Bowen has enjoyed an exciting career, and his book details his experiences as one of the BBC’s front-men. Like his “Beeb”colleagues John Simpson and Rageh Omar, who’ve also penned their biographies, he doesn’t romanticise the life and times of a newsman.
I found Bowen disarmingly honest in his writing, and when I put the book down, I realised that it had brought back a lot of memories. I haven’t covered the bang-bang that he has, but I’ve dealt with just enough in my career to emphathise with his fatal attraction to news.
The most profound moment is when Bowen witnesses his Lebanese driver burn to death after an Israeli tank shells their car. Bowen and his cameramen were monitoring the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, and on that particular day, had not been interested in seeking danger.
Their driver had stayed in the car to make a call while Bowen did a stand up to camera. Their actions were innocent enough, but the Israelis on a neighbouring hill had thought otherwise, and had taken a pot-shot at their Mercedes.
Troops had prevented them from retrieving the body for hours, even shooting at an ambulance. It brought home to Bowen how mortal we all are, and that chasing the adrenalin of the combat story is a real life addiction that can exact the ultimate price.
He’d seen so many people die, but it only struck home when it was somebody close to him. He felt responsible for his driver’s death. The event changed Bowen’s perspective, and after learning that his wife was pregnant, scaled down his war-chasing.
As he relates, it was an agonising process. Cutting edge journalism is addictive and the withdrawal symptoms can linger for years.
Bowen’s narrative reminded me that I’d had a similar kind of career epiphany. It was when I was laying face-down in a muddy Cape Flats field just over 10 years ago. Bullets were whizzing over my head from three different directions as gangsters, vigilantes and police exchanged fire.
I remember saying to myself in the midst of this madness: Shafiq, this is bullshit, you don’t need this anymore. I was older, slower, and in such situations you have to be in the right place – which I wasn’t. I wanted to see my children grow up.
Of course, that experience still didn’t stop me from going to Lebanon in 2006 with an aid organisation. And in spite of one’s nervousness – and the realisation that you could come home zipped-up in a body bag – the chase for the story is as alluring as ever.
Bowen also brought home to me that it doesn’t matter how much suffering you see, but when it affects people close to you, it’s different. I’ve been a voyeur of more misery and human suffering than I’d care to remember, but when my father died two years ago, I felt it like anybody else.
Psychologically, covering conflict, corruption and world affairs does take its toll. Those around you often don’t understand. Whilst I’m no longer much in the field, I still deal with international affairs – my work diet is Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Africa and Asia. I have the world’s problems in my face every day.
Bowen admits that after nearly twenty years he didn’t suffer from too much post-traumatic stress disorder. He could go to a bar after a hard day and get drunk.
I can remember that during the apartheid years, the bottle was the psychologist. The bar was where a lot of networking was done, but as non-drinking Muslims we never suffered too much difficulty. In those days we worked together. Going solo during the State of Emergency wasn’t a good idea. And whilst Jack Daniels and Charles Glass comforted many hacks, I de-stressed by going surfing.
I also think people have forgotten that the South African apartheid story was often as brutal, deadly and dangerous as any other.
I can remember when the “Witdoeke”, migrant vigilantes working hand-in-glove with police, turned on the young ANC comrades in Cape Town’s Crossroads squatter camp. Some sixty people, including ITN cameraman George De’Ath, were killed.
One morning we were taking pics of a section of the camp that had been burnt down during the night. Major Dolf Odendaal and Warrant Officer “Rambo” Barnard of the riot squad were already on the scene. Their smugness told us that something wasn’t quite right.
When we went on a walkabout, I could have sworn I heard them sniggering behind their Casspir. As I headed into an alley I bumped into a group of “Witdoeke”, their pangas already drawn. I took one frame and then ran for my life.
Another time I ran was in Botswana when an elephant mock charged me. Someone filmed it, and my elephant escapade became a party piece.
One of the curious things about journalism is that you always remember the little incidences. Forget about the broken bodies, smashed buildings or charred ruins. It’s a small detail that sets off the association; or an unexpected moment that catches you off guard.
I remember in Beirut in 2006 we’d gone to the hospital to check on war casualties. Hospitals are always the most accurate barometers of disaster, and doctors and patients are usually keen to tell their stories. It had proved to be no exception.
Nurses had taken me to a 16 year old girl who’d lost her family when their family home in the south had been flattened by a “smart” bomb. Her body was covered in burns, and she was groaning in pain. The doctors hadn’t yet broken the news to her that she was the only survivor.
That was heart-rending. But what really got my attention that sultry afternoon was a sixty-five year old woman in another ward, who’d insisted on telling me her story.
She’d lost her husband in the rubble of her home. But when the translations had been done, all that the bereaved widow wanted to ask me was why the Israelis had bombed her cow.
I think it’s the really human stories behind the headlines like these that make news the intoxicating drug that it is. To be allowed to stare humanity in the face may be daunting, but it’s a rare privilege.