The Journalist as Eyewitness
If you want to write a great narrative, be an eyewitness.
Michael Dobbs of The Washington Post was on vacation in Sri Lanka on December 26, when the tsunami hit.
Disaster struck with no warning out of a faultlessly clear blue sky.
I was taking my morning swim around the island that my businessman-brother Geoffrey bought on a whim a decade ago and turned into a tropical paradise just 200 yards from one of the world's most beautiful beaches on the Sri Lankan mainland.
I was a quarter-way around the island when I heard my brother shouting at me, "Come back! Come back! There's something strange happening with the sea."
What was happening was a devastating wall of water, a tsunami, spawned by an earthquake measuring 9.0, more powerful than any on earth in 40 years.
Gemunu Amarasinghe also wrote out of Sri Lanka for the AP:
The twisted limbs of the frail girl in a blue dress were caught in a garden fence by the sea. She may have already been dead, but no one stopped to check -- there was too much tragedy going on all around, as the water kept coming.
Amarasinghe is an eyewitness:
I struggled through the water, joining the crowds running for higher ground, some carrying their dead and injured. Whitecapped floodwaters raced over the streets and between houses.
Bodies of children were entangled in wire mesh used to barricade seaside homes. Bodies were carried up to the road, covered with sarongs and laid out for relatives to find. Rows and rows of women and men stood on the road, asking if anyone has seen their loved ones.
I was still in a daze, and the enormity of the tragedy still hadn't dawned on me until I came upon the girl in the blue dress, caught in a fence.
It was only when the flood waters began to recede, that it was possible to check and make sure. The girl, who appeared about 4 to 6 years old, was dead.
So many important, even historic, events are reported after the fact, so many narratives are based on reconstructed scenes or second-hand accounts, that it is good to be reminded of the power of the first-person, eyewitness account.
On April 15, 1945, Edward R. Murrow gave this report from the liberated concentration camp at Buchenwald:
There were two rows of bodies stacked up like cordwood. They were thin and very white. Some of the bodies were terribly bruised, though there seemed to be little flesh to bruise. Some had been shot through the head, but they bled but little. All except two were naked. I tried to count them as best I could and arrived at the conclusion that all that was mortal of more than 500 men and boys lay there in two neat piles.
This report came before the advent of television, so Murrow went out of his way to put a stamp of truth on this unimaginable reality:
I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it I have no words.
One of the treasures on my bookshelf is an anthology titled "Eyewitness to History," closely observed reportage from the Plague in Athens in 430 B.C. to the Fall of Marcos in 1986. John Carey, editor of this collection, writes:
One advantage of insisting on eyewitness evidence is that it makes for authenticity. All knowledge of the past which is not just supposition derives ultimately from the people who can say "I was there," as the assortment of chance bystanders, travelers, warriors, murderers, victims, and professional reporters I assemble here can. Another advantage is stylistic. Eye-witness accounts have the feel of truth because they are quick, subjective, and incomplete, unlike "objective" or reconstituted history, which is laborious but dead.
In reading about the earthquake and tsunamis, I find it thrilling to immerse myself in accounts written by wire service reporters such as Amarasinghe. Unshackled from the demands of conventional reporting, these writers find a different more powerful voice hiding within them, an authority that can only come from being there.