From tracking the revolution in Sudan to being targeted by ISIS, Yousra Elbagir, Lynsey Addario and Rukmini Callimachi tell Vogue about the hardships of reporting from the frontline – and what motivates them to keep going back.
2019 has been a turbulent year for news reporting. Headlines about President Trump and Brexit have dominated the West, protests continue to rage in Hong Kong and Sudan is still reeling from the aftermath of the revolution. How do you cover current affairs at a time of crisis, especially when journalists themselves are coming under attack? Below, three reporters tell Vogue about their experiences in the field, the toll it takes on them and why they persevere against all odds.
Yousra Elbagir, reporter for Channel 4 News, on covering the revolution in Sudan
How did you get into journalism?
“My parents are journalists in Sudan. My dad has been imprisoned and his newspaper shut down many times over the years. I knew I wanted to tell stories. I went to university in the UK and applied for graduate schemes, but when I couldn’t find work my family convinced me to go back to Sudan. I trained there for two years before moving back to London and that experience became the foundation for my career.”
How did the personal and the political overlap for you?
“Khartoum is my hometown. It was difficult to see it go up in flames. My connection to Sudan is the reason I’ve been able to cover this crisis – they rarely issue visas to foreign journalists – but it also means the stakes are high. I’ve had to ask my parents to leave the country for a few weeks after investigations have come out. I’m lucky to have parents who wouldn’t have it any other way, but I’m also lucky to be able to come back to the UK myself. Many Sudanese journalists operate under these dangerous conditions every day.”
What are the biggest challenges you face in the field?
“Journalists get arrested regularly in countries like Sudan, so you have to be agile. When we covered the march on 31 December 2018, we were driving to a protest when a convoy of security forces caught us filming. They attacked our car, started beating our cameraman, grabbed me and shook me violently until my shirt ripped. I hid the phone I’d used to film them and gave them my burner phone instead. Eventually, they released us and we were able to incorporate that footage into our report. It was clear they didn’t want the world watching.”
What does it take to be a journalist today?
“The days you don’t come into work are sometimes the hardest. That’s when you really reflect on what you’ve seen – bodies being pulled from the Nile or protest camps being set on fire. Those are difficult images to process and you can’t process them in the moment because you’re trying to get the piece done. That emotion is not a weakness because it adds a human element to your work, and I have an incredible team around me who allow me to feel and process those things. Coverage like this is seldom the work of one person.”
Rukmini Callimachi, foreign correspondent for The New York Times, on tracking ISIS
How did you begin covering terrorism?
“I got on the terrorism beat in 2012 when I was the West Africa bureau chief for the Associated Press. One of the countries in my region was Mali and at that time a group that called themselves the Al-Qaeda name invaded the north of the country. In 2013, when the French military went to Mali to help Malians take back the north, I followed them. When I reached Timbuktu, residents took me to the building occupied by the terrorist group where I found thousands of documents that they’d left behind. That’s now become the hallmark of my work. Groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS have an intricate bureaucracy, which requires a lot of paperwork. What they leave behind ends up providing a roadmap into the groups.”
Are you still receiving threats from ISIS?
“More than six months ago I was in Iraq, in the city of Samarra where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, grew up. I’d gone to interview his neighbours who’d known him since he was a child. When we went back a few days later, my colleague and translator was sent an image of a flyer that had been left in the neighbourhood. It had been typed on ISIS stationery and identified me, my translator, my other local colleague and our driver by name. It said something about the infidel media defiling the neighbourhood.
“We took the letter to our sources and they quickly pointed out that there was a mistake in the ISIS stationery: they were using the old nomenclature of ISIS when it used to be called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. That change happened in 2014 and so they were using the old stationery. We realised it was a fake and that somebody was trying to scare us by impersonating ISIS. At that point you have to ask yourself: ‘Do I have what I need? Is it worth going back?’”
In your line of work, what feels different now compared to 20 years ago?
“Back then, the risk was that you’d get caught in the crossfire. Then after the Iraq War, you started seeing reporters being targeted. Now, ISIS has made it clear that reporters are considered enemy combatants. The punishment if you’re caught in its territory is death. We saw that with James Foley, Steven Sotloff and others. In so many of the areas I’ve worked, a press badge used to be a statement of neutrality. Now I actively think about being targeted and that’s a big change.”
Lynsey Addario, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, on the global crises affecting us today
What was your big break?
“I started shooting professionally in 1996. I moved to India in 2000 and was working in Afghanistan under the Taliban when September 11 happened. I had experience that was quite unique to the area and so at that point, I started working for The New York Times.”
How do you decide what risks are worth taking?
“Our translators and drivers are tapped into the situation on the ground, so we rely on them. Journalists are targets now more than ever. When I was in Darfur, I had to wait a month to get the proper permits. Then the same person who gave me the permits would arrest me the next day. Look at what happened to Marie Colvin or Jamal Khashoggi. I don’t know if this would’ve happened in the 1990s. I used to go around with a sign saying ‘press’ on my clothes, but now I dress like a local and hope that protects me.”
In 2011 you were taken hostage in Libya. How did the experience affect you?
“We’d been covering heavy combat on the frontlines for over two weeks. Muammar Gaddafi’s troops were coming from the west and the rebels were pushing from the east. We as journalists had all entered Libya illegally because that was the only way to cover the uprising. One day we ran into one of Gaddafi’s checkpoints and were taken hostage. We were told to lie face down in the dirt, they put guns to our heads, tied us up and blindfolded us. When that happens, you don’t know where it will end. It was a terrifying six days until we were released.”
What keeps you going?
“I keep going back to those regions because it’s not about me. Our job is to show people what’s really happening around the world. So many civilians have no choice. No one asks for war or to become refugees or to have their homes bombed or their children maimed. This is not something we can turn away from. We all need to figure out how to solve this.”
[Via British Vogue]