‘We thought of hiding the memory card in our underwear’

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By Raksha Kumar Raksha Kumar

Illustrations: Samia Singh

WE WERE two young journalists, two women, in Jerusalem. We were tipped off by an NGO there that the Palestinian youth were planning protests at al-Manara Square, Ramallah. On that warm day in March 2011, we wanted to be in Ramallah alongside young protesters. Inspired by the ‘Arab Spring’ they wanted to bring about a revolution in the West Bank.

We were on a fellowship, reporting for a US-based website. I stuffed my camera and its accessories into a bag and swung it on my shoulder. My colleague and I were ready for an adventure into the heart of Ramallah.

Until then, we believed that being armed with proper information on the story equipped us to face the storm. Our journey not only proved us wrong, but also taught us an important lesson in the life of a journalist.

On boarding a private bus to Ramallah from the main market of Jerusalem, we excitedly began chatting up our fellow passengers: “Where are these protests? Do you know the protesters? Where should we go when we get off? How long have the protests been taking place?”

Turned out, that was our first mistake.

The person we spoke to claimed that he knew the protesters and offered to take us to them. But he wanted to meet us alone at a place he mentioned. We politely declined the offer, sensing trouble. The man, however, followed us until our trip in Ramallah ended.

As soon as we landed at al-Manara Square, I unleashed my camera on the protesters. The people were on a hunger strike against the Palestinian Authority as well as Israel, seeking peace and livelihood. The protests were largely peaceful. Many were happy to pose for whatever little international media support they got.

We wanted to return to Jerusalem before dark. Just as we started on our goodbyes and wishes for luck, we were cornered by three young Palestinian men. They tried persuading us to rent a room in Ramallah. We refused and got on a bus. We are still unsure if there was more to it.

On our way back, our bus was stopped at the border of Jerusalem. Out of the 20-odd passengers, only the two of us were asked to step out and cross the border on foot — this entailed checking of passports, full body and luggage screening and at the end of all that, the possibility of being rejected entry.

As the orange of the sun began to fade away, we stood outside the border post — not worried about ourselves, but about our footage. Would it help if we hid the memory card in our undergarments? Should we tell them to speak to our editor and hold our ground? Luckily, my little video camera was handed back to me after hours of waiting around, with all the footage intact. We crossed the border.

Upon reaching New York we produced a series of three stories on the plight of the Palestinian protestors and their failed revolution, talking in detail about their problems that are far removed from international politics and strategies. Later, after we had sobered down from the high of the adventure, we were told that we had been traced by Israeli intelligence, since the time we had left our hotel in the morning; that we could have been deported at any time; and that we could have been arrested without official charges being filed, in which case, our fate would have been decided by the Israeli authorities almost arbitrarily.

Since then, I never jump into a story without preparation, no matter how exciting it is, especially if the terrain is unfamiliar. I ask around if other journalists, who have covered it, have tips to share. Gearing up for a story involves a patient understanding of the ground realities, the flora and fauna, the culture and traditions and even the food of the place. Living to tell the tale is more important.

Raksha Kumar is 26. She is News Editor, Video, at TEHELKA.

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