It was the haunting image of a child, perhaps three or four years of age, whose face had been hacked beyond recognition by a machete in genocide ridden Rwanda which grew the biggest gasp from the audience assembled to hear renowned journalist Fergal Keane speak of his career on Wednesday.
The image itself was horrific, but the simple words of Keane - as he tried to grasp the scale of the murder and horror he had seen in Rwanda were more haunting still. “This is what an adult did to a child”, he said.
The audience, which included a large number of local secondary school children had been invited to hear Keane speak as part of the ‘Bright Brand New Day’ project which has just launched in Derry. The respected journalist, who covered conflict around the world throughout the 90s and early 2000s, spoke in conversation with Derry man Mark McCauley - a cameraman who had accompanied Keane to many of the world’s most horrifying and terrifying war zones.
Keane spoke with at times brutal honesty recalling his career and telling those assembled that already the people of this island “have been very courageous to take the past out and look at it” but said it was important to create a circumstance of “calm and sanity” to allow people to continue to explore the last 30 years of our history, “Reconciliation has to be grass roots driven,” he said - adding that the biggest threat to any society’s move away from conflict was the “lack of a mechanism for addressing the past”.
“There are so many depth charges still to be negotiated. We have to have ways of getting past those and dealing with what is thrown up.”
He mentioned Nelson Mandela as a great example of how one man can help a country move on - describing him as “the most noble man of all time”.
“To come out what he went through - what his family went through - and to preach the message of peace, that is truly remarkable.”
Keane spent time in South Africa in the run up to the first free election in the country - where he saw at first hand the horrors of the townships and the bravery of men like Mandela.
As a journalist for the BBC, Keane travelled to some of the world’s most dangerous war zones. It was just weeks after returning from South Africa, Keane was sent to Rwanda. He said he had been delighted to receive a call from Panorama asking him to travel to the war torn African state in 2006 - at the height of the massacres. “I saw it as a brilliant for my career,” he admitted.
“I knew very little about it. I knew there was unrest. I knew there had been massacres but I didn’t know I was about to be to be plunged into a charnel house of death - there were just uncountable numbers of dead.”
He showed the audience a videoclip of a documentary he had made in Nyarabuy - where an estimated 1000 Tutsis were murdered in a church yard.
Talking of his experience of walking through the dead and decaying bodies of those had been beaten or hacked to death, Keane said there were times when he found it hard to find humanity in the world.
“You have to step away from it. You have see what happens in the context of what has been bubbling away unchecked for centuries. Where people were not told they were second class citizens, they were told they were no class at all.
At times in his career the journalist said he found himself under direct fire.
There were times, he said, when the fear “simply got the better” of him.
“Fear makes you act in ways you wouldn’t think. Everyone likes to think they would be a hero if they saw someone hacking someone to death, but you react very differently.”
Clearly having ghosts from his past haunt him. Keane said he imagined no one who had witnessed any violence would be able to truly leave it behind.
“We are human beings, not robots,” he said. “It can be very hard to move on. I can’t imagine anyone who has witnessed acts of war can leave them behind easily. Again it comes down to finding the mechanisms to allow that to happen - to accept the past.”
Keane said many of his fellow war correspondents turned to alcohol to cope with that they saw - or became trapped in a cycle of not being able to live without war,
“The only problem with repeatedly going into a war zone time and time and again is that one day your luck will run out. If you stand in front of enough bullets, one will hit you.”
His decision to quite reporting from active war zones came in 2006 after he came within two yards of being shelled. The car in front was hit, and then the car behind.
“I realised that life is too sweet to keep taking risks. Life is sweet and life is good. That is what this is all about.”