'I cried like a child witnessing all this'

ITV
foreign correspondent Julian Manyon, winner of a Golden Nymph for his
live coverage of the Beslan school siege, recounts his experience to
Caitlin Pike and explains why live news coverage is an ‘essential tool’

THERE ARE few formalities from Julian Manyon as he greets me in the atrium of ITN’s headquarters in London.

He patiently waits while I search my bag for a pen and notebook and,
as I look up, launches straight into a description of his experiences
at Beslan. It is an emotionally charged account of the massacre at
School Number One on 3 September last year, which resulted in the death
of more than 320 people – over half of them children. I’m surprised by
his willingness to recount such a horrific event and, even though I
shouldn’t be, by the fragility he displays. It is in stark contrast to
the formidable, assured figure I’m used to seeing on the television
screen.

As he recalls that day in detail it’s clear how vivid the
memories are. At times he points to landmarks in the open space we are
sitting in and says “the gym was there” or “the Chechnyans were firing
and were as near as that glass partition there”.

On the morning
of the massacre he had been frustrated that he and his crew (Russian
freelance producer Artem Drabkin and cameraman Sasha Lomakin) were five
miles from the school, filming with families who had escaped the
previous day after two days of the siege. Then they heard gunfire
coming from the direction of the school.

“Immediately after, I
saw a truck hurtling past in the direction of the hospital. It was full
of wounded people including children.”

By this time, the Russian
army had thrown check points across the roads leading to the central
area of Beslan. “The only way we got through them was, by telling our
driver, in the firmest possible tone, to drive at the check point and
not stop. We just drove through it and fortunately nobody fired because
otherwise they would have kept us out.”

Manyon was one of only a
couple of reporters to get into the actual school compound and the
first person to break the news that around a hundred bodies lay under
burning rafters in the school gym.

As he continues his vivid
account, and I try to understand the mettle it must take to drive
through an armed road block towards a gun battle in one of the most
lawless countries of the world, Manyon explains he had covered two
similar Chechynan sieges before. He felt relatively familiar with the
drill and knew what to expect from the Russian army, but even he wasn’t
prepared for the horror – a word that appears frequently in his account.

Manyon
and Lomakin found themselves in a disused kindergarten and filmed
“floods” of people being brought out of the school, some of whom were
seriously wounded.

“First of all there was the horror, the sheer
horror of realising what was going on. The first thing I saw was
dozens, and then hundreds, of children coming out of there, some of
them badly injured, being carried by their parents. There was the most
terrible wailing and sobbing as people tried to rescue their children –
desperately looking for their children.”

Once he’d overcome the
shock, he says he was aware that this was going to be one of the most
appalling stories he had covered. This from a veteran of Afghanistan,
Kosovo and Iraq. It also occurred to him that it would be possible to
get into the school to find out exactly what had happened.

“The
three of us decided that we would give it a go. We went in and out of a
few back gardens and vegetation and found ourselves directly in front
of the school where Russian troops were preparing to move forward. As
they moved forward, we moved with them so we were in the courtyard of
the school with the Chechnyan rebels still holding out in a rear
section of the school.”

It was at this point that Manyon and his
crew were able to transmit the news of the dead bodies in the gym,
which then ricocheted around the world.

“The Russian army had
control of some of the school, but heavy fire was being exchanged
between them and the rebels. Lomakin was able to get past the Russian
soldiers for a minute or two and film inside the gym. I was held back
at the door. All the while the Chechynans were firing from 50 yards
further back. We then took shelter behind a portico and the fighting
continued for the period we were there. We spent most of the time
filming round the corner.”

Manyon was broadcasting live to the
ITV News Channel and the network, which had been cleared of scheduled
programming for the story. At one point a Russian soldier was shot
inches from him and was taken away.

He describes the judgements
and thought processes that went through his head while he was inside
the school compound, literally in the line of fire. “You try to make
sure you are as safe as possible, sheltered behind buildings and that
you are clear about what is happening. Before we went live, Lomakin and
I had a two-minute conversation about what he had seen.”

He says they needed to have the conversation.

This
was partly because of the amount of adrenaline rushing through them,
but also because, as he would be reporting what Lomakin had seen, he
wanted to be “absolutely straight” about the basis of Lomakin’s beliefs
on the number of dead.

Manyon describes his relief having
transmitted the story – with due credit to field technician Patrick
O’Ryan-Roeder – but also the dawning of the horror of what he had
witnessed. He is overcome with emotion as he tries to explain. “We knew
we had witnessed something extraordinarily horrifying, which will live
with me and everyone else who saw it for the rest of our lives – there
is no doubt about it.”

Forcing back tears, Manyon talks about the next day, when they filmed the first of the funerals.

Apologising for the emotion he can’t help but show, he talks of waves of small coffins being brought out.

There
are few words to convey it, he says: “It was just the numbers of very
small coffins. I cried like a child witnessing all this. I thought I
was thick-skinned, but I realised at the funerals I’m not thick-skinned
at all.”

Manyon explains that he went into journalism because he
believes it is a force for good. Where does he find the courage to do
what he does? “Let’s not go overboard,” he interrupts. “This is
something I wanted to do from when I wanted to be a journalist – I
don’t mean cover school massacres – I mean cover the important stories
in international news. I have been doing it for a long time. I spent a
couple of years in Vietnam early in my career, but I have never covered
anything like Beslan, with such concentrated horror in just a few
hours.”

It is “extraordinarily ironic”, he says, that the BBC
should choose to use Beslan as a justification for adding a time delay
to live coverage of some news events, because Beslan must have brought
home to people the horror of what has been taking place in Chechyna for
years. He believes live coverage is “one of modern society’s most
essential tools”, enabling people to grasp the enormity of a situation
immediately.

“When the stakes are as high as this in humanitarian
terms, is it right that the BBC should neutralise the pictures of what
is taking place?” he asks. “Do we, in order to protect the
sensitivities of our viewers, have to have wars without fighting and
massacres without bloodshed? I don’t believe so.”

Manyon reminds
me of something he said at the beginning of the interview: “What
happened at Beslan is characteristic rather than exceptional of the war
in Chechyna and shows the horror of the effects of the war on the
civilian population. It is not reported with the determination it
deserves.”

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