People always ask me if there was a trajectory, a leap to me becoming a war reporter, and my answer is always no. I think if I had set out to do it, if it was my goal and my intention, it never would have happened. Instead, it more or less found me. And I am a frightened person, afraid of the dark and spiders and fearful of the future with its big dark claws.
I was the youngest and greenest reporter, hardly a reporter at all. I had trained as a writer of fiction, and as an academic in comparative literature, in love with Chekhov and Tolstoy. I fell into reporting one spring, one morning in April when I went to Israel on a whim.
I did not have sharp elbows; I could never stick a microphone in the face of a victim and ask them how they felt, like the television reporters I had met. I felt insecure around the grizzled and the experienced reporters who had just covered the first Gulf War. I felt like a fraud. When they asked why I was there, I flubbed and said I was an insecure graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. No one knew what it was.
At Iowa, I had been one of the babies of the group, who had sat quietly in the corner while the older, more established writers ripped each other apart. I hoped, I prayed, they would forget I was in the corner with my head down. My teacher was a miserable alcoholic who seemed to thrive on the abuse the other students piled on each other. No one ever broke up the mayhem, but I shivered in my corner, feeling the cruelty. There were a few other students I bonded with, who were equally aghast at the nastiness of our fellow students. Still, I tried. Every week I diligently typed a short story on my IBM Selectric and sent it, by post, to the New Yorker
. Nearly every week I got a rejection letter back, sometimes hand-signed with encouraging words. I pasted them above my typewriter and kept going.
I did not come back from Sarajevo untouched; I came back with a mission. I did not want any of those 100,000 people whose souls no longer touch the earth to be forgotten, ever.
In a sense, Iowa was a character-building experience. The mean-spiritedness, the competition, prepared me for the lion’s den of war reporting. My first trip was to the West Bank and Gaza. I had come to meet a human rights lawyer, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who defended Palestinians in military court. She worked on cases she knew she would never win, and she dragged me along with her to refugee camps, to jails, and sent me to the Gaza Strip with activists who had been tortured and seemed as though they were so damaged they had left the human race. I sat on the floor with children who drew pictures of soldiers storming their homes and dragging their fathers away, of helicopters, of funerals. Many years later, I would return with photographs of those children and try to find them. Some were dead, some were in prison, and some had simply vanished.
I stayed a month that first trip, falling in love with the intensity of the work — waking in the pink dawn to the sound of the muezzin, jumping in a taxi and fleeing soldiers or students throwing rocks. Talking to people. Endless cups of tea. I wrote a feature story about the lawyer, and in that way that things happen if you don’t look for it —
like love, like work —
an agent saw it and got me a book deal. I spent three years in Palestine, and that became my first book. The lawyer told me, “If you have the ability to write about people who don’t have voices themselves, then you have an obligation.” I felt, in some way, that she was passing the mantle. I kept going.
The Bosnian war broke out. I decamped to Sarajevo. I stayed for nearly four years, breaking up my marriage and later the relationship I had left my marriage for. I became obsessed with documenting war crimes, with telling the stories of the dead. Every day I went to the morgue on the grounds of the hospital and talked to the man who brought in the bodies. He kept their names inscribed in a book, so they would never be forgotten. One day, he walked to work and on one of the morgue slabs he found his son, a 19-year-old soldier. He had died the night before on the front line. He broke down, as many people did in Sarajevo in those days.
My obsession with Bosnia never ended, like a bout of malaria that returns over and over, and long after the war, and long after I wrote two books about that forlorn, tragic country, I went back and found the man from the morgue. As we were drinking tea in his farmhouse in the hills above Sarajevo, a teenage boy wandered out. He looked strangely familiar. “My grandson,” the man said. His dead son’s widow had been pregnant when the son was killed on the front line. I wrote a story called “The Book of the Dead,” and sobbed as I wrote it — for all the dead, but also for my innocence and my youth which had equally died in that Balkan city. I did not come back from Sarajevo untouched; I came back with a mission. I did not want any of those 100,000 people whose souls no longer touch the earth to be forgotten, ever.
After Bosnia I went to Rwanda. The piles of corpses, the smell of death. Then Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Ivory Coast, Chechnya, East Timor, Kosovo, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, back over and over to Palestine, and finally – am I forgetting something? I found myself in Syria.
When I began working in Syria, I was now a 25-year veteran of war reporting. So apparently I was supposed to know what to do — not to get your heart broken again, not to get involved. A diplomat friend with whom I was in love — and who understood me very well — told me not to go. He had seen what Bosnia had done to the inside of my head.
Even so, I packed my bag and went to Damascus. I got a visa, which meant I could work on the regime side. That did not last long, as I began to disobey their orders and sneak into towns that had the desperate smell of massacres, or sneak into hospitals where government soldiers lay with missing arms and missing legs. I met activists secretly. I began to find myself drawn into this place, into the horror and back into that darkness.
The regime stopped giving me visas, so I began walking over the border from Turkey to Syria. Aleppo was apocalyptic in the December freeze: it reminded me of Sarajevo and the time I saw a dog with a human hand in its mouth. At night, I slept in a soldier’s shelled-out apartment and heard him crying. I huddled into my sleeping bag, cold and afraid, and I missed my son. I wondered what trajectory had landed me with such a life — but the relief came when I could get home and write about it.
My Syria book came out in a breath of pain. All the tears I shed for the dead, all the babies I watched die, all the burials in the cemetery, all the loaves of bread people fought to bring home to their families. I can’t hear fireworks like other people; it reminds me too much of shelling, and I find myself diving under chairs. My ex-husband was shot in Libya during the fall of Gaddafi (and survived), and my son proudly keeps my flak jacket, with PRESS emblazoned on it, and my helmet in his room. But I would give anything for him to live a life where you don’t see death with its pointed little hat at every corner.
Still, I am grateful. I grew up in a small balmy town in New Jersey, full of rich suburban kids, and I wanted a bigger life. I had no idea what I bargained for way back on that first trip, and the miles I would spend walking through jungles with child soldiers. I never had a plan. I learned so much from war, from the bitterness, but also from the beauty and the sorrow and the courage. It was my proudest teacher.
÷ ÷ ÷
Janine di Giovanni
, the Middle East editor of Newsweek
and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair
, has won four major journalistic awards, including the National Magazine Award. She lives in Paris.