UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA–LINCOLN
Foreign correspondent loves her career
By KATHY CHENAULT — 1981 graduate
The suffocating heat of the day was lifting as we gazed out across Mogadishu from the roof of our hotel. Locked behind high concrete walls after a camel-meat and corn-soup meal, we sat content and relatively safe from the hostile streets of the Somali capital.
U.N. helicopters buzzed overhead carrying peacekeepers. Cold cans of Heineken beer were passed among my fellow reporters and photographers, set for the nightly ritual of complaining and cajoling. The sounds of Bob Marley’s melodic musing drifted to us from scratchy speakers somewhere down the street. With the sun at dusk doing a lava-lamp routine on the horizon, the sometimes sinister city seemed a better place than the Third World hellhole it remains.
Ah, just another day at the office.
Someone asked me why I left the ordered life of Asia for African mayhem.
“I wanted to go to Jamaica for a beach vacation, but he brought me here,” I said, gesturing to my former AP colleague Terry Leonard, now my husband.
“You’ve got Bob Marley music. You can see the ocean from here. What more do you want?” Terry said.
I reached for a Heineken.
“Never trust a foreign correspondent,” I responded.
Banter aside, being a foreign correspondent, being married to a foreign correspondent and having mostly foreign correspondents for friends is quite a life. From my childhood on a farm near York, journalism has taken me to faraway places, momentous events and, yes, to Third World hellholes like the embattled Mogadishu I recall from 1994.
I’ve frustrated and been frustrated by communist authorities. I’ve endured travel nightmares in undeveloped countries. I’ve labored to drag facts and figures out of mind-numbing bureaucrats, fought to get usable quotes from officials. My body has agonized through countless flu bugs and infections as well as stomach-wrenching malaria medicines.
I’ve struggled to comprehend the suffering by refugees or war victims or survivors mourning lost friends and relatives. I’ve tried to make sense of the potential of human viciousness, like the seemingly limitless inhumanity that erupts from ethnic hatred. Or desperation. Or something that I may never be able to define, much less understand.
Despite the trials and hardships, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Why? Because I really believe someone has to tell these stories. There are lots of stories to tell, so many tales of pathos, of senseless tragedies. And, fortunately, there are other stories, stories of simple glories by anonymous heroes, or triumphs against the odds by people repressed or forgotten or always confronting obstacles, dangers or sacrifices.
Besides all that, it’s fun.
My foreign reporting career began with the Seoul Olympics in 1988. From there, I graduated to a hard-news assignment in China, covering the aftermath of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square for The Associated Press. After working my way from the AP bureau in Omaha to four years as an editor on the AP’s World Desk in New York, I became a full-fledged foreign correspondent in 1990 as one of the news agency’s three reporters in Beijing. We covered developments in China, Mongolia and North Korea.
While the world watched the Gulf War and while the disintegration of the former Soviet Union ended the Cold War, we languished in Beijing, scanning the official media to glean stories that seemed to fall into an abyss. There were still big stories — plane crashes, deadly floods, persecution of dissidents, etc. But by 1993, chafing against restrictions on Western reporters and tired of reading tea leaves in the Chinese media, I decided to shun the security of full-time employment. I declared myself a free-lance journalist and headed for Cambodia to report on the country’s first democratic election in nearly three decades.
For most of 1993, I wrote stories for Newsday of New York and The Christian Science Monitor. Compared with the conditions in China, reporting in Cambodia was like covering a gold rush in the Wild West. Often I would be up at 4 a.m. to catch a U.N. flight to the hinterlands of Siem Reap or Kompong Cham or some other place in the great out there. I interviewed landmine victims, covered the shenanigans of the unpredictable King Norodom Sihanouk and his unprincely sons and profiled peasants who defied threats from the murderous Khmer Rouge to vote. I bartered with vendors in the Phnom Penh market, rode to daily U.N. briefings with kamikaze motorcyclists and developed a deep admiration for one of my translators, who, like me, wanted stories about long-oppressed Cambodians to reach American readers.
In 1994, I moved to East Africa. From Nairobi, I covered the end of the U.N. mission in Somalia, war crimes in Ethiopia, ethnic unrest in Burundi and the biggest international story of the year — the war and genocide in Rwanda that killed at least a half million people. Rampaging militiamen led the carnage, but other men, women and even children joined in the brutal onslaught. Hundreds of thousands of people fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries, and tens of thousands died in those squalid enclaves from cholera and other diseases.
Even now, nearly four years later, I recall the confusing feelings I felt as I drove with other journalists through the countryside during those desperate days. Lush farm plots blanketed the rugged Rwandan hills. Clouds folded into an enchanting fog at the landscape’s far reaches. I marveled at the beauty. At the same time, I wondered how so much destruction and death could come from enmity between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes.
The next year, my husband and I made another trip through Rwanda, a saner, safer journey to report on lingering fears, reported skirmishes and the reconstruction of a shattered country. We went to a church that had been the site of a massacre in 1994. The new government refused to move the bodies from the church, where terrified women and children were sent because their husbands and fathers thought they would be safe — and where they were massacred.
A year later, the scene was a macabre assault on the senses. For the first time since the horrors of Rwanda had become known, I felt overwhelmed. As I waited for the other journalists to finish their work, I noticed two men clearing rocks from the grass and hauling them away in a wheelbarrow.
Their families had been killed in the massacre. Haunted by the fact they had sent their loved ones to their deaths, the men came to the church every day to clean the grounds. They considered it their duty. At a nearby orphanage, a 14-year-old boy, who escaped the church slaughter by running away and hiding in banana groves, told of his ordeal. With a bony finger he traced a scar along the back of his head where he had been gashed with a machete. Despite those memories, he wanted to stay in the area after peace came. “It cannot be the same again,” the boy said. “But I will stay here because it is my home.”
Now I live in Johannesburg, where I report for Business Week magazine and The Dallas Morning News. Here, people are hopeful about the future. They are proud of President Nelson Mandela, the one-time political prisoner who became the country’s first black president in South Africa’s first all-race elections in 1994. My life has changed in other ways, too. In 1996, Terry and I had a son, Dylan James.
Still, at times, I think about those two men at the Rwandan church and that orphan boy — people who have touched me with their quiet graciousness. They could not forget their pain or the terror behind it all. And I cannot forget their raw courage or their simple hopes for better times.
In the end, even sad stories can have heroes.