Daniela Deane writes about breaking foreign news for The Washington Post.
My husband, Mick, was an easy target for an Egyptian military sniper, who could have been on some rooftop a mile away. He was big and blonde in a sea of protesters, hauling a bulky television camera. I think the security forces just got tired of seeing him there. So they decided to kill him.
Not that I’ll ever know for sure. They’ve never admitted it, of course, and the coroner’s investigation of Mick’s death on the morning of Aug. 14, 2013, in Cairo has yielded nothing. A year later, I’ve given up thinking it ever will.
Mick, a British journalist with Sky News and previously with ITV News and CNN, had been in the vicinity of Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Mosque for about an hour and a half that sweltering morning. He was filming the Egyptian security forces flattening the protesters’ camp there.
The protesters, loyal to ousted president Mohamed Morsi, had been there for weeks — and suddenly hundreds of them were killed in a matter of hours. Mick, 61, was filming a group of women gathered near the mosque, one final image before his team planned on leaving the area, when he was shot dead.
He was doing his job. Just like three journalists from the Al Jazeera network, including an Australian reporter, who are now serving long prison sentences in Cairo. And the three Egyptian journalists who were killed that same day, including a 26-year-old woman.
Mick had witnessed lots of bad things in his 33-year career in television news. He would probably point out that anywhere from 638 to 2,600 people — depending on whether you believe the death toll reported by the Health Ministry or by pro-Morsi protesters — died that day alongside him in Cairo. It didn’t happen just to us, I can hear him telling me.
It just feels that way.
All I know is that the bottom fell out of my life when Sky News phoned to tell me that Mick, its Middle East cameraman and my partner of 35 years, had been killed. The pain was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Life’s all personal, isn’t it?
For a few months after it happened, I needed to find the universality in my suffering, scanning people’s faces in crowds wherever I went, seeing and imagining past or present grief, suddenly realizing that so many people in this world have suffered so acutely. And that events like what happened to me — sudden, inexplicable, horrific losses — happen every day, whether it’s a plane getting shot out of the sky or a car crashing down the street.
Mick was planning to retire this past year — the year that he’s been gone. He had had enough, more than three decades of being a news cameraman in an increasingly tortured world. He was scared of this new Middle East that has emerged, too, after what is still absurdly called the Arab Spring.
The day after we landed in Jerusalem to take up Mick’s posting in October 2011, he traveled to northern Israel for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a big prisoner swap with the Palestinians. The day after Mick got back, he was sent to Libya, his third trip there, because former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi had been found and killed. He went to Egypt more than half a dozen times over the next year, covering the often-violent demonstrations. A few months before his death, he was nearly killed in Gaza during Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, when a building where the Sky News team was camping out was hit by Israeli shelling, just one floor above where he and his colleagues were sleeping.
So our pillow talk would veer toward news. He would say that everywhere he looked — Libya, Syria, Gaza, Iraq, Egypt — the situation seemed dire and was only getting worse. He said the Middle East had grown more violent, desperate and extreme since he first covered it in the 1980s. That it was time for us to get out. That we were so lucky we were near the end of our careers as journalists, not at the beginning.
Today, another Israel-Gaza conflict is grinding on, with hate and death on both sides. The situation in Libya has deteriorated badly. The brutal Islamic State fighters who have taken over large swaths of northern Iraq make the Iraq war look like so much waste. And the Syrian civil war just drags on and on, creating more misery.
I’m so glad Mick has missed this Gaza story, although I desperately wish it was because he had retired. Although an imposing and aggressive cameraman, Mick was just a marshmallow at heart. Once, after interviewing the grieving father of a U.S. Army lieutenant killed in Iraq, this father of two then-teenage sons put down his camera and wept. Gaza would not have been good for him.
It’s easy to become inured to the numbers of people being killed in such conflicts. They wash over us — 110 one day, 1,750 one month, 10 at one school. We’re getting used to it. Or maybe we can barely take it in anymore.
But all these conflicts go straight down to the personal, the only place they can go, to the individual lives shattered by death. Just where the morning of Aug. 14, 2013, in Cairo goes for me. I may never know for sure what happened that day, but I’ve learned much about grief in the past year. That sometimes it comes with a blinding rage toward whomever or whatever you feel robbed you of that person.
We have to remember, then, that behind every number, on the back of every death, is a devastating loss for those left behind. And a very personal experience of grief.