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Bearing Witness: War Correspondent Janine di Giovanni On Reporting From the Battleground

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“In the 1990s, a series of violent wars kept coming, like wave after brutal wave,” says di Giovanni. “I was part of an elite, tight band of international reporters — a tribe, really — who roamed the earth, working from front lines or cities under siege. In those days, we rarely wore flak jackets. But we believed in the stories we were reporting, in the importance of bearing witnesses to evil regimes, to ethnic cleansing, to genocide and systematic rape. After Israel came Bosnia. After Bosnia, Rwanda. Liberia. Congo. Chechnya. Sierra Leone. East Timor. Ivory Coast. Zimbabwe. Somalia. Afghanistan. Iraq.” [includes rush transcript]

With an increasing number of controversies swirling around journalists” coverage of war and occupation, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ominously warned that “People need to be very careful about what they say, just as people need to be careful about what they do.”

Today we take a look at the dangers the media faces both at home and abroad. Later in the program we will hear an address by hip historian and journalist Davey D about the Clear Channeling of America and the hip hop generation. But first, we go to an interview with Janine Giovanni — one of the most experienced war correspondents in the world. She has worked for scores of newspapers, TV stations and magazines. She is a Senior Foreign correspondent for The Times of London. She also reports for the BBC and Vanity Fair. She has written a number of books about her experiences in war zones. She is featured in a new film by Barbara Kopple called “Bearing Witness,” which follows five female war correspondents. Her latest book is called Madness Visible : A Memoir of War.

I’m going to begin by reading her words.

“In the 1990s, a series of violent wars kept coming, like wave after brutal wave. I was part of an elite, tight band of international reporters — a tribe, really — who roamed the earth, working from front lines or cities under siege. In those days, we rarely wore flak jackets.

“But we believed in the stories we were reporting, in the importance of bearing witnesses to evil regimes, to ethnic cleansing, to genocide and systematic rape. After Israel came Bosnia. After Bosnia, Rwanda. Liberia. Congo. Chechnya. Sierra Leone. East Timor. Ivory Coast. Zimbabwe. Somalia. Afghanistan. Iraq. I know I’ve mercifully forgotten some.

“I had a major epiphany in Conackry, Guinea in May, 2000. I had been robbed the night before but I was still trying to bribe my way onto the last flight to Freetown. The rebel RUF were closing in on the capitol, and any one who could was scrambling for the last flights out.

And I was trying to throw myself onto one of the empty helicopters flying in to Freetown to evacuate people. What kind of person was I, running into the fire when everyone else was diving for cover?”

I began by asking Janine to talk about what she wrote.

  • Janine di Giovanni, war correspondent and author of “Madness Visible: A Memoir of War”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Those are the words of Janine di Giovanni. So, when she came into our studio, I asked her about what she wrote.

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: Well, I think that moment was a very interesting time because it was really when I realized that the importance of getting the story was almost more important than my own personal safety. I’ve changed a bit since then. I’ve become a mother, which throws a totally different dimension into my work. But I think the main thing was the importance, I felt, of getting into a story where there were hideous human rights violations occurring, and that someone needed to be there to report it. And the more — the more that people would run away and that I knew there was no reporters working, the more I felt compelled to go somewhere.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Chechnya.

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: Chechnya was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever gone through.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you one of the only reporters to be there in the fall of Grozny?

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: Yes. There was myself, a German photographer, and a French woman who was working there, as well. We weren’t allowed into Chechnya, so we were there illegally. It was impossible for the Russian government to give you visas to get in, unless you went in with the Russian troops. So, I smuggled myself into Chechnya, walked in, basically, with my satellite phone on my back. And the thing about being a print journalist, which is different from TV crew, is that you are alone. You know, I work alone. In this occasion, I was with a photographer. We got to the outskirts of Grozny, and the city fell. We hadn’t planned it that way. I suppose it’s a remarkable journalistic coup, but as a human being, it was absolutely terrifying, because, you know, you should never be in a city when it falls.

We were with the retreating Chechen army, who had crossed a minefield, to get out of Grozny. They had bribed Russian soldiers to get out, but the Russians had lied to them and tricked them and sent them over a minefield. So, as soon as they began crossing it, they realized that they were — they had been, you know, hideously fooled. And they began, you know, I think it was something like one in four of them blew up. So, there were these incredibly sad stories of some guys saying, I’ll go forward. You know, brother, I will go forward, and some went forward, sacrificed themselves. So when they got to this little suburb called Al Khankala, they were wearing winter white uniforms. I’ll never forget it, and they were covered in blood, and they were dragging the dead behind them. And because it was so unbearably cold, it was this kind of apocalyptic scene, and the line of the soldiers stretched for miles. And it was freezing cold, and we were stuck in this suburb, and there was one doctor. And he was amputating a lot of limbs, because these guys had gone over a minefield.

And he was set up in this school, and I remember going in, and I was walking, and my feet were sticking to something, and I looked down, and it was just blood everywhere. And I could hear these men screaming as he was operating because they didn’t have a lot of anesthetic. And I went into some rooms to talk to some of the men, and they were blinded and missing arms and missing legs. And it was just — it was like a scene out of hell. And then I started trying to call my office but, of course, as usual, the one moment I really needed my satellite phone, my batteries started dying. And there was no electricity. So I was desperately trying to find a generator to charge my batteries because it was my only link to the outside world. And I suddenly realized I’m, you know, a lone foreigner here with the photographer and this other woman. There was no M.S.F. (Medecins Sans Frontieres), no U.N., no Red Cross. So, if something happened to us, that was it.

And the worst thing came at night, because the aerial bombardment. The Russians were bombing us with gunships, helicopter gunships, and then circled the town with tanks. And I was huddled in this kind of like potato cellar with this old woman, as most of the women had gone to an underground shelter. I didn’t want to go because I have always heard when the Russians come in, they throw grenades into the shelters.

So it was the worst night of my life, basically. I was sure I was going to die. But, I kind of thought, if I die, I’m going to go believing in what I did, you know, and I really felt, by that point I’d filed my story and I felt that I had witnessed something very, very crucial, that I was in the middle of history, and it was very important to explain the evil things that were happening. You know, there was some hideous human rights violations, and I wanted people to know what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: The siege of Sarajevo. Can you describe it?

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: You know, even now, it’s ten years since the war ended, I still feel so emotional about Sarajevo, because I feel very bitter and very angry that the world did nothing. Sarajevo was this beautiful city, very cosmopolitan, multiethnic, full of wonderful people, artists and writers and poets and Serbs and Muslims and Croats, and living side by side. And then this medieval siege, and it was a medieval siege, came, and the Bosnian Serbs were on the hills lobbing in rockets and grenades and mortars. And the worst was the sniping, because you’d go up to the hills and you could, and you could actually see these evil people that would hide behind sniper rifles and take aim at kids and women and aim at their knees.

And we had no water. We had no electricity, we had no heat. And as a result, it was probably the most intense experience I have ever gone through because the bonding with the people was so, you know, you just — we were living like them, although I had one advantage. You know, if I wanted to leave, if the U.N. flight was going, I could get out. Those people were trapped. So, I fell in love with that place and with the people and with their spirit, because even during the worst days, the darkest days of it, they just would not let the Serbs crush them. They just said, you know, we are not going to let them kill our spirit, because that was the point of it. When they — when the Serbs bombed the national library, they tried to destroy the heritage and the culture and the spirit of the city, but the people never let them. And to this day, it’s the place, when I think back on, I still get chills, and I still — I still feel really strongly about it.

AMY GOODMAN: You were with a circle of journalists, many of whom are no longer alive. Can you talk about those people, and where they died?

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: In Sierra Leone in 2000, June 2000, there was a rebel — horrible war in Sierra Leone, which took a terrible toll on the civilian population. The rebel, RUF, had this atrocious, heinous practice of amputating civilians so that they would be grotesque reminders to everyone of what they could do. So, they would either amputate. They’d say, do you want long sleeves or short sleeves and they’d either cut you off at the wrist or the elbow. And I saw a nine-month-old baby amputated. I just — you know, pure evil at work here.

And two of my very brave friends and colleagues, one day, there was a group of us. I got in quite early, and I was one of the few people reporting from there, and then a lot of journalists came in, which is good, because it was drawing attention to the story, and eventually the British troops arrived and stabilized it, but two of my friends, Kurt Schork, and Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora, one working for A.P., the other for Reuters, decided to go a little bit further up a road that the rest of us didn’t want to go up. There was a point where it, you know, the bush turned into a really dangerous — it was all dangerous, but they just pushed it a little further. And they went up to this place, Rogberi Junction and they got ambushed, and they both died.

Two cameramen who were with them escaped into the bush where they were hunted down for hours by rebels, and they survived. And they walked out of the bush and they came back, and the next day, you know, we found out that our lovely, brave friends, had been brutally killed. And Kurt Schork was an amazing man. He became a war correspondent when he was 40. Before that he was a property developer. And he was a Rhodes Scholar with Bill Clinton, and he alone lived in Sarajevo. He stayed on. When all of the reporters left, he stayed there, and he stayed there ’til the bitter end. Very brave man. And I think journalism, you know, has a hole without him in it.

AMY GOODMAN: Other places in Africa, from Sierra Leone to Rwanda. You were in Rwanda when?

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: '94. But I was there during the cholera epidemic in Goma, which was this very strange time. It was July. It was late summer, and the Hutus were in refugee camps. And some people say it was divine provenance, but this awful cholera epidemic descended. And I remember walking down the road. I'm five-foot-eight, and there were piles of bodies twice my height along the sides of the road, leading, you know, for miles. And it was women holding their children in the final throes of death, and old people struggling to breathe. I remember going into one of the camps, and the smell was so bad that we had to wear bandanas wrapped around our noses. Someone just collapsed in front of me and started puking and sputtering, and then he just died. It was this kind of, again, apocalyptic horrible scene.

And some years later, a psychiatrist who was doing a study on posttraumatic stress disorder and its effect on war correspondents interviewed me at length. And he said to me, “How many dead bodies have you seen?” And I said, “I don’t know, you know, I’ve seen a lot of mass graves in Africa and Bosnia, and I saw a well in East Timor that was stuffed with bodies, and then there was Rwanda and Goma, and I don’t know.” And he was quiet, and then he said to me, “Do you think that’s a normal answer?” Because most people see their grandmother, their grandfather, maybe their parents in a coffin but, you know, most people wouldn’t give an answer like that. But you see, it felt totally normal to me. I didn’t, until he pointed that out, I didn’t realize how, you know, creepy that sounded.

AMY GOODMAN: Veteran war correspondent Janine di Giovanni, author of, Madness Visible: A Memoir of War. Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We return to our conversation with war correspondent Janine di Giovanni, her latest book Madness Visible: A Memoir of War. I asked her to talk about the members of her circle of journalists who were killed covering war.

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: The biggest problem is logistics. It’s always, especially working alone, you know, if you are in a TV crew, you have got a producer, you’ve got a big team behind you. Usually the person who helps me the most is when I first arrive somewhere I try to find a local translator, fixer, someone that will be my friend, my brother, my sister, my colleague. Someone I have really got to bond with, and usually my instincts are right, and I pick someone that’s fantastic and helpful, but sometimes you can get people that can get you into an even more dangerous position or someone who’s spying on you. I remember working in Vietnam, and I was given a government minder, and that was very difficult. In Iraq during the days of Saddam, I had a government minder who followed me everywhere, reported on my activities. But getting into places where we’re not meant to be, a city under siege, a —

AMY GOODMAN: When you are not embedded?

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: Yeah. I don’t — you know, the whole embedded thing is very strange to me. Someone described me once. They said, she was embedded long before the term was invented. But I was always embedded with the losers. I have never been embedded with the American army or, you know, with the big war machine. I was always — you know, I suppose I was embedded with the Chechens or the Bosnian Muslims or the Falantil. But it was more that I wanted to live with them, to eat their food, to sleep on their floor, to really get under their skin so that I could tell their story.

I remember the night I was sitting up all night in Chechnya waiting for what I thought would be my death. I was sitting with this bunch of really young soldiers, and they were about 17-18, and they had that look in their eyes that I’ve seen a lot, which is the look that they’re not going to be there on this earth much longer. And they kept saying to me, “Tell us some jokes, please tell us some jokes.” So, we sat up all night long, you know, drinking tea, they had tea, and eating some kind of disgusting food that someone had brought for us, I think it was just some mushy rice or something, and trying to kind of lighten the mood by making jokes with these guys, and they were telling me jokes. We were — and I — that, to me, is always the real tragedy when I meet someone and I kind of feel I’m leaving, I’m going to leave this story, I’m going to go home to the safety of my life, but these people stay behind, and they — they might not be here much longer.

AMY GOODMAN: Janine, you can talk about Jenin?

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: Yes. Yes. I can. That was a controversial story. I and two of my colleagues, Sam Kiley of the Evening Standard and Phil Reeves, who is now with National Public Radio, finally walked into Jenin. We were prevented from going in by the Israeli army, who also prevented the Red Cross from going in. We finally got in. I walked across an olive grove under an Israeli tank because I just thought, “I’ve got to get inside this place.” We don’t know what is going on, and I’m not going to get the story from sitting in my car on the outskirts of Jenin.

AMY GOODMAN: This was the original siege of Jenin?

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: Yes. This was in April — the years are blurring for me now, was it 2002? Yes, it was 2002, I think. I walked across an olive grove. I’ll never forget it, and my colleague said, “Ok, we’ll all go together inside, but you go first.” So I walked with a very brave photographer, called Judah Passow, and I remember turning around, thinking there would be a crowd of journalists behind me, but I was alone. So they were waiting to see if I got shot at, and then they were going to come next. But I got inside and I was — I have to say, I was really horrified by what I saw. They had leveled the town, the old town to rubble, to a football pitch. It looked like it was completely destroyed. When I got in, people came running up to us, saying, “Please, please, please, come I have to show you where my house was.” And then they took me to piles of rocks. There was a man in a wheelchair who said he had been repeatedly trying to get out, but every time he came out they kept taking shots at him. And I went around, I collected these testimonies. We stayed — I found a family to stay with and we stayed inside the camp.

AMY GOODMAN: You were pregnant at the time?

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: No, not yet. I was pregnant the next time I went back.


JANINE DI GIOVANNI: In 2003. I wasn’t pregnant then. And we stayed with the family and their house had been used as a sniper nest. And I got the diary of this young girl who had recorded her experience during the siege, and we sat up all night translating it — I’m always sitting up all night with people — translating her diary. And it ran in the Times. I got a lot of flak for that story, because I said, “Never in years of reporting have I seen such terrible destruction” or something like that. But I still stand by that because I will not forget Phil, Sam and I, coming out to that pitch that — where they leveled and all of us just gob-smacked, absolutely gob-smacked. And I apparently said — Phil remembers me saying, “we are going to get on the phones to our offices right now, and we have got to report this story. We can’t let them get away with this.”

Now, then, after the event, you know, stories came out, and people criticized us, the British press, saying that we had called it a massacre. I never called it a massacre, by the way, but to me, I think, what was the final count in the end? 50 or 60 people were killed, but that’s still 60 civilians. And to me, you know, a human life is a human life. I still think it was — it was a shocking story for me and a painful one because it was — you know, when I report these things, I tell the story of families and mothers and I don’t write about the tanks and the RPGs and the weapons that are used. I try to tell the story of people, and the stories that I collected, the testimonies, were heartbreaking.

AMY GOODMAN: You also, talking about the people you work with, worked with a woman who was raped. Can you talk about that experience and where you were?

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: That was horrible. That was in Kosovo, and it’s a really sad story. She was my interpreter, and I was just — after the war in Kosovo ended, there was a State Department report which said there had been systematic rape in Kosovo. And I wanted to investigate this, because I think systematic rape is a term that’s tossed around a lot. And it’s — actually, it was used in Rwanda, but I didn’t think it was used — I thought there was rape used as an act of war but not as systematic, not to actually cleanse the gene pool, which is what the Hutus were trying to do in Rwanda.

And for one month, I and — this interpreter and I went around the camps getting testimonies from women. And when you interview rape victims, it’s really tough, because I have got to be quite diligent about getting facts. So I asked them the same questions over and over again just to make sure they’re telling the truth. I know that sounds awful but, you know, I’m a reporter. I have got to get the facts straight. So I would, you know, repeatedly kind of go back to the same question and say, you know, and get very detailed, very, very detailed accounts. Muslim women, you know, to be raped, Albanian Muslim women is probably there’s no worse thing that can happen to them, because if their husbands find out, they’ll never touch them again. They’ll be basically tarnished, you know, thrown out of society. It’s a very clannish, small society. So you can imagine how difficult it was getting these women to talk. And they never said rape. They’d say, “He touched me.” You know, and they’d say, and you know, — “They made me take off my clothes, and then they touched me.” And it was their kind of phrase for rape.

And at the end of this month, you know, when I had collected hundreds and hundreds of pages of testimonies, one night I was sitting with my interpreter, and she had gone through a horrible ordeal at the beginning of the war, which is that she was in a cafe in Pristina. She was a young Albanian Muslim woman, and Serb paramilitaries came in and razed the cafe with machine gunfire. And her best friend that she was sitting, having coffee with was killed. And the professor she was with was killed. Everyone in the café, in fact, except her, was killed. She survived, but she was really traumatized. And anyway, at the end of this grueling month-long rape investigation, she just had a breakdown in my hotel room one night and told me that she had been gang-raped by a group of Albanian men who had pulled her off a bus when she was crossing the border from Kosovo into Albania. And she just was absolutely destroyed by this experience. She had been a virgin. She was very young. You know, I held her, and I tried to comfort her, but she just kept saying, you know, “Will I ever feel normal again?”

And then we eventually got her some psychiatric help, and I used to speak to the psychiatrist quite a bit, you know, to find out what was going on, and the experience was so horrible for her that she had a kind of psychotic break, which I think, I’m not a psychiatrist, but you know, you could work it out that the reality of life was so painful for her that she kind of slipped into another world. And I think for me to see someone so young, who had been forever scarred by war and, you know, what man does to his fellow man, was just absolutely heartbreaking.

AMY GOODMAN: Janine di Giovanni is our guest. Talking about posttraumatic stress for you, even, for your husband, he reported for years from Ivory Coast?

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: Yes. My husband was living in the Ivory Coast, I was living there, too, when the coup broke out. That was in September 2002. And before that, we had quite an idyllic colonial African life. You know, the nice house, the swimming pool, the beach weekends. Reporting from Ivory Coast, which was at that point the most stable West African country, sandwiched between Liberia and Sierra Leone, but it very quickly descended into a nasty, nasty civil war. And I was evacuated. My husband didn’t want me there because they were beginning to rape women, and he couldn’t protect me. He was out — you know, our — we had a guard who fled. Everyone fled. And then we started seeing bodies in front of our house, naked, shot in the head, hands tied behind the back, so he had me evacuated. He stayed, all of the journalists left, except him and his crew and a few other people, a few other brave journalists.

My husband’s a cameraman, so he has to be close to get pictures. And he was repeatedly beaten up, assaulted, death threats, assassination threats, and then a friend of his, a colleague, was assassinated by Ivorian police in cold blood, and they had repeatedly said that my husband and his team were going to be next. So, he came back from the Ivory Coast with a feeling that he’d never be safe again, because he wasn’t just reporting a war and then going back to Paris or London, which is what most of us do. He was living there. So, every night when he closed the door of our house and went to bed, he didn’t know when they would come for him with machetes or guns or clubs. And he got used to this horrible sense of never feeling safe, that you could be killed at any time. Posttraumatic stress is something that’s always existed. I think that the earliest recording was during the Trojan War, but it’s only recently that we’re beginning to be aware of it. Vietnam vets, World War II vets, came back with it and just never got any treatment. And I think there’s —

AMY GOODMAN: It was called something else, shell shocked?

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: Yeah. Yeah. And they didn’t really help them. They didn’t know how to help them, unless it was, I think, during World War I, they used shock treatments, but it’s — it manifests itself in a lot of ways. Nightmares, some people turn to addictions because of a drug addiction, alcohol, you know, war itself is an addiction, so…

AMY GOODMAN: I was reading a piece you wrote in, as you then went home. You live in Paris, you had a baby. And you’re watching another woman cover another place, Kate Peyton of BBC, covering Somalia, and then you hear what happened to her, and what is your feeling now?

JANINE DI GIOVANNI: Kate Peyton was killed in Somalia a few months ago, and she was trying to report a story that’s unreported, that’s a very difficult story to write about. I’ve worked in Somalia. You must have a militia to protect you. You — it’s a very dangerous place which you don’t have the kind of — you know, you work on a story like that and it’s not like Iraq, where you know you are going to get in the paper, you’re going to get on TV. It’s very hard to write about Africa because no one seems to want the coverage of it. And she was trying very bravely to bring this story to the world’s attention, and she was killed. She was 39 years old, she was a mother.

I have a baby son, he’s 14 months old now, and he has, in many ways, redeemed me from a life of misery — of reporting misery and suffering, and again, the evil that man does to man. He’s a kind of light in my life. But it’s very hard for me to work now because before, if I was killed in Chechnya or if I was killed in the Ivory Coast or Liberia or Bosnia, it was me. I was alone. I didn’t have relationships for many years because it was very hard to maintain relationships when you live that kind of a life. But now I’m responsible for someone, and I was just given an assignment where I have to go back to Baghdad, and the last time I was there in October, end of September, before I left, I sat up writing my son a letter the night before, when I was packing my bag, and I was writing, you know, how much I loved him and how desperately I wanted him, and as I was writing, I was crying, because I just thought, well, if you love him so much, what the hell are you doing? You know, this is not normal. You are a mother. You are putting yourself into a situation where you can potentially be kidnapped, and I’m an American. If I’m kidnapped they’re going to behead me on al-Jazeera. You know, it’s not — they’re not going to play around with, you know, hostage negotiation. We know that.

So, why was I doing this? And I went and I had the most terrible trip. I missed him so much. And I came back, and that was two weeks long, and he was only six months old, or he was tiny. And I decided, okay, from now on, I am going to cover stories that have a real impact, you know, something human rights abuse or something where I actually might be able to make a difference like writing about HIV in India or rape in the Congo, but something that I can control a bit. So, I go a week or ten days. My limit being away from him is ten days now, and I don’t think I would put myself in a situation again where I’d be in Grozny when it’s falling or marching somewhere with a rebel army. I can’t do that anymore. My life’s changed.

AMY GOODMAN: Veteran war correspondent, Janine di Giovanni, her latest book Madness Visible: A Memoir of War.

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