Janine Di Giovanni is one of Europe’s most respected war correspondents
The first time the Croatian Army attacked the Muslims was at Vitez, Bosnia, in the fall of 1992. The war reporter Janine di Giovanni and her translator took cover behind a wall as the Bosnian Muslims fired anti-aircraft missiles. ‘’We were trapped,’’ reminisces Ed Vulliamy, The Guardian correspondent who had looked for shelter in the same hideout. ‘’I introduced myself to that disarmingly beautiful woman with an American accent.’’
Under those chaotic circumstances, Di Giovanni’s Croatian interpreter revealed that her parents did not know she was working near a battlefield. Therefore, Vesna did not want anyone taking her picture. Di Giovanni and Vulliamy also found out that the translator was a hemophiliac.
Fearing that any minor cut might be disastrous for Vesna, the three tried to distract themselves making small talk. Di Giovanni said that she had spent some time in Boulder, Colorado. ‘’She was a flower child,’’ notes Vulliamy, who seems to enjoy this phase of his friend’s past.
Now living in Paris as a 48-year-old mother of 6-year-old Luca, Di Giovanni smiles when I tell her how Vulliamy described their first meeting. Sitting in a café overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens, she says: ‘’I told Ed I was a genuinely free woman.’’ She still is, and she is still doing what she loves best: covering wars.
This year she spent time embedded with British infantry in Helmand, Afghanistan. The correspondent for The Times of London and Vanity Fair is next going to Pakistan. Her fifth book, Ghosts by Daylight, will be published by Bloomsbury/Knopf in 2011.
The initial inspiration for a young woman from New Jersey to roam the world writing about wars came from Felicia Langer, a Jewish human rights lawyer she met during the first Intifada. Langer told Di Giovanni, who by then was contemplating an academic career, that it was necessary to give a voice to those who can’t express their ideas to the world.
Since the late eighties, Di Giovanni has covered wars in countries such as Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to her success as an author, she has won two Amnesty International awards for her work, a British award for Foreign Correspondent of the Year (for her Chechnya reporting), and has been the subject of two documentaries about women war reporters. Julia Roberts, with whom Di Giovanni recently had lunch in New York, is planning to make a film about her life.
Di Giovanni describes two significant changes in war coverage over the past twenty years: embedding reporters into military field units, and covering stories about insurgents who use kidnapping to get ransoms or political compromises. Writing in The Times, Di Giovanni observes that kidnapping ‘’touches a primal fear in all of us – no one wants to be chained to a radiator for months, or years – but it is an effective method of warfare for desperate guerrillas.’’
Besides being a seasoned war correspondent, Di Giovanni has other credentials to evaluate how covering wars has changed over the years. She teaches global journalism at the prestigious Institut d’Études Politiques de Paris. In October, she was the President of the jury for the 17th Bayeux-Calvados Award for war correspondents.
So what does she think about embedding? ‘’If you want to go to Helmand, it is the only way to do it.’’ Editors like it because it drastically reduces their expenses, and their reporters are less likely to be kidnapped. For photographers, being on the frontline facilitates their work, though the dangers they face are not reduced. In October the South African photojournalist João Silva, on assignment for The New York Times, suffered serious injuries to both his legs when he stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan.
Other shortcomings have to do with control. ‘’You can’t speak to the Afghan nor Iraqi rebels,’’ she points out. Occasionally, a unit commander may let a reporter speak with a rebel, but the officer chooses the interviewee. That can be frustrating for someone who once wrote that her ‘’wartime experience has always been as a wild cat – an independent who covers what she wants, when she wants.’’
And then there are the censors. In Afghanistan Di Giovanni had to submit her pieces to a censor, a lawyer, before sending them to The Times. ‘’The censors are cool and, of course, their concern is security.’’ But Di Giovanni has enough experience to not divulge the exact positions of patrols. She is nevertheless very aware that embedded reporters ‘’are in the hands of the British Ministry of Defense.’’
It was Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Secretary of Defense, who revived the embedding practice that had been used in the Vietnam War. When he allowed hundreds of journalists to be embedded into American military units in Afghanistan and Iraq, he was hoping to exert greater control over coverage – and to elicit stories that were more favorable to Pentagon and White House positions. This has often been the case, and CNN has been a pioneer of this type of biased reporting.
Fortunately there are some critical minds among the pack of embedded journalists. In his recent book, Embed: With the World’s Armies in Afghanistan (The History Press; 288 pgs; 18.99 pounds), Nick Allen – who has frequently traveled to Afghanistan with NATO-led forces – criticizes some of the military alliance’s failings.
War correspondent Ed Vulliamy describes embedding as ‘’a state of mind, and Janine does not have an embedded personality.’’ He steered clear of embedding to write his latest book. Amexica is about a very different war – the one between drug cartels and the authorities along the US-Mexican 2,100-mile borderland (see box).
In Ghosts by Daylight, Di Giovanni writes about ‘’falling in love in chaos.’’ In 1993 she ‘’fell madly in love’’ with the French cameraman Bruno Girodon, but the two separated after one week. They next met when they were covering the civil war in Algeria. It was in Kabul that Di Giovanni told Girodon she wanted a child and stability. He was not ready.
Sometime later she was covering events in Somalia when her satellite phone rang. It was Girodon on assignment in Zimbabwe. ‘’Let’s have a baby, let’s get married.’’ In 2002 she moved to Girodon’s house in Abidjan. The Ivory Coast capital had been calm for ten years, but one evening that peace fell apart. ‘’There was gunfire, flames in the sky,’’ remembers Di Giovanni, who was alone in the house with no phone connection. Another night she was doing yoga with a friend and got home fifteen minutes after curfew. A worried Girodon told her to leave for Europe. ‘’To be honest, it was fine with me, because I wanted to be a mother.’’
They married a year later in Paris, and had Luca. In Ghosts, Di Giovanni describes Girodon in one of their first meetings as a man with ‘’the wonderfully confident air of someone in Provence on a summer day.’’ Life was still romantic in Paris, with Girodon sometimes picking her up at the airport and whisking her to the art deco brasserie La Coupole in Montparnasse on the back of his motorcycle.
But war ghosts haunted him. As many war reporters, Girodon suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They drink, take drugs and go through depressions and divorces. Tom Carver, who covered civil wars in Angola, Mozambique and Rwanda for the BBC, told me during a lunch in London: ‘’The other day I saw a girl crossing the street, and I cried for all the dead children I saw in Africa.’’ Girodon went through an intense period of alcoholism, but has been sober for the past three years.
Di Giovanni calls him ‘’a tormented soul.’’ They are currently living separately, but she thinks that perhaps this is a ‘’parenthesis.’’ Did she suffer from PTSD? Di Giovanni says that she was ‘’under the microscope’’ of a Canadian psychiatrist, and he concluded that she has no traces of the syndrome. This seems remarkable in light of the number of times she almost lost her life, and the numbers of insurgents, soldiers and colleagues who have been killed around her. Two close reporter friends committed suicide. One of them told her in London that he had ‘’seen enough.’’ Sometime later he shot himself with a gun in Bolivia.
When pregnant with Luca, Di Giovanni went to Gaza. When she was breastfeeding her infant son, she went to Iraq. When asked why, she told me, ‘’Of course I don’t want to die, but I’d rather take risks doing something I really believe in.’’ Her Catholicism gives her strength. She always remembers her dying Neapolitan-born American father telling her, ‘’I am going to somewhere better.’’ While Di Giovanni acknowledges that it might sound arrogant, she describes herself as having a sense of invincibility.
But Di Giovanni is not completely invulnerable: suffering from depression following the birth of her son, she bought enough food, water and medicines to last at least a month. She made exit plans, in case she had to flee from a terrorist attack. Girodon tried to calm her fears, telling her, ‘’We are in Paris, not in Sarajevo.’’
Di Giovanni believes it is important to write about injustices ‘’to try to make a difference.’’ She feels a need to inform people who don’t know about what is going on in places like Somalia. ‘’Many people are just into celebrities, liposuction, and the quest for youth.’’
But besides feeling compassion for others, there are other factors that seem to drive people to cover wars. In Ghosts Di Giovanni writes about a lack of sense of identity. She is an Italian-American who spent her adult life in Britain and now also has a French passport. She writes that ‘’bills, pensions, marriage, divorce, loneliness, debt, could not reach you in a bush or a frontline.’’
‘’The adrenalin and a desire to live life to the limit are the main reasons that reporters keep on going back to war,’’ told me a few years ago Richard Sambrook, then director of the BBC World Service. Covering wars ‘’is like a drug,’’ sums up Vulliamy. The war reporter Martha Gellhorn (Hemingway’s third wife) whom Di Giovanni met several times once said: ‘’A leopard does not change its spots.’’