Janine Di Giovanni Talks to Fatima Bhutto

Ghosts by Daylight, the latest book by award-winning foreign correspondent and war reporter Janine di Giovanni, is a memoir about war and the sharp edges of ordinary life - dealing with addiction, the pain of miscarriages, replacing one set of challenges with a different sort. For di Giovanni, who constantly follows stories that other journalists are too afraid to cover, from Rwanda to Algeria to the Balkans, travelling to report on the second Palestinian intifada while pregnant isn't necessarily as trying as giving birth in a Parisian hospital.

Fatima Bhutto East Timor, Kosovo, Somalia, Afghanistan - what separates war zones for you?
Janine di Giovanni There are no separations... meaning human misery is human misery, whether it is in Asia or Africa. But there are places in the world where I've reported that are closer to my heart, for whatever reason. Some places you feel utterly powerless to do anything - that is beyond frustrating.

FB I mean, how does one leave Grozny behind when Tripoli is the next port of call, or is that impossible?
JDG I think it's impossible. You don't forget people or images. They haunt you. For instance, in Sierra Leone I once saw a six-month-old baby who had been amputated by the RUF rebels so that she - and all the people amputated - would be grotesque reminders of their power and to instil fear. I see that child in my dreams at least once a month. Sometimes I respond to places less than others. Afghanistan never got under my skin the way it does for others. I think because the treatment of women is still so horrific, the abuse of children... even among the educated classes.

FB How did you balance the difficulties of writing about the "sharp edges" of normal life in Ghosts by Daylight while living them?
JDG It was a very, very hard book to write, for many reasons. Mainly because the characters who are the central ones are still alive - my mother, my friends, my husband. And it was writing about real pain and suffering, but this time my own. I felt very vulnerable exposing myself but at the same time I knew it was a part of healing, not just for me, but for other people who are spouses of alcoholics or who suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). After I finished it, people who know me very well, my closest friends, wrote to say, "Why didn't you tell us? Why didn't you ask for help? We were here for you." But I kept it very quiet. On many levels, I just don't tell people things about myself, I internalise a lot - on every level - stress, pain, suffering. The only thing I am very open about is love. When I love someone, I really love them. And I tell them. A lot.

Where were you when you thought, "That's it - this is my last war?"
JDG Well, for sure I thought I would die in Chechnya. So I wondered whether I would ever walk out of that country alive, let alone cover another war. I think the moment passes; you almost forget what you were feeling and then there is the terrible pull of going back to a place like Somalia or Zimbabwe, where you think there is darkness and you want to give a voice to people who have none. I have been frightened many times. But you forget it, the same way you forget the agonising pain of childbirth.

FB Bosnia changed all the journalists who lived through it. You recently wrote an essay for Granta about returning to Bosnia and searching for a young boy, Nusrat, you met there. How do you carry Bosnia with you today?
JDG It is in the face of the little boy I love most in the world, my son, Luca. He is seven, and I met his father there in 1993. If that meeting never happened, that life would not come to be. But aside from the personal reasons, I feel that country pulled me into its vortex - I fell in love, deeply, with this wounded place and I felt so much the horror and the injustice that happened there. I was completely and utterly gutted that the carnage and suffering people endured could have and should have been stopped. Let's just say I did not emerge the same person I was when I first landed there in 1992. It changed me.

FB You write about the first "real" death you saw, in Bosnia, and the autopilot mechanism it produced in you. About not knowing how many dead bodies you'd seen over the course of reporting from places like Rwanda and Sierra Leone. How does that sort of mechanism evolve the more wars you live through and the more violence you witness?
JDG The French psychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik, who has done extensive studies on resilience (and who himself survived losing both his parents in the war), says that the people who survive such things just have an innate button that they push in order to keep their souls intact. I have no idea, but I do know I managed to stay sane on some level and I saw plenty of my friends and colleagues go down. I'm not stronger than them, I just think some people have more resilience in their make-up than others...

FB Does the new sanitised language of war still allow you to do what it was that made you set out to become a journalist in the first place - giving a voice to people who had none?
JDG I am just not built to be told where to go, what to write, what to look at. 
I don't respond well to authority. I grew up in the 1970s, the "question authority" generation. And I think journalism has definitely suffered. Compare what was written in Vietnam by reporters such as Gloria Emerson or David Halberstam to the reporting that came out of Iraq. Just not the same quality.

FB Which newspapers do you read when at home in Paris?
JDG I read le Figaro and le Parisien, because I get them free at the gym. I don't watch TV but will check the 8pm news on France 2 and occasionally CNN and the BBC. I listen to the radio, France Info, and I check the BBC website. But I am not 
a news junkie any more.

FB General Patton said that the object of war isn't to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his. How has new technology, epitomised by American drone attacks, changed the nature of war?
JDG What a terrible line. I am not sure war is worth the loss of a single life. I think technology has moved us so far militarily that we seem to have disassociated the victims. Drones are nearly freakish, science fiction-like vehicles operated by someone back in Arizona who has no clue what life is like on the ground. I remember reporting from a remote village, a wedding party in Afghanistan that had gotten bombed "accidentally" and finding pieces of people's lives scattered everywhere - their bloody clothes, the food they were eating, the smashed house. And the few living just sobbing, grabbing my arm and asking, "Why?"

FB Why do some people escape PTSD while others are consumed by it? 
Your husband Bruno's trauma from covering wars as a photojournalist was of a different form than yours. Is it the peculiarities of how one witnesses that kind of violence?
JDG They say it's genetic, like alcoholism. They also say that you do not get it until you have a second jarring trauma - then the memories of the first come back. I am a great believer in old-fashioned Woody Allen-style therapy. It's painful, it goes 
on forever, it hurts like hell, it makes you feel worse before you feel better - but 
it works. But you have to stick with it, and you have to be honest. Personally, 
I have been tested relentlessly and thought I did not have it. Now, looking back over my reaction after the traumatic birth of my son, I think I might have. I mean, 
I behaved like a madwoman hoarding water and medicine and afraid people on the street were going to harm me and my baby... But I would never put myself in 
the same boat as someone in Srebrenica or Kigali who saw their family massacred.

FB Where to next? Martha Gellhorn said she didn't write, she just wandered about. But she also wrote of this almost obsessive need to follow war wherever she could reach it. Which one is it for you?
JDG At the moment, I would like to get to northern Kenya and Mogadishu to report on the famine. I can't believe I am seeing the same images from nearly 20 years ago - 1992 - that some of my friends took, and they are taking the exact same ones right now. Don't we ever learn anything from history?

Ghosts by Daylight is out now, published by Bloomsbury Press.

  • Janine Di Giovanni