Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Human Side of War

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Human Side of War

Article excerpt

Tina Susman has seen history in the making. Throughout her career as an award-winning foreign correspondent, she has witnessed the fall of apartheid in South Africa; genocide in Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and Darfur; and destruction by natural disasters like the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.

Now, Susman is witnessing what she calls "one of the biggest, if not the biggest story of our generation as journalists." She is chief of the Los Angeles Times' Baghdad bureau, an appointment she received earlier this year. Her stories of U.S soldiers frustrated with their mission, and accounts from Iraqis who are living in nightmarish conditions, have elicited emotional feedback from readers back home.

"Almost every story I write, I get some kind of response," Susman tells E&P. Such was the case following her frank report on Aug. 25, when Susman relayed the struggles of U.S. troops stationed in Iraq. The polarized responses didn't surprise her. "There doesn't seem to be much middle ground on the topic of Iraq these days," says Susman. "Whenever you write a story about it, you hear from both sides."

One atypical aspect of her August report was the troops' candidness. Susman says the number of soldiers who agreed to have their names used in the article alongside their critical statements reveals their mounting frustration.

"They had reached a level where they were fed up. I did not feel at all hesitant about writing that story," she adds. "Frankly, I feel confirmed with all the e-mails I've received, 90% of which are military or the families of military saying, 'Thanks for writing the story, because that's exactly what we think.'"

On Sept. 4, in advance of Gen. David Petraeus' report on the surge, Susman provided her own assessment of what she called the "dispiriting" results: "The U.S. military buildup that was supposed to calm Baghdad and other trouble spots has failed to usher in national reconciliation, as the capital's neighborhoods rupture even further along sectarian lines, violence shifts elsewhere and Iraq's government remains mired in political infighting."

Whether she is speaking with anxious soldiers or Iraqis, Susman realizes that people faced with terrible conditions -- whatever their allegiances may be -- are desperate to have their stories told. "Anywhere I've been in the world, when people have been through really awful situations, it's a relief for them to talk, to pour their guts out to somebody," Susman observes. "And sometimes, they really hope that it will help."

The majority of Susman's dispatches on Iraq are human-interest articles that often focus on the lives of Iraqi citizens and how they are perpetually shaped by the fight for their country. It is an aspect of the war that Susman feels is underreported.

"I like talking to regular people," she says, "and it's important that readers get that. I think our paper does a better job of telling the story through the eyes of ordinary Iraqis. From what I do read, I actually think we do that on a regular basis more than others, maybe because of the staff we have. Part of it, frankly, is because that's what I'm stronger at."

Among the more haunting stories that Susman has reported was a July 28 article detailing the kidnapping and eventual escape of a Shiite Muslim. It was a subject particularly resonant for Susman: In 1994, she was kidnapped while working in Mogadishu, Somalia, and held for 20 days before being released by her captors. …

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