War reporter Gabriele Micalizzi recounts brush with death

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When you get hit, you don’t feel pain. You don’t hear anything. You’re on the ground, blood blinds your sight. Your arm is in pieces, dangling. You don’t move. All around, silence. You say: okay, this is how I have to die. So you look for your cigarettes: let me have a last smoke, hey. But where did I put my cigarettes? Meanwhile, you’re still alive. And you wait. You touch your eye, it feels strange, like a soft-boiled egg. The minutes pass. Then you hear a Kurdish woman soldier shouting “Gabriele!”. You feel arms lifting you up and loading you onto a Humvee. Okay, they’re helping me.

I can tell you the story now, in a corridor of San Raffaele hospital, thanking those who did everything for me. The Kurdish military, the American doctors, the Italian embassy. My Leica camera, too. If I hadn’t been holding it in front of my face, I wouldn’t be here to talk about it: in the impact it damaged my eyes, but it served as a shield. I was wearing a helmet, a bullet-proof vest, the right gear. We’re professionals, we don’t improvise. We know how to calculate the risks, usually. That morning, maybe I was just a bit too relaxed. With Gabriel, my colleague from CNN, we arrived at that building, in an advanced position. “The Kurdish commander is upstairs; shall we go and take a picture of him?”

I agreed. But when I emerged on the sunny terrace and saw the black flags of IS, three hundred metres away, I didn’t have time to think that being there was risky. I should have said “Guys, let’s go back downstairs”. I remember the commander’s last gesture, his hand adjusting his scarf. I am sure they were aiming at me, they had seen me come up: they fired the rocket and it was heading for me. Then it took a strange trajectory, perhaps due to the wind, I don’t know, but that deviation saved me. Mors tua vita mea: it crashed onto the terrace and hit full-on a soldier who was blown into pieces in front of me, then it hit the commander. I was thrown backwards.

It took two hours in a van, on a mattress, to get to the first field hospital. And it’s not like travelling by ambulance; every hole in the road was like a blow to the head. I could sense the agitation around me. It seems strange, but the first time I sensed fear was when the Americans said to me: “Hey guy, we can do two things, either take you to a Syrian hospital or to ours in Baghdad”. I had the strength to answer: “Are you kidding? Baghdad! Baghdad! And they were “Okay, but there’s a procedure, let’s see …” In those hours of waiting, the Italian consulate in Erbil did everything they could. I know that the Americans also called a friend of mine, a photojournalist, to find out who I really was: after all, the country is full of foreign fighters on the run …

I felt safe, once I had been taken to Roll3 in Baghdad. There they treat wounds of all kinds, as I saw myself: never have I seen such excellent medical assistance. At one point, dazed after an operation, I heard a woman near me speaking Italian. She was a nurse from the Navy task force. Really kind. With a southern Italian accent that reminded me of home: “Hey,” I teased her, “You sound like my grandmother! …” In the space of three days, they had me back on my feet. The American doctor told me: “I have seen my fair share of the wounded, and when they brought you in we thought you were a goner, but you’re a tough one…

I lost a phalanx, my arm needs to be operated on, my sight isn’t great, I struggle to read, and I’m deaf in one ear. Two more weeks of hospital, at least. They read me some comments from social media, people who wonder why we do a job like this. I say that we need people to go and tell the rest of us what’s happening, especially in those places where no one else goes. Where there are thousands of poor people forgotten by everyone, in the hands of IS. How many people knew what was really happening in Baghuz? The end of the Islamic state is not just the fall of Raqqa. This is a dirty war ignored by the world. History is a mosaic of small pieces, like the photos we take. If I have to speak for myself, this experience has taught me to put things in perspective. Two little girls, a partner. And my job. Since my friend Andy died in Ukraine, hit by a mortar shell, I thought that every day of my life was nothing more than an extra day. I felt like I had survived him. And I didn’t hold back. I took big risks. In Baghdad, I woke up with a hamburger to eat. It was delicious. In that moment, I felt happiness.

21 febbraio 2019 (modifica il 21 febbraio 2019 | 18:02)

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