By Melinda Liu
Much is different now. When I started out in journalism in the 1970s, it wasn’t just a different culture. It was a whole different universe. Imperious men largely dominated the media field. Just for instance, one editor visiting Hong Kong asked me to bring half a dozen shirts to his customary tailor to have new collars and cuffs put on.
But when women put themselves in the middle of the action, of course, they ran just the same risks as men, as I learned in Manila in 1986. Late one night, a Filipino source phoned me suggesting I head over to the Presidential Palace. “Something might happen there tonight.” President Ferdinand Marcos and First Lady Imelda were hunkered down inside, facing what had seemed a peaceful revolution, but guarded by combat-hardened soldiers. To get over there I grabbed a Manila Hotel driver and we hopped into his roomy white Mercedes— budgets were very different then— and navigated through the dark to confront a bizarre street scene.
Suddenly, firecrackers exploded. Crack! CRACK! That spooked the heavily armed troops defending the palace. More fireworks—then gunfire. Everyone scattered. I ran a short way, then hit the ground. I couldn’t see much beyond the foot of the guy lying in front of me, who kept twitching as bullets pinged off the pavement. Slowly, I became conscious of a stinging sensation in my right knee.
Damn, I’d been shot. I made it to the hotel car, then the hospital. Amazingly, the bullet had missed hitting any bones and the entry and exit holes were clean. I was even able to walk—slowly—back to the car from the emergency room and through the hotel lobby to my room. Full of painkillers, I fell into bed. By morning, a stream of well-wishers stopped by, including photographers Jim Nachtwey and Sandro Tucci. “What luck you had!” Sandro told me, “A ‘perfect’ injury—not too bad, but bad enough to make a good war story.” Then he joked, “Even some of us male photographers are feeling a bit jealous of you.”
That was flattering, of course. Yet disconcerting, too. Really, I was just lucky not to have died out there, and my survival had nothing to do with skill or smarts or, for that matter, gender. I told my editors and colleagues the wound was so minor I didn’t think it was worth mentioning in Newsweek’s coverage of Marcos’ fall. “It’s no big deal,” I heard myself telling our legendary publisher, Katharine Graham, when she phoned to ask how I was. “Really,” I said.
Some people don’t like the idea of writing specifically about “women on the front lines” because to say it that way focuses too much attention on us as females, and not enough on how well we can do the job. So I’m just going to tell some stories about how this one individual Chinese-American female journalist survived on the front lines.
In some reporting situations, it did matter that I was a woman, or of Asian descent, or carrying $10,000 in my money belt for emergencies. Sometimes I found that being a woman gave me an advantage. While reporting on the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, for example, I was regularly invited in by Afghan wives. Normally they would be barred by conservative tradition from conversing with men who weren’t their relatives.
Afghanistan was notable because you could use the “burqa ploy,” wearing as a disguise the long flowing outfit that covers pretty much everything on a woman from the top of the head to the ankle, with a little mesh “window” you could see through, kind of.
After 9/11, I was trying desperately to get to Kabul from Pakistan, to report from the Afghan capital on the fall of the Taliban. On the eve of the ground offensive, I’d joined several other Western correspondents who’d tagged along with a friendly warlord’s convoy from the Pakistani border to the Afghan city of Jalalabad. But that wasn’t good enough. Over a Thuraya satellite phone that night my foreign editor told me to “get to Kabul any way you can. That’s the dateline we want.”
Somehow I found an SUV and driver to hire, as well as a translator; both guys looked about 16 years old. I pulled out my burqa, putting it on before climbing into the back of the SUV, and off we sped. It was an anxious drive, especially when an Afghan man with an AK-47 popped out right in front of our car. My driver stopped. The man wanted a lift. I kept silent and unmoving in the back, comforted only by the thought that traditional custom would discourage our new companion from speaking with me, an unrelated woman.
Arriving safely in Kabul, I chucked the burqa and scrambled to find a hotel. Then I headed out to report, almost immediately encountering two shy Afghan women on the street. Upon seeing I was also female, they showed their faces and smiled. One of them stuck her hand inside the folds of her burqa and pulled out a handful of glitter. Soundlessly, she tossed it in the air, a blizzard of iridescence. Giggling, we were a sisterhood of discreet triumph.
My memories of that luminous day, lit by the rays of a wintry sun low in the sky, are forever marred by the grim news that I heard later. Not long after I’d travelled down the then-deserted Jalalabad-Kabul highway, a convoy of eight trucks and taxis carrying several Western correspondents attempted the same journey. They didn’t share my good luck. Six turbaned men with weapons stopped the first two vehicles. “The Taliban is still around,” they declared. They shot four western reporters—including Italian correspondent Maria Grazia Cutuli, 39, of Corriere Della Sera—and a local guide. The corpses were left near the roadside. Someone had cut off the female reporter’s earlobe, evidently in order to steal an earring.
Afterwards, some cited Maria’s death as the reason women should avoid war reporting. “What happens when you face death on the front lines? ”one male colleague asked. I gave the obvious answer, “The same thing that happens to men.”
To be sure, one thing was bound to be a little different. “It was always the bathroom thing,” declared Tad Bartimus, a woman journalist who covered Vietnam in 1973 and ‘74 for The Associated Press. “Women, the men said, couldn’t go to war because there was no proper place for them to relieve themselves discreetly,” she wrote. “That was The Big Excuse.”
Nor had this issue disappeared entirely by the spring of 1991. Though still in much smaller numbers than men, women were in the American military, and a number of female correspondents covered the liberation of Kuwait. After the U.S.- led coalition rolled through southern Iraq with Desert Storm, the landscape teemed with surrendering Iraqi soldiers, anti-Saddam Iraqi rebels, and coalition troops from various nations. Based in liberated Kuwait, I spent long hours “commuting” into Iraq.
Once I was with another female reporter—let’s call her Carol—and we drove deep into Iraq. We ran into scattered Iraqi soldiers looking for someone, anyone, to whom they could surrender. Previously, one motley gaggle had scrounged up uniforms worthy of a high school marching band. With a flourish, the senior Iraqi officer pulled out his toy sword and presented it to us. It was dark by the time Carol and I began the four-hour drive back to Kuwait. The rubblestrewn concrete highway was pocked with craters, the risk of mines remained high. One elevated off-ramp abruptly ended in mid-air, without warning. We drove slowly, and eventually needed a bathroom break. By moonlight I saw a roadside culvert that seemed the perfect impromptu pit stop. We slowed to a halt and stepped out into the darkness. The place seemed deserted.
It wasn’t. As I stood up after urinating, the night exploded with the wolf whistles and laughter of what sounded like a vast army of American men. By the light of the moon I noticed—too late—the silhouettes of many U.S. armored vehicles lined up neatly some distance from the road. Silently, U.S. troops had been watching us, using night-vision goggles. As someone shouted “Hot damn!” Carol and I got back in the car and sped off. It could have been humiliating. But after weeks of covering death and destruction, I felt lucky to be alive. We just laughed our way back to Kuwait.
Today, many women have won a place at the front line. But it’s still an uphill battle getting the same titles and the same pay as men. Recently Carrie Gracie of the BBC quit her job as China editor because she discovered male colleagues in equivalent assignments were getting paid way more than she. “Conflicted yet empowered” is how she described her feelings, and her comments made me think back on the closest I ever came to resigning in the field.
It was the spring of 2003 and I was in Baghdad. I’d been hunkered down in Saddam Hussein’s capital for weeks, preparing to cover the coming war. While Saddam remained in power, there wasn’t much independent reporting to be done. So I made contacts, stocked up on supplies to last through the conflict, and waited for the bombs to fall. I knew roughly when the bombing of Baghdad would start, so I agreed with my Newsweek editors to decide on X day whether I should stay, or drive through the desert to Jordan.
When X day arrived, I argued that despite the risks I should stay because a critical mass of Western journalists would be there, too, as opposed to those “embedding” with the U.S. military. With so many Western media in one place, I reasoned, at a minimum the Pentagon would avoid bombing our hotel. My editors agreed that I could stay.
Then everything changed. The Pentagon began calling various American publications, insisting publishers and editors order their correspondents out of Baghdad. I got a call from Rick Smith, my top boss at Newsweek. He sternly told me I must leave for Jordan.
Furious, I said I’d depart, but only if it could be done safely. We were already perilously close to the onset of the U.S.-led “shock and awe” attack on Baghdad. In order to leave, I first had to pay a bunch of fees so I could get an exit permit; without it, at the Jordan border I would have been stopped and sent back to Baghdad under armed guard, as happened to a number of Western reporters.
Frustrated, I promised Rick I’d get my exit permit the next morning, then depart in a convoy headed for Amman. I planned to tender my resignation once I got there.
But things didn’t work out that way. I owed daily fees for bringing in a satphone, whopping bills at the Palestine Hotel, and a per diem fee to the Ministry of Information simply for the privilege of being in Baghdad. The next morning, when I went to pay the Iraqi man who took the money and issued receipts—a curious guy with no fingernails, who used to record the serial numbers of every U.S. bill that passed through his hands—he was nowhere to be found.
One of his colleagues said he was last seen in front of an open safe, shoving money into a sack. The Ministry of Information was pandemonium as Iraqis wheeled out furniture and file cabinets. I never did find the money man, whom I’d dubbed The Gnome.
I phoned Rick to tell him I couldn’t get to Jordan safely. With no exit permit, I could have been stranded in the Iraqi desert with bombs falling around. He acquiesced. Then I asked to be connected to the foreign editor. I was exhausted, but the adrenaline would have to keep flowing for at least a few more days. The coming weeks would be the most critical and perhaps the most dangerous as Saddam’s regime crumbled and the American military advanced toward Baghdad. A power vacuum could mean looting, chaos, maybe even retribution by vengeful pro-Saddam lynch mobs. Would there be food, water, electricity? Amid chaos, would my computer get trashed just as I needed to file?
Newsweek’s foreign editor, Jeff Bartholet, got on the phone. “I guess you know I wasn’t able to leave Baghdad safely,” I blurted out. “Yeah, I heard,” he said. “The Pentagon says the bombing will start about five hours from now.” We both paused for a second. Then we switched gears to tackle the business at hand. “Now that you’re staying,” Jeff said, “probably you should file at least once a day, in rolling takes; don’t try to do one long piece. Who knows what’ll happen when we’re on deadline.” We discussed a few more technical issues. I said nothing about my thoughts of resigning. At the end of our talk, Jeff urged me to take care, then asked one final question before the bombing: “When do you think you can send your first file?”
Melinda Liu, who served as Beijing Bureau Chief for Newsweek from 1998 until 2013, is a veteran foreign correspondent and the recipient of numerous accolades, including the 2006 Shorenstein Journalism Award for her reporting on Asia.