Antonia Rados in an interview “War correspondents have at least two lives”

Antonia Rados in Northern Iraq
Antonia Rados in Northern Iraq | Photo (detail): © RTL

Antonia Rados has been reporting from the world’s war zones and conflict areas for more than 30 years. In our interview, the renowned journalist explains what drives her and when she last thought about packing it all in.

Ms Rados, you recently wrote in a commentary that Iraq is a more violent place at present than had ever been expected. Originally, however, there had also been hopes of peace there. As a war correspondent, do you still believe in a better world?

I do at least believe that a war will end sooner or later, even if only because all parties are tired of the fighting. Time and time again, it is the triumph of hope over experience that one must cling to.

What drives you to keep going?

There is virtually no other job in which one learns more about human nature than as a war correspondent – and that is motivation enough. What is more, one often finds oneself in places where history is being made. Like during the Arab Spring in 2011 – there is no substitute for being right in the middle of Tahrir Square when a dictator is overthrown by the local youth.

In retrospect, on the other hand, one often thinks about how hopes were awakened and then quashed. That said, journalism is only ever a snapshot of a particular moment in time, even when one is reporting on crises or wars. Later, the events which we are reporting on “live” will be put into context by historians, who will not necessarily arrive at the same conclusions as the reporters. Having the chance to experience history without knowing exactly where it will lead is without doubt what drives me, however.

The pace of reporting has accelerated

You have been reporting from war zones and conflict areas for more than 30 years. How has your work changed during this time?

What remains unchanged is the need to travel to the places where war is taking place. It is important to be as close as possible because this is the only way to see things that would otherwise remain hidden. Unfortunately, there is no way around this. What has changed is the technology, with small cameras dominating the scene these days. The pace of reporting has accelerated. The world has shrunk and become more emotional. Whoever provokes the most powerful emotions will prevail, be this in a good or a bad sense: for example, our image of Islam is heavily influenced by the videos published online by Islamic State and by the executions, despite the majority of Muslims being against violence.

In April 2014, you brought out a book about two sisters in Egypt who reflect the divided nature of their country: one is a glittering belly dancing star while the other is a Salafi. Are your books your way of raising issues that are dealt with insufficiently on everyday television?

Books are a medium better suited to painting a more nuanced picture. Television needs images, as words – like in a book – are not enough. There is no substitute for television if the right images are available, but paper is needed if Egypt’s recent history is to be additionally included alongside the filmed sequences, as I did in the book about the belly dancer and the Salafi. Media like books and filmed reportage complement rather than compete with one another.

Women have less of a need to be heroes

War reporting still tends to be a very male domain. Do women report in a different way to men?

Yes, women report differently because they have no enthusiasm for the mechanical process of war – whereas men do. You will not find women chatting about the finer points of various types of weapons. In a war, men are like fishermen, and exaggeration is all part of the deal. There is no such word as cowardice. All are heroic and all are stationed right on the very front line all of the time – or at least they are when it comes to telling their stories at the hotel bar in the evening ... women have less of a need to be heroes – I do not know why this should be the case, but it is.

And are there differences when it comes to research? Are you perhaps at particular risk as a woman, or rather vice-versa?

One is always at risk as a woman – simply because one is physically inferior to every soldier, militiaman and criminal, of which there are many in war zones. This means one has to use one’s brains more than one’s muscles, which sometimes gives rise to a different kind of journalism.

Memories of war zones

You work in conditions of constant danger and are required to meet very tight deadlines. How do you succeed nonetheless in establishing mutual trust with the people you talk to?

Someone who does not like people will not be able to approach them, but this is what one has to do as a reporter. What is more, I work incessantly, I am a workaholic. I could work around the clock, all year round, day after day. I have little need of holiday, which I see as a waste of time, though it does at least give one the chance to read in peace and discover new issues to focus on.

What sort of situations made you consider packing it all in?

The last time I was in the Syrian capital Aleppo, the district I was spending the night in came under heavy shelling – I said to myself, right, that’s it, that was my last trip to a war zone. But I carry on regardless.

You have experienced many difficult moments during your career, but what are the times you like to remember when looking back?

One would have to be pretty heartless if one did not think often of the many helpful people who, surprisingly enough, one encounters more often in war zones than here at home. I frequently wonder what will happen to them once we have gone. Will they survive? All memories of war-torn areas are overshadowed by the realization that despite everything one is in a much better situation than those who remain behind. Correspondents leave again, while the local people are stuck in poverty and hardship. But I empathize with them.

One thinks about food all the time in war zones

You live in Paris, which of course is quite a contrast to the countries in which you travel. How do you manage to get back to normal everyday life when you return from a stint of reporting abroad?

Every war correspondent has at least two lives, one in the war zone, one at home. The two lives have little in common, yet sometimes I will be strolling through the beautiful streets of Paris and will suddenly be hit by memories of horrific scenes from Syria or Iraq. I can be lying awake and unable to sleep on a mattress on the floor in Aleppo, a bulletproof vest next to me just in case, and think about how I want to go out for a good meal when I get home. Food is important. One thinks about food all the time in war zones. It is reassuring, and perhaps the reason why I so enjoy cooking when I return to Paris.

What in your opinion is the most important personality trait in your profession?

Common sense, which includes not thinking of oneself as a hero.

In recent years, media coverage of foreign affairs has come under increasing financial pressure in Germany. Is this something you and your colleagues notice in your work?

We can observe two contrary trends. While all media are cutting costs, the Internet and blogs etc. report constantly on events both near and far. We in the media cannot allow ourselves to fall behind, which is why there is more international correspondence than in the past, despite the crisis in the media.

Antonia Rados is a native Austrian who began her career in journalism at the Austrian national public service broadcaster ORF, where she made a name for herself with her reports of the Romanian revolution in 1989. In 1991 she became a special correspondent for German regional broadcaster WDR, and four years later moved to the RTL Deutschland media group, where she has been chief reporter for foreign affairs since 2009. Rados, who has a degree in political science, has won awards for her reports from Kosovo, Iraq and other countries in the Middle East, including the German Television Award and the Hanns Joachim Friedrichs Award.