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From the frontlines

Updated: 2012-06-12 09:50
By Xu Jingxi ( China Daily)

From the frontlines

Hong Kong-based journalist Susanna Cheung Chui-yung gets a warm welcome from Palestinians at a refugee camp in 2002. Provided to China Daily

A Hong Kong war correspondent's newest book focuses on ordinary people in conflict zones. Xu Jingxi speaks with her in Guangzhou.

A group of Israeli soldiers broke into a house in Delin village in Palestine late one night in 2003. The homeowner, a Palestinian college student who was showering, rushed out - wrapped in a towel - to meet the intruders. The reason for the raid was that the young Palestinian had carelessly told Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint that he was a political science student. Consequently, he was suspected of participating in a political movement against Israel.

But the student wasn't detained after his interrogation.

This is one of the stories Hong Kong-based independent journalist Susanna Cheung Chui-yung shared in her latest book, On the Scene in the Middle East (Zhongdong Xianchang).

The author joined an event for the book's Chinese mainland release. It was organized by the Guangdong bureau of in Guangdong's provincial capital Guangzhou in June.

Cheung's girl-next-door appearance, marked by dimples, a sweet smile and bouts of giggling, is distinct from the stereotype of tough-looking women war correspondents like Marie Colvin, who wore an eye patch after a rocket propelled grenade damaged her left eye in Sri Lanka until she was killed this year in Syria.

Cheung's books also break from war reporting conventions. They don't chronicle battlefield adventures or focus on interviews with important figures in the conflicts.

"My books are about ordinary people and their stories, and show how they live under fire and what they think about their lives in unrest and wars," the correspondent says.

The 47-year-old has published four books about her war zone experiences.

Since 1999, she has covered Kosovo, East Timor's independence referendum, the Iraq War, Latin American revolutions and the Arab Spring. She has interviewed such political leaders as Yasser Arafat and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

"I write to challenge stereotypes about certain places and their people," she says.

Another story in her new book is about a young Palestinian man, whom the Israeli government deemed a "terrorist".

The "cute" young man moved Cheung to tears when he told her his greatest wish was to return to Gaza from Ramallah, where the Palestinian National Authority headquarters are located, to care for his parents and marry his girlfriend.

"That might not be anything special to most people but is a long-cherished dream for these people in this war-torn place," Cheung says.

"No one is born a terrorist. We should know someone before we label them as a terrorist. If we define someone as a terrorist, we should think about what pushes them to go to such extremes. Then, we can find solutions and end wars."

Cheung's motivation for traversing conflict zones came from her dissatisfaction with the mainstream media's often biased reporting and its general failure to analyze wars beyond the state level.

The journalist says she didn't know much about the Middle East before she arrived in 2001. She remembers seeing an online image of an Afghani woman peering out through black cloth.

"I wanted to know what Afghani women's lives are like and exactly what fundamentalism is," she recalls.

"I wasn't able to find much information from the reports available then. So, I decided to go there to find out for myself."

Cheung was shocked to see how the extremely conservative Taliban rule the country with severe punishments.

"I felt as if I had been transported to the Middle Ages," Cheung recalls.

"Thieves would have their hands cut off, and women who committed adultery would be stoned to death. At that time, women were not allowed to work or receive education after age 11."

However, Cheung emphasizes that it's over-generalizing to view Islamic fundamentalism as violent domination.

"I also discovered some fundamentalists bury their head in the Quran, without any interest in politics," she says.

"They tended to influence their fellows in a peaceful way - by preaching texts."

Cheung Ping-ling, who worked as a war correspondent for the Hong Hong-based newspaper Ming Pao from 1995-2005, says: "Cheung Chui-yung's care for ordinary people impresses me most. Readers rarely see such rich personal stories in the mainstream media."

Cheung Ping-ling believes Cheung Chui-yung's status as an independent journalist might have "forced" her to develop her signature human touch.

"It's difficult for independent journalists to get permits to press conferences and interviews with officials," Cheung Ping-ling explains.

"Their limited funds mean they can't afford accommodation at safe hotels and often must live in residential housing. But living with locals helps Cheung Chui-yung discover thought-provoking stories."

China Fortune magazine's editor-in-chief Ning Er says Cheung impressed him when he first heard about her in 2002. He has read all her books.

"Most international news nowadays focuses on analyzing how clashes of national interests lead to wars and ignores the people living in those countries," says Ning, who's an international politics graduate from Peking University.

"Cheung's books stand out by offering readers both vivid stories she uncovered on the scene and sufficient background about relevant history, politics, religion and culture. Then, she leaves judgment to the readers."

Cheung Chui-yung says she tries hard not to take sides.

She shared some powerful photographs at the book launch.

One shows a contemptuous Palestinian man forced to strip down to his underwear and shirt in front of Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint. Another shows a Palestinian child hugging the ruins of his bombed home, with sorrow in his eyes.

"I didn't put these shocking photos in my book because I don't want to give any visuals that might influence readers' judgment," Cheung explains.

"I just want to tell the stories and let readers ponder them themselves."

Cheung favors direct quotes to ensure objectivity. She also presents dialogues in question-and-answer format.

But despite her plain, matter-of-fact reporting style, Cheung's vivid descriptions - often of sceneries - sometimes reveal her emotions.

For example, she describes the moon over olive trees - whose branches are a peace symbol - on her way to Jerusalem.

"The conflicts under the olives never end," Cheung writes in On the Scene in the Middle East.

"Maybe peace is a naughty child, who is hanging over the moon, unwilling to come down to this land."

Cheung's writing style and observational conveyances resemble those of Polish war correspondent and writer Ryszard Kapuscinski (1932-2007), who earned six Nobel Prize nominations, Hong Kong literary critic Leung Man-tao says.

"She pays attention to details in interviewees' tone and the environment at that moment," Leung says.

"And she describes details to manifest the interview without any preconceptions."

Life is at stake at every moment in war. On Cheung's first trip to Afghanistan in 2001, a policeman threatened to shoot her because she violated fundamentalist beliefs and secretly photographed local people.

But Cheung doesn't believe it's time to stop, although her hair is graying and her eyes often dim with fatigue.

Her passion for the mission still burns.

"I'm still young, and I want to be young forever and continue traveling, discovering and writing," says Cheung, who hopes to write a book for every area where "the truth is blurry".

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