Thursday, December 20, 2007

Moments of Definition

A question that faces many of us in conflict and war zones is at what point do you put down the camera and start to help. It is important that you never forget what you are there to film and record not only for the story you are working on but also as a document of history. Bad things can and do happen in conflict zones, and the rule of thumb that I apply is that I switch off emotions and switch on the camera record for twenty seconds to capture what I am witnessing then just as quickly turn off the camera and assist.

It is not a matter of being a ghoul by these actions but a cold hard fact of doing a good job in a bad position. It does not always have to be death or injury to allow these events to happen. They can and do occur when you least expect them too and when they happen it can reduce you to tears in seconds and rip the soul out of you.

It happened a couple of days ago on this assignment in Ramadi Iraq. Not a major event in terms of world news but an image that will haunt my dreams for the rest of my life. We were at a medical clinic that members of the US Special Operations were running on a football field at the back of a Sheiks house for the poor. Since the war commenced nearly five years ago all semblance of medical care has disintegrated, doctors have fled the country for fear of religious backlash from Al Qaida Terrorists trying to intimidate all authority to the age-old Sunni Shia issue that vexes Iraq.

The end result is that for the poor there is no hope of basic treatment, children stand in line with their parents hoping for a cure for blindness, two policemen stood there with one eye between them, a medic treats a man whose foot is bloated with gangrene and when an old woman is asked whether she would like medicine or blankets for her children, she replied “blankets”.

It was not these scenes of despair and tragedy that drew my breath, but the sight of a man whose son lay on the ground crippled by Cerebral Palsy. Inside the tortured body of this young man was human being, whose thoughts and ideas will never be known due to a disease that has been part of his family fight for help. His father cradled his rolling head slowly moving his hand across his face to keep the flies away.

I did not think much about at the time took a couple of shots and moved on with covering the story of the medics treating the people waiting on the lawn.

About an hour later I looked across the lawn and saw the young man lying exposed alone on a mat, his father was away and he lay on the mat his body contorted with the disease and his face exposed to the sun. That was enough to make me walk over and there he lay his face covered with flies.

At this point the question is, what to do?

I took a breath, framed a close up and let the camera roll. Showing the flies crawling around his eyes and his mouth and I counted to twenty. That was it. I turned the camera off and walked over and knelt down beside him with my body casting some shade over him and I started to brush the flies off his face.

Tears of sorrow rolled down my face as I looked into his and tried to understand what was behind the face and eyes that looked up. Producer Andy Stenner and Ollie North came over and asked to do something. I looked up and glared nothing they saw what I was doing and walked away, understanding that I was doing what I needed to do.

For ten minutes I sat there, brushing away the flies wondering where his father was, I stroked the side of his face. Feeling the texture of his face under my hand hoping that he could realise I understood that he was a human.

I would have sat there all day if I had too; there is no way I could leave him. I had taken an image that will haunt me and now I was prepared to pay the price of capturing his plight, everything has a price. But it was not that I had too, it was because wanted too.

I looked up and saw his father walking to me; he looked and said the most heart-warming words anyone can hear. It was simply “Thank you”.

I walked away and went back to Andy and Ollie and continued working.

Looking back half an hour later the ground was empty, Father and Son had left.

Tragedy in a War Zone sometimes comes when you are least prepared.


newsjunkie said...

Wow. That brought tears to my eyes. Thank you Mal.

Anonymous said...

A story for you Mal. I worked with the profoundly retarded. There was a little girl with Cerebral Palsy. No communication, twisted little body. She existed, supposedly profoundly retarted. One day the care giver looked into the little girl's eyes and recognized a spark..She said, "She's in there. I don't think she is profoundly retarded." The care giver raised the money herself to purchase for this little human being a computer that fit on her wheelchair. It had pictures instead of words and the girl could touch it with her terribly twisted hands to show her thoughts. Within a month she was communicating. She was in there Mal. It changed the little girls life for the better. She could express her humanity, she could communicate. The attitudes changed of the people around her, drastically. I could go on with the story but I have something I want you to know. You will never forget that boy and you will have your dreams. Remember this. The chances are that that boy will have his memories of you as well and I have a strong feeling that you will grace his dreams also. He will remember the kindness of the stranger who comforted him. No act of kindness and compassion will go unnoticed Mal...not the least one...More than the act, that boy will remember your heart...your very human, compassionate heart. Thank you for giving us a snapshot of the real Mal James. We will never forget your story because we too are human. You are one of the good ones Mr. James. Where would we be without men like you. We are Thankful.

Anonymous said...

Mal, I'm not surprised you acted in this humble way- you are first a man of great sensitivity, and then a cameraman. I'll miss you here in the unholyland

21stCenturyMom said...

That made me tear up. I have a nephew who is that crippled with CP and if he were left alone he couldn't bat the flies away, either. You did a good thing - a very good thing.

My nephew was also given a communication system that showed what my sister and brother-in-law already knew. He feels and thinks just like everyone else. I agree that he will never forget that someone came over and helped instead of looking away.

newsjunkie said...

I also have a nephew with CP, I neglected to include that in my earlier comment.

Again Mal, thank you.

turdpolisher said...

thanks, mal, for being human.