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The reality of women war correspondents

Lack of food, lack of sleep, lack of resting moments…. These are some of the things that contribute to making the life of a war correspondent more difficult than we could think.

War correspondents fascinate; and this, whether they are under-covered or send by any media organisation. In people’s mind, as it is often the case, in reality, they take risks to cover a story.

I’ve always had lots of interrogations towards this intriguing job. What is it to be a woman war correspondent? What is the most difficult aspect of this job? How do they manage to deal with their “double life”? How does the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) some of them suffer from, can be avoided?

To answer my questions, I’ve contacted two war correspondents; Rasha Elass and Elaine Cobbe.

Rasha is an American and Syrian recovering war correspondent who grew up in the Middle East. She was a market analyst in New York City before giving up her job to study at Columbia Journalism University and cover conflicts undercover in her native region.

Elaine is Irish and very proud of it. Originally from Dublin, she fell in love with Paris during a school trip. For 12 years, until 2005, she covered conflicts such as the Iraq invasion and the ensuing chaos, the Kosovo war, and the Rwanda genocide. Back in the city of love where she now lives, she is correspondent for CBS News and covers terror attacks.

Live shot position on the roof of Elaine’s hotel in Baghdad (summer 2004) © Elaine Cobbe

Difficulties they are facing

For Rasha, “wearing different hat” was challenging. Assessing the dangerousness of a trip, the reliability of smugglers she was working with as well as figuring out the best way to dress to blend in the village she was going to or in Damascus where she was living – which are two ways of dressing – were definitely complicated.

Elaine in disguise: headscarves and hard cars in Baghdad (2004) © Elaine Cobbe

“People assume the bigger stress comes from the fear of being shot, kidnaped, killed, or cut in crossfire, but it actually comes from all the ordinary things such as the lack of sleep and food, which are amplified” attests Elaine.

Indeed all the things that seem insignificant, not to mention the pressure from the family, often not understanding what they are dealing with, are really problematic for them.

The necessity to have a break

When they come back from a war zone, the danger is gone but the adrenaline is still pumping. It is very important to stop somewhere before coming back home attests Elaine. “If you come back straight home, everyone thinks you’re coming back as you’ve just come back from a conference in London and that’s you’re fine, while you’re not.” 

Destruction in Ghouta, fall 2013 – © Rasha Elass

The necessity to do activities while on a war zone

To protect their emotions while in the field, it is not rare for them to have sessions via Skype with psychologists. Doing artistic activities such as drawing and playing music are highly recommended as it helps the brain to express itself through creative outlets.

Rasha started sketching on her balcony when she was in Damascus. “I’ve started to sketch by instinct, before being told to do so. That was a great thing for me to do. Every day I would feel relaxed.”

“It is very important to do physical activities when you’re endlessly doing mental activities” attests Elaine. “When I was in Iraq, I obliged myself to do 15 minutes of very basic stretching exercise routine, every morning to feel physically well in order to stay mentally well”.

There is so much more to war than the Boum boom bang bang”. Rasha Elass

Being a woman war correspondent is mostly getting and having access to more human interests stories. “Especially in conservative countries if you’re a woman you can talk to both the men and the women whereas if you’re a man, and can only talk to men” explains Rasha.

Indeed, she got to go with the Roubles in the front line and meet their wives and in their houses to discuss other issues. An opportunity she would never have had if she would have been a man.

Also, being a woman is looking less threatening to everybody, even if everybody is on edge. Rasha never got the feeling that people were suspecting her to be able to kidnap or kill someone. “People relax, trust you and talk to you, this is important.”

Destruction in Ghouta, fall 2013 — © Rasha Elass

She’s pretty and blond, she might be dumb. Elaine Cobbe

For Elaine, “people let down their guard much more around women” and being seen as ‘girly’ and ‘naïve’ can sometimes be helpful for a woman war correspondent.

“Sometimes it’s good soldiers think you’re stupid. They drop their guard and often tell you more. I’ve met soldiers that were so happy to talk to girls to impress them,” she declares.

But being away from its family is complicated and being in an area of war all the time could cause divorce or serious troubles in a family. Journalists send by a media organisation as Elaine, kind of find a second one abroad.

Elaine in a US military Blackhawk helicopter on their way to Najaf, under siege by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr with her cameraman Atheer Hameed (Aug 2004) © Elaine Cobbe

“Suddenly you make strong friendships with people you barely knew before. You all live on top of each other on the same hotel, you go through life and death with them…”

“You think that war zone fling is a real relationship. Some of them last, others don’t. Like a holiday romance. Do you really want to see the person back home? It’s the similar idea if not the same circumstances. It’s not fake, it’s situation specific”.

But colleagues’ support and care are primordial in a war zone. And journalists sent by media organisations have a team with a city producer; a person responsible for knowing where is everybody as well as having every family contacts and the blood groups. “That is also something that makes you feel much more of a family.”

“PTSD affects generally just 28% of the war correspondents”

Elaine is also the French contact for the Dart Center for journalism and trauma; a project of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City.

The Dart Center gathers journalists, journalism educators and health professionals devoted to improving media coverage of trauma, conflict, and tragedy.

The notion of post-traumatic stress is often related to war correspondents. However, it is not as common as we could think. According to Elaine, “PTSD affects generally just 28% of the war correspondents.”

“Women are having trouble to ask for help and admitting they are afraid because they are scared to look weak in front of male colleagues” she attests. Women freelancers are afraid not to get work again if their reveal their concerns.

Elaine back from a shoot in Iraq (2004) © Elaine Cobbe

However, the tolerance towards women war correspondent has changed thanks to their growing presence in news reporting. “The business is attracting far more women. Around 15 years ago, they were far less likely to write hard news and were slightly few in the front line in any kind of conflict” attests Elaine.

Women have broken down the barrier of sexism. They have managed to access their job thanks to childcare, time or their better understanding at the top, she explains.

You don’t have time to feel afraid, you have to put off the emotions until later. Elaine Cobbe

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