Paul Martin’s career as an international correspondent in zones of conflictspans over four decades. He reported from Egypt during the Sadat assassination and decades later the Mubarak overthrow; from Iraq during and after the Iraq-Iran war, and during and after the American-led war against Saddam Hussein; from the Czechoslovakian and Romanian revolutions and the war in Bosnia; from South Africa during the transition from apartheid rule to democracy; and from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza during the second intifada. Most recently in Iraq, Syria and Sri Lanka.
In 2010 he was held captive in Gaza for 26 days – he is the only foreign correspondent to be detained in the Gaza Strip since Hamas seized power in 2007.
NOTES FOR INTERVIEWER WHO DOES A Q AND A:
1. How did you get two names?
(The Cape Times on me being beaten up aged 18 and one day…)
2. How did you get back to South Africa, after that long period in exile, and why did they let you back?
(Photo with Mandela) (Includes later at Olympic Games and the Rugby World Cup… “You see, Paul! Nation-building. It worked!” Mrs Winnie Mandela and the murder of Stompie et al. Mine-shaft…
3. I believe you met far less inspirational African leaders — did you ever meet Idi Amin?
Film: Last King of Scotland… The interview “are you not afraid…?”
(Photo of Amin and front-page Observer article that started my UK career: headlined “Amin Briton Hammered to Death.”). Our interview with him on BBC (“You go first”) and escape, then failure to find him in Saudi.
4. Did you get to Libya next door to Egypt?
Gaddafi — include the scene on ship with Vanessa Redgrave.
5. While in Cairo there was the Iranian Revolution. Were you involved in covering that?
The Shah… Aswan.
Then his op: ‘Shah will be playing tennis…’ Maadi military hospital … DeBakey… death, then met his son crowning himself age 20.
6. You reported extensively, I believe, on the 1989 Revolutions in East Europe.
Czech woman inspiration.. Havel trip to his flat….
Getting to the place where they shot Ceausescu and wife… fake death or real botch.
7. When you were reporting for the BBC from Cairo from end of 1978 till the start of 1983, there was of course the assassination of President Anwar Sadat .
The great leader … 59 percent of peace …
Hand-back of Sinai and “tent” – thank G-d for peace… and first land trip to Tel Aviv from Cairo.
Sadat clamp-down, assassination I managed to miss in Groppi etc (friend worse: in remote Turkey), then my scoop to get the Prime Minister. Mansura gun to the head at pharmacy…real reason Sadat was killed…not really Israel…
9. You also covered the War in Lebanon…
– Arafat escape. Bomb that blew up NYT Friedman’s apartment – Fathi Arafat Red Crescent…. rooftop reporting… gunmen come to kill Spanish photographer but that gets us a scoop…’Just lost the war, Sir…’ Italian warship – war to Wimbledon.
10. Oh yes, another war you covered, I see was in Bosnia, Serbia, and
Sarajevo frontline airport… Welcome to Sarajevo. Karadzic and Mladic and also Lord Carrington story re ‘fake’ gunfire… Channel 4 rejection and stole story…
Pointless killings, atoms…
11. You covered the war in Iraq.
Arrested by all three regimes. 2003 war and Ur of the Chaldees and Passover.
Baghdad tank outside palace, bank.
Arnett: ‘The Americans fired him, we hired him’.
Search for Comical Ali, Saddam and his village and then his capture – we got him.
Buying a rocket launcher, and dismantling a suicide bomb…. General Amin – car smash. then kidnapped.
My own near-kidnapping, breakfast with French reporter kidnapped. My meetings with the other Saddam and his dad.
NSA and Saddam hangman’s rope….
12. Iraq and the churchman, the gun convoy to buy cheesecake. Meeting British double murderer in ex US base now jail… then his family and his victim’s family ….
13. Mosul visit to smashed ancient monument, then old Mosul, then trip to Yazidi massacre village. then |Turkish killing. Meeting Yazidi former Isis slave-girl.
14. Have you been to the conflict inside Syria recently?
Isis claim against detained NHS doctor in Syria Mo. Raza.
Trip to Al Hoj as Begum loses baby.
16. Did you cover the wars in Lebanon?
Rooftop scoop after near gunmen capture of a Spanish journalist. Arafat escape.
Then in 2006 searching for Hizbullah. Heroic boy: Ali, 12. My film scoop battery failure….
17. We’ve talked about you reporting from South Africa. What story sticks most in your mind?
Two black women heroines /heroes: Melanie’s cleaning lady…. shack destroyed … children getting educated… smiling through adversity. Prizes.
18. Finally we come to the story that has made you I suppose the most well-known… your being captured in Gaza…
Details of captivity in Gaza, and wonderful end result….Mo and Dan…
Ends with a video of me being set free…
Here are extracts from an article about Paul Martin:
When did you begin your career in journalism?
I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and I always wanted to be a journalist and a radio broadcaster. But my father said: “Get a proper job like a lawyer or a doctor or an accountant!” My father persuaded me to at least train in law; he thought that in the course of the training I would change my mind about journalism. But I didn’t. Even before I graduated from law school, I began working as a journalist.
How did your anti-apartheid activities lead to you getting arrested by the South African police and eventually having to leave the country? Throughout my law career as a student I had been involved in anti-apartheid activities – this got me arrested a few times. One of the times I was arrested was on my eighteenth birthday, demonstrating against apartheid in education. The next day we had a bigger demonstration and then we got beaten by the police with batons and heavy sticks, then arrested again. My head and body were full of blood and needed stitches. That became a famous incident because it was the first time that white students, as opposed to black students, had been beaten up by the police.I refused military service as an officer in the South African army as it would have been supporting the apartheid state. So I had to escape the country, and come to Britain. I changed my name.
Do you have any regrets about leaving South Africa?
I am very pleased I was involved in anti-apartheid activity because it was the right thing to do. But while I was a foreign correspondent in Cairo in the late 70s, there was no communication between South Africa and Egypt. Egypt was a leading light in the African Union – all the African countries boycotted racist South Africa. My father was dying from cancer and I wanted to go back to South Africa to visit him. But because I hadn’t done the army, my father was terrified that I would be arrested if I went back. So I was not able to go back to see him when he was extremely ill, and that was one of the prices I paid for having left the country the way I did.
How did you come to specialise the Middle East?
In 1978 I took a job as a stringer for the BBC in Cairo. At that time Egypt was starting the peace process with Israel – it was the most important story in the world! Anwar Sadat’s sudden visit to Jerusalem to see if he could create some kind of peace process was a shock around the world – the idea of an Arab leader going to Jerusalem was unbelievable, not only to the rest of the world but especially to the other Arab countries, which promptly boycotted Egypt and put it in to isolation. Menachem Begin, the then Prime Minister of Israel came to Cairo a few days after the peace treaty was signed in 1979 and I covered his trip – the leader of the Israeli state arriving in an Arab state for the very first time.
How did you get involved in the Iraq war?
I was still in Cairo when the Iran – Iraq war was going on. In 1981, the Israelis bombed the nuclear reactor in the middle of Iraq called Osiris – it was built by the French and was using highly enriched uranium. Israel and America were worried it would very soon be converted into bombs.When the Israelis destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor the BBC sent me that evening to Baghdad. The Iraqis had surveillance equipment in every room of our hotel and we weren’t allowed to leave the building – we had to wait there and be briefed by the Iraqi government. But a colleague from Reuters and I managed to sneak out and get a taxi – claiming we were going to visit to a famous Babylonian site where the Iraqis’ predecessors had beaten the Persians (Iranians) in 1576 BC and Saddam had made a big monument there. We just “happened” to be passing the reactor on the way. When we were at the airport to fly back to London, security officers took me in to a room and said, “Right you are in big trouble”. They said: “You are under arrest. You know what happened to the last journalist who was under arrest here?” I did. That Observer journalist had taken a soil sample from near a chemical plant, was caught with it when leaving the country, and they hanged him. So I wasn’t feeling too confident at this point – I thought this was not a good precedent. Yet it turned out they didn’t know about my visit to the nuclear site at all. They said: “Why did you go to the television building? You didn’t have permission to go there.” I said it was because your Deputy Prime Minister was giving a speech live on TV and I wanted him to speak to me and portray to the world the picture of Iraq that Iraq wanted to present. “Oh”, they said. “Alright then” and they allowed me to fly home. I got a slow hand-clap from the passengers – they had kept our plane on the ground for three hours!That was my first brush with Arab authorities. I have been arrested three times in Iraq, and I have a “world record” of sorts: I am the only journalist in history to have been detained by the Saddam Hussein regime, by the Americans when they were running Iraq and by the current regime.
How did you find yourself in the middle of the Romanian Revolution?
After I left the Middle East, I mainly covered Eastern Europe and Africa until the 1990s. In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. During that period, Communism was tottering in Eastern Europe.At the end of 1989, I arrived in the middle of the Romanian Revolution through good fortune. I heard that the British Red Cross were sending a plane-load of emergency aid over there and I managed to hitch a ride. As we finally drove through the fighting in to Bucharest an announcer on TV said: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have great news. The dictator and his wife have been executed.” Anti-government forces had shot Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena – the first execution of a reigning leader in Europe since Mussolini in World War Two. So there I was in the middle of this massive story– a revolution, an execution, and I was the first journalist on the scene.How were you affected by the war in Bosnia?Reporting on the war in Bosnia had a great big impact on me because it was one of the most perplexing things that ever happened. It was man’s inhumanity to man in such a way that it made no sense. Serbs killing Muslims, Muslims killing Serbs, Muslims killing Croats, Croats killing Muslims, Croats killing Serbs – there was no apparent logic as they all spoke the same language and would eventually have to live in the same country, so all this life was being lost for nothing. People were dying in tragic ways – like while standing in a queue for bread or water. I was covering this war extensively and wondering: what is life all about, why are humans behaving in this way to each other? Are we just a bunch of atoms spinning around in particular orbits and then we just disintegrate and turn in to dust again – if so what is the purpose of life? It had me thinking about these things.It made me decide ultimately that there is much more to life other than physicality and the struggle to survive. I became much more interested in religion. That has opened up a huge number of doors for me philosophically and spiritually.
What problems did you encounter while reporting on the second intifada?
During the second intifada, I decided to go and film the conflict, trying to be as objective as possible. I wanted to cover what the Arabs were saying, thinking and doing. And I got more and more worried by what I heard. When I went to the West Bank and Gaza, I realised that the leaders and the imams were often hoodwinking Western journalists with supposedly moderate statements while being much more radical in private – or in Arabic speeches meant for internal consumption. I realised that there was deliberate sabotage of any peace prospects by large parts of the Palestinian establishment. I simply had to be right there on the ground and report exactly what they said and did. My philosophy of journalism then and now is to hold a mirror up to reflect what is actually happening. It won’t be concave or convex – it will be a flat mirror. I was particularly shocked in 2001 by a suicide bomber blowing himself up in a hotel in Netanya, killing 30 people having a Passover meal. I went to the hotel the next day and saw forks and knives stuck in the roof from the force of the blast. The Israelis responded by clamping down on the Palestinian areas where suicide bombers were being trained and armed. I said at that time that we should set up a company that reports accurately what is going on in the Middle East – what the Israelis are saying, what the Arabs are saying, but do it totally accurately so it is completely objective. So that’s what we did.
Was your report on the “massacre” in Jenin your proudest piece of journalism?
We had set up an office in bomb-blasted central Jerusalem. My wonderful Arab fixer and I went to Jenin when Israelis had just captured the city and there had been a big bloody fight. Inside Jenin we sat with and sipped sweet tea with Palestinian men, women and children who began telling us the truth, not propaganda. But the way the western media were covering it was that the whole town had been wiped out and there was just a pile of rubble – this wasn’t the case. I could see that there had been a fight between well-armed Palestinian gunmen and Israelis. The Israelis had used bulldozers to get to the core of the fighters, which was why the buildings were damaged in that one small part of the town. I wanted to meet the leaders of Fatah – the organisation running the Palestinian authority – and hear what Fatah had to say. We found the head of Fatah, the Governor of Jenin, within ten minutes and we went to interview him at his office. Not one of the swarm of journalists now in the city had bothered to interview him: it was quite enough to stand alongside a pile of rubble and describe the “destroyed city of Jenin”. In his headquarters there was a big portrait of Yasser Arafat on one wall, and Saddam Hussein on the other. While we were there, four fighters walked in and said: “Sir! We have come to bring you the final report on the massacre.” I asked to film the report. I said, “How many dead?” He said: “Many dead.” I panned my video camera down the list on the report – there were 50 dead and six missing. I said: “What happened to the 500 and the 1000?” He said: “What do you mean?” I said: “Your colleagues in Ramallah have been telling the western media that there are thousands of dead bodies under the rubble, that there has been a huge massacre. And you have a list with a maximum of 56 dead. How do you explain that?” He spluttered: “Er, um, numbers are not important. What is important is the great struggle of the Palestinian people….” So the next day there was a headline in one of the American papers I was writing for which said “Death Toll in Jenin ‘Massacre’ Reduced to 56.” The important part of the story was that the person saying 56 Palestinians had died was not some Israeli – it was the head of Fatah saying this in Jenin. I went on to describe the propaganda machine feeding the gullible journalists in the streets and the part this had played in the myth about the “massacre” in Jenin. The UN was about to send a delegation to inspect the “massacre” and Israel was refusing to cooperate with the investigation. When the Secretary General saw my story, and news agencies started reporting what I had quoted the Fatah leader as saying, he decided to cancel the mission – and blamed Israel for the cancellation! So everyone was happy.My article about Jenin had some effect as it actually redressed the balance in the way it was being reported for a while. Eventually the UN came to the conclusion that 52 people died – but this was 6 months later, by that time all the damage had been done to the Israeli reputation. But this was a classic example that every now and then a reporter or film-maker has an impact on the way the world works, and that is why it is worth doing. It shows that just one story can have a big impact for good or ill in the right kind of circumstances. And I feel that justifies all the unpleasantness and the dangers I sometimes have had to be exposed to so as to get right into the heart of events.
How did you become involved in the trial of Muhammad Abu Muailek, a Palestinian dissident accused of acting as a spy for Israel?
A few days after the Israeli invasion of Gaza had ended in 2009 I was sitting in a café in Gaza City. A guy came up to me and introduced himself as Muhammad, asking if I remembered him. I said, “Yes, you were the guy firing the rockets I filmed a few months ago. So you survived the invasion!” He said, “Well I didn’t fight. I don’t believe in firing rockets at civilians as targets, I think it is provocative, counter-productive and wrong.”In all my 30 years of covering wars and conflicts – Bosnia, Kosovo, Namibia, Romania, Iraq-Iran, the first intifada, the second intifada – I had never come across a fighter or militant who says, “I have changed my mind – I was wrong”. Certainly I had never come across anyone who tells a foreign journalist: “I changed my mind, I was wrong, and I want to tell you my story and I want you to broadcast it.” I realised it was a great story, but that by doing the story I could be putting this guy in even greater danger. So I said: “Do you realise that by talking to me about this you will be in big trouble? Think about it for two days.” Two days later he said: “I want to do it.” What should I have done? Should I have still said no because this would endanger him? But I thought: he is 25, an adult, and he is willing to take the risk. I filmed him in such a way that it didn’t expose him to more danger – I used a very small camera, I didn’t have a local cameraman or translator, I did it all very quietly. One of the reasons he became a dissident, I discovered, was because he became friendly on the internet with an Israeli. They even spoke to each other during the war when Israeli soldiers were 200m from Muhammad’s house. So this was a very positive part of the story – that just by communicating on the internet (which could not have happened 30 years ago) two people on either side of a war could actually become friendly to the extent that a rocket firing militant changed his mind to become a peace activist. In the end he did get arrested. I had to decide what to do – on the one hand I could have broadcast the film as it was. But I was worried that by broadcasting the film it would get him into even more trouble. He was in a military trial accused of being a spy. Hamas could have seen my film and would say: “There you are, he is in touch with an Israeli, he is a Mossad agent” or something! The fact that they were only chatting and of course not exchanging military secrets would be brushed under the carpet – their communications would just be used as an excuse to execute him. So I didn’t run the film. But then Mohamed’s brother told me Hamas already had found the email exchanges between Mohamed and the Israeli, Dan. So he asked me to show the film to the military court – to prove Muhammed was not a spy, but a dissident. Maybe he would get ten years in jail as a punishment for being a dissident, but not an automatic death sentence. It might have been the only way to save him life.So I had to decide: what is my moral responsibility here? Should I just wash my hands of it? From a journalistic point of view I should have done that. On the other hand, my primary duty is to avoid him getting sentenced to death. So I agreed to go to Gaza and give evidence in this military court. Hamas needed Western journalists – it was part of their overall propaganda strategy, ands they had never arrested one. Human Rights organisations assured me I would be safe and escorted me in. When I arrived Hamas officials took me to a side room. They said: “You are not a witness in this case, you are an accused – you were Mohamed’s master spy.” That began the period of 26 days of detention.
How did your 26 days in detention in Gaza lead you to realise what your purpose is in life?
During my detention, I thought I was seconds from death at least twice. They put a gun to my head, they carried out a mock execution, they took me to places where I thought I was going to be executed, and a prison guard threatened to strangle me. But in one sense, the experience of being in prison has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me. You have to focus on what makes you unique, what makes you special, different, why you are in this world. As a journalist I have always felt I was here in order to cast some light into the darkness of some of the nastier corners of the world. Sometimes in the interests of humanity you can achieve that, every now and then you succeed. So as a journalist I think it is my duty to reflect accurately what is happening in the Middle East – I think that is a service to everybody in the region. Now I felt that I was in prison because I was doing what was right. I had been locked up – it was unfortunate, not everything goes according to plan. God can decide: that is enough of you in this world. You have to do your best to stay alive, but if you can’t then you can’t. So I wasn’t really afraid of death. I expected to die. I was already told I was going to be executed and I felt fairly calm about it. Except that I was worried about my family about how they would respond to it.
How did you manage to stay calm while you were in prison, fearing that you would be tortured and executed?
I expected that I would be executed so during my last few days on earth I thought I would do what is correct. I said my prayers. Those were times to feel serenity: every morning afternoon and evening – except when I was being interrogated which sometimes went on for six hours at a time – although they would stop for their prayers! Under tremendous pressure you either respond by collapsing or getting inspiration. I actually found that my mind was functioning extremely well during that period. It has probably not functioned as well ever since! I was working out strategies, what to say, what not to say, how to prolong things – all the tactical moves. I feel I played a good hand in keeping myself alive longer than I expected. They used to carry out torture as a routine. I wasn’t sure if they would apply torture to me or not. There were times I thought I was about to be tortured. But I never really was, apart from a mock execution and my knee being smashed. The psychological pressure, though, was huge. There were threats made to try and make me sign a confession – including that they would lure my wife over to visit me while injured in hospital, then lock her up too. They would say: “Would you like to sign the confession now or when your wife is in the opposite cell?” So there was that kind of pressure. They put me in worse and worse conditions. For six days I was placed in a dark cell. There was a slit of light; a hole in the ground for the toilet; mosquitos; and a very thin mattress. For three hours they dumped a torture victim in to my cell as if to say: that is you next week. I was standing up to all the pressures. But I didn’t know how I would handle torture, real torture. That was a test I was hoping I would not be put through.
How did your time in detention affect your faith?
These 26 days taught me a lot of things about faith, about standing up for your principles, about accepting things that you can change and things that you can’t change in the world. Accepting that you are not in control of your fate, that G-d is. And trying to be a decent human being, even under those circumstances. For example I gave one of the prison guards a back massage when he had a painful back. They then took him off guard duty when, I assume, they saw he was becoming too friendly with a prisoner. But there were some sadistic prison guards – one threatened to cut my throat. You still have to behave decently, even in those conditions. I feel that ultimately it was very much of a strengthening and learning experience. If you survive these things it strengthens you. It was a positive, not a negative. Not that I would want to go through it again! After I came out I was full of amazement – wow a flower! A bird! Things you haven’t seen for 26 days and thought you would never see again. They all seemed so special. That is what I learnt from the experience – the specialness of everything. It certainly strengthened faith and made me even more determined to do what is right in life.
How did you get released from detention?
We don’t know the reason they decided to release me. As they say – it came from the heavens. After a while they realised they couldn’t break me in to signing a false confession without torturing me, which for some reason they must have been ordered not to do. Secondly, there was some pressure building up from the British government, from five British pro-Palestinian parliamentarians, from South Africa, and also from a surprising source: Archbishop Desmond Tutu – because of my anti-apartheid record. He was amazing. A top Hamas official came to visit me and suggested a possible release. But he said to me: “If you say too much, there are intelligence services around the world that take a more aggressive line than we do. We know where you live, we know where your wife works, we know where your daughter is at university. We know all these things.” I said, “Yes I understand. You can rely on me not to say too much.” Three days later they took me to the border and I did a press conference. I gave a statement which I prepared in my mind, but I was careful not to say too much. I didn’t know if this was some kind of trick and that if I said something really nasty about Hamas they would take me back to prison. So I said in the press conference inside the Gaza Strip at the border: “Today, my release is a great victory for the right of journalists to carry out their work without fear of intimidation, violence, or repression.” They all started firing questions at me – “What about the way you were treated?” No comment. “Were you tortured?” No comment. “What do you think about Hamas?” No comment. Eventually the British security guys grabbed me and drove me across the border. I discovered even as I was leaving, there was a press conference and Hamas accused me again of being a spy. Part of the verbal deal was you shut up about what happened in prison, and we will drop all this nonsense about you being a spy. But they didn’t stick to their side of the bargain. So when I got out I realised there is no bargain, and that is why I am willing to talk about it.