'I survived Iraq, but a holiday nearly killed me'

Channel
4’s Lindsey Hilsum has reported from Falluja, Gaza, Rwanda and Beslan
in the past year alone. Here the former aid worker tells Julie Tomlin
about her most recent brush with death and explains how a career in
news has eroded the idealism of her youth

WITHIN FIVE minutes of
meeting Lindsey Hilsum I find myself peering through a telescope
looking for birds on the reservoir that backs on to her house in the
London borough of Hackney.

“I love looking around other people’s houses, so I assume people want to have a look around mine,”

says
the Channel 4 News international editor as she leads the way to the
upstairs room in Stoke Newington where she keeps her telescope.

There aren’t many birds out there, but I have to admit it is somehow calming to watch the lone mallard cleaning its feathers.

“Working
on television news scrambles your brain,” says Hilsum, whose
prize-winning portfolio at the Royal Television Society Awards recently
featured reports from Falluja, Gaza, Rwanda, Beslan and Equatorial
Guinea.

A second hobby also helps the unscrambling process.
“After working hard I wouldn’t be able to lie on the beach, so horse
riding is good because you’re active and using another part of your
brain,” she says.

However, after almost coming a cropper
while she was crossing a dangerous ravine, she is the first to admit
that choosing to follow nomads in Iran was perhaps not the most
relaxing activity she could have opted for.

“It was an absurd
thing to do,” says Hilsum, who made the trip with her partner,
cameraman Tim Lambon, after they had completed a long stint in Iraq
last summer.

Having one mare with five stallions proved to be a
major difficulty. “These horses were bonkers. If the mare was in front
you couldn’t stop them and if she was behind they wouldn’t move.”

To
make matters even more fraught, when Hilsum’s horse was frightened by a
train on an overhead viaduct, Lambon was unable to go back and help her
because that would have meant riding past the mare on his stallion.

“I
thought I was going to plunge to my death although I managed to calm it
down a bit,” says Hilsum. “I didn’t know how I was going to get across
this slope. I was just stuck there.

“But I almost believe in God,” she continues. “I was sitting there saying ‘I’m a dead person, I can never get across’.

“But
God sent a nomad – a nomad appeared from heaven, smiled and took my
horse’s bridle and I was able to scramble across on my hands and knees.
The nomad brought my horse across. But then he was nowhere to be seen.
He had disappeared.”

Hilsum still thinks horse riding is “a good
thing to do”, but says next time she wants a break she will choose
somewhere “not quite as dangerous, slightly quieter, with not quite
such complex terrain, no stallions and mares… and no ravines”.

She
adds: “That moment when I looked down in the ravine, I have never been
so frightened. The war was awful but I didn’t get that frightened. The
holiday afterwards very nearly did me in.”

Being in scary
situations together is hardly a novelty for Hilsum and Lambon as they
frequently work together on assignment. Living and working in an
armoured vehicle – as they did in Falluja as US troops laid seige to
the city – would be a test for any relationship, but Hilsum prefers to
work with Lambon when she’s in a danger zone.

“We know how to work together,” says Hilsum.

“It’s very important you trust the people that you work with, particularly in dangerous situations.

“There
are lots of people I trust, but in very dodgysituations like Falluja, I
find it easy to work with Tim because we know what the other’s thinking
– and as he’s ex-military, he knows what he’s doing.”

It’s also easier to readjust to home life when your partner understands what you have been through.

“That
is when it helps to have a partner who does the same thing. If your
partner lives a very different life, I think that can be tricky. That
doesn’t mean we talk about work all the time, not at all. But it does
mean that those junctures when you come back from a long trip are not
so difficult.”

Hilsum has spent a lot of time in Iraq over the
past two years, but says she is unlikely to go back indepently in the
near future because “real journalism” has become impossible to do.

“It’s too dangerous,” she says. “The best kind of journalism relies on a certain amount of serendipity.

It’s down to the people you meet, and what I can’t do is meet people.”

And
although she admits to reservations about being embedded, she accepts
that accompanying the US military was the only feasible way of covering
the attack on Falluja’s insurgents and the nationwide elections in
January.

“As a Western journalist it was a simple choice,” she
says. “As far as the insurgents are concerned they would have killed
us. It doesn’t matter that we’re journalists. I would have been taken
off and had my throat slit. They don’t care how liberal your views are,
you’re the infidel.”

Equally, her fears that she would be restricted in what she could report from Falluja were unfounded, she says.

“I
think it was a completely valid way of doing it in that we observed a
lot and were told a lot and we were completely honest about what we
couldn’t tell.

We did have almost complete access to what was going on and they never tried to censor anything.”

She
adds that the only way to make sure both sides of the story are
presented is to work with Iraqi journalists, as they are “able to bring
us those voices that we had not been able to bring”.

“As a
programme we were able to bring the other side of the story through
this other way. But it’s the only way to report from Iraq. Western
reporters cannot bring you the whole story. It’s too dangerous.”

Hilsum
speaks with obvious sadness about those people, such as the aid worker
Margaret Hassan, who have been killed or have disappeared in Iraq.

Her fixer, a Shia Muslim whom she declines to name, was kidnapped in December last year and nothing has been heard of him since.

Has it had an impact? “Of course,” she says, indicating that we move on and that for the first time she has nothing more to say.

The risks journalists face in Iraq have since become too severe for her to go back, she admits.

“I’ve accepted I might get shot, but I don’t want to be kidnapped,” she says.

Another assignment that affected her deeply was the 10th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda.

“Going
back there was painful. I have been back since, but the thing that
really hit me this time was meeting the women who had been raped and
are now dying of HIV and Aids. What can you say?

That’s about as bad as it gets.”

On
her return she gave several talks and endorsed the efforts of the
Survivors Fund, of which she is a patron, to raise funds for
anti-retroviral drugs.

“You see a lot of terrible things and tell
yourself that by your journalism you are doing something. But every now
and again you come across something and you think, ‘actually, I’m not’.

“I
can tell these women’s stories, but even these stories have been told
dozens of times. Some of these women were saying, ‘Why should I tell my
story again? I’ve told my story to lots of journalists and my life is
no better.’

“This time I really did think it was not enough.”

A
former aid worker for Oxfam and Unicef in East Africa, she originally
went into journalism because “I thought I didn’t really know that much
and I didn’t have the right to go around and tell people what to do. I
decided that I would move over into journalism because I would just
observe and learn things.”

Having worked as a stringer for the
BBC and The Guardian, in 1996 she was taken on by Channel 4 News.
Promoted from diplomatic correspondent to international editor in March
2004, she has reported on most of the major stories around the world.

But the idealism she refers to during her days as a charity worker now seems a long way off.

“I don’t believe there are any stories that ever have any real major impact,” she says.

“I think it’s important to report events, I think it’s important that people know what’s happening.

I don’t expect it to have a direct effect. I’ve come to that conclusion gradually, but that’s what I think now.”

Hilsum
exudes a no-nonsense attitude and says that she’s “more interested in
journalism than I am in television”. It’s why the awards ceremony where
she picked up the prize for TV journalist of the year was such a trial
for her. “I would rather run naked down sniper alley.”

Despite
her evident desire to pursue issues that can’t be resolved through
television, she loves the immediacy of the job and is not ready to move
on yet. “If I’m going to write a book I want to do it properly and it’s
going to be about something,” she says, then mentions that she would
like to make documentaries as well.

“People do wake up one day and think they don’t want to do it any more. I’ve got several friends that has happened to.

“It’s the accumulation of too many friends being killed and seeing too many terrible things.

“I understand. I can see all those things, but I’m not there yet.

“I
can’t imagine a time of not wanting to be out there, but I can imagine
a time looking at something like the situation in Iran and thinking, ‘I
can’t do this in television news, I need to do something different.’

“But as I say, I’m not there yet.”

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