The small voices
The Place at the End of the World: essays from the edge
Janine di Giovanni Bloomsbury, 414pp,
In 1988, married and visiting Chicago, Janine di Giovanni read a story about an Israeli lawyer called Felicia Langer who was devoting her life to defending Palestinians before the Israeli military courts. Something of this woman's courage and tenacity, and the virulence of the attacks against her, moved di Giovanni in a way she had not been touched before. She rang Langer, then flew to Israel to talk to her, taking with her a notebook and a commission from the Sunday Correspondent Magazine. Langer introduced her to some of her clients. "Write about the small voices," she said, "the people who can't write about themselves."
That story eventually became di Giovanni's first book, Against the Stranger, which she wrote after she had spent many months in Israel and the occupied territories. Visiting the wall being built by the Israelis, she remembered the remark made by Ariel Sharon when, in 1973, Winston Churchill's grandson asked how Israel was planning to deal with the Palestinians: "We'll make a pastrami sandwich out of them . . . We'll insert a strip of Jewish settlements in between the Palestinians, and then another strip of Jewish settlements right across the West Bank, so that in 25 years' time neither the United Nations nor the United States, nobody, will be able to tear it apart."
Di Giovanni became drawn not just to the particular injustices she had witnessed, but to all injustices against people who could not write about themselves. Like the American war reporter Martha Gellhorn, whose work she admires - and whose path she has most closely followed - di Giovanni began to feel that it was her duty to bear witness and bring back descriptions of what she had seen. Her marriage broke up, and she began reporting from the many war zones of the 1990s and early 2000s: Bosnia, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Iraq.
She wrote about sieges and militias, about child soldiers and civilians mutilated by rebels. She was at Tora Bora when the US B-52s, trying to flush Qaeda fighters out of the caves, dropped their smart bombs in December 2001, killing villagers because they were not "smart" enough, and in February 2000 she was in Grozny, a city made uninhabitable by the Russian offensive. She lost colleagues to ambushes and had narrow escapes herself, and she also found herself banned from several countries. The day came when she realised that war had begun to attract her more powerfully than any other lure: she had become someone who was always trying to go to places from which everyone else was fleeing.
In the process, di Giovanni became a very good war reporter. Not only is her style, like that of Gellhorn, plain and refreshingly unegotistical, but she has adopted another of Gellhorn's trademarks: the device of drawing readers into the story by making them part of it. "It was easy," she wrote in an article about Iraq just before the start of the war in 2003, "to forget that these people, who looked like you or me or like friends of ours, existed . . ."
The Place at the End of the World is a collection of some 20 long articles, most of them originally written for the Times or Vanity Fair. War news has a short shelf-life, and the pieces could have seemed dated, but paradoxically it is the familiarity of the material that gives the collection its edge. Depressingly little has changed in the past decade. Wars that were meant to end in weeks have dragged on for years. Afghanistan, Somalia, Chechnya, Israel and Iraq are all in varying states of civil war. Read together, these pieces provide a terrifying picture of the anarchical and appallingly brutal nature of conflict, with its druggy boy soldiers, its cheap and proliferating weapons, its seemingly random viciousness.
Meanwhile, di Giovanni's own life has changed, and there are unlikely to be more articles of this kind, at least not for a time. In a series of brief autobiographical chapters, she describes her second marriage, to another war correspondent, and the birth, after considerable difficulties, of her son. The violent places she visited and wrote so well about are not those that most mothers of young children choose to spend time in.
Caroline Moorehead's most recent book is Human Cargo: a journey among refugees (Chatto &Windus)