Reporting on loss, grief and resilience during a tragedy 

Reporting on loss, grief and resilience during a tragedy 

The role of the journalist is to tell the world about the disaster and also go back and follow up on stories

Is a journalist a human first? This question was answered convincingly by mountaineer filmmaker David Breashears during the ill-fated ascent of Mount Everest in 1996, when a blizzard killed eight climbers. Instead of filming the tragedy, Breashears and his team put down their cameras and went to save people. Most journalists don’t have to make such dire choices when they go to cover humanitarian tragedies. For the most part, journalists arrive on the scene after the first responders do. The role of the journalist runs parallel to that of rescue workers; it is to tell the world about the tragedy — whether a tsunami, a cyclone or an earthquake of the magnitude that hit Turkey and Syria this week. It is often to these stories that the world reacts quickly and sends help.

It was a Sunday morning after Christmas when I was called into work in 2004 — some sort of a flood had been reported on Chennai beach. But soon it was clear that this was something much bigger. Within hours, our team was on board a relief flight to Chennai, and then down the coast towards Nagapattinam as casualties rose from dozens to hundreds and then to thousands. In hospital corridors, we were stunned by the sight of bodies piled up by the walls. Funeral pyres continued through the night.

Next, we flew to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands where distress calls had come in from Car Nicobar. Officers and their families at an Indian Air Force (IAF) base had been washed away by waves that some described as 100 feet tall. We saw cars and furniture perched high atop trees, where they had been deposited by the waves. Many people were still trapped beneath the rubble of their homes, and rescue workers used whatever implements they could find, including their hands, to free them. Most victims were dumbstruck by what they had seen, but the memories that remain are the haunting cries of parents who had seen their children being taken away by the force of the tide. One mother kept telling me how she had held on to her infant tightly, but the wave had wrenched him from her arms.

As the IAF transported survivors from Car Nicobar to Port Blair camps, officers walked each family through medical check-ups and then onto An-32 transport aircraft, giving flight instructions to people who had never been on board a plane before and were frozen with fear. Some refused to board, still waiting for loved ones who had gone missing, but there was little left on the island, and they had to be moved. It is always humbling to see how the armed forces work in such tragedies, giving their all to save each life. During the tsunami, India sent military teams to assist Sri Lanka and Indonesia. The tradition continues, with National Disaster Response Force teams going to Turkey and Syria this week.

Every humanitarian tragedy of this magnitude has distinct phases. The first is the search and rescue effort. In time, priority shifts to taking care of survivors with medical aid, food and water, and temporary shelter. A major concern then is the spread of disease from the scarcity of drinking water and cramped conditions at relief camps. Finally, authorities move towards rehabilitation and reconstruction, and much depends on how much aid flows in for this effort.

For a journalist, the hardest part is having to leave at the end of the assignment, with the sense that we are abandoning those hit hardest by the disaster. It is important to go back, and follow up on stories. One of my happier moments was visiting a unique adoption centre in Tamil Nadu, where parents who had lost children during the tsunami were matched with orphans who had lost their parents, their shared experience helping, in some way, to heal their trauma.

Your email address will not be published.