You may ask why journalists want to go to war zones and front lines. Odd Karsten Tveit is one of them: “I came to the Middle East for the first time in 1975 from desk work in the NRK. There was a war in Libanon. Others, who had children and families didn’t want to ruin their summer. I was actually an economist, and an expert on North Sea oil, but that wasn’t exciting enough, so I transferred to foreign news. I’m very curious, I want to travel and experience things. It’s not that I get high from wars or seek out dangerous situations. But as a reporter, you have to be close to what is happening, and I travelled to the frontlines with the photographers. I didn’t sit in a bar or an editorial office, using press releases from Reuters and AP. At the same time, I used the Norwegian Mountain Code – I talked to locals, checked the weather forecast, and knew that it would be wrong to turn back”, says Tveit.
His colleague Robert Fisk writes about Tveit in Pity the Nation. Libanon at War (1990) that he had “an insatiable appetite to see for himself what was happening in the Libanon war. He went to the battles.” Fisk was constantly surprised that Tveit wasn’t killed out there, and considered him a survivor. Fisk’s rule was to be around people like this. “Robert Fisk is a good writer, but sometimes he exaggerates a little bit”, says Tveit. ”I was a correspondent who wanted to come back alive. The news don’t come to you, you have to go out and find them. We travelled together, and we were both afraid for our lives. He is one of the best correspondents I know.”
In his recent book De Skyldige, NRK-correspondent Odd Karsten Tveit discusses the role of the military, the diplomats and the intelligence agents in the conflicts in the Middle East, but also Norway’s involvement in the region. According to him, “things are never what they seem”. The book is over 1100 pages long, and covers several decades: from the 60-day war in 1967 to the Lillehammer assassination in 1973, the Libanon war, the first intifada in the 1980s and up to our own time.
Most people at that time stayed in the Commodore Hotel in Beirut, a hotel Tveit describes for Modern Times: “The Commodore became the journalist hotel in the heart of West Beirut. Shots were fired at the hotel and car bombs went off outside it. The bar in the hotel became the place where gang leaders, spies, journalists, military personnel and diplomats hung out. There was a fantastic atmosphere. Later, I learned that many of them were spies for the CIA. For instance, Yassir Arafat’s closest intelligence adviser, Abu Hassan Salame.”
Fisk also describes this circle of journalists as a place where they shared experiences. Tveit comments: “Yes, you shared things with people you trusted, and who had seen something rather than those who based themselves on rumours. We were constantly being tricked and lied to by people in positions of power. Today, I think about Nietzsche, he wrote that men of power never tell the truth, but rather stories which suit them – even if it’s a lie or a half-truth.”
There are a lot of liars in De skyldige. “This concerns everyone. You can’t trust them. A Jewish-American journalist who was undercover in Palestine already in 1948, once said to me: ‘Always double-check the story. If your mother says that she loves you, double-check that as well.’”
“Yes, I’m disillusioned about the Middle East. But my job is to report, and hopefully, to be a good writer. De skyldige will not be my last book.”
Sabra and Shatila. Tveit followed the invasion of Libanon in 1982 and the following war. He was also one of the few to report from the massacres in Sabra and Shatila, along with Robert Fisk. Fisk describes how Tveit “counted the bodies and reported, void of emotion”.
“I went in with Robert Fisk from The Times, Loren Jenkings from the Washington Post and AP-photographer Bill Foley. That’s when we saw the bodies”, says Tveit. “We tried to act calmly and sensibly. I had a clear head, and reported into my audio recorder. But my body reacted. I threw up all the time. I tried to count how many bodies I saw, because I knew there would be questions later about whether we were telling the truth or exaggerating. Later, I made a documentary based on video clips others made at later dates, combined with my own materials as a radio reporter. In the NRK Brennpunkt documentary Sporene etter Sharon (The traces after Sharon) you get it all.”
Both Tveit and Fisk are interested in the details surrounding Sabra/Shatila back in September 1982. Fisk describes how flies were buzzing all around the bodies – if he opened his mouth, it was filled with flies, they crawled across the white sheets of his notepad, on his naked skin. He describes it as a warm afternoon during the Black Plague. Children with their throats cut, bloated darkened babies, piles of men’s bodies, castrated, dead eyes staring, women lying over garbage pails, women with their stomachs cut open and foetuses pulled out, and a stench of dead bodies that got in your clothes. Tveit says to Modern Times: “We heard the sound of the flies because it was so quiet. Then we smelled the bodies. We saw dead people, heads, arms. Murdered women and children with blood still running. A man of over 90 years of age was lying next to his cane, his eyes had been poked out with a knife. It was gruesome. But you try to report as truthfully as possible. It didn’t give me nightmares. It’s a kind of craft – you have to be honest and do it right. It’s like someone making a chair. He tries to make it as well as possible, even if an asshole is going to use it afterwards. And you know that you’re never good enough.”
Regarding the details of the approximately 2000 people who were murdered, Tveit writes on page 338: “I saw a man’s head, children’s feet, a woman’s breast, a stomach that looked like a rock.” Almost the same sentence that Fisk wrote 25 years ago (page 364 in Pity the Nation). They followed each other around closely. Another situation described by Fisk, is when they both came across a dead, beautiful woman lying in a backyard under the clothesline she had been hanging clothes on. Fisk assumes that she had been killed only a few minutes before and that she had been raped, since her skirt was pulled up and her legs were spread. Was she just another body to count for you? I ask Tveit. «No, but journalists have different styles. I don’t get into details. I like to write about these things, but not exaggerate. People can think for themselves, people aren’t stupid.”
The guilty ones. Both Tveit and Fisk have described how two Israeli Hercules planes landed in Beirut 24 hours before the massacre, full of Christian Libanese militia groups, trained and given uniforms by Israel – but also how the road to Sabra/Shatila had recently been marked with signposts. This massacre was actually surrounded by Israel’s regular army. With Sharon as the responsible Minister of Defence, the Israelis gave these Christian Phalangists a map and lit up the darkness of night with a message to “Flush out the terrorists”. Tveit comments: “They basically told them what to do. In Sabra and Shatila the Zionists were also to blame, even if they themselves didn’t carry out the killing.”
One of Tveit’s colleagues at the time, Janet Le Stevens, went to the Phalangist headquarters afterwards and interviewed their leader, Joseph Hadad. She screamed at him that he was a butcher, he made the sign of the cross and remained silent. Tveit writes in the book that the Christian militia had been given “cocaine, hashish and hard liquor to become ‘brave’ enough to kill” (page 139). But what about Tveit himself – would he have been able to react like Stevens to all this misuse of power?
“No. I don’t do that. Yelling at people is not my style. Stevens was an activist. She is an American journalist who turned out to be a strong supporter of the PLO. I try to go about this as a professional journalist. That means that it’s not proper to be yelling at people at either of the sides of the conflict. My job is to tell people what happened. Once, when I was going to meet Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem, my doctor asked how I could meet this murderer. I asked if he wouldn’t treat his patients as well if he or she was a murderer or your enemy? He looked at me and answered: ‘You’re right.’”
But Tveit has to pass judgement – how else could he have written a book with the title De skyldige (The guilty ones)? “Yes, there are a lot of guilty ones. As a TV or radio reporter you report less emotionally than when you write a book several years later.”
In his book, Tveit also criticises NRK. After he reported by telephone from the above-mentioned well-known massacre, the desk journalist at home in the safety of Oslo put his own name on the piece that was presented. “I felt that the reporter on the news desk himself wanted to get on the air, but there could also have been technical problems with the telephone line”, says Tveit. Regarding the public role of the reporter, I ask Tveit about his colleague Sidsel Wold, who quite erroneously has been criticised for one-sidedly defending Palestine during the Gaza war last summer. What does Tveit think about the public’s opinion about reporters?
“I don’t want to discuss this. It’s about the kind of person you are. Some people respond to criticism on the internet, I have chosen not to. If someone points out that I have made a mistake, I can apologize and say that I make mistakes all the time. But I don’t bother with getting involved with people who are just criticising me for things I haven’t said, or things they think that I’ve said. That’s probably why I’ve avoided a lot of criticism – because, who cares?”
The conflict over Palestine is not black or white, Tveit underlines. “There are so many grey areas. You can’t say that some are terrorists, and others aren’t
There are violators and criminals on all sides. But Palestine is occupied, and Palestinians are trying to get their country back. You should be careful about saying that all Palestinians are innocent, but the Israelis are guilty. There are guilty ones on all sides. But there is a misbalance – there is a weak and a strong power. But you can never be neutral when you’re reporting on a misbalanced war”, he says, and continues: “Norway is still a good friend of Israel. Norwegian authorities are friendly, but the public, on the other hand, has changed completely. When I came to Libanon in 1978, most people in Norway thought that PLO was a terrorist organization. Palestinians didn’t have the right to their own state, Israel did. Today, this has been reversed.”
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