Last night I watched a documentary produced by the esteemed broadcast journalist Fergal Keane. The programme was ostensibly about his battle with PTSD, an injury he sustained over years of reporting on some of the most horrific conflicts in recent times.
I am particularly interested in Fergal Keane for several reasons. I first became aware of him in the mid 80’s when he was an aspiring journalist working in Northern Ireland reporting on “The Troubles” at that time I was serving in the British Army in the border regions of The Province. It was a time of realisation for me, an awakening to the often hidden connivance and true nature of conflict which at its very core seeks power, influence and wealth. I realised that moral arguments and offered allegiances were frequently smokescreens for deeper more basic human desires and instincts. Fergal Keane went on to report on conflicts in The Balkans, The Middle East, Southern Asia and numerous countries in Africa. He is currently covering the conflict in Ukraine.
At some point in the first half of my military career which extended between 1983-2005 I realised that Fergal’s broadcasting assignments were taking him to the same regions of the globe I was finding myself in. He popped up In Beirut when I was there, then in Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1999 during a time of savage civil war. The conflict in Sierra Leone was very much cast in the shadow of what was at that time occurring in The Balkans. Consequently, much of the bloodlust and genocidal nature of events went unreported, even worse it was ignored as being an irrelevance to what was happening closer to European borders back home.
It has been my experience that the further away from Europe one travels and/or the darker a victims skin the less interest people back home have. I believe this attitude may be changing, although possibly only due to lines of communication becoming more accessible to all . The emergence of new commodities often in what is termed the third world is creating prospective future battlefields. This in turn may focus the attention of developed nations upon those specific regions and give rise to a greater awareness of the poverty and suffering of their populations. We can only hope such development harnesses investment rather than the traditional tendency for exploitation we have witnessed historically. In terms of people truly caring I am not entirely convinced.
I slightly veered off my intended course in my previous paragraph, my apologies.
In 1999 whilst in Freetown I was fortunate enough to meet Fergal in the famous watering hole known as Paddy’s Bar. Paddy’s Bar is renowned for many reasons all of which are stories in themselves. Consequently, I will simply say that those who frequented Paddy’s would unlikely forget it (mostly the good) I met Fergal on two occasions at Paddy’s, once in the company of the legendary Fred Marafano who was discussing his own experiences of engaging with the RUF in the unconventional conflict. Paddy’s Bar was a place where NGO’s, Journalists, Mercenaries, and other strange animals, savoury and unsavoury would meet in the late afternoon to swap stories and information of what was happening in and around the Capital. After these sessions we would retreat to our various lockdown locations to observe the imposed curfew. I do recall chatting with Fergal, although I do not remember the specifics of the conversation I can say I sensed he was truly disturbed by what he had seen in Sierra Leone. This was approximately five years before he reported on the Rwandan genocide, I do recall him saying he had never witnessed anything like he had seen in Sierra Leone, something I doubt he would say after his visit to Kigali.
I mention my meeting with Fergal only because I felt at the time he was under some kind of burden. I could tell he was an eager journalist and for that reason was wary of him. I sensed he was pushing himself into areas he found repellant and disgusting but that he felt somehow driven to do so. I suspect I thought he was reckless, that was/is my default belief regarding most journalists I ever met in areas of conflict. I wondered why he did what he did. I remember thinking how I could account for my own reasoning of what I did for a living but not being quite able to understand his motivation. On reflection I now completely understand what drives a person like Fergal. Additionally, being able to retrospectively assess my own lifes path and having the knowledge and experience of my own PTSD I can understand the desire to be where the action is perceived to be happening. That desire is almost unstoppable and in many cases can prove to be fatal.
Fergal Keane went on to report on hotspots worldwide. I left the Army in 2005 and went directly to Afghanistan, specifically to Kandahar. Although I had witnessed conflict and death whilst I was serving in the Military I never felt as vulnerable as I did when I subsequently moved into the world of Corporate/Private Security. It is true to say that my attitude toward indigenous populations became less compassionate when I was employed by Business rather than Government, although now I see the two entities as the same thing adorned in different garments. Governments are businesses, although I would argue that nations no longer truly exist as they once did, although the illusion of them is sold to their citizens and subjects. Nations hide behind whatever moral superiority they can construct, or create diversions by which they can justify their actions. Businesses buy off and trade with governments, groups and individuals to achieve their goals. Effectively the two different bodies are reaching for the same results utilising similar behaviours, it is only the noises they make which differ. As we move further and further into this model of behaviour the harder it will become to distinguish between Government and Business, some may say we have already attained such a coexistence.
Again I have gone off piste.
In 2008 Fergal’s and my story converge yet again. In that year Fergal found himself in The Priory as did I. My life had spiralled into a kind of madness which found me abusing alcohol and at times more or less homeless. Thankfully a few people helped me, in 2008 I was diagnosed with PTSD. The story of recovery is a long one which continues to this day. I remained working in areas of conflict and was involved in several incidents which could be defined as violent and hostile. In spite of those subsequent events I did not have a return to the depths of despair I experienced in 2008. I have suffered from depression and anxiety sporadically since 2008. I am now better equipped to deal with the fallout of those days although I very much doubt I will ever be completely free of it.
Currently I am struggling with increased anxiety, I am not quite sure why, I don’t think it is unusual to not know why. I have spoken to a few former colleagues recently who have indicated they too are suffering with similar afflictions. I mention this as at the conclusion of Fergal Keane’s documentary he suggested that the thing he has found most useful in his recovery was not necessarily talking to his therapist but to others who had experienced the same damage he had.
Although I am able to rationalise all the above there are times when I fall into a pit I feel I can never crawl out of. The ridiculous thing is it might happen for a period of 24 hours or 3 months. That for me is the scary thing, not knowing if the next time it happens whether I’ll be able to rationalise my way out or not. The anxiety comes from having responsibilities toward others who I care about, I know I can survive in a doorway or a tent, it is those I care about that I worry for.
I write this largely as an exercise in exorcism, it makes me feel better when I express it outwardly. I can do the same with a walk in the woods but I hope that this is somehow of more use beyond my own self.
I definitely do not seek sympathy, neither am I asking for any kind of help I simply find it helpful to be honest about who I am. I have not been a Saint (not that I believe in them) I bare my scars (such as they are) as a badge of honour.
Maybe I’ll get to see Fergal again someday..but he has given up The Drink so it’ll be Tea, I guess.