A Lonely Marathon
Do visions of wounded children and massacred people ever leave a journalist? A conflict reporter on why he carries on.
There was an eerie silence hanging over the town. The previous evening the temple bells were mysteriously ringing as bullets were sprayed on people celebrating the festival of bright lights. It was the day after Diwali in the year, 2000. A shop shutter moved slightly behind me in the deserted street. A child ran out and held on to me. I lifted her and saw a fresh wound below her left knee – a bullet, I was told later, was still lodged there.
This is the first picture that comes to my mind every time I think of my reporting career. My daughter was just a few months old then. Whenever I would return home and look at her, an image of this wounded child never ceased to strike me. Reporters are the first respondents to a situation of conflict and often they arrive before anyone else does. The visions of what we see stay in our minds and sometimes impact our lives subconsciously. When a bomb goes off and shrapnel hits people next to you killing them, it is a numbing experience. Yet, in the days of live television I am supposed to stay calm because panic in my voice would spread panic to many more households. A slideshow of images runs through my mind at any point of time. They may be good conversation pieces, but they deeply impact our lives.
What was I trying to achieve through my reports? I had volunteered to go to a hostile environment and had lingered there for years, travelling to the remotest corners, counting body-bags, documenting how many children have been orphaned and how many widowed mothers have been fighting the odds. Perhaps with a hope that these images and reports would stimulate public opinion, generate debates and influence policies.
Unfortunately that doesn’t happen and conflict is not newsy anymore. People don’t want to see death. Advertising and marketing considerations push these stories to odd viewing hours and I’m left wondering why I ventured into such situations? There has to be a dogged sense, that in some way or the other my report will help in conflict resolution. Even if it saves, changes and impacts one life, it is worth it.
On the ground what I experience is extremely immediate. What you see on a television screen sitting at home or a newspaper is not what I see on the ground. There was a situation in Sadiya in Upper Assam where 12 people were huddled together as if in a Nazi concentration camp, their hands and legs tied and their brains blown out by several round of bullets. What does one show there? We are not supposed to show blood and dismembered bodies, but all that is there are parts of human body, organs and blood. Yet my job is to calmly document, listen to the stories, and honestly report. It is through me, and other reporters like myself that people in unknown hamlets, hills and plains convey their angst, grief and fear. The effort of going that far, exhausting the body and mind, is my way of registering my protest against the unspeakable pain that one witnesses. It is a cross I carry, and therefore reporting conflict is also about anger. What does one do with the anger but channelise it to push the limits and carry on? If I am placing myself in the middle of a minefield, obviously I am trying to communicate something and at times the most compelling of stories and images can often have little or no impact. One must then, as I do, disassociate with what has been reported and travel to another destination, look out for another story.
The situations are mostly unpredictable and our responses can often surprise us. What do you do when confronted with a terrorist leader who you hold responsible for genocides? I sit and share a meal and discuss the concept of sovereignty and identity. I don’t shout or scream at him because I also need to interview him for the story. My job is to objectively report and bring home what even the perpetrators have to say. I have often spent a little longer than usual with them to argue my case, to make them see that they have caused immeasurable pain to their own people. This year I spent an entire evening lying on a black plastic sheet inside a mosquito-infested forest of Odisha, debating with the Maoist commander about his perceived class struggle and how I think it is futile.
The trauma and grief of others can be very overwhelming, so I step out from the theater to take a ringside view and orient myself in the situation once again. It can blur vision and what one constantly does is to move away from being an actor and instead try to be a dispassionate chronicler of events. It is not easy but someone has to do it. I then think of the innumerable people who risk their lives setting up transmission towers, building bridges and dams, policing and guarding us and they will never be known, celebrated or even acknowledged. That helps me get back on the road.
I have travelled to many of these areas when the dozens of channels and networks you see today hadn’t filled up the airwaves. I am glad that today there are many more who reach places which have impossible logistics, because while conflict may not make it to the headline, it has to be underlined.
A conflict reporter is a long-distance runner and it’s a lonely journey. But sometimes, along the way, stories of courage, kindness and indomitable spirit that one encounters are rewarding. I haven’t been able to escape the temptation to go back again and again despite knowing the risks involved – knowing that my one story may not change anything, but with the hope that perhaps one day, it will.