BethMellor’s Weblog

Postgraduate journalism, news and views.

The Foreign Correspondent: Paul Iredale

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Hitchcock's thriller

Hitchcock's thriller

Paul Iredale describes the day he was shot and injured by communist guerrillas as one of the luckiest days of his life.

The former Reuters chief had just arrived in El Salvador to cover the tail end of the Central American wars. Guerrilla troops had launched a last-ditch offensive to overthrow the Government and, in November 1989, they were fighting for control of the capital, San Salvador.

He was on his way to open the Reuters office when they opened fire on his car. “One of the bullets came through the side of the car and splayed into the metal part of the seat I was sitting on, so I got lots of metal in my side. Apart from that, none of the bullets hit me. My hat was on the seat next to me and a bullet went right through it. I was very, very lucky that day.

“But I had a white shirt on and, when I looked down at my side, it was starting to go red. I knew I had to get out of that car.”

Lying next to the car, Iredale noticed that one of the fuel lines had been hit, and that petrol was leaking onto the ground next to the car, so he rolled into a ditch by the side of the road and crawled back down the hill.

At over 6ft tall, with a shock of white hair and an unruly beard, it is hard now to imagine Iredale being able to sneak away unnoticed.

Yet with 35 years of experience as a foreign correspondent, including stints in South Africa during apartheid, South America, India and Yugoslavia during the Yugoslav Wars, Iredale, now 58, has had an action-packed career. Just four weeks after his car came under fire in San Salvador, he – along with four other journalists and six businessmen – was taken hostage during the United States invasion of Panama.

“When the invasion started I was in my hotel room. I came out to find a guy wearing a balaclava and holding an AK-47. We were shoved into a truck and driven away from the hotel and out of town. They said to us that they [the Americans] are killing our people, so we are going to kill you – and I didn’t have any reason to doubt them.”

But Iredale had a fortunate escape that time as well.

 “After about 4 hours the guy holding us got a telephone call. Then, for some reason, they bundled us back into the truck they had taken us in and dumped us on a road.”

Iredale admits that he was terrified at the time. But he laughs heartily now as he recounts these brushes with death. Travel and adventure, he says, are what he has thrived on ever since was young – ever since he and his mother moved to Malaya to join his step-father, who was working there as a rubber-planter.

Yet he is more modest when it comes to talking about his journalistic achievements, which include interviewing Mother Theresa and Desmond Tutu.

Inevitably, Iredale has seen some disturbing scenes, such as injured and dying children, in the conflict zones where he has worked. But to be a reporter covering conflicts, he says, you have to be able to just get on with the job.

And his down-to-earth attitude means that he doesn’t give post-traumatic stress disorder much pause for thought either. “I’m prepared to accept that some people suffer from it, but there was a time when people went overboard with it and thought that everybody who covered conflicts was going to have it,” he says.

“I probably drink more than is good for me and I used to smoke like a chimney. But I could have been doing that whether I was working in a particularly stressful job or not,” he says.

Perhaps one of the things that helped Iredale to cope with the emotional strain of his job is that his wife and three young children travelled with him to most of the countries he worked in.

He admits, however, that this put a strain on his family at times and, when his children got older, his wife told him that they simply couldn’t continue moving around so much.

thompson_reuters_logo3Iredale is now based in Britain and teaches safety courses to journalists as part of the Reuters Foundation. “Over a hundred journalists are killed every year, and during my time I’ve lost a number of friends and colleagues,” he says.  In fact, the day before he was shot in San Salvador, Iredale was at the wake of David Blundy, a friend who had been killed by snipers.

 

But the former correspondent clearly misses being in the thick of the action, dodging bullets and hopping from country to country. As a memento, he has kept the hat he was wearing that day, twenty years ago, in San Salvador. “I actually claimed for it on expenses and got $70 from Reuters for it – it was quite a nice hat so I was pretty annoyed when a bullet went through it,” he says, chuckling.

Written by bethmellor

February 25, 2009 at 6:36 pm

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