‘If you’re going to be emotional ...go home’
Ahead of an appearance in Enniskerry, renowned journalist Robert Fisk tells our own Mary Fogarty about reporting on violence in the Middle East, and why he wouldn’t even exist if it wasn’t for Padraig Pearse...
FROM a start as a cub reporter for the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, award-winning journalist and author Robert Fisk went on to live in Beirut for more than half his life. He is still, he says, a ‘street reporter.’
Before Christmas, he reported on a suicide bombing. Fisk described walking amongst dead bodies, heads of corpses. He said the scene was ‘ghastly, grotesque, obscene.’
He will be interviewed by David McWilliams in Enniskerry on Tuesday April 29 in an event to raise money for Enniskerry Heartsavers cardiac first response group.
A frequent visitor to Ireland, Fisk knows Wicklow very well and is well aware of the need for defibrillators in such remote areas as Enniskerry and Glencree.
A historian at heart, he recalls researching part of his thesis on Irish neutrality at the German cemetery at Glencree when he attended Trinity College.
Now a resident of The Lebanon, he is immersed in the community there, doesn’t gravitate to the embassies or other ‘western’ journalists yet remains inherently British. ‘I can speak Arabic, although I do make mistakes, and I work for an English newspaper.’
His areas of expertise include Iraq, Syria, Egypt, the Gulf, Sudan and of course the Lebanon. However, he was a correspondent in Northern Ireland which, like parts of the Middle East he calls a ‘place of enormous tragedy’ which has endured terrible violence.
‘Clearly one is a witness to history,’ he said. But he is not totally comfortable with the term ‘ bear witness.’
Fisk’s father was born in the late 1800s, and was stationed in Cork following the 1916 Rising before going to fight in the trenches of France. He missed the great Battle of the Somme in which 20,000 British soldiers died.
‘Had he been there, there would have been a good chance he would have died. And we would not be having this interview,’ said Robert, speculating that in a roundabout way Padraig Pearse was responsible for his very existence.
His father told him war stories. He was bitten by a rat in the trenches and had all his skin peeled off. He described lying in a cathedral hospital. The roof had been blown off and he remembered staring up at a gargoyle during his recovery.
With his father, he saw rubble from World War II in Hamburg when he was just four. His education began back then and continued with annual trips to the Somme with his family. Although a sheltered child in many ways, he garnered a valuable bird’s-eye view of global politics and an understanding of how World War II framed the history of most of Europe.
As Middle Eastern correspondent, Fisk encounters violence which would arouse unimaginable horror in most lay-people.
‘You’re not there to weep,’ he said. ‘You’re there to report. If you’re going to become emotional, go home.’
However the atrocities Robert has witnessed make him feel ‘passionately angry.’ Injustice is anathema to him, the innocent victim his ward.
‘I’m not desensitised. If you were desensitised you’d be bored. One of the reasons I’ve stayed so long is because I want to know what happens next.’
The Middle East landscape is not that of a football match, a sports event, but a place of ‘ bloody tragedy’ where a journalist can’t simply apply ‘ balance’ to each side. ‘ You must go to the scene and make up your mind,’ he said. Report the truth, in other words.
He and renowned Israeli journalist Amira Hass were discussing their profession and Fisk said, somewhat loftily that journalists are ‘ the first witness to history.’
‘Her far better definition was “our job is to monitor the centres of power,”’ he said.
Staying alive is important, of course, and Robert has contended with some extremely dangerous situations including a brutal beating and bullets whizzing past his head.
In Syria recently he was in a church where the Islamists had burned bibles, ripped paintings. ‘I’ve got to get evidence of this,’ he said. ‘It was worth the risk of going there.’
Sometimes he has been so frightened he could hardly write. On one occasion three policemen lay ‘in bits’, dead outside his hotel just seconds after he made it inside.
‘In the movies the hero always survives,’ he said. ‘You have to keep your wits about you and don’t get romantic.’
He gives lectures all over the world, many of them free of charge for certain causes. ‘I said of course I would help,’ he said on the forthcoming Enniskerry Heartsavers fundraiser.
Their aim is to provide accessible Automated Defibrillators in public places, to teach members of the community how to provide CPR, and to act as first response to patients in the area who are suffering with cardiac issues while an ambulance is on its way.
They have already fundraised and purchased three AEDs for the area, and are now raising funds to purchase training equipment and supplies for trained first responders who will be on call with central ambulance control.
‘We will be working under the umbrella group: WWCFR who, within the confines of Wicklow county have already had over 2,500 callouts since they were first established in 2004,’ said a spokesman.
The event will take place at the Summerhill House Hotel in Enniskerry on April 29. Tickets are €20 and available from (086) 8584611 or (086) 3636226.
Robert Fisk will appear at a charity event in Enniskerry on April 29
Fisk has lived in Beirut for half his life - but knows Wicklow very well.