Many women choose to alter or give up their careers when they have children—not Janine di Giovanni. An award-winning war correspondent and Middle East Editor of Newsweek, this single mother feels the call of duty each time an opportunity arises to slip into battle zones and put a human face on war.
Janine di Giovanni is a veteran of war, having covered conflict for more than two decades in, sadly, far too many war zones to name. She is the author of seven books and is a much sought after foreign policy analyst for her first-hand insights and experiences.
In her latest book, The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria, she lays bare the human toll of the Syrian War through a series of intimate portraits and her ability to describe their indescribable pain and loss. From Nada’s story of torture to actress Fadwa Suleiman’s revolt against Assad’s government, di Giovanni draws readers to care about individuals forgotten in a war that many no longer understand. Her own courage to slip behind enemy lines has earned Janine di Giovanni the Courage in Journalism Award this year.
She is passionate about her work and her joyous life as a devoted, single mom raising an 11-year-old son in Paris. She speaks openly with INSPIRELLE about her life as a single mom with a not-so-ordinary job.
The Syrian war has been raging for five years with no end in sight. Why did you write your book, The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria?
I’m a human rights reporter. It’s what I do — and, basically, the only thing I know how to do. I don’t really think of myself as a journalist; I’m more of a researcher. My goal is to document atrocities and genocides and all the horrific things in the world so that no one can look away — no one can forget.
I began covering Syria from the beginning, but I’ve been working in the Middle East for many years – more than 20. In the beginning, there were too many similarities to me with Bosnia. Now I see it as a much more complex, multi-pronged proxy war. And I feel that the Syrian people have been bypassed in terms of giving them a voice — it’s all about ISIS, Russia, US, Iran, etc…
Last year, I went back to get an MA in International Law from Tufts University. They gave me a full scholarship and I decided to do it because I want to put my years of fieldwork into a legal frame, an academic setting.
I hate bullies, and what I do is go after war criminals and bad guys. As painful as it is, we cannot look away from these issues.
You have covered so many wars — Sarajevo, Chechnya, Iraq and Syria. How do you prepare yourself to leave your family and go to the frontlines?
I hate leaving my son. It is painful, as we are very close. But he always says that the other alternative is for me to work at a desk job and be exhausted, unhappy and stifled. The time when I am home, I am free and we have a blast. I also am free to take him on holidays at whim when he is free from school. If I worked for a bank or a corporation, I would probably see much less of him. But of course it is difficult. Denying it would be pointless.
- CLICK HERE to read an excerpt from Janine di Giovanni’s latest book: The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria.
Were you able to move freely in Syria to research your book and talk to people?
Yes and no. Since 2013, I have been PNGed (designated a person non grata or not appreciated) from Damascus and the regime side, so I had to cross over illegally via Turkey. It’s dangerous, and increasingly so, because of ISIS, so it is more or less impossible to go to the places I want to return to — Daraya, Aleppo — now. But when I could move around, I did interview many people from all walks of life. Of course, dealing with victims of sexual abuse has its own code of reporting — you need to be extremely sensitive and cautious. Fortunately, I have done a lot of it — in Kosovo, in Bosnia, in Africa, and I also worked for the UNHCR on Syria for a year, so I worked with a lot of women who had been abused or were alone in exile, in vulnerable positions.
Many Parisians are removed from the Syrian War and its complexities. We no longer talk about that war, but rather about Syrian refugees — another major crisis that seems to be out of control — and the ongoing threat of terrorism now on our home soil. Is this all linked?
Of course it is linked. Refugees would not leave their homes if there was not a war raging. They don’t want to be refugees!
In my 25 years working with refugees, I have never met one who said, “I can’t wait to get to France so I get good health benefits or I can send my kids to school.”
They are driven out by war, by violence and by ethnic cleansing. If the war ended, if there was a political will to end it, we would not have an “issue” in Europe with refugees. To me, it is the symptom, not the root of the issue.
Why do you think governments are at a loss as to how to deal with Syria and all the horrible consequences that have spun off from this?
I think President Obama made a decision to not get involved. In the 1990s, we had more wars that were ended by humanitarian intervention, and I truly believe targeted air strikes in 2013 after the chemical weapons attacks in Ghouta could have shorted the war, potentially ended it. There are 400,000 people dead now. On our watch. I consider that blood on the hands of all Western leaders, and I consider Russia — which is currently bombing Syria, claiming to bomb ISIS targets but hitting more civilians than anything — war criminals, as bad as Assad. Well, maybe not AS bad.
How do you juggle your job as a war correspondent and mother of a young boy?
It’s hard, but there are women all over the world who juggle being a mom and working. We just do it. Last year, doing the degree in addition and finishing my book was pretty crazy. One night I went out to dinner and looked down at my feet and I had two different shoes on. A friend saw it and laughed, “Something has got to give in your life!”
I am a happy person, essentially. I love my work and I feel blessed I have had success, good editors, good publishers. It’s been a full and rich life, full of love, sorrow, sadness but immense joy.
I won’t go to my grave saying “I have not lived.” It’s been a hell of a life.
Has becoming a mother made you think twice about entering war zones?
Yes, of course. I have lost many, many friends. And lost many to alcoholism and madness — so it’s been a struggle to keep a balance. But at heart, I’m just a Mama waiting for my little boy to come home from school, and making him peanut butter sandwiches. I am a pretty simple person, happy with the simple things in life. Lavender oil in my bath, fresh flowers, nice tea in my granny’s tea cups, a great chat with a girlfriend, going out for a cocktail and a movie. It’s not hard to please me.
Is Paris home or a good work base for you?
Yes. It took me a long time to feel comfortable in Paris. I lived in London most of my life and I had a wonderful circle of friends; and London has a bustling social life centered around the literary world and journalists. There are clubs, parties, events, dinners, lectures every night of the week. I moved to Paris two weeks before Luca was born. My husband (we have been separated for 8 years) is French but lived and worked abroad for years, so he was not French-French and did not like the Paris social scene. So I had to work hard to find a place here, especially after we split up.
Some of the mothers at school could not work out who or what I was. I just don’t fit into the box.
I’m not an American expat; I’m not the typical foreigner married to a Frenchman; I’m not the typical wife and mother. In London, you get accepted for being whacky and eccentric — you can wear a lobster on your head and no one would blink. But in Paris, I found people so conservative and quite judgmental. After a while, though, I found my place, wonderful friends, both French and international, and I love my son’s school.
I feel at home in Paris, even if I don’t fit into the traditional mold. Getting older is a wonderful thing — you accept what you are and who you are, and stop judging yourself. I’m content just knowing I am a bohemian, out-of-the-box creature, and that I have a wonderful life, despite the things that I see and do.
How should we get on with our lives in Paris with the ominous threat of terrorism hanging over France?
The goal of terrorism is to instill fear and to halt the normality of life, so that is why they attack people in their daily life — going to church, going to restaurants, schools. The only way to beat terrorism is to not fear it, to face it and, of course, to address the root causes of radicalism, which are massive, and which France must do.
However, for those of us mothers, people living and working in France — just be vigilant, always have a plan B and just continue to do what you do.
I was on the train coming from Penn Station to visit my mom in New Jersey recently and there was a bomb threat. Everyone was evacuated and a guy was arrested for attempting to plant a bomb. So we just have to always be vigilant today, but at the same time, not paranoid.