Witness to suffering; A foreign correspondent writes home

Montreal Gazette
Saturday, May 19, 2007


By Carolin Emcke

Princeton University Press, 340 pages, $29.50

– – –

What did you really see? What do you really think?

Friends ask me these questions every time I come back from some faraway assignment. They want to know what I – the person they know, not the supposedly unbiased reporter I try to be in the field – have witnessed and felt.

These questions seem straightforward enough, but answering them is never easy, not least because I’m often not sure myself.

Then there is the challenge of describing something that most people in the West, especially the younger generation, have never experienced themselves.

How do you describe famine to people whose idea of hunger is having to skip lunch on a busy day at work?

How do you describe genocide to people whose only experience of violence is confined to the nightly news broadcast they watch with a steaming cup of tisane in the comfort of their living room?

Carolin Emcke, a German foreign correspondent for the venerable Der Spiegel, has faced the same questions and found a brilliant solution: she started writing letters to her friends after each assignment.

Emcke wrote the first email to a group of 20 friends after returning from Kosovo, where she had witnessed the aftermath of ethnic cleansing in 1999.

This collection of letters eventually grew into her second award-winning book, called Echoes of Violence.

In Echoes of Violence, Emcke attempts to overcome what she describes as her “speechlessness” when faced with questions from friends. She also attempts to understand what she had witnessed during her assignments to human-disaster zones like Kosovo, Lebanon, Ground Zero in New York, Afghanistan, Iraq and Colombia.

An erudite writer with a PhD in philosophy, Emcke is the thinking person’s reporter. Her book is peppered with quotes from ancient and modern thinkers who have shaped her own understanding of the human condition.

She combines gripping, dramatic stories with philosophical reflection on the nature of violence as she tries to make sense of human suffering.

The choice of the epistolary genre is quite liberating. It allows Emcke to free herself of the journalistic convention of impartiality to bring forward her own witness.

Yet whether she’s dealing with the plight of Colombians caught in a vicious cycle of civil war, or Afghan refugees, or the less overt violence of near-slavery in sweatshops of IMF-inspired “free economic zones” in Nicaragua, or the plight of street children in post-Ceausescu Romania, Emcke never ceases to be a critical thinker.

In a chapter called Lebanon, Emcke also has a fascinating discussion on the moral and ethical issues facing any reporter who tries to cover the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“One cannot write about this region of the Middle East without causing offence, displeasure, or unease,” she writes. “One cannot express words of understanding without being accused of downplaying the issues; one cannot express criticism without being accused of aggression.”

For all her sympathy for the plight of Lebanese civilians and Palestinian refugees in squalid camps in Lebanon, Emcke cannot accept the blind anti-Semitism of many of her interlocutors, some of whom go as far as to praise Hitler for the Holocaust.

The anti-Semitism is especially hurtful to Emcke because she’s a German who grew up on the notion of rejecting Nazism. She doesn’t hide her outrage, “The fact that Germany’s shameful past was suddenly being talked about as something laudable, that we were suddenly being praised for disgraceful crimes – that was outrageous.”

Emcke’s critical eye also turns inward as she tries to understand the reasons she takes on these often dangerous foreign assignments.

“Why would one do this?” she asks. “I don’t have an answer. I can only guess.

“There are colleagues who want to read themselves, there are those who want only to win prizes, there are those who want to tell a story, those who want to stir up public opinion.

“What I know is what I already wrote: I want to be a witness with the people who suffer injustice.

“But I’m appalled by war. Every time.

“I don’t get used to it.

“I am not fascinated by pain and despair. I am sickened by it. The moment I began to find these journeys bearable, I would leave this job.”

Levon Sevunts is a Montreal writer.

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