Despatches from the front

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 June, 2006, 12:00am

WAR IS SHOCKING and terrible. When war breaks out, generally accepted standards of civilised behaviour erode rapidly and life alarmingly reverts to the primitive law of the jungle: survival of the fittest and at any cost.

War, as they say, is hell - armies fighting each other, luckless civilians wondering where and why it all went wrong, aid agencies caring for refugees and doctors rushing the injured to hospitals.

But for some, war is also a magnet. There is money to be made because just about everything is in short supply. On the fringe of every conflict, carpetbaggers converge like vultures.

Also present on the fringes of conflict are the war correspondents.

No matter how civilised the world might pretend to be, or perhaps as a result of it, people are fascinated by human conflict - whether it is a brawl in a school playground or the blitz of a city. It is the job of war correspondents to feed this insatiable public fascination by explaining the mayhem as best as they can.

The big difference between war correspondents and other reporters is that the former are rarely forced to cover war. Most correspondents volunteer, attracted by the excitement and the perceived glamour of living life on the edge, similar to bungee jumpers or sky divers. Either that or they are new to the game and naive, with no idea of what to expect.

Susanna Cheung belonged to the latter category when she first went to report from a war zone.

She had studied sociology at Chinese University before drifting into journalism. She was a business and political reporter with publications such as the Economic Digest, United Daily and Hong Kong Economic Times.

She did a stint with international news agency Reuters covering the 1997 Hong Kong handover. Following this, she was with Inter Press Service, which specialises in news about developing countries, and was roaming around the region as a foreign correspondent.

'My introduction to foreign reporting was a great opportunity to roam around Southeast Asia,' Cheung said.

Her assignments included reporting elections in Cambodia and covering Indonesia's pro-democracy movement. At the same time, she started freelancing for the BBC's Chinese radio service.

Then in 1999, when she was back in Hong Kong, at a film festival she watched a documentary film about the civil war in the Balkans that led to the division of Yugoslavia.

'The next morning I woke and said to myself: I should go there. It made me wonder why Hong Kong and China news organisations always relied on second-hand reports from other countries. The media rarely sends its own staff to cover these events,' Cheung said.

She immediately called her editor at the BBC and volunteered to cover Kosovo, which happened to be the Balkans flashpoint at that time.

'The editor said I was crazy,' Cheung said.

'They already had many journalists on the front line and they were sending only experienced war correspondents. I told them I would go at my own expense and they could pay for the stories. That was the deal.'

Alarm bells first started to ring on the way, when she was aboard a ferry heading from Italy to Tirana in Albania, which was next door to the war.

'A lot of correspondents were on board with bulletproof vests, helmets and everything,' she said. 'They were surprised to see me without anything protective.'

On arrival, Cheung learnt another harsh reality about war zones. They are among the most expensive places on the planet.

Tirana's only five-star hotel 'cost a fortune' and was full of television crews from media giants such as CNN, Sky and Fox. She ended up sharing an ordinary room in a guest-house. Even then, she had a rude awakening.

'I thought they were asking for US$15 a night until I realised I had misheard. It was US$50 and they refused to take credit cards. I was not carrying much cash and I cried,' Cheung said.

Her next hurdle was finding transport to get anywhere near the combat zones. The going price was US$100 a day.

'My heart was going boom, boom,' she said. 'I couldn't afford that either.'

Eventually she learnt the ropes, hitching rides with aid agencies. She managed to last for two months,

staying wherever she could find accommodation.

Her craving for excitement was as keen as ever. Cheung soon headed for another flashpoint - Israel's West Bank and Gaza Strip - where Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was under siege at the time.

'That was really scary,' she said of an experience described in My Front-Line Account of the Middle East, her Chinese-language book on the conflict.

On her first night, while staying with a local family, she was woken up by what seemed like an earthquake shaking the house. It was an Israeli missile hitting the building next door.

'If it had dropped on the wrong building, I would not be talking to you today. I realised how dangerous civil wars can be. You never know your neighbour, or who they might be,' she said.

With alarming naivety, she thought it might be a good idea to interview Yasser Arafat. The fact that the Gaza Strip was under curfew and the Palestinian leader was in his headquarters, which was reduced to rubble and permanently under threat of bombing, did not seem a significant hurdle. Instead of a flak jacket, she wore a T-shirt with Chinese symbols and talked her way through roadblocks of soldiers and eventually reached the compound.

She announced that she was from Hong Kong and that she hoped to meet Yasser Arafat. Amazingly, the security guard invited her in.

'Even I found that a bit ridiculous,' she said. 'I asked why they didn't stop me and the guard said: What's the point? You can see we are being bombed. What else can you do to us? Then he guided me in,' she said.

Inside, the situation became even more bizarre. Arafat's elite bodyguards were playing table tennis. Acknowledging China's pre-eminence at the sport, they challenged her to a game. She lost but, astonishingly, her request for an interview with Arafat was granted.

'He was interested that I was from Hong Kong,' Cheung said. 'He even joked: Don't worry. I visited as a tourist, not a terrorist.'

It emerged that he had maintained close contact over the years with a succession of Chinese leaders, starting with Chairman Mao. Cheung had her scoop, but she could hardly believe it.

'I could have been a spy or an assassin, not a journalist,' she said.

She could also have been bombed, shot or raped - all real threats in war zones. But Cheung is casual about such risks.

'At first, when I went to the Balkans, I had no idea how dangerous it could be,' she said. 'But I know how to take care of myself and handle situations now and it was never my intention to put myself in danger.

'My main interest is to tell the stories of normal people who manage to carry on with their lives in such situations. We always hear about the bombs and the attacks, but not always about life.

'In Gaza, I also wanted to find out why suicide bombers kill themselves. I met the mother of one woman bomber who had blown herself up. In front of the TV cameras, she said she was proud of her daughter. But after the other journalists left, I stayed behind and she cried, just as any mother would. She told me that if she had known what her daughter had planned, she would have stopped her.

'This is why I do it. All I really set out to do is find out the truth - which, as they say, is always the first casualty of war,' Cheung said.

In the hot zone


Bombs, gunmen, kidnappers. Journalists are frequent hostage targets

Nerve-wracking situations

A missile hitting a neighbouring house in Gaza was the scariest, although I was asleep when it exploded


Protective clothing helps. Experience in getting out of tricky situations helps a lot


Some reporting experience, preferably as a foreign correspondent

Why do you do it?

Curious to seek out the truth

What inspired you to first cover a war?

A touching documentary on the Balkan conflict screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. I started making plans to go the next day

Light-hearted moments

Many. Yasser Arafat reassuring me that his visits to Hong Kong had been as 'a tourist, not a terrorist' was hilarious


This depends on whether you are staff or freelance. Staff are paid the usual salary with a generous expense account and allowances. Freelancers fend for themselves