BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Friday, 14 January 2005, 15:05 GMT
Reporting from the front lines
By Jeremy Bowen
BBC News

We have just emerged from the most violent century in human history - and the new one is already going bad.

We talk about peace. But time and again, we go to war. Humans make war, dread war, enjoy it, even love it.

Jeremy Bowen on location
"Stay there long enough, and you will find your breaking point"
War blights lives, it ends them - and it defines them. It's deadly. It can be exciting. It's terrifying and disfiguring.

War can be all of those things in a single day.

It sickens me. But the first time I went to a war, in El Salvador in 1989, I was seduced by it too.

I was nervous because I had been watching it on the TV and a lot was happening. It was violent.

But I wanted to prove that I could do it.

When I got there and it was the first day and there was shooting, and I got through it and wasn't killed, then it was fantastically exciting. That was a powerful drug.

Hearing a bullet go by

Jon Steele, who was an ITN cameraman for many years, reacted the same way:

"I actually liked it. It was something about hearing a bullet go by your head... immediately your blood starts to boil and you get tingling in your fingers, and I liked it. I just thought it was cool. You know here I am, I'm in war, I'm in an action movie."

That mixture of fun, fear, excitement, adrenalin fades as time goes by, though it never completely goes away.

Allan Little in Bosnia in 1992
Allan Little: Bearing witness in Bosnia, hoping to change things
For me, at least, the main reason I have reported on 12 wars for the BBC (though I don't do it much anymore) is that it has always felt worthwhile.

We were witnesses to some of the worst things that were happening on the planet and it was important to tell people what had happened.

Allan Little, who's now the BBC Paris correspondent, felt that strongly during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, like all of us who were there.

"I think a lot of us, especially in Bosnia, a lot of us thought that the effect of our being there and bearing witness would have a beneficial effect, would in fact change things," he says.

"And it was a profoundly disillusioning experience extended over three or three-and-a-half years for that reason, because in fact, it didn't change anything."

'Collateral damage'

During the Bosnian war I felt more at home in Sarajevo than in London. It felt normal. I didn't have to explain anything to my friends in the Holiday Inn.

It is hard to analyse grand strategy in a slaughterhouse.

Fergal Keane in Rwanda in 1997
After the genocide in Rwanda, I went through a very, very bad period of dreams and nightmares
Fergal Keane
To report war and its aftermath properly, you need to start with what it does to people. But war zones distort and pervert normality.

The abnormal becomes routine. Stay there long enough, and you will find your breaking point.

When Fergal Keane was based in Africa, covering the Rwandan genocide in 1994, he started to get the feeling that something was wrong.

"After the genocide in Rwanda, I went through a very, very bad period of dreams and nightmares, questioning, you know waking up at 3am in the morning in a room full of dead people looking at you, dead people sitting at the end of the bed," he says.

"And this was particularly intense over one long summer, the summer after the genocide, and for the first time I became aware of some kind of collateral damage from the job that I was doing."

Reporting wars is very intrusive. You enter people's lives at their worst moments.

A good day for us is always the worst day or the last day for them.

The only justification is that reporting the truth is essential.

Jeremy Bowen On the Front Line was broadcast in the UK on Sunday, 16 January, at 2215 GMT on BBC One.

Wars in paradise
13 Nov 04 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Living to the sound of gunfire
16 Oct 04 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Searching for hope in Uganda
28 Dec 03 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Death on the road to Basra
28 Jun 03 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Burying the sons of Aceh
07 Jun 03 |  From Our Own Correspondent
A war too big to comprehend
05 Apr 03 |  From Our Own Correspondent


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific