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Fear is the biggest enemy, says veteran war correspondent

STAVROS TZIMAS

TAGS: Interview, Media

“Skeleton children, exhausted by starvation, roamed around like ghosts. Some would just collapse, dying of hunger under the scorching sun. I got down on my belly on the ground to get some shots when my Ethiopian driver started shouting at me to get up fast, pointing to the sky. Huge buzzards, with legs as big as my arm and talons like scythes were circling low in the sky. The driver waved his arms in the air, desperately trying to chase them off. ‘If they see someone on the ground they’ll attack and tear him up with their beaks and claws. They think he’s dead. They might even pick up smaller bodies and take them back to their nests to feed their young,’ he told me. I took a couple of quick shots of a subject that confirmed in the most brutal manner the adage that one man’s death is another man’s life and got out of there as fast as I could.”

Paul Vittoroulis is one of those narrators who keeps you hanging on his every word, thirsting for more. Born on the southern Aegean island of Karpathos in 1940, the veteran war correspondent has a way of imparting, in great detail, the incredible things he experienced in 25 years at some of the hottest spots around the world.

Vittoroulis emigrated to Canada in 1957 and in 1965 moved to the United States, where he got a job with CBS that allowed him to come back to Greece. He worked as a cameraman for the American network for the bulk of his career, covering wars in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus and African famines. Now, he has recorded some of these unbelievable experiences in a book titled “Camera Belli,” published by Ianos, only in Greek for the time being.

Proceeds from its sale will be donated to charities that deal with famines and world hunger, Vittoroulis clarifies. “I owe it to the children who died right in front of my eyes when I was unable to help,” he says.

If covering wars is a high-risk job that has cost the lives of hundreds of journalists, the cameramen and photographers are always at the vanguard. “You have to put yourself in the line of danger if you want to do this job. The camera can’t push itself forward. You have to be consistent and have a good eye for a story, because without a story you have no job. There is only one rule in this game: You’re only as good as your last story,” says Vittoroulis.

“Fear was my biggest enemy and I tried to fight it. Anyone who says he’s not afraid is a liar. But when you’re in the line of duty, you tend to forget this feeling because the story comes first.”

I ask him whether he was adequately rewarded for taking such risks. “Sure, I was paid. I can’t say I made a million, but I made enough to have a good life,” he says.

Did quitting ever cross his mind? “No. Never. I started thinking more about what I was doing when I got married and had responsibilities. I would wonder what would happen if I didn’t make it back. The only answer I could give myself was that I should just be more careful,” he says.

As the years passed, Vittoroulis gained more and more experience and “in this line of work, experience can save your life.”

Like so many professionals in this line of work, Vittoroulis on several occasions faced the dilemma of putting his camera down to help someone or getting the story. “I couldn’t take the risk,” he says of passing up on the story. “One of the reasons I wrote the book is for all the times I was in this position and couldn’t help. I want to give something back.”

From all the very hairy experiences he had throughout his career, Vittoroulis remembers an incident in Lebanon in particular when he thought it may be his last story.

“We were all gathered at a hotel in Beirut and because nothing was going on we thought we’d nip down to the south to see if the Syrian forces had retreated 20 kilometers as the Israelis demanded so they wouldn’t bomb them. We drove to a small village on the border just before Israel and, to our surprise, the Syrian guard at the first check point at a small river let us through.

“We drove down a dirt track along the river bank, with the car windows rolled down. We’d always have the windows down at tricky spots because if you could hear the birds singing then the situation was calm. If there was absolute quiet, then we knew we were at risk and shouldn’t continue. This trick saved our lives on numerous occasions. I turned to the sound engineer, Giorgos Ioannidis, and said: ‘I can’t hear anything. Let’s go back.’ ‘No. We’re going ahead,’ said the American journalist we were with. We didn’t know that the road was blockaded and that Israelis were in the hills around us, the Christians were on one side and the Syrians on the other, and that they would all bomb anything that tried to pass... At some point I saw sparks ahead of us, like fireflies jumping up from the road. They were bullets. Bullets started coming from every direction.

“I yelled at the driver to turn back. ‘Giorgos, say a prayer. We’ll never see our families again,’ I told the sound engineer. The irony is that no one had ordered us to go there. We decided to go back but couldn’t make the U-turn on the narrow road. We tried reversing and were attacked with mortars. At the final turn, there was a curtain of fire behind us. I looked back and saw it. Bill, who’d taken the wheel, turned suddenly and we plunged 15 meters into the riverbed. We were fortunate that the car didn’t roll over and we were able to get out. We saw two locals who were hiding. They told us they couldn’t gather their vegetables because they were getting shot at from the hills.”

The correspondents were faced with a major dilemma, as their passports and equipment were still in the car. The two farmers told the group to follow them, making sure to stay in their footsteps until they arrived back at the check point. They met with a senior officer who made sure that their papers and gear was retrieved from the vehicle.

“We got back to Beirut and called New York to tell them the story. You know what they said? ‘Where’s the film?’ The American journalist turned around to us and said, ‘Guys, tomorrow I’m telexing in my resignation and going back to Oregon, where I’m going to buy a boat and become a fisherman.’ And that’s exactly what he did.”

Vittoroulis eventually succumbed to pressure from his family and quit in 1993, going into business and becoming the Greek representative for an American cosmetics and pharmaceutical firm with a humanitarian profile.

“I told myself that enough is enough, but I still have the bug,” he says, admitting that he had gotten tired of lying to his mother and wife that he was in London or Paris when he was on some battlefield in the Middle East.

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