Jaipur Literature Festival: When war writers spoke about finding hope

The world is witnessing two wars now

63-Roger-Cohen-Charles-Glass-Anjan-Sundaram-Olesya-Khromeychuk From left- Roger Cohen, Charles Glass, Anjan Sundaram, Olesya Khromeychuk | Kritajna Naik

On June 17, 1987, American journalist Charles Glass was seized in Lebanon by 10 Hezbollah men with Kalashnikovs. When he tried to escape, they clubbed him with their rifle butts. He was held captive for 62 days, during which he would push notes for help in English, French and Arabic through a bathroom window. Two months after being chained by his ankle and wrist, he managed to escape.

It is a hard life, and often these writers must live with the guilt of surviving when so many others did not. Yet, they say they would not give it up for anything.

“When captors pick you up, you disappear,” Glass later wrote. “You are vulnerable to whims and caprice. People from your country and the other side are making deals you know nothing about. You are expendable. Whether you die or achieve your liberty is someone else’s decision. Your impotence is total. Except over your thoughts. The Israeli-Palestinian poet and former political prisoner Fouzi al-Asmar wrote: ‘With all the might of their hatred that tears this life apart/They cannot put my mind in jail.’ You listen for clues―as if a guard’s tone of voice will tell you if he is going to kill you or let you go. Your senses are sharpened. You escape in sleep and dreams, remembering your life and imagining your life to come, if it is to come.”

Glass, who has covered wars in Syria, Somalia, Iraq and Bosnia-Herzegovina, was at the Jaipur Literature Festival from February 1 to 5 to promote his latest book, Soldiers Don’t Go Mad: A Story of Brotherhood, Poetry and Mental Illness During the First World War. Elaborating on the difference between writing a book and covering war, he told THE WEEK, “A book is basically a long article. So, you just have to do more research, more interviews, and go through more archives, to be able to tell a story at length, which is a great luxury. Often, when you have the deadline pressure of daily journalism you cannot do that. It is probably a more interesting, but less exciting activity.”

Glass was not the only one. At a time when the world is witnessing two wars―Ukraine-Russia and Israel-Hamas―a number of war writers at the JLF spoke about what it is like to cover conflicts in the most dangerous parts of the world, of living with fear and of witnessing the most extremes of human nature.

“There is no point in hiding that there is fear,” said Pulitzer prize-winning war reporter, Roger Cohen, during a session on war moderated by Stephen Dunbar-Johnson, president (international), of The New York Times Company. “The anticipation is the worst.” He talks about the uncertainty of deciding whether to go somewhere or not. For example, he was planning on visiting the Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv the day it got badly shelled. “Should I go or shouldn’t I go, I wondered,” says Cohen. “You don’t need good luck in war, you need the absence of bad luck, because shrapnel can fly anywhere.”

Cohen, currently the Paris bureau chief of The New York Times, has worked for the Times for 33 years as a foreign correspondent, foreign editor and an opinion columnist, and has authored five books. According to him, war can never be looked at through an objective lens. It is always personal. “We are human beings,” he said. “Each of us brings our sentiments, feelings, and who we are into what we write. So, objectivity is a long word that I think is impossible and probably not even desirable to attain.”

65-A-session-at-the-Jaipur-Literature-Festival War talks: A session at the Jaipur Literature Festival with (from left) Stephen Dunbar-Johnson, Roger Cohen and Anjan Sundaram | Kritajna Naik

Ukrainian historian and writer Olesya Khromeychuk would agree. After all, it does not get more personal than writing a book on losing a brother to war. “My book, [The Death of a Soldier Told by His Sister], is about my brother who volunteered to fight in the Ukrainian armed forces back in 2015, and was killed in action in 2017,” she said at a session. “This was at a time when Ukraine was entirely forgotten, and the war there was not seen as a war, but as an internal conflict. It was claiming thousands of lives, but the number of deaths matters when it comes to making headline news, so it wasn’t claiming enough lives to get global attention. I was living in London―where life went on as usual―and grieving for a brother who was killed in the frontline on the other side of Europe. I was looking to explain the situation in a way that others would know and care. I could not find that way as a historian, but I found it as a grieving sister. So, I decided to tell the personal story of grief for my brother, which people can relate to, and through that tell the story of the larger historical and political context of this war.”

Khromeychuk says that until February 2022, when the war escalated, the story of Ukraine was told either through Russia’s propaganda machine or by international observers who did not know the country well. “So, we found ourselves being portrayed as a small nation of 40 million people with no clear identity, and that is exactly how the Russians wanted the world to see us,” she says. “The story of how Russian imperialism and cultural violence then led to physical and military violence needed to be explained to a wider audience.”

66-Ukrainian All guns blazing: Ukrainian soldiers at the war front | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

According to these writers, war exposes humanity at its most naked. You see extremes of courage and cruelty, and it always leaves a mark on you. Cohen describes children in Beirut not being able to sleep unless they heard the sound of shelling (“silence was terrifying to them”), observing a waiter folding and refolding napkins and arranging them on the table elegantly while war raged around him, and women in Sarajevo walking around in high heels and makeup as a sign of protest at the height of the siege. “I remember going out on the fourth day after 9/11 and seeing these photographs of missing people,” he says. “A woman had put up her ultrasound, and written beneath: Looking for the father of this baby. Seeing that, I broke down. Sometimes it is hard to contain the emotion that we experience.”

But in the depths of hopelessness, there is always hope, says award-winning Indian journalist Anjan Sundaram, who has reported mostly from the Congo and the Central African Republic, and has written three memoirs―Stringer, Bad News and Breakup. He studied mathematics at Yale, but shifted to journalism when he saw a report in The New York Times, buried somewhere on the fourth page, about four million people having died in the war in Congo. It shocked him, and he wondered why it did not make front page news. Finding mathematics too abstract and removed from the real world, Sundaram pivoted to war reporting, so that he could more directly impact people’s lives.

“In all the darkest places I go to, I find the most inspiring people,” Sundaram told THE WEEK. He narrates the story of finding a Polish abbot in the Central African Republic who was on his way to a church located in an extremely dangerous rebel territory. The church was attacked by the government who stole its door, leaving the altar exposed. The priest was now sleeping in the open. The abbot was going there to get the door replaced as a mark of protest. Sundaram asked if he could tag along, and at every village where they stopped, the abbot would honk and someone would run out of the forest, where the villagers were hiding, and thrust a piece of paper into the car. On it would be the names of all the people who were sick in the village and what medicines and other assistance they required. The abbot would pass on these slips of paper to the NGOs in the main city. “Collecting information by hand when the telephone antennae had been destroyed was an incredibly brave thing to do,” says Sundaram. “In the 21st century, where we think we have access to too much information through social media and other means, this is still how information is collected in a war zone.”

It is a hard life, and often these writers must live with the guilt of surviving when so many others did not. Yet, they say they would not give it up for anything. Said Cohen, “If somebody were to put a gun to my head and ask what were you put on this earth to do, it would be to be a foreign correspondent, arriving somewhere you don’t know, somewhere completely new, and just trying to understand―seeing, feeling, smelling, intuiting. There is no substitute for boots on the ground.”