Tuesday, 20 May 2014

War Correspondents

Rebecca Thorn and Oliver Senton/credit: Simon Richardson
--> The dangers of life as a war reporter are horribly familiar. Only last week, the front page of the Times showed the bloodied face of Anthony Loyd, a British reporter shot twice by Syrian rebels who were holding him hostage. According to Reporters Without Borders,  18 journalists have been killed and 173 imprisoned since the beginning of this year alone.

With journalists currently reporting on conflicts in countries such as Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Central African Republic, this is certainly an interesting time for the launch of a new theatrical work that examines the conditions of their employment. I always find it very interesting to see how artists convey and translate serious and difficult issues. And how they manage to make us understand them on a different level, touching us beyond words. 

“War Correspondents” is a 75-minute show that tells the stories of five foreign correspondents, three men and two women - representing the many who take great risks to report on conflicts across the world.  Using a capella songs and choreographed movement, interspersed with poems and extracts of interviews, it tries to bring to life the fear, moral dilemmas, pain, thrill, courage and frustrations that characterise this particular form of journalism. 

The show is the second “song theatre performance” created by Helen Chadwick, a composer, and Steven Hoggett, an Olivier-Award-winning choreographer. The idea emerged from an encounter between Chadwick and Jon Spaul, a photographer who worked on the first Chechen war in the 1990s. “He showed me his devastating photos and told me about what was happening to him and other photographers working there,” she says. “He was just a normal bloke doing extraordinary work. That inspired me.”

Chadwick and Miriam Nabarro, the show's designer, who has worked extensively in conflict zones, spent six years interviewing war correspondents with experience of reporting in Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Bosnia and elsewhere. Their subjects included Martin Bell, a renowned former correspondent with the BBC, and Giuliana Sgrena, who was taken hostage in Fallujah, Iraq, and subsequently shot at by the American army on her way to the airport.

They started with general questions, and from the answers saw themes emerge that could be used to shape the show: danger, the reason for the correspondents’ choice of work, its impact on their lives, censorship, changes to the job since 9/11 and others.

Chadwick wrote 30 songs based mostly on the testimonies, but also some poems by Brecht, Saadi Yousef and Mansur Muhammad Ahmad Rajih. Hoggett then choreographed accompanying dances. 

Both songs and dances are performed by just five actors, and the result is exquisite, with the music preventing the whole performance from veering too much into the earnest and the sombre. 

Of the many issues examined, the most moving concerns what journalists are supposed to do about the suffering they witness and the guilt they feel when leaving it behind at the end of their assignments. One is surprised that years of covering conflicts have made him “battle-softened” rather than “battle-hardened”. Another comments, “Wars, disasters… they all live inside me. I cannot get rid of them.”

"War Correspondents" is touring around Britain until October 25th.

You can read my review for the Economist’ Prospero blog here.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Rwanda's Gorilla Guardian

Eugene Rutagarama tracking gorillas early morning to locate them before tourists visit them in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. This is what is done everyday to check on the health of each individual gorilla, but also to ensure that tourists visiting them are able to watch them. Photo: courtesy of Eugene Rutagarama.

Last month, the world remembered the Rwandan genocide. We all marvelled at how the country seemed to have healed and moved on, how the economy was blooming - and we talked about lessons to be learned (in the meantime, there are fears that the conflic in the Central African Republic could lead to another genocide...)


The Rwandan genocide was still in full swing this month 20 years ago - in just 100 days, nearly one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. I wanted to speak with a man who worked for peace in a different way: Eugene Rutagarama. He is the man who made sure the genocide didn't include a group of humanity's most endangered relatives – the mountain gorillas.  The gorilla population is now rising and contributing to the nation’s economic growth (an important factor of peace). It is also a rare unifying factor in a region still ravaged by conflicts. Here is my interview with him in The Ecologist.

Rwanda's 'gorilla guardian' - Eugene Rutagarama

Veronique Mistiaen

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda could easily have finished off the mountain gorillas of the Virunga mountains. The fact that they survived is in large part thanks to Eugene Rutagarama. He spoke with Veronique Mistiaen about the primates' future prospects ...

Rwandan biologist Eugene Rutagarama is widely credited for making sure that the victims of the genocide and subsequent wars didn't include the critically endangered mountain gorillas.

The gorillas have and are still contributing to the economic growth of the country - and this in turn is contributing to peace.

Today, nearly half of the world's 800-some remaining mountain gorillas live in the lush tropical forests covering the Virunga Mountains, the chain of volcanoes straddling Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Rutagarama's conservation achievements won him the Goldman Environmental Prize - a kind of Nobel Prize for environmental activists - in 2001.

As people all over the world remember Rwanda's 1994 genocide - which was in full swing this month 20 years ago - I wanted to talk to Rutagarama about the remarkable recovery not only of the nation, but of the gorilla population, and his role in it.

The 1994 genocide - today and back then
"April is for me the month when I take time to think of the meaning of the genocide and its implication on the Rwandan society and on me in particular.
"How would I and my relatives be if the genocide didn't occur? What would have been the course of my life? Then I spend time thinking of each of the relatives and friends I lost during the genocide. 

"Almost each Rwandan from all ethnic groups has lost dear relatives and friends or suffered some pain as result of the genocide. The majority of youth is now enjoying the country economic growth and opportunities.
"The coexistence is of course far from being ideal, but tremendous progresses have been made. But the roots of hatred will take long to be completely removed. In this respect, the political leadership matters a lot."

Peaceful giants, and murderous people
Rutagarama is now advisor to the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration - a wildlife conservation cooperation between the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.

He first looked into the liquid brown eyes of a large silverback during a trip to the Virunga National Park with his brother in 1990. The encounter was so moving and thrilling that he decided to dedicate his life to preserving these peaceful giants.

As he was leaving the park with his brother, another encounter was also going to mark his life. A group of youth blocked their way, sneering: "Have you seen these snakes?" Then they addressed their guide: "Hey guide! Why don't you bash these snakes on the head?"

Four years later, nearly one million "snakes" - or "cockroaches" as the Tutsis were also called - and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutus gone mad. Rutagarama's father, mother and three of his brothers were amongst the victims.

A life's mission: protecting the endangered gorillas
Protecting the gorillas in the aftermath of the genocide became the young biologist's single focus. Above all their habitats were at acute risk as the government tried to resettle more than two million people. And that effort also helped him go beyond hatred and despair.

"After the genocide in 1994, the need for protecting gorillas was urgent. It was for me a priority to make sure that they were protected. I put in my focus and my full soul. There was no more space for anything else."

Gorilla conservation, in fact, played a role in healing not just Rutagarama, but the surviving wildlife staff, many of whose former colleagues had been killed or forced to flee. Indeed the gorillas have helped to bring healing to the whole devastated country.

"After a humanitarian disaster as horrific as the genocide, the common struggle to preserve something of shared value allowed people to transcend the conflict and create links."