April 09, 2020

UMaine alumna speaks on war

ORONO – The last time award-winning author and journalist Janine di Giovanni was at the University of Maine, she was graduating. The year was 1983, the same year Soviet military jets shot down a South Korean airliner, the United States invaded Grenada, and 237 Marines were killed in a suicide bombing in Beirut, Lebanon.

Listing those events, di Giovanni, senior international correspondent for The Times of London and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, returned to the university Tuesday as a guest of student government and, in an address to about 50 people, described how the cycle of violence continues as does her commitment to reporting it so people don’t forget what happened and the people involved.

After a stint at the Iowa Writers Workshop and working for a small newspaper and as a stringer for the Associated Press, di Giovanni began her career as a foreign correspondent in what she called an “extraordinary era,” covering the first Palestinian intifada in the late 1980s as a freelancer for a London newspaper. During this time she met Israeli human rights attorney Felicia Langer who inspired di Giovanni to give a voice to “ordinary people in extraordinary situations.” Ever since, di Giovanni has been taking risks inside war zones in the Middle East and Africa to give victims a face and a voice.

Her stories include two mothers from Israel, one Israeli, the other Palestinian, living in close proximity, each with a daughter until the Palestinian girl strapped a bomb to her body and exploded it in a mall, killing herself and the daughter of the Israeli woman.

She has covered the people involved in the forgotten wars in Africa. In Sierra Leone and Liberia, she spoke about the children soldiers abducted in their youth, drugged and trained to kill before they are 9 years old, before their consciences have had time to develop fully, including an 18-year-old woman whose specialty became the amputation of her victims’ hands.

Di Giovanni was one of the few foreign correspondents to witness the fall of Grozny, Chechnya, flattened by Russian forces in 2000. Her presentation included photographs from colleagues that showed, among other things, the plight of the poor and infirm unable to flee the onslaught of Russian firepower.

But the war in the former Yugoslavia that di Giovanni called the “microcosm of all war” was the war she fell in love with, and, quoting Felicia Langer, she said, “You can only love one war.” She focused on this war to describe the devastation and effects of all wars.

Her Balkan memories centered on a woman whose father, a teacher, had disappeared in the Serb attacks on the town of Srebrenica, where an estimated 8,000 Bosnian men were taken and slaughtered. In a video made by the Serbs that documented the killings that emerged years later, the daughter recognized and witnessed the execution of her father.

Dressed in black, di Giovanni, a tall woman who is originally from New Jersey, stood in the lecture room in Donald C. Corbett Hall as image after image, including photos of dead bodies piled in the back of a truck and of emaciated men in a concentration camp, flashed on the three screens behind her, describing the cost of covering war to her colleagues, one of whom committed suicide “because he had seen too much.”

And yet, di Giovanni’s message is hopeful. “I don’t ever want to forget these people,” she said. By giving these people a voice, she reasons that people won’t forget, and if people don’t forget, then maybe history will not repeat itself.

Di Giovanni feels fortunate to have lived through her war zone experiences. Now married and with a 2-year-old son, she works less and spends more time at home with her family in Paris. The author of three books, including “Madness Visible” from which she read, she is currently working on “Up at Tito’s Villa” to be published in 2008. So that we don’t forget.

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