“Women, War and the Media”
– Excerpts from an essay by Ammu Joseph
Women living in conflict zones have strong views about conflicts that overtake their lives and community. They have political views about their situation but, for most of them, politics isn’t the most important thing. What they care most about is assuring the survival of their families and communities. And, since men dominate the political arena, it is usually they who decide whether a war will be fought, then fight it. Women are left to cope with the results once the war has ended.

In the coverage of war, it is stories about women’s lives that often go untold. In 1995, I attended a funeral of a young Hutu man killed in Bujumbura, Burundi. Foreign journalists waited in the front yard while a coffin was hastily being built out of leftover fruit boxes. When we got to the graveyard, we waited again while his family dug the grave. During this time, a wild-eyed woman approached me, pointed to my camera and pulled my hand gently. She then sat by the fragile coffin and looked straight into my camera. After taking her photo, she wrote her address on a tiny piece of torn paper and gave it to me. I assumed it was natural that she would want a picture for her and her children, for memory’s sake. There was no exchange of words between us. We didn’t share a common language but even if we had, she also gave the impression that she didn’t want to talk and that she needed to stay silent and be strong to face her husband’s burial. This was a critical time for her, a time when she had to start making decisions regarding this new and poorer life she had entered. She was grieved by the loss of her husband, but she was also terrified of entering even deeper poverty, something I learned when I came back later with an interpreter. She spoke little but kept saying how different life was now. She explained to me that she would only send her son to school and only to primary school. Her daughter was going to stay at home, and by not attending school would, like her, enter the cycle of poverty.

Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world. In any underdeveloped country with a large peasant farmer population, the death of a young able-bodied man means a great loss of income to his family. Expenditures must be reduced; the widow either reduces the amount of food she buys or the quality she has been trying to maintain. Sometimes, she decides she will eat only once a day.

I find the silence of women like this one expressive of a point of view. Talking about the tragedy unfolding uses up much-needed reserves of energy. The combination of observing, taking in, and emotionally processing the new realities of one’s life requires extra strength and resiliency. These women will need to dig deep into their internal reservoir of strength to survive.

For journalists to penetrate this protective wall of silence requires time and effort. Yet when these women tell their stories, they are so very different than men’s and necessary to hear if we are to understand the consequences of war. To speak with men in areas of conflict is to hear them offer precise descriptions of what happened—how many people died, where the war was fought, a bravado about their men colleagues, and a strong perception of the enemy, which is not necessarily accurate. Although the social and historical backgrounds are different, I found this to be a common thread as I reported on conflict in Bosnia, Burundi, Rwanda and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Among women living amid conflict, there is a ruthless practicality. They are very conscious of the fact that they don’t have mobility and that at any time they could become refugees. Young mothers are burdened both by the care they give to their children but also to their elders. Yet their constant state of readiness is different from the men’s, who think primarily about fighting back even if it means losing their lives. For the women, its about crisis management and different calculations, such as thinking about things to be packed and what is possible to carry if they have to suddenly leave their homes for good. It is also their responsibility to think about how to allocate tasks to members of the family if the time does come to leave their home.

I have watched refugees at the border of Burundi and Rwanda and in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. Perhaps because of the ways in which they’ve had to think about all of this and prepare for it, women cope better with being a refugee than do men. A Serbian woman left the Krajina, which is sandwiched between Bosnia and Croatia. Along with 250,000 refugees, she walked into Serbia carrying her family’s clothes in a hand-embroidered tablecloth. I admired the light yellow tablecloth with the exquisite blue and white flowers strewn around the cloth and told her so. She smiled sadly and while stroking it explained that she did it herself when she first got married. Her children who were with her were now teenagers. This tablecloth will become an important part of her family history. Her smile said so much; no words were necessary to know that she and her family were never going back to the Krajina. The tablecloth symbolized the loss of her home and land but connected her to her past identity in the Krajina.

What I find most fascinating is how women have a “psychological map” of the war that is critical for the survival of their families in the longer term. This map offers them a way of seeing the world in its entirety—in its past and present and future simultaneously. In interviews, this idea doesn’t always emerge as clearly as this, and often to hear women speak of this can be confusing to listen to. But there is a strange human filing system there among their jumbled emotions. A journalist needs to go back several times and speak with other women in this community. Out of these conversations will emerge similar themes and reoccurring threads, all of which will create a story that should be told.

This psychological map consists of emotional and psychological happenings of the family and community, things that become the cornerstones of family history and, when brought together, create a community’s collective memory. In many countries that experience war, records are rarely kept of what actually happened: women’s collective memories become crucial to the perception of that country’s history.

Women are also, in many instances, the instigators of peace. On the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, conflict broke out between local landowners and the mining company and the government on the other side. After some years of conflict the women started to initiate dialogue with the aim of establishing peace. Finally a peace agreement, initiated by these women, was reached. So, too, in Sarajevo when by the end of 1995 the women had had enough of the miseries of war. In my interviews with them, there was already talk of pushing the men towards accepting peace. Although what happened politically was more complicated, the women’s role as movers of the peace process cannot be underestimated. Peace is not a political or ideological stand for these women, rather it is seen as a necessity. As one woman put it to me in Sarajevo, “Peace is a strategy, so my children can live a normal live.”

One problem with telling these important stories is that they are difficult to tell. They take time and sensitivity to report and cannot be told in quick soundbites or written as typical news stories with a tidy beginning, middle and end. For example, when a war ends, and the United Nations and foreign journalists go home, it is left to those who are scarred by war to rebuild. And this process can be as painful as the war itself. How do you start rebuilding Rwanda as a nation, both physically and emotionally? Can you really forgive your neighbor who killed your husband and made your life poorer?

Rape stories are the hardest to report. I never know whether or not to write them. By reporting them, I highlight the atrocities and, perhaps, lead to stopping the perpetrators, but at the same time I know the shame that the women and members of their community feel when their story is told to an international audience. I also cannot be certain if my reporting would help or worsen the woman’s life.

In Bosnia, many women who had been raped came to Sarajevo for protection. I interviewed a Bosnian minister about one woman, and he told me everything had been taken care of. He said the woman was taken back into her community and, if a child was born, the child would be given her father’s surname. But when I finally tracked down a building where several of these women were staying, a female director asked me to “preserve our dignity as women.” Contrary to what the minister had said, she told me that the best thing for these women was for them to leave Bosnia and begin a new life in another country. She explained that these women had been ostracized by their own communities; they were seen as “soiled” by the enemy.

All of these women were wounded in some way. Some required intensive psychological counseling and then might return to their communities. Many survived psychologically and attempted to start living again. A common thread among most of them was that they did not yet want their stories to be told. After listening to them, I felt as if bringing attention to their rapes might only delay their ability to rebuild their lives. For the women themselves, the rationale of not attaching priority to their conditions was also part of the ruthless practicality some of them used to survive. I learned that when each of the women was ready, she would speak frankly about it. For the Dutch women who were forced to become “comfort women” for the Japanese during World War II, it is only recently—more than 50 years after it happened—that they have started to tell their story, as part of the last stage of their recovery, when the ordeal is put to rest.

War stories captivate TV audiences with scenes of destruction, but stories of rebuilding are more fascinating because they are about a community remaking itself and human beings surviving. Today, modern technology reports news faster and more vividly through television, but this means the entire story is rarely told. So many facets of this Hutu family’s life and their community don’t have a chance to be told, given the tools now used to convey most news. Speed has usurped depth in reporting. But in this story, this man’s killing was part of the ethnic violence in Burundi and Rwanda in 1995, so the story is much larger than his death. And for women living in war and zones of conflict, not many journalists consider their stories dramatic enough to qualify as “real” war stories. Often, their stories—if covered at all—are referred to only as “soft” news.

Print journalism tries to go deeper into these stories, but also comes up against the problem of space and the fact that they are competing with the vividness and speed of television for the attention of an audience. The routines of everyday life are really hard to write about, even if an editor can be made interested in such coverage. And this story is rarely a visual one.

Given the potentially long-term war against terrorism that is now being waged and personal concern for security, perhaps the dizzying pace of life will be slowed. Perhaps this means that we will find more reporters willing to spend time interviewing women—such as an Afghan woman in a refugee camp to learn what her family and community life has been like and learn what visions she has for rebuilding her community in the future.

Being a woman journalist covering war, it has been a most humbling experience. It has made me conscious of women’s crucial role as keepers of oral history who are critical in preserving a community identity. I always return home admiring the strength, the resilience, and the resourcefulness these women have.

Ratih Hardjono, a 1994 Nieman Fellow, reported on war, conflict and military governments for 10 years for the Indonesian daily Kompas.

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