Giuliana Sgrena

KABUL, Afghanistan (WOMENSENEWS)–After Giuliana Sgrena flew into Kabul to report on Afghanistan’s first fully representational elections in September, she kept a very low profile.

Not impossible, perhaps, but difficult for the Italian reporter of the communist paper Il Manifesto who became a household name in February when she was abducted by Iraqi insurgents. She was eventually released after an intense public outcry in Italy, only to be wounded by American soldiers as she headed home via a Baghdad checkpoint.

But for Sgrena, the anonymity in Afghanistan was all about getting back to work after taking time off following her kidnapping. The 56-year-old Italian journalist has been reporting for Il Manifesto since 1988 and has traveled extensively to cover the world’s conflicts. But while she has been celebrated as a war correspondent, she herself defies that description, preferring obscurity to the limelight.

"I refuse to be a war correspondent," she said. "I am not a reporter of war; I report on situations of war. I reject this because I hope in these countries there will one day be peace. These are countries which I am interested in and I hope to go back to them when there is peace."

Female Prisoners at Abu Ghraib

While reporting from Iraq, Sgrena had shunned press briefings and embedded military posts. Instead she chose the streets of Baghdad. There she was able to contact a woman, Mithal al Hassan, who spoke about her incarceration in Abu Ghraib and the torture and abuse she had undergone and witnessed there.

That story, published in July 2004, captured the unreported side of abuse in the prison: that of women. Such women, Sgrena wrote, were victims twice over. Abused first in jail, they also had to face abuse when they returned home.

"In Iraq if you (a woman) have been in prison or have been abused, you must be killed or cut off from society," Sgrena said. "It is not only the Americans that abused you but also (Iraqi) society. The woman who told me the story was very courageous."

Until her abduction in Baghdad, Sgrena met al Hassan each time she returned there. "I go back to see her. There is ‘complichita,’" she says, using the Italian word for a deeper relationship.

Sgrena persuaded al Hassan to tell her story of how she was arrested by American soldiers in the middle of the night and accused of being an agent of Saddam Hussein. Al Hassan was held in Abu Graib for 80 days, where she was often denied food and water, beaten and threatened. American soldiers, she said, showed her pictures of her children and told her to say good-bye to them.

Women’s Special Angle

Sgrena believes that women often take a special angle on covering military conflicts. "Because the men were all engaged in telling about strategic weapons and bombing, the attention to civil societies and to the daily problems, this is special to women."

Luisa Morgantini, a member of the European Parliament, said this was particularly true of Sgrena.

"She works deeply telling the daily horrors of the wars and the violence, but as well the hope and the actions of many women and men that every day resist and continue to work and to go to school," Morgantini said at the time of Sgrena’s abduction.

Sgrena, an outspoken critic of the war, criticizes much of the current coverage of the war.

"There is now militarization of information because now in Iraq a lot of journalists are going only embedded," she said, "which means that you follow their rules and exercise censorship. This is a new way they try to control information."

Getting Truth Out

Sgrena says it is important to get the truth out.

"My kidnappers were people of the so-called resistance. They also don’t want people there to talk about the reality. In Iraq, information is a victim of the war," she says.

Sgrena was captured on Feb. 4. After her release on March 4 she and her Italian rescuers came under fire from U.S. troops en route to the Baghdad airport. One intelligence agent was killed. She and another agent were wounded.

"You know when there is a person on your shoulder to protect you and he becomes heavy, heavy, heavy because he is dead, it’s terrible," she says. "I am happy to be alive. I want to live my life but now I am less enthusiastic about life. Now it’s different. They took away this part of mine."

For months after the ordeal Sgrena was unable to work.

"It is not easy because I am not the same person I was before," she says. "I am changed because, for example, now sometimes I am afraid. I never used to be afraid. I didn’t know what fear was before. But now yes. When I was liberated I was trying to believe that I was really free because it was difficult to pass from the stage of prisoner to one of freedom and I was in the middle of that when they shot me."

Sgrena was glad to be in Afghanistan covering the elections because she proved to herself that she could return to work in difficult circumstances.

Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian journalist who has been living in Kabul for two years. Until recently, she was working with Internews, a media development nongovernmental organization, producing reports on the working conditions of Afghan journalists.

For more information:

Il Manifesto–My Truth:

Giuliana Sgrena’s Photographs: