Going to Tell What Others Have Forgotten
A war correspondent seeks out people who live in dangerous war zones to tell their stories and finds that ‘by sharing the fear it helps a lot.’
On March 29, Melissa Ludtke, the editor of Nieman Reports, spoke by telephone with Anne Nivat, who was in France, having returned from reporting trips that took her to Chechnya, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. Nivat, who is a war correspondent for Ouest-France, was writing a preface for the paperback version of her most recent book, "The Wake of War: Encounters with the People of Iraq and Afghanistan," which will be published in the fall.
Melissa Ludtke: When you hear the word courage applied to what journalists do, what does that word mean to you?
Anne Nivat: For me courage is when journalists should be able to go to the field, stay on the field, and report from the field as long as something is going on there. Independently, if we talk about a war, on neither side, which means not to be embedded or to stay in a hotel for journalists but to try to make their way through the civil population. In other words, to blend in. Courage in journalism means not to be afraid of going back and back to the same place, trying to attract the public's attention to forgotten wars, such as the war in Chechnya, to mention the war I know the best and the war that is completely forgotten by the mainstream media. Yes, courage in journalists is to have the will, to have the strength, to report about forgotten issues, forgotten places, forgotten people. Not to stick always with what makes the news, the TV news, which is obviously too light, too quick, too superficial. There is a need to take the time to go deeply into what is happening. Not to be made afraid by a complicated situation. To be capable of giving nuances, details — details, details, details — details about how the people live, how they survive, what are they afraid of, what makes them dream, what do they dream about? To try to understand someone else's mentality, forgetting your own frame. To be able to adapt, not only physically but also psychologically. That is what courage in journalism is today and, unfortunately, I don't really see it, not often.
Ludtke: You describe two levels at which courage must happen for this kind of reporting to take place. One is courage within the institution of journalism to fight against the impulse to move on to the next story. And the other kind of courage would seem to be overcoming fear of not being safe, of not being well protected while you are doing your job.
Nivat: Yes, you are exactly right.
Ludtke: Maybe you could speak to each of these levels of courage.
Nivat: The institutional level of courage is more important to me than the second one because when you are a war reporter, which is what I am, you don't have the choice, you must overcome your fear. You must overcome your fear. You have no alternative. If you cannot do that, you cannot be a war correspondent. That is impossible. When you are such a journalist, you go where battle rages, where fear and death is everywhere; you will see terrifying things, and you have to be able to watch them, to be a witness. And to be a witness to me is not only to be there and watch and call your newspaper and dictate your article or send it by computer. It is to be able to overcome the indifference when you come back. From my experience, the most difficult thing for that kind of courage is not when you leave for the field but when you come back from the field — when you have to readapt to the normal life, to your personal life, to the life of an individual who most often lives in a democratic country, a rich country, a country with no war, and having in mind all you experienced as a war correspondent. Not to forget them — your experience and also the people you left behind. To continue being a witness. Not to jump from a war to another war, which has become very fashionable these days.
Ludtke: Recently you traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq. What part of these war stories did you feel you could tell that wasn't being told? And was there some courage in trying to tell a different story?
Nivat: I think it is just a completely different perspective. For example, from my most recent trip to Pakistan, Afghanistan and to Iraq, a trip I made last winter to write a book that is coming out this spring in France, the perspective is told in the title of the book, "How Do the Islamists See Us?" How do they see us? This means it is not another article about how we see them — meaning the West, the rich Western countries, Europeans and Americans, and how do we see them without really understanding them. But taking it the other way around — it is just the opposite. By going there and trying to meet with them, some of them being very, very anti-Western, and listening to them, listening to them without judging them, in order to get the most I can from them and to convey it back to my readers.
Ludtke: To do that required that you traveled out of protected zones, basically on your own, in areas that many Western reporters feel are too unsafe for them to go.
Nivat: Yes, that is correct, but that is exactly what I have been doing since the very beginning of my work as a journalist. I never travel with other people, and I never travel in secure zones. Never. My specialty is to go to these places — and to me, it doesn't sound difficult. It is not difficult to do: You just need to want to do it.
Ludtke: To you, it probably doesn't sound courageous either.
Nivat: And it does not even sound courageous. It sounds normal, because I think I can do it. Why shouldn't I do it, because I know I can do it?
Ludtke: Can you identify what inside of you pushes you past what ought to be a level of fear and allows you to take these risks that others don't take?
Nivat: I am not sure. Probably first it is a question of personality, of course. But secondly it has to do with my personal experience in Chechnya. I am absolutely convinced that what I went through in Chechnya is worse than everything else. And during my trips to Pakistan, to Afghanistan, to Iraq, and during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, traveling deeply into those countries, I have never felt the fear I could have had in Chechnya. In Chechnya I was inside the country with the civil population for nine months in a row under heavy, daily bombardments from the Russians. So it can't be worse. In terms of security, it can't be worse.
Ludtke: That experience gave you some sense of confidence or some sense that fear is not part of your thinking. What was the legacy this experience left with you?
Nivat: I think it gives me the strength to go on, yes. I know what it is to be under shelling, in a terribly unsafe situation. I've been through that. I can't accept that to go to Afghanistan or Iraq today outside of the secure zone means the same level of danger. For me, it doesn't, but this is probably because I've had these experiences. If I had not had these experiences, I would probably not think the same way. So it is very specific to me, or at least I think so.
Ludtke: Even with this sense that you can handle it, do you still make judgments in the course of a day or a week when a particular risk might seem foolhardy to take rather than courageous? Is there a thin line that separates those two ideas?
Nivat: All of this is words, words and only words. When you are in a situation, when you are living a situation at risk, you have to be very cold-blooded. You have to have the ability to think very, very, very quickly about what is possible and what is impossible. You never know in advance, never. What I know is, and what I have always said to my colleagues back in France or to my loved ones, my relatives, is that if I know in advance that there is something that I would like to do and I cannot do it because of various safety reasons, I won't do it. I won't take useless risks. But it just never happened. I've never had to not go forward. But again maybe when you live in families, with the people, you share the fear with them. You are one of them at that time. It helps a lot.
Ludtke: By sharing the fear?
Nivat: Exactly. By sharing the fear it helps a lot. The local people survive it, so why wouldn't you? And you are doing your job, and it is by being with them that I am at the heart of the events. If not, I feel separated. I feel no reason for me to be there.
Ludtke: Because you speak many languages and you are familiar with many ways that people use language, I am wondering if you've found that the word "courage" has different meanings when it is spoken about in different languages and cultures and whether its meaning changes.
Nivat: Oh, I think the word has completely different meanings according to the world you live in, according to the civilization in which you belong. The countries I most visit are Muslim countries, and I think for them courage has a completely different meaning than for us.
Ludtke: How does this difference show itself?
Nivat: I think they feel that we are civilizations that love the very notion of courage. We, Europeans, and of course even more Americans. Because they feel that we live in ultraprotected societies; that we have completely lost the notion of what is real, what is not real. They think we live in a virtual world, that we live in a bubble. By going to their countries, I sort of give them the feeling that yes, there are some people from that world who can still go and visit them and try to listen to them, to understand them. Some people here in the West think it is very courageous of me, but it is not again for me. It is not. And from their perspective it is not either.
But to come back to your first question, I think for me the very definition of courage would be to have the courage of another perspective. Not the one that is the easiest to have, but the perspective of the other. That is in our world very courageous.