The Independent’s Bel Trew has spoken of her unease at picking up the Marie Colvin Award when journalists are being killed at an unprecedented rate in Gaza.
Speaking to Press Gazette from her apartment in Berlin after being recognised at the British Journalism Awards in December, she said: “I feel silly accepting an award,” adding there was “a bleak feeling inside me right now”.
At time of publication, the Committee to Protect Journalists put the number of journalists killed in Israel and Gaza since the 7 October attacks at 85. The CPJ believes it is the deadliest conflict for journalists since records began.
“I feel like an idiot accepting awards at the moment,” Trew said. “I couldn’t last for six seconds in Gaza in the way that someone like [Al Jazeera Gaza bureau chief] Wael Dahdouh’s done.”
“He lost his children, his wife, his grandchild, his cameraman,” Trew said. “He was operating without food, without water, no guarantees whatsoever, and will come away from this without family members.” Dahdouh left Gaza last month to receive medical treatment in Qatar.
“If you can make this clear: I’ve never had to worry about the safety of my family. I have always had the luxury of coming in and coming out. We are not the [front] lines of journalism. The journalists in Gaza right now are.”
‘This woman is completely insane‘
The judges who awarded Trew the Marie Colvin Award said that she had become “one of the leading foreign correspondents in the world in recent years”, commending in particular her “steadfast reporting from Ukraine”.
Trew herself hadn’t even known she was up for the award: she learned of her win while out in the field.
Trew was raised between the United Arab Emirates, where her mother worked as a newsreader, and Latvia in the wake of the USSR’s collapse. She speaks English, French and Egyptian Arabic, which she said “always makes people laugh because essentially it would be like someone from abroad coming [to the UK] with a really strong Mancunian accent”.
Graduating from university amid the post-2008 financial crisis , Trew went out into the field at a time when publishers were cutting staff and increasing their reliance on freelances. She arrived in Egypt in 2011 amid the protests that unseated President Hosni Mubarak and stayed there for seven years, becoming a Middle East “superstringer” for The Times.
“In those days, social media was this incredible platform for levelling everyone and also giving opportunities for freelancers in the field to randomly get noticed,” she said.
She described that era of social media as “the beautiful days, before it became the cesspool that it is now”.
In 2018 Trew was arrested during Egypt’s presidential election and “accused of many things”, although specific charges were not revealed to her. Less than 24 hours later she was marched on to a plane to London with nothing but the clothes she’d been detained in and deported.
Her two cats, both adopted off the streets of Cairo, were the things she worried about most in detention.
“I kept asking them: ‘Can I get my cats?’ And they were just like – this woman is completely insane. She’s not getting the gravity of the situation. Because there were all kinds of things bandied around, like maybe I’ll go to military trial or whatever.”
A few months later Trew was hired by The Independent. She spent two and a half years in Jerusalem for the outlet and another two and a half in Lebanon, where she was based when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. Her coverage of the war saw her promoted to the post of chief international correspondent, and in 2023 The Independent released her 40-minute documentary about those who went missing in the fighting, titled The Body in the Woods.
‘You can’t do it all, the media’s messing up’
Trew described her expansive “chief international correspondent” job title as “kind of ludicrous”. But it certainly reflects her role accurately.
“The sad truth is that there is this focus of the media that can get swept along by whatever’s happening,” she said. But she added: “That’s the job of journalists – to make sure that there aren’t forgotten conflicts.”
It is a difficult job to carry out successfully.
“As a reporter, I feel a great deal of responsibility…” Trew said. “For Ukraine, it’s been an incredibly difficult time, because the global focus has shifted… There’s been a horrific conflict happening in Sudan and Darfur, and that’s dropped off the newsfeed.”
Arriving somewhere, potentially for months at a time, Trew said you make friends and build relationships with people in the areas you cover. She has ended up with a host of people “who message you every day, saying: ‘Did you know my building was just taken out by a S-300 [missile system] last night?’
“And then at the same time, I have a Syrian refugee in Lebanon who’s like – ‘Please help me, I’ve run out of medicine for my child,’ or I’ll have friends in Darfur saying: ‘No one’s covering what’s happening, aren’t you going to cover it?’ And then people in Gaza are facing mass slaughter.
“You feel a great responsibility. And it’s sometimes soul-destroying, because you know that you can’t do it all, and inevitably the media’s messing up.”
The evolution from war reporting
International correspondent work sometimes carries with it a perception of glamour. But Trew said: “If it’s glamorous, then I don’t know where you’re reporting from.”
She recalled hitchhiking to Poland’s border with Ukraine in minus six-degree weather when the Russian invasion kicked off.
“I was coming straight from Lebanon and I didn’t have any warm clothes because I lived in a warm country,” she said.
“All I had were Christmas socks that my stepmother had given me. You know the ones that you wear that have plastic on the bottom? Like proper slipper socks. I had to wear them for two months.”
She later found herself sleeping on the floor of a wedding hall, in the same socks, in an area under bombardment. “It was bright purple, with glitter balls. Maybe you could call that glamorous, actually.”
But cold and mud were beside the point: “When you spend so much time talking to people who are literally living what you can’t even imagine your worst nightmare to be – there’s no glamour in that. It’s only humbling.”
Trew’s conflict reporting is marked by a focus on the victims of war, rather than its military side. The Body In The Woods begins with her attempting to identify the body of a teen boy killed by Russian armed forces before the documentary unfolds into a broader meditation on the human effects of an invasion on a civilian population. Except for some scene-setting at the beginning, the film avoids images of soldiers, tanks and trenches.
Trew said: “I believe we need to help shift war reporting – I hate that phrase – into something that is anchored more on truth and compassion and looks beyond the trenches and beyond the tanks and beyond the literal visualisation of a dictionary definition of war.”
She said there has been “a lot of machismo” in conflict reporting. “The industry has been dominated by patriarchal structures for a long time.”
On the ground in Ukraine Trew said she often got the sense that “the majority of us are women. And I wonder if that gender dynamic change has made a difference”.
She added: “There’s so much more to conflict that needs to be seen, because it might actually help people realise that we shouldn’t have war, and it could prevent war in the future – as grandiose as that idea sounds.
“If people could truly see what we see every day and the devastating impact on civilians, they might think twice about shouting down a ceasefire, for example.”
The work may not be glamorous, but Trew said it was a “privilege, actually, to do this kind of work.
“I feel like there’s an incredible irreverence to it, where I can march into an artillery position and expect the commander to tell me what’s going on on the battlefield, or I can go into a presidential office or parliament and demand world leaders tell me to answer my question. Or I can talk to a jihadi fighter on the frontline in Syria.
“That’s what makes this job incredible.”
When Bel Trew encountered Marie Colvin
The Tahrir Square protests that brought Trew to Egypt involved widespread, weaponised use of sexual assault against women. One woman who was attacked was CBS News correspondent Lara Logan, who was on the job at the time.
Trew remembered: “She got criticism. Because, from the States, people said: ‘Well it was her fault for being there.’ I mean, the classic way that victims are blamed, right? ‘It was her fault for being there, what did she expect? Why wasn’t she at home with her children?’”
The Evening Standard editor at the time, Sarah Sands, commissioned Trew to write about the double standard. Among her interviewees for the piece was Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times journalist killed in Homs in 2012 and for whom Trew’s award is named.
“She was amazing,” Trew said. “She was in Cairo at the time, and she was just ranting down the phone, saying: ‘It’s ridiculous! I’m so tired of this whole weird obsession with women on the ground and the criticism that we get, all the weird extra special praise for being there.’”
Colvin was particularly angry about the idea that Logan had left her children behind, Trew said.
“She mentioned several prominent male correspondents – who I won’t name – who have multiple families with different former wives.
“And she’s like: ‘No one ever asked them why they’re not home with their multiple families and their children! They’re all here, no one ever criticises them!’
“And it was such an amazing moment. She was killed a year later. And I was this young, wannabe Marie Colvin, and this absolute lion of a woman [was] on the phone to me… It was really inspiring – and also, she made me laugh.”
Women journalists receive more abuse online than their male counterparts, and Trew is no exception.
But she said: “I can hear [Colvin] in my head when I have moments of darkness, where I feel it’s just too much. I hear her being like: ‘They don’t bloody ask X where his children are, do they?’…
“She made it her life’s goal to go there. And she broke through a ceiling for the rest of us who are coming up through that. Because even when I started out, there was ‘is that safe for a woman?’ as a sentence [in journalism]. As if a bullet is ever gender-specific.
“We have a great deal to thank her for.”
What happened to the cats?
It took a year, but Trew did get her cats out of Egypt. One appeared as we began our interview and had to be shooed from the room.
The street cats’ tangles with history were not finished when they escaped Cairo: they were at Trew’s apartment in Beirut when 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded at the city’s port.
Trew hadn’t been home at the time. Her flat was partially destroyed, but the cats survived unharmed.
“I do feel guilty, because I was like – maybe they would have had a better life if I had just left them on the streets of Egypt rather than dragging them across the world and blowing them up.
“I think anyone who works in conflict should have some form of animal. It’s a great form of therapy.”
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