A Look at Ordinary People Caught in the Chaos of War
Freelance war reporter Anne Nivat eschews bodyguards and bullet-proof jackets when she works in places like Chechnya and Afghanistan. She insists on dressing like a local and sharing the danger with those whose everyday lives are touched by war.
Published: Wednesday, February 17, 2010
I had all the images that CNN had not shot. I had them in my mind.
For one member of the Baghdad household where freelance war reporter Anne Nivat was staying during a stretch of 2007-08, the key to psychological survival was a working cellular network. The woman, in her early 20s, confided in Nivat about a relationship she'd developed via text-messaging with a young man who lived across the Tigris River.
"She was sort of in love with him through the phone," Nivat explained. "And it was so big for her. It replaced … there was no war for her. For her, it was only this time of her exchanging [text messages] with this Sunni guy whom she knew she could never marry because he's Sunni and she's Shia."
The woman’s account, Nivat recalled, offered one glimpse into how life must and does continue in war. "I decided to write about all that," explained the journalist and author of award-winning books. "That was the story. That was my story."
At a Feb. 11 talk in Bunche Hall sponsored by the Center for European and Eurasian Studies, Nivat, a French journalist who speaks Russian and holds a Ph.D. in political science, reflected on 10 years of reporting from global hot spots such as Chechnya, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq for major French newspapers and publications.
Nivat tries to distinguish herself from most other war correspondents by staying and sharing danger with ordinary people, jealously guarding her journalistic independence from watchful governments and nervous editors alike.
Whether talking with the people trapped in wars or those who make them, such as one high-level insurgent she interviewed in Syria, Nivat observes her sources closely in order to get at the facts behind government press releases. The Syrian meeting happened there because she was pregnant and unwilling to go to Iraq, Nivat said, laughing at her own observation that the interview had cost her "nine months" of preparation.
The timing in June 2006 was fortuitous. Television sets left on during the interview announced that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then the most wanted man in Iraq, had been killed in a U.S. bombing raid, and Nivat got to see her interviewee's reaction, "a much more interesting answer to all the questions I could ask him," she said.
Wars are getting harder to cover properly, according to Nivat. Governments increasingly seek to intimidate journalists, and the editorial practices of newspapers and broadcast networks often conspire to the same end, she said. Nivat rejects as deluded the practice that some journalists employ, setting aside one paragraph for a military coalition spokesperson and another for a Taliban or jihadist representative. She objects still more strongly to forays by reporters with bodyguards and bullet-proof jackets. Such approaches do not build trust with sources or readers, she said.
"To remain credible, we reporters, during wars, cannot face the person we are talking to being protected, while … he or she isn't protected," she said. "I think it's not only insane but totally indecent."
Ever since Nivat's first experience in combat, covering the Chechen war that recommenced in 1999, she has chosen to dress like a local woman in each country she visits, neither hiding nor advertising her identity as a Western reporter. She keeps returning to Chechnya and its forgotten war in order to deny other outsiders the luxury of claiming they "didn't know" what was and is happening there.
"I had all the images that CNN had not shot. I had them in my mind," said Nivat, the author of “Chienne de Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya” (2001) and recent books on Afghanistan and Iraq.
Nivat visited Chechnya last September and had what she described as her nearest brush with death when the car she was traveling in was hijacked. In general, she said, the region is every bit as dangerous as it was before Russia and the Chechen rebels halted hostilities last year.
According to Nivat, it remains up to Russia's leaders finally "to redefine the relationship between the center and the periphery.
"But it still hasn't been done, and this war has been raging for nothing, and it will start again…,” she said. “And we in the West will pretend that we're surprised."