"History is happening right there, and people are torn apart by it. When something is happening I see no point in not being there. I want to experience it, and I want to find the people whose lives have been transformed by it. That’s what turns me on. That’s why I do it." — Lindsey Hilsum
There’s scaling Mount Everest and trekking to the North Pole, but for Channel 4 News international editor Lindsey Hilsum, adventure takes on a whole new meaning. The British journalist has covered the major conflicts of the past two decades including Kosovo, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya — which she wrote about in the book “Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution” — and more recently, Syria and the Ukraine.
But it was in 1994 that Hilsum got her big break, the exclusive scoop that all journalists want. For Lindsey, it was a case of being in the wrong place at the right time.
Marsha Branch: So Rwanda basically relaunched your career as a journalist.
Lindsey Hilsum: That’s right. I was working as a freelance journalist and not making much money, so I took a short-term contract as an aid worker with the U.N. Children’s Fund in Rwanda at the beginning of ’94. Because I was the only English-speaking journalist there when the genocide started, I was the one who had to get the story out, so I gained a certain notoriety I suppose. It’s awful you know. A million people died and my career was relaunched. But that in a sense is what happened.
MB: Was Rwanda your first experience covering war?
LH: No, I covered the war in Mozambique and I’d been to Sudan, Uganda and Ethiopia in the mid-’80s, so I had already seen quite a lot of horrible things, but nothing before or since compares with Rwanda.
MB: How so?
LH: Going to a war zone and knowing what you’re getting yourself into is very different to being somewhere and it erupts around you. And that was what happened in Rwanda. I was not expecting genocide to start, nobody was. I was at a friend’s house for dinner and I heard [that] the president’s plane [had] crashed. Then we saw a glow on the horizon. We didn’t know what it was. A friend called from the BBC in England and told me what happened, so I rang a local journalist and said I’m going to the airport. I want to report. And he said, ‘You can’t go! There are roadblocks all the way and they are killing people.’ So I spent the entire night on the phone — I didn’t go to sleep at all — [with] Rwandan friends who were calling and telling me about the killing in their neighborhood. They were telling me because they wanted me to know, and because they wanted me to help, which I couldn’t do.
MB: So you were able to report by getting your Rwandan friends to share their stories.
LH: Initially, and then on the fourth day I spoke to the head of the Red Cross, and he said, ‘Come with us.’ So I got into my car and drove past the soldier on the gate of my house who said I shouldn’t leave. I drove through roadblocks with men with red eyes, and beer bottles, and machetes with blood dripping off them and dead bodies at the side of the road.
MB: At any point did you think this could happen to me; I could be one of those bodies?
LH: That was very scary; because I knew they were targeting Belgians, and I worried they would think I was Belgian. I thought it best to drive and look as if I knew where I was going, which was a lie, because I had no sense of direction. So I was terribly worried I would get lost on the way, and also, I didn’t have much petrol in my car.
MB: Wasn’t the Red Cross driving you?
LH: I had to get to get to them first, and then I would go out with them. It wasn’t very far, less than a mile. But in my little life it was quite a long mile. But I got there, and went out with them. It was just horrific. We were loading injured people in the back of the vehicle. I remember a clinic, and there were four women who had their throats cut, and flies were buzzing around them. We were going through the hospital and (sigh) there were truck loads of dead bodies and the hospital was full of people who had been slashed with machetes, hit with clubs, studded with nails and children with their arms dangling off. I’ve said before in my reports that the gutters were running with blood. That was not a metaphor. The gutters literally were red with blood. So that’s what I mean about Rwanda being like nothing I had seen before, and nothing I have seen since, thank goodness.
MB: How long after Rwanda did you close your eyes and see those images? Does that still happen?
LH: Yes, it still does. It’s been 20 years, but those images are still there. They will never go.
MB: Your reports are always cohesive, so how do you prepare when heading off on assignment to a new location?
LH: Sometimes it isn’t so cohesive to me (laughter). I often get only a couple of hours notice. For example, most recently, when [ousted Ukrainian president Viktor] Yanukovych fled the Ukraine my editor said to me, ‘Whoa, this is a really big story, you better go.’ Well I haven’t studied the Ukraine. I read a book at the end of the Cold War in 1991, but nothing recently. So luckily, I still had that particularly good book, which I threw in my bag, and we hoped on a plane, the producer, the cameraperson and me. Of course, today, the Internet is a wonderful thing, because in the days of Rwanda, there were no mobile phones. There was no Internet. You got your information from talking to people.
MB: Do you feel apprehensive when leaving for a particularly violent destination?
LH: Often one feels apprehensive. I don’t mind front lines because you can take cover or run away. But what I hate are crowds: there is no way out. We all remember what happened to Lara Logan in Egypt, and after Lara was attacked I felt a lot of apprehension about going into crowds. I haven’t completely avoided those situations, but I’ve taken extra precautions, and I just try and get in and out as quickly as possible. And then there are other things. You may have seen that Anthony Loyd and Jack Hill from The Times were badly injured in Syria in May. They went over the border with rebels from Turkey. I wouldn’t do that. That’s beyond my danger threshold, but there are other journalists who are much braver and crazier than I am, and Loyd is one of them.
MB: Have you ever had a really close call?
LH: There was one occasion in Kenya back in the ’80s. There was a ridiculous small border war between Kenya and Uganda. I think that somebody’s goat strayed over a border or something. I went to cover it, and a bullet went past my head. I always think about that, because it was the world’s most stupid war. It lasted for two days. No one who was around at the time, let alone now, would have remembered it. And that one bullet, you know, it went straight past and it could have got me. That really would have been a daft way to die, the war with a goat.
MB: Is there a country you never want to revisit?
LH: I really don’t want to go to South Sudan, and at the same time, I feel very guilty about not being in there. I’ve been going to South Sudan for 30 years, when it was still part of Sudan. I saw that country go through war and famine, and then the hope that came up through independence. I went to their independence celebrations in July 2011, and I find it unbearably heartbreaking, and it makes me very angry to see what’s happening there now, to see those leaders who people put their faith in, basically squandering millions of lives for personal gain and animosity. A large part of me feels very guilty about not being there because I feel I’ve known that place and that story for a long time. But another part of me thinks I can’t do it. It’s just too dreadful.
MB: So is it fair to say then that journalists can develop a sense of attachment and still be objective?
LH: Yes. We’re taught not to get attached, but it’s more complicated than that, because if you don’t have any attachment or any feelings, then you’re probably a lousy journalist, because it means you’re a lousy human being and you don’t care, and if you don’t care, why should people bother to share their stories with you? But I think there does come a point when you’ve seen it too many times and you’re not shocked anymore, and I think that is not a good thing. I go to [the Democratic Republic of Congo] and I meet the women who have been raped. I get really upset when I hear their stories, but I am not shocked, because I’ve heard it so many times. But that should shock you. You should be screaming that something must be done about this.
MB: Have you ever lost a friend, a colleague, a fellow journalist covering war?
LH: Certainly, more than one.
MB: How has that affected you?
LH: Well, it’s hard to talk about. Marie Colvin was one of my best friends, and as you know, she was killed in Homs in Syria on February 22, 2012. I would say that nothing has been the same since then.
MB: How so?
LH: I didn’t really go to conflict zones for about a year after that. I really couldn’t do much. I also lost my closest work colleague Gaby Rado. He died in the war in Iraq, and our fixer/translator in Iraq, Mohamed Fatan, he was killed. So I’ve lost a lot of people and that’s obviously the most difficult thing to deal with.
MB: Do you ever think, I don’t want to do this anymore. I could be next?
LH: Not yet.
MB: You sound like you want to say something else.
MB: It’s a difficult topic for you, isn’t it?
LH: It’s a very difficult topic.
MB: You obviously travel a lot. How often on average in a year?
LH: I usually spend between five and six months on the road, but it varies. Sometimes we spend four or five days somewhere and come back, or like in Libya in 2011, we went, spent six weeks, came back for a couple of weeks, and then went out for another six weeks. 2011 was completely crazy. I was away nearly all the time. But then other years are quieter. It’s just how it goes.
MB: What do you enjoy most about your job and what do you dislike most about it?
LH: What I dislike is the technology and the logistics, that terrible fear that the satellite dish isn’t going to work, and you spent a whole day like a lunatic running around getting a story and it wont make air because some stupid connection doesn’t work. That’s what will shorten my life, and why I went gray at a very early age. And what I love about the job is that sense of being where history is happening. In Europe and America, we sort of think history is over because we live in these very calm places. But when you go to a place like Syria, history isn’t over. History is happening right there, and people are torn apart by it. When something is happening I see no point in not being there. I want to experience it, and I want to find the people whose lives have been transformed by it. That’s what turns me on. That’s why I do it.
About the author: Marsha Branch is a Media & Communications Consultant and freelance writer with over 19 years experience as a print and broadcast journalist. Her work has been published and broadcast internationally by such organizations as the BBC, CNN and United Nations. Follow Marsha on Twitter and Facebook.