October 25, 2007 / 4:41 AM / 11 years ago

WITNESS: Still paralyzed, but back reporting overseas

Peter Apps is a Reuters correspondent who was badly injured in a car crash on Sept 5, 2006 while on assignment in Sri Lanka. He lost the use of his limbs and is now confined to a wheelchair. He has written previously on his slow recovery and return to work. In the following story he describes going on his first foreign reporting trip since his accident.

By Peter Apps

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Gulping down a swift lunch, I meet a photographer laden down with cameras in the agonizingly hip hotel foyer, get into a van and head off to interview underage Iraqi refugees on the outskirts of the Swedish capital.

Racing through dark Scandinavian forests in a well lit railway carriage as darkness falls, I write up an interview with the Norwegian defense minister on her country’s response to increased Russian military activity in the Arctic.

It’s not so far from what I did in my previous two years as a foreign correspondent for Reuters. Except that now my body is completely paralyzed.

After I broke my neck on assignment 13 months ago, I desperately wanted to get back to the job I loved, but many were skeptical.

The minibus smash as I covered war in eastern Sri Lanka massively damaged my spinal cord, paralyzing me from the neck down and leaving me entirely dependent on others.

I require 24-hour care, cannot feed or wash myself, use my mobile phone or make handwritten notes.

There have been a handful of disabled and wheelchair-bound foreign correspondents before. But all have had largely working arms and much more independence.

Using voice recognition software, a tape recorder for interviews and accompanied by a support worker, I went back to work and the real world in June after finally leaving hospital.

At first I was thrilled to be out after agonizing months away from everything. But I still felt trapped in the sterile, affluent surroundings of London’s Canary Wharf where I work.

So I jumped at the prospect of a Scandinavia trip promoting AlertNet for Journalists (www.alertnet.org/journalists), a website helping reporters cover humanitarian crises.

My main effort was going to be explaining the site’s crisis briefings and other material to Scandinavian journalists. But I wasn’t going to let the chance pass for some foreign reporting.


The problems started before we left. One of the two-person support team was hospitalized the day we were to fly, and we got another volunteer confirmed with six hours left to take off.

Getting onto the flight from London to Oslo was a little undignified, with my team and the groundstaff transferring me from my wheelchair onto a much smaller one able to fit onto the aircraft and then to an airline seat.

Once there it felt great to be doing familiar things like taking a minibus from the airport or checking in to a hotel.

We had a tough schedule of meetings, taking foreign editors, reporters and journalism students through how they could use the AlertNet site to improve their coverage.

It was hard work — probably the heaviest I have set myself on an overseas trip, even more than when I used to fly or drive into southern African countries from Johannesburg, trying to do as many stories in as little time as possible.

It was tougher on Jana and Shams, the Czech full-time carer and Bangladeshi British support worker who came with me.

But by forewarning hotels to hire equipment such as hoists to lift me to bed, all ran almost perfectly.

And in what some might view as the least newsworthy countries on earth, we found peacekeepers headed to Darfur, young Iraqis fleeing alone across Europe and Burmese dissidents broadcasting clandestine radio news from Oslo to Myanmar.

The stories ran in newspapers around the world — as Reuters stories often do — with most of those reading unaware the writer was paralyzed.

The trip showed me what is possible for returning the massively disabled to work. There will still be tough times and battles ahead. But on this trip I can honestly say I felt myself more than any time since the accident.

(For more information on humanitarian issues visit www.alertnet.org. Free access to crisis briefings, aid agency contacts, statistics and training materials at www.alertnet.org/journalists. No registration is required)

You can read more Reuters Witness stories by clicking on the URL here or by typing it into the address bar of your browser

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