During three decades covering wars, revolutions, and natural disasters, Martin Fletcher worked his way from news agency cameraman to Tel Aviv bureau chief for NBC News, facing down his own fears while facing up to mass killers, warlords, and murderers. These extraordinary, real-life adventure stories, told with humor and elegance, describe Fletcher's growth from clueless adventurer to grizzled veteran of the world's trouble spots. Can you eat the food of a warlord who stole it from the starving? Do you listen politely to a terrorist threatening to blow up your children? Do you ask the tough questions of a Khmer Rouge killer, knowing he is your only ticket out of the Cambodian jungle?
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About the Author
One of the most highly respected correspondents in television news, MARTIN FLETCHER, NBC News' Tel Aviv bureau chief and correspondent, has covered every event of consequence in Europe, the Middle East and Africa for the last thirty years. Fletcher has received numerous awards for his reporting, including five Emmys and the prestigious duPont award. He still reports from all the world's hot spots, while carrying out special assignments for NBC News.
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A Stunning and Memorable Account of Reporting from Some of the Most Dangerous Places in the World
By Martin Fletcher
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2008 Martin Fletcher
All rights reserved.
Today, when I watch reality shows like Survivor or Fear Factor, I have to chuckle. You think building a hut or sticking your head in a tub of worms is hard? Try treading through a minefield in Cyprus moments after your friend was blown up; or trekking through the Hindu Kush mountains into Afghanistan with the anti-Soviet Mujahideen; or sweeping through southern Zaire with the French Foreign Legion. When you are a war correspondent, the game you play goes like this: If you lose, you die, and if you win, you get to do it again, and again, and again, and watch as friends die, until you die or retire.
Every foreign correspondent I know can name half a dozen friends, at least, who have died on the job. Most would admit that it is all a matter of luck. As far as survival is concerned, you don't get better at being a war correspondent; you just keep getting lucky. Experience doesn't matter. My two most experienced friends, Neil Davis in Asia and Mohamed Amin in Africa, each a legend for his decades of front-line reporting, finally died in the silliest ways. Neil was killed by shrapnel from a tank shell fired in an immediately forgotten coup attempt in Thailand. Mo first lost an arm in a bomb explosion in Ethiopia, then died in a hijacked plane that crashed into the Indian Ocean.
My old mate Allen Pizzey, the CBS correspondent who knows the field as well as anyone, put it this way after two CBS friends were killed by a roadside bomb blast in Baghdad and another correspondent was badly wounded: "For journalists who cover wars, luck is like a blind trust fund; you can make withdrawals but not deposits, and you have no idea how much is left."
You don't study to be a foreign correspondent. You just do it, and grow into the role. My own introduction to war came suddenly, with no learning curve. I began in the deep end, literally. It was a hot Saturday, and I was swimming a hundred yards off the Hilton beach in Tel Aviv, doing a leisurely backstroke in the glare of the Mediterranean sun, wondering what had happened to my new friends Hugh Alexander, a UPI news photographer, and his Israeli girlfriend, Batia Grafka. We were supposed to meet at midday, and they were more than an hour late. Hugh was a gentile and Batia a hilarious, godless Jewess. I knew almost nothing could stop them from enjoying the quiet of Yom Kippur on the beach.
Two nights earlier I had dined with one of the Israeli army spokesmen, Captain Amnon Paldi, whose family manufactured clothes for Marks & Spencer. He talked in passing about the chances of war, but with no sense of urgency. None of us at the table knew that the Israeli army would declare a general alert the next day, Friday, October 5, 1973. They called it a precautionary measure in the face of exercises by the Syrian and Egyptian armies. War? The new Israeli army head of intelligence called the chance remote.
Since I had recently arrived in Israel, Captain Paldi's aside that he would be spending Yom Kippur in his army office didn't ring any alarm bells. But now, floating on my back, languidly enjoying the midday sun upon my face, it suddenly all added up. Amnon sleeping in his office. Hugh, a UPI photographer, not showing up. Those planes I'd heard flying along the coast during the night of Yom Kippur. War! It had to be. Nothing else would have stopped Hugh coming to the beach on this day.
I rolled over and struck out for shore. I ran to my clothes, slipped on my sandals, and, still dripping, raced past sunbathers and up the steps to Hayarkon Street. Already I saw the first signs. There were cars on the street, unheard of on this one holy day of the year when driving in Israel is forbidden. Uniformed men carrying guns and helmets lined the road, waiting for lifts to the front. Egypt wouldn't open fire at the Suez Canal until 1:55 P.M., but word was already out. Soldiers were to join their units immediately.
Israeli intelligence had warned the government overnight that Egypt and Syria would invade that day at 6:00 P.M. The army had ordered a partial call-up of reserves, and the air force had demanded a preemptive strike against enemy airfields, which had worked so brilliantly for Israel in 1967. But Prime Minister Golda Meir rejected the generals' advice and went with her political advisers. They believed it imperative that Israel should appear to have been surprised. The country would need to absorb the enemy's first blow if it was to keep American support for the rest of the war. Israel must not look as if it had started the fighting, as it had six years earlier. So when war erupted, the only real surprise for Israel was that the attack came at 1:55, four hours earlier than predicted.
I ran past the soldiers and down Jabotinsky to my flat at 224 Dizengoff. The nephew of my colleague Rolf Kneller stood at my door, ringing the bell. "War," he shouted when I turned the corner. "We're at war!"
"Who with?" I shouted back. I was clueless; I'd arrived in the country less than a week earlier and moved into my apartment the day before. It was a fancy place, with two bedrooms, air-conditioning, and a large living room with a glass door leading onto a terrace. My biggest dilemma so far was where to buy shower curtains. War? What did I know from war?
"Call Rolf," he said. "He'll tell you what to do." Then he ran off to join his army unit.
I took the stairs two at a time, put my spare camera batteries on charge, and phoned Rolf in Jerusalem. "Go to the Golan Heights, I'll come down to the studios," he said. "Don't waste any time, you must go now."
What was he talking about? What should I do on the Golan? He just said there was a war. It seemed dangerous. Anyway, I had another question.
"Where are the Golan Heights?"
"Ach, du lieber Gott!"
I told Rolf dear God couldn't help me now; what I needed was a road map. But in fact, I needed far more than that. I had never worked as a war correspondent. I hadn't even been a Boy Scout, let alone had military training. The nearest I had been to combat was playing soccer in London. I didn't know the roads, or the people, or even the issues. Why was Israel suddenly at war? I had no idea.
War hadn't been on my mind when I stepped off the boat in Haifa in October 1973. I was a twenty-six-year-old news agency cameraman with only the slimmest of journalist credentials. Two years earlier, I had bluffed my way into becoming one of the youngest writers ever on the staff of BBC television news in London. I was on the fast track, but it didn't take me long to realize I was headed in the wrong direction. The post of writer was an in-house job that led to production and management. I never wanted to produce a show, or be an anchor. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. Those were two magic words to me, glamorous and exciting and full of promise: free travel!
I have to admit that I was not a young man with a mission to save the world. Rather, I wanted to save money and see the world. I could not have been more naïve about the misery and the hardship I would witness, and the toll they would take.
In the BBC newsroom, I felt hopelessly bored. A dozen journalists sat around a large, U-shaped table, each with a more senior person to his right. As the junior subeditor on the flagship broadcast, the 9 O'Clock News, I sat at the far left. Next to me sat the subeditor. On his right toiled the senior subeditor, and so on until, opposite me, sat the assistant editor, who ran the show. Each person was about three years older than the man on his left. If I plodded on, I could maybe sit opposite myself in another eighteen years.
On one particularly black day, when I got a soccer score wrong and most of England phoned to complain, Derek Maude, the assistant editor, took me to task. "Fook me, Fletcher," he yelled, "you'll never be a journalist!" Maude wore an eye patch, but you can hardly say he lacked vision.
After a year of frustration and insults from Maude, I decided I couldn't wait any longer to get into the field. I didn't have the patience to train to be a BBC reporter, and it wasn't clear I'd ever have the opportunity anyway, so I made a choice only the young would dare to make. While studying books on film, light, and sound that I borrowed from the local library, I talked Visnews, the world's largest news film agency, into lending me a film camera. Three months later Visnews agreed to take a gamble and send me out in the field as a cameraman. Despite the considerable drop in status and salary, I handed a one-line resignation note to the Beeb and never looked back.
My first foreign assignment for Visnews was to replace their Brussels veteran, Maurice De Witte, an eighty-two-year-old cameraman who wore a suit and tie on every assignment and brought along his black miniature poodle on a red leash. He was a dear old man but angry at being replaced, and he couldn't have been more delighted when I blew my first job. It was the first day of British membership in the European Community, and the best way to illustrate this for television was to film the Union Jack being hoisted for the first time alongside all the other national flags at the entrance to the EC headquarters. It was my first-ever job as a cameraman and I got there too late. I missed the story. I think a girl was involved. Maurice was delighted. Maybe this young whippersnapper would not be shunting him off into early retirement after all.
What Maurice didn't know was that three years earlier I had interned for six months as a languages translator at Berlaymont, the star-shaped community headquarters building in front of which the British flag now limply hung. Showing the "rat-like cunning" that one famous British reporter, Nicholas Tomalin, called the key requirement of journalists, I went straight to the office of the chief doorman. Fortunately, he remembered me. To Maurice's consternation, I persuaded the man to lower the flag and raise it again for me, while I filmed the historic moment redux. Today, I could be fired for that. Then, it may have saved my job. Maurice finally understood that it was time to move aside graciously for the new generation, and my career was born.
As it turned out, though, I was far from happy. In Brussels I suffered more than in London, barely emerging into daylight, filming stuffy committee meetings and conferences in the European Community headquarters. Overheated rooms, cigar smoke, mussels, and beer were about all I knew of working in the field.
Nine months later, when Visnews appointed me bureau chief in Israel, I was delighted. I rushed to share the good news with a new friend, the Israeli TV correspondent in Brussels. Ron Ben-Yishai tried hard to dissuade me. "This is where the excitement is, here in Brussels," Ron told me, "the struggle for a united Europe. Don't go to Israel. It's too quiet there. The story's over."
He should know, I thought. Ron was an Israeli paratrooper, a former military correspondent for Israeli television, and a rising media star. But I'd had my fill of winter in Europe, and bitter clashes among commission bureaucrats over controversial farming issues like how many hens a cock should mate with a day, ten or twelve. I decided to move on to warmer and more peaceful climes.
That September, Israel was in a summer stupor. The temperature was in the nineties. The glory of its stunning victory over three Arab armies in six days in June 1967 had led to social complacency, military arrogance, and, six years on, political inertia. Israel was resting on its laurels. And so I arrived on October 1, 1973, with little on my mind beyond sunny days and sultry girls. Five days later, Egypt and Syria invaded.
The next time I saw Ron Ben-Yishai was two and a half weeks into the war, on the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal. He drove a military jeep and wore paratrooper gear. His face was blackened with smoke and grime, and an Uzi submachine gun was slung across his chest. He grinned sheepishly. "Well, maybe the story isn't over yet," he said.
Nobody understood why Visnews decided to assign me to Israel, least of all Rolf Kneller, who had been the Visnews man there for decades. As far as he was concerned, I was just a young pest who threatened his job. He had sent a series of nasty letters to management asking why they were being so considerate as to finally send him help after having overworked and underpaid him for so many years. What was the real reason behind my arrival, he wondered, and as bureau chief no less? Nu? What did Fletcher know from Israel?
Clearly, not a lot. Now, putting such resentments aside, Rolf impatiently explained how to get to the Golan. "Drive northeast," he said. North I knew, but east was a problem. "Ach! Just follow the cars, they're all going to the Golan."
I hopped into my proudest possession at the time, a Mazda RX2. It was a sleek orange sports coupe with spider wheels and a rotary engine, the only one of its kind in Israel. The rotary engine was incredibly fast and quiet. I'd driven the Mazda from Brussels to Marseille, then crossed the Mediterranean by boat to Haifa with a trunk load of spare parts. Now my main concern, as I drove past citizen-soldiers kissing their families and heading to war, as I passed people painting their car headlights blue for the blackouts, and as I hid in a storefront when the air-raid sirens sounded, was my car. If it got damaged, I wondered, would Visnews pay?
Luckily, I had a full tank of fuel, and by now my camera batteries were partially charged. I got lost a few times and spent hours crawling in traffic jams, but by the next morning I was approaching the Golan Heights. The first days, when Israel was almost defeated, I couldn't get close to the action, and didn't really want to. The roads were clogged with private cars carrying soldiers and their gear, giant flatbed trucks transporting desperately needed tanks and armored personnel carriers, long columns trundling up the narrow, winding roads from Lake Galilee and Kiryat Shmona, and me in my orange Mazda, along with dozens of other pressmen.
After three days of filming the Israeli buildup on the ground and warplanes screeching overhead, I finally made it to the Heights. It was a rocky, hilly plateau forty by fifteen miles, with fabulous views over Lake Galilee to the west, while to the east was the snowcapped Mount Hermon, scene of some of the fiercest battles as Israeli and Syrian paratroopers duked it out for control of the strategic peaks. Whoever controlled the top had a straight line of sight over Damascus to the east and across most of northern Israel to the west.
As I entered the war zone, I was still well behind what I expected to be the main thrust of the Israeli troops, so I kept on driving east. Each time I stopped to film, I did a rueful check of the damage to the Mazda. The army vehicles along the rough tracks of the Golan sent chips of earth and stone smashing into my orange paintwork. In places it was beginning to look like a pineapple. In my head I composed a letter to Visnews requesting a new paint job on expenses.
I passed still-burning tanks and ambulances ferrying back the wounded. Dust clouds marked the progress of distant troops heading for the front. Knots of infantry rested at intersections. I tried to interview them, but mostly they were too tired or uninterested to talk. The only thing that sparked their interest was my car, especially the damage. They couldn't believe I had brought such a snazzy car to the front, and neither could I. Overhead, Israeli and Syrian warplanes were locked in dogfights, with puffs of white the only clouds in the blue sky. Sometimes a plane would suddenly spout black smoke and crash in the distance. Mobile artillery pieces fired and moved, fired and moved, to escape Syrian targeting. I wondered whether in this drab, gray landscape of rock, earth, and battle vehicles a Syrian gunner would find it easier to focus through his crosshairs, if they really had such things, on a bright orange car and take it out.
I decided to ask for directions. Seeing a car stop on the side of the road a few hundred yards away, I drove over and struck up a conversation with one of the occupants, who turned out to be Nicholas Tomalin, the London Sunday Times's top reporter. He was very kind and helpful and gave me sound advice. "Don't get ahead of the Israelis," he said. "And don't stay in one place for too long. Also, don't start driving around in a convoy of cars." Whereupon Tomalin and his friends drove off, leaving me wondering whether to follow, even though he had just warned me against convoys.
I stood by the Mazda for a few minutes, looking at a few white trails and puffs in the sky, hearing muffled booms. Then I decided to drive after Tomalin and look for the forward Israeli infantry. I had just opened the car door when a flash of flame and black smoke rose behind the next low hill. This was followed instantly by the clap of an explosion. Moments later, other journalists whom I hadn't seen before turned up with the news. It was Tomalin's car. He'd been trying to turn around on a narrow track after realizing that the Israeli forward line we were looking for didn't exist. We were way too far forward. Later I heard it was a shoulder-fired, wire-guided Sagger missile that had done Tomalin in. Carried by Syrian commandos, it was one of the new Soviet weapons that would surprise the Israelis in this war. Five minutes after advising me how to stay alive, Nicholas Tomalin was killed by an antitank missile.
Excerpted from Breaking News by Martin Fletcher. Copyright © 2008 Martin Fletcher. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
When Luck Ran Out 26
Salad Days 53
There Is No God but God 89
The Home Front 115
Famine and the Warlord 145
The River of Death 174
"Kosovo, Oh, How I Love You" 191
Living with Terror 216
What People are Saying About This
“A stunning and memorable account of the risks, rewards, complexities, and enduring lessons of reporting from some of the most dangerous places in the world.... This book makes me proud to call [Fletcher] friend and colleague.” -Tom Brokaw