Reporter’s Notebook: Telling the story of human suffering

Al Jazeera celebrates its 25th anniversary on November 1. To mark the occasion, we’ve asked several of our senior correspondents to reflect on what it means to them to work for the Arab world’s first independent media network.

The Al Jazeera English channel was launched in November 2006, 10 years after Al Jazeera Arabic's inception [File: Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

November 21, 2006. It was a week after Al Jazeera English launched when Pierre Gemayel, a Lebanese-Christian leader, was shot dead at point-blank range.

It was the first breaking news story out of Beirut that Al Jazeera English covered. We were in the bureau with our Al Jazeera Arabic colleagues when information about the assassination began trickling in.

It’s been a roller coaster ride since that day when we scrambled to the scene of the murder to start our live coverage before moving to Gemayel’s party headquarters, where people were vowing revenge.

It was a time of heightened political and sectarian tensions.

Nearly two decades later, that still holds true.

But Lebanon is now a failed state and I am a more mature and experienced journalist. I owe that to 15 years of working as an international correspondent – whether that involved covering politics in the hallways of power, natural disasters, elections, coups, insurgencies or full-blown conflicts in the battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.

It was Al Jazeera that gave us the opportunity, the support and the trust to tell stories that mattered.

The coffin of assassinated Lebanese Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel is carried by supporters at a church in Beirut, Lebanon on November 23, 2006 [File: Jamal Saidi/Reuters]

Eyewitness to history

We watched history unfold in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, when rebels advanced into the city on the night of August 21, 2011. As people took to the streets to celebrate the end of four decades of Muammar Gaddafi’s rule, we beamed those images to the world.

We stood next to Iraqi army troops as they blocked roads to approaching ISIL suicide bombers as they battled to recapture the city of Mosul in 2017.

We saw fathers, mothers and children arrive on dinghy boats on an island that became the gateway to what was supposed to be a better future.

We witnessed relatives identifying dozens of bodies that were bound and executed with gunshot wounds to their heads in the Syrian city of Aleppo.

We came face to face with ISIL fighters in Syria as they were laying the foundations of their future state there.

We were surrounded by Taliban fighters who had laid siege to a stretch of highway between the city of Kandahar and the southern provinces in 2010.

We survived the explosion at Beirut port, one of the largest in history. But we didn’t have time to comprehend what happened. We had a job to do.

The list goes on.

A target

But this didn’t happen without challenges. We didn’t just brave bullets and bombs in some of the most troubled regions. In some instances, we were targets.

Al Jazeera was a target. This was especially true in Syria. For the regime of Bashar al-Assad, we were the enemy. It was simple: we gave voice to those demanding freedom and the rule of law and we documented the atrocities and war crimes that didn’t spare women and children.

It wasn’t any different in Libya during the uprising. Our greatest fear was being captured by Gaddafi loyalists when front lines were blurry.

It was a turbulent decade in the Middle East. Al Jazeera championed the coverage of the so-called Arab Spring. We were a platform for those who were among the euphoric crowds in squares demanding democracy before their struggle descended into armed conflicts.

Throughout the years I interviewed many of them. Some are now in exile. Some were arrested. Others were killed.

We didn’t ignore the loyalists – those afraid of change or who were benefitting from the status quo. Many accused us of bias and refused to speak to us, but their views were always included in our reporting.

Crossing front lines

When we could cross front lines we did. And sometimes they weren’t visible like in Afghanistan where I reported from between 2007 until 2011.

We travelled deep south to the Pashtun tribal belt – the heartland of the Taliban. At the time they weren’t in control  – at least nominally. But Talibs are the sons of southern Afghanistan. There, foreigners were seen as “occupiers and enemies of Islam”.

Their voices were crucial to understanding that the United States was never going to win a war as long as a sizeable and influential group felt left out.

Al Jazeera gave everyone a voice.

The connection

Whether reporting from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Lebanon… the conflict is similar. Ultimately it is a struggle for power – at times by proxy.

It’s fought by exploiting polarised and deeply divided societies. The players are different but there’s a guaranteed outcome: human suffering.

Our job is to tell that story.

Source: Al Jazeera