Apr/May 2007

Post Traumatic

A war correspondent’s letters view conflict up close

Eliza Griswold


Perhaps the most romanticized figure in the world is the male war correspondent. Scruffy, haunted, he walks the wreckage alone in battered—but good—European shoes. He smokes (if he's not American). He has trouble with commitment. Yet his female counterpart cuts a different profile. At his age, she'll seem leathery and lonely. It's better that she doesn't smoke.

According to a recent survey by the Inter­national News Safety Institute of women journalists who cover conflict, both freelance and staff writers, more than half were single, separated, or divorced. Some 82 percent had been attacked or intimidated while reporting on conflict, 55.2 percent sexually harassed, and 6.9 percent sexually abused or raped. Still, some said they were actually safer in the Muslim world than their male counterparts. One noted that her presence had even stopped her colleagues from being shot.

Since 1998, Carolin Emcke has reported for the German weekly Der Spiegel from Kosovo, Colombia, Nicaragua, Romania, Pakistan, and Iraq. Her book Echoes of Violence: Letters from a War Reporter is a collection of correspondence written to friends following these and other assignments. In them, Emcke, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Frankfurt, recounts personal stories to illuminate the larger significance not only of each particular story/assignment/war but also of the nature of injustice.

The letters are strongest in their closely observed moments, which often tell us more about Emcke's skill at and commitment to her reporting than she seems to be aware. In Nicaragua, for instance, when she rides a bus from one of the notorious zonas francas, where seamstresses are paid twenty cents per pair of jeans, she observes: "When you ask the women in the bus what they do, they never say simply: ‘I work for Chentex, or Roo Hsing as a sewer or washer'; instead they say: ‘Mine is the back pocket,' ‘Mine the seam on the right leg.'" In Kosovo, she's disgusted by the "small cowardly signs on the walls of Serbian houses," which bear the Serbian cross with four Ss—an indication that the génocidaires should pass the house by. The signs, she notes, are much like the bloody biblical signs painted on lintels: complicity scrawled throughout history.

Carolin Emcke listening to a refugee's story of his displacement, Turbo, Colombia, 2002.

On front lines in particular, these dispatches are unsentimental and immediate. She handles battle with grace, both in the midst of the conflict and, later, on the page. In the Colombian city of Medellín, Emcke gets caught in crossfire with a stranger's child on her lap. Without drowning in adrenaline or retelling the story by way of ego, she traces the battle "by ear," as the rebels' AK-47s and the larger-caliber weapons of the government forces move around her. Emcke and a photographer, she notes, are there because of her mis­calculation. She never shies from owning her mistakes; this willing self-scrutiny is another of her strengths.

Emcke stumbles on occasion, however, when she attempts to explain war and injustice in general. Her language shifts in register from the precise observations of a very good reporter to empty aphorisms, even momentarily to the mawkish. Take the wind in Nicaragua, for instance, which "accompanies you, your thoughts, it en­snares you when it plays and flirts with your body, it cools the pearls of sweat on your skin, and yet it presses, it torments; it harasses your breath, your hair, and your eyes. The wind brings the dust, and it brings trouble." Or Colombian refugees who are "searching for a loaf of bread and the end of the bloodshed."

There is rage here, and while rage is not problematic, the emotion sometimes gets the better of her language. This is certainly true of Emcke's stated purpose in reporting on conflict, which is a well-worn one: to bear "witness" and to give "voice" to those who can't speak for themselves, like the maternal refugee in Pakistan who pulls her aside and, like so many victims she encounters, asks her to "write it down." In the context of personal letters, these observations, as well as her answers to questions from family and friends as to why she chooses to put herself in harm's way, make perfect sense, but they are distracting in a book, which necessarily is to be read by strangers less concerned with Emcke's personal motivations than with the essential stories she has to tell us.

Addressing a variety of friends in different countries, Emcke first wrote the letters in English, translated them into German for publication in that language in 2004, and then translated them back into English for this collection. She wrote the final letter, from northern Iraq, aware that it would be published. Perhaps this is why her fine reportage shines through in it, particularly in moments on the northern front, which it's likely history will barely remember. Most interesting, however, is a thirteen-and-a-half-page section titled "On Journalistic Misjudgments," in which Emcke examines the work of Jeffrey Goldberg, whose New Yorker article "The Great Terror" was published in the lead-up to the Iraq war and advanced the administration's argument that there was indeed a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. Several weeks after Goldberg's article appeared, Emcke traveled to Kurdistan and interviewed Mohammed Mansour Shahab, the so-called al-Qaeda link. While Goldberg had taken this source's account to be true, Emcke, like others after her, found the story of Shahab (aka Mr. Fridge) to be incredible. Baffled as to how Goldberg could have taken him seriously, she contacted the reporter and subsequently writes about their exchange. "It is not our mistakes that endanger our credibility," she concludes, "but our unwillingness to handle them critically."

Surveying the front during the first days of the Iraq war, Emcke says, "The Bush administration had not imagined the war like this. They had believed in a glorious victory from the air—with as little danger as possible—against a weak army." Although the observation is prescient (the war seemed to be going well at the time), it also seems small when viewed through the lens of all that has occurred since. Unfortunately, this letter is the final one in her collection. We've now endured four more years of war, during which readers of her letters would have been well served by her perspective. We are left wondering why Emcke chose to publish the letters when she did.

In the recent survey of female war correspondents, the International News Safety Institute includes a list of safety equipment for use in contemporary conflict. The women surveyed suggested the following items: "rape alarm," "proper headscarf and appropriate chador," "armoured trucks that work!," "better helmets," "small knife for protection," "cigarettes for bribing way out of difficult situations," and "wedding ring." What would Emcke add besides com­mon sense?

Eliza Griswold is a Nieman Fellow in journalism at Harvard University. She reports on conflict and religion primarily from Asia and Africa and is at work on her first nonfiction book, The Tenth Parallel, to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Her first book of poems, Wideawake Field, will be published by FSG in May.

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