When I first met Mazen Dana in Hebron in late 1999, the Middle East appeared ready for peace.
Israel had pulled out of most of the Palestinian Territories and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were being reunited through a road link known as the “safe passage”. But the city of Hebron remained a flashpoint. Around 500 hardline Jewish settlers live in enclaves among the city’s 150,000 Palestinians, and Hebron remained a scene of frequent violence.
Mazen’s job was to cover this story for Reuters, working as a cameraman and producer in the highly competitive field of agency television.
Recording acts of violence by both sides, Mazen was frequently a target. His towering physical presence meant he was easily recognised and he was frequently shot with rubber bullets, beaten by Jewish settlers, teargassed and hit by rocks. His grim determination to keep working in the face of such adversity earned him legendary status among local and foreign journalists.
In September 2000, all thoughts of peace in the region evaporated with the start of the second Intifada. Mazen’s coverage of clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian protesters showed stone-throwing youths frequently shot by soldiers.
That coverage lost Israel a great deal of international goodwill.
In October 2000, after covering a clash between stone-throwing protesters and Israeli soldiers, two sniper rounds hit Mazen in the lower leg and foot, within seconds of each other. Later in the Intifada, a bullet hit his camera as he raised his head for a better view. After so many close calls, Reuters decided to pull Mazen out of frontline reporting in Hebron.
That move was greeted with relief by Mazen’s wife Suzanne. With four children to think of, she made it clear that Mazen’s courage at work took its toll at home.
Thinking back now, though, my favourite memories of Mazen are of rare moments of quiet, either at his home with his children, whom he adored, or when he and Reuters cameraman Nael al-Shyoukhi would find time to sit near Abraham’s Tomb, a flashpoint in the divided city, and keep an eye out for trouble.
The two would crack jokes, drink endless cups of Turkish coffee and greet passers-by, all of whom seemed to know Mazen. Sometimes heavily armed settlers, passing on their way to pray at the tomb, would greet the pair.
Mazen’s insight into the conflict in Hebron was invaluable to visiting journalists and many looked him up when they visited the city. Mazen had personally helped train dozens of local journalists, so he was often surrounded by a group of local as well as foreign colleagues.
Mazen’s death outside a lonely prison in Iraq would have seemed totally incongruous if he hadn’t died in the arms of his friend and colleague al-Shyoukhi. Mazen’s colleagues were a major part of his life and I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been one of them.