Christiane Amanpour: Reporting On Genocide CNN's chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour has covered every major international and humanitarian crisis since the Gulf War. Her new documentary, Scream Bloody Murder, is about genocide — and the people who are working to end mass killing worldwide.
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Christiane Amanpour: Reporting On Genocide

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Christiane Amanpour: Reporting On Genocide

Christiane Amanpour: Reporting On Genocide

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This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross. My guest, Christiane Amanpour, is CNN's chief international correspondent. In 25 years with the network, she's interviewed countless world leaders and covered war, famine and disaster around the globe. Her reporting has won numerous awards, including this year's Fourth Estate Award from the National Press Club, its highest honor for excellence in journalism.

Next year, Amanpour will host her own nightly news program on CNN International. An edited version of the program will air on weekends on CNN's U.S. channel, and on December 4th, her latest documentary will premiere on CNN. Called "Scream Bloody Murder," it chronicles six cases of genocidal violence over the past 80 years and honors those who tried to call the world's attention to the killing. In this scene from "Scream Bloody Murder," Amanpour reports on the genocide in Darfur in Sudan.

(Soundbite of documentary "Scream Bloody Murder")

Ms. CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR (Chief International Correspondent, CNN): In Darfur, the UN estimates 300,000 people have been killed in the fighting or died in the ensuing disease and starvation. Another 2.5 million have been uprooted from their homes. They're worried about who will look after them. I reported how the toll is heaviest on the women, on the weak, and especially on the very young.

Mr. MUKESH KAPILA (UN Official): What happened in Darfur would be classified obscene.

Ms. AMANPOUR: You're angry.

Mr. KAPILA: I am angry at having presided over the first genocide of the 21st century.

DAVIES: That was UN Official Mukesh Kapila speaking to Christiane Amanpour in her CNN Special on Genocide. I spoke to Amanpour yesterday.

Christiane Amanpour, welcome to Fresh Air. You know, of the six episodes of genocidal violence which are chronicled in your documentary, you, I believe, personally covered three of them, in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. And in Bosnia, you were a reporter then, and you were, I guess, in your 30s. And of course, you'd covered war before, and there are atrocities in every war. I wonder, was there a point in covering that conflict at which you realized what was happening there was different, that this wasn't the violence of war, that this was something apart?

Ms. AMANPOUR: Well, the answer is yes. It took me a while. I was in my early 30s. It was my second significant story as a foreign correspondent. I'd just come from covering the first Gulf War. And literally, months after that, Yugoslavia exploded. Now, the first Gulf War was traditional. It was armies against armies. It was designed to expel Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait. That was war as we understand it.

This was a civil war, as people wanted to tell us. We got there seeing that in the Republic of Bosnia, for instance, there were Serbs and Croats and Muslims fighting against each other. But what quickly became apparent once you'd spent more than a few days there - and we did, week after week, month after month, year after year - that this was not just a dirty civil war, as our leaders tried to tell us or as the aggressors tried to tell us, the Serbs led by the Yugoslav leadership; that this was not just centuries of ethnic hatred exploding into the open with all sides equally guilty; that this, in fact, was a planned campaign of ethnic cleansing, at the very least, and genocide at the worst.

So we quickly understood that there were prepared, planned, heavily armed aggressors fighting by shelling from the hills and sniping a civilian population who were by and large Muslims.

DAVIES: I wondered, as the Bosnian Serbs' atrocities against the Muslims increased and the West did not act, I'm wondering what kind of conversations you'd had with your editors about what kind of reporting you did, the kind of play it got on the network?

Ms. AMANPOUR: Well, precisely this conversation because there was some concern about are we being, you know, fair? And that's why I had to explain what I figured out, that when we're confronted with this, we have to report the truth, that objectivity means reporting the truth. It doesn't mean causing a false equivalent or saying on the one hand this, on the other hand that. It doesn't mean equating victim with aggressor.

But if we do that, we're then accomplices. And in this kind of situation, we're accomplices to genocide. And I, for one, was not going to go that route and nor were any of my colleagues there. But I will tell you that we had enormous support from our network. We had enormous ability to get this story out, and it made a difference, I believe.

At that time, CNN played the story in the A Block, in other words, at the top of each new cycle, for weeks and months and years. It was on the front page of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times. I could name every newspaper in the United States around the world. It was the major story. And I strongly believe that that contributed to eventual intervention by the United States and its NATO allies.

Eventually, when the massacre happened at Srebrenica in the summer of 1995, that was one massacre too far for the international community. It took a long time. It was too long. Too many hundreds of thousands of people had been killed. But eventually, they did intervene to stop the war successfully, to lead a diplomatic offensive to bring peace - that was successful, and then to have a peace enforcement regime with NATO forces, and that was successful and held to this day. And I believe the reporting across the board by everybody who was there contributed to that.

DAVIES: You know, one of the themes of this documentary is highlighting those who, as you say, screamed bloody murder, who tried to call attention to genocidal atrocities as they occurred. But you note in the documentary that the first two that you report on, the Nazi Holocaust and the killings in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, occurred by and large outside of the public eye. They were known to some but not widely reported on. The later genocides were, in fact, heavily covered, and I think particularly of the massacres in Rwanda, and still, you note, those with the power to act often didn't.

What conclusions did you reach about the extent to which shining a light on these acts of brutality can help stop them?

Ms. AMANPOUR: Well, I do believe shining a light can help stop them. Sometimes it takes a long time, but it still works. Let me just walk you through it. We've shone a light, year after year, minute after minute in Bosnia. And I strongly believe that even though it was late, intervention came and it was successful. It was the right thing to do. Peace is held to this day. Then came Kosovo, another Balkan province, just a couple of years later. And at that time, both President Clinton and Tony Blair organized and led a coalition to intervene in Kosovo before it turned into genocide.

I don't think there was that critical mass of reporting in Rwanda. Journalists were scattered all over at that time. There was some excellent reporting but not enough to cause a tipping point of public reaction and intervention by the rest of the world. And I'll tell you what I mean.

At that time, there were good new stories happening in Africa. For instance, Nelson Mandela was about to be elected the first black president of Africa in the post - of South Africa - in the post-apartheid era. Bosnia was still going on. Many of the world's correspondents were still in Bosnia. In the United States, OJ Simpson, that trial was sucking up all the oxygen. And unfortunately, people were able to just sit and, you know, zone out watching that instead of focusing on what was going on in Rwanda.

And I believe that that enabled leadership, which didn't want to intervene, not to intervene. And you know, in three months, 800,000 to one million Rwandans were slaughtered.

DAVIES: You know, for decades, at least, I mean, since the Nazi Holocaust, so many people have pondered the question of how human beings could inflict this unthinkable brutality on other human beings, particularly innocent ones. In one of your interviews with Elie Wiesel, the chronicler of the Holocaust, he says that they used to wonder how could they kill children, referring to the Nazis. And having seen this occur again and again, I wonder, after doing these interviews with people who have suffered this, people, in some cases, who inflicted the violence, and those who tried to stop it, do you feel you're any closer, personally, to an understanding of that, how this could happen?

Ms. AMANPOUR: I don't think I'm any closer to an understanding. Elie Wiesel, of course, was a child when he was in Auschwitz, and he survived, and he has spent his life making sure that the world never forgets. And he tried also to mobilize the Clinton administration early on to intervene because one of the images of Bosnia, for instance, was of children being amongst the targets, children who were being walked to school or whose mothers were walking them to collect water from a pipe, you know, in the street, or who had to go to the market.

They were literally being targeted through a sniper's sight, and their heads were being blown off. I remember once doing a report on a little girl, and I remember to this day what her name was, Amella(ph). And there wasn't enough letters left at the funeral parlors in Sarajevo to actually spell out her whole name. I think it was the A that they had run out of. And I simply - I'm a mother, and I cannot believe it when I see that. And I think, for me - and I'm sure for everybody - that is the most emotional thing when you see children who are deliberately attacked, or even if you go and you report famine or any other crisis or disaster and you see helpless children who are the victims. And again, not caught in the crossfire, Dave. These are deliberately targeted.

DAVIES: There's an incredible moment in this documentary at which you were in Rwanda some years after the massacres there. And you sit with a woman who prepares a meal for you and a man who had killed, what? Five of her children. Tell us about that moment, please.

Ms. AMANPOUR: We went to tell the story of Iphigenia, who had seen her husband and five of her children killed during the genocide there. And we went to her house because we knew, we'd been told, that she was one of those who somehow had found it in her heart to forgive. She'd gone through this local gatchacha(ph) process where the aggressor, where the man who had killed her family, had confessed in front of her and in front of the community.

But this man, Jean-Bosco Bizimana, had been a neighbor. He was a Hutu. She was a Tutsi. And when the genocide started, he was amongst those who had been mobilized to kill Tutsis, including her family. And, yet, somehow, she had managed to forgive. I kept asking her how, and she said, nothing is going to bring the dead back, and I'm a Christian, and I believe in forgiveness.

And we sat with her that Sunday after going to church with her, coming home, watching her prepare a really nice meal for this man who had killed her family.

DAVIES: What did you observe of their interaction? Did she seem to be able to connect with him as a neighbor, as a friend?

Ms. AMANPOUR: Yes. Yes. They were talking. There wasn't much laughter, as you can imagine. There was a quiet sense of getting on with it. She talked to this man. They talked about everyday mundane things. She was closer to his wife, and it was the wife who persuaded the husband to come and apologize and to take part in this community court system to beg forgiveness. And since then, this community, this family, is moving on.

It also happens to be the national policy. Reconciliation is the national policy in Rwanda right now, so this is what's happening in many towns and villages. It is, though, absolutely extraordinary to witness. And you just can't help but feel, oh, my goodness, what if there's another explosion? How will this play out again? Because remember, when you ask, how could these people do it, a collective madness does take over but it's one that doesn't just happen out of the ether.

They are mobilized by radio, by their leaders, by their communities to go out and kill their so-called enemies. In this case, the Hutus were told that Tutsis were cockroaches. They were told kill, kill, kill, on the radio. All the time, these messages were going out during the genocide. And don't just leave the adults. Kill the children, too, so that they can never come back and threaten us again.

And it was graphic orders coming from the radio, the television and the militia leaders of how to kill, and it makes people mad. It sends them into mad, murderous frenzies, and that's what happened.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Christiane Amanpour. She is the chief international correspondent for CNN. We'll talk more after our break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

If you're just joining us, our guest is Christiane Amanpour. She has just celebrated 25 years at CNN, where she is the chief international correspondent. She will soon be hosting her own show on CNN International.

You know, so many people are interested in your background. As I understand, your mother was British, your father was an Iranian airline executive. Is that right?

Ms. AMANPOUR: Yep, and they still are. They're both alive. My mom's English. My father's Iranian. I grew up in Iran, and I grew up throughout my childhood and adolescence, and when I was 20 years old, there was a revolution, as the world knows, in 1979. The Islamic Revolution swept Iran. And to this day, there's an Islamic theocracy in power under the Ayatollahs there. And Iran, of course, has always been very much in the news.

Saying all this just to say that I was old enough during that revolution to understand and to be interested in what was going on even though it affected my family very deeply, it changed our lives. Many of our friends and family were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. And yet, that's what put me on the path to journalism. And I wanted to be a foreign correspondent to tell precisely those stories and to try to explain to the world some of these seismic happenings that affect all of our lives.

DAVIES: So you went to the States, went to the University of Rhode Island, and then, as I understand it, started at CNN 25 years ago - as what, a desk assistant or an assistant producer?

Ms. AMANPOUR: That's right. After Iran, I thought I wanted to come to the United States where I'd heard that if you work hard, you have a dream, you have a passion, you can make it. And I did go to the University of Rhode Island, which I really thoroughly enjoyed. I had a great time. I went to Atlanta, joined CNN right out of college, just about, with my bicycle, my suitcase, about $100 or so in my pocket.

And when I got there, the executive who was in charge of recruiting, he said to me, oh, Christiane, you're foreign? We've got an opening on the foreign desk. Let's put you there. And I thought this was just fantastic because I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. And I was a desk assistant, which was the lowest-level entry position there, and I did a lot of things like getting coffee and food for my boss. And I also was very fortunate to be able to talk to the reporters around the world for CNN, on the phone, to transcribe their scripts and put them in the computer so our writers and anchors knew what they were writing.

And that sort of set me on my way to really wanting to be a foreign correspondent. I worked many, many hours on my own time. I learned how to write for the anchors first and then to write reports. Then I started to become a reporter. And in 1990, I got my first assignment as a foreign correspondent, and it just happened to be ahead of the first Gulf War, and that was my first major story. So just as CNN was exploding internationally, I got my first chance, and it was great.

DAVIES: You know, you were a desk assistant in Atlanta, to begin with, at CNN. There are a lot of desk assistants who never get anywhere. I mean, you clearly had something that others didn't. And I'm wondering, when you actually got out into the field and had to not just kind of write news from wire services or what you heard over the phone from other correspondents but to actually go out and report it, can you describe what was different about it, what the different skills that you had to employ - where there's a moment which you realized, wow, this is really something completely different?

Ms. AMANPOUR: Yeah. I had a drive and a passion and a mission and a deep sense of knowing what I wanted to do. So when I did finally get the chance, and I lobbied, lobbied like anything to be a foreign correspondent even when I had no business being one because I really, you know, didn't know as much as I should. Anyway, I filled a series of dead men's shoes and eventually got overseas.

DAVIES: What do you mean by fill a series of dead men's shoes?

Ms. AMANPOUR: A series of people who either didn't want the job or were leaving the job or whatever it was that enabled me to take advantage of that empty position and get in. And then I got my first job as a foreign correspondent because those who'd been asked to do this job didn't want to go to that particular bureau that was being offered. So I said, I'll go, and I got the job. I think it was a bit of desperation on CNN's part, but thank God - ha ha - thank God because, you know, it was my first opportunity, and I grabbed it with both hands and feet.

DAVIES: You, as you said, try and get to the bottom of things and try to get stories of ordinary people. And there's an incident that I believe you once mentioned in a speech where you were doing a live report from Ethiopia or Somalia about famine and realized at some point that the man whose story you were telling, who was live on camera, was dying.


DAVIES: Yeah. Tell us about that a moment.

Ms. AMANPOUR: It was in Somalia. And again, I was still a very young reporter. I was 32 or something. And it was in 1992 - maybe I was a bit older than that - and it was my first time exposed to deprivation on a scale that I had never seen and could never imagine. These people in Somalia were being starved to death, and it wasn't by natural circumstances. It was because of war and civil war, manmade. In any event, then-President George Bush had sent forces in to relieve the famine, and it worked, actually, thank goodness.

And we reporters went to wherever we could to document, to witness, to take pictures, and we ended up in one of these feeding camps where refugees were coming in - refugees meaning Somalis, who were crawling in to try to get a bit of gruel to survive on. And at the time, my camerawoman and I - Cindy Strand and I - were in this tent where a group of Somalis were weak and lying and being tended to, lying on the ground.

And I was talking to the physician there, and I had started talking to one of the victims, one of the people who he was treating who was obviously weak, but he had been able to say a few words. And all of a sudden, I saw that he was not going to make it. His eyes started to roll back, his chest started to deflate, his head started to fall onto his chest, and I knew what was happening, and I couldn't move. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know whether to bang the camera and turn it around, whether to stand in front of it, whether to stop, whether to continue.

It was so awful, and it was something that to this day I can feel it and I can see it as I'm telling you. And in the end, I think that I just sort of slowly moved out of camera - out of range of the camera - and it followed me, got off this person, and I continued to tell the story, and that's what I did.

DAVIES: And he didn't make it. He died.

Ms. AMANPOUR: No. He died.

DAVIES: Christiane Amanpour. She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, back with Christiane Amanpour, CNN's chief international correspondent. On December 4th, her documentary on genocide will premiere on CNN, and next year she'll have her own nightly news show on CNN International. Amanpour has spent 25 years at the network, much of it covering famine, war and natural disasters around the world.

You've seen so much death and tragedy, and I wonder how you deal with it emotionally? Do you compartmentalize it? I mean, I mean I know you feel it's so important to bring these stories. On the other hand, it must - it must take a toll, in some way.

Ms. AMANPOUR: Well, I think it does take a toll. If it didn't take a toll, I wouldn't be a human being. I'm not ashamed to say it takes a toll. I think that the way I try to deal with it is I have a very strong family. I have a very strong group of friends. I'm not shy about talking about it, although I'm very aware that not many people want to hear about this stuff. It is too horrible, so you just talk, you know, with a few people about it.

But I put my passion and my energy and my heart into telling the stories. In other words, I don't let it eat me up. I tell the stories with a passion that I hope does justice to those people who've told me their stories and to those people whose situations I've witnessed. And I strongly believe that what motivates me and that keeps me from being eaten up by this is a deep sense of - a deep belief that by telling these stories it will make a difference.

DAVIES: You know, now that - you know, CNN has had around-the-clock news for a long time, but now you have most major news organizations with Web sites that are updated minute by minute and bloggers who are out there providing on-the-spot accounts, and then that leads to instant analysis on the air on your's and other competing cable stations. And I'm wondering, do you think that the headlong rush to get information and analysis on the air so quickly, ahead of everyone else, has led to superficial or even misleading reporting about things? Are you troubled by that tendency, the acceleration of news and analysis?

Ms. AMANPOUR: Yes, because I think the brain only works at a certain speed anyway. But I do think that it does contribute to basically talking off the top of your head. I think basically that the technology is fantastic. The delivery platforms are superb. The ability to get stories of importance or just plain interesting stories from one corner of the globe to another instantly is really amazing.

I think, however, that we mustn't confuse understanding with just plain information. I think that we mustn't confuse the ability to comprehend and to know the context of what's going on with the speed of the delivery system. And I think that's something that we really should start looking at very, very carefully because it's great to have all these delivery systems, but we need to talk about content as well. What is it that we're putting out there? There is a time to get all that news out. And then there is a time to talk about it, to consider it, to put it in context, to get the perspective, different perspectives, to try to go a bit deeper.

I think what the correspondents - certainly, what CNN did during this unbelievable siege in Mumbai over the last several days was phenomenal. We got the news out very, very quickly and did it very, very well. But in the intervening days, you know, some of the precepts that people sort of started thinking and that were taken as gospel are looking a little bit thin. For instance, you know, everybody was told that it was just Americans and British that these hostage takers, terrorists were going after.

DAVIES: Right.

Ms. AMANPOUR: But the reality, of course, is that there was indiscriminate firing in many, many locations; that yes, there were foreigners who were killed but the majority of the people who were killed were Indians. So, you know, these cliches that get repeated over and over again by people who are rushing to just fill air has to be looked at.

DAVIES: And speculation about the nature of things that you don't understand. For example, the nature of the attackers in this case, I mean...

Ms. AMANPOUR: That's correct.

DAVIES: Experts get on the air. They don't have much information, but they immediately began speculating about where they may have come from.

Ms. AMANPOUR: That's correct. And again, speculation has to be labeled as speculation. In any event, I think we should do much less of that than we do. And there are other things you can do to fill air. For instance, you could, God forbid, go to India by satellite, wherever you are sitting in a studio, and actually get a group of people from there, experts from there, to tell you about their best knowledge about what's going on. You could - there's a huge pool of people and information that you can draw on just to fill air.

DAVIES: Well, of course, real reporting is expensive. And I wanted to quote from a speech that you gave in 2000. You'd received the Edward R. Murrow Award. And you addressed the Radio and Television News Directors Association, and this is according to a text of the speech, and I'm editing a little just for time, but you said: What we do and say and show really matters. Yet, the powers that be, the moneymen, have decided to eviscerate us. It actually costs a little bit of money to produce good journalism. But God forbid money should be spent on our news operations pursuing quality. For the most part, as we've seen, it's just a lot of demeaning, irrelevant, super-hyped sensationalism. Our parent companies and corporations are raking in the profits. Yes, you are running the business, and yes, we understand and accept that, but surely there must be a level beyond which profit from news is simply indecent.


Ms. AMANPOUR: Did I say all that?

DAVIES: Well, according to a text of the speech.

Ms. AMANPOUR: No, I did. It was in the year 2000 and...

DAVIES: And I'm interested in the reaction that you got.

Ms. AMANPOUR: Well, the reaction was positive. I mean, I'm sure there are some people who think I'm a major you-know-what. But the reaction overall was very positive, particularly amongst my colleagues and those of us who believe that actually good journalism is good business and not necessarily the reverse. I strongly believe - and I'll say it over and over again to my dying day - that good storytelling, that good reporting, that spending the resources on covering the news is good business. And that there is, I believe, a level above which it is simply impractical, indecent, immoral to hold news and information to a commercial standard as if it was just any other commercial consumer product.

Whether we're private organizations or not, I am motivated by a sense of public service. You know, maybe I have that in my DNA, being British and being - having a lot of the BBC in my head as I grew up, and I still listen to it. It's a public service. We owe our viewers information, correct information and analysis and to go and be the eyes and the ears. That is what our historical mandate is, and that's what we need to do. Otherwise, we will be irrelevant.

DAVIES: You've made it a point to talk to ordinary people and capture the stories of people affected by war and violence and famine. But you've also, of course, talked to a lot of world leaders. And one of the more famous interviews was in 2002 when the Israeli army had surrounded Yasser Arafat's compound in Ramallah. You managed to get him on the phone for a live on-the-air interview. Do you want to tell us how you pulled that off?

Ms. AMANPOUR: Well, that's right. That was a terrible time when there had been a suicide bomb attack in Israel and a lot of people had been killed. It was in Netanya, and it was over Passover and a lot of people had been killed. And the response from the government of Ariel Sharon was to blast it back into the West Bank and basically barricaded Arafat and the Palestinian Authority into their compound. So, CNN actually got him on the phone and patched him through to me, as I was doing a lot of live reports and anchoring and an enormous amount of work on the air that few days.

Anyway, so we got Yasser Arafat on the phone, and I basically started by asking him the obvious question. So, you know, what about those terrorists who went in there? I mean, how can you not control them? And he just lost it. He just accused me of being a shill(ph) for the Israeli government, and how can you talk to me like this? And I am General Arafat, and who do you think you are? And goodbye, boom, and he hung up. And you know, I went every shade of beetroot red on the air. I tried very hard not to lose my composure, and I just said, well, there, you see the kind of pressure he's under. We'll be back in a minute. And I think we went to a break.

DAVIES: And did you speak to him again after that?

Ms. AMANPOUR: I didn't, actually. No, I didn't. He didn't - no, I didn't do another interview with him, and I never got to interview the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, either.

DAVIES: Well, Christiane Amanpour, I want to wish you good success with the new show, and thanks so much for spending some time with us.

Ms. AMANPOUR: Thank you very much, Dave.

DAVIES: Christiane Amanpour. She'll host a nightly program on CNN International next year. Her documentary on genocide called "Scream Bloody Murder" premieres on CNN December 4th. Coming up, inside the search engine giant Google. This is Fresh Air.

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