OTI Online
Spring 1998

When death is a constant companion
Why Women Reporters Go to War
by Marilyn Stasio


Between the depression and the danger, the fear and the futility, what makes these women go through this kind of hell, anyway?

Dickey Chappelle, pioneer combat reporter and photographer, at the frontline, which she dubbed "bayonet borders of the world," shortly before she died on assignment in Vietnam.


Dickey Chapelle died with a flower in her hat and pearls in her ears. The 47-year-old war correspondent, who was on the front lines at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and who won the George Polk Award from the Overseas Press Club for her Vietnam war coverage, was killed by a land mine on November 4, 1965, while on patrol with a unit of the U.S. Marine Corps in the jungles of Chu Lai. One of her grim combat photos survives in the pages of Requiem (Random House, 1997) -- a fierce and poignant tribute, compiled by Horst Faas and Tim Page, to the 135 photographers who died covering the wars in Vietnam and Indochina -- juxtaposed with a colleague's stark image of Chapelle's bloodied body and a report of her final words: "I guess it was bound to happen." Chappelle, a pioneer among female war correspondents, photographed and wrote about war for Life, National Geographic, eader's Digest and The National Observer.

Waiting for dark... reporter Jan Goodwin, (second from left), now OTI's new editor, sits it out with Afghan guerrillas before the mujahideen's planned attack on a nearby Soviet military base during the Kremlin's brutal war on Afghanistan.

In the 30 plus years that have passed since the death of Dickey Chapelle, more and more women have stepped forward to take her place on the front lines of journalism. In a world technically at peace but blistered by brushfire wars on every continent, they have scattered themselves across the globe: Algeria, Rwanda, Chechnya, Turkey, Albania, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, El Salvador, Cambodia, Mexico, the Middle East, and in some cases, in their own burning backyards. Most of these journalists work in the near-anonymity of the profession -- except for those caught in the crossfire of the wars they cover. Even then, the individual stories of these reporters, photographers, and TV and radio commentators are often lost to memory, absorbed in the greater civilian casualty pool or obliterated by totalitarian political regimes. The sheer numbers are staggering:

The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York reports that 86 journalists were killed in the line of duty in 1995-96 alone.

Forty-four journalists perished in the civil wars that dissolved the former Yugoslavia.

Reuters wire service has lost four of its combat photographers in the past eight years.

The Publishers' Association of Turkey estimates that some 100 Turkish journalists are currently in prison.

More than two dozen Russian journalists, along with four foreign correspondents, lost their lives in the failed Russian coup d'etat of October 1993. And at least 10 journalists, including recent female casualties Nina Yefimova and Nadezhda Chaikova, died after Russian troops invaded Grozny in 1994.

Death threats were made to 92 writers and journalists in 1996, according to PEN, the international association of writers and journalists.

PEN also reports on 20 kidnapings and 51 instances of writers and journalists who disappeared in 1996.

And, as we are reminded by Requiem, 135 combat photographers lost their lives covering the wars in Vietnam and Indochina.

"She was always where the action was." That was Dickey Chapelle's memorial tribute from the Women's National Press Club, which described her as "the kind of reporter all women in journalism openly or secretly aspire to be." Is this what drives women journalists to the front lines, where they can easily become one of the statistics PEN collects -- the desire to be where the action is?

Women in the field can be prickly on the subject. Without denying the dangerous nature of their work, they hate being characterized as thrill-seeking adventurers as much as they resent the implicit gender stereotyping in being singled out for bravery. They will offer eloquent testimony to the horrors they've seen, but will often resist analysis of their own motives and reactions. "Thinking about it is depressing, and I don't want to dwell on it," says Judith Miller, a senior writer who covered the Middle East for The New York Times. "You don't talk about it, you don't whine about it, you just do it and you get over it."

Most conflict correspondents find safe ground, not in the recounting of their war stories, but in the discussion of their sense of mission. "I am absolutely sure that people do this because of professional commitment," says Seda Poumpianskaia, a former Moscow newspaper reporter and documentary filmmaker who covered the war in Chechnya and was in the thick of the action during the 1993 coup attempt. "You have to fulfill your obligation and nothing else matters," she says of the two tumultuous days in Moscow when, dodging the sniper bullets that felled dozens of her colleagues, she ran with the mob that rampaged through the streets to storm the Parliament. "It's like seeing a child fall from a bridge," she says. "You don't think about the personal danger -- you just jump into the water." Other journalists make the same point in ways specific to their own work in the field.

"I felt it was really important to be there, because I was bearing witness," photojournalist Michele McDonald says of her experiences in a Muslim village outside Banja Luka where she and a colleague from The Boston Globe slipped past a military roadblock to become the first witnesses to an ethnic massacre by Bosnian Serbs. "What I saw resonated with everything I'd heard about the massacre of the Jews in World War II," McDonald recalls. "If I did not document the evidence of the torture and the killing, it would be just another forgotten night of ethnic cleansing. It's really important not to let these things fade away, not to let people pretend they never happened."


The First Lady of Global TV

Christiane Amanpour, CNN's leading foreign correspondent, has no romantic illusions about her work. It's damned dangerous. She has been shot at and spat at and shelled, and graphically threatened by soldiers whose fondest wish, evidently, was to slit her throat. But the single incident that brought the danger up front and personal was the wounding of a colleague, CNN camerawoman Margaret Moth, who was shot in the face and severely injured by a sniper in Sarajevo.
     "I don't know whether I could have survived spiritually or mentally if that had happened to me," says Amanpour. "Nowadays, I find myself covering my face with my hands, thinking, 'Will this be my day?'"
     But despite the fear and the dread, the 40-year-old journalist continues to go wherever the fighting calls her to Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, and even to Bosnia, where she believes that journalists were specifically targeted for attack. "I have no hesitation about going back," she says. "This is my job."
     Yes, it's a matter of professional principle with her; but it's also a matter of personal exaltation. "I don't want to sound like a drug addict about it," she says. "But there is an intensity of experience that the people who have chosen to be war correspondents experience. You confront yourself, your fears."


Journalists, who see their function as witnesses, strive to be fair and dispassionate recorders of history. But when stating their own higher mission, they invariably project themselves into a more participatory role. "This may sound trite, but as a journalist and a human rights activist, I do feel that I am giving voice to the voiceless," says Jan Goodwin. On The Issues' new editor, Goodwin is a veteran combat reporter and author of two books, one on human rights' atrocities by the Soviets in Afghanistan, and one on the repression of women under fundamentalist Islam. The first female journalist to report from wartorn Afghanistan, Goodwin says, "The Soviets closed the borders and then announced they would kill any foreign journalist caught 'illegally' in the country. Consequently, the conflict in which two million Afghans died wasn't being covered, which was Moscow's intention, of course. I kept going back because I felt the story needed telling."

The stronger that sense of participation, the higher the personal risk involved -- as Reuters photographer Corinne Dufka discovered in East Africa when she was kidnapped by five soldiers who taunted her by pulling the pins in and out of the live hand grenades they waved in her face. In Dufka's view, traditional journalistic objectivity has been nullified by "a different kind of war, driven not by struggle against injustice and political oppression but instead by nationalism, tribalism, and fundamentalism." Moral aloofness is not an option, she feels, for the war correspondent who has seen the corpses stacked in Rwandan churches, or watched 68 civilians get blown to bits by a mortar shell in a village marketplace.

Why, then, she asks herself, do journalists go on doing what they do? "Is it the desire to observe history? Or curiosity about what drives humanity to extremes? Or, is it because in the midst of violence and evil, one sees clearly what is right, decent, and just?"

More and more, the committed journalists who cover this savage kind of war find themselves being drawn into it on an intensely personal level. Susan Meiselas, a photographer who has covered wars in Nicaragua (where she was almost killed by a grenade), El Salvador (where she was knocked out by a land mine), and Iraq (where she crossed the border with Kurdish rebels), took a professional combat leave to compose a pictorial history of the Kurdish people. Compiled from historical documents and the images of others, Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History (Random House, 1997) is more than Meiselas' personal tribute to a country -- it is also an expression of what she calls "a desire to be connected" to its people. Goodwin gave up a six-figure salary to spend four years in Pakistan starting and running Save the Children's cross-border humanitarian program for Afghans. "I went from editing and writing articles to negotiating with 50 guerrillas to ride Kalashnikov-style 'shotgun' on top of our relief trucks to protect them," she says.

That yearning for personal connection to a story becomes almost irresistible when the journalist's own homeland is in a state of civil war. Ayse Nur Zarakolu, who runs the Belge International Publishing House from a basement in Istanbul, has been to prison four times for publishing books that condemn the Turkish government's violent suppression of Kurdish and Armenian minorities. Lucy Sichone, a columnist for Zambia's leading newspaper the Post, became a fugitive with her three-month-old daughter to avoid imprisonment for writing articles critical of the government. Christine Anyanwu, editor-in-chief of the independent Nigerian news weekly The Sunday Magazine, was tried by a secret tribunal and is now serving a life sentence for exposing the fraudulent basis of the military regime's annulment of presidential elections.

Like Yelena Masyuk, a special correspondent for Russian independent television and one of six journalists awarded this year's Press Freedom Awards from the Committee to Protect Journalists, the people who take those kinds of risks have more at stake than a news story. Masyuk, who has reported for NTV from such hotspots as Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and Iran, gave something extra on her two tours in Chechnya. Despite threats against her life, in May of 1997 she returned to the secessionist region in order "to show the Chechen side of the story, to give them a chance to tell their point of view, to show how terrible the war was for civilians and even Russian soldiers."

The selflessness of Masyuk's motive was lost on the Chechen rebels, who kidnapped her and her cameraman and sound engineer, then held them under inhumane conditions mostly in mountain caves for 100 days. She and her crew were released on the day of a meeting in Moscow between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and President Aslan Maskhadov of Chechnya. A month later, she was back on assignment in Kamchatka.

There is no question that Masyuk is a risk-taker. "I want the exclusive story," she said, "the story that no one else would be able to get." With death threats hanging over her head, she took a terrific risk going back to Chechnya. Luckily for her, she got away with it. Some journalists don't.

The murder of a journalist touches other reporters with a deep sense of grief. But such tragedies also make them uncomfortable, because they bring into sharp relief subjects they hate to talk about -- the journalist's sense of invincibility and the apparent recklessness it sometimes leads to.

Veronica Guerin, an investigative crime reporter for a major Irish newspaper, the Sunday Independent, was gunned down on the streets of Dublin in the summer of 1996 by a gunman allegedly dispatched by one of the crime bosses she was investigating. Brave, dedicated, passionate about the justice of her work, Guerin left behind a husband, a five-year-old son, and the stories she would never write. Her death was an outrage. But Guerin was not assassinated out of the blue. A year earlier, she had been shot in the leg by a gunman who came to her front door. On other occasions she had been beaten, shot at, and subjected to vile telephone threats. Alarmed, her editors offered her any other news beat of her choice. Characteristically, she refused. "Somehow I cannot see myself reporting from the catwalks or preparing a gardening column," she wrote.

But she also refused the police protection that her newspaper had arranged for her. (It got in her way, she said.) She also made no attempt to alter her work patterns or to make herself less of a target -- and that has stirred conflicting feelings in other journalists.

"Was Veronica Guerin reckless? Was she noble?" Heidi Evans grappled with these questions in a thoughtful piece for The Nation. "I can only guess she was driven to do what she did for many of the same reasons we all do what we do -- a passion for justice and the truth, [and] the thrill of living a reporter's life," she says. "But some of us have more of a taste for the edge than others, for the adrenaline rush that a big story brings, no matter the price."

Every front-liner has a secret story about a time she went too far -- and was damned lucky to get away alive. Judith Miller mentally flinches remembering the close call she had with a sniper in Lebanon. ("Gross stupidity on my part.") Yelena Masyuk had grave doubts about returning to Chechnya only two weeks after getting a death threat; but she went anyway, and was kidnapped. Goodwin was convinced she wasn't coming home when she and her Afghan rebel guides were pinned down for hours by Soviet helicopter gunships. And she also remembers the neophyte American journalist who "bragged too loudly" about his contacts with guerrillas and was shot through the head execution-style in his hotel room, close to where she was staying, shortly after he arrived in El Salvador.

"As journalists, we think we have a patina of protection," says Goodwin, "and much of the time we do. But there are certain things you do and don't do. There was a reminder of that on the wall of the international press room in El Salvador, a large sign that read: "No story is worth your life." You take calculated risks, not foolish ones. And luck also plays a part. I've lost a number of journalist and photographer friends to land mines."

Behavioral specialists like Marvin Zuckerman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the University of Delaware, view the impulse to take risks as an aspect of high-sensation seeking, "a trait describing the tendency to seek novel, varied, complex, and intense sensations and experiences; the willingness to take risks for the sake of the experience." Although earlier generations of psychologists viewed the pursuit of skydiving and other high-adrenaline activities as death-wish behavior, Zuckerman attributes such thrill-seeking behavior to low levels of an enzyme known as monamine oxidose (MAO). Other behavior researchers link high-risk pursuits to a variation of the D4 dopamine receptor (D4DR) gene, dopamine being a neurotransmitter strongly linked to pleasure-seeking behavior.

Frank Farley, a Temple University psychologist and past president of the American Psychological Association classified such individuals as "Type Ts," thrill-seekers who are not necessarily weird, just wired differently. Type Ts fall into four categories, he says, those who take mental risks and those who take physical ones, and those who take smart, positive risks and those who take dumb, negative ones.

Pioneers and social activists, such as America's founding fathers and Martin Luther King, Jr., were probably T-mentals and T-positives, he believes. His theory holds true with other professions, too. One of the world's most talented and risk-taking neurosurgeons is Keith Black, of California's Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, who operates successfully on brain tumors other surgeons are too afraid to touch. Out of the OR, the physician, who has been dubbed "Indiana Black" by his colleagues, relaxes by skydiving, climbing Himalayan peaks, and white-water rafting in Africa.

Daredevils, then, will be daredevils. But when a war-zone correspondent is also wife, mother, or primary caretaker, the responsibility to one's professional ideals collides head-on with one's familial duties.

Some journalists admit to having conflicted feelings on the issue. "Is she the most noble person in the world for her journalistic coverage?" Heidi Evans asked herself about Lucy Sichone's flight through the Zambian underground with her infant daughter. "Or should someone phone the child-abuse hotline?" Others reluctantly admit that marriage or motherhood has made them curtail their adventurism -- or at least, consider doing so. "I would love to hang out in Kosovo," says Michele McDonald, who is eager to record the clandestine network of social services operated by the Albanian underground in that former Yugoslavian city. "But since I adopted my two and-a-half year-old daughter, I am much more careful about throwing myself into a situation where I might get killed. And to do that sort of work, you really have to take that risk."

The only other thing that seems to quench their indomitable spirit is the occasional bout of depression, which terrifies them because it so closely resembles burnout. "I have to push myself," Judith Miller says of her assignments to the Middle East since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the virtual collapse of the Arab-Israeli peace talks. "You don't come back energized and full of insight, but very down, very depressed about where the whole region is going. It's much more debilitating than covering a war. Send me to cover a war, but not a stalemate."

Between the depression and the danger, the fear and the futility, what makes these women go through this kind of hell, anyway? Few of them receive the glory accorded CNN's Christiane Amanpour, or her salary. And even Amanpour, who is invariably found in the world's worst trouble spots, ignores her star status and gets into the story so intensely she often forgets she hasn't changed her clothes in a week.

"It's the thrill -- and don't let anyone tell you differently," says Lindsay Miller, a senior editor for National Public Radio who was sent to Bosnia by the U.S. Department of Information to train young Bosnian reporters in the techniques of journalism and in the workings of a free press. "I'm fifty years old, and I felt like a new kid, myself," she says. "The excitement, the adventure can act like an addictive drug. I saw it in the young ones, the way they go out and drink, party, and have intense love affairs. I'm not saying this cynically; I'm just saying it."

By portraying herself as a grizzled veteran, Miller can get away with that kind of talk. It doesn't come as easy, though, for combat journalists, many of them with international reputations, who perceive their work in ideological, even humanitarian terms. When asked about the thrills of the job, Judith Miller talks about the exhilaration of covering "a very dynamic society" like Iran. Michele McDonald gets charged up when she thinks about the medical clinics she saw in Kosovo. The thrill of Ayse Nur Zarakolu's life is "striking down all the taboos" for the sake of a free Turkish press. Yes, the mission is the thrill, Lindsay Miller agrees; but there is also the indescribable rush of getting the story -- especially when you have to cheat death to do it. "There's a certain machismo, even if you're a woman, about being in a war," says one veteran combat reporter. "Unless they are lying through their teeth, any journalist can tell you there's an incredible adrenaline rush being out there in the thick of things and coming out alive. There's no high like it.

"You only have to watch reporters around the hotel bar, if there is one, after a day out on the front line. Male or female journalists -- talk about cojones. It's pure The Year of Living Dangerously, as they recount their war stories. Then that adrenaline high drains away. Unless they are already permanently numbed by what they've seen, they get blind drunk to mask the terror of the moment, or they go off with one another and fuck like crazy as a comfort mechanism."

Dickey Chapelle, who didn't feel alive unless she was living on what she called the "bayonet borders" of the world, would understand. Making parachute jumps, learning to fly a plane, slogging through the mud and the misery of Vietnam, she did what she did for the mission -- and the joy -- of being the photojournalist who had "stayed the longest and gone further forward than any reporter, man or woman."


Marilyn Stasio writes a column for The New York Times Book Review and articles for national magazines.


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