As news of international violence become perpetually more frequent and severe, it seems clearer that — even in spite of information technology — our remote understanding of these conflict zones is impossibly abstract. This is especially true of Syria, a country that is the nexus of an international proxy war during a cultural moment of fact-crisis. Watching far from the actual sidelines, the truth becomes a blur of twisted contexts and opinions. At times like these, war reporters like Janine di Giovanni serve as a kind of cognitive antivenom. Since the late 1980s, she has covered conflicts in Palestine, Bosnia, Chechnya, Syria, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and many other countries. In touch with both emotion and hard-boiled fact analysis, she describes her work as “bearing witness,” so those responsible for these horrors are held accountable.
On a rainy day in Berlin at the American Academy, 032c’s Eva Kelley spoke to Di Giovanni about her projection for the state of the Middle East under the Trump administration and the universal cruelty of war – all in the company of her 13-year-old son Luca.
Eva Kelley: In your work you focus more on speaking to civilians, rather than officials. Why do you want to highlight the human side when reporting on conflicts?
Janine di Giovanni: I’ve interviewed heads of state, I’ve interviewed officials. I could come away with notebooks and notebooks and notebooks full of quotes that say nothing. If you’re covering a conflict or a post-conflict, I think the view from the ground, of the people that are living through it, are the people that are going to give you the best perspective of it. The real stories come from the people who are living it, not the people who are in high towers or removed from it.
I always think that everyone must have compassion and empathy within them. Have you ever encountered someone in your work who seemed completely evil and inhuman?
Yes, I have. During the Bosnian war, for example. That was, for me, probably the most starkest portrayal of darkness in life – of good and evil. I’m always amazed at the depths of cruelty man can stoop to. The things that people can do to each other is staggering. In Bosnia, I remember one night, sitting up all night drinking with Nikolai Koljewitsch who was the leader of the Bosnian-Serbs. He was basically the architect of the destruction of Sarajevo. He was a professor of Shakespearean literature at Sarajevo University. A brilliant man, but he was so thwarted by his own insecurities that when the war started in Bosnia, he went to Pale, which was the Bosnia-Serb headquarters and gave the order to bomb the national library of Sarajevo. When they bombed it, it was this unbelievably tragic depiction of war, because you saw these ancient Ottoman manuscripts up in flames. He burned down the very symbol of what he believed in: knowledge. And he destroyed it. I spent all night drinking with this guy and the hair on the back of my neck was standing up, because I really did feel I was in the presence of evil. After the war ended, he killed himself. He didn’t die immediately. He shot himself and lived in agony for several hours. I wrote many stories about him because he was such a representative to me of someone who chose to become inhuman and to subject other human beings to such horrible atrocities. Rwanda as well. A million people being slaughtered in three months. In a summer. It was a huge number of people and that was labor-intensive killing. They didn’t line them up and kill them with guns. It was with machetes, which takes a lot of work to kill people with. To go into churches where people are hiding. To murder entire families. I mean, that could only be a force of evil. You could say this into any context of any war. The soldiers who amputated six-month-old babies in Sierra Leone. The Russian pilots who bombed Aleppo to the ground. War is brutal and it brings out good and bad in extremes.
What is it that brings people to become so evil?
Each case is unique, but as a conflict analyst I think nationalism is a pretty heady recipe for disaster. And the force of history, of course. In Yugoslavia, people would say, “Well, we’re fighting now, it’s 1992, but in 1942, my family was wiped out by Croats in the village and therefore we’re taking revenge now.” Big cycles of revenge. If there is not proper post-conflict reconciliation, in terms of healing, you will have that cycle of revenge repeatedly in years to to come. South Africa did a really good job with it. So did Rwanda, actually.
So, parents who haven’t healed properly can’t help but indoctrinate their children.
Yes, hatred is very contagious. The new secretary general of the UN is really going to focus on conflict prevention. So, what is conflict prevention? It’s education, really. Whenever I look at pictures of the Syrian war now, it’s not adults I see, because their lives are halted. It’s the kids. If you grew up during the bombardment of Aleppo, you’re four years old, and you’ve never eaten an orange and you’ve seen your parents and your grandparents killed – What are you going to grow up to be? You’re going to grow up to hate – unless you’re a pretty extraordinary person. In conflict, we need to look at the next generations.
When people are stripped of their cultural heritage and familiarity, do they all act the same? Truly human?
I don’t like to put templates on wars. But, yes, you can always find the same kind of resilience in people. People want to find food. They want to protect their families. They want to stop bombardment. They want to make sure people they love don’t get hurt and killed. And in the very last resort, they flee. So yes, you have patterns of war, where it eventually comes to the point where there’s massive refugee exodus or displacement of people.
And what about the reasons behind a war starting – what are the patterns there?
I would say for the causes and the root causes of war, there could be post-colonial strike, massive corruption, nationalism, or economic failure. Someone said to me once, “All wars start because people are hungry.” They can’t afford the price of bread when it goes up. That was certainly true in Egypt right before Tahir Square, the revolution there. People couldn’t afford the price of bread. Life got increasingly difficult. People got fed up. In Tunisia, it was corruption. It goes down to the very basic level of a vegetable seller who was just completely fed up with having to pay off the local people in the market and lit himself on fire, thus triggering an entire revolution against a dictator: Ben Ali. You could point to that and say that was similar to the Romanian Revolution and people were fed up with Ceausescu, but I think that you have to take each case on a case by case basis. You really do.
Why are more and more journalists being killed while reporting in war-torn regions?
Journalists have always been at risk and I think there was a time when you were injured or hurt because you were in the line of fire or you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. You got hit by a sniper or you were in a bombing. That’s always happened – from time immemorial, from reporting the Homeric wars. But now, there is a very different view of taking a reporter and using them as a hostage, and of course as long as we have governments that will pay to have journalists released, like the French government, we will have more reporters being kidnapped. You’re seen as an ATM machine. There are governments that will absolutely not pay, like America and Britain.
When you’re in areas of conflict, how do you keep safe?
We have to be trained in hostile environment courses, which is interesting because you learn first aid. But look, if you’re in a bombing raid, there’s not much you can do. You’re as susceptible and vulnerable as the local population and all you can do now is really minimize risk as much as you can. So, if people are getting kidnapped in Northern Syria, you don’t go to Northern Syria. If Yemen is being bombed, maybe you should avoid it. I don’t do what I did before my son was born, which was much more active frontline stuff. I don’t need to be on the frontline anymore because I’m not a photographer or a filmmaker. I can talk to frontline soldiers when they come back. I don’t need to prove anymore, which maybe I did feel when I was younger, that I have to have this experience of seeing people die in front of me. What I do now, is much more about war crimes. My work is about gathering evidence, so that people can be held accountable.
How have you been personally affected by your work? Is there something you wish you had known when you started out professionally?
I started out studying literature, and then shifted into international affairs. I don’t know if I would do anything differently, because I think what I did was very interesting and in a sense I carved out a niche. I’ve managed to keep writing long-format narrative non-fiction in a time when it isn’t funded and we don’t have a lot of resources. Maybe what I would have liked to have done is to learn more languages. I would have liked to have studied Arabic. But it never occurred to me in high school to begin to study Arabic or even Russian. I didn’t have that much foresight in terms of, “This might be a good strategy.” I didn’t think like that. I was just kind of busy living, which was important.
What do you project will happen for the Middle East while we are under the Trump administration?
With Trump, I think all of us can only speculate. I don’t think anyone knows what he’s thinking, because I don’t think he knows what he’s thinking. My biggest concern in the Middle East is Israel. That’s going to be the fault line and where he’s going to try to change policy. I think he’s very close to Netanyahu. However, he doesn’t understand the complicated situation there. I don’t think he has any empathy or understanding of the Palestinian situation.
And what do you see developing around Syria under Trump?
Syria, of course. The fight against ISIS. He lumps them together, which is a big mistake. The war in Syria is so complicated that I do understand that lumping it in with ISIS is probably the most comprehensive thing to do, but it’s not correct. And then, I think there will be flash points. Like Yemen is going to be an issue. Iran is really going to be troubling. He’s already said that he’s going to rip up the Iran deal. It’s a mistake to try to alienate Iran, because they’re an incredibly important player in the Middle East. The Shia giant is growing. They’ve got a highly educated youth coming up and their technology is amazing. There’s more women in Universities in Iran than men. It’s just a mistake to close them off because of a fear of going back to 1979 and the revolution. The other thing is the Sunni-Shia schism. Saudi Sunni-Shia Iran is just going to get an even wider gap. I’m trying to be generous with him now – but in his kind of narrow view of the world, which is isolationist, he is very dangerous.
Hannah Arendt’s A Report of the Banality of Evil and The Origins of Totalitarianism have resurfaced in conversations surrounding Trump a lot recently. There are these striking parallels between what she wrote and the current atmosphere, but then on the other hand it might be a stretch to compare Donald Trump to the next fascist regime.
Well, I agree with you. It’s not just him being empowered, it’s the entire radical right. He is not an intellectual. He has not surrounded himself with intellectuals or people that know foreign policy, but he’s ignited a kind of right-wing backlash. It’s very easy to say, “Look, it was rednecks who elected him.” People in Ohio or wherever he got the male white vote. Last year this time, I was saying, “Europe looks dangerously like 1936 right now.” And Marine Le Pen – we all laughed, “She’ll never get in!” We all laughed about Brexit – “It will never happen.” And we never dreamed that Trump would get in. What happens is that these people inspire each other – led of course by Vladimir Putin. It becomes more of a frightening reality than a tv-series. So, no, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that. It’s just such a horrible thought that we could repeat massive historical mistakes that we made in World War II. Then again, I’ve lived through genocide in Bosnia, in Rwanda, in Syria. Human beings have very short memories. We say, “Never again,” and then it happens.
I can understand that people are afraid of being marked hysterical, because it’s easy to get into this exaggerative mode. But at the same time, downplaying what’s developing right in front of us is trivializing evil.
There are a lot of watch dogs right now. The press is on high alert. The New York Times has gone into a kind of overdrive-examination of Trump, of everything he does – to the point where even his medication is being scrutinized. The only difference between what happened in 1936, the rise of fascism in Europe, was that back then, people either refused to see it coming, or they saw it and chose not to look at it. I think now people are very aware of the dangers he could do. He’s being scrutinized and examined. He’s lashing out. He gave this press conference which was very raw, very emotional. Basically saying: “Why do people hate me? I’m a nice person.” It’s not a presidential thing to say. But, I think at this point, we should probably lay off the comparisons to Hitler. Mostly because I don’t think he has the intellectual capacity that Hitler had. Was Hitler an intellectual, Lu?
Luca: You can say that in some way, yes. He had an ideology and it was giving back hope to the people, so technically he knew what the people wanted and it’s …
Di Giovanni: populism.
Luca: Technically, yes he is an intellectual. Not in a good way.
Di Giovanni: This whole rise of populism is really scary. Maybe there are political trends that happen every few decades. We had the Obama administration, which is liberal intellectuals, and this is a throwback. And who elected him? People that were fed up with the kind of Harvard Law School intellectual stance.
You have said that we can learn a lot from war, because it can bring out more equality and understanding in the end. My hope is that at least the Trump administration will further this kind of progression. Interestingly, his extremely offensive language and his vulgarity forces people to openly take a stand. Politics likes to be vague and mostly people don’t really understand what’s going on. But this is so in-your-face, you can’t get around having an opinion.
He is a backlash to political correctness, which has dominated America for far too long. I mean, I loathe the whole culture of political correctness. It’s one thing to be sensitive to people’s needs and your language, but to the point where you can’t say anything in America. It’s almost a self-censorship. I’m not defending in any way why he was elected, but I think the culture of political correctness has gone way too far.
In what sense?
First of all: Language. The things you can and cannot say. Last year, I was studying at Fletcher, at Tufts University, and there is this whole thing among students called “trigger reactions.” I don’t know enough about it, but I remember being horrified by it. It’s like, if a professor would say something in class that would trigger something in a student. I think it’s a shame that we have to self-censor ourselves to such an extreme. The fact that you have to so carefully guard your language, your actions, everything … I think it’s gone a little too far.
Do you say that because you think confrontation can develop into something productive?
No, I think it’s hypersensitivity. I live in Europe, so I don’t have to deal with it. I find it almost counter-productive to what America’s supposed to be: a freedom of expression. I do think, without analyzing it too much, that partially the reaction in his election, was a reaction to all this political correctness taken to an extreme.
Aside from receiving numerous awards, including the 2016 Courage in Journalism Award, and grants throughout her career, Janine di Giovanni has written several books – her latest titled Dispatches from Syria – The Morning they came for us. She is also a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the Middle East Editor at Newsweek.