Huddled in a dark hotel room in Kosovo, Turkish TV reporter Serif Turgut listened to the sound of NATO bombs exploding across the city of Pristina. It was March 29, 1999, and she and two male reporters were the only journalists left at the Grand Hotel. Turgut had been covering Kosovo for the past two years, and she wasn’t about to leave.
All of a sudden, something fell past the window and an enormous boom sounded. The whole room shook and the windows shattered.
“I had never heard missiles that strong and that close,” Turgut said.
Turgut and fellow journalist Miguel Gil Moreno could hear Serbian paramilitary soldiers patrolling the hallways outside. Which would be the better way to die? Stay in the hotel room and risk death by NATO missiles, or walk into the hands of an armed Serb. When a second boom sounded, they opened the door.
A soldier grabbed Turgut immediately and put a gun to her head. He started walking her down the hallway. She knew she could be shot at any moment.
Turgut was saved when a hotel waiter intervened. He took her from the Serb police, saying she was with the hotel family. Turgut and Moreno camped out in the family’s quarters for the next seven days of NATO bombing and survived to see the next war.
War correspondents can’t count on their luck to hold, however. In May 2000, Moreno was shot and killed in Sierra Leone. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, he is one of almost 400 working journalists killed from 1992 to 2001. Of those, 18 were women.
Turgut may have been the only female reporter left in that Kosovo hotel, but she is far from alone in the war correspondent field. Journalists and media observers say that growing numbers of women are braving war zones for a story or photograph – and facing increasing reporting challenges in a changing world.
A study by Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and the author of International News and Foreign Correspondents, showed that before 1970, only 6 percent of foreign correspondents were women. By 1992, that number had soared to more than 33 percent. And while updated figures are hard to come by, the anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that more women are reporting on war than ever before.
“There are quite a few female correspondents who cover war now, certainly significantly more than 20 to 30 years ago,” said Ann Cooper, director of the Committee to Protect Journalists and a former war correspondent in Moscow and South Africa.
While women war correspondents no longer are an anomaly, they face unique disadvantages – and occasionally advantages – reporting from the field. Women risk rape and often compromise their health in ways men never do. Some balance children and spouses with their work, but many remain single.
BATTLING CULTURAL EXPECTATIONS
In the most recent war in Afghanistan, female reporters faced a new challenge: doing journalism in a society where women live behind veils and are denied the most basic rights. Afghan men regard independent women – which includes female reporters – with suspicion.
“They think you’re a prostitute or a loose Western woman,” said Elizabeth Rubin, a free-lance magazine writer who wore a scarf but no veil when covering the war in Afghanistan.
Ilene Prusher, a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor, went as far as donning a burqa early this year in Afghanistan to see what life was like behind the veil. Even veiled, Prusher stood out because the burqa fell too short on her legs. Documentary filmmaker Sedika Mojadidi wore a veil and hid her camera to film “Kabul Kabul” in 1996. As a woman traveling alone, she felt the veil was necessary to avoid harassment.
Some double standards actually benefit female journalists. Military leaders may see women in the media as less of a threat, allowing them access men may not get. Women’s sensitivity can be an asset when it comes to gaining interviews with traumatized war victims.
For pioneering female correspondents covering World War II and Vietnam, the war represented an opportunity to prove themselves as serious reporters. Some 127 women were accredited by the War Department to cover the second World War, according to the book “Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II.” One of the enterprising women was photographer Margaret Bourke-White, who used a hotel bathtub to develop photographs of Nazis marching into Paris.
During Vietnam, another trailblazing group of women saw war reporting as a chance to escape gender roles in the newsroom. Denby Fawcett was working for the Honolulu Star Bulletin women’s page when the war broke out. Like other young journalists, Fawcett wanted to witness history and experience adventure. She proposed that the paper send her to Vietnam.
“They thought it was a joke,” Fawcett said.
So Fawcett quit her job and headed overseas as a free-lancer for the rival publication, the Honolulu Advertiser.
Although Fawcett had outmaneuvered her editors, she hadn’t seen the end of gender discrimination. Reporters could travel where they pleased in Vietnam but needed a unit commander’s permission to cover combat operations. One unit commander turned her away, saying, “You remind me of my daughter.” Another time, a helicopter pilot denied her a ride, saying she would add too much weight. Fawcett weighed only 110 pounds.
Jurate Kazickas, a freelance correspondent during Vietnam, experienced similar discrimination.
“They could say, ‘We’re not letting you go there,’ but they couldn’t say ‘We’re not letting you go there because you’re a girl,’ “ Kazickas said. “We were such a minority. Male journalists and the military assumed we were odd.”
The two pioneering war correspondents recently contributed chapters to a book scheduled for publication this August: “War Torn: Stories of War From the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam.”
With women now regularly enlisting in the armed forces and working for the media in Western countries, a female war correspondent is no longer the oddity that she once was. But not all parts of the world embrace independent women.
In Chechnya, locals couldn’t understand why Turkish TV reporter Turgut wore pants and smoked in public. A Chechen leader refused to shake her hand because she was a woman, she said.
When Australian Broadcasting Corp. journalist Agnes Cusack covered Yugoslavia, she wasn’t allowed to drive the car through military checkpoints. Mario, her young male Croatian translator, took the wheel instead.
“It would have been a real affront to Mario’s ego if I drove,” Cusack said. “The guys at the checkpoint wouldn’t have taken us seriously.”
Women aren’t immune to violence, and they face threats that men do not. Rape is a real risk in war zones. Jineth Bedoya Lima, a reporter for Colombia’s El Espectador, was kidnapped, drugged and raped in May 2000 by suspected paramilitary gunmen.
“Women (in journalism) are vulnerable to the same risks as women victims of war,” said Kathleen Currie of the International Women’s Media Foundation, which gave Lima a Courage in Journalism Award last year.
Traumatic experiences can have unique physical impacts on women. Some women working as war correspondents find their menstrual cycles become irregular or cease altogether due to stress and nutritional deficiencies. A 2001 survey by the International Federation of Journalists found that female war correspondents drink five times as much alcohol as women in the media who don’t cover war. Their male war correspondent counterparts showed alcohol consumption rates only slightly higher than male journalists in general.
THE FEMALE ADVANTAGE
Women war correspondents admit that being taken less seriously can be used to their advantage. A conversation with a woman reporter may appeal to a military leader who spends all day with his male troops.
“Kabila loved to flirt with women journalists,” said Ian Stewart, former West Africa Bureau Chief for the Associated Press, in reference to the former leader of Congo. “Big thugs in Africa like to have their egos stroked.”
Some female correspondents readily accept such advantages.
“I didn’t feel guilty saying ‘hey soldier’ to get past checkpoints,” said Stacy Sullivan, a free-lancer formerly of Newsweek who worked in the Balkans.
Sullivan reasoned that male reporters had their own tools. U.N. troops invited the male journalists out drinking at night. Male bonding and that day’s scoop could go hand in hand. When Sullivan ran into General Bill Nash in the United States after the war in Bosnia was over, he said, “Did you know that your nickname was Miss Body 1996?”
In risky situations, a female reporter can seem less threatening. Agence France-Presse photographer Maya Vidon recalled being caught in a clash between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers while covering Gaza in the early 1990s. When the Palestinians retreated, Vidon found herself face to face with Israeli soldiers who were angry because she’d been photographing them. A soldier asked his commander, “What do we do with this one?” The commander looked at her, dismissed her with a wave of his arm and said, “She’s cute.” The soldiers kept walking.
Anna Maria Tremonti, former war correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Co., was hit on the head by a rock on her first day covering the intifada in Israel. “They hit me,” she told a cameraman. He turned to the rock throwers. “How could you do that to a woman?” he asked. They approached Tremonti, patted her arm and said, “Oh, we’re sorry.”
Newsday reporter Tina Susman believes her gender affected how Somalian kidnappers treated her. In 1994, Susman – then an AP reporter based in South Africa – was assigned a story on the effects of U.S. peacekeeping troops leaving Somalia. To Susman, Somalia was a “no man’s land” where people drove around with machine guns mounted on their cars and bodyguards were a necessity. Susman was riding in the back seat of a land cruiser when gunfire erupted at a crowded intersection. Susman’s guards were outnumbered, and she was dragged from the car and taken to an apartment compound.
For the next 20 days, Susman was shuttled from one hiding place to the next. Her kidnappers made it clear to her that she’d been taken because she was American. They knew she worked for the AP and hoped for a payoff. Susman said that the men treated her extraordinarily well. She wasn’t tied down, could leave the room to go to the bathroom, and they gave her plenty of food and water. If she chose not to eat something on her plate, they’d grow concerned and ask, “Why aren’t you eating more?”
“It helped a lot that I was a young woman,” Susman said. “I don’t know that a man would have been treated as well.”
When gunmen rescued Susman after nearly three weeks of captivity, they found her unharmed and ready to return to work in South Africa.
Vulnerability can be an advantage when it comes to covering sensitive topics. The free-lancer Sullivan recalled a story about little Bosnian girls who were skipping rope when a shell hit their front porch. The girls were killed instantly. Sullivan and other women reporters went to interview the father, and they all cried together.
“That story wouldn’t have happened with a male correspondent,” Sullivan said.
WAR AND RELATIONSHIPS
The emotional drain of war reporting also can take its toll on relationships. Hess’ study found that foreign correspondents have significantly higher divorce rates than the general population. Women reporters face a harsh double standard: Many men aren’t happy when their girlfriend or wife runs off to a war zone. When Los Angeles Times reporter Barbara Demick left her boyfriend in Berlin to cover Sarajevo, the relationship ended.
“He worried about me, and he wasn’t comfortable with the role of sitting at home,” Demick said. “In general, it’s hard for women to find a man who will put up with it.”
Stewart, of the AP, agrees that it’s difficult to find men comfortable with their wife going to a war zone. He has no desire to date a war reporter.
“I know the risks and lifestyle,” Stewart said. “I know what I’ve been through. It’s a very unforgiving career.”
Laura Rozen, a free-lancer who writes primarily for the online magazine Salon, juggled war reporting in Bosnia with a boyfriend – and then husband – back in Boston. He spent every vacation with her in the Balkans. On one trip just after the wedding, he and Rozen were shot at.
“I couldn’t forgive myself that I might have gotten my new husband shot,” Rozen said.
He offered to move to Turkey for Rozen if she could guarantee she’d be there for two years. In the life of a war correspondent, guarantees are difficult. She told him to take a job in Boston instead. The marriage survived, but Rozen no longer reports from war zones.
Sullivan, the free-lancer, made a similar decision. When Sullivan covered the war in Bosnia, she was in her mid-20s and single. She realized that it wasn’t a lifestyle she cared to continue.
“I looked around and saw staff correspondents who were in their 40s, all single, childless and miserable,” Sullivan said. “I decided that wasn’t what I wanted for my future.”
Many war correspondents forgo families for the field, but others – such as Agence France-Presse’s Vidon – manage to balance both. Vidon’s partner is Terence White, a fellow war correspondent who understands her lifestyle. While White spent last winter in Afghanistan researching a book, Vidon stayed home to take care of their baby girl. According to Hess’ survey, 44 percent of foreign correspondents had journalist spouses in 1992.
Babies are yet another complication, especially for women. Sarah Lubman, a San Jose Mercury News reporter who covered Tiananmen Square, chose marriage and motherhood over foreign correspondence.
“I didn’t want to be one of those lonely female journalists drifting overseas,” Lubman said. After giving birth to twins, Lubman told her editor that she didn’t want to travel overseas anymore because her priorities were at home. She admitted, though, that a small part of her misses it. “If there was a huge upheaval in China, I’d be tempted to go back.”
Los Angeles Times reporter Sonni Efron managed to do it all – marrying and bearing children while working as a foreign correspondent. She left for Chechnya just a few months after her wedding. Efron was pregnant at the time, though she hadn’t told the Times yet. During a hospital hostage situation, she was caught in a sniper battle. She took cover under a mattress in a nearby basement, and as she lay there, she thought that her baby would either be deformed or one tough kid.
“You have a moral obligation to tell the story and do the best job you can, but you also have a moral obligation as a parent not to get killed,” Efron said.
War correspondents with children must assess danger with care. Predictability is hard to come by in a war zone, and risks are a given. While editors are eager to get the story, they also urge journalists to keep themselves safe.
“My editor always said no story is worth your life,” Efron said. “He’d say, five years from now, people will say, Sonni Efron? Wasn’t she the one killed in … what’s that country again?”
THE BEST KIND OF DANGER
Agence France-Presse photographer Vidon covered East Timor in 1999, when militiamen were terrorizing the local population to prevent a movement for independence from Indonesia. The militiamen, realizing that they didn’t look good in the media, began targeting journalists.
Vidon was taking photographs of a cameraman dodging bullets near the militiamen’s barracks when suddenly her camera stopped working. She realized that it had been hit by the bullet of a makeshift gun. Worried that she’d been targeted, Vidon ran “like they do in action movies,” zig-zagging from one tree to the next. Her camera lens was destroyed, but if it had been hit by an M16 bullet, she’d be dead.
When Vidon called her boss and asked him to send a replacement lens, he never asked what had happened, she said. With a brief admonishment of “I thought I told you not to take any risks,” he arranged for the new lens, Vidon said.
The editor’s nonchalance toward his bullet-dodging female employee is a far cry from the attitude of Denby Fawcett’s editors back in the 1960s. These days, editors say they consider experience rather than gender when sending reporters to war zones.
“If you’re a professional editor, you need to find the right person for the story,” San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Editor Mark Abel said. “Occasionally I worry about women in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but they’re smart and know what to do to protect themselves.”
When numerous journalists volunteered for assignments in Afghanistan, San Jose Mercury News Foreign Editor Daniel Sneider had to decide who was best qualified. After making his selections, he told several reporters – including women – “I’m not going to recommend you.” Some asked, “Is it a question of gender?” Sneider said he could honestly say no.
Sneider said he has no trouble recruiting foreign correspondents because journalists have good reason to cover war. Although the hardships are unavoidable, the rewards are plentiful: the adrenaline rush, opportunities for career advancement, travel, excitement and the chance to make a difference. Many journalists speak fondly of the camaraderie among war correspondents in the field. Turkish TV reporter Turgut says war correspondents are like brothers and sisters.
“We share our bread and cigarettes and fears in the field,” Turgut said. “My best friends are my war friends.”
War reporters looked out for one another in Sarajevo. So many journalists were getting shot at traveling down a certain road that correspondents developed the Sarajevo Agency Pool. The pool enabled journalists to share photographs and information with each other.
When Sullivan arrived in Bosnia as a free-lancer, fresh out of Columbia Journalism School, she was overwhelmed by the violence. Fellow journalist Emma Daly took her under her wing. One day Sullivan was so terrified, Daly wrote her lead.
War correspondents admit that friendships foster when stories are plentiful. In a competitive environment, journalists are less likely to share.
“In Afghanistan, there were a lot of journalists concentrated in small areas with not much going on,” said free-lance magazine writer Rubin. “The journalist pool was bigger than the story pool.” But even then, Rubin added, journalists take care of each other.
The Agence France-Presse’s Vidon was amazed by the goodwill of Indonesian photographers in East Timor. One day while chasing after a story, Vidon tripped and fell into a gap in the road. The other photographers stopped, picked her up and waited until she was ready before they started running again. In the competitive environment of war photography, where journalists more often cast wary gazes at those younger and faster than them, the act was remarkable.
“I’m not sure I would have done it,” Vidon said.
While friendships make life in a war zone bearable, to many journalists the greatest reward of covering war is believing you can make a difference. Years after the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s Cusack interviewed Bosnian rape victims, she read about women testifying in the Hague during the trials of war criminals. For the first time, the international court defined rape as a crime against humanity. Cusack realized that her stories and interviews had meant something.
“It was really fortifying to me,” Cusack said. “In the end, our job is important.”
That point is illustrated by an encounter between free-lancer Sherry Ricchiardi and a Croatian army commander in the Balkans in 1991. Serbs targeted Ricchiardi’s car, forcing it into a ditch with machine-gun fire. Croatian soldiers gave her and a fellow journalist cover while they ran to a bombed out farmhouse, and that night the soldiers accompanied the pair back to the car. Shaking the soldiers’ hands, Ricchiardi asked the commander, “Why did you risk your life?”
“One journalist is worth 1,000 guns because you have to go tell the world what’s happening here,” the commander said.
Heidi Dietrich wrote this story as a graduate student of journalism at Stanford University. She is now working for the Puget Sound Business Journal in Seattle.