The Chance to Cry

“The Chance to Cry,” by Frank Smyth, in Sharing the Front Line and the Back Hills, editor Yael Danieli, forward by U.N. Secretary General Kofi A. Annan, Baywood Publishing Company, Inc, on behalf of the United Nations, 2002.

The Oscar-winning film, Life is Beautiful, compels its audience to identify with a man who confronts the evil of a Nazi concentration camp and replaces it with the hope of a fantasy world. He is an Italian Jew played by the film’s director, Roberto Benigni, who loves his wife and son. While the couple are separated and detained to be used as slave labor, the man manages to save his son from harm by hiding him in his own bunk bed from the prison guards.

Like many people, I loved the film and said so to my date as we left a Washington, D.C. theater. But soon in a nearby bar I began to sweat. Before I finished my first beer the beads were pouring down so much I wondered if any other patrons besides my date noticed as they began to drip from first my forehead onto our table and then from my chin onto the cement floor when I leaned back in my chair. I was taking short breaths but could still not seem to get enough air. The toes of my right foot were curling and soon my entire right leg began to pump. Blood turned my cheeks red. I told my date I hated the film. Wouldn’t the guards have found the boy? Although a tune from a live jazz band filled the basement café, in my head I heard the high-pitched cries of an Iraqi boy named Jaffer.

Exposure to trauma affects all first responders including police, fire, and ambulance employees. What separates them from journalists? Their respective professions recognize the predictable impact that repeated interaction with tragedies may have on their staff, while journalism as a profession by and large does not. Entities from the U.S. Secret Service to the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross now provide routine counseling services to their people. How many newsrooms do? At least one does now, although its learning curve was slow.

The Daily Oklahoman offered counseling to reporters after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, but not many reporters went. “What I really needed was time with fellow journalists who went through the trauma with me to talk about all the things that happened?you know, the stuff you can’t put in the paper because it is too gruesome or too out there or whatever,” said feature writer Penny Owen. “(But) by the time we slowed down, everyone was so tired of the bombing that we never really got (to) have that big hashing out session.” Four years later, however, after the Oklahoma City area was hit by a tornado, managing editor Joe Hight ordered “(e)veryone involved in the actual coverage” to attend at least one debriefing session with a trained counselor.

Reporters are no different from cops or emergency crews in that most are more comfortable opening up before peers than a stranger. A coffee shop or a bar may provide colleagues with an invaluable venue in which to talk and perhaps debrief each other about the emotions of their work. Honest debriefings, however, require no showmanship, something that the anthropologist, Mark Pedelty, says is ingrained in journalists’ “machista” culture [1]. What is required to compel anyone to open up is an environment that makes one feel safe enough to reveal among other things what Pedelty calls “the nagging doubts, fears, and lies of press work.”

The “lies” are perhaps better described as contradictions. For unlike other first responders who rush to tragedies to help, we run in to record. The ethics of our profession mandate that we not intervene, although I admit I once used my four-by-four with TV written in masking tape on its windows to evacuate civilians from a parish under fire. Rarely do journalists experience immediate gratification; rather we interact with evolving tragedies more like vultures who pick at the scene.

Recognizing the need for debriefing or the opportunity to articulate emotions in the aftermath, for example, of a school-yard massacre is not a sign of weakness, as too many journalists and others still seem to think. Instead, when done success-fully, debriefing fosters strength. The act of articulation?writing, drawing, painting, talking, or crying?seems to change the way a traumatic memory is stored in the brain, as if it somehow moves the memory from one part of the hard drive to another. Child survivors, for example, from Guatemala to Bosnia have begun to heal by drawing or coloring out images of attacks. Especially when the act is coupled with the opportunity to grieve, articulation often provides a release of the emotions associated with the event that leaves its author able to recall the memory in the future with less or no pain.

If not, the emotions may remain bottled up in a way that can spill over. Sounds and smells, especially, can pop the cork. I was imprisoned with Jaffer and others in 1991 after the Gulf War in Iraq, where another young Western stringer, Alain Buu, and I were detained for over two weeks. Although Jaffer’s cries remain etched in my mind, I did not hear anything that sounded like the outburst he repeatedly made in an Iraq prison back in 1991 until nine years later back home on a warm winter day. I was in a D.C. park talking on my cell phone and not watching my golden retriever, Marty, when she cried out after she was bitten through the nose by a Rottweiler.

The Iraqi boy named Jaffer was at most 16. In the first cellblock of a large Iraqi prison, I only glimpsed him once or twice during daylight, although I saw and heard him a lot at night. It was spring in the Tigris-Euphrates valley and in the wake of Desert Storm millions of ethnic Shi’a and Kurdish Iraqis had risen up in an “intifada” or an attempted “shaking off” of Saddam’s regime. Alain Buu and I had been traveling with Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq when we were captured and we soon found ourselves alone among dozens of cells in a two-story block made of cement a large open floor.

Nearly every prisoner in the block was accused of sedition for having played a role in the just-crushed intifada, including us as well as Jaffer. He was the only boy in the block and he was singled out like many war victims for his ethnicityA non-political prisoner told me that Jaffer was from the south and he was a Shia.

From the second-floor cell that Alain and I were sharing, we could see almost the entire floor. There was a ping-pong table as well as some smaller tables with chairs where guards played dominoes. Every night, for several nights in a row, the guards chased Jaffer around the cellblock floor in a pack as they beat him with rubber hoses. This went on for hours for at least three nights in a row.

The trauma of torture is often associated with memory loss. The Ursuline nun, Dianna Ortiz, from New Mexico was tortured by Guatemalan guards only to be saved by a man she said spoke American English. She lost the memory of her own personal past including her dearest friends and family, as if her brain shut down that part of her mind to protect her from the pain of cigarette burns. Neither Alain Buu nor I were ever physically harmed while in Iraqi custody. But we stood accused of being spies and Iraq was holding us incognito and we were missing.

I began to recall the faces, but not the names, of dear friends, as if parts of my mind, in anticipation of possible torture, were shutting down like large steel garage doors slamming down on rollers hard enough to crack cement. Alain and I both once heard a man audibly undergoing a severe form of sustained pain coming from deeper within the prison. Our block was a holding tank, and most Iraqi prisoners in it were later released. I do not remember dreaming at all while I was detained, although I had vivid nightmares thereafter.

Looking at Jaffer’s gaunt face with his large eyes open wide like his mouth, while listening to his repeated cries, I was glad not to be the one being tortured. A moment later, I felt guilty for not volunteering to change places with him or any other tortured prisoner. The emotions clashed in my mind as I listened to Iraqis being tortured for hours including Jaffer who cried out like Marty at every stroke.

Not all my prison memories are bad. Nearly every reporter who has covered a blood-and-guts beat knows that trauma can also bring out the best in people. I do not know the name of my hero and I am not even sure what he looked like. But like Jaffer’s, I will never forget his voice. This man was quietly taken out of our cellblock some days before Jaffer arrived, but he was there the first day Alain and I were brought to the prison.

That night, after the last domino fell, the guards began what for one night shift would become a daily routine. They were still discussing the domino match as they rose to walk about and (in most cases) randomly choose a victim to bring to a large open area by the stairwell of the second floor at the Eastern end of the block. Only with the first light of dawn did I see that the man who was the victim was standing with his arms over his head as if his wrists were tied to the ceiling. From before midnight to almost dawn, the guards beat him to encourage him to properly imitate a barnyard animal. I thought they were trying to make him bleat like a sheep, as he seemed to be going, “Ba-ha-ha, ba-ha-ha.”

One guard at a time stood behind the man, and, at the encouragement of other guards, swung at him with a long flat board to hit what sounded like his bare buttocks. The guards took turns and each one swung whenever he or one of his peers judged one of the man’s animal noises to be somehow inadequate. Some guards were more merciless than others. I was wrong about the noise and I realized it around dawn when a rooster crowed in a field somewhere outside the prison. It took a moment before the guards collectively broke into laughter. I heard several guffaws.

It was hours before, during the same torture game, that my hero suddenly began to sing. He was across the atrium and a few cells nearer to the victim than we were. By then I was wondering whether the guards would end up killing the victim. The singer had waited for hours until he was no longer crowing loudly and clearly enough to avoid receiving endless swings. Once the singer began it soon became apparent that he was vocalizing in solidarity with the victim. He sang in solidarity with every nightly torture victim the four or five days he was there, and he seemed to get away with it because he may have been a Shia cleric and his songs were filled with
references to Allah.

The first night Alain and I were there the singer prayed on for hours as the guards went on as well with the crowing game. One guard began to beat the victim more fiercely once the singer started, but two other guards walked away from the group to go downstairs and play ping-pong. The sounds of pain, prayer, and the bouncing ball echoed in the dark throughout the damp block.

Smells can be even more intense, and the olfactory gland itself is hard-wired to the emotional part of the brain. One smell I inhaled in Iraq was so powerful that I forgot about it for seven-and-a-half years. Alain and I had been traveling with two other young men, Gad Gross, a Newsweek photographer, and Bakhtiar Abdel al-Rahman, an economics student at the University of Baghdad, who was now an armed Kurdish rebel and our guide. We last saw the two of them in the afternoon on March 28, 1991 just north of Kirkuk in northern Iraq as together they ran under fire toward a cluster of small cinder block houses, as Alain and I were diving into a ditch. An Iraqi tank later parked on the other side of a long dirt mound between us and a road.

The next morning at around eight we heard a commotion coming from the nearby houses, as if the soldiers had captured two people. Minutes later we heard a burst from an automatic rifle. Maybe another minute passed before we heard a loud, sustained scream that was cut short by another burst. Looking over the ditch’s edge, Alain and I minutes later both saw a soldier walking away with Gad’s camera bag in his hand. I suppressed my desire to grieve, as Alain and I were still hiding from the same soldiers. We were spotted while hiding in the ditch an hour later and soldiers were about to kill us too when an intelligence officer, who seemed to be newly arrived at the scene, argued that we be saved for interrogation. Alain and I were released eighteen days later on Saddam’s order.

I forgot one thing about the ditch, although it sometimes manifested itself anyway. About five years after being imprisoned in Iraq I began working on a novel, one of those unpublished manuscripts that more than a few journalists have lying around. In one scene, prison guards torture a young captured Salvadoran guerrilla in the cell next to an imprisoned journalist, and they do so whenever the journalist’s needs are met. For example, after the journalist is allowed to relieve himself in a bucket, the guards bring the bucket to the boy and force in his head. At one point, the guards take the boy around the corner of the cellblock out of sight of the journalist, who then hears a gunshot. (He never sees the boy again.) Several moments later, he inhales burnt gunpowder.

I thought I had made up the smell after a few shooting sessions at an indoor pistol range in Hoboken, New Jersey.

About two more years later I was working on a non-fiction version of the Iraqi event and I wrote for days, day and night, trying to recall the details, however painful some were. I brushed in more color and layered on more texture on the part where Alain and I heard the capture of Gad and Bakhtiar. I always remembered having an emotional reaction not long after hearing the gunshots, and shrinking in my mind like a little boy who was too big for his britches and who had really messed up. But I forgot what had triggered this sensation.

There was a slight breeze that day, and it took a few minutes for the smell of burnt gunpowder to travel over the ground to our ditch. It was sweet and I remembered it for the first time. I thought about the memory before I tapped the words into my keyboard. I made a few changes to the paragraph that included my feeling like a little boy in need of a savior. I walked to my bed, collapsed into a fetal position, and began to moan, shake and tear and did so nearly loud enough for the neighbors to hear for what seemed like an hour. A friend held me as I wailed for Gad and Bakhtiar seven years after Alain and I heard them die.

Journalists are people who, like almost everyone else who is exposed to pain, feel it whether it is their’s or not. Keeping it bottled up may lead to drinking, smoking, philandering, working, or doing something else in a compulsive way that provides a distraction, but not release. The need to articulate feelings after exposure to trauma is obvious, and it is more likely to happen sooner than later if a counselor who is paid to listen is on hand. Once I finally faced up to it, I paid for a counselor out of my pocket. I took the chance to cry.

1. M. Pedelty, War Stories: The Culture of Foreign Correspondents, Routledge Press, New
York, 1995.”

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