Thursday, June 02, 2005
© Gavin Bond
The unabridged version of my interview with Janine follows:
By W. Thomas Smith Jr.
In her book, Madness Visible, author-journalist Janine Di Giovanni describes what most people would consider to be a scene from Hell in its purest form. It was March 1993, the first winter of the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. There was “ice hanging from the shattered buildings, breath coming out like frozen clouds,” she recalls. “I saw a dog with a human hand in its mouth.”
At first, she didn’t know it was a hand. “All I saw was a dog driven to madness by hunger,” she writes, “[It was] running with a prize in its jaw, a piece of meat dripping blood.”
It was not a first or an isolated horror in the life thus far of Di Giovanni, one of five women war correspondents featured in Bearing Witness (a film by two-time Academy Award-winner Barbara Kopple, which airs on A&E, May 26 at 9:00 p.m. EDT / 8C ). A writer for The Times of London, National Geographic, Vanity Fair, and MilitaryWeek.com; Di Giovanni has covered some of the world’s most brutal conflicts, always with a focus on the ordinary person. It’s not about ships, planes, tanks, and generals who command troops in combat, she says. War is about real people with families, like any of us, but who face tragedy and incomprehensible circumstances that seemingly never end. Yet they press-on with life, a fact that has led Di Giovanna to write about – and never take for granted – the indomitable human spirit.
In an exclusive interview, Di Giovanni discusses the nature of war and war reporting, Bosnia, Chechnya, the war in Iraq, her personal fears and near-death experiences, and how becoming a mother has saved her. She also offers sage advice for young journalists with dreams of becoming war correspondents.
SMITH: In your book you quote the late Robert Capa [the famous Hungarian-born photojournalist]. Capa talked about “the incompatibility of being a reporter and hanging on to a tender soul at the same time.” Is that not kind of an inherent contradiction within the souls of all writers? I personally feel we have to be sensitive to write well, but we also have to be tough enough to survive the immersion into human misery. Don’t you agree?
DI GIOVANNI: In a very straightforward way, I am a terrible reporter. I’m not someone who can go into a story and not get involved. I always in some way take kind of a personal toll from it, especially in war. To be a good reporter, writing about war, you have to write about the people. It’s not about the tanks or the RPG’s or military strategy. It’s always about the affect war has on civilians, on society, and how it disrupts and destroys lives. But it is also how – in a very strange way – war can make people do incredibly heroic things. And through reporting war, I feel a sense of privilege because I’m able to come into contact with so many of the world’s most extraordinary human beings. You know, it is something just to witness the power of the human spirit.
I suppose if I were a good reporter, I would just stand back, take notes, go home and write my story. But I’ve never been able to do that.
SMITH: Yes, but you could not be a really good writer and do that. Is it not true that writers are sensitive by nature, and we should not try to deny that sensitivity?
DI GIOVANNI: Yes, but I remember in 1992 in Sarajevo, there was an old people’s home. And the people in this home were literally dying from the cold, of hypothermia. About four or five of us drove out there. It was a terrible front line – if you remember the Sarajevo airport – it was horrible. We got to the house, and there was an old man who was lying dead in front of the house. He had been trying to chop wood to heat the place and a sniper shot him. All the staff had run away. I went inside and there were about thirteen old people lying dead in their beds. When I walked past one of the beds, an arm reached out a grabbed me. It was an old woman. She was still alive. So I sat there and hugged her as she was dying and tried to physically warm her with my own body. Then I noticed another reporter behind me taking notes. He walked away. He later wrote about this scene, and he said he was shocked to see me doing this because everything his journalism training had taught him said ‘not to get involved.’ And here I was physically involved.
In Barbara Kopple’s film, Bearing Witness, there is a scene on the Ivory Coast where there is a wounded rebel soldier and I’m screaming at the government troops to take him to the hospital, and they won’t do it because to them he is just scum.
But I think there has to come a time when you cease being a reporter and you become a human being with emotions. And as human beings, it is very difficult to watch people suffer physically, mentally, and emotionally.
SMITH: Have you ever feared for your own life?
DI GIOVANNI: Yes. Several times, but the two worst times were – first – when I was captured by Serb paramilitaries crossing the Montenegro-Kosovo border in 1999. What made that situation so dangerous was that they were very drunk, and they were very angry because it was the first day that French NATO planes had bombed Belgrade. They caught me, and basically marched me and two other colleagues – male reporters – with rifles at our backs into the woods.
There was no one else around. It was getting dark. We were on an isolated mountaintop.
They had loaded us in cars and said they were going to take us to their commander. Then after several hours of playing mind games with us, shooting over our heads, they let us go.
It was one of those situations where they could have just shot us and thrown us over the mountain.
SMITH: How many soldiers were there?
DI GIOVANNI: About eight.
SMITH: Didn’t you also fear being raped?
DI GIOVANNI: Rape never really occurred to me. But my two colleagues said they were certain I was going to be raped, and they didn’t know what they were going to be able to do. Of course, they wouldn’t have been able to do anything. I only thought they were going to shoot me in the head. Maybe I was naïve
As a woman, though, that is something that is very important to consider, particularly when you’re working alone like I do. I don’t have a TV crew or anything with me. I’m always by myself. And in Africa – in particular – that is a real consideration. Africa is a very dangerous place.
SMITH: What was that second most dangerous moment?
DI GIOVANNI: Yes, when Grozny [in Chechnya] fell in February of 2000. I was sure I wasn’t going to get out of that alive. I didn’t go there to be trapped in the fall of Grozny. It was in the right place at the right time if you’re thinking like a journalist. It was the wrong place at the wrong time if you’re thinking like a human being.
I was a trapped in a suburb outside of the city with the retreating Chechen army.
Now, you’re a military guy, Thomas, so you know what that meant: We were being pummeled by Russian tanks and helicopter gunships. And we knew that when morning came, the Russians were going to come in and ‘cleanse’ the village as they had done others. If they found me, they were going to kill me, because I wasn’t supposed to be there. I was in Chechnya illegally. They didn’t want journalists there, especially journalists like me who had witnessed what I had witnessed: The total abuse of human rights.
I was sure I was going to die, and I was not yet a mother.
I remember saying my prayers that night. I knew I had lived a good life, so I was fine with that. My only concern was that I was not going to be able to get my story out. No one would actually know the evil things that had happened in that village.
But I did survive, and I did write the story.
SMITH: So the concern for getting your story out is greater than the concern for your own safety. Is that a reflection of an immunity to fear, perhaps a temporary displacement of fear? Or do you – much like a soldier does – continue to march and shoot despite being afraid?
DI GIOVANNI: I think you are a correct. I remember being on autopilot. I remember after the experience of being captured by the Serb paramilitaries, trying to set up my satellite phone. It was one of the older models where you had to set up the leaves. I needed to call my office, but I was shaking so hard. So, I kept telling myself, ‘Stop shaking! Pull yourself together!’
I would be places from which I couldn’t escape. I would be stuck somewhere. And I wasn’t Dorothy. I couldn’t click my shoes and go home.
Many times I’ve been afraid, but I fought back the fear, because I thought if I started letting myself be afraid I might open a door I didn’t want to open. My self-preservation factor just said, ‘Close that door of fear. You can’t go there.’
SMITH: You mentioned not being a mother, but you are now.
DI GIOVANNI: I have a 14-month old son, Luca. My husband [Bruno Girodon of France 2 Television] and I had a romantic war-zone relationship. We met in Sarajevo . We fell madly in love, but were separated by circumstances, war and other things. We met again in Algeria covering the war in 1998. We then carried out this ridiculous courtship that went from Afghanistan and Iraq to the Ivory Coast, Somalia, Zimbabwe. We finally got married and had this beautiful boy who has redeemed us both.
SMITH: Why do you say he redeemed you?
DI GIOVANNI: Because having seen so much darkness, misery, and suffering; Luca’s laughter to me just lightened my life. He saved me.
SMITH: What do you hope Luca will one day glean from your own experiences as a war correspondent? What do you want for him to take with him as a man?
DI GIOVANNI: Compassion. That is the most important thing. I hope he doesn’t grow up to be a war correspondent. But no matter what he does, I want him to go into the world with compassion for his fellow man and a sense of joy for all the things we have. He was fortunate to be born in Paris and not Liberia or Sierra Leone. Appreciation for things: That’s something my work has given me. When I am at home in Paris or with my family in New Jersey, I’m just so appreciative of what I have.
I see so many people get so wrapped up in wanting to get a bigger SUV or a bigger house. But then I think, my God, I could have been born a woman in the Congo.
I want to pass these things to my son.
SMITH: Let’s look at Iraq for a moment: Much of the negative reporting coming out of that country results from the fact that during the offensive phase of the war in 2003, all of the reporters were embeds, going down the same roads, eating the same chow, sleeping in the same holes, dodging the same bullets. So everything the troops were involved in – good and bad – was reported. Today, however, the reporters are hunkered down in the Palestine Hotel and other places, rarely able to come out for security reasons except to cover car bombings and gun fights. They never cover the rebuilding of schools and medical clinics.
DI GIOVANNI: You are right. Let me tell you though, someone once described me as being embedded before the term was coined. But I’ve always been opposed to the embed thing, and I’ve never been embedded with the winning forces. I’ve always traveled with the losers. The militias. The victims. I was with the Bosnian Muslim army. Always the guys on the wrong side. Yes, I did live with them, sleep with them, and eat their chow. But always I was with the ones being hunted down. That’s far different than being with say the American Army.
So there is a twisted notion of reporting when you are an embed. But it’s also true about those reporters in the Palestine Hotel or the al Hamra Hotel where the print journalists stay. You know I was in Baghdad last October, and I DID go out every day. I put on an abaya. I covered my head. But it was scary. You just can’t work there anymore. You don’t know whom to trust. Your beloved driver could sell you to a kidnapper. I’m an American, so they’re not going to take me and hold me. They’re going to behead me on Al Jazeera.
Those journalists are stuck in the hotels. It’s just too dangerous. The TV guys will send out their Iraqi cameramen.
Reporting in Iraq right now is almost an impossible situation. And that is why we are getting distorted press.
SMITH: How does covering war really contribute to our understanding of people and societies in order for us to become better human beings?
DI GIOVANNI: When I’m writing about a family struggling to put together enough eggs and milk to make a cake for Christmas during the siege of Sarajevo, I want readers to see that those people are no different than those members of our own families. I want to bridge a gap between the people I’m writing about and the people I’m writing for. I want the reader to realize, ‘This could be me.’ We could be living our lives one day, and suddenly the barricades go up, the phones get cut, the TV lines go down, and it’s war. And how do people respond to that and survive? I want someone living in Wisconsin to read about a woman in Gaza and say to herself, ‘Gosh, she’s just a mother like me trying to raise her family in the midst of extraordinary circumstances.’
I want to demystify war: Make it something people can feel, taste, hear, and see.
SMITH: Where does war reporting need to go other than just stating the obvious?
DI GIOVANNI: It needs to go to the darker corners of the world. If a Martian landed on Earth, today, he would think the only story in the world is Iraq. But there is so much suffering in the Sudan, the Congo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. No one writes about those places and those people. We don’t need more reporters – I have plenty of colleagues who want to cover those stories – but we need more newspapers that will run those stories, more documentaries to be made, so that people are aware of what’s happening in those dark, dark corners. Journalism, when it’s very pure, can shine a light in those corners.
SMITH: I think the problem is two things: One is racism. The other is the fact that a war like Iraq is so politically charged.
DI GIOVANNI: Absolutely, but I’m going to still keep fighting to get those stories out. We need to keep trying, especially with Africa.
SMITH: So many of my students [the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications] seem to believe that being a war correspondent is glamorous.
DI GIOVANNI: You know I had a number of young women come up to me after Barbara Kopple’s film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and they said, ‘Oh my God, I want to be you. I want to have your job.’ And I said to them, ‘You have no idea what it is like when you don’t wash for three weeks. You don’t know what it’s like to exist on Snicker’s candy bars, or to try and find a glass of water to brush your teeth. You might be with a rebel army in Africa and you’re dying for a shower or just a bit of privacy. Maybe you haven’t slept in 48 hours, but you still have to file a story. Or when you are alone and afraid, and your only friend is your satellite phone, and you’re running low on batteries.’
SMITH: So the draw for you is?
DI GIOVANNI: I’m not going to say it’s not exciting, because it is. And you are in the middle of history. A colleague once said its like a rough draft of history and you’re there. That’s the real pull of it. But it takes a tremendous toll on your private and emotional life, a terrible toll on your friendships with other people.
Many of my friends have post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve had several friends who were tortured and killed.
Hollywood makes it look glamorous, but that’s not the reality of it.
— A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is the author of four books, and his articles have appeared in USA Today, George, U.S. News & World Report, BusinessWeek, National Review Online, MilitaryWeek, and many others.