The grisly executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the shooting death of Michael Brown, the relentless march of the Ebola epidemic across West Africa—the news from abroad and here at home has been abysmal lately. But squeezed in among these horrifying events is a rare story of hope. After decades of searching, the president of one of Argentina’s leading human rights group said that she had located the grandson taken from her daughter while she was a prisoner of the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976-83. It’s an astonishing tale—and one that holds a serious lesson for us all as we mark another anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Estela Barnes de Carlotto, of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, told a press conference in Buenos Aires last month that a 36-year-old man had been identified as her missing grandson through genetic testing. The man had voluntarily provided a DNA sample to be compared with a national data base; he had apparently harbored doubts about his identity. The results proved with “99.9%” certainty that he was the son of Mrs. Carlotto’s daughter, Laura, a university student activist who was executed in August 1978, two months after giving birth while being held in a government-run torture center.

Laura Carlotto was one of tens of thousands of Argentines arrested and killed by the military dictators during the country’s “Dirty War.” No one knows the true number; estimates range from 10,000 to 30,000. The ruling junta began its campaign in response to left-wing guerrillas who were setting off bombs, kidnapping and generally terrorizing the country. But the line between terrorist and dissident quickly blurred, as the arrogant, strutting generals used the excuse of protecting the homeland to quash all opposition. Anyone with the slightest leftist (read: democratic) bent was fair game: union organizers, university professors, journalists.

The stories I heard as a reporter covering the aftermath of the Dirty War were unfathomable. One young man, a university student, slept overnight at a friend’s house and returned home to find that his entire family—parents, siblings, grandmother—had been taken away. The junta’s henchmen had come looking for him; unable to make that arrest, they grabbed his extended family instead. (None of whom ever returned.)

Another man told of being awakened before dawn to a banging on his door. Soldiers had surrounded the apartment building; they burst into his home when the man went to check on the noise. Dressed in full military gear with grenades hanging from their belts, the soldiers forced the family from their beds at gunpoint and lined them up in the living room. An officer said they had come for the oldest daughter, the one who worked as a social worker in the slums of Buenos Aires. She was wanted for questioning. Nothing serious, the officer promised, she’ll be back soon.

The daughter began crying and clung to her father, begging him not to let them take her. What could he do? Soldiers were standing in his living room, pointing submachine guns at his wife and other four children. Don’t worry, the man said softly to his daughter, they only want to ask you a few questions. (This was early in the Dirty War, before people became aware of the magnitude of the disappearances.) You’ll be home in time for breakfast. Here, he said, here’s some money for bus fare so you can come home when they’re done talking to you. And with that, the man gently pried his daughter out of his arms and handed her to the officer.

He never saw her again.

(Years later, he would learn that she was taken on that night to a secret detention center in the basement of the Navy School of Mechanics, an imposing colonnaded building on a major Buenos Aires thoroughfare. There she was tortured and, ultimately, killed. Many of the thousands of murdered victims were hastily buried in unmarked grave; others were flown over the Atlantic Ocean and pushed out of airplanes or helicopters to the waters below.)

Relatives of the “disappeared,” as they became known, tried frantically to find their missing loved ones. Working through the courts, some even obtained writs of habeas corpus—to no avail; the generals ignored the rule of law with impunity. Out of desperation, a group of mothers began demonstrating every Thursday afternoon in the Plaza de Mayo, the main square in downtown Buenos Aires, opposite the presidential palace. Wearing white kerchiefs tied under their chins, the women held up poster-sized photographs of their missing offspring and demanded to know their fate. (And would continue to do so for over 30 years, even after the country’s return to democracy.) The military junta dismissed their protests, branding them as “las locas” –the crazy women; some of the mothers themselves were “disappeared.”

The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Estela Barnes de Carlotto’s organization, grew out of these demonstrations. These were mothers who demanded to know what had become of the children of their “disappeared” pregnant daughters and daughters-in-law. The generals were thought to have taken around 500 babies born in the clandestine detention centers and given them to military and security officials to raise as their own. The children grew up utterly ignorant of their true identities. (To say nothing of the fate of their biological parents.) After the country’s return to democratic rule in 1983, the grandmothers, working with geneticists, established a national DNA database to allow people to determine if they were related to any of the “disappeared.” The group has thus far helped to identify 114 of the illegally adopted children. In 2012, military leaders were finally convicted of carrying out a systematic plan to steal babies from the pregnant prisoners, who were later killed.

Beyond the obvious joy for Estela Carlotto in finding her grandson, why should we care about this blot on Argentina’s history? Because it’s a horrifying reminder of what governments—including our own– have done in the name of security. And those actions required the complicity of the country’s populace, as well as its institutions. Yes, many of the hundreds of clandestine detention centers across Argentina were secreted away in official buildings such as the Navy Mechanics School. But others hid in plain sight in residential neighborhoods. One such center was located in a huge police garage in western Buenos Aires; small homes lined the street opposite the building. When I interviewed the denizens of those houses, they all—to a man and woman—denied knowing anything about what transpired just across the road. Yet one survivor of the center told me: “I could hear kids playing soccer in the street from my cell, so how could they not hear my screams when I was being tortured?”

Equally telling was a sentiment that many of the residents echoed: If the government arrested people, they must have done something wrong. It was an understandable reaction to living in a place that was traumatized by terrorists. Remember how our collective trauma felt after the terror attacks on Sept. 11? Remember how our government used that trauma as an excuse to kidnap suspected foreign terrorists, spirit them off to “black holes” (overseas detention centers) and torture them—all in the name of making us safe? Remember how, after journalists uncovered these nefarious practices, the government assured us that it was all perfectly legal?

Torture is never legal, not under U.S. law nor under any of the international conventions to which we are signatories. Nor is it ever justified. We should never forget that we are a country of laws. For once that happens, our leaders are unleashed to act with impunity not only against foreigners, but against its citizens as well.

We only have to look to Argentina to be forewarned.

 

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.thoughtcatalog.com

They did, in all their cowardly bravado, exactly what they claimed they would do.

Tuesday came the news of another horrifying beheading of a U.S. journalist by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a terrorist group and major combatant in Syria’s civil war that has recently captured large swaths of Iraq.  Steven Sotloff, a 31-year-old freelancer for Time magazine and other publications, was executed in a second snuff film posted by ISIS online in as many weeks. In it, a masked militant with a British accent stands over the kneeling Sotloff before killing him. “I’m back, Obama,” the fighter says, “and I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State.”

He seems to be the same masked man who appeared in a video two weeks ago in which the American journalist James Foley was beheaded—retaliation for U.S. airstrikes in Iraq, so the killer said. The militant warned then that Sotloff, who was captured in northern Syria a year ago, would be next. This, despite a plaintive and heart-wrenching plea released last week by Sotloff’s mother, Shirley, who begged the head of ISIS to spare her son’s life.

And ISIS apparently isn’t done. It’s threatening to behead a third hostage–reportedly identified as David Cawthorne Haines, a British citizen– and is holding at least two other Americans captive.

We shouldn’t doubt the group’s intention to do extreme evil and boastfully broadcast it to the rest of the world. These are, after all, the same barbarians who have committed summary mass executions of civilians; crucified—quite literally—Christians and non-Sunni Muslims; rampaged through villages and cities. So why should they suddenly turn into reasonable, rational gentleman-and-professor-types and spare the lives of unarmed journalists who are simply trying to bear witness to a brutal conflict?

The Obama administration has said that ISIS is a cancer that must be cut out; it poses more of a threat to the U.S. than al-Qaeda. Something clearly must be done. Now might be the time to seriously consider arming the rebels who are affiliated with political moderates, an idea that has been kicking around Washington for a while. We’ve hesitated to do so for a couple of reasons: concerns about whom exactly to arm, about whether there are any good guys in this fight; and fear that we might somehow get dragged into yet another Middle Eastern war,

But ever since Foley’s beheading, there have been whispers that the U.S. may start cooperating in some manner with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to try to wipe out ISIS. That would be unspeakable folly. The civil war in Syria began as a popular uprising in 2011 against Assad, who has ruled Syria with an iron fist for over a decade. (And his father before him, for almost three decades.) Assad hit back with relentless, pitiless force that ultimately pushed the protests into full-throttled rebellion, splintered along sectarian lines.

In response, the Syrian Air Force filled barrels with TNT and nails and oil and dropped the improvised explosive devices from helicopters—to devastating effect on the civilians below. It exploded Scud missiles in residential neighborhoods. Most horrifically, Assad launched several attacks of chemical weapons. (Which caught the world’s attention; after the U.S. threatened airstrikes, Assad agreed to have the stockpiles destroyed under international supervision.) The number of victims is breathtaking. Close to 200,000 people have been killed in the three-year-old conflict; 6.5 million Syrians are displaced from their homes; three million are living in squalid refugee camps in neighboring countries with little food or water.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, but do we really want to be sleeping, however inadvertently, with Assad? This is a guy who gassed his own citizens. The Obama administration has publicly ruled out any sort of coordinated effort with him to defeat ISIS. But how else could we expand airstrikes from Iraq into Syria? President Obama is correct in carefully trying to choreograph an effect strategy, perhaps one that involves a broad coalition of countries. In a news conference on Wednesday, he said that if the U.S. were to be joined by the international community, it could continue to shrink ISIS’s “sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem.” But without building up other rebel forces, taking out ISIS could have the unintended consequence of benefiting Assad.

Sotloff and Foley, with all the courage of their profession, went off to report on a war to overthrow Assad’s tyranny. They died because of it. What sad irony if their legacy is one that helps to strengthen the dictator’s grip on power.

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.thoughtcatalog.com

It’s telling that the barbarian who beheaded the American journalist James Foley kept his face hidden behind his black headdress.

In what was essentially a gruesome snuff film posted online on Tuesday, the masked man stood over a kneeling Foley in a desert landscape. He said the execution was in retaliation for American airstrikes in Iraq against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a terrorist group that’s a major combatant in Syria’s civil war and of late has captured significant swaths of Iraq. In his cowardice–the essence of any act of terror–Foley’s butcher hid behind the anonymity of his keffiyeh—a stark contrast to the courage represented by reporters like Foley.

Foley was a freelance journalist covering the Syrian civil war for GlobalPost and Agence France-Presse when he was abducted on Nov. 22, 2012 by ISIS militants. His family fought endlessly for his release. (On Wednesday, it was reported that the Pentagon launched a commando raid—unsuccessfully–earlier this summer against the terrorists in northern Syria to free Foley and other hostages.) The family’s desperation was understandable. Mainstream Islamic organizations here and abroad have condemned ISIS’s extremism; President Obama accused its militants of having “rampaged across cities and villages, killing unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence.” Foley, sadly, became just another one of its victims.

Reporting on war has always been a dangerous job. And the death of one journalist clearly can’t compare with the deprivation, destruction and wholesale slaughter the people of Iraq and Syria have suffered. But the point is that Foley chose to be in Syria, that he committed himself, regardless of the risk, to turning our eyes to the hardships of its citizens. And it’s a job that daily becomes more deadly. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) estimates that the number of journalists killed in the last ten years has jumped 30%, compared with the previous decade. Part of this can be explained by the changing nature of war. Most armed conflicts nowadays are civil wars in developing countries: undisciplined armies battling even more undisciplined insurgents. By the CPJ’s calculations, Syria has become the most dangerous country for reporters; at least 70 have been killed covering the war—which has raged for over three years–and more than 80 kidnapped.

So why should you care if journalists are themselves becoming targets? Because democracy only works with an informed electorate. Without the free flow of information, we risk being reduced to a mob mentality. And that includes information from the rest of the world. The increasing globalization of our society means that what used to be an isolated event—say, the conflict in Ukraine—now affects everything from the New York Stock Exchange index to the cost of our gasoline at the pump.  Knowledge matters.

Collecting and disseminating information: that’s all Foley was trying to do. And he paid for it with his life. As the CPJ said in a statement: “Foley went to Syria to show the plight of the Syrian people, to bear witness to their fight, and in so doing to fight for press freedom.”

As a former foreign correspondent who worked in war zones in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, I take this all very seriously. And personally: my first husband, Dial Torgerson, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, was killed in 1983 while covering the wars in Central America. He and a young freelance photographer, Richard Cross, were driving on a road that straddled the Honduran-Nicaraguan border when their car went over an anti-tank mine. The explosion was tremendous. The force of it shot the car into the air, then split the body in half; the motor, blown out of the chassis, was found a football-field away. Dial and Richard were killed instantly.

I never discovered the identity of their murderers. That they were murdered, however, is indisputable: dozens of vehicles passed along the same desolate stretch of road on that day without setting off the explosives. That’s because the mines were command-detonated; someone with a clear view of the cars had to pull a trigger or push a button. Like Foley’s assassins, they hid behind anonymity in their cowardice. Like Foley’s assassins, they intended to silence their critics through fear and intimidation.

Like Foley’s assassins, they did not succeed–and none of them ever will.

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.thoughtcatalog.com

Shades of apartheid South Africa.

That was my immediate reaction when I saw the images from Ferugson, Missouri. Not for the racial divide between the (mostly white) police and (mostly black) protestors demanding justice for Michael Brown, the 18-year-old who was fatally shot by a cop. Rather, it was the military accoutrement: the armored personnel carrier, helmeted police officers in camouflage and vests, sharpshooters taking aim with assault rifles, tear gas and rubber bullets—all shockingly reminiscent of what I witnessed as a journalist 20 years ago covering the fall of apartheid.

By its very nature, apartheid required the virtual militarization of parts of the country. How else could the white minority government impose racial segregation on the majority black population? South Africans of color, who comprised more than 80% of the nation’s inhabitants, were denied even the most basic rights. Skin color was destiny: it determined where you were born, where you grew up, where you were educated, where you could work, whom you could marry, where you could live, where you would die. And it was brutally enforced.

As a result, there was no such thing as community policing in the townships, the destitute, grossly overcrowded and underdeveloped areas where people of color were forced to live. I spent much of my time reporting in Soweto, Johannesburg’s sprawling black township. To enter the place, you first had to navigate a roadblock manned by policemen decked out in full combat gear. These were not your cheerful cops, walking the beat: the white government believed it was engaged in a full-on war to keep the black population, led by godless Communists (as it characterized Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress) from taking over the country. The police patrolled the township in Casspirs, snub-nosed armored personnel carriers that rode high above the ground to limit damage from mine explosions. They brandished semi-automatic rifles, smoke bombs and tear-gas dispensers. They shot to kill at the slightest provocation.

Is that what we want in our country? It was ostensibly a war—the war on terror—that has turned our police forces into small armies. After the al-Qaeda attacks on Sept.11, 2001, federal funds flowed to these law enforcement departments, which were seen to be on the front lines of a worldwide fight against terrorism. Grants from the Department of Homeland Security paid for bullet-proof vehicles, body armor, night-vision equipment. Justice Department money bought rubber bullets and tear gas. The boys in the Pentagon sent machine guns, armored trucks, aircraft and other surplus war equipment.

If the uniform makes the man (or the woman), then what message is transmitted to police officers when they don all this military gear? That their fellow citizens, whose safety and rights they’re sworn to uphold, are the enemy? We, in this country, are guaranteed the right to peaceful protest. Those guys in the GI Joe getups are supposed to be on our side.

Much of this militarization went unnoticed—and unchallenged—until the confrontation in Ferguson. It’s encouraging that politicians of all stripes have decried the deployment of such equipment and vehicles. President Obama, in his press conference on Monday, said that it’s “probably useful” to make sure that what the various police departments are purchasing “is stuff that they actually need….there is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don’t want those lines blurred. That would be contrary to our traditions.”

Because here’s what happens when that occurs. On March 21, 1960, several thousand black demonstrators gathered outside a police station in Sharpeville, South Africa. They were protesting against having to carry racially designated passes that determined where they could work and live. The 300 or so policemen who confronted them were arrayed atop armored vehicles and armed with submachine guns and rifles. The protest was mostly peaceful; after several hours, a few of the demonstrators threw stones at the police—who began firing their weapons. Sixty-nine protestors died in the two-minute barrage of bullets, many of them shot in the back as they tried to flee.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But we should take it as an object lesson.

 

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.thoughtcatalog.com

 

 

 

 

The latest outbreak of Ebola virus erupted across West Africa sometime this spring. The symptoms are horrific: fever, diarrhea, vomiting, hemorrhaging inside and outside of the body. There is no known cure. About 60% of those who contract the virus die. The disease is estimated to have killed nearly 1,000 people since March, in its inexorable march across Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and now Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria. The hospitals and clinics of Sierra Leone and Liberia, rudimentary in the best of times, have been overwhelmed. Doctors and nurses there are themselves becoming infected and dying, leaving few medical personnel to care for the victims.

A few days later, coincidentally enough, the World Health Organization declared the epidemic an international public health emergency, demanding an extraordinary global response. This is only the third declaration of its kind since the body began issuing such alerts in 2007. Even so, Doctors Without Borders, the international medical organization, called for a “massive deployment” of specialists to the affected countries, saying that “lives are being lost because the response is too slow.”

(The evacuated U.S. health workers are also among the few victims to have received an experimental drug that apparently is effective—but that’s another discussion entirely.)

Why did it take so long for the world to take note? The outbreak is now in its sixth month; would the West have remained so passive if it were Belgians bleeding from the eyes or the contagion had spread from Paris to Rome? It’s doubtful. But by its very nature, Ebola probably wouldn’t find such a hospitable environment in the West. The virus is passed through contact with bodily fluids; modern sanitation facilities, good hygienic practices, well-stocked hospitals, an abundance of trained medical professionals — all would work to help contain an outbreak here.

Not so in West Africa. To be sure, in the nicest neighborhoods of the capitals of the affected countries, the wealthy live in majestic homes surrounded by security fences topped with shards of broken glass. Graceful palms line the streets; there are all manner of modern conveniences, powered by home generators for when the electricity fails. As it invariably does — often. Then there are the slums where the majority of the population live: horrifying, odoriferous hovels constructed from corrugated tin, wood, bits of cardboard, old newspapers. Raw sewage runs in rivulets and mountains of garbage putrefy under the tropical sun.

When my husband and I lived in Liberia, next door to us stood an abandoned home that used to be a Health Ministry office, a once-beautiful building with high ceilings, wide windows and imperious stone lions guarding the stairs to the front door. Squatters had appropriated it; at one point, 87 people inhabited the house. The property was a mess: the windows had no panes; the walls were crumbling; the plumbing had collapsed. People threw their refuse out the gaping windows, creating ziggurats of garbage that grew steadily until someone set them alight to make room for more.

Mornings when I went for a jog along the beach, I’d come upon people emerging like zombies from rotting shells of houses, silently making their way down to the sand to defecate in the tide. Some squatted in the streets, brushing their teeth and expectorating into the gutters; under such conditions, you couldn’t help but come in contact with bodily fluids. Such is the price of poverty in a place where decades of government corruption and graft failed to create basic sanitation facilities. And that was before civil war and unrest in the region further destroyed what little infrastructure existed.

The lack of medical facilities and professionals are equally appalling. Liberia, for instance, currently has a total of about 50 doctors to care for the country’s four million people. That means there are generally more doctors on staff in one urban U.S. hospital than in an entire nation. And doctors there lack even such basic supplies as gloves to protect them from coming in contact with the bodily fluids of infected patients. They struggle too with trying to thwart traditional practices, such as the washing of the dead by village elders, that exacerbate the spread of Ebola.

The West has always maintained a certain lack of feeling about Africa: too distant; too unimportant economically; too other. That callousness is perhaps best illustrated by a former foreign editor for one of the biggest newspapers in the U.S. A friend of mine covered the continent in the 1980s for the paper and was among the first Western reporters to encounter the famine in 1983-84 that ravaged Ethiopia, killing hundreds of thousands of people. He tried desperately to interest the foreign editor in the story. Her response? “People are always starving to death in Africa. Where’s the news in that?”

At a time when Western media organizations are closing their Africa bureaus or greatly reducing their presence on the continent because of budget constraints, this indifference only grows. Today there is a famine in Somalia that barely rates coverage. Wars are raging in South Sudan, Central African Republic, and the Congo — where several million people are estimated to have died. Add to that list the explosion of the Ebola virus across West Africa.

Where is the news in all that? Apparently only when the victims are from the West.

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.thoughtcatalog.com

Of all the rightly deserved accolades heaped on Nelson Mandela with his passing, perhaps the most important have to do with his humanity, his ubuntu, as it is called in Zulu. On its own it was rather remarkable; when compared with current leaders everywhere who routinely put political expediency and professional longevity ahead of the greater good, Mandela’s humanity was nothing short of stunning.

For this was a man who could, justifiably, have emerged from decades of imprisonment bitter and vengeful. Consider what he endured: In 1964, Mandela and seven other African National Congress comrades were convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the apartheid government and sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in jail on Robben Island, a desolate stretch of rock off the coast of Cape Town.  It was a place of great hardship and isolation:  the cells tiny and damp, furnished only with a straw mat, the water so saline as to be almost undrinkable. Mandela and his comrades worked long hours, pounding rocks into gravel; he is thought to have contracted a lung disease from inhaling the dust. After a few years, he was transferred to work in a lime quarry. There the glare from the sun, glinting off the lime, permanently damaged his eyesight. Initally he was allowed only one visit and one letter every six months. (This, at a time, when he had young children.) He  would spend 27 years in prison, denied all life-cycle events that give meaning to one’s existence; the authorities even prevented him from attending the funeral of his first-born son,who died in a car accident.

Yet when finally released from prison, Mandela’s message was one of reconcilliation. The white naysayers–the same ones who had refused to engage the ANC during the decades it used only non-violent means of protest, finally forcing the organization to take up arms–warned of  the impending bloodbath. In their twisted logic, you had to keep the system of repression going for fear of what would happen in reprisal when it stopped. Not that there wasn’t precedence on the continent; think Rwanda, Congo, Sudan. You just have to look over South Africa’s border at Zimbabwe to see how a mad, spiteful despot has gone after the white citizenry and destroyed the country in the process. But that was not Mandela’s way. Not during the years of talks that led to the first democratic election in 1994, not when he was voted in as president, not in ensuing years after he stepped down. The contrary; he preached tolerance and patience and unity.

I never had the honor of formally meeting Mandela.  The closest I got was to sit at the table next to his at a luncheon following the inauguration of Joaquin Chissano, the first democratically elected president of Mozambique. The event took place under a white tent on the lawn of  the Presidental Palace on a brain-boilingly hot day. Nevertheless, Mandela had traded his signature outfit of brilliantly colored shirt and trousers for an elegant dark suit befitting the occasion. As the honored guest, he was the first to be escorted to the buffet table by a white-jacketed steward. The man, who had an I-can’t-wait-to-tell-my-kids-about-this look on his face, explained all the dishes to Mandela, then picked up a plate and attempted to serve him. Mandela gently protested, but the steward insisted;  it would be his honor to dish out food for the South African president. Which he did, triumphantly bearing the plate back to Mandela’s place at his table. It was a fascinating little tableau: Mandela, humble yet regal, with an air of authority and gravity that somehow still managed to be approachable in his interaction with the obviously ecstatic steward. I spent the rest of the lunch trying to figure out ways to get closer to Mandela, but he was well-shielded by his (mostly white) bodyguards.

I did, however, have the pleasure of interviewing one of his former prisonmates, Govan Mbeki, the first of the ANC’s senior leaders to be released from Robben Island. (His son, Thabo, would succeed Mandela after he stepped down as president.) That encounter provided some insight into the motivation that informed Mandela’s sense of humanity. Mbeki was freed in November 1987 for medical reasons and confined to his home in New Brighton in the Eastern Cape; I flew down there and was allowed to spend the day with him. Besides his formidable intellect and humor, Mbeki’s most remarkable characteristic was his utter lack of bitterness. He was imprisoned on Robben Island for 24 years; like Mandela, he had been forced to spend what should have been the most productive years of his life apart from family, friends and community under brutal conditions; he was now a frail, old man. And  yet he bore his captors no ill will. Indeed, his spoke of nothing but optimism for the future. How could he be forgiving–as Mandela would be upon his release–for essentially having missed out on so much? He said: Even in our darkest, most trying times, we always believed in the justness of our cause. Justice would ultimately triumph; that would be our reward. Hatred and revenge would only destroy what we had worked so hard to achieve.

Stunningly simple words. But Mandela modelled those beliefs as president and international statesman. He was a once-in-a-lifetime leader. It’s doubtful that any of us will see his likes again.

It has been a sad week for foreign correspondence, what with the deaths of Anthony Shadid and Marie Colvin.  Shadid, 43, died last Thursday from an apparent asthma attack while on assignment in Syria for the New York Times. Of Lebanese-American descent, Shadid spent most of his career covering the Middle East for the Associated Press, Boston Globe, Washington Post and the Times. He won two Pulitzer Prizes for his reportage while working for the Post; the Times had nominated him, along with others, for the 2012 Pulitzer in international reporting. In the citation that accompanied the nomination, the Times wrote: “Steeped in Arab political history but also in its culture, Shadid recognized early on that along with the despots, old habits of fear, passivity and despair were being toppled. He brought a poet’s voice, a deep empathy for the ordinary person and an unmatched authority to his passionate dispatches.”

And then Wednesday came news of Marie Colvin’s death, along with photojournalist Remi Ochlik, in Homs, Syria. The two died when their makeshift media center came under the relentless, brutal  shelling by the Syrian government that has killed thousands of unarmed civilians. Colvin, 56, was the consummate war correspondent, having covered conflicts in Iraq, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Kosovo, Chechnya, Zimbabwe, as well as the uprisings in the Arab world in the past year. She wore, quite literally, a constant reminder of the dangers that foreign correspondents face: a black patch over her left eye, which she lost to shrapnel more than a decade ago while covering the war in Sri Lanka between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels.

Clearly, the death of three Western journalists cannot compare with the wholesale slaughter–and this isn’t hyperbole–by the Syrian government of its citizens. But the point is that the three chose to be there. As such, they represented the best of the profession, an unwavering commitment to bear witness regardless of the risks. It is not an easy thing. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that the number of reporters killed in the last ten years has jumped 30%, compared with the previous decade. Part of this can be explained by the fact that most armed conflicts nowadays are civil wars in developing countries: undisciplined armies battling even more undisciplined insurgents. And the danger to those covering the conflicts is certain only to rise. Colvin herself recognized the risks in a speech she gave in 2010, honoring the work of journalists and photographers who died in the line of duty. “It has never been more dangerous to be a war correspondent, ” she said, “because the journalist in the combat zone has become a prime target.” How ironic her words now seem.

Beyond the obvious physical dangers, there are enormous psychological tolls as well. You always feel a bit dirty–for lack of a better word–parachuting into a war zone to be with the besieged. You live among them for a while: dodging bullets,  sharing the constant fear of death, experiencing the same deprivations of food and water. They open up their hearts to you–and then you leave. You pull out your American (or British or French or German) passport and go back to a place where no one is shooting at you, where the water runs clear and cool from taps, where grocery stores stock thirty-six different brands of cereal. You can’t help but feel relieved. But guilty, too. It’s one of the things that keeps you going back, again and again.

It can make you a little crazy, having one foot in the world of thirty-six types of cereal, the other in places where small children are blown apart by grenades. It makes for journalists who become drunks or action junkies or cut-rate hacks. But it also makes for truly heroic reporters like Shadid and Colvin, reporters driven to tell the world things most people would prefer not to know.

Obviously, every time something like this happens, it strikes a very personal chord. I cannot help but relive the death of my first husband, Dial Torgerson, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, who was killed in 1983 while covering the wars in Central Amercia. I remember at the time wondering whether it was all worth it. We had only been married for ten months; we had a lifetime of togetherness ahead of us. Over the years, I’ve been sustained by the belief that Dial wouldn’t have wanted his life any other way. Surely he would have preferred to live, but the security of playing it safe, of confining himself to some newsroom would, for him–as for Shadid and Colvin–have been no life at all.