What It Means To Be A Journalist In Gaza
Journalist Noor Swirki writes about what its like for Palestinian journalists working from Gaza, with everything on the line, every night and day.
KHAN YOUNIS — On the morning of the 20th day of war, I received a call from my husband, Salem, a journalist who has been covering this war since its very first moments. He asked me to delay coming to our makeshift workplace; we are both reporters, and we have been camping at the Nasser Medical Complex. An Israeli air strike had targeted the area behind the medical complex, causing massive destruction, claiming lives and injuring many.
Two hours later, he showed up in his press vest, stricken, barely able to speak, and sticky with sweat and debris. He described to me how the place had been crawling with ambulances and civilian cars transporting the injured, while others still carried dead bodies and the remains of their children and family members wrapped in blankets. “I’m tired. We saw the rockets come towards us. We counted them. When will this end?”
Salem and I are but two among many. In the press tent, dozens of journalists converge to perform their duties. Salem spends the night there, while I make a daily trek to our workplace at noon. Before the sun has set, we depart towards the safe house, where I will spend the night with our two children.
Every morning at around 9, we try to reach each other by phone. I am usually the one who makes the call. “Good morning, are you still alive?” We agree on a time for him to pick me up. Our two children listen in and start counting down the hours in anticipation. As soon as he arrives, they race me to embrace their father and present him with a list of their demands, which Salem tries to fulfill to the best of his ability on our way back. Again, he receives another flurry of kisses and hugs before he leaves us for the night.
Our family is not the only one; dozens of our colleagues working alongside us in the press tent set up in the Nasser Medical Complex in Khan Younis, South Gaza, are in similar situations, if not worse. Previous and ongoing experiences with airstrikes have taught journalists that we are targets, and it’s better to rally together in the same space to offer each other support and solace.
Those at home fear losing those on the field, and those on the field fear losing those at home.
Press tents are set up at hospitals, like the Dar al-Shifa Hospital in the north and the Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in the center of Gaza City, to make use of available power supplies and potential internet access. The tents sometimes receive support from the Journalists Syndicate, from the Hamas media office, or from major broadcasters with better resources, like Palestine Channel.
The fear of losing one’s family hangs like a shadow over journalists and their loved ones. Those at home fear losing those on the field, and those on the field fear losing those at home.
The morning following the murder of Al Jazeera’s chief correspondent Wael al-Dahdouh’s family members, including his wife, daughter and son, on the 19th day of the war, a cold fear set into our hearts. We are all afraid we could be next, knowing that he is not the first among us to live through this ordeal.
Photojournalist Aly Gadallah lost his sister and three of his brothers in an airstrike while he was on duty. Journalist Mahmoud Hanieh lost his wife and their son, who was not yet a year old. Journalist Khaled al-Ashqar also lost his wife while on duty.
The family of Ashqar desperately sought safety, fleeing from their homes alongside thousands of others, changing their place of refuge at least four times, until they ended up in Khan Younis. Khaled works from the press tent set up at the Aqsa Martyrs Hospital. He has been making a daily trek in the early hours of dawn and again in the deep of the night to keep his family company amid the air strikes terrorizing their nights.
“My wife was killed in an airstrike targeting the spot we had fled to for safety. My son was mildly injured, my nephews sustained medium-level injuries, and my niece had to have her leg amputated. I never imagined this could happen to me. I buried my wife and went back to work the following day. Our life without her, our four kids and myself, is really difficult, particularly at this time,” Khaled tells me.
“I’m under a lot of pressure in my capacity as a journalist. I had to separate the kids so we would not all die together in subsequent airstrikes. Two are with their grandfather, one is with my sister and one is with me. I haven’t been able to stop working; we are the voice of so many other people who have no other way of getting their stories out to the world about all the terror and injustice they have been facing. We have been tasked with this mission.”
The importance of the job
Wissam Yassin, a correspondent for Alhurra in Gaza, concurs with him. “We are Palestinian civilians like other Palestinians living under siege, but we have also been tasked with presenting the truth.”
Wissam is a mother to three children, two girls and a boy, whom she leaves with her relatives in the south of Gaza during her workday. She relays her experience reporting on this war as we sit side by side on one of the pavements adjacent to the press tent: “I have covered many military escalations and wars, but nothing compares to what is happening now. We have no time to think or to weep. We cannot comprehend what is happening. Sometimes I say that we have managed to keep going solely fuelled by the beauty of our spirits, for the rockets land in our hearts. As soon as we deliver our news broadcasts, we rush to our phones to check in on our families and make sure they’re safe, that is, if the phone network is functional on both ends. If nobody picks up, all the horrible scenarios come flooding through my brain. I lose all focus and all drive for work; my mind remains restless until I am reassured that they’re well.”
“My children resent my job. Talking to my youngest daughter makes me feel guilty when she says things like, ‘My friend’s mother is with her, but you aren’t with us,’ particularly because I don’t spend the night with them. I have only managed to spend one night by their side since this war began. All the other nights I’ve been here in the broadcast vehicle parked by the Nasser Medical Complex.”
I start at dawn, dote on my children, hug them, give them their fill of love and get my fill of love before embarking on the death route.
She adds, “In the first week of the war, I left to cover the events, only managing to return to them a week later to take them and flee south. We left with the clothes on our backs; it’s all we have for now and I have not had the time to buy more. It’s starting to get chilly, so I had to rush out to buy a pair of fall pyjamas for my youngest from one of the shacks around here. I went out with my press vest, and everyone who saw me — passersby and vendors — all inquired about the ceasefire. People look up to us as a source of information. It tears me up on the inside.”
TRT Arabi correspondent Ruba al-Agramy’s situation is not much different; she leaves her four children with their father and aunt to make the daily trek to and from work, departing at 7 am and returning in the evening. She tries to steal some minutes in between her live broadcast segments to buy some supplies for her children from the shacks nearby, as her family has also been displaced from Gaza City to Khan Younis.
As soon as she finishes one of her segments, we sit down for a chat in the broadcast vehicle. She tells me, “I start at dawn, dote on my children, hug them, give them their fill of love and get my fill of love before embarking on the death route. The distance between the safe house and the press tent is long and arduous; it takes about 20-30 minutes of driving at high speed. All along the way, I beseech God to grant me safe passage; the road is deserted and completely emptied of people, having been previously targeted by airstrikes.”
Journalists are seen working out of a press tent
The guilt of being a journalist and having children
Agramy has been covering this war since its first moment — during previous military escalations, she usually had the option to work from home. The contrast for her has been striking: “I am witnessing everything with my own eyes; the scenes of blood and carnage I was previously shielded from by a screen are now only half a meter away. Bearing witness to this, seeing how doctors are trying to tend to the injured with almost no supplies, breaks me as a mother. I am haunted by the possibility of them throwing one of my children into my arms as a martyr. It’s hard on me as a mother and as a journalist.”
I feel powerless in the face of her fears
As for Amir al-Farra, he seems completely engrossed in the task of completing a phone-in interview for the satellite channel he works for. Headphones plugged in, he sits on a plastic chair next to a wall overcrowded with power and internet cables, exhaustion on his face as he reports on the humanitarian situation in Gaza. As soon as he’s done, he smiles at me: “I am a correspondent for Al Yawm satellite channel, a father to two girls, the eldest of whom is seven and is the locus of my fears.”
Throughout his career in press coverage, he has bore witness to many military operations; however, his daughter was younger then and not yet cognizant of fear and explosions. This time around, she has been sending him voice notes on WhatsApp, begging him to come home and leave his work behind. She fools him by saying, “Rockets!”
He says, “I feel powerless in the face of her fears. I don’t know how to reassure her. Every day I promise her to come home, and that’s what I have been doing. I am from Khan Younis. I show up for work at the press tent around dawn and leave before it gets dark.” It takes him around 10-15 minutes to get home. Despite having to walk home one day when he couldn’t find a car to take him, on account of the fuel and gas shortages and drivers’ fears of driving late at night, he had no choice but to keep his promise. She’s not the only one who fears for him; there’s his wife too, who has to take care of both of their children. “I return for all of their sakes,” he adds.
Up until the date of writing these words, the occupation has murdered 21 male journalists and three female journalists, some of whom were killed alongside family members during air strikes, while others were killed while performing their duties.
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