‘The First Casualty’: Notes on Journalism, Truth, and Conflict

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During wars, journalists are among the first on the scene, committed to uncovering what unfolds in real time on the ground. However, in recent conflicts, journalists are caught in the crossfire of violence, truth, and trust.

 

The seasons have turned and turned again since I began this essay. In its writing, there have been many shifts, but what has remained constant is the killing of civilians in Gaza, and the documentation of these killings.

The first casualty of war is truth: this is a truism every journalist learns early in their career. As a journalist who has reported from Kabul and other spaces of conflict, it is an idea I have found to be mostly true.  It is also true that this particular so-called war has been an exercise in truth telling. In the last six months, over 35,000 Palestinians have been killed. This includes at least  13,000 children.

In the same period, more than 100 journalists have been killed in Gaza.  Over 20 of them were killed while doing their jobs.

What does it mean to watch this destruction, as a writer and journalist, from afar? What labour of words can I or people like me offer, when so much of the violence seems to be directed towards erasing words, and those whose labour creates them?  What I am trying to ask is: what is the work required from us, as witnesses to this killing of witnesses?

**

This essay has travelled with me from continent to continent, from my home in India to the United States.

I try to write sitting by my aunt’s bedside at a massive hospital, watching the sky outside the large windows change colours from morning to dusk, watching an IV-line dripping medication into her veins. The bags of the precious drug go up every night, came down the next evening. They came shielded in green covers to protect them from the light that would render them ineffective.

In the long hours spent in this room, I watch images of Gaza flicker on my phone, the shifting light of the day reflecting on the faces of dead infants, endless rubble. The hushed calm of the hospital around me is in stark contrast to the destroyed hospitals on my screen.

I see a message written by a doctor on a whiteboard at al-Awda hospital on Oct. 20, the words scrawled on it in English:  “Whoever stays until the end, will tell the story. We did what we could. Remember us.”

Words are everywhere in this alleged war. These are not deaths that unfold in silence; these are not victims who need others to tell their stories. In the most desperate conditions, what they possess is articulation.

I think of the journalist in Gaza, returning to his work after burying his children. I think of what we mean when we say the words “a labour of love”.

**

I see a journalist in Gaza learn about his family’s death on air. Days later, he returns to work. I see journalists go through the familiar motions of their jobs, reporting as usual from a world where nothing is what it used to be. Working with patience and care. Offering their labour as resistance to erasure.

**

The winter solstice is the longest night of the year.  It usually falls on December 21st and is celebrated as Shab-e-Yalda across the region of Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia. This Yalda night, I am thinking of Kabul, a city that is no stranger to this kind of truth telling. I am thinking of the many projects that were launched and funded to teach Afghans to tell what were called their “own” stories, when in truth the idea was to teach them to tell the stories that the donors and funders of these projects found comforting. To teach them to contort language and tone into acceptable cadences.

In the tradition of Persian poetry, the longest night is a symbol of separation, of longing, and the hope of spring. The longest night is what the last six months have felt like, wherever I have gone. In autumnal England, I see a man appear to lose his grip on his infant daughter as he pulls her on a train.  My heart lurches, images of children in Gaza flash in my mind’s eye.

How are we all not clutching to each other in horror, how are we all not weeping into each other’s arms? Think of what we have just seen.

**

“Soul of my soul”, a man calls his granddaughter, kissing her dead eyelids.

These are words that carry mountains.

**

Words have been the currency I have traded in as a worker all my life. I have valued and honed them. Like every writer I know, I have shielded them and nurtured them, watched them take shape and grow, tapped on my keyboard, scrawled on notebooks.

I have been trying to write these words for months, and I end up deleting them in the enormity of what they are trying to describe. What is there left to do but to listen?

**

In Kabul I had learnt that silence is as important to listen to as words. It tells you a lot – what is left unsaid, whose voices are silenced, whose version of the story is erased.

In the aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021, many of my friends encountered silence when they reached out to former employers, allies, friends, for help with being evacuated. In those tense days, I read narratives that made the violence in Afghanistan seem inevitable, something almost pre-ordained. As if it was embedded in the soil. As if there was no other possible ending for Kabul but for the city to vanish once again behind the dust of never-ending conflict.

In our brief conversations on the phone, my friends would tell me: ‘Thank you for checking on us.’ ‘Thank you for remembering us.’  ‘How is everyone at home?’ Their words too offered as resistance to erasure, a staking claim to their humanity.

**

The so-called war has killed Gaza’s writers and artists, academicians, poets and translators. The bombings have not spared its universities, or its libraries or bookshops.

In Delhi, days after the beginning of this alleged war, I stood in a bookshop and scanned the rows of titles on its shelves with the proprietress. “I have no interest in them anymore”, she said, referring to famous literary journals and books by famous western writers. I too seem to have lost my appetite for this part of my literary diet; vanished like the sense of smell during a bout of Covid.  When I do seek out the platforms and the publications I usually turn to, to make sense of the world and my emotions, I find a chilling cacophony of everything but Gaza. There are instead stories analyzing the lyrics of pop songs, candy hued icons of feminism, witty cartoons, endless recipes.

In each protest march I attend in London after the death of the Palestinian poet Refaat Alaleer, I see his words rise from among the crowd:  on kites, on posters, on walls. “If I Must Die”, I read time and again.  The words soaring to immortality from beneath the rubble.

**

Pay attention to the silences, to the linguistic somersaults that prestigious newspapers turn to avoid accidentally speaking the truth. “Lives Ended in Gaza”, declares the New York Times, applying the passive voice like an anaesthetic. (Anaesthesia, it is worth remembering, being what many people undergoing amputations in Gaza lack.)

A leaked memo from the paper advised its reporters to avoid using certain words, including ‘genocide’, ‘refugee camps’, ‘occupied territory’, and ‘Palestine’.

In other places, words serve as weapons.

In November,  the then-British home secretary Suella Braverman had described the large anti-war demonstrations in London as “hate marches”. In February, the British prime minister Rishi Sunak warned of “a growing consensus that mob rule is replacing democratic rule”.

On each of the protests I join in London, I hear two words coupled together, over and over. Ceasefire. Now.

**

As a writer, my labour has been largely intangible, often slow, and unmapped. I have always thought that the payoff for this was that I could do with my work what I pleased. Writers often take pride in spurning the appeal of gold and tawdry recognition for artistic integrity.  Where do we place pride now, when our work seems to make no difference in the world?

**

On the last protest I attended in London, on the last weekend of April, I see a woman tend to her child at the end of the rally in Hyde Park. I watch her lay the infant on the grass and go through the motions of care. Meticulous, slow, patient.

I think of the journalist in Gaza, returning to his work after burying his children. I think of what we mean when we say the words “a labour of love”.

**

As a journalist, I have thought about authority most of my working life. But now I am thinking of where I, as a journalist and writer, invest authority. What are the places and the voices that I have considered authoritative, worthy of being held in esteem?

After one of the protests in London, I walked down to the South Bank and looked at the row of buildings celebrating arts and culture that line the Thames.  I watched the text appearing on the crown of their concrete facade in a constant line, searching for a sign that artists and writers and poets were among the thousands being killed in Gaza. It was as passive as a tombstone.

**

Colonizers write about flowers,” wrote Palestinian poet Noor Hindi.

We have moved from autumn to winter since I began writing this essay. Now, spring is everywhere.

**

In his poem “In Arabic”, Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali wrote: They ask me to tell them what Shahid means: Listen, Listen: / It means “the beloved” in Persian, “witness” in Arabic.

The two words in the two languages of Kabul and Gaza – Persian for shahid, Arabic for shaheed – colliding on the blank pages of my notebook and laptop, for over 200 days. What Shahid Ali didn’t mention is that the word for martyr, shaheed, also owes its roots to the shahid. The two are united in the act of bearing witness.

In Delhi, the bookseller and I had looked at the rows and rows of texts which carried such weight in our lives, and from which people like us were so often missing.  An absence that was not new but had rarely felt as monstrous.  “We are the source of their authority, people like us, who buy their work and talk of it, and share it with our friends. We give our time to them, we give our creative lives,” she had said.

What if we stopped?

**

To return to the question I began with: what is the labour that journalists and writers like myself can offer in this time? Perhaps the answer lies in what writing seeks to achieve.

The fundamental labour of words, of writing, lies in locating the connections between people. When we write, we say, ‘I am like you, and you are not unlike me’. Which is why we as readers care about stories of people from other times, other places. Words establish our shared humanity. And destroying these stories, bombing the work of journalists and writers and poets, is a way of sundering this essential connection.

The labour of writing is to carry this thread, as it has done in the past, into the future.

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