Alissa Rubin

Foreign Correspondent for the The New York Times

2016 Convocation Address

Thank you very much, President Greene, and thank you David Shribman, who I know chaired the committee. Especially thank you, Rebecca Corbett, who is a brilliant editor who tirelessly encourages reporters to reach farther than they ever thought they could. I want to thank too, Amanda Cooley and Kim Bard, who made all the arrangements that got me here and who made me feel truly welcome even before I came.

I also want to say a few words; I was so, so truly honored to be here with three photographers whose work I’ve admired, two of them from afar, one from up close. Andrea, Bruce and I have worked together and they are truly exceptional people, and Nina Roman’s work is one I’ve followed for many years and so are Carol Guzy’s photographs.

I’m truly honored to receive the Elijah P. Lovejoy award and all the more so after reading his letters and biography. His utter determination in the face of so much antagonism and his commitment to the abolitionist stand despite the threat of death requires a level of bravery that most American journalists never have to muster. But his commitment, not just to free speech but to unpopular speech, stands out because it remains at the heart of what we do as journalists. “We will never yield the sacred rights secured to us by our fathers of freely speaking and publishing our opinions, various and diversified as we know them to be,” he wrote in 1837, which must have been very shortly before his death. And he said also, “We do not feel at liberty to yield to the violence of a mob.” Saying that today is one thing, saying it in 1837 in Illinois, in what was then a frontier state, is quite another. I honestly wonder how many of us here would have the fortitude and clarity to believe that dying for a principle would make a difference and therefore was worth doing. Having written a long article about a recent lynching, that of Farkhunda Malikzada in Afghanistan, I can say with great confidence that it is a terrifying way to die.

So it is with great honor to be given an award in Elijah Lovejoy’s name and memory, especially since I have little confidence I would’ve had a similar courage. With his daring in mind and his lack of concern for what people thought of his positions, I want to talk a little bit about reporting in war zones and why I’ve come to believe it is both so important and yet so endangered right now.

First I want to talk about definitions; what does it mean to be a war reporter? For a long time, it meant covering combat, but when I first arrived in a war zone, I was a long way from the combat. I was on the Kosovo-Macedonian border and what was happening was that refugees were pouring into Macedonia. If you were there this afternoon, Carol Guzy explained how, at the same time, they were pouring into Albania.

My job was to track the refugees and try to find out which villages the Serbs had purged. I started to spend whole days, even into the evening, in refugee camps. I certainly found out where the Serbs had been but I also learned a lot about this war and war in general. For the women and children and old people who had fled, the war wasn’t about fighting, it was about loss. The loss of their homes, of beloved possessions; one bride had left behind her dowry sheets which were embroidered. Another had left behind the gold jewelry she had gotten when she got married. An old man had left his Guzla. I don’t know if it had one string or two, both are common there, but he remembered it as if it were in his arms. He kept showing it although you couldn’t see it. Many had lost the ability to sleep at night, their children were wakeful and cried.

It was spring but it didn’t feel like spring. It was that experience that began my interest and understanding that war was much more than combat; it was the story of the destruction of civilian lives, the erosion of history, the loss of any sense of safety. What happens to a society when people never feel safe? How can they trust anyone? I thought of the wonderful opening to Martha Gellhorn’s piece The Third Winter, about the third year of the Spanish civil war. It goes, “In Barcelona it was perfect bombing weather,” perhaps one of the best leads I’ve ever read. “The cafes along the Ramblas were crowded, there was nothing much to drink. There was of course nothing to eat, but everyone was out enjoying the cold afternoon sunlight. No bombers had come over for at least two hours.” She goes on to describe in exquisite detail the grinding daily life of a family forced to live day to day and hour by hour for year after year.

About two years later after Kosovo, September 11th happened. As a native New Yorker, I was shocked. How could people hate us so much; why? I was then at the Los Angeles Times and I called up the foreign desk and I said, “I don’t know anything about Afghanistan or Pakistan or anywhere there, but I’ll go, I’ll do anything you want me to do.” They said, “We have a lot of people who know that region very well, so why don’t you stick with the Balkans and if we need you, we’ll call you.” So I did, and six weeks later, the first string reporters were getting tired and I got a call from my editor saying I needed to get a Pakistani visa.

A few days later, I found myself in Islamabad and soon after that, in Quetta, which is in Balochistan in the south, a bit south and west in the country. I had no idea what I was doing and I was mostly scared. Not least of all when I heard that the Taliban government, which still controlled Kandahar, although Kabul had fallen, was organizing a press trip. I was also scared of missing the press trip, so I went to the Taliban consulate, the last one still in existence at the time in Quetta and got in a long line of journalists to apply for a visa so I could go on the trip. When I came to the tall bearded man in a Salwar Kameez, he shook his head. No women were being allowed to go; there were two other women reporters with me. I was taken aback, why not? He said it was just not allowed, but I was told to come back tomorrow. When tomorrow came, I was told to come back tomorrow again.

By then, curiosity had trumped fear and I boldly made my case. How could they only allow men to come when Taliban women and children had suffered so many atrocities at the hands of the Americans? The male reports would not be allowed to meet with the women, so they would not be able to tell this crucially important story. I got my visa, and along with about 100 other reporters, crossed the border into Taliban-held Afghanistan in a huge convoy. I was at the back of the convoy with an NPR journalist, Sarah Chayes, and even though we were wearing veils, a crowd of men waiting by the side of the road after we’d crossed the border heaved a huge rock through the back window, shattering glass all around us. Welcome to Afghanistan. The anger and hatred, even for friendly countries who intervened supposedly to help, is another part of war. A part that it is crucially important to our understanding of why U.S. intervention so often fails.

Intervention in most of the world has a history that dates from long before the U.S. troops ever get there. In Afghanistan, when I arrived in remote villages, particularly in the north, in Balkh province near the border, people would almost always ask if we were Russians. They were the last set of invaders they’d seen, and we must in fact speak Russian, some of them thought, and they would try out words. Covering war is also about history and understanding how, for people in war zones, past and present merge.

Coming out of the war in Vietnam and before that World War II and the Korean War, there was an image of war reporters jumping out of helicopters with troops, being with them as they crept forward by night in jungles, or visiting the MASH doctors in mountaintop outposts. And there is that war reporting to be done and it’s terribly, terribly important. My incredible colleague, Chris Chivers, has committed a large chunk of his life to showing the toll war takes on the soldiers sent to wage it, the grunts, the ordinary enlisted men, those with little agency or power or choice to stay back and direct the fight from afar.

I felt from early on that I wanted to understand how war worked, how it distorted society, how it eroded order. And in eroding order, led people on all sides to do unspeakable things, things they usually couldn’t have imagined themselves doing. I wanted to see it from the point of view of those forced to live in the middle of conflict, those who did not have the choice I had to go home. I wanted to see how the scars endure long after the gunfire stops.

One of my favorite pieces I did for the Los Angeles Times was on an enforcer for Uday Hussein. Uday Hussein was the younger son of Saddam Hussein and was sadistic, sex-crazed, extremely strange and he was known for, perhaps apocryphally, killing people by lowering them into a vat of acid. The enforcer basically beat people up for Uday. I spent days and days with him and by the end, I finally understood for the first time what the phrase “banality of evil” meant. He wasn’t very smart, he didn’t have many possibilities, he was not good looking or particularly strong, although he had become a bully. And at the beginning, he wasn’t beating people up. That came gradually. By the end, it seemed to him the only way to get anything done. I found myself reading more and more about war, trying to understand especially this era, our era of small wars, not the vast confrontations of evil against good, national socialism versus democracy, but wars that were nasty and where it was civilians, not armies that bore the brunt. Wars where all sides killed and wounded innocent people, tortured them, and where the Americans were more and more often no longer the good guys.

This is where Elijah Lovejoy’s audacity bears remembering. As I was trying to figure out what to read about war… the literature is immense; Carl von Clausewitz, Michael Herr, Alistair Horne, who’s the author of the incredible book about the Algerian civil war, the Savage War of Peace. I turned to my father, who was a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and a prodigious reader, and I told him I wanted to understand more about war. “War in all its aspects,” I said. He shrugged and said, “Well, you’ve read The Iliad.” I said, “No, I haven’t.” He said, “Well, start there. I think you’ll like it.”

So I did, and that led me to think much more deeply about what war really does to individuals, to civilizations, to women and to men. How there are no winners, although ground may be taken and ground may be lost, the price is just impossibly high. That is especially true in this era of small wars, when people so often from similar backgrounds are fighting each other.

There is so much tragedy at the end of The Iliad but one of the saddest parts is the destruction of the city of Troy. What does a city stand for, after all? It stands for culture, for education, today it stands for mixing of people of different backgrounds and faiths. A city’s limits are its inhabitants’ imagination. It accommodates relationships of all kinds but cities can also be frighteningly fragile.

In book 22 of The Iliad, Priam, the father of Hector, the hero who was the hero and protector of Troy foresees the destruction of his family, his city, of everything he has tried to build. This is the moment when Hector has decided he’s going to go and face Achilles, although he will be alone and therefore almost certain to die. This is a quote from Priam, “My sons brought down, my daughters dragged away, bed chambers ravaged and treasure chambers looted. Helpless children hurled to earth in the atrocity of war, as my sons’ wives are taken by the Achaeans’ ruinous hands. I shall be torn apart on my own doorstep by the hounds I trained as watchdogs.”

How different is Aleppo from ancient Troy? Aleppo was a trading center, as was Troy, a place where Muslims, Roman Christians and Orthodox Christians lived, as well as Jews. Today, life as we know it is no longer possible there. The streets and houses that survived 400 years, some for 800 years, are rubble. People dart like rabbits among the waste, scrounging for food, trusting no one. How is peace possible?

These are stories worth telling. Each tragedy has its own specific pain and some also have moments of light, even of hope. War is an infinitely large canvas. These days, the United States, as well as Russia and Iran, are making many wars into geopolitical jigsaw puzzles, and they are where the United States spends an enormous share of its gross domestic product, and where its sons and daughters still die in the name… in the name of what? In the name of terrorism, fighting terrorism, defeating the Islamic state, helping U.S. friends, whomever they may be, all that and more.

War pushes us as journalists to see the world through the lens of our countrymen, of ambassadors and soldiers, tax payers, doctors, ordinary people, and also of our allies, who may be the Iraqis or the Georgians or the Afghans. Some of the Afghans, not all of the Afghans, and not least of all, of our enemies. Only if we do all three as journalists will we really approach clarity and maybe even a little bit of truth.

Covering war well requires three things; a staff that includes people with experience, a commitment to sticking with the story, and money. War coverage is expensive business. At the height of the New York Times Baghdad Bureau, when it was at its largest, it cost a million dollars a year. And that was not including foreign reporters’ salaries or that of our British security advisors. To cover war, you need cars, drivers, fixers, a place to live, probably a place where two or three or four people can live, or in the Times’ case, something more like 11 in Baghdad. In many parts of the world, you need two generators. Why two; because in war zones, you always need a backup. Generators break surprisingly often.

Part of good war coverage is holding the U.S. government to account and that requires skill and sophistication and a sense of the baseline. How can you tell if a commander’s behavior has fallen short if you haven’t watched tens of commanders in similar situations? Above all, you need an understanding of when to go down a chancy road and when to turn back.

Increasingly, news organizations are making war coverage into a drop-in, drop-out story. It’s a mistake. Good coverage comes from immersion. Being able to take trips in a war-ravaged place and seeing what is really going on requires having a security advisor to help plan trips and the reporter must know the ground.

This all costs money and takes time, but if we did not have people who went and talked to the Colombians who were willing to forgive the FARC insurgents for inadvertently shelling their church, or go to places where the U.S. is trying to train troops but falling short, or hiding the effects of chemical weapons on its own soldiers, or glossing over its immense failure in police training as it did in Afghanistan. We are perpetuating illusions about how our government works and about the price that both Americans and others pay for conflict.

Reporters really do have to be there themselves, see it, smell it, taste it, hear it, feel it. So, I know not many of you are editors and you probably can’t do much about this, but if you know anyone who is, please tell them I want to make a really heartfelt plea to keep on funding international war coverage. It’s expensive, it’s dangerous and it’s scary, but it also is the heart of the journalistic mission. Thank you again so very much for this extraordinary honor.

Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award

About the Fellow

Alissa Rubin
Alissa Rubin delivers the 2016 Lovejoy address.

Coverage of the human toll of war—on noncombatants, on women and children, and on the cities where they live—is as crucial to understanding conflict as the traditional reporting of battles, insurgencies, and invasions around the world, according to 2016 Lovejoy Award winner Alissa J. Rubin.

Rubin, a Pulitzer-decorated foreign correspondent for the New York Times, was celebrated this week at the 64th Elijah Parish Lovejoy Convocation at Colby. She addressed a packed Lorimer Chapel after receiving an honorary degree from President David A. Greene.

“War (is) much more than combat, it is the story of the destruction of civilian lives, the erosion of history, the loss of any sense of safety,” Rubin said. “I felt from early on that I wanted to understand how war worked, how it distorted society, how it eroded order, and in eroding order, it led people on all sides to do unspeakable things.”

As a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and then the New York Times, Rubin has covered conflict from the Balkans to Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly focusing on the lives of women in war zones. Her work frequently put Rubin in harm’s way, and in 2014 she was seriously injured in a helicopter accident in Iraq, where she was helping to report on the takeover of Northern Iraq by the Islamic State.

“The Lovejoy Award reminds us of our own obligations to protect academic freedom and to continue the dogged pursuit of truth,” he said.Greene praised Rubin’s “deep commitment to exposing violations of basic human rights,” while reaffirming Colby’s commitment to the historic values of freedom of expression.

Alissa Rubin
President David A. Greene presents Alissa Rubin with the Lovejoy Award.

The award was established in 1952 to honor the memory of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, an 1826 graduate gunned down while defending his right to publish anti-slavery editorials.

Prior to the Lovejoy Convocation, three internationally known photographers were honored at an exhibit of their work in the Diamond atrium. Carol Guzy, Andrea Bruce, and Nina Berman all spoke briefly of their lives covering conflict and the effects of war around the world.

About the Lovejoy Award

Colby College remembers alumnus Elijah Parish Lovejoy through the annual Lovejoy Award, which honors journalists who demonstrate courage, integrity, and craftsmanship.

Born in Albion, Maine, Lovejoy graduated from Colby in 1826. On Nov. 7, 1837, in Alton, Ill., the newspaper editor and publisher was killed after he refused to stop publishing anti-slavery editorials. He was called America’s first martyr to freedom of the press by John Quincy Adams.

Current Lovejoy Selection Committee Members include Matt Apuzzo ’00, reporter and investigative correspondent, New York Times; Nancy Barnes, senior vice president and editorial director, NPR; Sewell Chan, editorial page editor, Los Angeles Times; Marcela Gaviria, producer, PBS FRONTLINE; Neil Gross, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology, Colby College; Martin Kaiser, former editor and senior vice president Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Mindy Marqués, vice president and executive editor, Simon and Schuster, former editor, Miami Herald; and Ron Nixon, global investigations editor, Associated Press.

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