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.”