The chilling aftershock of a brush with death

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It was April 8, 2003. I was in Baghdad, covering the war in Iraq. That day, Americans tanks started arriving in Baghdad. We were just a few journalists in the Palestine Hotel, and, as happens in war, the fighting began to approach outside our windows. Baghdad was covered in black smoke and oil. It smelled awful. We couldn’t see a thing, but we knew what was happening.

Of course, I was supposed to be writing an article, but that’s how it always goes — you’re supposed to be writing and something big happens. So I was in my room on the 16th floor, writing and looking out the window every now and then to see what was happening. Suddenly, there was a huge explosion. During the previous three weeks, there had been shelling with half-ton missiles, but this time, the shock — I felt it inside of me, and I thought, “It’s very close. It’s very, very close.”

So I went down to see what was happening. I went down to the 15th floor to take a look. And I saw people, journalists, screaming in the hallways. I walked into a room and realized that it had been hit by a missile. Someone had been wounded. There was a man near the window, a cameraman named Taras Protsyuk, lying face-down. Having worked in a hospital before, I wanted to help out. So I turned him over.And when I turned him over, I noticed that he was open from sternum to pubis, but I couldn’t see anything, nothing at all. All I saw was a white, pearly, shiny spot that blinded me, and I didn’t understand what was going on.

Once the spot disappeared and I could see his wound, which was very serious, my buddies and I put a sheet underneath him, and we carried him onto an elevator that stopped at each of the 15 floors. We put him in a car that took him to the hospital. He died on the way to the hospital. The Spanish cameraman José Couso, who was on the 14th floor and also hit — because the shell had exploded between the two floors — died on the operating table. As soon as the car left, I went back. There was that article I was supposed to write — which I had to write.

And so — I returned to the hotel lobby with my arms covered in blood, when one of the hotel gofers stopped me and asked me to pay the tax I hadn’t paid for 10 days. I told him to get lost. And I said to myself: “Clear your head, put it all aside. If you want to write, you need to put it all aside.” And that’s what I did. I went upstairs, wrote my article and sent it off.

Later, aside from the feeling of having lost my colleagues, something else was bothering me. I kept seeing that shiny, pearly spot, and I couldn’t understand what it meant. And then, the war was over.

Later, I thought: “That’s not possible. I can’t just not know what happened.” Because it wasn’t the first time, and it didn’t only happen to me. I have seen things like that happen to others in my 20 to 35 years of reporting. I have seen things that had an effect on me too. For example, there was this man I knew in Lebanon, a 25-year-old veteran who had been fighting for five years — a real veteran — who we would follow everywhere. He would crawl in the dark with confidence — he was a great soldier, a true soldier —so we would follow him, knowing that we would be safe with him. And one day, as I was told — and I’ve seen him again since — he was back in the camp, playing cards, when someone came in next door, and discharged their weapon. As the gun went off, that blast, that one shot, made him duck quickly under the table, like a child. He was shaking, panicking. And since then, he has never been able to get up and fight.He ended up working as a croupier in a Beirut casino where I later found him, because he couldn’t sleep, so it was quite a suitable job.

So I thought to myself, “What is this thing that can kill you without leaving any visible scars? How does that happen? What is this unknown thing?” It was too common to be coincidental.

So I started to investigate — that’s all I know how to do. I started to investigate by looking through books,reaching out to psychiatrists, going to museums, libraries, etc. Finally, I discovered that some people knew about this — often military psychiatrists — and that what we were dealing with was called trauma.Americans call it PTSD or traumatic neurosis. It was something that existed, but that we never spoke about.

So, this trauma — what is it? Well, it’s an encounter with death. I don’t know if you’ve ever had an experience with death — I’m not talking about dead bodies, or someone’s grandfather lying in a hospital bed, or someone who got hit by a car. I’m talking about facing the void of death. And that is something no one is supposed to see. People used to say, “Neither the sun, nor death can be looked at with a steady eye.” A human being should not have to face the void of death.

But when that happens, it can remain invisible for a while — days, weeks, months, sometimes years. And then, at some point, it explodes, because it’s something that has entered your brain — a sort of window between an image and your mind — that has penetrated your brain, staying there and taking up all the space inside. And there are people — men, women, who suddenly no longer sleep. And they experience horrible anxiety attacks — panic attacks, not just minor fears. They suddenly don’t want to sleep, because when they do, they have the same nightmare every night. They see the same image every night. What type of image? For example, a soldier who enters a building and comes face to face with another soldier aiming at him. He looks at the gun, straight down the barrel. And this barrel suddenly becomes enormous, deformed. It becomes fluffy, swallowing everything. And he says — later he will say, “I saw death. I saw myself dead, therefore I’m dead.” And from then on, he knows he is dead. It is not a perception — he is convinced that he is dead. In reality, someone came in, the guy left or didn’t shoot, whatever, and he didn’t actually get shot — but to him, he died in that moment. Or it can be the smell of a mass grave — I saw a lot of that in Rwanda. It can be the voice of a friend calling, and they’re being slaughtered and there’s nothing you can do. You hear that voice, and you wake up every night — for weeks, months — in a trance-like state, anxious and terrified, like a child. I have seen men cry — just like children — from seeing the same image.

So having that image of horror in your brain, seeing the void of death — that analogue of horror which is hiding something — will completely take over. You cannot do anything, anything at all. You cannot work anymore, you cannot love anymore. You go home and don’t recognize anyone. You don’t even recognize yourself. You hide and don’t leave the house, you lock yourself in, you become ill. I know people who placed small cans outside their house with coins inside, in case someone tried to get in. All of a sudden, you feel like you want to die or kill or hide or run away. You want to be loved, but you hate everyone. It’s a feeling that seizes you entirely day in and day out, and you suffer tremendously. And no one understands. They say, “There’s nothing wrong with you. You seem fine, you have no injuries. You went to war, came back; you’re fine.” These people suffer tremendously. Some commit suicide. After all, suicide is like updating your daily planner — I’m already dead, I might as well commit suicide. Plus, there is no more pain. Some commit suicide, others end up under the bridge, drinking. Everyone remembers that grandfather or uncle or neighbor who used to drink, never said a word, always in a bad mood, beat his wife and who would end up either sinking into alcoholism or dying.

And why do we not talk about this? We don’t talk about it because it’s taboo. It’s not like we don’t have the words to express the void of death. But others don’t want hear it. The first time I returned from an assignment, They said, “Oh! He’s back.” There was a fancy dinner — white tablecloth, candles, guests.“Tell us everything!” Which I did. After 20 minutes, people were giving me dirty looks, the hostess had her nose in the ashtray. It was horrible and I realized I ruined the whole evening. So I don’t talk about it anymore. We’re just not ready to listen. People say outright: “Please, stop.”

Is that a rare occurrence? No, it’s extremely common. One third of the soldiers who died in Iraq — well, not “died,” let me re-phrase that — one third of the US soldiers who went to Iraq suffer from PTSD. In 1939, there were still 200,000 soldiers from the First World War that were being treated in British psychiatric hospitals. In Vietnam, 54,000 people died — Americans. In 1987, the US government identified 102,000 — twice as many — 102,000 veterans who died from committing suicide. Twice as many deaths by suicide than by combat in Vietnam. So you see, this relates to everything, not just modern warfare, but also ancient wars — you can read about it, the evidence is there. So why do we not talk about it? Why have we not talked about it? The problem is that if you don’t talk about it, you’re heading for disaster.

The only way to heal — and the good news here is that this is treatable — think Munch’s The Scream, Goya, etc. — it’s indeed treatable. The only way to heal from this trauma, from this encounter with death that overwhelms, petrifies and kills you is to find a way to express it.

People used to say, “Language is the only thing that holds all of us together.” Without language, we’re nothing. It’s the thing that makes us human. In the face of such a horrible image — a wordless image of oblivion that obsesses us — the only way to cope with it is to put human words to it. Because these people feel excluded from humanity. No one wants to see them anymore and they don’t want to see anyone. They feel dirty, defiled, ashamed. Someone said, “Doctor, I don’t use the subway anymorebecause I’m afraid people will see the horror in my eyes.” Another guy thought he had a terrible skin disease and spent six months with dermatologists, going from doctor to doctor. And then one day, they sent him to a psychiatrist. During his second session, he told the psychiatrist he had a terrible skin disease from head to toe. The psychiatrist asked, “Why are you in this state?” And the man said, “Well, because I’m dead, so I must be rotting away.”

So you see this is something that has a profound effect on people. In order to heal, we need to talk about it. The horror needs to be put into words — human words, so we can organize it and talk about it again.We have to look death in the face. And if we can do that, if we can talk about these things, then step by step, by working it out verbally, we can reclaim our place in humanity. And it is important. Silence kills us.

So what does this mean? It means that after a trauma, without question, we lose our “unbearable lightness of being,” that sense of immortality that keeps us here — meaning, if we’re here, we almost feel like we’re immortal, which we’re not, but if we didn’t believe that, we’d say, “What’s the point of it all?”But trauma survivors have lost that feeling of immortality. They’ve lost their lightness. But they have found something else. So this means that if we manage to look death in the face, and actually confront it, rather than keep quiet and hide, like some of the men or women I know did, such as Michael from Rwanda, Carole from Iraq, Philippe from the Congo and other people I know, like Sorj Chalandon, now a great writer, who gave up field assignments after a trauma. Five friends of mine committed suicide, they’re the ones who did not survive the trauma.

So if we can look death in the face, if we, mortal humans, human mortals, understand that we are human and mortal, mortal and human, if we can confront death and identify it once again as the most mysterious place of all mysterious places, since no one has ever seen it — if we can give it back this meaning, yes, we may die, survive and come back to life, but we’ll come back stronger than before. Much stronger.