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Life and death: What female journalists learned from covering violence

Editor’s note: This article is tenth in a 12-part series of stories about women journalists who cover violence around the globe. Because women were promised anonymity, pseudonyms are used here.

For female journalists who cover violence, exposure to grief and loss has made them think differently about life and death.

Journalists said they appreciated how fragile and temporal life could be and recognized how random and unfair death could be, especially when children were hurt.

While journalists believed their reporting skills and instincts could help them avoid dangerous situations, all had seen how abruptly life could end.

Nora, a U.S. journalist, was talking with sources at a checkpoint on the Turkish border. She looked away, and minutes later they were killed in a bomb blast.

“I had just been interviewing people, and I turned around and they were all dead. And timing meant I could have been there myself,” Nora said. “I was in a place that I thought was safe.”

Charlotte reported on the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, in which nine people died.

“As a mother, the thing that bothers me the most in the church shootings was one of the survivor’s sons was shot in front of her.”

The violence made her realize that “you can be gone tomorrow, you can be gone today,” said Charlotte.

“One of the biggest things that tends to stick with me is the suddenness of the change in their lives. These are all people . . . who are going about their normal lives, and this terrible event happened and changed their lives,” she said.

Charlotte said she is sometimes caught between “either appreciating I am here for another day or being paranoid I would not be.”

Olivia, a U.S. journalist who covered crime, including the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shootings in Florida, which claimed the lives of 49 people, said her work “definitely makes me feel life is way more fragile than anyone would ever thing. I am constantly thinking about car accidents and horrible things that can happen.”

Seeing death, valuing life

Journalists who had covered violence and its aftermath said seeing so much death gave them an appreciation for life.

Emine, who covered the Iraqi elections after Saddam Hussein fled the country, took photos of a young couple in a market in Baghdad, and seconds later, a suicide bomber claimed the life of the young woman.

“I value life more than ever before,” said Emine, a journalist who also has covered violence between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in her home country of Turkey.

Anna, a U.S. journalist, said she felt frightened and unsafe while she was covering combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. “But it’s those moments when you felt the most alive,” she said. “It’s weird. You’re only goal in life was to wake up and not die and not have anyone else die. . . . It got pretty damn simple. Wake up. Don’t die.”

Adira, a journalist in Pakistan, said that journalists need a measure of self-control to do their jobs, and that can be misconstrued by the public as nonchalance about death.

“Mostly people think that journalists are insensitive creatures. They prey on the dead. . . . But I guess journalism, by making you see death and destruction, brought you closer to life and peace. The irony is that we cannot show our emotions like others, and this leads to many unseen destructions within ourselves.”

For some, proximity to death gave life a new meaning.

“I’m grateful when I cover these events I come back to a house and family that is fine,” said Asya, a journalist who has reported extensively from the Middle East. “I did not suffer those violent events, so I’m grateful. You put things in perspective. You see death so many times, you don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Making peace with risks

Some journalists said they worked hard to stay safe, but they also knew that their work carried risks. And they made a conscious decision to accept those risks.

Claire, a South African journalist who covered U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said she realized her safety was in jeopardy when she covered violent events, but she accepted it as part of a job she saw as her life’s calling.

“If I died there, I died doing what I believe in,” Claire said. “I fulfilled my purpose. I wasn’t trying to die . . . that was how I approached everything.”

One journalist said a conversation with her husband helped her realize that risk was inherent in some jobs.

“Something my husband told me early on when we first met that really transformed my reporting,” said Anna, who married veteran. “He told me, ‘Soldiers die. It’s your job . . . but boo-fucking-hoo. What do you think when you go to war?’”

“There was something that flipped in me. . . . The cop on the street, the firefighter knows he could die. . . . And that helped me. . . . They didn’t sign up to die, but they signed up to do a very dangerous job that requires a lot of skill. It brought me a lot of comfort in a weird way. No one wants to die, but this is war,” Anna said.

Hope and resilience

For some, exposure to violence had made them see a grim side of humanity. Others were encouraged by the resilience they saw among victims and survivors of violence. The marveled that people not only survived but thrived.

“What happened to me seeing all kinds of death and being very close to it, and the worst kind of death, has made me hate violence,” said Esin, a journalist who covers violence in her home country of Pakistan. “I live in a part of the world where we like glorifying death. . . . I never call anyone a martyr. Every person who gets killed . . . there is not glory in it. Death is only stark and ugly for me now.”

For some, there was hope after violence.

“How do you go on after something like this happens to you?” asked Stella, a U.S. journalist who has covered crime and sexual violence. “On a human level, I found it fascinating. . . . The fact they could turn their pain into something positive, I found very inspiring. . . . I just think there’s a resilience in people.”

One story of resilience came from Denisa, a journalist in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who reported on the life of a child soldier.

“He talked about how he killed people. He didn’t know it was bad to do that. He thought it was normal,” she said.

The story has a happy ending; eventually, the boy went to school, to university, and became a professor.

Natalie, a U.S. journalist who covered combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, said: “That’s what gets me, these stories of resilience.”

Next: Journalists talk about what they have learned from their experiences about how to stay safe and how to cope afterward.

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