Friday, November 10, 2006

A Foreign Correspondent's Life

Juggling marriage, fatherhood and strict news deadlines while dodging bullets in a tumultuous country is no easy feat, Genevieve Swart writes.

DILI, August 1999: ABC foreign correspondent Mark Bowling runs the gauntlet of a militia gang, as men armed with pistols, rocks and pipes surround his car, smashing windows and shouting threats. The driver floors the accelerator, they escape and Bowling gives a breathless interview via his mobile phone to the PM radio program about the lead-up to East Timor's referendum. Then he calls his wife, Kim, (pictured right) at home in Jakarta to tell her he is safe.

"It was late in the day, I called her and said, 'Kim, I've got something to tell you', and she said, 'Yeah, well, look - I'm cooking the chicken nuggets and Joshua's climbing up the ladder . . . just call me back, all right?' Hang up.

"That," Bowling says, "was just a moment when you realise we're operating in two completely different worlds."

Running Amok: When News Deadlines, Family And Foreign Affairs Collide chronicles his four years in Indonesia as a foreign correspondent, covering events from the end of President Suharto's 30-year reign to the independence of East Timor.

Bowling - now in Darwin, where he is the ABC's director for the Northern Territory - found writing about Indonesia a cathartic exercise; one he hopes will throw some light on Australia's closest neighbour and the world's most populous Muslim nation.

"I believe we don't understand Indonesia . . . very well at all, we only just scratch the surface. It's an absolute cacophony of cultures.

"It's almost like the geography of the place - which is built on a tectonic plate and is the reason why there are tsunamis and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions - it's almost like the culture and the society of Indonesia has some kind of equivalent."

Born in Sydney in 1959, Bowling went to Turramurra High School, then did an arts and communications degree at Macquarie University. He started as a reporter at the ABC in 1985 and became the north Asia correspondent, based in Tokyo, in 1992.

"I'd seen riots and tear gas and police fighting students in South Korea, and I'd spent time in PNG and seen a different sort of scary, you know, unexpected 'rascal gangs' . . ."

Still, his first week in Jakarta in May 1998 came as a shock. "I arrived on the Tuesday, Suharto was forced out on the Thursday and it was just a roller-coaster of events after that . . . meeting Xanana Gusmao, going to East Timor and this whole Reformasi movement that just sprung up."

In June, Kim and the children arrived. The couple, who met in the early '90s at a Darwin barbecue, had survived a long-distance relationship while Bowling was in Japan, but their real test was to come. As Kim said before the move: "It's all right for you - you'll be the foreign correspondent, and I'll be the foreign object."

Bowling's new job was all-consuming, with unexpected dangers. That November, a report appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald: "An ABC TV crew was beaten with sticks by security forces. They were not seriously injured, but their cameras were smashed."

Bowling says the attack - which took place during demonstrations pressing the Habibie government for reform - was a wake-up call. "[It was] in the gardens just outside the [Atma Jaya] University, when the students were marching on Parliament . . ."

Troops suddenly stormed towards the students and the crew. "I remember the soldiers' clenched teeth, the look of hate in their eyes, their ninja-like body armour, and the muzzle flash from their weapons firing close to my head," he writes in the chapter "Black Friday".

"I had never expected troops would open fire on a journalist," he says. "I somehow felt immune. That was probably the first time I actually felt how the people who I was reporting on felt."

His new neighbourhood, the leafy central suburb of Menteng, had hazards, too. The Suharto family compounds were nearby and the former dictator's daughter kept a pet Sumatran tiger tethered by a thin rope in the driveway.

Kim discovered this on a walk when their son Joshua, a Winnie The Pooh fan, said: "Look, Mummy. There's Tigger!"

Indonesia was still a fledgling democracy and Bowling writes of having "a box seat to Asia's greatest show". It was a single ticket, however, not a family pass, as Kim and children were left behind to adjust to life in Jakarta. When reporting took him away from home or put him at risk, "the niggling feeling always was about my responsibility as a parent and a husband. That's the dilemma for a correspondent, maybe it's just a single person's game".

Working by the journalistic adage, "If it bleeds, it leads", Bowling reported on many lead stories, including religious violence in Ambon and separatist struggles in Papua and Aceh, where he was present at the uncovering of a mass grave. He was in Dili when the Timorese courageously voted against Indonesia's autonomy plan, despite intimidation by militia gangs. One memory stands out: "Just the look of anguish on the faces the day the vote was declared - people were leaving Dili with their bedrolls on their backs and their mattresses, just knowing that it was about to go off and the militia were going to inflict this reign of terror."

He never had counselling after reporting on violence. "My wife is a psychologist and she is a very good source of comfort and advice and helps me get through those situations." Nonetheless, the job was "a real strain" on their relationship. The couple suffered a tragedy when Kim had a miscarriage. Weeks later, Bowling did a story on East Timorese refugees: "There was a moment [when] I saw a baby in a coffin. It reminded me of our kids and the unborn child that we'd lost . . . I'd never felt emotions so strongly, so rawly."

The correspondent never carried a gun and his helmet and flak jacket lay under his desk. Often amid ethnic violence, he says, it was like being a white ghost. "You don't exist. People see you but you're not the enemy. You're just there. It's the weirdest, weirdest feeling."

When Bowling returned to Australia, he noticed changes. "Little things like public risk [have developed] . . . cliff faces have got to have fences on them so you don't fall off. We're becoming a very safe society . . . and yet we live on the edge of this absolute chaos."

Yet he believes there's hope even in the darkest times, citing the aftermath of the Bali bombing: "Somehow there was a strength of character of the Balinese . . . They are just such shining, lovely people and to see them being resilient in the face of a monumental struggle between dark and light, and to see them be able to come through it and cling onto this life . . . that gives you some hope.

The Bowlings have four children - Joshua, 10, Jessica, 8, Steffanie, 5, and Samuel, 2, born after they left Jakarta. "Our kids speak Indonesian and a smattering of Javanese - the sound of Indonesian words is pretty common around our house." Another post abroad is not out of the question, although Bowling says his priority this time around would be to ask, "Kim, what do you think?"

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