Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 Sept. - 1 Oct. 2003
Issue No. 657
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Ibrahim El-Batout:

'Then you see a person who looks you in the eye'

In camera

Profile by Yasmine El-Rashidi
Ibrahim El-Batout
Photo: Ayman Ibrahim

As the United States launched its first military strikes against Iraq earlier this year television viewers around the world avidly consumed images of Baghdad, pictures of US troops storming a city the inhabitants of which were once again hostage to upheavals and the unknown.

The 19-day war was shorter than had been expected -- Baghdad fell on 9 April. Interest by viewers around the world initially soared -- everyone, so it seemed, was waiting and watching. But as the statue of Saddam toppled, so the steadfast daily interest waned. Like many wars in the last two decades the situation, albeit officially "over", began to drag on and the political chaos no longer made sense. In this case -- and it is hardly unique -- the turmoil will last for years to come. Most people move on, skimming the news headlines with an acquired detachment. For a few, however, the situation intensifies.

"You become attached, you become emotional, it becomes a part of you," says Ibrahim El-Batout. "After 16 years and 12 wars," he continues, "you can tell yourself that you're going in with a neutral attitude, but then you see a person who looks you in the eye -- and either says a few lines or doesn't -- right then and there you are sucked back into the situation, just like that," he says, snapping his fingers. "You are no longer neutral."

El-Batout pauses, shifts in his chair and turns his head away.

"That look," he says, "is the same look a starving woman in Somalia gave me as I stood before her with my camera. It was a look in her eyes that I cannot describe or understand. Was she asking for help? Was she peacefully leaving her body? Was she sad? Happy? Sending me a message? That look I saw in Iraq, and I saw in Afghanistan, Palestine, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo. That look is what war is all about."

El-Batout would likely know. A cameraman currently freelancing for German ZDF television he is one of three nominees for the Sony International Impact Award -- a category of the prestigious Rory Peck Awards created to "identify and honour freelance cameramen and women who capture pieces of iconic film that have, often in the face of great adversity, shown humanitarian images that change perceptions and inspire others to do something in response to the footage".

El-Batout was nominated for his documentary Mass Graves in Iraq. They were not the first he has seen.

"I've covered 12 wars in 16 years," he says. "Having reflected on my life through a movie script I wrote I got to know myself better and began to understand why I chose this path in life. It seemed completely alien to my upbringing," he says, mentioning his degrees in physics and electrical engineering, and his first passion for cycling.

"I was born in Port Said in 1963. In 1967 we became refugees. I remember my parents packing all our things and taking us to Cairo. The war was always an issue in my mind as a child because my father wouldn't let me take my new bike to Cairo. I was four-years-old and my bike was my world. The war took that away from me. That's how it touched me."

Years later he would lose another bike.

"I used to cycle for the national team," he says. "But with this lifestyle everything else is sidelined. The bike was the first thing that became an extension of my body. The camera was the second. When I'm filming my perspective on the world changes. I see things differently, I feel differently."

Abandoning his second bike was as abrupt as the first.

"When I graduated from university I was offered a job with DHL. The salary was $1000 -- a figure that knocked me out when I heard it," he says of his entry into the field. "Then Video Cairo offered me a job -- as a technician -- for LE250," he laughs. "Of course I took the better offer, but Video Cairo convinced me to try the job out for a week -- until the DHL post started."

Ibrahim El-Batout
That was that.

"It was an immediate love relationship," he smiles, snapping his fingers. "The minute I saw the camera, I knew. It was 1987."

The turning point came later. El-Batout spent hours after work fiddling with the equipment. "Teaching myself, learning from people. It took me a year to become a cameraman," he says.

"The turning point came one day in August," he recalls. "13 August 1988. Video Cairo got a phone call saying that there was a police raid in Ain Shams -- an area known to have lots of Muslim fundamentalists."

He was given a camera and sent to the scene.

"There were hundreds of people," he says. "Everywhere. People and police. It was chaos. When people saw the camera they started coming to me, showing me hand-grenades, shouting that they were made in the US and that the police were using them against them." The riots were the result of a police raid on Adam Mosque -- the site of an alleged meeting of extremists. It was amidst this national turmoil that El-Batout was sucked into the bubble of conflict.

"I felt the power of the camera on the people. They found a saviour, someone who could transmit their feelings to other people."

As the action intensified, so too did his presence.

"I was completely taken by being there. Suddenly the shouting escalated, and I turned, and saw a huge crowd coming towards me. They came this way," he says, stretching his arms out and moving them towards him. "And I went straight through them."

El-Batout is animated in his descriptions; his hands automatically angling themselves in the air as if to hold a camera. He zooms in -- the hand on the lens moving closer in my direction. And then it drops.

"I saw a police car in the crowd, coming straight towards me." He pauses. "And then I saw an officer raise his gun. I heard the shot, and then I felt my hand drop." The bullet went through his arm -- from one side to the other. The scar is about 15 centimetres long. "I took the camera in my other hand, and ran."

Searching for refuge, El-Batout was taken into a nearby home.

"People in the area are on the poverty line. Maybe even below that," he recalls. "But they saw me, took me up into their flat, took care of me. And as the couple made me lemonade, I overheard them worrying about not having sugar, and the man told his wife 'sssh, go up and borrow some.' From that moment a bond was made. They looked at me differently because of my camera. That moment determined my future."

A future that has had more than its fair share of wars.

"I started with the Iran-Iraq war," he begins. "But even though it took me to the front lines I didn't see much fighting. My first real encounter was in Lebanon. I travelled with Brent Sandler of ITN to Beirut -- we were staying in Jounieh in east Beirut. It was tough. The shelling, the destruction, the evacuation of people from hospitals. Bosnia was one of the most dangerous -- the second time I got shot was there. Coming out alive is always a miracle. In Afghanistan our car was shot at repeatedly. One of the bullets went through the top of the interpreter's hat."

"In Sri Lanka, we were with the army when they were attacking the Jafna Peninsula. Then we were with the Tamil tigers. Every war is different. In a war like that, you just hear." El- Batout mimics the sound of machine guns. "You don't see anything because the vegetation is so dense."

Having left Video Cairo by that time [1991] and moved to Cyprus to partner with freelance reporter Tony Burtley, work assumed a different level of rigour.

"You fly in alone, you take care of all your arrangements, you don't have the financial backing, and you have to be ahead of everyone else," he says of being a full-time freelancer. "In Sri Lanka we sold our work to Channel 4, in Somalia to ABC, in Afghanistan to ABC and ITN."

As one war led to another, El-Batout and Burtley found themselves in demand.

"We happen to have been in the right places at the right time," he says of the success, and demand, for their work. "And of course," he adds, with a smile, "they [news agencies] prefer to use freelancers because if they get killed it's less of a problem."

In Bosnia it was the reality of death that informed every moment of Batout's.

"It was one of the most surreal, bizarre, ferocious wars," he recalls. "For the first time the line between good and evil was clear cut. It was so clear who was the victim and who was the victimiser, and the whole world was just sitting watching."

El-Batout is pensive. He sits on a red velvet director's chair in the study of a friend's apartment -- his choice for the interview.

"It was there," he continues of Bosnia, "that we really dove into the misery of war. Waking up to our hotel being shelled, a person being shot beside you, interview after interview with women who had been raped, repeatedly, in front of their children, scenes of parents putting their kids on buses to Sarajevo. Saying goodbye and not knowing when or if they would ever see them again."

The mood in the room changes. El-Batout turns his head and gazes towards the windows.

"Tony wanted to return home. I decided I wanted to stay. Emotionally and professionally I had become attached. It was a huge decision. I bought a camera and became a freelancer, in the rawest sense of the word."

Things with ZDF quickly took off and work from the channel kept him constantly busy.

"I started to get very tired at one point," he says, again turning away. "Parallel to my professional life was my private life. I married in 1989, and had a son in 1990. At the time my wife was very supportive of what I was doing, but I sort of grew madder from one war to the next. You get traumatised, and it piles up. At the beginning you're young and driven and pushy, and this lifestyle, well, nothing compares to it. But it changes you. I used to come back from the war, and I would try to socialise, but you sit with people and you listen to them complain -- about their boss, their car, a relationship. But you can't look at it from their angle anymore. You're looking at it from an angle of relativity. There are people starving in Somalia, there are mothers in Bosnia who will never see their children again. There are people with looks in their eyes that we will never understand because we will never feel what they are feeling and experience what they are going through."

Another lengthy pause while El-Batout takes a breath and then picks up again.

"It's easy to film what you see," he says, moving his hand in front of him to indicate a boundary -- the surface level. "I can film you writing," he continues. "Anyone can. But how many people can really capture your soul? To do that the person in front of you has to feel who you are. You have to form that bond with them."

The price of that union is high: "Each character I've filmed is inside me. You carry their trauma with you because you can never let go of what you've seen. But you have to do it, because you can never tell a story unless you get close and focus on the people."

It was this perspective that kept him there when other journalists and cameramen were leaving.

"In 1992 I came back to my wife and told her I was going to Bosnia and that I would stay there for as long as it took. I left my family," he reflects. "I was shot in 1993, and because I was a freelancer I had to work hard to recover, to gain strength, start working again to send money back to my family. It was an intense process, and it took time. After three years I came back to see my wife and son."

"My wife and son met me at the airport. I gave her my crutches. She had lost a foot to diabetes. Her one request was that I come back once a year to see them," he says, contemplatively.

There is silence.

"By 1997 she had lost both legs from beneath the knee," he says, his voice barely louder than a whisper. "I have seen death and smelt it in all its forms. Decayed bodies, rotting bodies, decomposed bodies, the smell of fresh death. And I have heard it in voices and bombs and shellings."

"But I have never," he slows down, "seen and felt someone suffer like my wife. She fought as hard as she could, and was patient and caring until the very last day. I was with her until the last moment.

"It was a very dark moment. It was as if what I saw in my professional life I had to live it in my private life too -- again having to be strong and stand up and keep going."

"People who go through such experiences somehow recognise each other when they meet," he reflects. "So I have always had acceptance. There's a certain kind of human interaction that doesn't need words. It's the unspoken language of experience."

"Haunting images, sensitively portrayed. The cameraman didn't intrude, he was a spectator," wrote one person of Batout's nominated documentary. "The way he filmed with kindness came through," wrote another.

"It's easy to say that I will be neutral," he says. "But you see a person who looks you in the eye and says a few lines, and that's it; you're emotionally involved again. And it's the same person you saw in Rwanda and Zaire and Palestine. It takes its toll. I have become a person whose place in society..." He pauses to consider.

"I don't fit. I live, it's true, but I have tried to mix in day-to- day life, meet people, I've tried to understand situations and accept that we all have different paths of learning and everything is relative, but until now I feel like an outsider. People don't really know what's going on inside. What I'm telling you now is 'backstage'."

His solace, he says, is art, and now -- back in Cairo -- it is time to deal with the trauma.

"I feel like my life is a washing machine," he laughs. "Sometimes it's on the dry cycle, sometimes the wet." He laughs some more.

"I would love to figure out how to stop it spinning."

"War has taught me and opened my eyes in a different way. It's made me realise that the key to life on earth is to know yourself, to trust yourself, to tune in to what's happening on the inside. We often decide to travel in life. We think we need to travel far, but the trip almost always takes us in circles, and it takes us back to where we started. And we may think we've wasted time to get to where we had already been, but if we think deeply, we realise it's the only way to learn our lesson."

His circle started in Iraq 15 years ago. And now, at last, it appears to be ending.

"I feel like I'm completing the cycle," he says. "Intellectually I cannot to this day grasp the war [Iraq 2003]. It was like a hurricane that hits you. The mechanics of why, and how, and the political elements of it, I cannot grasp until this day. It hasn't settled in my mind. Maybe," he ponders, "I will understand it one day."

What he understands of it, of course, is its impact on lives.

"It was 4 April -- in the Iraqi town of Safwan, which from the US viewpoint was liberated, from ours, occupied. Food was being distributed, and I approached a guy and asked him how he felt. He looked at me and said 'you know, we've been living in fear for 35 years, and even if we see with our own eyes Saddam killed, we'll always fear him in our heart.' Their fear was so clear, so real. They will live with that fear for the rest of their lives. It was April. That's when I got sucked in."

His documentary on mass graves was the culmination of many months amongst the people. "The Germans had taken the same position as France on the war; they weren't happy with the US invasion in the country. They had always been anti-war and anti-US, but they decided it was time to show the reality of what happened under the regime."

During those last few weeks, El-Batout watched Reuters cameraman Mazen get gunned down by a US convoy.

"It was his last day of work," El-Batout says. "He saw the convoy approaching, and got out his camera to shoot," he recalls of the scene. "And then we heard the shots," he says breathing deeply. "They didn't know it was a camera he was bringing out. They really didn't know."

The quiet in the room resettles itself.

"He was going home," he murmurs. "I guess my lesson through it all is to trust fully and unconditionally in myself and the will of God. And if at moments there are things I cannot understand, I've come deep inside me to believe that the time will come when I will. But you know," he continues, "when you've been where I've been, you begin to appreciate the fact that you're sitting with someone and chatting. I'm with you now by the grace of God. I should have been dead long before."

As he awaits what he expects will be his last visit to Iraq, El-Batout contemplates the last 16 years of his life.

"The circle is closing," he says, his more upbeat tone manifesting in a smile, the lighting of a cigarette, the forward momentum of his body. "Maybe now my life will stop spinning?"

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