Three women's compelling stories

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In the days before Chechen rebels took hundreds of theatergoers hostage last week, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was in the US to accept an award for on-the-job bravery. It was an opportunity for her to discuss how little attention the war between Russia and its province gets in her country.

"We're just sitting in this atmosphere of complete lack of information on Chechnya, both the government has no clue, and the common people also do not have any idea what is happening," she said in a phone interview from Washington.

As if to punctuate her point, two days later the rebels stormed the theater in Moscow, demanding that Russia pull its Army out of Chechnya and bringing worldwide attention to the war. They specifically asked for Ms. Politkovskaya – who is critical of the war – as a negotiator. She successfully persuaded them to allow water to be brought into the hostages at a point when other negotiators had failed to do so.

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Her abrupt departure from the US drew attention to the award she came to collect – the Courage in Journalism Award, given annually by the International Women's Media Foundation. The other winners for 2002 are Canadian Kathy Gannon, bureau chief in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Associated Press; and Sandra Nyaira, political editor for The Daily News, Zimbabwe's only independent newspaper. Their lives, like Politkovskaya's, are compelling.

Ms. Gannon found herself dodging bombs and rockets during the US attack on Afghanistan last fall. She says it was often difficult for the US military to tell the difference between trucks carrying the Taliban and those driven by civilians.

"The danger in Afghanistan is lack of US intelligence," says Gannon, who has reported in the country for 15 years.

Western journalists were expelled from Afghanistan shortly after Sept. 11, and Gannon was initially the only one allowed back in by the Taliban after the US offensive began last October. Being a woman was not a deterrent to doing her job, she says.

"If you're persistent, you can see just about anyone. I was at the front lines with the Taliban more than my male colleagues."

Gannon's love of the people and the countries she covers gives her hope when the going gets tough. "[They] are warm, kind, hospitable, and they're fun. They've got a great sense of humor," she says. "I have been in situations where really, honestly, the people have come through so many times for me."

A world away in Harare, Zimbabwe, Sandra Nyaira reports on government corruption amid threats, lawsuits, and the bombing of her paper's printing presses. The independent Daily News, which began in 1999, is often the target of President Robert Mugabe. Journalists who criticize him can be prosecuted or worse, and he is considered an enemy of the press by the Committee to Protect Journalists, a watchdog group in New York. Ms. Nyaira describes the laws his government has enacted to suppress the media as Draconian.

By contrast, she regularly gets calls from readers – and members of the government – urging her to continue. During difficult times, she and her colleagues look to one another for support.

"When you are united with all your colleagues, and you have support from the readers [and] from almost everywhere across the world, you get the strength to keep going."

As for Politkovskaya, who works for Moscow-based Novaya Gazeta, there is no other occupation she would rather have. Through a translator, she says Russia's patriarchal society can make it difficult for a woman reporter. She's been arrested and threatened with death and rape by the Russian military, whose abuse of Chechen civilians is a focus of her reporting. At times like that, she says she hopes God remembers her and her children, who have also been threatened.

The note she wrote the morning she left the US for Moscow asked those at a ceremony she'd be missing to pray for the people involved in the siege, and for her: "[C]ircumstances require that it is today, and not a day later that I need to prove that I indeed have courage."

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