A Moment with Alan Johnston




Veteran BBC Reporter Alan Johnston was the only western journalist to live in Gaza and he did so for three years. Not only did he cover rocket attacks, Israeli Army raids, suicide bombings but he lived through them as well. Sixteen days before he was to end his assignment and come home he was kidnapped by a militant group called the Army of Islam.
For weeks, the world wondered what would become of him and even false reports of his death began to circulate. The BBC began to rally support for his release. People demonstrated all over the world from Beijing to Buenos Aries to here in Toronto.
After 114 days he was finally freed.
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression hosted Johnston in May to come to Toronto to speak to the public about his captivity and about freedom of the press.
Convergence caught up with Johnston at the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression headquarters.


C: You were kidnapped for 114 days. How did that experience have an effect on you?

AJ: It’s an extraordinarily difficult experience and a really major event in my life and of course it lead me to think about many things. I think that it made me focus on the most important things in life. It made me learn that all these lessons that we all know in our bones that the only things that really matter in life are the people that you love and family.

At the same time it helped me to understand suffering especially imprisonment better. I lived through things there that I had only really read about or seen in films. But then I experienced them for real for myself and I felt it was a kind of an education on the dark side of life. I found out what it was like to be in fear of your life, to be chained up and to hear the prison door lock and to lose absolutely all control of your life and I think that perhaps you need to completely lose your freedom to understand what a valuable thing it is.

I felt that I know more too and I guess that I felt I got a little bit older and it was exhausting. I spent about 20 years trying to get to these places because I felt that journalistically I could do the most reasonable work for things like Afghanistan and Gaza, Tajikistan, Grozny. But suddenly I feel that I don’t  have the same drive to go to Mogadishu or something like that in quite the way that I did before. Maybe that will come back but it was exhausting and it did take stuff out of me and I guess I need to rest for a while.

Will I ever go back to somewhere like Mogadishu, Gaza? I’m not sure. But I am sure I will go abroad again but will it necessarily be in a place that is really dangerous? My parents are old – my girlfriend – things like that, they don’t need to hear that I’m going to somewhere truly dangerous.


C: How did you manage to survive?

AJ: I can say it would all be much more difficult if I was being beaten around and I was lucky in that way and that made it easier to survive physically.

I was kind of lucky in mental makeup. I am a very calm person and fairly easy going. I’m kind of pessimistic so I think that all the unfortunate things in life are going to happen. I also am fairly optimistic in that I think I can get through somehow. It might sound strange but I think I had kind of a good mental setup through that experience. I am quite sociable and quite normal socially but I’m also very very easy on my own.

The solitary confinement stuff didn’t bother me I’m sure as much as it would bother almost everyone else I know

I suppose it wasn’t easy and there were many dark passages were I felt very close to despair and depression and almost every day there were some passages especially in the day. I will say I always knew there would have to be a fight. I knew the mechanisms in my mind that I needed to put in – strategies to try to  push my mind and manipulate my mood to push my mind in the right direction, the direction away from despair, despondency and collapse and into something better. It was always a hard effort to keep pushing in that direction


C: Why is it important for journalists to cover dangerous places like Gaza?

AJ: Those places of conflict around the world really do require journalism almost more than anywhere else. If local people and people in the outside world are going to be able to make decisions that might help those situations improve, then they need to know the facts on the ground. And also the only way you can know the facts on the ground is reasonable journalism being done in those places.

So the journalism field is tremendously worthwhile. The trouble is that the journalists wrongly are getting caught up by elements on the ground that make it difficult – impossible to do the job. The messenger is being attacked or kidnapped or sometimes killed and that is tremendously damaging not just for the individual but in a way the context too.

We need to know what’s happening in Iraq, in Congo and different parts of Kenya and Gaza and – the more serious the situation the more seriously the work of journalists is needed and that’s why when media people are targeted in these places it’s damaging not just to them but to the wider efforts to resolve those kind of conflicts.


C: Can there ever be an end to the violence in Gaza?

AJ: The occupation’s gone on for more than 40 years. The west, I would say, has put very little pressure on Israel and inevitably under those circumstances there are more and more embittered young  Palestinians who feel that there is no future, no hope and who are increasingly drawn towards militant activity.

I don’t think Israelis will ever give them enough or the Americans will force them to give enough and even if they were to give everything in terms of ending the occupation, there are significant numbers of violent young Palestinians for whom it wouldn’t be enough and they would fight on. So when you put all these things together there’s very little hope. I went to the middle east with very little hope and came away with even less. But I was wrong about the Berlin Wall, I was wrong about South Africa and I was in Ireland so I was wrong about [it] But it’s difficult to see where I’ll be wrong and right.

I’m afraid that even in our lifetimes we will not a see a solution. It’s so depressing to saythat. People get weary of fighting certainly. Sometimes things change out of just fatigue and all these conflicts at some point do end in some way. But I will say as long as the occupation goes on, as long as there is no state for the Palestinians then it’s very hard for me to see it ever ending.

Photo/Raymond Andrew de Souza