keeps you alive.

Just before our live shot the artillery started to adjust the range and all of a sudden what was a km away was now 500 m then 300 m then 200m, and as New York threw to us, we could hear the thud in the distance Mike stepped aside and I zoomed in for the impact, then back out to Mike covering the shelling, this went on for about three minutes and made for great TV, however all our phones were ringing like crazy with the basic message – Great work but get the hell out of there NOW.

News is an adrenalin rush industry and at this level the game is played at extremely high stakes. The thing that is hard to explain to anyone is that you do not deliberately go out to place yourself in situations like this. We do not wake up and say to each other “lets go and place ourselves under live fire”. It is a fact that when you cover conflict from time to time, fate will deal you hand that you must face.

How we all react is often the determining factor as to whether you survive, the learning curve is unforgiving and to many people in our business have died in recent years in wars like Iraq. In Iraq the threat is totally different to that we face in Gaza, here we are not embedded with one side or the other, Israelis or Palestinians, often we are in the middle, and that is a tough place to be.

To survive you must be scared and accept the reality of where you are, but that does not mean that valued judgment has been excluded, never.

What we did was in a few words “incredible TV News” was it silly or stupid “No” we found ourselves in an evolving situation that was beyond our control, what we achieved was to remain professional calm and focused on our predicament and that is reality of covering war.

Gaza City
July 3, 2006

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