What war does to the reporter’s soul

Janine di Giovanni is one of Europe’s leading war correspondents. Last night I read this moving extract from her memoir. Beautifully written, it examines the relationship between her and her partner Bruno and their child, Luca and how reporting in various horror zones eventually entered their hearts and minds and wouldn’t go away. War can be like a drug for some in the media. You’ll rarely hear the people living under the bullets and bombs thinking similarly:

I had been tested for post-traumatic stress disorder a few years previously by a Canadian psychiatrist writing a book about war reporters. He said I did not have it. Aside from one brutal flashback after the murder of two of my colleagues in Sierra Leone by rebel forces I thought I had managed, somehow, to escape a syndrome with which so many had been afflicted. At one point, a psychiatrist in Sarajevo told me that nearly the entire population of the besieged city probably suffered from it.

I never had nightmares in the years of moving from war to war – perhaps some inner survival mode would not allow me to be introspective enough – but they started now: vivid dreams of burning houses, of people without limbs, of children trapped inside shelters. I thought endlessly of the days in Chechnya when I listened to the helicopter gunships and put my hands over my ears, sure I would go mad from the sound of the bombs. Or the time that I rode on the back of a motorcycle in East Timor and smelled the burning of the houses, saw the terror in people’s faces.

While I was actually there, I felt nothing. I never talked about what happened in those places, but I wrote about them. I disagreed that reporters suffered from trauma; after all, I argued, we were the ones who got out. It was the people we left behind that suffered, that died. I did not suffer the syndromes, I did not have the shakes. I did not have psychotic tendencies. I was not an alcoholic or drug addict who needed to blot out memories. I was, I thought, perfectly fine and functioning.

Much later I met another trauma specialist in a cafe in London, who told me that PTSD can also appear later, long after the events. He asked me to describe all I had seen, in detail, but nothing was as painful as Luca’s birth: the helplessness, my inability to protect him, and the sense that anything could and would happen. He listened carefully and recorded my words, which he later sent to me in transcript form. “There are people who live in extremes,” he said, “and you are one of them. You cannot think that will not affect you in some way. It has. It always will.”

The birth awakened fears that had been buried. It started when I hoarded water in our kitchen: plastic packs of more than 50 bottles, which I calculated would last us 20 days. Every time I went to Monoprix to buy food, I bought more and had it delivered. I hoarded tinned food, rice, pasta – food that I remembered stored well in Sarajevo during the siege – and things that might be hard to get – medicine, vast supplies of Ciprofloxacin and codeine – which I got my confused doctor to give me prescriptions for. I hoarded bandages, gauzes, even the field dressings that I had saved from Chechnya which were meant to be pressed against bullet holes to staunch the blood, and I read first aid guides of how to remove bullets and shrapnel, set broken bones and survive chemical attacks. Bruno would watch, concerned but non-judgmental.

“We’re in Paris,” he would say, “not Grozny. Not Abidjan. We’re safe.”

“But how do you know? That’s what people said about Yugoslavia. One day they went to the cash machines and there was no money.”