Award-winning CNN reporter Clarissa Ward, talked to N1 television's Ivana Dragicevic about her report from a Taliban-controlled area in Afghanistan which gave viewers a rare chance to see a glimpse of life under the Taliban after some 17 years of constant war in the country.
Ward also talked about stereotyping female war correspondents, the value of empathy in doing journalism, the psychological effects of war reporting from some of the world's most violent areas, and the importance of journalism as a profession at a time when the work reporters do is often disparaged by politicians and state officials across the world.
What was it like doing a story which involved spending 36 hours in Taliban territory, how did the idea for this come about?
"So basically I decided about six months ago to that I really wanted to try to get into this world, to see America's enemy in Afghanistan. Because as you pointed out in your question, this is a world that has been shrouded in secrecy, it's been inaccessible to outsiders. Journalists who tried to do this story have been kidnapped.
And so I sat down with an award-winning Afghan fiilmmaker, called Najibullah Quraishi, who has done many stories with the Taliban, and I basically proposed to him that I would go in, with him, and a female producer, Salma Abdelaziz, and that we would spend some time in Taliban territory. He went to the Taliban, he negotiated with them for a period, and eventually they agreed. And then we had to get CNN management to agree - which was not easy, because the risks were significant.
Although I will say that once the Taliban has given you its pledge of an invitation, of a sort of covenant of security, that usually does count for something. But still, there are other threats, not just the threat of kidnapping - there was the threat, as you just saw in the piece, of air strikes. It's not very often that a western journalist finds itself on the opposing side of America's war. And these were all challenges that we had to spend a lot of time thinking about and preparing for. But ultimately, once we were there and on the ground, we felt that we've done everything we could to make it as safe and as sensible as possible."
What was it like to be there, as a western woman, wearing a niqab, which practically made you something of an invisible person in the extremely male-dominated world of the Taliban?
"I think that because I went in with the understanding that this wasn't going to be a picnic, it wasn't going to be easy, it was going to be a challenging situation, a challenging assignment, I didn't have very high expectations for how I would be treated. My primary focus was that A) I would be safe, and my team would be safe, and B) I would get access to the things that we have required.
The very fact that the Taliban allowed two women from CNN to come into their territory, to shoot video, to visit a madrasa, a religious school, to visit a clinic, to interview a governor, to interview a military commander, I think does give you a sense that in this moment they are behaving in a much more pragmatic way than they previously have. They want to show that they are maturer actors, that they can cooperate with the Afghan government, that they can sit down at the negotiating table with the US, that they can potentially host western journalists. These are all signs that the Taliban is trying to be more accommodating.
At the same time, as you pointed out, when it comes to the fundamental ideology, which is renowned for being austere, for being insular - I didn't see any real indications that that has changed. And there were moment which were deeply uncomfortable. Particularly, as you mentioned, the moment where that little girl was hit by a motorcycle. The Taliban fighter who was on the motorcycle - he stopped, he got off the bike for a second and looked to see if she was okay. But he took his time with it, there was a sense of arrogance there. There was no sense that he was desperate to make sure that she was okay or make sure that he hasn't hurt her, nor there was a sense from people who were watching that they felt comfortable running up to him saying 'Excuse me, what did you do, how could you hit this little girl?' It was clear that people in the village did not feel comfortable interrogating or challenging the Taliban.
So for me the most important thing was to stay safe, to get in and to get out and to get what we needed. We were able to do all of that. I don't think, generally speaking, that this is an assignment that would have been possible to do as a man. The very fact that we had to wear the niqab, the full facial veil is in fact what enabled us to be somewhat invisible, what enabled us to do our job without becoming the story.
And, also, I think there is a sense as women that we weren't perceived as a threat, in the same way that perhaps a western male would have."
You reported from many conflict zones, how do the stories you cover affect you on a personal level?
"I think that there's no question, you cannot spend time in these places and see the kind of suffering that we see regularly, and not be affected by it. And the very confusing reality about covering war, is that you don't usually feel it in the moment. In the moment, you are so focused on your mission, on your job, on getting the material you need to get, that you don't really allow yourself to process it emotionally. That usually comes much later. And it can be confusing because two months after covering something horrible, you might find yourself suddenly feeling a bit detached, a bit disconnected from your everyday life, a bit depressed, and it takes a while, it takes years of experience in this industry, to understand that the whole premise of cause and effect is a little bit more nuanced when you are talking about covering conflict. It's not A automatically leads to B. It can take months to process these things, months before you feel any reaction to them.
I am very vigilant about prioritising mental health, about checking in, and making sure that I'm dealing well with whatever it is that I've seen, or experienced, or that I'm trying to process. I will say that having a child has changed by life in many ways, obviously, but has definitely also changed my threshold for being able to witness suffering. Particularly when it comes to the suffering of children. I now find it very emotional, even in the moment when I'm doing my work and trying to get the job done, to see any child in pain is very very difficult for me. I think that's something that comes with being a mother, but I also think that if you harness that energy and that empathy in the right way, that can make you better at your job."
CNN has a very strong battalion of strong women reporters. How important is it for you as a woman reporter to talk about being a war reporter, how do you fight the stereotypes, as a globally known person?
"It's such a good question, and it's something that I have talked about a lot with Arwa (Damon) and with Nima (Elbagir). Because on the one hand you get so tired of being asked the question what is it like to be a female war correspondent, what it's like to be a woman who covers conflict... And most of us feel that we want to answer 'It's the same as it is for a man,' there is nothing that a man can do that we can't do. And there are some things that we can do better. We can, for example, have access to women in these areas. In a lot of conservative Muslim countries, our male colleagues have no access whatsoever to 50 percent of the population.
When Salma and I were in Afghanistan, we were sleeping in the women's area of the house, we were spending our time with women and children. That gave us depth to our reporting, that gave us added nuance, gave us more information, it gave us a different perspective. So I do think that, all in all, it makes us stronger reporters in many ways. But I also agree with you, that it's impossible to get over some of the stereotypes, the shock value of having women covering war. Well the reality is, especially on a subject like Syria, most of us who were leading the charge on that story, were in fact women. We've been here for quite some time, we're here to stay. There should be nothing remarkable or overexciting about our presence here as women.
But at the same time, does it give us an advantage, are we able to get different sides of the story? Can we bring more empathy to the table than our male colleagues can? Yes we can, and we do."
How do you feel as a journalist who does investigative reporting when you hear the president of the US calling you and the media company you work for 'fake news'?
"One wants to desperately keep focused on one's work. And do my job and not get drawn into petty politics or divisive toxic rhetoric that we are seeing that is so prevalent at the moment. Not just in the United States frankly but in many countries across the world. At the same time, there's a limit to which we can ignore it. Because the reality is it does impact us, it does hurt our credibility, and there are many authoritarian regimes across the world that have been emboldened by this kind of rhetoric And of course it serves the very real interest of some people in power to undermine the free press, to dismiss them as fake news. To dismiss their reporting as being lies or made up or insubstantial.
Ultimately, this does a real disservice to our societies, though. Because a free and vibrant free press absolutely is an essential part of any thriving society. It holds people in power accountable, and that is exactly why there are some people in power who don't like to see free press. I'm fortunate enough to be from a country like the United States, where regardless of the toxic rhetoric that is coming from the White House there is still a sense that we can report freely and fairly.
There are other countries in the world now where people are being killed as journalists, for doing their work. And wherever you have a situation where people are doggedly working to uncover truth, you are also going to have people who are willing to do whatever it takes to keep that truth covered up. That tension has always existed with journalists. And because of the dangers, the very real dangers, it is essential for governments across the world to unite, to stand up, to say 'Journalists have free and unfettered access to do their work, they make our societies better societies.' And of course, given the political climate that we're in, it is depressing. And it is often disillusioning to see people in positions of power in countries that know better coming out and disparaging the work that we are doing every day, and risking our lives to do."