I find myself needing to read The View from the Valley of Hell (Pan Macmillan 2007) at short order, not that I am complaining. Currently working on ABC-TV’s Landline, Mark Willacy was the ABC’s Middle East correspondent from 2002 to 2006, based in Jerusalem.
His apartment sat perched over the Hinnon Valley, the Biblical Valley of Hell, a fact that seemed aptly symbolic given that his tour in the Middle East saw him observe first-hand some of the most dramatic and violent events of the 21st century – from the second Palestinian Intifada to the US invasion of Iraq and the vicious insurgency that followed.
His account of these four turbulent years is personal, informed and utterly riveting. From the horror of witnessing the results of suicide bombings first-hand, to clandestine interviews with some of the Middle East’s most-wanted terrorist leaders, to surreal cricket matches played behind concrete blast walls and fortifications in Baghdad, Mark captures the human dimension of the Middle East’s tragedies, revealing what it really means to live through events we only read as news stories…
Between July 2002 and July 2006, Mark reported from Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and the Persian Gulf (onboard HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Kanimbla).
In “Temporary Foreigners” Sian Powell, The Australian’s Jakarta correspondent from 2003 to 2006, writes:
To his anguish, Willacy was pulled out of Baghdad as the US forces advanced because ABC management thought it was just too dangerous. The stress of covering the war and its bloody aftermath was enormous and, with refreshing frankness, Willacy writes of how it affected his mental equilibrium and how he eventually sought professional medical help.
His book is … a straightforward correspondent’s narrative … and, although it races along, it too suffers from a lack of writing finesse. There is little analysis of the incredibly complicated layers of stresses in the Middle East and perhaps a little too much information on how hard it was for the ABC team to get the story, which sits strangely with the immense suffering of the ordinary Iraqis and Palestinians who provided the material on which the media fed.
Willacy and his cameraman spent more than three months in Iraq after coalition forces took control, watching the nation buckle as it was realigned according to the new order. Willacy documented Saddam Hussein’s barbarity, then, without fear or favour, zeroed in on the US’s use of cluster bombs, weapons that leave colourful little bomblets spread over large areas, bomblets that are particularly attractive to children.
Like many Middle East correspondents, Willacy was brave and resourceful, and he attempted to provide balanced coverage. Yet pro-Israel lobby groups disliked his reporting and accused him of favouring Palestinians. He tells of how senator Michael Ronaldson interrogated ABC managing director Mark Scott about Willacy’s perceived bias. It wasn’t only suicide bombers and random rifle bullets Willacy had to duck; it was a hail of fire from airconditioned meeting rooms in Sydney and Canberra. His book is likely to further inflame his critics and another deluge of hate mail will no doubt head his way.