Beyond bullets: A top war correspondent on the human side of the news


The stories of Janine di Giovanni captivate: A New Jersey-born war correspondent now living in Paris, she’s stared down government guns — quite literally — during a coup attempt in Ivory Coast, walked among towering walls of corpses after a cholera epidemic in Rwanda, spent four days “mopping up blood” after a NATO bombing raid in the Balkans, and in 1992, dropped her notebook to hold an elderly woman as she died near the front line in Sarajevo.

But more than the tales, it’s her tone that moves me. Sometimes matter-of-fact — shockingly so, considering the suffering and violence she’s seen — and sometimes emphatic with emotion, Di Giovanni’s isn’t the voice of the adrenaline junkie. It’s that of an engaged human being who happens to work in the news media.

Read more by Paul Schmelzer at Eyeteeth

One of Europe’s top war correspondents, Giovanni has reported from nearly every major conflict zone: Iraq, Nicaragua, Rwanda, Chechnya, Somalia, Palestine, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, among others. Now the married mother of a young son, she admits she no longer takes the kind of “nearly suicidal” risks she once did. Coming to the Walker Art Center on November 27 in conjunction with the exhibition Brave New Worlds, she’ll speak about her work covering some of the world’s most volatile conflict zones. In a phone call from Paris last week, she shared her thoughts about courage (a trait she says she doesn’t possess), why local-only news coverage isn’t good enough, and her belief that to find compelling news stories we needn’t look to far-off lands but to our own neighborhoods.

Paul Schmelzer: You were one of three journalists to witness the fall of Grozny. You have reported everywhere from Iraq to Israel to Rwanda. You were there for the first Intifada. You ended up banned from Russia and blacklisted by the Bosnian Serbs?

Janine di Giovanni: Yes.

PS: So you truly have had a front-row seat for some of history’s major events, and I’m wondering how that long view of history helps you see individual news stories of the day — meaning, here in the States, people who have your same, essential job are talking about Hillary Clinton’s laugh or Mitt Romney’s latest stump speech. Do you have a different perspective on the news?

JD: You know, last night I was cooking dinner and I was watching about the cyclone in Bangladesh and I just though, My god, eight thousand to ten thousand people have been killed. And it’s still uncounted; they’re counting more people. Two nights ago, it got top of the news. Then it’s second, then it’s third, then it doesn’t even get pictures. It’s a very complex thing because, in fact, I understand on one hand that someone in Minnesota or New Jersey or Leeds, England, can only take so much of incredibly intense stories about the world’s suffering before they get compassion fatigue.

But as a reporter on the ground it’s incredibly frustrating. But American papers and papers in Minneapolis aren’t the only ones guilty of this. I worked for The Sunday Times, one of the most prestigious papers in Britain and has one of the biggest circulations, in the early ‘90s during the war in Sarajevo. And it was very hard to get stuff in the paper about Bosnia because it was the time Princess Diana was going nutty, going cuckoo. The public was simply more interested in her day-to-day madness than in the madness that was going on in a city that was in a medieval siege less than two hours by plane from them. Of course, individual people did care and wanted more news but the general public kind of looks at it and kind of flashes off.

I remember being in Rwanda in August 2004, and there was a terrible cholera epidemic, which struck down in the town of Goma some of the Hutu refugee camps. And it was this terrible thing, because it really was like a kind of biblical revenge for the massacre of the Tutsis. I’d walk through the camps and someone would drop at my feet, start puking green stuff and die. And there were bodies piled up – I’m not kidding. I’m nearly 5’8″ and they were, I’d say, about one-and-a-half times my size, lined up down the road as far as I could see, dead bodies. Walls and walls and walls of dead bodies. The first couple days, I was utterly horrified and completely devastated by this, and then, after a few days, this strange kind of thing happens where you just start walking by it. And this intense suffering: you can only take so much of it.

So what I’m saying is, while I find American television endlessly mindless and when I go home to visit my mother in New Jersey and I turn on all the New York networks, I’m so horrified at the amount of shopping and the consumerism — which, actually, is quite different from life in Europe. But I do understand. It’s not the way I choose to view the world, but I can see how someone living in a suburb trying to raise their family doesn’t really want to know what’s happening in Pakistan right now or what’s happening in Darfur.

But as a reporter who has the ability to do that — although, I have a small child now and I don’t take the kind of risks I used to, and I’m really honest about that, because some of the things I used to do were nearly suicidal — I think if a reporter can do that, then they have a responsibility to do that, because it’s almost like a wakeup call to people who are living very complacent lives and unexamined lives. If anything, what my goal really was and is, is for someone living somewhere in a small town or a small community or in Paris or in London or New York and to read it and think: Thank God I wasn’t born in Darfur or in Rwanda or in Chechnya or in Bosnia or in Baghdad, that I have the life that I have. Because it suddenly, at least in my case, puts my woes and my complaints and my petty grievances really in perspective.

PS: The difficult thing about planning to interview a writer like you is you have a good eye for a story and you’ve probably had more time to consider your own experiences and write about them in a better way than your off-hand comments to me might be. But I was really moved by your Nieman Reports story about the role of courage in what you do. I know you don’t’ want to be seen as a hero, you don’t want to have “bravery” as a term ascribed to you, but from the outside it seems like you must be a special kind of person to take the risks you used to take. How do you see yourself in the third person?

JD: I guess I don’t see myself as brave or courageous. Like most people, I have normal fears. I have fears of stupid things — of spiders, of the dark — and courage to me is what I said: My dad or my brother battling cancer or my dear friends who are going through chemotherapy, or more importantly, not me who can get on a plane and get out of somewhere, who always has that option to leave. It’s local reporters who really can’t. I’m always really embarrassed if someone thinks I’m courageous, because I’m not. Yesterday my son drank a bottle of cough syrup. And, we’re having these terrible strikes in Paris. There’s no taxis, there’s no transports, there’s no buses, there’s no metro. The hospitals are on standby. I had to get him to an emergency room and there was no way to get him there. And me, who used to be so calm under pressure, I just really panicked — and then I called the fire department and they brought him there.

My husband always remembers something. It was during the coup in the Ivory Coast in 2002 and my husband and I never work together, but it just happened that one time that were together at this place where there had just been this big battle between government troops and rebels. And there was this guy, a rebel who was very badly wounded. He had gunshot wounds on his upper thighs, and he was lying on the ground and he grabbed my leg and was begging me to help him.

I knelt down and was trying to give him some first aid, when I looked up and there was this government soldier with his gun pointed at me, and he said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m getting this man to the hospital.” He said, “You’re not taking him anywhere. He’s a rebel and he’s our prisoner.” And I said, “I am taking him to the hospital, because, by the Geneva Convention, I have the right to take a wounded man to the hospital, combatant or non-combatant.”

And I then looked up and this guy was looking at me and I realized he didn’t have the safety catch on his gun. And he was an Ivorian soldier; these guys blow people away very easily. He got to my stubbornness. And also I wasn’t going to leave this guy there. And I just said I’m taking him to the hospital. And then my husband came with these other French guys and dragged me away, kicking and screaming. And they were just like, “You are an idiot. You’re so stupid. This is Africa! What are you doing?” And I just said: but that man is suffering. It wasn’t an act of courage; it’s just what you would do.

“It wasn’t an adrenaline thing. I simply felt I couldn’t get a story sitting in a hotel room.”

My husband brought that up the other day. He said, “I was so angry at you, but yet I was so proud of you because I never would’ve done that.” I’m sure they killed that man. I know it. It might’ve been two minutes later, it might’ve been ten minutes later, but they killed him.

I think that’s where the line gets drawn: Are we reporters or are we social workers — or are we human beings? Yes, I’m a reporter, but that was another human being who was suffering. When I did most of those insane things I did, like the bombing raid in NATO where I lived in a trench for four days and mopped up the blood in Chechnya and Bosnia, I was kind of on autopilot, I have to say. Because if I actually thought about it now, I now realize why no one would go with me anywhere. It was really hard for me to find people. I’d say, “I have access to this commander who can take me to a front line.” Most people are like, no thanks.

It wasn’t an adrenaline thing. I simply felt I couldn’t get a story sitting in a hotel room. Some people can and they’re brilliant at it. Some people can read the wires and write amazing stories. I can’t. I really need to sit on the ground and talk to people, and I need to talk to them for a long time ‘ and I need to feel it. I can’t write about something unless I’m passionate about it.

PS: You’ve said one of your heroes is Nicholas Kristof, who’s one of mine as well. I remember he was criticized a couple years back because in the course of reporting on Cambodian sex slavery, he basically bought two young girls out of slavery. You’ve said you view the role of the journalist as someone who bears witness, but beyond that, what is the responsibility: is it as a journalist, a reporter, a detached being or a human being?

JD: I’d like to say the truth, but what is the truth? I’ll tell you another story and maybe that will illustrate it. During the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, I’d heard there was an old-people’s home on the front line that had been abandoned by all the workers, and that these old people were freezing death, lying basically in their own shit, unable to eat and taking care of themselves, and they were just dying. And I got in a car with this guy called Kurt Schork, who is now dead, who was this incredible war correspondent for Reuters, who was killed when we were all working in Sierra Leone in 2000.

We got in his car and we drove down Sniper’s Alley — freezing cold, December 1992 — crossed the airport road, heavy fighting, and got to this old-people’s home. An old guy had been shot by a sniper minutes before trying to cut wood to keep the place warm, and they had moved his body out of the way. When we went inside, there were all these people who had did in their beds. They had died that day. I started going through the rooms counting them. I can’t recall how high I got but it was a shocking number of people. I was standing by one bed writing in my notebook, when suddenly this arm reached up from the bed and it was a woman. And she wasn’t dead yet. So I dropped my notebook. She was saying, “Zima, zima” — “winter, winter”– and she was sub-zero cold.

I dropped everything, pulled off my coat and tried to do what you would’ve done or I think anyone would’ve done, which is try to keep her alive. I was talking to her very quietly, even though she couldn’t understand me, and trying to stop her from dying. But she was dying; she was in the last phases of dying. I was sitting on the bed with her and kind of just holding her in my arms.

I suddenly felt the presence of someone else in the room, and I looked up and there was this reporter, who shall go unnamed, but actually he wrote about it. It was a guy from the Washington Post, and he was writing in his notebook and just standing back and watching us and writing. And then he disappeared. He later wrote in his book about it that he was shocked to see me do that. Shocked, but touched, because all of his journalistic training had taught him not to do stuff like that… But, how can you just be a vulture and go to a place like that and impose [on] people’s lives and then take their stories and disappear?

PS: I read yesterday that Reporters without Borders is saying that 206 journalists and media assistants have been killed in the Iraq war. That’s three times more than the World Wars combined. And like you said before, on-the-ground reporters can’t get out. 80 to 90 percent of those people are Iraqis.

JD: We use what we call “fixers,” who are local journalists out of various countries. Everywhere I go I feel like I owe stuff to these guys. I’m so indebted to them. They’ve become much more than my fixer. They’re my friend, my little brothers or sisters, my mother. These guys are the heroes. They’re truly the people that deserve credit but never get it. I’m really glad the New York Times now puts at the bottom, “With reporting by Mona Mahmoud.” So often they’re the ones that are going out and doing everything and getting paid, but kind of know they’re never going to get out of there — and are at such risk. If the militias knew they were working for Americans or British or foreign publications, their lives are in great danger. I remember recently, I think it was the International Women’s Foundation or something gave a courage in journalism award to a group of Iraqi women reporters, and they stood up and gave their speech. They said, “We are just journalists. We’re not soldiers, we’re not combatants, yet we’re targeted all the time.” So that figure you just read to me is really chilling and makes me feel incredibly sad.

PS: Back to stateside: here in the Twin Cities, like a lot of cities in the U.S., there are major cuts at newspapers, buyouts, firings and all that stuff. Here in our two-daily town, we’re down to one person at a D.C. bureau that used to have five and many years ago eight, and they’ve said there will be no editorials on national or international issues. What do you think the effect is if a paper in a top-30 metropolitan city like Minneapolis doesn’t have original reported national news or international news? Is it OK to get it from the wires?

JD: I think it’s really a crime. Say I was the foreign editor, and you don’t have a budget for it, I do understand that. But on the other hand, how are your readers going to ever be informed of something by the Reuters wire? While those wire-service reporters are great and they do their jobs fantastically well, we all know what they do: They’re sitting in front of a — they’re chained to their computers. They don’t have time to go out and talk to people on the ground as much. And then someone in Minneapolis is rewriting that copy. It’s a real disservice to the public.

And I would say there are ways of getting original copy. I teach journalism — an international reporting class — at Sciences Po, which is a quite prestigious French university here. I tell all my students when they say, Oh I want to be you: OK, this is what you do. You pick a country that you’re interested in. You learn as much about it as you possibly can. You do tons of research, and then you go there and you be a stringer. And that’s how you get started. The foreign editor in Minneapolis could find some 24- or 25-year-old who is willing to get paid peanuts — I’m not saying this is ethical, but this is how people start out — to get some good colorful copy. That]s how they learn to become good reporters, and it’s how you get good stuff.

If you look on the ground in Afghanistan or Iraq, those reporters are not my generation. My generation, people post-Vietnam — I’d say my generation is the last of the breed of reporters that had budgets to go places and cover the whole world and could roam around. It’s an old-fashioned beat that doesn’t exist anymore. If you look around at the kind of reporters in Kabul and Baghdad, they’re kids. They’re young. They’re great, but…

Having said that, budgets everywhere are being cut. There’s a big change in journalism, which makes me really uncomfortable, which is the Internet. People don’t buy newspapers anymore. They get their news in a quick hit, through podcasts or reading blogs. I still buy newspapers. I live in Paris, and it’s a culture where people do sit in a café and have a coffee and read the newspaper in the morning. But I also so it because I want to support — I want to keep the industry going. Because it’s such an important thing to have foreign correspondents, because, in a way, without sounding corny, we’re the eyes and ears of people that are working full-time jobs in Minneapolis who are doctors or lawyers or teachers or cleaners. We’re supposed to be bringing back a story for them.

PS: What are the stories you don’t think are being covered well.

JD: I’d say, off the top of my head, Congo. Vicious, vicious human rights abuses going on there. Some have been reported lately by the New York Times, like the rape of women with bayonets – you know, kind of beyond-hideous, post-colonial wars.

Child soldiers: you know there was that best-seller by Ishmael Beah that brought the public attention to what’s going on, but I still think that needs to be looked at more. I did a lot of work on child soldiers in Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast and Liberia, and it’s one of the things that haunts me the most. And also I think, Africa gets ignored unless it’s the cause of the moment. If it’s Darfur and George Clooney is going there, then people look at it. Or Angelina Jolie is in South Africa or something, or Oprah Winfrey is opening a school for girls in Ethiopia. All those are fantastic, and I think when Paris Hilton or Britney Spears goes somewhere a lot of people sneer. Well, I don’t because I think, OK, they may be hideous people, but who cares? They’re raising awareness and that’s really important. I think Africa gets ignored.

Don’t get me started on the Palestinian/Israeli thing, because that’s just really difficult to report. It’s a really, really hard story to get right and to keep going reporting because, let’s face it, it’s a war without end, a conflict without end, without resolution, without hope. I think a lot of stuff in the Middle East aside from Iraq doesn’t get focused on: Syria, Lebanon.

It could even be stories like: I live in France and there’s a real problem here with immigration and with immigrants being basically shuffled out to the suburbs around big cities and their great feeling of isolation, their feeling that they’re not blending into communities, their feelings that they never get the good jobs or the good apartments. That, to me, a real important story because it’s people who are voiceless.

I’m sure there are plenty of those stories in Minneapolis too. You don’t have to go halfway around the world. Sometimes the stories that really need telling are right in your back yard. One of the most moving stories I did, I think, on 9/11 wasn’t in Afghanistan or Iraq. It was in my mother’s hometown in New Jersey, which got hit really badly by 9/11. They had the highest percentage of people killed in the Twin Towers of any bedroom community of New York. I wrote a profile of the community and how it was actually grief-stricken and how it pulled together. I talked to the widows and the parents of the survivors, but more importantly I talked to all these people whose lives have changed for-ever by seeing those towers go down, and they just decided — it was a wake-up call. You don’t have to witness the all of Grozny to get the point across, you know?

My brother died last year because he didn’t have health insurance. He was diagnosed with lung cancer two weeks before he died. How does that happen in a country like America? And he wasn’t a black man from the projects. He was a kid from a good family who just kind of had lost his job and didn’t have health insurance, and kept getting shuffled along in the terrible medicare system because the doctors didn’t give a damn because he didn’t have money. Eventually, they got around to giving him an MRI and he was riddled with cancer and he was dead. I would like to see a story about how people live in Minneapolis, in St. Paul, in Chicago, in Iowa City, in Philadelphia without health insurance. I haven’t read that. I’d like to read about people coming back from Iraq who aren’t getting jobs and are kind of being shunted aside. And I’d like to read about single mothers who don’t have good daycare centers.

It doesn’t have to be bullets and disease.