Lyse Doucet remembers the last time she wept. “We went to the Palestinian refugee camp at Yarmouk on the out-skirts of Damascus. Even after several years covering the civil war, we’d never been in a place of such intensity, with so much desperation, so much devastation. A little boy was crying for bread. After we came out, myself and my Syrian colleagues, we collapsed in tears. It was so, so, so shocking.”
Today Doucet, the BBC’s chief international correspondent, isn’t in a combat zone but a tiny radio studio in south London, recording a special edition of Archive on 4. She’s interviewing women war correspondents over the phone, asking if their lot has changed since Lee Miller and Martha Gellhorn put female reporting on the front line during the Second World War.
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Doucet doesn’t go back that far – she turns 60 this year – but she has seen three decades of conflict. She first flew to Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1988 (“my birthday”), and has since reported from across the region and beyond, picking up an OBE, two Sony radio awards and many other accolades. When air strikes fall on the innocent and tanks crash through homes, we’ve come to expect Doucet to be there, telling us what’s happening in that distinctive is-it-Scottish-is-it-French? accent. “It’s Canadian,” she says firmly. “One hundred per cent Canadian.”
Doucet was born in Bathurst, a small town in the province of New Brunswick, and brought up a Roman Catholic. At school she was told her career prospects amounted to “a nun or none”. “The nuns were some of the best feminists I’d ever met,” she says. “They weren’t happy with the fact that there weren’t women priests. They weren’t happy with the corruption. They weren’t happy with the abuses. They were very strong women.”
We’ve come to take Doucet’s own strength and bravery for granted, but she’s very aware of what can go wrong. In 2012 her friend, the Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin, was killed by Syrian government artillery fire in Homs. “I’ll never forget it,” says Doucet. “I was listening to Marie’s report on the BBC World Service at home in London. She was in an area under intense bombardment, talking about a baby whose tummy was going up and down and then it stopped because the baby died.
“The next morning, reports came in that Marie had been killed. Earlier that week Marie had told Lindsey Hilsum [Channel 4 News international editor] in Beirut that she was going into Homs. Lindsey had felt it was beyond the acceptable threshold of danger. Marie just looked at her and said, ‘Lindsey, it’s what we do.’ I often remember that. ‘It’s what we do.’ ”
One of the reporters she interviews says some of her female colleagues deliberately don’t have children. Does Doucet regret not having a child? “Would you ask a man that question?” she replies sharply. “I’ve always said I want to live a life without any regrets. And I don’t have any. Coming from small-town Canada to work for one of the biggest, best broadcasting organisations in the world is like winning the lottery. The BBC has been a passport for me. It lets me travel where I want to go and tell the stories that I want tell. Sometimes they happen to be the headline stories of our time. Sometimes they are the defining stories of our time.”
Her encounters with tragedy naturally take a toll, and when Doucet returns from assignments she swaps her usual Radio 4 for Radio 3 – “I need classical music” – and the television stays off for a while. “There have been times when I don’t want to look at images of ruined landscapes, gutted, darkened houses, children fleeing in anguish, people crying. I just need to be calm. I hope that’s the normal response because if you were hard as stone, it means you’re not touched. How could you not be touched by the enormity of what people are going through?”
She sketches that enormity out for me. “In Syria, women and children were targeted, traumatised and even tortured. We had to let them tell their stories.”
Her flat is near Paddington Station and the Heathrow Express. “I live in a quiet area of London, which is quite soothing. I sense that some people think I’m a little weird, that I don’t do normal ordinary things. Sometimes I laugh and think, ‘Let them think I’m a weirdo.’ But I’m not. I have coffee in my neighbourhood with friends, go to see classical music or Afghan music or African music. Go to Iranian restaurants.”
Can she really leave behind what she sees? “People often say to me when I get back, ‘Oh, you must feel guilty that you’re going to a restaurant with your friends or that you’re going to a café.’
“But no. I don’t feel guilty. Most people who are living in conflict zones want to go to cafés and not worr y about a bomb coming through the roof. They want to send their child off to school and know in their hearts that they will come back. We should celebrate and enjoy and embrace those things because that is life and in countries where people die they want to live those things, too. If we don’t enjoy them, then what’s the point?”
Archive on 4: Witnessing the Worst airs on Radio 4 on Saturday 20th October at 8pm