Lines of fire

How being the son of survivors shaped NBC's Martin Fletcher's life.

By LAUREN GELFOND FELDINGER
January 21, 2010 10:59
NBC's Martin Fletcher

martin fletcher nbc 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Martin Fletcher is the only aspiring novelist in Tel Aviv who pulls up in an armored jeep from Iraq. The veteran newsman, who three decades ago worked his way up to NBC bureau chief in Tel Aviv, has reported on major news stories since 1973, from Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Cyprus and Lebanon, to Rhodesia, Zaire, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Somalia and Rwanda.

As witness to famine, apartheid, revolution, terrorism and genocide, he chronicled his war reporting in Breaking News, an autobiographical account published in 2008 and released in paperback in November.

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But a few weeks ago, Fletcher closed that chapter of his life. Having resigned from the network, he has decided to chase instead a different kind of scoop.

The time has come to explore the mystery from his own personal history, one he has managed to evade for most of his 62 years, he explains, sipping coffee at an outdoor cafe.

Images of bouncing flames and their shadows remain etched into Fletcher's memory, even more than most of the ravaging acts of war he saw on the front lines, it seems. When he was growing up in his London home, memorial candles perpetually flickered.

Nobody explained the candles. But between the silences that embraced his family, there were a few simple facts. On both sides, his grandparents and the vast majority of aunts, uncles and cousins were killed in Nazi concentration camps.

Fletcher's mother and father and three others were the only survivors of dozens, maybe hundreds, of family members in and near Vienna from both sides. Finding safe haven eventually in England, the couple clung to other refugees and survivors from Eastern Europe, changed their surname to be more generic, and named and raised their children to fit in.

But as much as Fletcher would grow up as a lively, laughing English boy, there was always something else, unidentified and haunting, inside of him.

After university and breaking into the news business, Fletcher left no time to evaluate the ghosts. He chased the action and rose quickly to the top of his field. Between harrowing news events, he partied wildly and embraced every adventure.

Years later, sent back to Israel as NBC bureau chief, and after marrying and having three sons, Fletcher's reactions to his stories started to change. "I started to develop emotional responses," he says. In particular he seemed to react fiercely to stories about families.

Fletcher walks with confidence, laughs easily and often and quips constantly. But trauma, he realizes now, is also the inheritance of Holocaust refugees and their children, he says. In his first novel, which he started working on this week, he is now ready to confront this legacy.

Why did you become a war correspondent?

I came in the beginning for adventure, adrenaline and to see the world. But there comes a point when you get the wake-up call - the near miss. You wonder, "Why wasn't I killed?" and I know I may die tomorrow, though I never expected I'd get hurt. At a point, every war correspondent says, "What am I doing here?" But journalists only joke about it and never answer.

Only when I [wrote] my book did I realize that it's time for me to answer this question. I think I thought that I was doing something good - focusing the world on people's lives. The Internet now helps even more; people write in and ask how they can help. I have only ever wanted to interview people who can be helped.

What was your favorite story?

The little girl [aged five] that we followed around Kosovo. She lost her family and was running around in a refugee camp. A British sergeant started looking for her family, putting up wanted posters around the Balkans. It took two months, but they [were] reunited.

What story do you most often recall?

Rwanda, because we - the media, government, everyone knowing what was going on - failed so badly to make a difference there.

What moment do you most remember?

In Cyprus when my sound man Ted Stoddart in front of me was killed when he stepped on a land mine.

Have many friends and acquaintances lost their lives covering wars?

Good friends, half a dozen. More. Acquaintances, a couple of dozen.

How many deaths have you witnessed?

At the moment of death, a few. But hundreds of people immediately afterward and massively mutilated.

What are the scariest moments?

It is much more frightening one-on-one with violent people than bombs falling, because bombs fall very quickly. It's happened to me numerous times; Russians kept me in the snow barefoot for three to four hours, being taken by a 14-year-old high on drugs. It is much scarier when there is a gun in your face and when there is more time to [think].

What have you learned about war?

Every situation is different, but all wars are senseless and achieve nothing. I think of wars in terms of people.

Are you stepping down because you are soul tired?

No, I love what I'm doing and will continue to some extent, but I do feel my luck has run out.

How does anyone stay sane in the face of so much trauma?

I'm not sure people stay sane. There is a saying that "If you survive the Holocaust and are normal, then you must be crazy."

Today there is more attention focused on post-traumatic stress syndrome, but there is a constant invalidation for journalists to [have PTSS] because, after all, what happened has not directly happened to them and because they have a choice not to go.

There are aspects of my character that come from this, violent daydreams where I tear apart limb by limb someone who makes me very angry and then I wake up. It wasn't like that before.

In the situations when you are able to, you have affect. I see terrible things and feel lousy, and then I go home and forget about it. It's like doctor who deals with patients who are dying; you have to get on with another day. I have pushed it aside.

Do you think that growing up against the backdrop of the Holocaust made you stronger because all the stories about your family were painful, so tragedy and trauma seemed like the norm?

Possibly. That wasn't "normal," but that makes sense. It's logical, but I don't know. I'd need confirmation of another two sources on that. (He laughs.)

But the Holocaust did make me more sensitive to the suffering of others. I couldn't help [people suffering then], so now I can. It was in Kosovo and Rwanda that I made a relationship between the Holocaust and what I was seeing. I'm trying to understand that.

Did you hide being Jewish in your reporting?

I'm proud to say I'm Jewish. With Palestinians - Hamas, al-Aksa Martyr Brigades - I always made a point to say I was Jewish. Sometimes they are hostile and suspicious, but nobody ever reacted. I only once lied. In Libya, America had just shot down two Libyan planes. We chartered a plane from France and landed in Tripoli with no visas. Soldiers took us to a dark shed and handed us a form. When it asked religion, I wrote, "Church of England."

Did you have a connection to Judaism and Israel growing up?

We had no connection to Israel. It never occurred to me in a million years I'd end up here. We had a connection to Judaism in a minor way. You know, like two weeks a year. My parents took the attitude - I don't know if they were serious - that it was better not to marry a Jew. It was, I think, a matter of fitting into society. I'm the only one of my Jewish friends who married a Jew. My mother could never use the word "Jew" without lowering her voice. But we very much had a connection to being Jews and suffering from the Holocaust.

How does this shadow of the Holocaust influence your life?

When I was younger, I couldn't watch Holocaust films. There is a burden of it, the burden of knowing. Someone once wrote that "people say, 'Pity I don't have a better memory,'" but with the Holocaust, remembering becomes incomprehensible. My father lit a memorial candle every few days, without ever explaining - we lost so many people in the family.

My parents were refugees but their family members were in the camps. They were in Majdanek and, I don't know. I blocked the names of the camps. My grandparents' names, too. I block it all out. I can't remember my grandparents names, so obviously there is some psychological thing going on.

My response to the Holocaust is a practical one. I can't tolerate bullies. Now I also have more of an anger and awareness of anti-Semitism.

How does this background affect your reporting?

People say to me, "You have been here so long," and my wife is Israeli, my kids are Israeli and I'm Jewish. But people didn't know in my reporting that I was Jewish. They tell me that all the time.

I see all the sides and feel sympathy and empathy for Israel and also see that they are also the bully, not completely, but in many senses.

It helped me to be a better journalist and person to sympathize with the underdog and be angry at bullies on one hand, and to be sympathetic with Jews but still be able to see objectively what they're doing.

You have been able to cover Israelis and Palestinians very intensively. Yet years ago your team gave cameras to Palestinians because it was hard to have full access to Palestinian areas. Is this still true?

Today the first breaking news is always from cellphones, nobody needs cameras anymore.

Israel never really worked out how to stop the press. They stopped [press] going to Gaza and they stop Israelis from going to the West Bank, so now all the world sees is the Palestinian version of events, so it's a stupid policy. Whenever you close a community to the media, all you are doing is letting the other side get their side out.

Are there ethical conflicts reporting from the East, where it is considered disrespectful to turn down tokens of hospitality, like food or drink?

King Hussein in Jordan used to give Breitling watches to journalists, Saddam Hussein used to give gifts and a lot of senior journalists accepted carpets from the shah of Iran worth $20,000. People break the rules all the time. There's a sense of entitlement on the part of war journalists who risk their lives. I don't accept gifts. But if someone offers me a drink, I will drink. But I have not read the rule book because the kinds of situations I get into, there are no rules.

You wrote your first book about covering wars and your second will be published later this year describing the places you saw and the Israelis of all religions and backgrounds you met as you walked the coast from Rosh Hanikra to Gaza. Why have you decided to turn from nonfiction to fiction with your next book?

I am writing a novel about Jewish refugees in London in 1945 after the war. It is about what it is like to slowly discover the fate of your family. Can you imagine life in London for Jews in 1938-39? They heard rumors, and finally the war is over and bad news is trickling in. I take a young couple in the last three months of pregnancy, the first of their crowd having a baby, while finding out who is dead in their family. The confrontation of those feelings must have been horrific; I want to deal with these issues.

The books are bringing me closer to my roots more than worrying about what I saw in Rwanda, but they go together. One made me more sensitive to the other.

Certainly the research I'm doing makes me curse that lack of questions to my parents. I never asked and they never talked about it.

My mother had a bad experience when she left her mother at the station in Vienna at 19 and never saw her again. At age 80 I asked her what that was like. She said, "That is not a question you can ask me." She still couldn't talk about it.

You seem to block a lot of memories, too. Are you like your parents in this way?

Yes. I can't talk about those sort of things either.

What sorts of things can't you talk about?

(Pauses. Tears up. Silence. Wipes away tears.) I can't talk about those sorts of things either.

This is where the camera zooms in. (Laughs)

I know that when I write a book, I'll get interviewed about it and don't know what I'll do. The pain is passed on. There's a lack of validity for that kind of suffering we have. But what do I have to feel about it? I'm an incredibly lucky person, but I'm sure the guilt of survival is something. My parents felt the same way - this link to post traumatic stress - what right do survivors have to feel bad? The novel is about that issue.

Have you ever cried on camera?

The only thing that gets to me like that is when I talk about my family. But I have had a couple of moments. Once in Italy during the earthquake we were looking for a family on behalf of their family in California. We actually found them; it was like finding a needle in a haystack. When I was on camera, I said, "You have regards from your family," and my voice caught.

Every war correspondent that you know has been divorced. What is the secret to your marriage succeeding?

It was very important to me to keep the family together. I was away a lot, but never got into smoking, drinking, drugs or those things and in a lot of failed marriages, that is the norm. I am sure that [the other couples] all loved each other. It's not easy. My wife's certainly been very independent. There's no tension about why aren't you here. I never got complaining phone calls. We're just lucky to have a great marriage.

You turned down a stint in Iraq because of your family. Do you have any regrets about what you have done or not done?

My wife read my book and freaked out. It was the only time she asked me not to do a story. She is not naive, but there are some things you don't face. I told her in general terms about the wars, but if I was in a bad situation I never talked about it.

The other time I turned down a story was when I was asked to be embedded with American troops in '91. I didn't want to become part of the publicity machine. However it later became dangerous to drive around without the army.

But I have no regrets, not really. Maybe I would have liked to have spent more time in Vietnam. In Cyprus I wish I hadn't turned right on that road [where the land mines killed and wounded crew members]. There are stresses you're under to decide instantly life-and-death decisions. I made lots of mistakes and there are lots of things that I would not have done, but at the same time I thought those things through and did what I thought was the right thing at the time.

Is there a conflict in telling other people's stories between humanist ethics and journalistic ethics?

There is a huge conflict, but every situation is unique. The concept is not to change history, but life is not a time machine where you can turn things around. If I see someone who is cold, I'll give them a blanket. I've given food hundreds of times. If someone in a crowd is getting beaten, I'll try to help that person. I'm a bit of a coward and no hero. I don't want to get beat up myself, but if I can help, I will. I have been in many situations where people have no water and when we give our water away, then we don't have water. So what's the right response?

In other situations there are less noble answers. When I was in Somalia, Tom Brokaw asked me to do a story on what is it like to die from starvation. People thought we'd find an aid worker and psychologists, but I said no, we're going to find a person who is dying. [This little girl] was being helped by aid workers and the nun there said she was going to die. We filmed her with a camera on her face for four hours until she died. This was a dilemma, but I knew it would have a huge impact on this issue - and it did.

What gives you hope?

The way people deal with tragedy. It is the same everywhere. They rebuild their lives and carry on. That's the lesson.


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