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Listening to Libya's stories of freedom



FROM Loreto to Libya, Somalia to her sister's wedding Rathcormac native Mary Fitzgerald has seen it all.

The Irish Times' foreign affairs correspondent finished secondary school in Fermoy before completing an undergraduate degree at Queens University Belfast, and while there also studied for a year at a university in Miami having been awarded a scholarship. She followed this up with a postgrad in journalism at the University of Ulster in Belfast, and years later also studied Arabic at the University of Jordan.

"I have wanted to be a journalist for as long as I can remember. I grew up in a house that was always filled with newspapers, and we argued over who got what paper, or section of the paper, first. I did work experience at The Avondhu while I was still at school, and did freelance work for several media outlets while I was a student at university. I did an internship at a magazine in the US while studying there," Mary explains.

"I spent my year after graduation working for a newspaper in Austin, Texas and a production company in London which made documentaries for the BBC. After that, I returned to Belfast to do my postgrad. I was offered a job at the Belfast Telegraph before I finished the course. In 2004, I was awarded the Laurence Stern fellowship at the Washington Post, which involved spending five months working at the paper. It was right in the middle of the US presidential election campaign so I spent time reporting from the campaign trail and travelling with the candidates - I got to fly on Air Force One with then president George W. Bush."

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Mary then relocated to the Middle East as a freelancer based in Amman, Jordan.

"I was awarded the inaugural Douglas Gageby Fellowship at the Irish Times in 2006, which involved several months of reporting on Islam in Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Syria and Lebanon. In 2007, I returned to Ireland to take up my current position as foreign affairs correspondent. I have worked across the Middle East, Africa and Asia, reporting from dozens of countries including Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Angola, Sierra Leone, Chad. The major stories I have covered include the 2006 war in Lebanon, the war in Afghanistan, the uprising in Libya this year, and the violence that followed the disputed presidential elections in Iran in 2009. I take a particular interest in the dynamics shaping Muslim-majority countries."

While the demands of such a globe- trotting profession takes its toll, the rewards more than outweigh the personal sacrifices, Mary insists.

"It can be demanding but it's such an enormous privilege to be there to watch history unfold right in front of you. I was on holiday in France when Tripoli fell to the rebels on August 21. I cut my holiday short to get there as soon as possible. I had spent five weeks in Libya earlier in the year when the uprising started and I really wanted to return to see how it might end. The story of Libya's uprising, and the 'Arab Spring' more generally, is such an important one, and a fascinating one for me personally, given that I have lived in the region.

"I remember being with my mother in a cafe in Cork city on December 27, 2007, and hearing that Benazir Bhutto had just been shot. I have reported many times from Pakistan and had interviewed Bhutto before she returned to her homeland months before. Within a day, I had a visa and was flying out to Pakistan to cover her assassination and the aftermath.

"I spent New Year's Eve in Karachi that year which was not part of my original plan.

"More recently, I rushed back from covering the famine in Somalia to be bridesmaid at my sister's wedding, arriving in Dublin airport less than 24 hours before the big day." While demanding, Mary explains that the pressure-cooker atmosphere of life on the frontline of journalism also forges valued friendships.

"Several of my friends are also foreign correspondents from other countries so we often meet up on assignments. There can be a great sense of camaraderie as you are experiencing similar things and supporting one another if the going gets tough."

While having witnessed much in her career, Mary's first hand experiences in Libya recently stand out as the most rewarding of her career.

"The story of Libya's uprising is hard to beat, especially for those of us who were there right from the beginning -I arrived in Libya ten days after the first protests began on February 15. Several friends who covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and all that followed in 1989 say Libya - or the Arab Spring more generally - is the only story that has grabbed them in the same way.

"The Libyan uprising was a genuine people's revolution involving Libyans from all walks of life - young, old, male, female, rich and poor - and their strength and courage in the face of Gaddafi's brutality was hugely inspiring and very moving.

"There was also the fact that this was the first time in 42 years that journalists were able to enter Libya freely, interview whoever they wanted, and have those people speak without fear of the consequences.

"Any journalist lucky enough to be allowed into Libya when Gaddafi was in power was usually invited by the regime and had to operate under severely restricted conditions. This year everyone we met had a story to tell of life under Gaddafi - many sad, others horrifying. I just didn't want to stop listening. I did two five-week stints in Libya this year, and hope to return soon to report on the equally important story of how the country copes with what promises to be a very challenging transition period."

The job isn't without its dangers, however.

"I spent time on the frontline in Libya, where we came under sniper and mortar fire on a number of occasions. Also, before the UN authorised a no-fly zone, the Gaddafi regime was bombing from the air around where we were on the frontline.

"Very often, however, I felt more in danger from untrained rebel fighters who had no idea how to use the weapons they were carrying. I had a flak jacket and helmet, the latter was important as several people suffered head injuries due to celebratory gunfire.

"I have been detained by militas or security services in several countries, including Lebanon, Chad and Jordan.

"In Afghanistan, my colleague, Irish Times photographer Brenda Fitzsimons, and I had to wear burqas so as to travel inconspicuously through Taliban- controlled territory to meet with insurgent commanders. You will never eliminate all risk in those kind of environments, but you can take steps to try to minimize the level of risk."

Mary says that she is happy to continue with her current beat for the foreseeable future, and that she loves her job for many reasons, particularly for the range of stories and issues she gets to report on. But what would her advice be to to aspiring journalists?

"The industry is going through a period of incredible flux at the moment, but I think it's important to see this as bringing opportunities as well as challenges. Be prepared to be flexible and work across a range of media - print, online, broadcast - and develop the skills to do so. But remember the basic foundations of our craft remain - bearing witness, holding people to account, and listening.

"Never stop listening."