I was sitting in my apartment in Beirut on the evening of Oct. 13 when I read that journalists had been struck by a missile attack in southern Lebanon. My close friend, Issam Abdallah, was working in the area as a cameraman for Reuters to cover the border clashes between Israel and Hezbollah after the war in Gaza began just days earlier. I called him immediately. It was a ritual we had developed over the years: Whether we were on the front lines in Ukraine or Syria, each of us knew to expect a call from the other anytime a disaster struck.
Issam didn’t answer. I couldn’t remember the last time he let one of my calls go to voice mail. Within minutes, cellphone footage of the attack appeared online. In one video, a journalist for Agence France-Presse lies in a pool of blood, screaming that she can’t feel her legs. I listened over and over, desperately trying to find Issam’s voice in the chaos.
Then my doorbell rang. Two of my friends broke the news that Issam had been killed. They shared more footage of the grisly aftermath of the attack. A wave of nausea washed over me as I watched rescue workers wrap Issam and his severed leg in a white sheet, his body charred, barely recognizable.
The next day, I traveled to Khiam, his hometown in southern Lebanon, with hundreds of other mourners, to attend his funeral. Issam was buried in the shade of the ancient olive and pomegranate trees he loved. His family decorated his grave with flowers and his broken cameras and lenses that were destroyed in the strike.
The last time I had been there with Issam, we drank Arabic coffee on the rooftop and flipped over our cups when we were done, pretending to read each other’s fortunes in the residue. He joked that I would become the first female Arab dictator. I said that he’d be the first journalist I’d imprison. We shared our dreams: I wanted to learn jujitsu, read the classics and retire on the Mediterranean. He wanted to take more road trips on his motorbike, adopt more cats and make independent films.
As a journalist, I’m used to reporting the nightmares others live through. I’ve seen mass graves filled with women and children. I’ve walked through entire cities reduced to rubble. I’ve heard the screams of people who have lost everything and everyone they loved in an instant. I used to think that the enormity of the horrors I’ve seen others endure would allow me to bear my own with some perspective when it was my turn.
But it hasn’t. To live through a nightmare and to witness others living through theirs are two very different things. There are limits to the human capacity to feel others’ pain. [Continue reading…]