NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–For almost 20 years, Elizabeth Neuffer, an award-winning foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe, has lived with the risks and threats that are a part of daily life for female war correspondents. But one incident in particular sticks out in her mind.
Driving through war-ravaged Bosnia in 1995, Neuffer and a colleague came under artillery fire. They waited for it to pass and then drove up the mountain with no headlights on. The car flipped over and landed in a ditch and was quickly set upon by a group of men.
“At first I think I was very clueless as to what was going on even though they were being quite physical with me,” recalls Neuffer. Noticing the dread on her male colleague’s face, she realized she was being accosted because of her gender. The journalists escaped by relinquishing their vehicle.
“What was more important, an armored car or a girl?” Neuffer asks rhetorically.
War has become dramatically more dangerous this year for journalists. The murder of Daniel Pearl from the Wall Street Journal earlier this year is the best-known example. However, a reporter was also killed during last week’s clashes in Venezuela, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported. Last year, 37 journalists of both genders were killed; the year before, 24.
Women war correspondents, however, also face what female victims of war face, says Kathleen Currie, deputy director of the International Women’s Media Foundation. The threat of rape and sexual assault is always looming for women in these dangerous locales. And at times women have difficulty getting high-ranking officials to take them seriously.
The author of the recently published “The Key to My Neighbor’s House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda,” by Picador USA, Neuffer has had a front row seat in major events around the world for the past two decades.
During the Gulf War, she reported from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. When then-Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev tendered his resignation, she was right there in the Soviet Union with him. She was in Bosnia and Rwanda amidst the genocides there, in New York City on Sept. 11 and in Afghanistan during Hamid Karzai’s inauguration.
If Neuffer found that her gender put her at risk in her day-to-day working life, she also believes that it brought her some advantages. She notes that gaining access to civilians and combatants alike was at times easier because of her gender. “Bosnian men loved women and adored being flattered by them,” Neuffer writes in her book.
Vildana Selimbegovic, editor in chief of the weekly magazine Dani in Sarajevo, who covered the Bosnian War in territory controlled by the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, says that men on the front lines of Sarajevo were more open with her because she didn’t pose a threat. “They never expected me to carry a weapon,” Selimbegovic said. “I suppose they also appreciated the fact that I was actually doing my job at a time of war.”
Although Neuffer acknowledges the positive and negative impacts her gender has had on her job, she maintains that “a good foreign correspondent is a good foreign correspondent, regardless of sex.”
Covering War’s Ripple Effects Years Later
In her book, Neuffer does not just cover the initial impact of war on a country but also reveals the stories that ripple out, for years and years, after war has come and gone. She sifts through everything she learned while in war-ravaged countries in the 1990s and pulls out the heroic, tragic, real-life stories of survivors–such as Witness JJ, an illiterate Tutsi woman whose testimony about her rape by a Hutu man resulted in the historic classification of rape as a war crime in international law.
“At the end of the day, you do want to become deeply involved with an issue and think it through and nurture it,” Neuffer says. She combed post-war Bosnia and Rwanda to find out what happened to the families whose living rooms she sat in and children she held on her lap. “I needed to know what closed the circle,” she says. “I’d stepped into their lives and I had no idea: Had they found their brother? Had they managed to follow their case through court?”
“The Key to My Neighbor’s House” reflects the heart of Neuffer’s approach to her sometimes life-threatening job, which human rights activists think sets her apart from other war correspondents.
“There’s not an excess of reporters out there who not only cover the horrific things that happen in these conflict situations, but who are interested in and cover the efforts to remedy them,” says Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. Neuffer’s work in particular helps the citizens and governments of the United States and Western Europe understand what occurs in countries such as Afghanistan, Bosnia and Rwanda.
“From a human rights perspective, that’s an absolutely essential role,” Dicker says.
“Her account and the account of many other journalists expose real, underlying truths that, in order to stop genocide, you have to mobilize the public and political will to intervene,” adds Joshua Rubenstein, northeast regional director of Amnesty International.
Neuffer attributes her commitment to public-service-via-journalism to both growing up during the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement and attending, as a child, a liberal church in Connecticut suburb. The church’s motto was: “Have faith; give service.”
“I had a sense that I had been very, very fortunate in life, and that I wanted to be able to do things for other people,” she says, adding that she’s also driven by survivor’s guilt over a brother’s suicide, which she discusses in her book.
Neuffer Turned Away from Economics to Pursue the Story
Neuffer didn’t set out to be a journalist. She earned her bachelor’s degree in history from Cornell University and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics. Intrigued by the freelance journalists she knew in London, she started pitching stories to The New York Times. Her career took off from there. Based in London, she wrote “quirky, slice-of-life” features for the Times before moving back to New York and working as a reporter-trainee for the newspaper’s Metro section.
She left The Times in 1984 to write for the Boston Globe and landed a foreign assignment. She worked in Berlin as the European bureau chief until 1998, winning a coveted prize from the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and an International Women’s Media Foundation Courage in Journalism Award for her reporting on war crimes in Bosnia and Rwanda.
She then spent a year as an Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where the idea for her book came to fruition. A grant from the Soros Foundation’s Open Society Institute helped finance the writing of the book, which she completed while an individual project fellow there.
Transition from War Zone to Safety Is Not Smooth
Neuffer returned to the Globe in January 2001, although she is currently based in New York City and covers international affairs, including the U.S. war on terrorism. She is planning on going back to Afghanistan soon.
Navigating between war zones and everyday life is difficult and can be emotionally draining. “Your body comes back before the rest of you does. There is this odd period of transition,” she says. “In real war stuff, it was very, very difficult.”
Nueffer says she goes though a period of denying the reality of what she left behind and then of “feeling very, very guilty because you’d commuted out of it and you’d left people you knew behind.”
Her career of choice also complicates relationships. Being a war correspondent brought her closer to her father, a World War II veteran who was full of sound advice, yet creates distance with her companion, an editor at the Globe, who worries incessantly every time she leaves.
“Someone once said to me that being a war correspondent is an act of violence against the people you love the most because they end up having to stay behind worrying about you,” Neuffer says. “I’ve had to sit and think about that a lot.”
Carol Lee is a student at New York University’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communication.
For more information:
Courage in Journalism Awards:
SAIS-Novartis Prize for Excellence in International Journalism: