"An Obligation to Bear Witness"

Janine di Giovanni is one of European journalism's most experienced reporters of war and conflict, writing for The Times of London, Vanity Fair, National Geographic and other publications.

Janine di Giovanni is one of European journalism's most experienced reporters of war and conflict, writing for The Times of London, Vanity Fair, National Geographic and other publications. She has covered fighting in Iraq, Chechnya, the Balkans, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and East Timor, and won a National Magazine Award in 2000. Her book on the Bosnian war, Madness Visible (click here to read a Dart Center review) is soon to appear in paperback. She is married to the French journalist Bruno Girodon.

Dart Center: What has it meant for you to be a war correspondent and to report the stories you have reported?

Janine di Giovanni: I'm a reporter certainly, but I don't call myself a war reporter. I would say I'm a reporter who concentrates on human rights abuse. We have an obligation to bear witness. I'm not really there to rationalise a war and I'm not a philosopher. I listen to people. I report what they say. I don't necessarily put my spin on it, or my opinion. Often I'm writing about victims. I'm very rarely with the aggressor or the people who are waging war.

I'd like to think of myself as a humanist above all, and I hope that it has made me a more compassionate and understanding human being. It's very satisfying to work on stories where there are not a million journalists, and you really feel, "I've done something! I've made a difference".

I still believe in humanity but it's just very disheartening to work on a story for years and come away thinking there's been so little change.

Q: What are the choices, sacrifices and challenges that you've found as a woman war correspondent?

JdG: The biggest challenge is to do with one's personal life. I've been doing this for 15 years and there were great swathes of my life where I just devoted myself 100 percent to my job. I had very little private life and very little private time. I think what happens to you is you lose track of the years going by.

I'm very fortunate that a few people pointed out to me that I should "remember to have a baby". It sounds really stupid that you've got to remember to have a baby. But I think what happens to reporters covering conflict is that we get very caught up in the struggle to report. And then you come back and usually your private life is in tatters.

I'm very lucky that first, I have a wonderful husband who does the same job as me so he understands. And second that I managed to have a baby, a wonderful little boy. I've got a very stable family life, which then enables me to go out and work and feel much better when I come home. It's very lonely if you spend a couple of months working in Iraq and you come back and you've an empty apartment and no-one to share your frustrations and your sorrow with.

DC: How have you been able to maintain your relationship? Many women correspondents find it difficult to maintain relationships.

JdG: I think my case was quite special because I met my husband during the war in Sarajevo in 1992. We didn't see each other for many years after, and spent years living on separate continents, covering different wars. I think we just stayed together because we loved each other; we had a very strong bond. We'd broken up many times but we finally got married in 2003. The first six months of our marriage we were apart because my husband was working in the Ivory Coast and I was pregnant.

Now we live together in Paris and we're completely besotted to be parents. We still take our work very seriously, but our first priority is to each other and our son.

DC: How has having a baby affected future career decisions in terms of reporting on war and conflict?

JdG: There are risks I won't take any more. For instance, I was in Chechnya when it fell, in February 2000; I would not do that again now because the risk of getting killed is very high. I've got a little boy who needs me very much, so what kind of irresponsible human being would I be to put myself in a position where the risk of me dying is very high? I weigh it out.

For me he is a symbol of all the purity in the world. I've seen such horrible things and heard terrible stories for so many years. Having him has brought back not only my faith in humanity but also my ability to laugh and to play. I just look at him and I see this innocent beautiful child and it's just pure love. For me he is the symbol of purity and humanity and the continuation of life. The cycle of life goes on; it's not always death, it's life.

DC: Where do you get your emotional support?

JdG: The biggest support is my husband because we both do the same work. We never have to explain things to each other. We sort of speak a language of our own; we understand each other on a very deep level. I also have a loving family and wonderful friends.

But I think the strongest support comes from yourself. If you do this work, you have to, at some point, make peace with yourself. I've been very fortunate. I do not have PTSD, from what I've been tested for. I believe that I have been able to write about it, get out the emotions and express it, and talk to people. That's been very helpful to me in dealing with all these awful things.

DC: At the beginning of A Madness Visible there's an epigraph about the "incompatibility of being a reporter and hanging on to a tender soul". Have you felt that?

JdG: I do think I have a very tender soul. Since I've had a baby it's become more tender. I found myself bursting into tears several times a day watching the Tsunami reportage or sharing stories about people suffering. I think I've always had a tremendous amount of compassion and empathy for people and it's even more so now.

I didn't want to lose that. It probably made me a weaker reporter but I felt it made me a better human being. I knew that to be a technically great reporter, you need to be a bit hard and I'm not made of that stuff.

I remember very specifically one incident, when the old people were dying in Sarajevo and I was sitting on the bed at this one woman's side, trying to will her to live. There was another reporter there from the Washington Post. He wrote a book about Bosnia and wrote about me doing that. He said he was so shocked because his reaction was to stand back and take notes, whereas my first reaction was to run to them and try and help them, physically help them try to live. His journalistic training had taught him not to get involved, so he's probably the more professional journalist. But I hope that I have the more tender soul.

DC: How did you balance your job to report on things you witnessed and your feelings of responsibility to help people?

JdG: It was horrible. There were times when I'd just feel tremendously guilty especially in places like Sarajevo that were under siege. As journalists we always had money and we could get out and leave, and these people couldn't. That was really painful.

My husband has constantly said to me, "You can't save the world". And I don't think you can do that. But you can do small things. For instance, in August I went to an orphanage in India to write a story about AIDS. And I was really emotional about the state of these children who are dying. They didn't do anything to get this disease; their parents passed it on to them, and their parents died and now they're orphans.

It really affected me. I fell in love with this one little boy who was four years old but only weighed 14 pounds. He was in really bad shape. I ended up paying for his medical treatment for a year. It was nothing — 30 dollars a month for him to have anti-retroviral treatment. But he died. I was so upset; I was crying and my husband said to me, "You cannot save the world!" I never felt I could, but I did feel the pain.

So what I did do is get quite a few friends and people I know to donate to this orphanage, so that the other kids that lived might have a chance. It was too late to help this one little boy, but it might not be too late to help the others.

I'm not saying that journalists should be social workers. But I feel that if every journalist did this instead of just getting a Pulitzer or getting an award or getting a pay rise, then we'd live in a slightly better world.

One incident that I always think of is the fall of Grozny, in Chechnya. I was one of the few reporters to be there so it was very important. Grozny had been completely levelled by Russian planes and bombs. I'll never forget finding this building, totally destroyed, but inside, there was a group of blind people. They were totally helpless. They couldn't move, they couldn't get out, they were just waiting for someone to help them. They had flown a white flag over the building so it wouldn't get bombed. But of course it was bombed anyway. All the staff had run away so they were completely alone; it was just horrible.

DC: How did that affect you? You write that you could never get used to seeing someone else's agony.

JdG: I went back to England and tried to get help for them. You just do all you can, but ultimately I'm just one person. I'm not Mother Teresa. I'm a journalist. I wrote about it. If you write about it, that has some power. Because other people will read it and think "Thank God I'm not living in Chechnya". If you do that, then that's our work really.

DC: There's a British trainer in your book who admits to hating civilian life and feeling more alive in war. Do you feel some kind of addiction to being in war zones?

JdG: Not at all. I like the good life, to be honest. I enjoy being in comfortable surroundings with my family and friends and having enough food to eat — not sleeping in a tent in Afghanistan for three months. I do it because I feel an obligation to bear witness to these stories. I don't do it because I enjoy getting shot at.

DC: What do you believe inspires your writing and reporting?

JdG: What inspires me is the people I'm interviewing. The stories they tell me, the confidence they put in me. They're giving me their lives, the history of their families and I've got a responsibility to protect them and tell their story.

My book was written for the hundreds of people who told me what happened to them. Of course, it was really painful. But I felt like I had some obligation to write about them. I felt I owed it to them.