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Confessions of a New Journalist Reporting in a Conflict Zone

09/13/2015 06:13 EDT | Updated 09/13/2016 05:12 EDT
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I've been spit at by an imam when I tried to shake his hand in Sudan, I've been interrogated in North Korea (unknowingly pregnant and very hormonal at the time before I was allowed on a flight home) and I've been yelled at through my earpiece by American Forces for wearing a blue-lit watch in a Black Hawk helicopter night-flying toward Baghdad. Journalists learn hard.

Sometimes, it takes a while to share a disturbing experience from the field out of doubt that it happened in the traumatic way that you remember. But you keep remembering.

I've been an amateur, parachute-in-and-out conflict journo a handful of times in my life, and I admire those who do it everyday. A reporter once critiqued a piece I wrote in Baghdad and said I should stick to writing puff pieces about purple elephant tattoos (a story I had indeed written), but alas, you can't help where your interests take you, and sometimes that's conflict zones. My first conflict zone gave me reoccurring nightmares that I can't seem to forget.

In 2002, I planned my documentary thesis for my Master's in Journalism -- it would be in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. I wanted to show the sacrifice of war correspondents who put their lives in peril in the name of communicating news during conflict. Journalism Under Fire was the title.

It was 2002, the height of the second intifada. I interviewed many journalists from around the world based in Jerusalem who were mentors for me. I also arranged to meet Mazen Dana, a Palestinian journalist working for Reuters and based in Hebron, two hours south of Jerusalem. He was decorated with a prestigious CPJ award. He had also been shot at and wounded by Israeli military while on the journo-job.

I had planned for an hour-long interview with Mazen, but he said that if I wanted to capture firefights between the Israelis and Palestinians, I had to stay overnight, which was when the chaos broke out. I had promised the Israeli soldier at the checkpoint that I would be back before sundown, but the temptation for good footage triumphed. The same week I smelled bomb for the first time.

Mazen was very nice. He introduced me to a girl whose house I would stay at that night, because his home was full of children and a wife. My host explained to me in crocodile tears how she had been separated from her family in Jordan ever since she married in the PT, and if she left they would not let her return. She said she would need to borrow someone's passport to get across and back from Jordan. Brave, I thought. Tricky.

After dinner, Mazen said he wanted to bring me to a another friend's house. We rode in a Land Rover-type vehicle where we went up swirling roads with guards at every dark corner with guns. The guards knew Mazen and would nod as his car drove slowly by them with his window rolled down and his head crooked a tad out. Finally we arrived. It wasn't a house. It was a building -- more horizontal than vertical. We walked in and Mazen opened the doors for me. On the last door, he hesitated before opening and said, "You are about to meet some of the most wanted Palestinian terrorists in the world." before smiling widely. The door flung open. I didn't have a chance to absorb what he said. There before me, a room full of men wearing green with big, black guns and ammunition everywhere.

Eyes were on me -- red hair, blue eyes, no wedding ring, grinny smile. The men were pleasant but I remember no names and no conversations. I remember being extremely hot and hoping my sweat wouldn't show beneath my armpits. I was smiling hard, trying not to look nervous.

It was hard to gauge time but not long after, the man who was evidently the head honcho walked in the room and looked at me. There was no smile. There was a firm, long stare. My eyes were fixed. He put something on a desk, came over and pulled Mazen aside, hardly acknowledging me. While he talked to Mazen I spoke with the other men and thought, I must act like I had done this a dozen times before.

Mazen and the man spoke in Arabic and I didn't understand their conversation. What I did understand is that Mazen -- a big man, maybe six foot four and well over 220 pounds -- had beads of sweat rolling down his forehead and cheeks. As he spoke, his face and neck became bright red. Others started listening in on the conversation with concerned looks and nodding.

I would get glances back from Mazen and others that showed there was trouble. The boss was mad that I was there. People stopped talking to me. The room became quiet as the conversation Mazen was having dominated the air. I couldn't run, I had no idea where I was and there were men with guns all around me. And if I stayed, what could happen? I resolved to keep smiling, although my lips must have been clearly trembling.

When Mazen finally approached me, I knew he was upset and very anxious. He had not foreseen that bringing me to this terrorist compound would be problematic. I would have to pay. My green journo blood was not ready for this.

Mazen had negotiated to have pictures taken of me with members of the terrorist group. That way, he said, if the Israelis saw them, they would perceive me as a Palestinian ally or spy -- and that wouldn't translate well for me.

The terrorists sat me on a couch and members gathered jovially on both sides of me, with their arms around me in semi-hug position while strapping a big gun across my chest. I was told it was an M-16, but later someone told me that was an Israeli gun so that was unlikely. They told me to smile for the camera, and I did. They took several shots and in a minute it was over. We never did get the footage Mazen promised, but we did get out of there alive.

In the morning, when I wanted to go back to Jerusalem it prompted an argument between Mazen and my host. He looked concerned. Had Mazen felt he showed me too much, said too much, would I compromise him in any way?

"You send me a passport when you get back to Canada, yes?" my host asked.

"Yes," I said, fully knowing I was lying.

She turned to Mazen and they called a taxi to pick me up. Before I got into the car, Mazen handed me a beige envelope. They were the photos. Twenty-four-hour, around-the-clock photo developing was surprisingly available in Hebron, and there I was, smiling with a bunch of terrorists.

When I got back to Jerusalem, I confided in a Canadian CBC correspondent, Neil MacDonald, and told him what happened. Once I showed him the pictures he told me to get the eff out of the country as soon as possible. He told me to leave the photos with him because the Israelis would check my luggage at the airport, and if they found those pictures there would be trouble for me. I left them with him and left the country the next day.

I cried in relief when the plane landed on Canadian soil. The compound I was in was hit by Israelis just days later. I later learned that the Israelis had their eyes on that compound for awhile, lucky for me I wasn't in it when it went boom.

I called the RCMP and had a debrief on what had happened. They asked if I recognized certain faces but I couldn't remember, it was all a blur.

Mazen was killed in 2003 while working in Iraq. U.S. forces thought his video camera was a grenade launcher. There are theories that the U.S. knew who they were shooting, and that the soldiers had been conversing with him right before they shot him.

This story ends here. I went on to go to other war zones. My gut got stronger, and so did my smile.

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