A voice of humanity

Farewell to SRF foreign correspondent Iren Meier

mw. After 37 years as a Swiss radio journalist, Iren Meier takes leave of her professional life. Reason enough to appreciate this impressive personality. Over the long years of wars and conflicts in Yugoslavia and the Middle East, many of us listeners have appreciated her contributions, reports and discussions particularly because they were not coloured by preconceived attitudes and judgments about the states and ethnic groups involved but were supported by personal compassion and journalistic diligence. From the wars in Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990s to the recent conflicts in the Middle East, Iren Meier not only reported on events but also tried to bring us closer to the lives and everyday life of people in other countries and cultures. She gave a voice to people who lost their families, their homeland and their belongings in the war. Her personal dismay was expressed by the horrors and injustice of wars, and most importantly, she passed on her conviction that wars are man-made. Iren Meier spoke to us fellow human beings and as an exemplary journalist. We will miss her voice on Swiss radio.

“I think, it is an inner emotional security. Over time I realised: Wherever you go, all over the world, all want the same: a normal, worthy life, work, a house, a family, liberty – this is an enormous affiliation to each other. I always have felt this: this is a world where you care about each other and if you feel like this you are actually at home.”

In the “Tagesgespräch” of 29 March 2018, Iren Meier looked back on her time as foreign correspondent. We are presenting excerpts of this conversation.

Barbara Peter, SRF: Iren Meier, you went to Prague as a young journalist for your first assignment abroad. […] The real question would have been how Eastern Europe would have developed after the political change. And suddenly overnight you become a war correspondent [in the Yugoslavia conflict, mw.]. Can you learn that anyway?

Iren Meier: I wouldn’t call myself a war jounalist today. We never went to the front, I only wore a splinter jacket we had borrowed from the ICRC once in all these years. We tried to observe and mediate the war, but from a relatively secure position, and above all our task was to report on what the war does to the people it affects.

“Try to see what is, not what you think you see or have heard.”

And yet a jump in at the deep end. If you compare it to working in the studio, you probably cannot estimate in advance how you will deal with this situation.

No, but it was good, there was no time to think, should I go out there again? I was overwhelmed, overburdened, but at the same time it was quite clear: I am staying there. As a young journalist, I had to find my way around somehow. One tries to stick to something, to patterns and opinions, to what one has read or heard, what others say. But development begins when you realise that things may not be the way you see them. I really thought then, I know it, I know what is right and wrong. […]

So you want to form your own opinion and represent it, even to the editorial staff in Switzerland?

No, I don’t mean that at all, not an opinion of my own. Just walk with your eyes open and try to see what really is and not what you think you see or hear. To perceive what is, in all facets, in all blurriness: one says this, the other that. […] And at the same time take an attitude of not serving something to the listeners – make your own picture – but letting it shine through again and again: It’s not all that clear, we don’t know for sure. It is very easy to classify and assess, but it is not about  getting an opinion across. At the last two stations I have been, in Iran and Turkey, I have noticed: I have gone to these countries like new. On my first trip to Turkey I thought: I will never understand this country! It is so highly complex: its history, the ethnic groups. Or Iran, it’s a separate planet. But if you haven’t been there for a long time, it becomes exciting, you know and then you declare: This is an excerpt I see.

As a journalist, you have to have an attitude, but above all a compass

I see an excerpt, it may not be the whole truth – is that compatible with journalism?

I think this is very important, especially in a conflict or war, because it is simply not possible to keep an overview. You are always restricted somewhere, you are on one side, with one party. That has to be declared. And on controversial topics, where many people have an opinion and believe they are right, it seems very, very important to me as a journalist that you have an attitude, but above all a compass.

So draw a red line for yourself?

I would just call that compass: I know on which basis I am here, I am a Swiss journalist, I have certain values, I grew up as a journalist in this public medium. Palestine/Israel is a good example. That’s where I always go with the attitude: There is international law, there are human rights, there are the Geneva Conventions. And according to these, Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank are illegal. Full stop. That’s a compass, for example.

However, there has also been criticism about your compass, about reporting from this point of view.

Yes, but that’s supposed to be the case. I declare that’s my base, and that’s how I work.

“You try to be human and at the same time to verify the story you’re told as well as you can”

How can one, for example, if one accompanies refugees, keep the distance and still remain human?

I can’t tell you that – I think you’re the person you are in every situation, whether you’re a journalist or something else, and you react with your possibilities and abilities, but you’re already trying to be that person and at the same time to verify the story you’re told as well as you can. Today, when so much in journalism is virtual, when so much is called information that is not information, it is so important to talk about experience. A correspondent is someone who is outside and experiences things, experiences them with his senses, with his mind, with everything. I think the discussion about this is very, very important. […]

“War doesn’t break out – it’s man-made”

What I always was impressed about in all your coverage, about all misery: How could you beware your humanity?

Very easy, because I think, misery and war are not fate. This doesn’t come from anywhere, this is politics, this is man-made, there are power interests, economic interests in these countries, in international politics. And this means, there you can’t and must not give up, this is a reason for resistance. […]
If we speak about war we for example say – and language is something incredibly important – “a war breaks out”.War doesn’t break out – it’s man-made. I was in Beirut when the war between Lebanon and Israel ended. Thursday or Friday they negotiated a cease-fire and said, Monday morning at eight o’clock it will be put into force. In the night from Sunday to Monday – I never had witnessed something like that before – only bombs, only bombs, cluster bombs all over South Lebanon and dead on eight o’clock in the morning – deathly silence, dead on eight o’clock. This is a man-made scandal, this is not tragic, not a tragedy, but we make this. I have thought about this a lot and spoken with other people how important it is how we name things.

The warfare has changed in the last 20, 30 years. Has war journalism to change, too?

It has changed very much. Journalists have become part of war.

The «embedded journalists» ...

Yes, one nearly can’t distinguish them from militias sometimes, they are simply still tagged – or sometimes even not, because this is dangerous, too. They have become aims of the belligerent parties. And war as a whole has become something completely normal, a means of politics, one isn’t scared anymore. There are more and more wars. The diplomacy which should be first choice in warfare hardly exists any more. The last great diplomatic act was the nuclear agreement between the West and Iran. And this was so difficult to achieve, but they achieved it.

How  could you deal with being our voice from the Balkans and later from the Middle East and that this at the same time comes together with expectations here in Switzerland?

I got a lot of signals from auditors, critical ones but also a lot of appreciation and I recognised that all themes were of great interest in Switzerland, for example the Balkans but also the Middle East. With this appreciation responsibility grew, this strengthens oneself, it’s a motivation and one knows, one is doing a work which really makes sense and gets echo.
[…] Once I wanted to make a contribution about everyday life in Syria long before the war. One morning I was in a house in Damascus where the women met once a week. For me it was very fascinating how they live, which problems they have. But my colleagues found this was too banal. I don’t understand this until today und think, it is wrong. They said: This is no “story”. But later Syria became a “story”, but this is the story of war.

“All over the world people want the same: a normal, worthy life, a job, a house, a family, liberty”

Iren Meier, at the end I want to talk with you about terms as “at-home”, “homeland”.

In April 2004 I came to Beirut and I was really all on my own, I didn’t know anybody there. I came to a dwelling I had rented, to a quarter where I didn’t know anybody, and two or three days later I knew, here it is good, here I am. It is perhaps an inner emotional security; I realised the people in the quarter took notice of me, they look who is it. Many said: Who are you? Stay as long as possible. This is something you do not hear very often in other contexts. Sometimes they rang at my door: Do you need anything? There I understood: This is “at-home”. And it was like this in all stages, even on the road, I think, it is an inner emotional security. Over time I realised: Wherever you go, all over the world, all want the same: a normal, worthy life, a job, a house, a family, liberty – this is an enormous affiliation to each other. I always have felt this: This is a world where you care about each other and if you feel like this you are actually at home.

You have time after time come back to Switzerland after your stays abroad. What was this “coming home” like?

I always was closely in touch with Switzerland and the people here and I never lost that, I never came back from “outland”, certainly also because of my job. I also never had the feeling: Ui, what do they have for banal problems here – this appears arrogant to me. These are really different worlds and we live in one that is very, very small with a lot of privileges, but the big world is different.
But I have always met people in Switzerland who are very committed and deal with the world very much. I have never felt that people in Switzerland isolate themselves.

“One is always close to all”

Do you think different today about terms like homeland, origin, belongingness?

I have realised how incredibly decisive it is where you are born. It is by chance if you are born in Switzerl   and, in Kosovo, in Syria and in which time you are born. Out of this really grows a responsibility. For example, in Kosovo I have a girlfriend who nearly is the same age than I and we always talked about: If you were born there, where I…it would be another life. Fate.

An issue which also runs through your life is farewell. Was it difficult for you to say goodbye to people you had developed love for/embosomed/grown fond of?

I have excercised many farewells in my life, I wandered about a lot. To leave Beirut was difficult for me, there I felt very, very well /comfortable. This was the decisive/crucial  farewell, the end of the life as correspondent, of the life abroad. But I have made the experience: The physical presence is gone and the everyday life is different, but what is really important doesn’t go away at all.  From all this stages I have kept friendships which are still very lively. The longing for places – I think, it is not so crucial where one is, one is always close to all.

This brings us nearly to the end, Iren Meier. Once again the question from the beginning. What remains?

It remains for me a feeling of a great gratitude/thankfulness for the richness I was allowed to live out/experience/undergo.  And there were partly difficult situations where the experience, the feeling (??) is the most intensive. When I look back I remember a lot of people and I very often think of people I have met what they gave to me, their trust/confidence. I am really incredibly happy that I was allowed to do this job.

Iren Meier, thank you for this talk, for your job and all the best.    •

Source:  SRF 1 “Tagesgespräch”, 29  March 2018, moderation Barbara Peter

(Translation Current Concerns)