And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades in the Middle East
By Richard Engel
The formula for success in life is hard work and dumb luck. So it was for Richard Engel, now chief foreign correspondent for NBC news. His father was a Wall Street banker who could afford to take his family on many trips abroad. It was on one of these holidays that Richard’s decision to become a foreign correspondent was germinated. He was leafing through an International Herald Tribune newspaper in Moroccan hotel when he made up his mind. After graduating from Stanford, he pulled out a map and attempted to figure out where the next “action” was going to take place. It was 1996 so the Cold War was over. Eastern Europe was not the place to be and neither was Vietnam. China was a happening place however the focus of any correspondence out of that country was economic and he had no interest in economics. So, he chose the Middle East.
His first destination was Egypt where he took an apartment. He made frequent visits to the cafes to practice his Arabic. It was in the the cafes that he made contact with the Tabligh who espouse the same orthodox following of the Koran as Al Qaeda. However, Tabligh’s members are peaceful and see their job as encouraging their fellow citizens to remain vigilant to the prophet’s words.
Richard found work with the Middle Eastern Times and then, in 1998, he quit the Times and started work as a freelancer for ABC.
Soon after, he struck journalistic luck when a tourist bus was bombed just outside of the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir square. Six German tourists were killed, melted to their seats by Molotov cocktails. They had done nothing wrong. It wasn’t a crime of passion. Mr. Engel says it was a calculated move to scare tourists away and hurt the Egyptian government. Two months later, terrorists shot and mutilated 58 tourists at a temple in Luxor. Richard counts these as the first al-Qaeda style attacks. Suddenly, he was in the centre of reportage as a foreign correspondent.
In 2000, his “luck” would follow him to Israel where he was hired by Agence France-Presse as its Palestinian-affairs correspondent. He rented a house in Jerusalem with his new wife and began his first attempt at a stable existence.
Peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinian and the prospect of success seemed good. Then, on September 28, 2000 Ariel Sharon and a Likud delegation visited Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the location of three sacred Islamic structure, the Al-Asqua Mosque, the Dome of the Rock and the Dome of the Chain. Violence immediately broke out and the peace talks were ended. The Second Intifada was called. Tensions got worse when Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister in February of 2001 and on April 12, a seventeen-year-old suicide bomber blew up in a market just across the street from where Richard was living, Six Israelis were killed and 100 wounded. In May, another suicide bomber killed five Israelis and wounded 40 and the scourge began. Suddenly, Mr. Engel was at the centre of the world stage again. Then, September 11th came along suddenly Israel was no longer the focus of the world’s attention.
January, 2002, saw Iraq as top billing for Bush’s Axis of Evil so Richard decided Bagdad was the place to be and so began work as a freelancer again. After a conversation with his first wife, he drove into Iraq using a peace keeper visa that meant he was there as a human shield. In Bagdad, he was able to get freelancing ABC. After a few days of non-stop coverage, he was pleased to see himself introduced as “ABC’s Richard Engel.”
NBC approached him after their previous correspondent, Peter Arnett, had given an interview to Iraq television where he had questioned support of the American people for the war and said that had the US war plan had been a failure. He was fired although, in retrospect, he was correct. Mr. Engel would work as freelancer with NBC until he signed as a full-time correspondent with the network in April of 2004. Life as a journalist became increasingly dangerous as sectarian violence broke out. After the country’s first democratic election, the majority Shiite population gained control of the government. The Sunni minority had controlled the government for decades under under the leadership of Suddam Hussein. Revenge and counter-revenge were now the modus operandi.
Despite the ever-present danger of life in Iraq, Mr. Engel remained until June, 2006 when he was promoted to bureau chief. He moved to Lebanon where he looked forward to a tranquil life in the “Paris” of the Middle East, He settled in an upscale waterfront hotel. In the meantime, Pressure from President Bush had forced Israel to allow elections to be held in the Palestinian territories. Hamas was elected in the Gaza strip. Within days of Richard’s arrival, an Israel soldier was kidnapped by Hamas. The network needed someone to help report in the Gaza Strip and so, he volunteered. Israeli reacted bombing government centres, police stations and military outposts. Hezbollah, Hamas’ Shiite counterparts in Lebanon kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others. Israel invaded Lebanon and between 1,191 and 1,300 Lebanese people were killed. Most of them were civilian. Hezbollah killed 165 Israelis which included 44 civilians.
Unrest seemed to follow Richard wherever he went. The late Tim Russert, moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press had joked that he should never come to Washington.
By telling his story, Mr. Engel also tells the story of recent conflict in the Middle East. An excellent Cole’s Notes history of the region helps explain the seeds of unrest. For example, he says that the secular nation-state has never been a natural political structure for those of Moslem faith. Nevertheless, the allies carved up the old Ottoman Empire after World War I without regard to religious groups which inevitably has led to conflict. I highly recommend “And Then All Hell Broke Loose” for those interested in the present conflict in the Middle East. It is an entertaining and informative narrative that brings much needed light to a complex conflict.