Janine di Giovanni: What Does It Take To Cover A War? Reporter Janine di Giovanni has covered countless wars, including conflict in Bosnia, Sierra Leone and most recently Syria. She tells stories of everyday human courage in conflict zones.
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What Does It Take To Cover A War?

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What Does It Take To Cover A War?

What Does It Take To Cover A War?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today, stories of courage and justice - ideas about why people sometimes risk everything to do the right thing.


RAZ: Back in 2000, reporter Janine Di Giovanni rode a helicopter right into the middle of Sierra Leone's civil war.

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: I begged, bribed, paid lots of money to get on a helicopter from Conakry, Guinea going into Freetown, which was empty.

RAZ: Rebels were walking around the city killing people at random, and Janine was determined to get in.

DI GIOVANNI: But yet, when we landed, crowds of people were desperate to get out, and the captain said, don't you think there's something wrong with you? You're desperate to be flown into a place where everyone is desperate to get out of.

RAZ: Did you feel courageous?

DI GIOVANNI: I don't think of myself as a courageous person. I think of myself as a pretty unique person. I just think my mind works in a different way than most people's do. And I think whereas, when most people would see danger, they'd probably run the other way, whereas my reaction would be, what's going on? I should move closer. I need to know.

RAZ: And it doesn't matter where it is. That need to know is like the fuel that gives Janine the courage to go there - to be there. She's been shot at and detained, threatened, watched, followed, everywhere from...

DI GIOVANNI: Rwanda, Kosovo, Somalia, Zimbabwe, East Timor, Liberia, Egypt, Syria, Libya.

RAZ: Iraq, Afghanistan?

DI GIOVANNI: Iraq, Afghanistan, of course, Pakistan.

RAZ: Janine's probably covered every major war or conflict for the past 25 years - so obviously, an incredibly courageous person, right? But the thing is, she'd say that all of that pales in comparison to the kind of courage she's seen in others.

DI GIOVANNI: And it usually comes down to ordinary people, when confronted with great evil, taking and making choices that would, for me, give the real explanation of courage. I mean, to me, I always thought the most courageous people I knew were people that faced insurmountable challenges in their lives. And that could be someone with cancer who battles it out and gets through the day, or children who walk to school in Africa because they really want to be educated, or someone who survives a genocide by hiding or hiding other people.

RAZ: It's the kind of courage she saw in the people who lived through the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war in the early 1990s. Janine talked about it on the TED stage.


DI GIOVANNI: I had the honor of being one of those reporters that lived through that siege. And I say I have the honor and the privilege of being there because it's taught me everything, not just about being a reporter, but about being a human being. Even in the midst of terrible destruction and death and chaos, I learned how ordinary people could help their neighbors - share food, raise their children, drag someone who's being sniped at from the middle of the road, even though you yourself are endangering your life - helping people get into taxis who were injured, to try to take them to hospitals. I'm going to steal a story from a friend of mine, a Bosnian friend, about what happened to her. She was walking to work one day in April 1992 in a miniskirt and high heels. She worked in a bank. She was a young mother. She was someone who liked to party - great person. And, suddenly, she sees a tank ambling down the main road of Sarajevo, knocking everything out of its path. She thinks she's dreaming, but she's not. And she runs, as any of us would have done, and takes cover, and she hides behind a trash bin in her high heels and her miniskirt. And as she's hiding there, she's feeling ridiculous, but she's seeing this tank go by with soldiers and people all over the place and chaos and she thinks - I feel like Alice in Wonderland, going down the rabbit hole - down, down, down into chaos. And my life will never be the same again. A few weeks later, my friend was in a crowd of people, pushing, with her infant son in her arms, to give him to a stranger on the bus, which was one of the last buses leaving Sarajevo to take children out so they could be safe. And she remembers struggling with her mother to the front - to crowds and crowds of people - take my child, take my child - and passing her son to someone through a window.

And the fact that she sent him off, which was a great act of courage, enabled him to survive. If she had kept him with her, who knows what could have happened? He could have been maimed, he could have been killed. And, instead, she gave him the chance to live. I mean, one of the things - many years ago someone said to me - what is the most remarkable thing to you about war? And I said that there is this incredible dichotomy - that on one hand, there's the evil that you literally can feel. But at the same time, it brings out this kind of extraordinary power in some people - in ordinary people - who just take it upon themselves to do the right thing.

RAZ: Do you think that courage is like an unconscious response to circumstances, especially circumstances in a war zone? Or do you think that it's a deliberate, conscious process?

DI GIOVANNI: I don't think it's a conscious process. We are programmed to survive and to protect ourselves and to put on your own air mask first before you help other people. But I think that, when it comes down to it, most people, I'd like to believe, are good people and wouldn't walk away. You know, I remember, during the war in Sierra Leone, just meeting this woman - just a neighborhood woman who sheltered all the local kids. She wasn't doing it for money, and she wasn't doing it for any reason other than she could. There are so many people that just, every day, toil - and it really is toil, you know - without recognition, without funding, because they believe in what they're doing.


DI GIOVANNI: I now cover Syria, and I started reporting it because I believe it needs to be done. I believe a story there has to be told. I see, again, a template of the war in Bosnia. And when I first arrived in Damascus, I saw this strange moment where people didn't seem to believe that war was going to descend, and it was exactly the same in Bosnia and nearly every other country where war comes. People don't want to believe it's coming, so they don't leave. They don't before they can. They don't get their money out. They stay because you want to stay in your home. And then war and chaos descends.

RAZ: When I used to cover wars, especially Iraq, I remember having this, like, pit in my stomach the night before I would go. You know, and that fear somehow seemed to cancel out any thoughts of feeling courageous.

DI GIOVANNI: I mean, I think fear is natural, and I think that there is a reason why you should be afraid in places like Baghdad and Kabul. They are highly dangerous places. You're not meant to be there. When the war in Syria started, a lot of young journalists came who really didn't have much experience. And a lot of them had this recklessness which came from, I think, watching too many YouTube videos and films about war reporters and reading too many daring-do articles that were written in men's magazines about the glamour of being a war reporter. And it really scared me because I just - I've always thought, when I've run into these kind of people in the field, I go the other way because I don't think they get killed. I think they get other people killed. I think, to be a good reporter working in conflict, maintaining a level of fear is hugely important because that is your barometer. I think that courage is about knowing the limits and protecting yourself and other people around you. Fear is part of being courageous. It has to be.


DI GIOVANNI: In 2004, I had a little baby boy, and I call him my miracle child because, after seeing so much death and destruction and chaos and darkness in my life, this ray of hope was born. And I called him Luca, which means the bringer of light, because he did bring - he does bring light to my life. But I'm talking about him because, when he was 4 months old, my foreign editor forced me to go back to Baghdad, where I had been reporting all throughout the Saddam regime and during the fall of Baghdad and afterwards. And I remember getting on the plane in tears, crying to be separated from my son. And, while I was there, a quite famous Iraqi politician who was a friend of mine said to me, what are you doing here? Why aren't you home with Luca? And I said, well, I have to see - it was 2004, which was the beginning of the incredibly bloody time in Iraq - I have to see - I have to see what is happening here. I have to report it. And he said, go home because if you miss his first tooth, if you miss his first step, you'll never forgive yourself. But there will always be another war. And there, sadly, will always be wars. And I am deluding myself if I think, as a journalist, as a reporter, as a writer, what I do can stop them. I can't. All I am is a witness. My role is to bring a voice to people who are voiceless. A colleague of mine described it as to shine a light in the darkest corners of the world, and that's what I try to do. Thank you very much.


RAZ: Janine Di Giovanni is now the Middle East editor for Newsweek. You can see her full talk on war and courage at ted.npr.org.

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