"It’s not the wars that take me back to those places, it’s the people and their culture"

Lyse Doucet OBE

Lyse Doucet OBE

‘It’s not the wars that take me back to those places, it’s the people and their culture’

Lyse Marie Doucet OBE, the BBC’s Chief International Correspondent, will become an honorary Doctor of the University at summer graduation. Here she describes what it’s like to report from the frontline

Appropriately, Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s chief international correspondent, suggests we meet at The Frontline Club, a bar and restaurant in west London where journalists and war correspondents seek refuge and camaraderie.

As we walk through the door she is ambushed by colleagues congratulating her on her recent BBC Two series Syria, The World’s War, in which she revisited the history of the conflict.

She accepts their praise with modesty and we find a table next to a row of glass cabinets containing members’ memorabilia: a shattered mobile phone that saved a man’s life, battered typewriters and cameras, torn flags from Bosnia, a rifle spiking a piñata.

Next to the bar is a frame containing photographs of journalists who have died in conflicts, including the Sunday Times’ Marie Colvin, who was killed by shellfire while reporting on the uprising in the Syrian city of Homs in 2012.

“Marie was a good friend of mine,” says Lyse. “Whenever someone dies we all come here to mourn, to celebrate them.

“I don’t hang out here all the time,” she adds. “But I like to see people,” (she acknowledges a grizzled figure in the corner who turns out to be veteran Guardian war correspondent Ed Vulliamy) “…and they do very good chips in the restaurant.”

Beauty and brutality in Syria

For nearly three decades Lyse, with her unusual Canadian accent (often mistaken for Irish), has been the calm voice of the BBC reporting from the Middle East and beyond, where wars and civil unrest have been rife in recent decades.

“I don’t identify as a war correspondent,” she points out. “The places I go to are often places of war, but I have been going to them for a long time.”

Lyse, who received an OBE in 2014 for services to broadcasting, began her journalism career in the early 1980s after taking a Masters in international relations at the University of Toronto.

She had gone to West Africa to work at a rural school. Then, with an ambition to become a foreign correspondent, she started writing freelance articles. When the BBC wanted to set up a West Africa office, she says she was in the right place at the right time.

She went on to cover the war in Afghanistan, reported on the Arab Spring uprisings, has broadcast from Gaza and has frequently returned to Syria - a country whose internal conflict has shocked her to the core.

“When I went to Syria in the 90s, I was told that we don’t like revolution, we like evolution, we like going slowly. This was how they used to talk about change in Syria. The Syrians are so hospitable. There’s an exquisiteness, a sweetness, a delicacy about them. Yet the war in Syria was the most brutal of all, the most savage.”

Her role, she points out, is to not to take sides. But if there’s a side to be taken, it is on behalf of the civilians - the women and children - who become victims because the frontlines tear through their neighbourhoods. She relates a story about how one of her reports focused on the distress caused by a lack of bread reaching a community under siege.

“I always say that no matter how complex or consequential the story gets, and they don’t get more complex than Syria, reporting on it has to come down to something we know; daily bread.

Human side of war

“It’s important for people to understand that it’s not so simple, but sometimes you need to really drive home something they can remember so that they don’t turn off the TV or radio.

“The way wars are conducted in our time, the human side of it is not a side bar. When people become a weapon, social media becomes a weapon, children become a weapon, then you have to tell it from a human vantage point.”

While there is, she feels, a need to be reporting on the ground, no story has ever been worth dying for. It changed in Syria, where she says the new maxim among the journalists became that some stories were worth that risk

“In the first years of the war we would cross lines and secretly go from a Government-held area to an opposition area. But then, about three years in, we stopped doing it because of the risk of falling into the wrong group, of being handed over for huge sums of cash.”

So many of her friends and colleagues have died, or been taken prisoner, often because they took just one more step and then found themselves in the middle of a dangerous situation.

“It’s what happened to Marie. She went in, got out safely, and then went in a second time. She should not have gone in a second time, but she did.”

She adds: “The BBC has lines about what we can do. They will not allow us to go where there is a risk of being kidnapped by Islamic State.”

They also hold back if any member of the crew expresses doubts. “It’s a brave thing to say no when you know others will be going in.”

Women and peace

Lyse, now 59, has never felt that her gender has influenced how she does her job. “I know as many women who are interested in ballistics, and as many men who are interested in the human side of war. I think it’s hard to divide us on the nature of our gender. We should be seen in terms of our journalism.”

But she acknowledges the difference women can make in bringing about democracy and change.

Earlier this year she presented a Radio 4 series Her Story Made History, to mark the 100 th anniversary of women in Britain being give the vote, and realised that, while not all female leaders have successfully avoided conflict in their countries, having women involved in peace negotiations often means that agreements will stick.

“They will say this cannot be just about guns and bullets. This affects families, the release of prisoners, communities. They push that language.”

Although she denies that the attrocities she has witnessed have affected her psychologically (“it’s their story, not mine”), there are times when she wants to “get away from the doom and gloom”. She has covered upbeat stories about refugees being welcomed in her own country of Canada, and the 2016 peace agreement in Colombia.

And whenever the “forever wars” get too much for her, she tunes into BBC Radio 3 or takes herself to art galleries.

Culture, and her own faith (brought up a Roman Catholic, she once dallied with the idea of becoming a nun), means that she has an empathy with the damaged communities that are trying to cling on to their rituals and their heritage.

“It’s not the wars that takes me back to those places,” she says. “It is the people and their culture.”

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By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Friday, 20 July 2018