Watching journalist Janine di Giovanni last week at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, I was struck by how composed and well-adjusted she is. Di Giovanni has covered nearly every major combat zone in recent memory, including Israel, Sarajevo, and Iraq. In Chechnya, she disguised herself as a refugee to escape Russian forces sent to “clean” the town she was in. In Sierra Leone, she met a girl whose job it was to hack off people’s limbs as punishment or just to send a message of intimidation. She wondered openly, “How much agony could the human soul suffer before it cracked?” I found myself asking the same question about her.
Many war correspondents suffer from deep depression, chronic promiscuity, and alcoholism. But di Giovanni told the audience that she is afflicted by none of these. So how has she escaped unscathed? She explains it by quoting one of her war-time sources, a mother who told her, “We live with this because we never forget; either in thoughts or real actions.”
For di Giovanni, war isn’t about guns and bombs, General Petraeus and President Bush. It’s about regular people. She has seen “pure evil” in the eyes of some of the people she met, but she has also witnessed compassion, understanding, and redemption. Horrific international failures like the conflict in the Congo, where the International Refugee Committee estimates that some 4 million people have died in the past six years, seem distant here in the United States. Journalism at it’s best, she said, shines a light on ongoing tragedies like the Congo, and on other places often ignored by the rest of the world.