IT was a “crazy red-haired Irish girl’’ who got Peter Greste started on reporting from the frontlines in war zones.
In 1992, while the war in Bosnia was starting to rage, the 20-something Greste was in a pub in London where he was quite taken by a red-haired girl “dancing on the bar, having a wonderful time”. Talking to her, he learnt she was Irish-Catholic and about to begin a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, a town that was just an earshot from Mostar, where some of the Bosnian war’s fiercest battles were fought.
“It was an extraordinary story of how all through the war pilgrims were still going there and getting very close to the front lines to get in. She asked me, ‘Why don’t you come along?’ I laughed it off at first. But then I thought about it and got in touch with news editors who said the story sounded fantastic.’’
So Greste jumped right in and ‘‘got the story, the client, and the girl”.
The young Australian freelancer was just starting out then so he had to buy his own body armour and insurance policy to go. And he lost ‘‘a lot of money’’ on that trip, he says.
But it paid off in the end because it gave him the break he needed, and he kept going back to Bosnia to cover more war stories.
“It established a relationship with those news organisation and gave me a grounding and the experience to convince the BBC to give me the Kabul correspondent’s job,’’ he says in an interview with Sunday Star when he was in Malaysia recently to give a talk to local media on “Investigative Journalism in a War Zone”.
That red-haired Irish lass, who was a nurse, went back to Ireland after the pilgrimage and within a year Greste lost touch with her.
But his career kept going.
Over the next 25 years, he worked as a correspondent with international news organisations like the BBC, CNN, Reuters and Al Jazeera, and was posted to places like Afghanistan, Kenya, Mexico, Somalia, South Africa, and Sudan, among other countries.
In December 2013 – some six months after Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamad Morsi was ousted as the Egyptian president in a military-led coup – Greste found himself in Cairo, working for Al Jazeera and covering the bureau during the Christmas-New Year break because ‘‘I was the poor schmuck with no family to go to’’.
He was only two weeks into the stint when the Egyptian authorities swooped in, picked him up, along with two of his Al Jazeera colleagues, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, and threw the three of them in jail.
They were accused of helping, advising, financing and broadcasting ‘‘false news’’ about the Muslim Brotherhood, which was outlawed as a terrorist organisation following Morsi’s ouster; this ‘‘false news’’, the Egyptian authorities claimed, undermined the country’s national security.
These were serious charges. Greste and his colleagues found the accusations preposterous because it was not something they would do, and whatever news they produced was the result of merely doing their job and reporting on what was happening in the country.
As the world – including the press – watched incredulously, an Egyptian court sentenced Greste and Fahmy to seven years jail and Mohamed to 10 years.
The case was widely publicised and there was a lot of international pressure on Egypt to free the journalists. Greste ended up spending 400 days in jail before he was finally released on Feb 1, 2015, and deported.
While he was in prison, the Irish girl he first went to Bosnia with wrote a touching letter asking if he remembered her.
‘‘I wrote back and said in a funny, roundabout way that she is responsible for this!’’ he says in good humour.
He says the red-head is still in Ireland and has become a nun!
“That’s the kind of effect I have on women,” he jokes.
Since his release Greste has become a strong advocate for press freedom.
He says countries are using ‘‘national security’’ as a pretext to whittle away all sorts of press freedoms, and that the press, which tends to be a ‘‘very fractious lot’’, needs to unite and push back such threats to the profession.
While he was being held in Egypt, he spent a week in two “extraordinarily crowded’’ police cells, which were less than 1 sqm with a small squat toilet, a small exhaust fan, no furniture, and with 16 people sharing that tiny space. A single light bulb was left on 24/7.
‘‘They were very difficult circumstances,’’ he understates.
Then he was moved to solitary confinement in a prison alongside activists from the Arab Spring Egyptian revolution of 2011, including Ahmed Maher, Ahmad Douma and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah who, Greste says, is ‘‘one of the most amazing minds I have met in my entire life”.
Greste says solitary confinement is a challenge because you have a vacant block of time with nothing to do. On occasion he managed to have ‘‘whispered conversations’’ through the door.
He had food, water, and a place to sleep, so he had all the basic necessities for survival at least.
‘‘In that environment, the greatest danger is your own mind turning on itself. Prisons are designed to mess with your head! So the biggest challenge is to stay mentally fit.
“Once I understood that, I was very mindful and deliberate about maintaining mental, physical, and spiritual fitness. I felt I had the tools to get through the prison experience.’’
Then he was moved to another prison, where he shared a cell with his two Al Jazeera colleagues. That prison was full of Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including supreme guide Dr Mohamed Badie, former Prime Minister Hesham Qandil, the Labour Minister, the Speaker of the House – ‘‘Practically half of Morsi’s Cabinet was in there’’.
They were locked in their cell for 23 hours a day. Every day after lockdown, they would start a “radio show”, conduct interviews and have a “broadcast” in which snatches of gossip from the guards and news brought in by people visiting the prisoners would all get shared as a ‘‘news bulletin’’.
‘‘We would do our jobs as journalists! It is amazing what you hear. So we were able to keep up with what was happening outside the prison.’’
All of this was done without anything to write with; and there was nothing to read, so what could they do for the rest of those 23 hours to keep from going insane?
Greste found it was important to have a structure and a routine in place and the discipline to stick with it.
‘‘Once you put a structure in place, it is almost as if you have a ‘job’ to do. You have to be professional, physically fit, find creative work to do, meditate, and look after your soul.’’
Greste would exercise for an hour when he woke up to stay physically fit and active. And to stay mentally fit, he played a lot of memory games, like trying to remember things in ‘‘exquisite detail’’ and lingering over these memories for hours.
He would think of the beaches that he loved in Australia and try to remember things right down to the feeling of ‘‘each grain of sand between my toes, the seam of my swimming costume on my waist, the sound of the gulls, the surf, someone opening up a packet of chips, someone else rolling over on their towel, the smell not just of the sea but those chips, too”.
The prisoners’ food sometimes came wrapped in aluminium foil; they found that if they smoothed out the foil and rubbed the back with soap, it would stick to the wall. So they made murals on the wall, including a huge sun, using the shiny and the matte side of the foil.
There was also a beam in the middle of their cell with cracks. So they pulled out strands from their cotton prison uniform and pushed these through the cracks. Then they made shapes with the aluminium foil and strung them on the cotton strands to make hanging decorations.
“We knew we needed to be creative. We basically decorated our cell using our minds and being physically and mentally creative.’’
A few years earlier, Greste had attended a course on meditation to get over a bad break-up. This proved to be extremely helpful to him in prison.
“Meditation helps you step outside your own mind and almost observe yourself. It gave me a sense of higher purpose.’’
Going on to explain that purpose, Geste says he believed the only reason he and his Al Jazeera colleagues were imprisoned was to intimidate the press: “So it wasn’t about me. I felt I was at the head of the column representing journalists. And if we failed in that fight, everyone else would suffer.’’
When Greste walked out of prison 400 days later, he had to leave his two colleagues behind. He admits that was tough.
‘‘We knew this was a possibility and even discussed it. It wasn’t as if I had a choice. I couldn’t tell the officer ‘Sorry, I am not going’ because they would have physically hauled me out.
“And in prison, there were always people coming in and leaving after serving their sentence. Each time someone is released, a little part of us goes with them. It was as if a part of you is being free. No one resented anyone else for that.
‘‘And I know that if I was the one left behind, I’d have felt utterly sick if one of those released had said ‘No’ and stayed behind.’’
The release propelled him to become a powerful advocate for freedom for those still imprisoned.
‘‘As someone who recently got out, I realised that my only job has to be to continue to fight for their freedom. I had that responsibility.’’
His colleagues Fahmy and Mohamed were released on bail two weeks after him.
How has the experience of being in an Egyptian prison changed Greste?
“This is going to sound strange but in a way I feel quite lucky. Most people are far stronger than they give themselves credit for. Most people who hear my story at some point would ask themselves how would they cope if they were in my position. How would they handle 400 days in a concrete box?
‘‘Before I was actually in that position, I would have said I think I would go crazy and not be able to cope with it. I am not saying everybody would have coped with it as I did. We are not all the same. We all have our unique ways of handling stress.
“But I think most people would have coped far better than they imagined. I could. And I was lucky enough to find out that I was stronger than I ever thought I was.’’
It has been just over two years since Greste was released. He can’t go back to Egypt for now because after he was deported, he was tried again in absentia and sentenced to three years’ jail.
But would he still go back into a conflict zone?
“I want to go back to work. I never considered myself to be a war correspondent. I am a reporter who happened to work in a range of environments, including conflict zones and frontlines.
“And I want to keep working on that basis. If there are stories I think which are important and worth doing in conflict zones, then, yes, I will go.”
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