Entering broken places, recording what you see
by Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, NCR contributor
Journalists call them fixers. Aside from pen, notebook, and a curious mind, they are considered your most valuable resource when reporting overseas. Good fixers can interpret, arrange transportation, and get you access to places otherwise unavailable to foreigners. They are the people who help you "fix" points of contact in a country you are required to discover and understand quickly. .
Fixers are not cheap. In my travels, I have not always been able to afford a personal interpreter who typically costs $100 to $150 per day. The few I have hired, I remember vividly and with gratitude.
In the autumn of 1999, Slobodenka Postic worked as my translator in northwestern Bosnia. The region had been an epicenter of ethnic cleansing during the country's civil war of the early 1990's. Serb ultranationalists tried brutally to expunge the area of Muslims through mass deportations and death camps.
I was haunted by this killing spot and the stories of its survivors. During a previous visit, I hired Amela as my interpreter. She was a beautiful 19-year-old woman with doleful eyes. Midway through a gruesome interview with a male death camp survivor, she confided that the man was making passes at her. "Ignore him," I advised, "and just keep asking my questions."
After that, I decided pretty, young female interpreters were more of a distraction than aid.
Slobodenka, who called herself "Slo," was an undeniably middle-aged woman with white hair and dark brown eyes. She wore slacks and tennis shoes and exuded energy, her excellent command of English refined by several visits to the United States. We spent a week together in the dreary city of Sanski Most where I rented two bedrooms from Senka, a Muslim war widow.
Early every morning, Slo and I charged out of Senka's cramped apartment and did not return until long after dark. As reporter and translator, we crossed boundaries freely, entering homes where women plied us with endless cups of thick Turkish coffee and explained how they tried to stay alive in a time of so much killing.
Slo was a Croatian Serb. I first learned of her ethnicity after we left the Croatian capital of Zagreb and we were on the bus to Bosnia. The country in 1999 was fragmented into ethnic enclaves, full of traumatized people who were short on trust. Most of my interviews were with Muslims and initially, I fretted about using a translator from "the other side."
But no one clammed up on Slo. She translated tirelessly and with utmost attention. Interviews with her became confessional experiences.
As a Serb living in Zagreb, Slo had been a victim of Croatian ultra nationalism. Expelled from her apartment and excluded from the local job market, she supplemented her meager unemployment check by translating. Perhaps her own experience with persecution explained her quick connection with Bosnian Muslims. But I think Slo's compassion was more basic. Like so many people in places of conflict, quite a few of whom are interpreters, she rejected the divisions the war had imposed on her homeland.
"I am a non-nationalist," she told me early in our friendship.
Half of the countries I visited were in post-conflict situations. The wars had technically ended but wounds were still raw. Countries are not at their best during these times. Looking back, I wonder if I could do what I have asked of my interpreters -- translate verbatim stories of loss and cruelty from my countrymen while an outsider fastidiously took notes and pestered me with questions. Where did the bomb fall? How old was the child who got killed? Can you spell her name?
Sometimes the task is too much. After 40 minutes of translating non-stop the accounts of Afghan bomb victims, my interpreter, Mariam Hamidi, covered her face with her hands and wept. "I can't translate any more," she said.
There is an aspect of voyeurism to international reporting that has always troubled me. As reporter, you enter broken places, record what you see and hear, and then return home to a community intact. But friendships with my interpreters, forged through our long hours of working together, have made it impossible for me to remain the remote observer.
Last month, I traveled to Haiti, where Vladimir Laguerre helped me report on the country's presidential and legislative elections. A former TV sports broadcaster who left television after suffering a disfiguring burn, Vladimir, 27, was quite the operator, a man who seemed to know half the city of Port au Prince, Haiti's capital. Together we witnessed the excitement and chaos of the elections, the significance of the day's events made clearer to me because of him.
Without Vladimir, I could not have poked through the back alleyways of Cite Soleil, Port au Prince's sprawling slum. Without Vladimir, I could not have met Bob, a handsome young man with skin the color of dark chocolate who eyed us warily and made several cell phone calls before granting us an endearing interview about his work disarming gang members.
Our fixers names rarely appear on the stories we file. Long after, I have forgotten those stories, I remember my interpreters, my distant friends, quite clearly.
Schaeffer-Duffy, a longtime contributor to NCR, is a part-time writer and full-time member of the Sts. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker in Worcester, Mass.
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