A t just eight years old Jeremy Bowen had already decided where his future lay. “It was 1968 on the cusp of the first moon landing,” he says, his eyes twinkling with a glimmer of mischief that the years of horror have failed to wipe away. “The teacher asked the class what we wanted to be. Naturally because of the timing lots of children said they wanted to be astronauts, and others wanted to be footballers or in the army. I stuck my hand up and said foreign correspondent, but, to be honest, I didn’t really know what that meant at the time.”
Twenty-six years later as a BBC war correspondent reporting on the First Chechen War from Grozny, (which the United Nations once called ‘the most destroyed city on earth’ and the Cardiff-born broadcaster refers to as “the most terrifying place on the planet,”) lying face down in the snow in an open bang, bang, bang, bang for what seemed like forever.
“I lay there in my flak jacket and helmet and I just thought, ‘This is it – any moment now I’m going to die or be really badly hurt’. I was expecting huge amounts of pain. Amazingly, when the jets went away I was unscathed, I just had a cut on my knee.”
It’s the kind of luck that has shadowed the intrepid Welshman over the past three decades, following him as he has dodged bombs and bullets across some 70 countries and 17 different war zones including the Gulf, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Somalia.
However, despite being the title bearer of a CV cataloguing most of the world’s worst war zones, Jeremy Bowen still regards himself as a man of caution.
“The longer time you spend in dangerous places the more it can become a numbers game,” he says, “because the more you expose yourself to danger, the greater the chance it has of affecting you in some way. I have been to places that most people would run a mile from but believe it or not, I count myself as a cautious person. I’m aware of danger and I try to avoid it as much as I can.” That is why for the best part of his career he has managed to avoid injury – getting hurt for the first time in 30 years last July.
Jeremy was shot with pellets in his right calf and right ear at a violent protest in Egypt.
“It was on a Friday after a very passionate prayer time,” he explains. “People were crying and weeping and feelings were very inflamed. Suddenly the army opened fire and killed three people; one person quite near me had
‘Being injured is the price of having a front seat as history is being made and explaining it to the world’
square of burning buildings as cluster bombs and artillery fire exploded around him, the current BBC Editor for the Middle East no longer had any doubts as to the true meaning of the term ‘foreign correspondent’.
“It was horrendous,” the acclaimed 54-year-old says. “I heard the jets, then saw them come in low over the roofs and I threw myself down next to a low wall for cover. They attacked the square with cluster bombs and intense heavy fire; the ground was shaking and I heard them going the back of his head shot off. About 30 minutes later as I was hurriedly crossing a road because there was tear gas around, I got knocked to the ground. It was like being punched very hard in the ear and at first I thought I had been knocked by a tear gas canister but it wasn’t that – it was a [shotgun] pellet. I was concerned because I had been injured but I knew it wasn’t life threatening.”
Soon after the incident Jeremy wrote a piece for British newspaper,
The Daily Mail in which he said, “No one forces journalists to go to dangerous places. Unfortunately my job means accepting some risk. The region is in the throes of an historic transformation. Powerful forces are at work, and sometimes that means threatening moments. It can be exhausting, and this weekend it’s painful. But it is the price of having a front seat as history is being made, and the chance to explain what’s happening to the world.”
W hile the father of two may have yet again avoided serious injury, he’s quick to point out that his experiences while becoming a reliable voice on modern-day conflicts have left their mark.
“This job takes a heavy personal toll,” he says. “I’ve been ill in all sorts of ways; I have suffered mental illness and had a brush with post-traumatic stress disorder. You can’t work in situations of tension and difficulty over many years without something giving. Being a foreign correspondent and getting the job done right requires a huge commitment.”
Being efficient, effective and exact, however, are the intrinsic elements
Jeremy professionally delivers a piece to camera through tear gas in Egypt