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Surviving life in No Man's Land

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HE was in a taxi on the back roads of Gaza, in a closed military zone, trying to get out. He'd just reported on an Israeli bombing of a village. The car rounded a corner and they heard gunfire overhead.

They stopped, turned off the engine, listening to see where the fire was coming from, and to check if they were in its path. He stuck his microphone out the window, thinking some of the sound would be good "colour" for his later report.

"When I got home and played it, I could hear the zip, zip, zip of the bullets flashing by. And I could hear myself going 'oh f**k, f**k, f**k', and then I realised how scared I was. I didn't even know I was doing that at the time. I thought I was being calm, just doing my job."

Richard Crowley's job, for the past six years, was reporting on the conflict in the Middle East for RTE.

"I wasn't interested in being the war correspondent. I wanted to do the story of the conflict and what it was they were fighting about rather than standing there watching them kill each other."

But watching them kill each other was something he did quite a lot of.

He was in Gaza, again, when Israeli rockets landed near a school in a village.

"There were a couple of kids running from the school, trying to get away. The rocket came down, hit the road and blew two or three of them over a low wall and into a dirt area.

"This guy came out from behind the wall carrying half a kid. There was blood all over the place and the man was screaming and the kid was dead.

"That night, I was doing a piece for TV and somebody said to me to describe some of it in my piece, but to give the Israeli side of the story as well.

"I said no, you do that. I can't stand here and say the Israelis said this was a mistake or they're sorry, or they were targeting militants.

"It was an hour and a half later.

It was unprofessional, but I couldn't."

He based himself in Jerusalem when he went out in 2001, and stayed there through the spate of suicide bombings of late 2001 and early 2002. To know when one went off, all he had to do was open the window and listen for the ambulances, or for the sound of the bomb itself.

"It's kind of a dull thud. It sounds almost more like an implosion than an explosion. It's quite hollow. You'd hear the screaming that followed it, you'd hear the sirens, and then you'd run with the crowd towards it.

There were crowds running both ways, running away and running to it.

"There are body parts all over the place. Suicide bombers are packed with nails and bits of washers and anything else. A bit of a shoe here, a book there, a bit of a cell phone over there."

He did a piece on the aftermath of a suicide bombing at the Subaru restaurant in West Jerusalem in August 2001.

"The Israelis have kind of a religious 'CSI'. They come in and take away all of the body parts and board up the place. But within two or three days, they were refurbishing. So Subaru was open about a month after the suicide bombing.

"I thought I'd go in and get a plate of pasta and sit at the window. I just wanted to know what it felt like for my own sake, and I wanted to talk to the customers. I wanted to sit there and talk to the staff. Their line was, 'we won't be intimidated'."

On occasion, he found himself in the firing line.

He was sitting in the back of a car with other journalists when they came upon an Israeli tank in the middle of the road. Its turret turned to point at them.

"You don't move. Don't pick up a camera, move with the microphone. Don't do anything.

At that minute there's a guy, probably almost as scared as you, peering down into your car to figure out who are you and what are you."

Another time. He was at the front line in Gaza doing a piece to camera. The cameraman had their sole flak jacket. It was calm.

"Suddenly bullets were hitting there and there and there. Your instinct is to run, but what the others are doing is getting down behind the solid bit of the car, not the boot of the car, but behind the engine chassis. Then you wait.

"Then you kind of get brave. It happens twice, and then you think, if he wanted to kill me he would have killed me by now, so maybe he's not firing at me at all.

And you go back into the area and have another look, see how many Israeli tanks were there, so you could describe it.

"A lot of the time it was useless information. I was never going to get that on the Six One News. It was just a kind of curiosity."

"In a way, you're a predator, almost, voyeuristic. You wonder just how much good you're doing, if any.

"A friend of mine, an American journalist, arrived at the scene of a suicide bombing and there was a woman who'd been injured in the throat and she couldn't breathe properly. He stuck a pen frame into her throat to help her to breathe, and stayed with her.

Then he went away, he couldn't work after that. The woman died.

"He did the good thing, the right thing. You just don't know if you'd be as humane or as intelligent or as rational as that."

How did he deal with the personal impact of witnessing so much violence?

"You need to get some happy time in pretty quickly."

There were occasional short R&R breaks at the beach in Cyprus, and "guaranteed sessions" on a Friday night.

"Friday being the Muslim day of prayer and the start of Shabbat. More or less all of the conflict would stop and then would resume on Saturday night."

He turned down RTE's offer of a debriefing, but perhaps he debriefed himself, spending six months writing his memoir, No Man's Land, which has just been published.

He has taken a year's leave of absence from RTE, along with his partner, Morning Ireland's Aoife Kavanagh. They have a plan "drawn up on a beer mat" to move to Barcelona in the new year. And there?

"I want to have nothing to do for a while."

Happy time, so.

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Back To Top >> 11/11/2007

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