Ian Birrell

The agony and frustration of reporting from the Middle East

Jeremy Bowen describes the loss of colleagues, his anger with despots who stir the unrest and his deep sympathy for ordinary citizens caught in the maelstrom

Jeremy Bowen (left) reporting from Saqba, an eastern suburb of Damascus controlled by the Free Syrian Army, January 2012. [Alamy]

For 25 years, Abed Takkoush assisted foreign reporters like Jeremy Bowen when they arrived to cover the chaos and conflicts in Lebanon. He drove them around in his battered Mercedes, pointing out with grim relish the places where dark deeds had taken place: the assassinations, atrocities, kidnappings and slaughter of civilians that scar this mesmerising nation. During one Israeli onslaught in 1996, Abed sped past a gunship firing at cars on the highway between Sidon and Tyre, laughing with relief when shells exploded on the road rather than the car. ‘We laughed with him,’ writes the veteran BBC reporter. ‘It was a calculated risk. The alternative was turning back to Beirut without a story.’

Four years later their luck ran out on the last day of Israeli occupation. Abed, cracking jokes in his usual style and retelling old war stories, stayed in the car to call one of his sons while Bowen went to record an item with his cameraman. As they walked down the hill to film, an Israeli tank blasted the vehicle, then bullets fizzed over their heads as the BBC pair tried to reach the car to save their burning friend. ‘I felt terrible hiding behind a building,’ says Bowen. ‘Abed had never left me in a war zone and I didn’t want to leave him.’

Those of us who report from turbulent places often rely on such local fixers, forging strong bonds as we chase leads against tight deadlines in some hairy situations. Later, Bowen spoke about the incident with an Israeli general, who defended his soldiers on the grounds they were scared of being attacked by terrorists. ‘I wasn’t sympathetic,’ comments the reporter. He thinks the deadly incident highlights how fighters on all sides in the region see their foes as ‘something less than living, breathing humans who can feel love and fear and happiness.

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