Writing a story has always come easy to me. Understanding why I became part of a story has proven far more difficult.
On March 21, I was shot in Ramallah. It was my fourth day in the West Bank city, where columns of Israeli armor had invaded the hub of a nascent Palestinian state and woven a net that stretched just yards from the scarred, hilltop headquarters of Yasir Arafat and his decapitated government.
I was working on a story for my newspaper, The Boston Globe, that oddly foreshadowed my own circumstances: how the Israeli military was blocking ambulances, detaining their drivers, and arresting doctors and hospital staff. In the story, I wanted to explore how little was off limits in a conflict that had become ever more vengeful and spiteful on both sides.
I never wrote the story. Rather I became another boundary transgressed.
The shooting took place in an area that was under the control of the Israeli tanks, armored personnel carriers, and soldiers who had reoccupied the city. I was walking with a Palestinian colleague, Said al-Ghazali, a stringer for the Globe, in the middle of the street to avoid suspicion. Both of us wore flak jackets, and we both had "TV" written prominently with red tape on our backs, the best-known symbol for international press. There was no crossfire, and shooting could be heard only in neighborhoods that seemed distant. The Israeli military presence had put us at ease.
Five minutes later, I crumbled to the ground. I began to fall even before I heard the shot. It was deafening and disorienting. At first, I thought it was a stun grenade. Why else couldn’t I move my arms or legs? Then, I felt a sting on my spine.
"Said, I think I was shot," I said. He lay next to me, desperately patting my body and looking for blood. "I don’t see anything," he shouted.
The feeling returned to my arms first and I reached behind my flak jacket. I felt the warm, almost soothing blood that was soaking into my clothes.
Many journalists have probably thought about how they would react to being shot. My first thoughts went to my wife and nine-month-old daughter. But in the anarchy of emotions and impulses that ensued, I could only come up with clichs for Said to pass on to them. Then I felt sorry for myself. Why, I wondered, was I the only journalist to be shot in a town full of them? I thought, too, of a war that I was groping to understand.
I had first visited Ramallah in 1988, as a college student. As an Arab-American I was always interested in the region, and curious about the intifada. I had come again, off and on, for the next ten years to watch a conflict changing inexorably. No longer was it a fight that pitted stone-throwing youths in an almost cartoonish rebellion against one of the world’s mightiest armies. At hand was a far dirtier fight -- one with the same asymmetry, the same disproportionate force, but with far fewer red lines to mark its limits.
The lack of rules in this war struck me as I lay in the street, and days later, it remained the one way to attach significance to what happened. Amid the carnage of the Israeli-Palestinian war, the shooting of a journalist remains only that. I was just one person, and I survived. Unlike the thousands of other civilians there, I escaped the city and received the best care both Israelis and Palestinians could offer.
But I was another line that had been crossed -- a non-combatant dragged into a conflict not of my making. Those were the thoughts that clouded my head. I thought of the story I had reported that afternoon -- wounded who were ignored, and the ambulances that were not allowed to arrive. I thought of the nihilism the conflict had bred.
I realized, too, that if I waited for help, I would probably die. I tugged on my legs. Move, move, I pleaded. They did, and I rolled over to sit up. "Said, we have to go," I said, trying to control the fear that was overwhelming me.
He helped me up, put my arm over his shoulder, and we limped twenty yards. I fell again, dizzy and tired. We both shouted, "Journalists! Help! Bring us a car!"
No one heard us in the streets. The only life in that patch of deserted Ramallah was the Israeli soldier who, I believe, shot me. I wondered what he might be thinking as we fumbled around, scared and powerless.
We got up again and walked about fifty yards, for what seemed like hours, heading for the Israeli personnel carriers parked ahead of us. They thought we were Palestinians and trained their guns on us. We both started shouting. "I’m a journalist!" I yelled. Said followed in Hebrew, "He’s wounded!" One soldier shouted back, "Show us!" Said turned my body, my white flak jacket soaked in red.
The soldier called an Israeli medic, who performed with precision. He gave me morphine and tried to stop the bleeding from a bullet that tore into my left shoulder, sheered off part of my vertebrae, then left a gaping hole in my right shoulder as it exited. Twelve pieces of shrapnel were left behind.
I was taken to a hospital, X-rayed, bandaged, and congratulated.
"You’re lucky," I kept hearing. "You’re lucky." Far luckier, I thought, than many of those around me.
This story reprinted with permission from Columbia Journalism Review.
Anthony Shadid is a correspondent for The Boston Globe based in Washington. He spent nine years with The Associated Press, five of them in Cairo. He is the author of Legacy of the Prophet: Despots, Democrats, and the New Politics of Islam, published in paperback in April.
He was campus editor of The Daily Cardinal in the late 1980s and is a winner of the William Wesley Young Award, given to young Cardinal alumni who show promise in their field.