Global Issues TEDx

War stories: Read Janine di Giovanni’s powerful coverage of conflicts around the world

Journalist Janine di Giovanni has covered wars in Bosnia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Iraq and most recently in Syria — and, yet, she has noted that they all seem to begin in the same way.

“This is how war starts—one day you’re living your ordinary life. You’re planning to go to a party, you’re taking your children to school, you’re making a dentist appointment,” says di Giovanni in today’s talk, given at TEDxWomen. “The next thing, the telephones go out. The TVs go out. There are armed men on the streets. Your life as you know it goes into suspended animation.”

In today’s gut-wrenching talk, di Giovanni describes some of the moments that have stuck with her over her years as a war correspondent, and shares what she has learned from covering many of the bloodiest conflicts of the last two decades. She says that her mind often wanders back to Sarajevo.

“I had the honor of being one of those reporters who lived through that [three-year] siege. And I say I had the honor and privilege of being there because it taught me everything — not just about being a reporter, but about being a human being,” says di Giovanni. “Even in the midst of terrible destruction and death and chaos, I learned how ordinary people could share food with their neighbors, raise their children, drag someone who’s being sniped at from the middle of the road, even though you yourself were endangering your life.”

In 2004, di Giovanni had a son. And in this talk, she explains why she opted to cover the war in Iraq despite having a baby at home. She also shares why, less than a week after speaking at TEDxWomen, she headed back to Damascus to continue covering the conflict in Syria.

“I believe it needs to be done. I believe a story there has to be told,” she says. “What I see is incredibly heroic people fighting for things — like democracy — that we take for granted every single day … All I am is a witness. My role is to bring a voice to people who are voiceless … To shine a light in the darkest corners of the world.’”

To hear what an important and heart-breaking job this can be, watch di Giovanni’s talk. And below, read some of the incredible stories that she has written about wars over the years.

The Balkans:

“Christmas in Sarajevo,” The Sunday Times, Dec. 1992

On Christmas eve, the city of Sarajevo was pitched into darkness except for the occasional flare from the tracer rounds and the sound of the sporadic shells. On this day, like so many others before, The Susko family went to bed at about 9pm their only escape from the unlit cold.

On Christmas day light snow began to fall again and the temperature dropped to -5C. Mario Susko awoke to the sound of shelling in the borrowed unheated room where he lives with his wife, Maria, and his daughter Alexandra, 17. Wrapped in blankets on the floor where he sleeps, he could feel the detonations, but for some time now the 52-year-old Catholic Croat has not felt frightened.

“After three weeks without water, one month without electricity and eight months of total siege, I no longer feel fear,” he says. Keep reading » 

“From the Kosovo Frontline,” March to June 1999

It was the heaviest night of the Nato bombing here in Kosovo. The commander with the kind face, a former hero of the war in Bosnia, told me and the soldiers in my tent to sleep with our boots on.

He was right. At 3am, the blackness of night was shattered by the terrifying crack of a Serb MiG dropping cluster bombs on us. “Go. Go. Go,” ordered the Swede, a former UN soldier. We tumbled in the darkness to a nearby muddy ravine and threw ourselves on to the ground. It was not easy, the trench is used by soldiers as a latrine. Keep reading » 

“Goodbye to All That,” The Times Magazine, December 2004

I am not a big television fan, but recently a friend rang and told me to watch Prime Suspect. It was a two-parter in which Helen Mirren was investigating the murder in London of a Bosnian refugee who had witnessed a brutal massacre during the Balkan conflict. I watched it. The next night I stayed home to watch the second part. There was an actor I knew from Sarajevo playing the bad guy, and there was Helen Mirren, slowly going mad as she became more and more embroiled in the case. Eventually, she became obsessed. She disobeyed her boss, sacrificed her job and flew to Bosnia at her own expense to investigate the massacre. Strange behaviour. But I recognised that look in her eyes.

My friend rang me after the second part ended. “What was it with Bosnia,” he asked, “that made people so obsessive?” I could not answer, but I have been thinking. I began reporting the Bosnian war in 1992, and while I am fortunate enough not to have been injured or to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, not a day goes by in which the conflict does not enter my mind. I met my husband in Sarajevo. I forged some of my closest friendships in Bosnia. And, in a horrible way, my most powerful memories come from those years. Keep reading » 

Africa:

Dark Days in Sierra Leone,” The Times of London, May 2000

West of Petitfu Junction, where the road turns to red dust and the bush grows darker, the villagers fly white neutrality flags over their mud shacks. It is their way of saying that they are peaceful civilians, a feeble protection from the Revolutionary United Front rebels, who are quickly advancing into this territory.

Further up the road that leads to Port Loko, there is real panic. The people who live in this bush are simple people who farm potatoes, grow rice and tap the palm trees for oil. This area was once held by the RUF, and the rebels know what the rebels will do if they come back. So the people are fleeing, walking quickly in the heat of the day, or pedaling on rusty old bicycles, their children walking alongside them. Keep reading » 

“Nobody’s Children,” The New York Times Magazine, February 2002 

Early morning, Mogadishu. The wet equatorial heat is rising from the chewed up streets, and the gunmen are already working. Truckloads of militiamen, hanging off the back of pickup trucks cruise the neigbourhoods of South Mogadishu. They chew quat, the bitter narcotic leaf imported from Kenya; wave Kalashnikovs above their heads, and stand defiantly in position behind anti-aircraft guns chained to the back of the trucks.

The American marines used to call them Skinnies, and it still makes the gunmen laugh, because it makes them seem innocent and sweet, like a cappuccino at Starbucks, which they are not. They are young men, some of them boys. They wear dark Gucci-style sunglasses, bandannas around their heads and Homeboy gear – jeans slung low, t-shirts, flip-flops. Some of them are barely into their teens, their weapons bigger than their tiny frames, but they know how to shoot and kill and ambush and raid. Keep reading » 

“A Civil Tongue: South Sudan Tries to Learn English,” Harper’s, March 2012

When South Sudan, the world’s newest country, was born in July 2011, after nearly half a century of on-and-off civil war that left as many as 2.5 million dead, it was greeted with enormous expectations. A contest for a new national anthem was sponsored. Beauty pageants for Miss South Sudan were held. Carpetbaggers and scalawags from all over East Africa and as far as China, India, and even the United States descended on the capital, Juba.

Last autumn, I visited the country during a brief respite before another flare-up of looting and massacres that killed, as of this writing, an estimated 3,000 people. Driving past a quarry every morning, I saw exhausted-looking women wearing ripped nightgowns and rubber shower caps over their heads crouched roadside, pounding large rocks into smaller rocks, inhaling noxious dust. Keep reading » 

The Middle East:

“The Last Days of Iraq,” Vanity Fair, April 2003

On Ash Wednesday, a few weeks before war was declared on Iraq, I went to mass in St. Mary’s Church on Palestine Street in Baghdad. The mass was in Armaic, the ancient language of Jesus, and around me the Iraqi Christians knelt and prayed for peace. On their faces was etched all the fear and anxiety of the past few weeks as the diplomatic process unravelled and the world fought over whether or not their country would be bombed. A few of the women, wearing lacy white mantillas on their heads, were crying.

Towards the end of the mass, three American peace activists, stood and addressed the congregation. Over the past few months that I had been in Baghdad, there had been a flurry of pointless peace activities, beginning with the arrival of the actor Sean Penn in December, to a host of human shields from Seattle and Michigan, to men of the cloth spreading words of faith. One of the priests, from Washington D.C. said slowly, “We hope we carry the hopes and fears of the people of the world in the quest for peace.” It was meant to be reassuring, but the congregation looked wary. Keep reading » 

“Gateway to Jihad: Pakistan’s Phantom Border,” Vanity Fair, June 2008

It has been more than 60 years since Pakistan was carved out of India by the British as a moderate, Muslim nation, a refuge rather than an Islamic state. For most of those six decades, Pakistan has been a friend of America’s. Since 9/11, it has been a so-called partner in the war on terror.

Up to a point. Newsweek recently called Pakistan arguably the most dangerous country on earth, harboring as it does a lethal combination of mostly foreign-born al-Qaeda terrorists and a native-born Taliban movement that is supported by its Taliban brethren across the border in Afghanistan. (American intelligence calls them “Big T” and “Little T.”) Given that the border is ridiculously porous and difficult to patrol, Pakistan has become a kind of haven for potential terrorists eager to be set loose into the wider world. Keep reading » 

“On Reporting from Syria,” The New York Times, October 2012

I took the first of several visits to Syria in June 2012, legally, with a rare journalist’s visa, to report from the government side.

I flew from my home in Paris to Beirut, then got a driver and traveled to Syria. Damascus, the world’s oldest inhabited city, seemed to carry on business as usual — though there were already the car bombs, and the wounded soldiers in the hospital. I could look out the window of my hotel, the Dama Rose, and see women in bikinis drinking beer to hip-hop music at pool parties, then see the smoke of bombings in the background. I had worked in the Middle East for two decades since I was a cub reporter, but this was my first time in Syria. Keep reading » 

“Denial is Slipping Away as War Arrives in Damascus,” The New York Times, October 2012

Rifa was growing frantic. Her husband had called to say that he and her brother were stuck on their way home from work outside the Syrian capital, normally a 25-minute drive. There was fighting in a northern suburb, he said, and traffic was frozen.

Tensions rose as the hours passed. It is never good to be out after dark in Damascus now, especially trapped in a traffic jam, unable to flee. Finally, Rifa’s husband called again. They had escaped and returned to their workplace to pass the night, another concession to their changing world. Keep reading » 

And read much more from di Giovannie at her website, JanineDiGiovanni.com.