Yehia Ghanem

The Trials of a Caged Man

Tag: Bosnia

An Election Observer who Had Never Voted

‘When I was told to oversee the first post-war elections in Bosnia, it made me hunger even more for democracy in Egypt.’

Egyptian war correspondent Yehia Ghanem continues his series of short stories on the wars he has covered and the people he has met along the way. Here he recalls the time he was assigned to be an election observer – despite never having voted in an election himself. Read the rest of the series, Caged, here.

Over the years, I lost touch with Mordechai, the bold young Israeli boy I’d met in Haifa in 1994, but I stayed in touch with Mohamed, the 12-year-old Egyptian who had visited me, along with his friends, at the downtown Cairo office of Al-Ahram newspaper in 1993.

In 1999, I was assigned to be a roving war correspondent in Sub-Saharan Africa. I established my base in Johannesburg, South Africa, and from there traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where I reported from the front lines of the long and ruthless war raging there and in neighboring Rwanda

When away from Egypt, I barely communicated with Mohamed, but I would contact him whenever I returned to Cairo on vacation. I watched him grow from childhood to adulthood, all too quickly. He maintained his interest in war reporting, discussing with me my efforts to unmask the ugly face of war, or, as he liked to put it, “the ultimate manifestation of human disrespect of one another”.

For ever young

When I finally returned to Cairo on a more permanent basis to take up an editorial post at the newspaper, he wasn’t pleased. “Yes, I’m very happy to be able to see you more often,” he said, “but the world still needs you out there to report on the agonies of those being consumed by evil men’s lust for war”.

I smiled and told him: “Mohamed, when we first met I was in my 20s, almost the same age as you are now. I’m getting too old for this violent job and I should now leave it to my younger colleagues.”

I remember him moving his handsome head slowly from side to side to indicate that he wasn’t convinced.

“Do you think I am for ever young?” I once asked him. “Look at yourself in the mirror and remember how young you were when we first met.”

Sometimes I wondered whether one of the many things that endeared me to Mohamed was the fact that he somehow always made me feel young.

It was with his encouragement that I took short but dangerous assignments every now and again, particularly to my beloved Afghanistan between 2006 and 2010.

During those years Mohamed finished his university studies, graduated with a degree in civil engineering and accepted a position as an engineer at a private construction company. I felt as proud of him as I did of my own son. And I longed for an Egyptian leader with his qualities – his sense of patriotism, integrity and sincerity.

A birthday in Kabul

On November 9, 2010, I celebrated my birthday in Kabul, Afghanistan. I was there on a three-week assignment, but it felt like three years. I was reporting on what seemed to be a bleak future for Afghanistan, but my mind was preoccupied with thoughts of the dangerous and uncertain future that seemed to be awaiting my own country.

During my stay, I interviewed Afghanistan’s leaders about the state of their country under a foreign military occupation. But each night, when I returned to my hotel room to transcribe my interviews, I wondered how I could ask all these questions of others when my own country languished in similar circumstances. Even my own voice sounded foreign to me as I heard it back, discussing the impact of corruption in Afghanistan. All the while, I thought about what was happening back in Egypt.

In the days after I returned from Afghanistan, I busied myself writing articles about my own country. Egypt’s parliamentary elections were only weeks away – not that I would vote in them; I never had. Like millions of other Egyptians, I refrained from voting, refusing to participate in such a farce.

I recalled an event that had taken place years earlier, in the months after the Bosnian war had ended in 1996. I was informed by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe had recruited me to serve as an international observer for the first post-war elections in Bosnia.

Although I understood why they had done so – I was familiar with the geopolitical map of the country and they wanted to ensure that there were some Muslims on the team – I was petrified at the prospect. How could I oversee something I had never participated in?

I tried my best to make myself unavailable for the mission, but it was in vain. Egypt’s assistant foreign minister was relentless in stressing the importance of my being there.

I finally had to tell him the truth: that I knew nothing of the culture of free elections.

The man recognised my dilemma. I suspected that he shared it as he had most probably never voted either. We both felt trapped in a cage of ignorance, unfamiliar with this core component of the democratic process.

“We want you [Egypt] to be part of this event, and since you are supposed to be there weeks prior to the elections it’s best that you attend, simply listen and watch,” he told me. “By doing so, you will learn about the process of free elections, and then be more able to observe them.”

I agreed. For a month I observed the pre-election campaigns and the voting process. It was an experience that made me long even more for a democratic culture in my own country.

Chronicle of a Caged Journalist is a series of excerpts from a forthcoming book.


llustration by Jawahir Hassan Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera

From Mohamed to Mordechai: Waiting for a New Generation

The story of two boys – an Egyptian and an Israeli – united in their convictions but separated by circumstances.

Egyptian war correspondent Yehia Ghanem continues his series of stories on the wars he has covered and the people he has met along the way. Here he compares the lives of two children, Egyptian Mohamed and Israeli Mordachai. Read the rest of the series, Caged, here

Israel – September 1994

A year after I first encountered Mohamed, the 12-year-old Egyptian boy  who appealed to me to take him to war-torn Bosnia so that he might “help free our brothers”, I met another child who was growing up in vastly different circumstances but whose bravery and sense of conviction so greatly resembled Mohamed’s.

I had been sent to Israel on assignment at a time when the mood was particularly tense. The then prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was contemplating holding a referendum on negotiations with Syria over the occupied Golan Heights. But not everyone was in favour.

One evening, after a long day at work, I was waiting on Hanasse Avenue in Haifa for some friends who were Palestinian citizens of Israel. We were going to attend a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in which a 20th-century Romeo would be an Arab and Juliet a Jew.

The sentiment of the show stood in stark contrast to the mood on the street, where protesters were demonstrating against negotiations with Syria.

Noticing that I was Egyptian, some members of Gush Emunim, a right-wing extremist group committed to the establishment of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights, began harassing me.

But no sooner had I brushed that aside than I felt a small hand tugging at the sleeve of my shirt. It belonged to an Israeli boy.

He was holding a sign that read “Peace Now”, the name of a moderate movement established during the 1978 Israeli-Egyptian peace talks. He urged me not to be upset by what he described as the “crazy” behaviour of the extremists.

His name was Mordechai, and he, too, was 12 years old.

He shared Mohamed’s striking facial features and so much more. As he spoke animatedly, memories of Mohamed kept returning to me – a child so full of promise who stood so little chance of seeing it fulfilled under a dictatorship that had stifled any possibility of a vibrant and politically engaged society.

“The Golan Heights, as well as all other territories occupied during the 1967 war, should be given back to Arab countries,” Mordechai told me. “The only thing to be feared should be the intentions of those Arab countries after their territories are returned; are they going to continue warring with us?” he asked.

He stood there bravely voicing his opinions just as Mohamed had his desire to help the besieged and massacred Bosnians. But while Mohamed had to be fearful of the security forces in the dictatorship in which he was born and raised, Mordechai, whose parents were demonstrating for peace on the same street, did not have to fear the extremists or the police who surrounded him.

He was free to voice his opinions and to act on his beliefs.

I felt as proud of Mordechai as I had been of Mohamed. But I felt great sorrow that, despite all their similarities, Mohamed would likely never feel us uninhibited as Mordechai.

I realised then that the greatest crime committed against us by our dictatorships has been to instill such fear of our own thoughts that even a child who was unafraid to give up their childhood, comforts and, perhaps, even their life to protect others, would have to fear talking to a journalist at the office of a state-owned newspaper.

Our rulers had brainwashed us into believing that submitting to such totalitarianism was the only way to confront the threats posed to us by the West and the Israelis, and that our only defence was to be found in military dictatorships.

For years, I thought of Mohamed and Mordechai, hoping that Mohamed could one day become as free as Mordechai and that, perhaps, they could find a just and lasting peace with one another.

Chronicle of a Caged Journalist is a series of excerpts from a forthcoming book.

Source: Al Jazeera


Meeting Mohamed: the Children’s War-report Reading Club

After reading about the war in Bosnia, the children wanted to travel there. They just needed my help, they explained.

Egyptian war correspondent Yehia Ghanem continues his series of stories on the wars he has covered and the people he has met along the way. Here he recounts his meeting with a group of Egyptian children who were hoping he would take them to Bosnia with him. Read the rest of the series, Caged, here.

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It was July 1992 when I returned to my assignment in Croatia after a brief vacation in Egypt, only this time Croatia wasn’t the main destination, rather it was Bosnia. By that time, war had ended in Croatia only to break out in Bosnia, yet the aggressor was the same: Serbia. For the following years, Croatia was a major stopover each time I returned to Bosnia since it was under near total siege. By that time, I had become close friends with Ivan Lackovic, one of the world’s most renowned fine artists who insisted I stay with him whenever I traveled through Croatia.

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