THE FACT OF THE MATTER
In half a century plying my trade in journalism, I have found myself on three occasions smack bang in the middle of what are euphemistically termed ‘conflict zones’. In short, war of one kind or another.
For three years in the late ‘70s I covered the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe ‘bush war’ for the Irish Press group and RTE radio. In 2004 I went under cover to report for Independent News & Media on the drug cartels, the myriad kidnappings by leftist guerrillas and the wanton actions of the right-wing death squads in Colombia during the time of the IRA Three. In 2008 I was imbedded with the UN covering the violent political, economic, and humanitarian crisis that erupted in Kenya that was, effectively, a civil war that in a matter of two weeks saw some 1,500 souls hacked to death, and 600,000 people displaced.
In each of those three ‘conflict zones’, I had a close brush with death. In Zimbabwe I was fired upon during an attack by the guerrillas of Robert Mugabe on a convoy from what is now the capital Harare to Bulawayo on the border with Botswana. I was hit by shrapnel in my chest, shrapnel that remained lodged there for 32 years before a surgeon removed it when I was undergoing open heart surgery for a congenital defect — that story for another day’s telling. It was also the first and only time I ever peed my pants.
While on the ground in Colombia the covert ops of myself and two other Irish journalists were exposed to the right-wing authorities and we had to be furtively airlifted out of Bogota. The alternative did not bear thinking about. In Kenya I found myself, with my two ‘body-guards’ — mere boys — caught with a UN envoy in the middle of a suddenly erupted battle in the Great Rift Valley. Although I did not pee my pants then, I sure as hell wanted to.
In Zimbabwe I was a very young man, thought myself, as youth does, invincible — going to live for ever come hell or high water. Colombia and Kenya I was that older man, resolutely conscious of my own mortality.
My relatively low-key brushes with the Grim Reaper do not — emphatically do not — by any stretch of the imagination begin to compare with what is happening right now in Ukraine, or indeed in Yemen, South Sudan or Syria or many of the world’s other ‘conflict zones’; in effect the utter horror of war, where human suffering and death is happening on a momentary basis.
That is not why I bring to you a re-accounting of my ‘small-time’ adventures. It is rather to bring up the subject of the indelible spirit of Man, that can be, and is, at the core of our human nature. That incredible spirit of defiance that we see right now rising up in the ordinary and decent people of Ukraine, led by the gallant defiance of its president, Volodymyr Zelensky. And, indeed, the gallant efforts of the many journalists covering this story on the frontline, not least our own Orla Guerin, the veteran Feargal Keane and the indomitable Tony Connelly.
I have seen up close and personal this ‘indelible human spirit — in Zimbabwe, in Colombia and in Kenya — where humankind, our brothers and sisters, had stood valiantly against the coming of the oppressor, the onward wrenching, jackboot march of the killer.
Such indelible human spirit is what separates the good guy from the bad. Good is that lack of self-centredness, that ability to empathise with others, to have and show compassion.
When under cover in Colombia, I met a young Irish woman. She had a degree in international politics from Galway university. It was her first day, after weeks of intense training, on the ground in Medellin — home to the infamous Pablo Escobar — with Peace Brigades International (PBI) in probably the then most dangerous country in the world.
The PBI are unique in that their work is to walk, like a guardian angel, alongside people who have been targeted for assassination by right-wing death squads, leftist guerrillas, narcos or government agents (take your pick), in an unarmed and peaceful show of solidarity in the hope of keeping their charge alive.
I asked her how she was.
How did she feel?
Why do you do it? Put your life on the line … for complete strangers?
Her answer came quick and unfailing.
Someone has to do it … don’t they?