"I've never felt the need to scream to anyone"

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NRK correspondent Sigurd Falkenberg Mikkelsen just came out with the book Arabian harvest (Cappelen Damm, 2016), a collection of correspondent letters from the Middle East from 2011 to 2016. The release is the reason for this editorial conversation, where we go a bit behind it all, or take on the role of reporter.

(Click here for the Inglese version.)

In the first letter, from October 2011, Mikkelsen travels in Libya. It's just before Gaddafi falls, and Mikkelsen ends up a bit by chance outside a warehouse, where a massacre has just taken place – machine guns, grenades, corpses being set on fire. He writes: “Inside were the remains of over fifty people; a black mass of burnt human flesh, ribs, human ribs, stuck up everywhere, and the white skulls, I remember them as shiny clean against the black, untidy mass. Several places on curly spines. » Just before he vomited, he withdrew, it was "not a place for living people to travel", he writes. The worst he has experienced, he says to Ny Tid. Prior to this, his knowledge of the area was only learned, not directly experienced by him: “I felt I had stepped into another world. It was dark, and the stench awful. I felt I came across something that is beyond human comprehension. This is something that comes deep from our history. "

Out in reality. Mikkelsen has been traveling around the Middle East for 15 years. One can wonder what the motivation is. What draws him there? “For me, it was the most natural thing to do. When the Afghanistan war started, I wanted to be there, ”he says. "It was a very strong feeling. And the same was repeated with the Iraq war. And now, fifteen years later, I'm doing right away. "

With a high academic education from the University of Paris – otherwise the same institution as Jonas Gahr Støre – one can wonder why he nurtures this attraction to the harsh realities of life. “I chose not to continue my academic studies in Paris, I was simply too restless. I liked it, and those years changed me as a person, but I had this yearning in my body for more, I wanted to go out into the world. ”  

In my previous Ny Tid interview with NRK's ​​older foreign correspondent Odd Karsten Tveit (November 2015), the point was to get out of the hotel bar. Tveit has been out for a lifetime, and survived in several conflict zones. What about Mikkelsen in the generation after Tveit – has he been close to being killed? "In fact, it is difficult for me to answer why it did not happen. Once in Iraq, a grenade passed us just a few meters away. With several car bombs, it has also been close. You have to find your own limits in this job. Sometimes you overexpose yourself to danger, you have to be able to retreat. But to return to your question about why I move out of hotels, as Tveit also did: I think it is the core of the report as a genre, to get out and see what is going on. Even when it's just saying 'yes, those people were there'. "

One can understand Mikkelsen's point that it is not enough to hear what activists are telling, or what the authorities deny. But what if life is at stake? "I belong to the old school, writing on social media and other information is not enough. But I wonder if it's worth it. Both before and after I got family, I have thought that a dead reporter is not worth anything. At the same time, this is an important job, one has to go out and control reality – something I do as best I can with my abilities and limitations. ”

Tveit was described by a colleague as very rational in massacres, as then in 1982 at Sabra & Shatila. He walked around and counted corpses. Can Mikkelsen keep his distance from this madness? 'No, it's very difficult. But that's my job as a reporter out there. One cannot be overwhelmed by emotions. But if you block the emotions, then you lose the human, and there will be no good report, nor good for yourself. I first accept reality, and then I deal with my experiences afterwards. As you can see, these book texts are an attempt at that. "

Politicians. Reporter Mikkelsen has traveled extensively for years, most recently in a five-year period stationed in Cairo for NRK. I came with him to Cairo at the same time in August 2011, just after the revolution, while the large demonstrations were still raging in Tahrir Square. We have traveled together in the West Bank with former Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide, and we have both been picked from
each other camera gear on the way into the presidential residence of Israeli Shimon Peres. In addition, we have climbed the steps of Palestinian Ramallah to bring with us the handshakes between Eide and President Abbas. But what do these politicians' attempts to make peace really mean? "I don't have many illusions about politics, but I still believe that bridges can be built in the Middle East. A common understanding and journalism can contribute to that. Art can also contribute. I am more concerned with a deeper understanding of how we are connected than what separates us. ”

Some people want so much power – when is enough really enough?

Being Norwegian. Mikkelsen is Norwegian, and I wonder if it has any significance as a reporter. Is there perhaps some old Christian cultural thought behind his motivation to try to make the world understand or respond to these atrocities he observes? "It's possible, but I'm not very religious," says Mikkelsen.

On the other hand, he says, he has never felt 100 percent Norwegian. It is interesting enough why the Norwegian Breivik massacre was lying in his consciousness when he arrived at the tourist massacre in Tunisia. A day after the massacre at the Imperial Marahaba Hotel in Sousse, he stands outside the gate where 38 people were killed, he writes: "There was a shudder in the humid Mediterranean heat, like an internal tremor when I arrived at the scene." Did it resemble Breivik's cold-blooded slaughter of people when the Tunisian killer mainly killed Western tourists, one by one, for thirty long minutes? "Maybe my nerves were extra tense, and I arrived at the place with a lowered guard, maybe it was because the actions reminded me of Utøya," writes Mikkelsen. The murder orgy, as Mikkelsen called it, was carried out with automatic rifles against people in swimwear. Mikkelsen tells Ny Tid: "I had never seen or heard of a terrorist attack in the Middle East that was so personal. I have seen brutal attacks with great consequences, but not in this way, so cynical to kill one by one. "

I wonder, though, did the journalistic distance break in this incident because it was something western about it all, and resembled an experience from Norway?

Still, the next day he was cool, stepping on the killer's trail in the course of events.

Does it mean anything? In the book, Mikkelsen expresses some doubts about the role of the reporter. Does it help to report, write reports, act on TV with constantly new stories of abuse? “I still think this is the world's most important job. At the same time, it is tough to see that there is no response or echo of what has been reported at home. What capabilities do we have for shaping people's worldview? ” But despite the media's lack of significance, he says, some have to face the victims face to face and tell what's going on.

Mikkelsen's older colleague Tveit told me about a female reporter who went out to the responsible phalangist leader of the said massacre in Lebanon and shouted at him what kind of butcher he was. Where is the difference between being an activist and a journalist – is it so important to keep this distance? I ask Mikkelsen. "I've never felt the need to scream at anyone," he says. "I'm there to understand and report, and then it will be up to other people how they will react."

Mikkelsen's picture from Homs
Mikkelsen's picture from Homs

But in one of the 24 letters in the book, Mikkelsen says that, as the first man, he meets a starving group of refugees in a wooded area outside the city of Dohuk, Iraq. There are hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees in the area because of ISIS. The well-trained Kurds he meets ask him: "We thought you brought us food?" Our man from NRK replies that he has come to tell the world about them, that they exist. He got no answer. What did you feel then, I ask Mikkelsen. "They were disappointed, where as the first person from the outside I just stood there with a microphone. I thought the same thing myself – 'what am I doing here with a microphone?' ”

"I had this yearning in my body for more, I wanted to go out into the world."

In this letter, reflecting on the refugees, he thinks that it is always the poorest who are hit hardest: “I tell their stories, but the world doesn't seem to hear, or just have enough of themselves […] What to do then then? Give up?" Is it really just enough to report? I ask again. Mikkelsen replies: “I find it difficult to set a clear boundary. But basically, if I wanted to help someone in need, I would take a job in a relief organization. ”

Then it is natural to ask if he as a Norwegian, as from the outside, has really been able to feel the fear and violence the vulnerable in the Middle East feel. Has he been touched that way? In a letter, he describes how a bomb broke down near his daughter's playground. He also writes about when his wife was about to give birth, and a curfew was introduced after President Morsi's fall. Did he not find this very threatening? "Yes, it is quite primary. It was about survival for my wife and future daughter. When it is very personal, you react differently. My nightmare was that during birth we should be stuck in traffic, or on a checkpoint. "

Egypt. But what can he say specifically about Egypt after these years of correspondence in Cairo? "It's not easy to conclude, and there's no black-and-white answer, either. To me, this is an Egyptian tragedy – it could already be felt during the preparations for the 2012 presidential election, when Morsi won. From then on, it's all just been a politics of power. " I ask if religion played a big role. "Maybe some, but mostly it was about power politics." We talk a little about this – that some people want so much power. When is enough really enough? "It's a good and basic question. It is also very sad to see the spirit of Tahrir in 2011 being lost step by step. The fight became more and more desperate. In the end, there was nothing left of the revolutionary spirit. "

After Morsi was arrested, security forces killed at least 800 people demonstrating in the provincial town of Minya. Mikkelsen was also present at some Egyptian court hearings, where a judge sentenced "with a club seizure 683 people to death", as it says in the book. Mikkelsen comments to Ny Tid: "It was strange to see leaders of the Brotherhood behind bars, they had traveled around a couple of years earlier and met state leaders. People probably underestimated what mental shift Morsi's government represented for the old elite – and how destabilizing this was for the country. People did not want a Brotherhood-controlled state, so the last shift with the military did not come from nowhere. "

"What do I do here with a microphone?"

But what about the media and today's freedom of expression in Egypt? “Even with an elected president, freedom of speech is suppressed. Being a journalist is increasingly difficult. It is not allowed to protest. Although there are some security reasons, by turning on any activist, you no longer have a real opposition or a real democracy. Most of Tahrir's leaders are now in prison with the Islamists. "

trips. Mikkelsen once studied Arabic in Damascus. He keeps returning to the hotels he has stayed in throughout the region. Yes, the word "hotel" is mentioned 68 times in the book, but he constantly refers to other previous explorers' descriptions of hotels and trips. Why? Interestingly enough, Mikkelsen suggests that the journeys he did not make might have been the strongest. Also a trip out to the Ramses statue he did not take, or a long, leisurely train journey that was replaced by plane. The title Arabian harvest refers to Stig Dagerman's book German autumn, from when Europe was in ruins.

Many places in the Middle East he had just read about before visiting the area later: “When you travel in your imagination, you can keep the atmosphere of the journey, hold on to your own world. It is also an important part of the journey. You can travel for several reasons, but I think many are disappointed with the reality. But meeting points between reality and thoughts are interesting! Several good books were also written by people who were not at the place they wrote about. Although I have traveled as a journalist, I also want to open other rooms. ”

One of the rooms is his many descriptions of shoes in the letters. Left behind, nice shoes in an empty garden – should he take them with him? Shoes after a massacre on a football field. Children's shoes after a bomb blast. Shoes without owners. Constant descriptions of the shoes' colors and materials – as many as 48 times the word "shoes" is mentioned in the book. "I did not realize it! Shoes are a symbol of the Middle East, and shoes without owners are a strong sign of death. Streets with children without shoes are also a symbol. Maybe I have a special interest in shoes, as my grandparents ran a shoe store in Tønsberg… »

Truth. I end the conversation by asking about the lies of power politics in the Middle East, whether he knows Hannah Arendt's theory of totalitarianism, a total system of lies – as opposed to the desire for honesty and truth. He replies: “What is the truth, really? I think there is more and more noise, and less and less truth. But that also applies to Europe and the United States. It is also uncomfortable to find how little common understanding there is for facts. For me, not only has the Middle East become a harder place to be, but Europe as well. It is a changed continent that I have returned to. "

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