NRK correspondent Sigurd Falkenberg Mikkelsen recently published the book Arabisk høst (Arab Fall, Cappelen Damm, 2016), a collection of correspondent’s letters from the Middle East from 2011 to 2016. This book is the reason why the editor of Modern Times sits down with him, to look behind the scenes, and at the role of the reporter.
In his first letter, from October 2011, Mikkelsen travels to Libya. This is immediately before the fall of Gaddafi, and somewhat by chance, Mikkelsen ends up outside as storage house where a massacre has just taken place – machine guns, grenades, dead bodies being burnt. He writes: «Inside, there were the remains of over fifty people; a black mass of burnt human flesh, ribs, human ribs, poking out from everywhere, and the white skulls, I remember them as shiny and clean against the dark, messy mass. In several places attached to curly spines.»
He withdrew right before throwing up, this was not «a place for a living human to be», he writes. The worst thing he ever experienced, he tells Modern Times. Before this, his knowledge of the region was something he had learned, not directly experienced himself: «I felt like I stepped into a different world. It was dark, and the stench was horrible. I felt like I touched on something beyond human comprehension. This is something that comes from somewhere deep in our history. »
Into reality. Mikkelsen has travelled around the Middle East for 15 years. You may wonder what his motivation is. What draws him to the region? «For me, it’s the most natural thing to do. When the war in Afghanistan broke out, I wanted to be there,» he says. «It was a very deep-felt emotion. The same thing with the war in Iraq. And 15 years later, I’m still here.»
With an advanced academic degree from Sciences Po in Paris – the same institution that former Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre once attended – you may wonder why he is drawn to life’s harsh realities. «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 felt this urge in my body for something more, I wanted to go out into the world.»
In a previous Modern Times-interview with NRK’s senior foreign correspondent Odd Karsten Tveit (November 2015), the point was to get out of the hotel bar. Tveit has been out there for a lifetime, and has survived in several conflict zones. What about Mikkelsen, the generation following Tveit – has he ever been close to getting killed? «It’s actually hard for me to answer why that has not happened. Once, in Iraq, a grenade passed us by only a few meters. Several car bombs have also cut close. You have to find your own limits in this job. Sometimes you over-expose yourself to danger, you have to be able to withdraw. But to return to your question about why I get out of the hotels, as Tveit also did: I believe that is the core of the journalistic report as a genre, to get out and see for yourself what is happening. Even when it’s enough to say ‘yes, those people were there’»
We can understand Mikkelsen’s point that it’s not enough to listen to what activists are saying, or what the government denies. But what if your own life is on the line? «I belong to the old school, what’s written in social media and other sources is not enough. But I ask myself whether it’s worth it. Both before and after I got a family of my own, I’ve thought that a dead reporter is worth nothing. At the same time, this is an important job, you have to go out and control reality – something I do as well as I can, within my own abilities and limitations.»
Tveit was described by a colleague as behaving very rationally during massacres, like during the one in 1982 at Sabra and Shatila. He walked around, counting bodies. Is Mikkelsen able to keep a certain distance to this madness? «No, it’s very hard. But it’s my job as a foreign correspondent. You can’t get overwhelmed by emotion. But if you block your emotions out, you lose the human aspect, and the report doesn’t turn out good, and it’s not good for yourself either. As you can see, this book is an attempt at that.»
Politicians. Mikkelsen the reporter has travelled around for years, most recently stationed in Cairo for five years for NRK. We arrived to Cairo at the same time, in August 2011, immediately after the revolution, while the big demonstrations were still happening at the Tahrir Square. We have travelled together before on the West Bank with former Foreign Minister Espen Barth Edie, and we have both had our camera equipment picked to pieces when entering the presidential residence of Israel’s former president Shimon Peres. We have also run up the stairs in Ramallah, Palestine, to catch the handshake between Eide and President Abbas. But what do these politicians attempts at creating peace really mean? «I don’t harbour a lot of illusions in terms of politics, but I still believe that bridges can be built in the Middle East. A common understanding of how we are connected, rather than what sets us apart.»
Being Norwegian. Mikkelsen is Norwegian, and I wonder whether that has an influence on his work as a reporter. Is there perhaps something old-fashioned and Christian-minded behind his motivation to try to make the world understand or react to these atrocities he sees? «It’s possible, but I’m not particularly religious,» says Mikkelsen.
On the other hand, he says, he has never felt 100% Norwegian. Interestingly, the Breivik massacre in Norway is what was on his mind when he arrived to the tourist massacre in Tunisia. One day after the massacre, he stands outside the gates of Marahaba Hotel in Sousse, where 38 people were killed, and writes: «A shiver ran through the humid Mediterranean heat, like an inner quake, when I arrived to the scene.» Was it similar to Breivik’s cold-blooded slaughter when mainly Western tourists were killed during the massacre in Tunisia, one after another, for thirty long minutes? «Maybe my nerves were fraught, and I arrived with a lowered guard, maybe because the event reminded me of Utøya,» he writes. This orgy of murder, as Mikkelsen called it, was carried out with automatic weapons against people in their swimsuits. Mikkelsen says: «I had never seen or heard of such a personal terrorist attack in the Middle East. I’ve seen brutal attacks with great consequences, but not in this way, to kill one after another in such a cynical manner. Still, I ask myself, was the journalistic distance broken during this event, because there was something Western about it, and reminded me of an experience from Norway?» Yet, the next day he was calm, and walked in the path of the murder in order to re-construct what had happened.
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