By Vikas Datta
JAIPUR– It is seen as a glamourous branch of journalism which has drawn the most famous writers and politicians – Arthur Conan Doyle, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Edgar Rice Burroughs – but war reporting is also the most lethal for its practitioners, given they face a situation where their very lives are on the line.
What draws journalists to covering conflict, which has claimed lives of over 1,000 of their ilk, and what myths have arisen about it was the focus of a session titled ‘The Frontline Club’ at the Jaipur Literature Festival here on Friday.
British journalist Christina Lamb, who has extensive experience of covering Afghanistan and Pakistan since the 1980s, said journalists have now also become targets, and despite being better placed as far as logistics and access are concerned, the danger they face has grown manifold.
The motivations may differ but one that remains constant is a thrill of facing the unexpected.
For legendary British war photographer Don McCullin, it is the imperative of finding information through first-hand experience.
“I like to get to the bottom of things. I am not content with snippets. I want the truth,” he said, claiming news coverage may “not necessarily reflect the whole picture” and has an increasing lack of “depth”.
“Instead of looking at my lovely English garden, I would rather step out of my comfort zone and visit a site of conflict,” maintains McCullin who has worked in Berlin during the construction of the wall, began covering conflict in 1964 with the civil war in Cyprus and has since covered wars in the Congo, Biafra (Nigeria), Israel, Vietnam, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Bangladesh, Lebanon, El Salvador and Kurdistan.
Lamb, who has the distinction of being deported twice from Pakistan, agrees. “ItÂ’s exciting. YouÂ’re living on the edge. Then, youÂ’re coming back and paying mortgage.”
On the other hand, Indian journalist Samanth Subramanian confesses the experience has a bitter after-taste.
The author of ‘This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War’ admits he is haunted by the fear he saw on peopleÂ’s faces during conflict, which left him in a “constant existential paradox” that makes it difficult to disengage from.
“You come back. You live with these stories. You frame your own terrors and guilt in the larger picture,” he said.
McCullin concurred, noting personal emotions do surface eventually when they face “situations you canÂ’t control” and a sense of alienation emerges from realisation that despite their expressed interest, most people don’t want to know his experiences or the truth.
Award-winning Israeli novelist David Grossman, who both covers and resides within the Israel-Palestine conflict, has a different take.
“I try to look at the effect of this conflict on both sides. I try to understand how conflict affects human relationships, language, prospects of a future. There are so many things that are polluted and poisoned by conflict,” said Grossman, who follows it in an “intimate, personal way” after his son’s death in the 2006 Lebanon war and consequently not regarding his brand of journalism as “covering” the situation but “bearing witness to the larger picture”.
Noting conflict “deeply impacts” people, he says the challenge is to remain sober and disregard stereotypes, adding it takes courage to listen to stories and see realities of both sides of a conflict, but that was necessary for any hope of resolving it.
He maintains the larger war is lost when people get used to conflict as a way of life, and relinquish any possibility of a better alternative.
“This is why war reporting is so important – to keep alternatives alive,” he stressed.