In Memoriam: Alex Boulat

So we hugged and kissed and promised one another
We’d meet up in some shit-hole soon.
She came out into the chill night to say how much she’d appreciated the number who had turned out, that I’d been able to come.
I touched her hand and we parted –
Forever it would seem….

Never again, that joyous smile, the heavy French accent,
Her laughing dismissal of my struggling with her tongue,
The enquiries of when and who and where.
What’s safe?  Shall we go there?  Did you know that….?
How long ago is Croatia?  In Sarajevo, incarcerated through the winter of ’93.
Huddled together in the dining room, we seemed to eat gruel, yet so much
Better off than the people, the subjects of
Her reportage, always the people.  When we cameramen
Were ducking as the sniper fired, trying to get that shot of the smoke puff,
She was shooting the kids sheltering behind the dumpster, the woman
With mud on her face fresh from her husband’s grave,
The old couple in the graveyard of wooden markers.

On the L’Armee de l’Air, already taxiing, its tail ramp closing on Bukavu
Only to inexplicably stop. The ramp winding down. And there she was,
Alex running up, bundling her kit in the back, a momentary.
Pause for that one last persistent passenger.
Clambering over stuff lashed to the floor, she slammed down
Beside me, grabbed my face, kissing me enthusiastically.
An effusive greeting, a celebration we were both still alive
Because the last time I’d seen her was in the horrible
Carnage of Kigali as the massacres wound down;
She shooting the child beside It’s dead mother, the young husband
Carrying his wife’s body away to bury between the banana trees.

It’s breakfast.
In the Mandarin, Jakharta, a five star hotel in the middle of a crisis
I’m filling my plate with smoked fish when
Two hands blind fold my eyes.
“It’s me!”, “Alex!!!” I explode, the fish forgotten.
I Hug her. She’s so proud. Her first National
Geographic assignment – women in Indonesia.
I’m about to fly back into Timor’s hell.

The second Intifada.
Jerome and Alex in the AFP landrover behind me.
We manage to sneak through their iron grip.
She clucks, puckering her lips in that oh, so French way
“So bad these Israelis”.  She’s shooting the small boy lying
In the hospital with half a head, a big bandage over his eyes.
From the hospital we’re running. Clambering over rubble
Newly made in Palestine, by Israel.
Hiding in houses, running between blocks, over
A ridiculously high wall to drop 15 feet the other side
Then Alex is talking to a granny.  They’ve no food.  Their boy’s
Been gone these past 10 days. Granny cries into her blue scarf.
Alex’s eye to the viewfinder. A grim set of her narrow lips
She touches granny’s shoulder as we run on.

in the AFP rabbit hutch in Baghdad’s Information
Ministry. Between packing crate partitions, smoke curls up from
Ashtrayed cigarettes, a tangle of cables,
Computers overheating as they send material out to a
Waiting world. Small groups talking, wondering, asking,
Heads together, anxious, but determined to stay.

She comes to me a couple of evenings before the war,
The American nets have bolted.  Other people are leaving,
“Tim…. what do you think? I think we stay, huh?!” she cocks her head
In that way she had, her cigarette between two fingers.
“Bien sur.  We’ll be OK. Stick with Jerome.  We’ll all be in the
Palestine together…”
“Yes, I’m sure…”
But her eyes were nervous. The strain showing. The toll on everyone,
Ripping relationships apart, confirming some
And cementing others for always.

So memory stretches and contracts across seventeen years
Of meetings and partings.  Members of an exclusive, small
Ever changing community of the damned…. damned by our
Own choice to see the very worst of humanity. And yet
Alex always made sure that, where as we went for the
Bang, bang – she put the human face on the page. She cared
For the desperate she framed. She was as transient as any of us
Moving from theatre to theatre, making pictures that mattered.

Until the last time I saw her. I could have bunked it. Too late,
Too far, too much effort in the daily rush of things, I’d rather go home
To sleep, but there was something else; that it was her work, which so many
Times I’d witnessed in the making, being celebrated,
That I’d see Alex again, far from the desperation for once.
I was drawn because I’m off the road – so who knew when I’d see her again?
Our connection wasn’t normal or regular like that.

It took a week for me to find out she’d died.
Five months to even know that she was ill – and by then it was too late.
But that night at the Front Line Club – she’d thought she’d be the foreigner,
An outsider to the the anglophone circle of newsmongers and practitioners, But was overwhelmed by the response of an audience she didn’t know
Cared or even recognised her work.  The place was full.
She was thrilled, almost to the point of being unable to speak.
I’m so pleased I made the effort – we dined together afterwards
She insisting I sat beside her, the queen for the night. I was honoured.

Now, I’m at a loss. Although I didn’t speak or write to her frequently,
When we met in some terrible place, some place before it became
Terrible because it would, there would be a moment of deep joy
And then we’d remember or think of each other now and again
Through the weeks and months between, till our next unscheduled meeting.
But now there will be no more meetings.
Alex… I am bereft that I’ll never see you across a bullet riddled street,
In the lobby of a dreadful hotel,  in some shitty place.
A bientot….