Category Archives: journalism

Untangling the journey: one box at a time

This July, on my annual summer pilgrimage home, back to Upstate New York, to the house buried in a forest where I spent every weekend and every summer growing up, and which has always been my haven in my 20 or so years overseas, my sister asked me to sort and clean out stacks of my cardboard boxes.

They were piled against a wall in the garage next to our World War II weapons carrier, a still functional grey metal box of a monster, and the vehicle where my father had painstakingly taught me to drive by double clutching. Out of sight, out of mind, I’d avoided this task for years, reluctant to sort through my years from college into journalism then motherhood and all punctuated with permanent wandering. But this time, I knew any lack of action would not sit well with my sister, as the trove of stored family belongings was overflowing.

I am a fan of instant Facebook gratification, not only because of that flattering belief that I have more than a 1,000 friends but also because it is a tool to reconnect with those I have known in all my incarnations whether it be a friend from elementary school, my translator in Mogadishu, My neighbor in Nepal or a collection of friends whose careers and lives I follow. I Instagram because both my 25 and 12-year-old have instructed me that “everyone” does. I am not convinced that being “everyone” is meaningful in any way that might transform my life but like with Facebook, I see the work and communication benefits of instant contact. Still much of my life has been lived before the smart phone.

If I graphed my life as an arc of communication tools, it would begin with the party line we shared with our neighbors in the Catskills. In the lazy no-TV summer days, my sister and I, not yet teenagers, entertained ourselves by listening in to their conversations. I covered crime in New York City, calling my story in to my editor on a pay phone. I filed my first overseas stories about the war in Afghanistan only after I had returned overland to Pakistan and typed them on a telex machine. By 1990, during the first Gulf War, The New York Times provided me with a satellite phone the size of a hip-high refrigerator. In Somalia, I had a four-pound satellite telex that I mounted high above my toilet, tiptoeing on the seat to reach the only window in my room that faced the Indian Ocean satellite. By the time my youngest was born in 2005, the satellite phone fit in my back pocket.

I piled the boxes on the lawn in front of the house, armed with plastic garbage bags and tugged on surgical gloves to battle the mice nests and their detritus. The boxes had not been packed in any particular order. There were stacks of narrow, tan “New York Times” reporter’s notebooks, filled with shorthand notes from my days covering crime in New York City and trekking through the mountains of Afghanistan with the Mujadeddin during the Soviet occupation.  I’d picked up police shorthand: ‘F/B/13 DOA. Brother arrested’ (female, black, 13, dead on arrival). In another notebook, I’d scribbled notes next to quotes from a Mujahed commander meeting: “No idea where we are. On my 7th cup of sugared green tea today. Not a soul speaks English. When am I going to get out of here? ”

The notebooks dredged up long buried images. My sloppy, loopy handwriting that skipped lines and sometimes meandered up and down, triggered smell, taste, touch. It was a cold February day in the Bronx. On the street, men warmed their hands stoking wood fires in old oil drums. For weeks, the leather jacket I had worn that day smelled of rancid alcohol and stale cigarettes. Sobbing, the mother hugged me as we walked through the tiny bare apartment. The daughter’s blood still stained the floor near a piece of her half eaten birthday cake.Tangible hopelessness.

The Afghanistan notes had been written a year before the Bronx when my world did not go beyond the arid Hindu Kush mountains. Afghanistan was my first war, warped by sharply defined feelings of love, hate, boredom, fear and adventure.  I kept taped to my laptop a quote from Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” “War is nasty; War is fun. War is thrilling; War is drudgery. War makes you a man; War makes you dead.” Afghanistan — The ever-present dust, that fine layer of earth, a mixture of grit and silk. The person I used to be but am no longer.

But the notebooks were only part of the boxes’ contents. Stuffed in large manila envelopes were hundreds of letters. I remember writing letters home. But I had forgotten about the return flow from my family and friends, a large quilt of my life stitched together by different people at different times.  They came typed, single spaced; hand written, one collection of 15 letters on onion paper with delicate artist script; on aerograms with mysterious GPO return addresses from Singapore, Hong Kong, Addis Ababa, Windhoek; filling all the hardback sides of cards and in postcards. There were letters from lovers. I read through a decade-worth where I seem to have spent way too much time trying to create some fantasy I thought was love. There were deep friendships with journalists that still endure today. I also complained a huge amount. I was lonely, alone, lovesick, frustrated, exhausted and despondent. My father (whose writing to me was often limited to postcards) once suggested I write a book entitled: “Letters From a Despondent Correspondent.”

For someone who sometimes cannot remember details from the day before, this flood caught me off guard. It was as if parts of me had somehow been unearthed in an archeological memory dig and I was encountering a self that I recognized in waves of emotions: joy, curiosity, embarrassment, acknowledgment, discomfort and a great deal of surprise.

I unearthed reams of my mother’s weekly, sometimes daily letters. She and I have always had an electric and combustible relationship. As a child, she was my storyteller who taught my imagination to soar but also my relentless and strict teacher who forcefully tutored me in Latin, Greek, German and Dante. We had a history of bruising arguments well into my 30s.

The scores of letters in the boxes reconnected me to a time and place where we shared ideas and dreams, in a medium that freed us of dictates and combativeness. I needed that nudge to remember. Whether responding to my excited or somber moods, she was a writing machine, supportive, insightful, funny, and deeply understanding. Writing for my mother is a permanent state of mind. Even now at 97, if she could forego oxygen, she would trade it in for pen and paper.

When airmail was too slow or the phone failed, my mother faxed, sometimes daily, as during the Rwandan Genocide when I was stranded in Kigali at the Hotel Milles Collines.  Those faxes, faded, some only barely legible more than two decades later, were also in the boxes.  As was my reply: “Please type! Your handwriting illegible.” But she also spent many pages through the years trying to console me over my hopeless dead-end amorous encounters while emphasizing how they distracted me from reporting and writing.

Every year, as with all her children and grandchildren, her birthday gift was a letter. She typed this letter in 1997 after my return from some war zone, grasping more clearly and more poetically than I ever could, that link between crossing swords and love and respect.  I should have listened to her more often.

“I see Dony who taught me not in words but in actions, at times against my will(…) to break through barriers enjoying the noise of the crash, to live like a pilgrim of the earth which means to be a foreigner in every country because the country you long for is not the one you are in. To be happy in my unhappiness, to be satisfied in my dissatisfaction, cheerful in my solitude. I learned by watching her, by blaming her, by cursing her at times. (…) It is the Dony that gives me the most useless advice and then overwhelms me with the most useful embrace. …Please walk on Donatella, Just as you are. Do not change. Your strength is in being yourself.”

I’d forgotten about the beauty and pleasure of receiving letters, of keeping them in my pocket so I could pull them out to read and re-read, to know that they were my companions no matter where I lived. They were a concrete proof that I existed. As for the contents of all those boxes: they make me who I am.





Vietnam – in my mind, in my soul and now a place I’ve been

The Mekong Delta © Donatella Lorch

The Mekong Delta
© Donatella Lorch

From 10,000 feet, the Mekong Delta stretches glass flat, large brown snaking rivers interconnecting with shrinking and swelling zigzagging tributaries. The land is dark green, leaking into an aquamarine South China Sea. The clouds, miniature white fluffs, are not even big enough to cast shadows on the earth. My mind is wandering. One moment I look hard for physical signs of a war almost 40 years gone. Then the utter flatness below fills me with sadness too. The Mekong Delta is on the path of our rising oceans and scientists predict it will disappear in a few decades. But as my plane touches down, in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, I am mostly anticipating.

Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon at sunset. ©Donatella Lorch

Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon at sunset. ©Donatella Lorch

This is my first trip to Vietnam. When I was 15, Vietnam was the only place I wanted to visit. It was the summer of 1977 and my father’s work had brought us to Medellin in Colombia. I came face to face with the war in a bedroom closet of our rented house where I had gone to forage and explore on a hot lazy afternoon. In a dark corner was a pile of dusty Life magazines. I sat down next to them, the closet door letting in just enough light to read, and for the next few hours, and for many weeks after that, I leafed through pictures of dust, heat, blood, tanks and helicopters, faces contorted in pain and desperation or just impenetrable. 1966, 1967, 1968. Tet, Hue, Khe Sanh, the Perfume River, Ben Tre, Dien Bien Phu. Dates and names that grabbed and held.

The Perfume River in Hue. Yard by yard it was one of the Marine's most costly battles in Vietnam. ©Donatella Lorch

The Perfume River in Hue. Yard by yard it was one of the Marine’s most costly battles in Vietnam. ©Donatella Lorch

It is not that the Vietnam War was an unknown quantity. As a family, we listened religiously to the news on WQXR. I remember exactly where I was sitting when I watched on TV as American helicopters were pushed off aircraft carriers into the South China Sea. My parents talked about the war at dinner and in our weekend commutes to the Catskills. Wars, or rather the images of war, had in one way or another always been part of my childhood. On long car rides, my mother would weave me her stories of joining the Italian resistance during World War II in Rome and of being arrested and imprisoned by the Germans. On rainy summer days, my cousin Carlo and I pored over his magazines of World War II Pacific battles. My older sister had decapitated all the family dolls but it never occurred to me to ask for new ones. I played with Carlo’s GI Joes.

But that summer in 1977, Vietnam became personal. I didn’t want to be a passive observer. So without knowing what it entailed, or how I was supposed to get to the finish line, I decided that I wanted to be a war correspondent. Hopelessly naïve? Yes. Innocent? For sure. Clueless? Definitely. I spent hours and days learning every detail of those pictures. Back in New York, I made my mother escort me to Columbia Univeristy’s Butler Library so I could use her ID card and take out military books on Vietnam’s battles. At 16, my mother gave me my most memorable Christmas gift: Michael Herr’s Dispatches. I have since read it over a dozen times. It has travelled with me to four continents. The spine is cracked, the pages marked so I can grab a quick high from his explosive, taunting, cutting, visceral and utterly visual prose. If I wanted to get high, I didn’t need drugs. I had Dispatches.

On the outskirts of Kabul, 1989 with the Afghan Mujaheddin. ©Donatella Lorch

On the outskirts of Kabul, 1989 with the Afghan Mujaheddin. ©Donatella Lorch

It took me until May 2014 to make it to Vietnam. By then war was something I had already done. The romance was long gone. I had coped–not always successfully–with all the intangibles that came with it. My sister says I became a journalist because I didn’t know what else to do. My Italian cousin, also a journalist, warned me that what made front page in the morning wrapped the fish at night. Not sure whether I could ever figure out how to be a journalist, I had studied Chinese, worked as a tour guide in mainland China, danced for a Taiwanese rock band, tried (unsuccessfully) to get a PhD in Indic Studies and then in 1987 went to Afghanistan where I spent two years traveling and writing about the Mujaheddin.

Interviewing demobilized Somali militia near Hergeisa, Somaliland © Donatella Lorch

Interviewing demobilized Somali militia near Hergeisa, Somaliland © Donatella Lorch

Twenty five years: big wars, small wars, a genocide, inner city crime, inheriting three children when I married a widower, adding on another one. Having three teenagers at home. Living in Kenya and now in Nepal. Sometimes I felt I’d been put in a blender that overheated and stalled before the final smooth product was ready. I still felt the need to see the Vietnam I had housed in my head for all those years.

I don’t know what I expected Vietnam to give me. On the surface, the war is long gone. Three million Vietnamese (two million civilians) and over 58,000 Americans dead. Today, the majority of Vietnamese are young—born after the war ended, they are too young to know the past intimately. For some of them, it is now just a backdrop.

Wedding photo shoot on an old U.S. bunker. Highway 1 heading to Hue ©Donatella Lorch

Wedding photo shoot on an old U.S. bunker. Highway 1 heading to Hue ©Donatella Lorch

On Highway 1 between Danang and Hue, I saw a young Vietnamese couple pose for a wedding photo shoot on a decaying American bunker. The battle fields in Hue are unfindable. The Continental Hotel, in Saigon, is such a posh hotel that I felt an imposter as I walked through the lobby. China Beach is in the process of becoming a shoulder-to- shoulder high-end collection of resorts. Beautiful roads, strict traffic rules, 24-hour electricity, clean sidewalks, tree-lined avenues (puts Nepal to shame)–a communist country where the triumphs of capitalism are visible everywhere. A Lamborghini store is scheduled to open soon in Ho Chi Minh City.

Endless sand on China Beach ©Donatella Lorch

Endless sand on China Beach ©Donatella Lorch

Vietnam is a beautiful land wrapped in delectable food with a coffee shop on every corner. I became a war tourist of sorts. I dripped sweat all day and thought of soldiers humping through the jungle with 50lbs packs, flak jackets and leeches.

Dropping down into a camouflaged Viet Cong tunnel, Cu Chi, Vietnam ©Donatella Lorch

Dropping down into a camouflaged Viet Cong tunnel, Cu Chi, Vietnam ©Donatella Lorch

Alongside my 9-year-old son, I was mesmerized by the Cu Chi tunnel network. I wiped away tears at the War Remnants Museum and insisted on walking and re-walking Le Loi and Tu Do Avenues.

And every Huey and Chinook helicopter I saw (and there are many parked on the grounds of Ho Chi Minh City museums), reminded me of my long standing love-affair with these hulking beasts. I first met them in Dispatches – “Savior- Destroyers” Herr called them.

Love those Hueys.  On the rooftop of "Reunification Palace" -- the former South Vietnamese presidential palace. ©Donatella Lorch

Love those Hueys. On the rooftop of “Reunification Palace” — the former South Vietnamese presidential palace. ©Donatella Lorch

It was an arranged marriage on paper and later I fell for them hard in Somalia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, flying night missions in Black Hawks, scrunched in the gunners seat in Gunships and in Hueys, door open, feet dangling, music blaring, flying Nap of the Earth along Rwanda’s rivers. Grit- whipping terror, sweaty dank canvas, every part of my body on edge.

The first North Vietnamese soldiers to storm the presidential Palace, Saigon, April 1975

The first North Vietnamese soldiers to storm the presidential Palace, Saigon, April 1975

Some local history is scrubbed so clean that I only realized later that my Ho Chi Minh City hotel, selected because it was near the local office of my husband’s company, was just one block from the site of the former US Embassy. I was 13 years old in April 1975 when the last American helicopter lifted off into a slate sky in a final desperate evacuation.

Everyone has their own war story, their own angle of vision, and none of my wars have been like Vietnam. Long ago, I’d agonized that I had missed it, that I was born too late. But that doesn’t matter anymore. War is memory and it must never be forgotten.



You cannot kill their memory — Rwanda 20 years on

I am not good at remembering dates. My husband teases me that I have trouble recalling our own wedding anniversary. Yet since 1994, April 7th is the date I can never forget. Twenty years ago this weekend, the world is remembering and hopefully reminding itself how little it did back then to stem a meticulously planned and executed genocide in which as many as a million Rwandans were killed. Much has happened to me in the past 20 years. I have lived on three continents, changed jobs multiple times, covered wars, married, had a son, inherited three step children, lost friends in war zones yet Rwanda is still there, stubbornly unwilling to be forgotten and always a haunting presence in my life.

A smell, a soft breeze, a shadow dancing on a wall is often all I need. I remember the utter stillness of Nyarubuye and the way the dust smoked up around my shoes. The bodies in the school and church complex lay like sprawled puppets and the stench made me gag. Pink flowers lined the road and the tall eucalyptus trees swayed in a soft wind. I counted the dead and wrote in my notebook the color of their clothing. Some looked as if they had been running, others curled up to block blows still others seemed to me as if they were sleeping. They had been hacked and shot and bludgeoned.

It was the end of May 1994, I was working then as the New York Times East Africa Bureau Chief, based out of Nairobi, Kenya, and a small group of us were the first reporters to document this massacre in Nyarubuye, an isolated Rwandan community on the Tanzanian border. We had been taken there by the Rwandan Patriotic Army, the only means of moving around the Rwandan countryside while the civil war raged. It was almost two months since the mass killings had started, hundreds of thousand Rwandans methodically killed, yet the international community was still unwilling to use the word “genocide.” For us who covered Rwanda and witnessed killings, walked through massacres and battled our editors for more space to tell the story, the anger and frustration against the lack of international concern filled many with bitterness. Many of us, including myself battled depression (no journalist I knew who wanted to keep their job would admit to an editor that they were struggling), changed jobs, left Africa but we have never forgotten.

The genocide began within hours that the plane carrying the Rwandan president was shot down coming in for a landing in the capital Kigali. Once the Rwandan rebel army captured the Kigali airport, it was possible for journalists to visit the crash site. The president's country estate bordered the airport and part of the wreckage ended up near his swimming pool. The Rwandan Patriotic Front soliders hated having their pictures taken. The only way to do it was to pose with them. © Donatella Lorch

The genocide began within hours that the plane carrying the Rwandan president was shot down coming in for a landing in the capital Kigali. Once the Rwandan rebel army captured the Kigali airport, it was possible for journalists to visit the crash site. The president’s country estate bordered the airport and part of the wreckage ended up near his swimming pool. The Rwandan Patriotic Front soliders hated having their pictures taken. The only way to do it was to pose with them. © Donatella Lorch

There are of course the countless dead, the nameless ones, the crumpled corpses that lined the steep road into Kigali when I first drove into Rwanda’s capital that first week of April. There were the doors kept ajar by bare protruding legs, a signal to me that the dreaded Interahamwe had gone house to house in that neighborhood. It was the three women spotted from a rooftop docilely kneeling and not even lifting their heads to look as a man with a machete systematically hacked their heads one by one. There were the dawn mortar attacks shattering windows at the Milles Collines Hotel where we stayed packed together in rooms with hundreds of displaced Rwandans.

It is not that the press was blameless. The Africa-based press corps had missed the signals. We had vast stretches of territory to cover. I had been mostly reporting from Somalia since 1992 as American and UN troops struggled unsuccessfully to bring a semblance of peace to the war-torn country. My knowledge of Rwanda was learned gradually on the ground, counting corpses washed ashore on Lake Victoria, meeting the hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees in Tanzania and Goma, Zaire and investigating the massacre sites inside the country.

Let’s not forget the survivors. My heroes: Zozo (Wellars Bizimuremyi), the head desk clerk at the Milles Collines, who always smiled while managing to stop the military and the Interahamwe who would sporadically enter the hotel and try to drag out Rwandans. While hiding in their home, Zozo’s wife and children were killed. Evariste was my driver for a year after the genocide and he lead me through his personal story of loss. His entire family was killed at the church at Ntarama, now the site of the “live” Genocide museum outside Kigali. In Kigali, he hid in a Hutu neighbor’s rafters living off of grass and raw potatoes until he managed to escape to the United Nations controlled stadium.

There is General Romeo Dallaire, head of the UN peacekeeping operation, whom I met at the Mille Collines the first week as he came with a lone armored personnel carrier (the other one had a flat tire) to help evacuate the journalists. (I later re-entered Rwanda with the rebel troops). We were a captive audience, and he refused to provide an armed escort until he gave a press conference describing what was happening in the city and how UN headquarters had tied his hands. Only one international organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross, stayed on in Kigali and was critical at providing and facilitating medical care and food transport. The ICRC head was Phillipe Gaillard and I am convinced he did not sleep for the first 100 days, chain smoking his way from negotiation to negotiation and ignoring death threats. Funny how sometimes it is the tiny details you remember. In a city without running water, food and pounded by artillery, Phillipe wore a jacket and tie every day for months as part of his effort, he’d say smiling, to pretend there was sanity somewhere. And far away in Buffalo, N.Y. Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch, a Rwanda expert, let me wake her many times in the middle of the night to learn Rwandan history and politics.

In 2009, I returned to Rwanda. There were moments when I still smelled it, or thought I caught a glimpse of a corpse. But it was beautiful too. That year, Alison died in the air crash of a Continental commuter flight coming into Buffalo. Gen. Dallaire had gone public in 2000 about his fight with PTSD. After giving hundreds of interviews during the Genocide, Phillipe Gaillard left the public eye for eight years before resurfacing with the message that we must never forget. Both Zozo and Evariste married Genocide survivors and have large families.

Memory is smell, suffering, silence, courage, pain, love and beauty. It should not be just something we grasp on April 7th this year. Memory is everywhere. Everyday.