Discussion at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, 17th August 2012 - Janine di Giovanni and Ed Vulliamy, - twenty years on from the beginning of the war in Bosnia. Chaired by Bidisha
Ed Vuilliamy said that the war in Bosnia broke preconceptions. His optimism and his faith were shattered. He used to believe that justice would prevail, that the good guys would win and the bad ones would be punished, but such ideas were blown apart with this war. He spoke passionately about the ‘impotence and hubris’ of the international community and its politicians.
Janine said that journalists felt they ‘can and must do something’. We used to feel she said, that our reporting could actually affect policy. That their work was about ‘bearing witness’ an overused phrase she agreed yet one that seemed to fit. To give a voice to people who don’t have one. But she admitted that since Bosnia, a lot of reporting seems to be more geared towards getting scoops and newspaper sales.
In the days of the war in Bosnia she reminds us, back in the 90s, they used to be there before others got there, before médecins sans frontières got there, before the NGOs got there. Nowadays, we have embedded reporting which she thinks is destructive of journalism – you are censored in what you write. For her, it was always important to go and talk to the people involved, go into the villages and speak to them, which cannot be done if you’re embedded.
In his book, as Bidisha points out, Ed names things as they are, he talks about mass rape for example, he detests the euphemisms so often used. Collateral damage he says, means a village consisting mainly of women, children and the elderly, is attacked, and the inhabitants killed.
When asked about the ‘neutrality’ of journalists, Janine said ‘I’m a journalist and I’m not supposed to have a side’ but that doesn’t mean that they should not have compassion for the people who were suffering. She says she usually has seen war from the side of those who were having the worst of it, and being attacked.
She related how guilty she felt when after a few weeks or so in Sarajevo she went to Zagreb for a short time, to have a break - and a shower. She felt that she should be back there, in Sarajevo where the others were suffering all the dangers and privations of the siege. All the foreign journalists were very aware, she said, that they were in a different situation from the Bosnian people – if things got very difficult for them, they could leave, they could get out. Not so, for the people of Sarajevo.
Journalists need to be objective about facts yes, but neutrality is something else.
Ed Vulliamy was accused of ‘breaching neutrality’ by testifying at the Hague. Some reporters felt he should not have, because journalists are supposed to be neutral, report facts and not take sides. But Ed said he was horrified by the ‘neutrality’ of the international community. The war could have been stopped with very little loss of life he says, if the international community had intervened. Each case has to be weighed individually, he does not always think that intervention is the right action, but in this case, he says, yes it was.
Janine reminds us that in Bosnia, this was in the days before emails and the internet, before blogging and twitter. We had to phone in our reports, she said, reading them out from the page we’d written it on. Journalism nowadays is too much about journalists, rather than about the people they have gone there to report on. They are encouraged to write in the first person.
Ed says he tries to make himself invisible in his story. ‘We [the journalists] don’t matter.’ Yes, he says, it is hard after seeing all that they have seen, their ‘post traumatic lives’ are not easy.
Janine says she is bitter about the siege in Sarajevo, as it could have been stopped. ‘politicians allowed it to happen’. She says there should have been intervention in Sarajevo before the siege. We can never forget what happened, she says, - and it seems we [humanity] are doomed to repeat our mistakes [as in Syria today].
In Bosnia, Ed said, it was complicated by both victims and perpetrators being neighbours, knowing each other so well. He was told by one person who had been tortured that his torturer said to him – your grandfather tortured my grandfather. The pleasure that was taken in torturing was also horrific to them. There was a strange kind of atmosphere, he said, a kind of chumminess between perpetrators and victims, and then the atrocities would happen.
They were asked about their present situation – if they were still able to write their own stories – both because of embedded journalism and because of the traumatic nature of their work.
Janine said – I still do it. Then she talked about young, desperate, would be journalists who blog and even go to war zones and undertake dangerous border crossings when they know very little about the situation. Whereas they are experienced journalists who can far better assess situations in general and the level of risk involved. These young people she said, think it’s glamorous to be a war correspondent but it’s not at all. But I can still earn a living. Photo journalists I know, often have to fund themselves. But those who are truly committed will do that.
Ed said that his last assignment was in Mexico and he found it so frightening, the amount of death and torture, that he has ‘hung up his boots’. It’s not that he does not care or feel any more, but he has ‘commitment fatigue’. He thinks it’s time to come back to the UK and do some ‘foreign reporting’ here.
These are reports from people who were there and saw what went on. Who can relate the stories of what people have gone through, who can give a voice to people who do not have one, people who have disappeared, or have been murdered, shelled, tortured, raped, imprisoned. Without them, we would know very little, and that little would probably be a mass of rumour and counter rumour and we would not know who to believe. We can certainly believe these people for their observations are skilled and articulate, their compassion and commitment is very clear.
Among Janine di Giovanni’s other books are Madness Visible, about the war in Kosovo
and The Quick and the Dead about the war in Bosnia.