The relentless trauma of covering Gaza

Though more reporters are present than were admitted during the last big offensive, seasoned war correspondents are feeling the impacts of witnessing continual civilian casualties

CAIRO—In war, the most haunting moments do not always come when people die.

For Sherine Tadros, a correspondent for Sky News, one such moment came in a hospital in Gaza last month, following the shelling of a UN-run school where Palestinian civilians had taken shelter. At least fifteen people were killed. Tadros saw a child die that day, but the memory that haunts her is that of a young boy, about 11 years old, who she found sitting in the hospital corridor. The boy was shaking.

Tadros sat down next to the boy and asked if he was okay. “He said, ‘Yes, but my parents are inside, they’re both inside, they’re having an operation,’” Tadros remembers. “He was so disturbed, so traumatized, and he’s not doing it because I’m a journalist. He doesn’t understand any of that.”

People started shouting in the hospital and the boy covered his ears with his hands. “He just kept shaking and rocking. That stays with you,” says Tadros. “It’s just so unfair that he’s a child and he’s experiencing this and this will stay with him forever.”

Tadros was uniquely prepared to report on the current Israeli offensive on Gaza. In 2008, as a correspondent for Al Jazeera English, she and her colleague Ayman Mohyeldin were the only journalists for English-language broadcasters in Gaza during Israel’s last major ground campaign, Operation Cast Lead, which killed some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

For journalists in war, bearing witness to horror and documenting atrocities are at the core of the job description. It is a task that forces reporters to the extremes of human experience and tests the endurance of even the most seasoned correspondents. For international journalists, it prompts vexing questions: When to stay and when to go? When do concerns about exhaustion override the imperative to capture the story? How to write and report in the face of overwhelming violence?

Those questions took on a different character during the 2008-09 war in Gaza. Back then, Israel barred journalists from entering the Strip during the three-week offensive. Just before the ground invasion began in the war’s second week, Tadros and Mohyeldin refused an offer to evacuate. No one would be able to replace them. The two pressed on with their reporting in spite of their exhaustion. “You had a duty,” she said. “There was a responsibility there not to leave.”

“At the end of the day, we don’t do our jobs so we can get awards,” she said. “What we do our job for is that we can document certain things that are happening so that no one can ever come back and say, ‘No, white phosphorus was not used. No, this family’s house wasn’t bombed.’ No one can do that, because you were there and you documented it and you showed it.”

At first, Tadros says it was “thrilling” to have unique access to the story a few years back. Then she began to feel the burden of being a sole outside witness to the destruction. “You felt, you wanted someone else to witness this stuff. You didn’t know how to put it into words, you didn’t know how to do it justice anymore,” she remembers.

This summer, Tadros felt a degree of comfort seeing other international journalists at the scene of major bombings. The presence of a larger group of journalists in Gaza also produced a shift in how events there were reported. Before, Palestinian victims were nameless in the international media. This summer, when Israeli shells killed four young boys, all members of the Bakr family, on the Gaza beach, a group of local and international journalists were in the area. The next day, Tyler Hicks’ photo of the aftermath appeared on page A1 of The New York Times. The four boys’ names were widely reported: Ismail, Zakaria, Ahed, and Mohamed.

But after two days reporting from the Israeli city of Ashkelon, followed by 16 days in Gaza, Tadros could feel her exhaustion impinging on her work. A local market had been shelled, and she couldn’t bring herself to report the story. She left Gaza a few days ago, knowing that a colleague could replace her.

“At the end, sometimes to do the story justice, you also have to go, because you don’t have it in you anymore to keep going and give it the kind of attention and energy that it needs,” she said. “Of course, there’s always a tremendous amount of guilt that you feel leaving stories like this, when they haven’t finished, and I feel it now.” Tadros was not alone. Several other international journalists also left Gaza in the same period. As the present crisis drags on, major news organizations appear to be rotating journalists in and out of the Strip.

Journalists’ guilt is sometimes compounded by the impulse to compare suffering. The trauma of an outside witness can appear tiny in comparison to the immense suffering of the people around them. Israel’s current assault on Gaza has killed more than 1,800 Palestinians, including more than a thousand civilians. Sixty-six Israelis have also died, all but two of them soldiers. And nearly half a million Palestinians have been displaced. In the end, international journalists will have the choice to leave, while their Palestinian colleagues will remain.

But the traumas are real, and Israel’s recurring assaults on Gaza are a particular type of warfare.

“It’s physically and emotionally exhausting to be worried about your safety all the time but also seeing dead children,” says Kristen Chick, a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor who recently left Gaza after reporting there during the peak of the violence. “The whole time I kept thinking, I’m staying in a hotel full of journalists that’s definitely not going to get bombed and I’m wearing a flak jacket, and moving around in a car that’s marked as a press car, and I have it so much easier than everyone else there.”

But other journalists question whether they are in fact safer than the population around them. “In other conflicts there has been more of an opportunity to retreat to a place of relative safety. In Gaza, beyond leaving altogether if you could, there wasn’t a place that was safe,” says Sara Hussein, a correspondent for Agence France Presse, who reported in Gaza during the July fighting. “I think it would be naïve to imagine [a hotel] would be immune to being hit just because there were foreign reporters in it,” she said.

“The hardest thing for me was seeing the civilian casualties,” said Hugh Naylor, a correspondent for The National newspaper. “You show up to these large killings and you see body parts and heads flown everywhere and people running around these attack sites, helpless because they don’t know when and where such an attack will hit them. That’s very taxing on your psychological durability.”

How do reporters cope with daily exposure to horror? Each journalist develops tactics. Naylor said he tried to eat vegetables, drink water, and get enough sleep. Jesse Rosenfeld, a Canadian journalist covering the conflict for The Daily Beast, said, “Sometimes you get exhausted to the point where you don’t care and you say, ‘I either wake up in the morning or I don’t.’ And you let the building rock you to sleep as it shakes.” He also said he draws strength from a sense of duty. “It’s a sense of purpose that the story needs to be told.”

“I cried every day in Gaza, my crew will tell you,” says Tadros. “You cry and you try and feed off it and remain calm and strong in your reporting, and try and put that emotion into the reporting.”

Jared Malsin is a freelance journalist based in Cairo