Story-ideas-1011172

When a journalist becomes the news

  • Ilanit1
For years I’ve covered conflict situations. It's never something I've feared. At The Star, I was known as “Bang Bang Betty” or “Burnick”. People called me brave. Some thought my bravery was mildly stupid; others respected it.
by Ilanit Chernick | May 03, 2018

I’ve been caught up in the middle of riots, shootouts, taxi violence and any crazy South African situation you can think of – all for the sake of news.

I've been hit with tear gas and rubber bullets, had Molotov cocktails and glass thrown at me. I was even hit in the head with a rock during last year's housing protests just prior to making aliya from South Africa.

I even went chasing the storm during last year’s Tropical Storm Dineo, which hit Mozambique in February 2017.

But my editor, Kevin Ritchie, always said: "A story is never worth your life."

My life as a reporter has always been about finding the action, being in the middle of it, and getting the best and most accurate story possible, even if it meant risking my life – to my parents’ horror.

But nothing prepared me for the moment when the action found me – and I wasn't expecting it. It was the moment when I, the journalist, became the news.

Nothing prepared me for the screaming or the sound of a gunshot that pierced the air as I ran for my life. Nothing prepared me for the moment I realised my entire body was shaking and I was crying uncontrollably on the bus, trying to tell my Israeli family what had happened before making the dreaded call to my mom.

When you know what you’re in for, your mind prepares itself. You’re aware that you might get hurt or that you’ll be directly in harm’s way. So, when it happens, it’s a big deal but you’re able to handle it in a calm and logical fashion. I've always been able to get up, stay calm and keep moving forward in the face of danger.

But on Sunday morning, that all changed.

I got ready for my 13:00 shift at work as normal. By 12:30, I realised I’d lost my bus card, or rav kav. I searched frantically, turning over the entire house to find it, to no avail.

My roommate and a friend suggested I go to Hadar Mall, which is diagonally across the road from my apartment block in Jerusalem, and get a new one. This would save me the trouble of getting to work too late, so I did.

Afterwards, I got an iced coffee and walked out into the brilliant sunshine.

It was almost like a chorus line. Someone screamed “Pigua!” which means “terrorist attack”. This was followed by others shouting it too – and the pandemonium began. People started running in every direction, screaming and ducking behind any kind of cover they could find. We didn’t know if the “terrorist” (who turned out to be a criminal) had a gun or a knife or a bomb.

No one knew anything.

My adrenaline kicked in and I joined the crowd, tumultuously escaping from the direction of where the attack was taking place. I ran for my life, my iced coffee slipping from my hand and crashing to the floor as the panic and realisation hit.

When you cover such scenes or you watch the videos of terrorist attacks, you divorce yourself from the situation emotionally in a bid to cover the story logically.

But here, I didn’t go into journalist mode because at that moment, I was a civilian and like all those around me, I went straight into survival mode.

I ran. I ducked as I heard the gunshot. A collective gasp emerged from the crowd as the bang reached our ears. The ringing that comes after – that still hasn’t left.

I saw a bus coming and just dove on to it. Commuters had no clue what had just happened. It was normal. People were talking and laughing. And then it went quiet as the news spread on the bus and the driver hurriedly pulled off.

The last view I had of the scene was police cars rushing to the area. I heard an ambulance as well.

Minutes later, I realised I was shaking. I phoned my family in Modi’in, my voice quivering, hardly able to get the words out. I realised my face was wet as tears started streaming down.

I didn’t want to call my mom. I knew she’d want to get on the next plane here to hug me, to comfort me. My family called her first and when she called me, I could hear the fear in her voice.

I arrived at work and cried. A colleague ran to get me water. My tough-girl act shattered as I realised the fragility of my life – the reality that many Israelis face daily.

The punchline to this sick joke: An hour after the incident, my old rav kav was found – someone posted a picture of it on the Secret Jerusalem Facebook page.

The fact that this turned out to be a criminal incident instead of a terrorist attack doesn’t make the situation any less traumatic. A man was running around brandishing a knife, an off-duty officer pulled out his gun and pulled that trigger – anyone who got caught in the way could’ve been hurt, or worse, killed. People still got injured, no matter which way you look at it.

For us, the “victims”, this may not have been a terrorist attack. But in those few minutes of chaos, it sure felt like one.

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