The price of reporting at Jerusalem's holiest shrine

A reporter's account of your routine Sunday morning riot.
A Palestinian youth hides after hurling a stone at Israeli policemen during a standoff in the heart of Jerusalem's Old City on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009, when CBC journalist Irris Makler was injured. (Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press)

It was a sunny autumn day in Jerusalem when I awoke to reports that Palestinian worshippers were rioting in the Old City.

The protests were part of an ongoing dispute over access for Jewish visitors to the site, which includes the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest shrine in Islam.

Middle East reporter Irris Makler is used to reporting the news, but on Oct. 25, 2009, she became part of the story. She was hit in the face with a rock while covering riots in Jerusalem for the CBC.

Her jaw was broken in three places and will be wired up for six weeks.  Here, she writes about the events — and the impact on her life.

In the weeks leading up to this, I had done a series of stories for the CBC when there had been earlier disturbances at this location. It is holy to both sides, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.  

So that morning I gathered up my recording equipment and drove downtown.

Israeli police had closed the Al-Aqsa site, which is nestled inside the Old City's ancient sandstone walls, and were guarding the entrances.

The closest I could get was an alley near the Lion's Gate in the Muslim quarter.

There I saw Palestinian youths burning rubbish and throwing stones.

There were large numbers of Israeli police, but they weren't engaging directly with the demonstrators. There was no tear gas, though I did hear stun grenades going off.

On my own personal riot-meter, the crowd felt restless but not particularly dangerous. I've been to many of these events where the temperature was much higher.

Middle East correspondent Irris Makler. (Courtesy Irris Makler)

Clattering stones  

I went closer to the end of the alley where rubbish was burning, and Palestinian youths were throwing stones. There was a group of journalists about 20 metres ahead of me, which was about 20 metres back from those burning the rubbish.

I hugged the wall and stood under a balcony to protect me from the stones that were being thrown. They were small and coming in slowly.  

I didn't need to be any closer, since I was working for radio that day and so only needed to record some sound. I stayed there recording for only a minute or so.

As the small stones clattered past my microphone, I became aware that they were getting larger and were turning into fist-sized rocks.

The young men throwing them had their faces covered. I decided to go back. But as I turned, a rock caught me in the face.  

It was a head-snapping blow, coming, I now think, from a nearby roof since it flew in from above while I was still under the balcony.

It was incredibly fortunate that I had turned, because the rock caught me in the lower left jaw rather than the skull or the nose, or the eyes.

First the good news

My face was torn and I was spitting blood in a stream from my mouth, but I never lost consciousness and was able to walk unaided to the ambulance.  

That was the good news.

When I reached Jerusalem's famous Hadassah hospital they told me the bad news: My jaw was broken in three places, some of my teeth were forced out of alignment and one of my facial nerves might be severed.  

The doctors stitched the wound in my cheek and wired my jaw shut to allow the bones to knit and the teeth to realign.

I now have the braces I never had as a teenager and will have to stay like this for six weeks.

Six weeks! I was reeling with shock when they told me.  

I can see a plus side to not eating — those stubborn extra 10 pounds may finally go — but not talking? What could be the good in that?  

Despite the tough times ahead, I am, in many respects, lucky that I was injured here in Jerusalem, where the standard of medical care is so high, and not in other places where I have worked, such as Afghanistan.

Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem is an amazing melting pot: Palestinians and Orthodox Jews lie in adjoining beds, while fierce, kind Russian nurses, and doctors from every nation in the world fix them up.

Time to reflect

Dosed up with painkillers, but unable to sleep, Hadassah hospital is also an appropriate environment from which to reflect on my strange life as a correspondent.

I have been to so many dangerous places — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq — and nothing bad has happened to me until now.

Margaret Evans, the CBC correspondent I was filling in for that day, was ashen faced when she saw me. She had the feeling that I took a blow meant for her.

She, too, has been in plenty of dangerous situations and told me that there was no point in brooding on fate and chance. Still, sometimes, alone in the ward at night, I found that I couldn't help myself.  

I've been reminded in the most fundamental way that life can change in an instant. You can fall in love or learn you have cancer in the space of a morning.

I have to decide what is important, where the balance lies between excitement and danger. Is it time to give up being a front-line journalist, and do something less hazardous?

Is it time to admit that the statistics are against you in this job — if it's not a rock, it could be rubber bullet. Or a real one.  

Or should I see it as simply bad luck, ignore the statistics and get back in the saddle?  

I don't know what the answer is yet, but I've got six long SILENT weeks to puzzle it out.