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  • Writer's pictureJonny Ainslie

Lindsey Hilsum - What was I supposed to do?

Updated: Sep 10, 2019

I talk to Lindsey Hilsum about memory, stories that don't let you go, and a reporter's empathy and responsibilities in the face of brutal violence.

Can you describe your job?

I’m the International Editor of Channel 4 News, but I’ve never been anything other than a reporter – that’s what I do. They’ve given me a fancy title, but I go wherever, and I find out what’s going on, and I tell people. I work with a camera operator and usually a producer. If I’m here I turn around stories from agency copy and so on; but that’s pretty boring. This week John Bolton came here, so I did two days on President Trump’s national security adviser pretending to be a trade negotiator and talking about how marvellous Brexit is. Yesterday I did a story about the continued Russian and Syrian assault on Idlib. Now it’s extremely dangerous to go to Idlib, the chances of being kidnapped are very high, so we do a lot of stories that involve pulling in pictures from there – and we employ an Arabic speaking journalist called Kamal Kaddourah who’s become an expert in evaluating footage online. So he verifies it, knows a lot of the people sending it out, and he translates, which enables us to put stuff together here. But it’s not like being there. I was in Rojava, the Kurdish part of Syria in March, reporting on the end of the Caliphate – now that’s the real thing. But it’s very, very important to keep reporting Idlib as best we can, or else people forget that this war is still going on.

It’s interesting to compare ‘the real thing’ in country with what an organisation like Bellingcat is doing with technology from outside a place.

Yeah, there’s different kinds of journalism. I think what Eliot Higgins and Bellingcat do is utterly brilliant. How they’re able to use open-source stuff online – but that’s not me. I’m an eyewitness, that’s what I do. You still need people who go out there. For example, I don’t know if you saw the BBC Africa Eye piece about a massacre committed by soldiers in Cameroon? They found footage online of what appeared to be soldiers killing a woman and child. They analysed the footage, placing the angle of the sun, to work out where and when this happened; but an important part of their evidence involved comparing this footage to a piece we had broadcast which came from the same place. We had gone to Cameroon, I did an embed with the Cameroonian special forces, who are trained by the Israeli special forces, and we went along the border between Nigeria and Cameroon, and interviewed people in the hospital. It so happened that one of the people we interviewed in the hospital – the soldier – came up on the list of suspects for having committed the murder. Because we had been there and had filmed him they had the picture, they had the name, and so on. That story was partly one told through technology – but they couldn’t have done it unless someone had been there and taken those pictures.

Another thing on that embed, we get to this village and the people there speak Kanuri – most of the people who are from Boko Haram are from a particular tribe, the Kanuri. Anyway, we’re working through a translator – a military translator going into French, and I’m pretty sure that I’m not being told the truth. I’m pretty sure the translator isn’t translating accurately what the villagers are saying. There’s a guy I know who works for a newspaper called This Day in Maiduguri, in Nigeria. So I ring him and I said, “Do you have someone who speaks Kanuri?” – he says yes. And this is a mixture of being an eye-witness and technology, because we send the clips through to this guy – and it was the villagers who had told us the truth, not the translator. The villagers had told us how the Cameroonian army would come in and take the men away and torture them, they take the women and warn them against marrying the men who they say are Boko Haram. It’s all there. Now how do you get that story? You can only get it by being there – those villages are not online. And you have to have some understanding and experience and instinct to know when you’re not being told the truth.

Certainly the empathy I feel is very real, but it isn’t necessarily long lasting...

How did you know the translator was lying?

It was obvious. I could tell by the body language, I could tell by his hesitation, I could tell by the way the soldiers were standing – by the way the villagers were looking at me. The villagers were quite innocent, in that they saw a foreigner coming in and they wanted to tell me what was going on – I could just feel it.

You’ve spoken about being a white outsider in Africa before. Once when you were beaten up quite badly the soldiers actually apologised “sorry madam” after clubbing you to the floor.

Yes! That was a long time ago, 1986 I think. Certainly things have changed for the better since then – obviously a lot more Africans are reporters than when I was first there in the 80s, so people are telling their own stories which is much better. And this is true in the Middle East too. Sometimes being an outsider is good, sometimes being an outsider helps – people can tell the truth to an outsider where they don’t necessarily tell the truth to an insider, worrying that they're from this party or that party or this ethnic group. Other times it’s better to be an insider because you gain trust much more easily. And in those days in Kenya where I lived, Kenyan journalists were under threat. They didn’t dare put some of their stories in the newspapers because the newspapers wouldn’t publish them, or they’d get locked up, so I would do them for the BBC Africa Service instead. We worked together. Depends on the circumstance but you don’t always have the big white “I am” coming in and stealing people’s souls now.

You were living in Kigali, and working as an aid worker for UNICEF when the violence of the Rwandan genocide began in 1994. You’d quit working as a journalist for the BBC to get there because they were giving the jobs you wanted to men –

Yeah yeah yeah – my career was fucked.

but after a few days of violence – you went out on the streets to report anyway. What was it that made you?

In those first couple of days I was reporting from what people said, people were calling me on the phone all the time, friends, people who worked for UNICEF, Rwandans. But every time I went out there was a soldier there who told me to go back in, and I was quite afraid. In the end I made contact with the Red Cross, who were not far away, and they said “look, just come to us”. So I ignored the guard and just drove through the roadblocks until I got there. I believe in being an eyewitness – that’s what you’re there for. I was never very convinced by aid work – I was only doing it to get somewhere interesting, and I was always writing under a pseudonym. But you’re in a place where history is happening, and there are no other English reporters around. What was I supposed to do, just stay in my house?

You’ve said that being there, in the middle of the genocide, made you extremely pessimistic about human nature. Has that changed?

Not really, no.

Can you describe the value and limits of a reporter’s empathy?

As I get older I find I get more sentimental. I get more moved by things – bursting into tears more often than in my 20s and 30s, it’s become a structural hazard for the poor producers who have to work with me. And I don’t know why that is, maybe I’m just going soft in the head. Maybe it’s because you do see how often things don’t work out for people, and it becomes hard in that way. I think being a journalist is a bit like being a faithless lover. At the moment that you’re doing that story and you’re talking to that refugee, it is the most important thing in the world and it is the worst thing in the world and you feel 100% empathy, or at least I do; but you know a day later you are moving on to the next thing. Certainly the empathy I feel is very real, but it isn’t necessarily long lasting. Having said that, there is all sorts of flotsam and jetsam from stories past which is still in my life – all sorts of people who you don’t let go of, or who don’t let go of you.

Time changes events

In 2013, writing in great depth many years after your time in Rwanda, you struggled with the simplifications of history. Tens of thousands of moderate Hutus were also killed in 1994, alongside the Tutsi minority – many for harbouring their Tutsi friends and neighbours, many in revenge killings. You suggest this is only part of what is being written out of Rwandan record. Do you think the truth will out, and is it important that it does?

Oh it’s very important. That’s about the politics of Rwanda now. At the time we knew quite a lot about that – I certainly reported it. It’s being written out of history because it isn’t convenient for the current government, but that historical record is there. Although they don’t recognise it in the museums and memorials that they’ve created, it’s all there, and at some point it will be recognised and understood. That’s one of the reasons journalism is important; sometimes you get things wrong because you can’t understand everything that’s going on right then and there – so there are always mistakes; but there is a purity about reporting what you saw and heard. When governments or rebel groups, or whoever, try to manipulate the past for their own political purposes in Rwanda or Israel or Britain, you can say “well actually, it did. I reported it.” Journalism stands in history too. Here's a classic example: in Bosnia and in particularly in Kosovo – the Serbs were trying to give their version of history, that you could only counter from the ground.

I suppose testimony is a way of holding history in the hands of ordinary people who were there.

Absolutely, and that’s why when it came to the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda I testified at that tribunal. Lots of American journalists refused to testify because they thought it undermined their credentials as journalists, which I understand, they didn't want to testify for the prosecution or the defence. However, that wasn’t how I felt. As the only journalist who was an eyewitness as the genocide started, I felt that it was important to set the historical record straight. It was part of the first case, and though I wasn’t testifying against the first defendant who was a mayor from a village I hadn’t been to – it was about whether this was genocide, whether it was systematic, whether it was widespread, whether it came up to the standards of a war-crime and a crime against humanity - which it did.

Do you think bearing witness to these stories can help victims of conflict to heal?

One would hope so. But look, people are individuals. When I met Rose Birizihiza in 2013, who had been an eyewitness herself, and was the victim of sexual violence – she had been an important witness in the court in Rwanda about this nasty woman Pauline Nyiramasuhuko who had been the minister for women and orchestrated a lot of rape. First woman ever to have been convicted of organising rape. Rose was healing her own life through testimony. And I couldn’t claim to be doing that through my own work, you can’t necessarily change things. Marie, Marie Colvin from the Sunday Times, who was killed in Syria in 2012, and whose biography I wrote, was always very clear about making a difference and so on, but I’m a little more sceptical. I don’t necessarily think you can change the course of history, but you can make sure the record is straight.

Intellectually perpetrators are far more interesting than victims

Only last month, you wrote for the New York Review of Books about how the significance of an image may shift with time – your memories of Rwanda are not the memories of recent tourists, who are wowed by tidy streets and wide green hills.

Yeah, time changes events in some ways. Later on, you may learn all sorts of things that you didn’t know at the time. You only ever see the slice that you see – you don’t necessarily know about the General giving the orders. All that changes in time. I was writing about a Susan Meiselas picture from Nicaragua in 1978 - a body of somebody who was murdered by Somoza’s troops, and there it is, rotting. Then she goes back many years later and the body isn’t there and it’s very beautiful – but she hangs her original picture on a frame in the beautiful landscape, and I found that very haunting because that’s exactly what happens in my memory. I go to Rwanda and everyone else just sees all these beautiful hills, and I see all the bodies. That’s what’s in my mind’s eye, that’s what’s in my memory. You look at a scene now and it has a very different meaning – and that’s true for every Rwandan. Those Rwandans who were around at the time of the genocide saw things that kids who weren’t born aren’t seeing, or visitors aren’t seeing. Things you can’t un-see.

You’ve talked about actually feeling a sense of guilt as a reporter for not previously knowing about a story – the Abu Salim massacre of 1996, where 1270 men were murdered in a Libyan prison yard. Here you are haunted by other people’s ghosts in abstentia; why?

That’s a very good way of putting it – but the world is full of ghosts. All of us have our own ghosts of people we have known and loved. But if you’re a journalist you have this broader canvas because you’re constantly dealing with the deaths of people you didn’t know; you’re talking to the widow, or the widower, or the son or daughter of somebody who was murdered. If you knew about all of this you’d go mad; but when I went to Libya in 2011 I’d never been before and was pretty scandalised with myself about my own ignorance. Libya had been closed, and it had been very difficult to report much, and even Marie Colvin who’d spent a lot of time there, hadn’t reported on this massacre because it was kept quiet. Somebody came up to me and said these people wanted to talk to me about this thing that happened many years ago. It was very visual. I walked into a room and there were fifteen men on one side and fifteen women on the other holding up pictures of their relatives who were killed in this prison. It was very shocking – and very shocking how little was known about it. When I was writing the book about Libya, one of the people gave me a photograph of a man killed there – and I didn’t know who he was, like the unknown soldier, the unknown man killed in Abu Salim. I kept it on my desk. I think my book is the most complete account of the Abu Salim massacre that has ever been written – it has been important to me that I wrote that story.

I remember you describing that man in the picture, he was in a wheelchair. How does it feel when average readers remember details like that in your accounts?

It’s good. Otherwise why bother?

You spent so much time in Libya, finding the men who you suspect killed Colonel Gaddafi, and were even shown his golden pistol. What was it like going back for the book?

It sounds very romantic, doesn’t it? The golden pistol with all these inscriptions on it, and his shoes with the Cuban heels, I love that kind of stuff. I’d spent most of the year reporting for Channel 4 News and come across people I thought were really extraordinary – so went back to do research for the book. It just so happened I was there doing research when Gaddafi was captured and killed, so I had to go and be a TV reporter again, find a camera operator, find a fixer and go to the right place. As a reporter you rush around from one place to the next, and although I wrote the book very quickly, I liked being able to sit down and think about what everything meant. I’d got there on day two of the revolution in February and he was killed in October – my deadline for the book was the end of the year, but by my standards when we were doing the Arab Spring, having a day not reporting something new was an extraordinarily long period for reflection.

What does it feel like to talk to a killer?

It was in Rwanda where talking to the killers was the really spooky thing. I’ve spoken to lots of killers. Lots and lots. Sometimes you just put it out of your mind; but intellectually perpetrators are far more interesting than victims. You feel really bad for victims. For perpetrators you’re trying to understand “why did you do this”. And you’re trying to get them to think about why they did this. I remember endless interviews in Rwanda with people who killed their neighbours – and they would come up with these explanations like, “the devil got hold of me”, “if I hadn’t killed him, he would have killed me”, or “a madness came upon me”. The guy who killed Gaddafi was very pleased with himself – Gaddafi was a monster; this guy was a hero amongst his comrades.

You were also in Fallujah in November 2004, embedded with American troops trying to crush Al-Qaeda in the Iraq war. How was this different from reporting from local or civilian encampments?

That was the most intense combat I’ve ever been in. I was with a camera operator who'd been in the military, and we were attached to an armoured unit for which I was very grateful - because I spent a lot of time inside the armoured vehicle peering out, whilst the camera op could film with the soldiers. They knew that he could drop his camera and pick up a rifle if the worst came to the worst to defend himself – whereas I couldn't. In television terms, for getting pictures it was much better to leave them to it and pop out during the quieter bits when the bombing was a bit further away to do my piece to camera. Two men in that unit were killed in the fighting where we were. Quite extraordinary. That was when you see your bit of a war – real combat reporting. You see just one portion of a battle, and you’re not seeing the big picture at all.

The big picture comes later. Channel 4 News had a doctor, an Iraqi doctor, who went in a few days later and did the story from the other side – to some extent from the jihadis’ and Fallujah civilians’ perspective which we needed, because what I got was just one tiny part of that battle.

Your second book, In Extremis, The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin, doesn’t linger on your own relationship with Marie. Why not?

It was really structural for the book. I talk about my friendship with Marie at the beginning, because I thought I had to lay out my right to tell her story, but it was a full biography – birth to death - and I only came in the latter part of her life in 1999, so I would have unbalanced the book. And it wasn’t about me, it was about her. I was also worried about falling into a trap. When we write about men, their personal lives are often secondary, or aren’t mentioned very much – and when we write about women we often foreground it all the time. But then Marie’s personal life was so extraordinary, and so dramatic, and absorbed so much of her energy, that it would have been just wrong not to put a lot in. It’s also very compelling. And the way that her personal and professional journalistic life weaved together was the essence of Marie.

On the whole, I don’t think what we do saves lives.

Because of how resonant the image of Martha Gellhorn is in the book, I have to ask: did you write In Extremis directly for young female journalists, at least in part?

It’s difficult. There’s no question that a lot of young female reporters have reacted strongly to the book. I’ve said that it’s exemplary but also cautionary. Take care of yourself better than Marie did, both mentally and physically. But lots of older men, and younger men, have related to it – and we can often over-do the ‘female’ side of it. When we think of famous reporters from the past, women often stick out more. Maybe because they’re more unusual – there used to be fewer of them, certainly in WW2, though I don’t think there are fewer now. Some of them are glamorous, it’s just a fact, Martha Gellhorn was certainly very glamorous. But it’s interesting how that’s changed over time – Ernest Hemingway was always much more famous than Martha Gellhorn, but actually he was a shite reporter. He was a really good novelist, but a shite reporter – she was a brilliant reporter and a crap novelist. People don’t talk about his reporting from the Spanish Civil War because it was bollocks – yet for a long time it was Gellhorn who wasn't taken very seriously. But we’re talking about history again, and memory. Partly because she went on a lot longer, I think the legend of Martha Gellhorn rose. There was a great reporter called Virginia Cowles in WW2, nobody knows about Virginia Cowles – it is an odd thing who remains famous.

And you know, the reporters I look up to as role models are both men, Charles Wheeler and James Cameron. People don’t talk about them as much as they did ten, twenty years ago – but I think they’ll come back into fashion. If you’re serious about journalism, you want to do it in a tradition. I want the kind of journalism I do to be in the tradition of Charles Wheeler and James Cameron, Marie was much more in the tradition of Martha Gellhorn because she was much more partisan. In journalism we love patting ourselves on the back – you even get a small circle of people who give each other awards, and as you can tell I’m quite cynical about that, but I do think tradition in that way is good. So a couple of Marie’s friends - Lyse Doucet, James Wellesley and I - have started the Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network, a small project giving support to young women journalists in the Arab world. Sometimes it’s not just the government who wants to stop you or the newspaper who won’t send you out, but it’s your family who won’t let you – or your husband because it’s not ‘womanly’. It’ll keep Marie’s tradition going, and in some respects Claire Hollingworth’s, and Lee Miller’s. I feel very strongly about African and Arab women writing, and that it should not just be outsiders like us dropping in.

I like your take on award shows, because when your team were awarded a BAFTA – you didn’t turn up to the ceremony alongside Jon Snow, because you were on assignment.

I wasn’t actually; that’s a sad story. A friend of ours was dying, our producer Sarah Corp, who died shortly afterwards - and I couldn’t face going to an awards ceremony. Producers are unacknowledged members of a journalism team. If you know my work, then you know Sarah’s work; she was the person in Libya, all that time. But when those big TV awards come up, I do try very hard to go on assignment so I’m not around – it’s the best excuse.

In standing up for Arab women, and local women who tell their own stories, you’ve critiqued the “flak jacket-clad TV reporters”, who are parachuted in on assignment. As there were ‘citizen journalists’ operating inside the city, why was it that Marie felt she still had to go to document the story of Baba Amr where she was killed?

Well, I also wear a flak-jacket when necessary of course, and I have been known to be parachuted in. I think there’s a place for that – there just has to be interchange between local reporters including 'citizen journalists' and outsiders. In Baba Amr, there were pictures coming out, but nobody who could communicate in English or with an ‘objective’ point of view who was known and respected in Western capitals.

Now, what is objective about watching a bunch of civilians getting massacred? Being objective is not about saying “on the one hand, Assad’s forces are coming in to attack civilians – on the other, perhaps it’s a good idea”. The point is that you did need an outsider at that point to go in and say “Look. This is appalling.” And to make people take notice.

Years earlier, Marie’s insistence upon remaining in Dili, then capital of East Timor and site of sectarian violence, to embarrass UN decision makers who were otherwise arranging to pull out, directly saved lives. How do you believe western observers and journalists should act to protect the people they report on?

She certainly believed it saved lives – people in the UN don’t necessarily agree with that, but that’s alright. On the whole, I don’t think what we do saves lives. It’s very rare. On the whole it’s making sure what happens passes into historical record. But there are exceptions. Take Bosnia. A lot of reporters were very frustrated when reporting what happened to the Bosnian Muslims, because there was no intervention for such a long time – and so many people lost their lives. But they were instrumental in the eventual American intervention - there’s a very famous moment when Christiane Amanpour was interviewing Bill Clinton live from Sarajevo - and he's said it was significant in making him approve US intervention.

Now some of the most important journalists do what I can’t do – digging down into corruption, like the whole Cambridge Analytica thing, which was our investigations team, as well as The Guardian's Carole Cadwalladr. That made a real difference - Cambridge Analytica folded and the scandal made the US Congress and British parliament start to work on how laws need to be changed in the age of social media election campaigning. I did a report with these two young Saudi women who fled an abusive family in Saudi Arabia – and there’s been a lot on that recently which I think has had an impact on the Saudi government which subsequently changed the guardianship laws. It puts pressure on countries to grant asylum to women fleeing abuse – you can do things which are worth doing, but actually saving lives? I think that’s a bit ambitious.

Do you feel that Marie’s editors exploited her proclivity for risk in order to push for stories?

Yeah. But she bought into it. Marie had this image of an incredibly brave reporter with the eye-patch, who’d go anywhere and do anything. Some of the time she felt like that, some of the time she felt like a frightened little girl. That was why she drank. Not enough attention was paid to the cost. She was eventually diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which was recognised by her Editors. Nowadays, I don’t think it would happen in the same way; there’s not the same stigma attached to trauma as there used to be – thankfully there’s been a massive change.

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