Few women journalists cover conflict on an ongoing basis. Award-winning South African journalist Paula Slier is one of those few. She digs deep to explain why she does it and how she copes.
I still laugh when I think of the mother in Gaza who told me that, when her son returned from a visit to Johannesburg, she held him for a few moments and just cried. To quote her, she couldn’t believe he had survived “South Africa – the war zone”.
Six years ago when I moved to the Middle East, the inevitable question would come up: how could I have lived in South Africa all these years? “Isn’t it dangerous?” people would ask. But, back home, the same question was levelled at me about now living in the Middle East.
I can’t, though, think of anywhere else I’d rather be based. The stories here are important politically, and they’re full of drama, hope, heartbreak and passion – all the ingredients for good storytelling… which is what our profession, at its heart, is really all about.
For me, there’s nothing that can compare with reporting from the frontline – every iota of energy and attention is focused on the moment, getting through it, and then surviving the next one. There’s no time to think about the philosophical questions that often plague me when I’m alone: is my life meaningful, is my work purposeful, am I really effecting change in the world? It’s like the noise on the outside – and there’s a hell of a lot of it, when you’re covering conflict – drowns out the noise on the inside.
But it comes at a price. Over the years, I’ve lost friends who didn’t appreciate me cancelling plans at the last minute – all the time. It’s also hard on my family. When I’m on an embed in Iraq or Afghanistan, I’ve learnt I cope best by not communicating with them. It’s like I need to forget that I have a life outside of this moment, this conflict. I’ve been trying not to do it, because I know how difficult it is for them knowing I’m there but not quite knowing what’s going on, but the problem for me is that when I talk to them their fear is like a wake-up call to how dangerous the situations I’m in really are – and I need to remain a little removed to actually do the job properly.
In recent years, though, it’s become more difficult. Maybe I’m changing as a person, but I suspect it also has to do with age. There is something to be said about the innocence of youth, and I’m not so sure I have the courage today to do what I did 10 years ago. Some of my best stories were also some of my most reckless.
I do get afraid. It’s only natural, when you’re on a foot patrol in southern Afghanistan with American soldiers searching a village where the locals despise you. The fear catches up later. I can find myself checking that my front door is locked three times in one hour. I look over my shoulder more than I ever did when I lived in Johannesburg.
I also think – if it’s possible – that I’m a sadder person today. I know as journalists we grow more cynical with time, but I was always a bit of an idealist, and I’m sad to lose that idealism. I trust people much less. I also don’t always process what I see particularly well. I might talk about it with friends, I write about it, but – especially in the Middle East, where sometimes there is so much horror – it’s hard to digest it all.
I’m also depressed by this story. Notwithstanding that what’s happening in the region at the moment is fascinating and will forever change the face of the Middle East; for years the story – especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – was the same story; told the same way, with the same promises and the same disappointments. It’s like I can write the footnote to the newsflash about “a new round of peace talks” before they even begin.
And yet the rewards are tremendous and are the reason that I love this job. It’s exhilarating to be part of history. I’ll never forget when Yasser Arafat’s body was brought to Ramallah by helicopter. I was standing on the roof of a building so I could get phone reception and tens of thousands of people around me were raising their hands in silent tribute. It was impossible not to be moved by the moment and the impact it would have in history.
Does it make a difference that I am a woman? The truth is, I don’t know. Maybe I see stories differently because I’m a woman, but that would also be true for me being a South African. I don’t, though, think it’s necessarily more dangerous for women to report on war than for men – in fact, sometimes the opposite. There’ve been times when my mere presence has had a calming effect on angry men around me and a potential flare-up was averted because I was there.
I cover myself up in Gaza out of respect for the local culture, but still many religious men there won’t even look at me when they talk to me. Even so, I get the answers – and they’re answers to a perplexing and enthralling puzzle that is the Middle East today.
This story was first published in The Media magazine.