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Robert Fisk, a fearless voice, a remarkable human being

27th Nov 2020
Robert Fisk, a fearless voice, a remarkable human being

Robert Fisk:July, 12 1946 –October, 30, 2020.(Credit: Mohamed Nanabhay/Flickr)

If journalism is the first draft of history, then as a chronicler of current politics, Robert Fisk stands unmatched in this vocation. As a witness, participant, victim and ultimately a narrator, he spoke truth to the lies of the political elite, challenged the prevailing notion of balanced reporting and above all burst the myth that journalists must be neutral when reporting.

In a career spanning more than half a century, Fisk unleashed his contempt equally on the US as well as British foreign policies in the Middle East, especially concerning their craven behaviour with Israel and their complicity in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

His coverage of the numerous Gulf Wars, culminating in the illegal invasion of Iraq by western powers was an ongoing series unearthing the hypocrisy, lies and villainy of the regime change merchants. The former British Minister, Tony Blair, whose own pontifical fervour was only transcended by the hyper-evangelicalism of George Bush, came in for particular opprobrium for his deceit and warmongering. His contempt for Blair was captured in this searing line in the (June 23) 2007 edition of the Independent, “I remain overwhelmed that this vain, deceitful man (Tony Blair), this proven liar, a trumped-up lawyer who has the blood of thousands of Arab men, women and children on his hands, is really contemplating being ‘our’ Middle East envoy.”

The Independent carried his weekly column as well his reports from Beirut, where he was based since 1976. While an expert on the Middle East, he also reported on Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia and the troubles in Northern Ireland.

As one of the first journalists on the scene of the 1982 Sabra and Chatila massacres of Palestinians committed by the Israeli-backed South Lebanese Christian militia (Phalange), Fisk began his chapter ‘Terrorists’ in his book Pity the Nation with an unforgettable account capturing the raw, sickly, fetid stench of death. “It was the flies that told us. There were millions of them, their hum almost as eloquent as the smell. Big as bluebottles, they covered us, unaware at first of the difference between the living and the dead.

“If we stood still, writing in our notebooks, they would settle like an army — legions of them — on the white surfaces of our notebooks, hands, arms, faces, always congregating around our eyes and mouths, moving from body to body, from the many dead to the few living, from corpse to reporter, their small green bodies panting with excitement as they found new flesh upon which to settle and feast.

“If we did not move quickly enough, they bit us. Mostly they stayed around our heads in a grey cloud, waiting for us to assume the generous stillness of the dead. They were obliging, these flies, forming our only physical link with the victims who lay around us, reminding us that there is life in death. Someone benefits.

“The flies were impartial, it mattered not the slightest that the bodies here had been the victims of mass murder. The flies would have performed in just this way for the unburied dead of any community. Doubtless, it was like this on hot afternoons during the Great Plague.

“At first, we did not use the word massacre. We said very little because the flies would move unerringly for our mouths. We held handkerchiefs over our mouths for this reason then we clasped the material to our noses as well because the flies moved over our faces. If the smell of the dead in Sidon was nauseating, the stench in Chatila made us retch. Through the thickest of handkerchiefs, we smelled them. After some minutes, we began to smell of the dead.

“They were everywhere, in the road, in laneways, in backyards and broken rooms, beneath crumpled masonry and across the top of garbage tips. The murderers — the Christian militiamen whom Israel had let into the camps to ‘flush out terrorists’ — had only just left. In some cases, the blood was still wet on the ground. When we had seen a hundred bodies, we stopped counting. Down every alleyway, there were corpses — women, young men, babies and grandparents — lying together in lazy and terrible profusion where they had been knifed or machine-gunned to death.”

In reporting the Qana Massacre which took place on April 18, 1996, in a village in Southern Lebanon, Fisk writes, “They were the gates of hell. Blood poured through them, in streams, in torrents. I could smell it. It washed over our shoes and stuck to them like glue, a viscous mass that turned from crimson to brown to black.

The tarmac of the UN compound was slippery with blood, with pieces of flesh and entrails. There were legs and arms, babies without heads, old men’s heads without bodies, lying in the smouldering wreckage of a canteen. On the top of a burning tree hung two parts of a man’s body. They were on fire. In front of me, on the steps of the barracks, a girl sat holding a man with grey hair, her arm around his shoulder, rocking the corpse back and forth in her arms. His eyes were staring at her. She was keening and weeping and crying, over and over, ‘My father, my father.’

“What, in God’s name, had the Israelis done? Their shells had physically torn these Lebanese refugees apart, bursting in the air to cause amputation wounds, scything through arms and stomachs and legs. The corpses of Sabra and Chatila had been shot, knifed, eviscerated and disembowelled by Israel’s Christian militia allies. But this was a butcher’s shop. It was so terrible, so utterly beyond comprehension, that I simply could not believe what my own eyes were seeing. And the men who fired these shells were Israeli soldiers.”

It is no wonder that the political elites, governments, rogue leaders and an assortment of miscreants, thugs, war criminals and war profiteers despised Fisk. The war criminals in Tel Aviv had a special place in his heart and equally, their mendacity and vilification of Fisk reached new heights in government propaganda.

In the Preface to his book, Pity the Nation, Fisk is remarkably circumspect about his vocation, “I think I was in Lebanon because I believed, in a somewhat undefined way, that I was witnessing history — that I would see with my own eyes a small part of the epic events that have shaped the Middle East since the Second World War. At best, journalists sit at the edge of history as vulcanologists might clamber to the lip of a smoking crater, trying to see over the rim, craning their necks to peer over the crumbling edge through the smoke and ash at what happens within.

Governments make sure it stays that way. I suspect that is what journalism is about — or at least what it should be about: watching and witnessing history and then, despite the dangers and constraints and our human imperfections, recording it as honestly as we can.” Imperfections, few as they were, are hallmarks of a deeply committed humanitarian, striving to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Fisk was a fearless voice, a remarkable human being. A mighty oak has indeed fallen, never to be seen again.

Mahomed Faizal

One Response to “Robert Fisk, a fearless voice, a remarkable human being”

FatimaDecember 2, 2020

I still sniff the smell of the dead bodies in my refugee camp of Sabra and Shatila when they left them for a week not being buried. The fear we had had left and the insecurity life that we had experienced after the massacres was endless. as a child I was not able to speak about what I saw for two years. My cousin Kayed who his torso was stuck against the wall after killing him still vivid in my mind.


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