Shona Murray and Dearbhla Glynn are many things: They are war correspondents, they are women, they are storytellers and they are realists. Yet, despite the hardship they have witnessed humanity endure, they remain hopeful in their dreams for a better world.
Murray and Glynn are two of a handful of Irish women reporting from conflict zones, reporting on war, sexual violence, domestic violence and the biggest refugee crisis in our history. Between them they have reported on almost every conflict area on the map. Dangerous though these places may be, both insist that there is nothing else they would rather be doing. By shining a light on the nightmarish situations occurring around the world, Murray and Glynn are fulfilled in their own lives. Both share a passion for current affairs and human rights, and a sense of duty to raise awareness. Their hope: to bring the stories of the suffering to the forefront, and humanise them in a way that is relatable to those of us more fortunate, galvanising the Western world to take action and make the dreams of those in perturbed conflict zones possible.
Shona Murray, a journalist with Newstalk, could be dispatched at any time. This means she is generally travelling every two weeks. She has reported extensively from The Republic of Congo, Guantanamo Bay, Beirut, Gaza, Jordan, Israel and most recently the Turkish-Syrian border. Murray paints a tense picture when describing her last experience in Gaziantep a couple of weeks ago, where ISIS and the Turkish military continue to hurtle rockets at one another overhead. “Two people had been killed by rockets that day. When you’re on the border, you don’t know when a rocket could come in.” Apart from the constant influx of refugees fleeing ISIS occupied areas such as Albaz in Northern Aleppo, Gaziantep is also a hub through which foreign fighters can enter the combat in Syria, joining the Islamic state or jihadist groups in places like Raka. “It’s not safe for refugees or the Turkish population at the moment” Murray stresses.
It’s not safe for journalists either. She recalls the elusivity of sleep in Gaza two years ago during the Operation Protective Edge, when the air strikes coming in from Israel were constant and shrapnel from distant explosions was coming through the windows. The presence of militant groups also poses a threat, particularly where rape is a prevalent tool of war. Despite these dangers, being at the heart of the action is “the best way to get the story”.
Murray’s unending desire to get the next story is not a result of demanding deadlines or an insatiable press. Rather she is motivated by empathy, something she partly attributes to being a woman and the inherent ability that brings in being able to relate to another woman’s story whether it’s a matter of rape, domestic violence, childbirth or illness.
“One of the reasons I do the job that I do is because I really do want to hear the people’s stories, and I want to publish those stories because I want people to know what is going on. I know that comes from an empathetic place.”
In many of the Middle Eastern countries that Murray has visited, women are oppressed and often forced to take a back seat. On the one hand, these women may find it more difficult to open up to male reporters given societal constructs around gender power roles, while the men may feel they are overstepping the boundaries by questioning them on certain feminine specific topics. In this way female reporters have a stronger chance of making a connection with these women. While commenting on their position in society as secondary citizens, Murray is adamant about her respect for these women. “They are incredibly strong women. They are helping in so many ways. But day to day you do see that women are not treated equally to men.”
In other situations gender is momentarily eradicated, where female reporters take on a so-called “third gender”. Murray explains that as a journalist you are allowed a sort of unspoken dispensation in what is a sort of ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ exchange. “Families want to get their story out. Militant groups like Hamas for example, know that they need to tell their story and you’re there to do that.” Sometimes locals might refuse to shake her hand, but will shake the hand of a male colleague. Murray knows when to pick her battles and knows this is no place to kick up a debate. Again, she is there to get the story. “You can’t get offended. You’re there to do a job, not to interfere with the cultural situation.”
One thinks it must be difficult to settle into life back home with the echo of war still ringing in your ears, but a routine life at home doesn’t interest Murray. “I enjoy my job and if I was at home doing a 9 to 5 job I wouldn’t be fulfilled.” When at home, Murray becomes even more enthusiastic about her job. This is may be linked to her belief that we don’t talk about world affairs enough here in Ireland. She understands it is all relative, particularly given the recession of recent years, but maintains that we could be more informed. “Just a little bit of perspective about what is happening, particularly with refugees around the world. I just don’t feel we are prepared for the crisis that’s emerging. I really don’t think that is part of something on Irish minds.”
Dearbhla Glynn, a human rights filmmaker and journalist, travels less frequently than Murray, but tends to stay for longer periods. Given the investigative nature of her work, she values spending time immersing herself in the culture and getting to know the inhabitants. As a freelancer Glynn has “the luxury of time”, this allows her to capture a deeper element of the story. “I’m trying to bring people’s stories out there and humanise these conflict zones. For me to understand what’s going on in the Congo, I need to spend time with the Congolese people.” Glynn started out as an arts and culture documentary maker. Her first foray into the political spectrum came when she made a music documentary ‘The Mali Project’. The film follows two Irish musicians on an expedition across Mali as they meet and collaborate with the musicians there. It also aimed to subtly highlight the issues Mali was facing as one of the poorest countries in the world. “We were trying to approach it by drawing people in with the positives rather than the negative.”
Mali may have sparked the fuse, but it wasn’t until 2009 when Glynn travelled to Gaza that the fire truly ignited. “When I first went to Gaza I couldn’t believe what was happening and how hard it was to understand. What you get in the media is very brief.” Her disbelief over the conditions that people were being forced to endure and an urge to make them known, signalled a move away from arts and culture documentaries. “Once I started working in active conflict zones it was very hard to walk away from that work then.”
Perhaps Glynn’s most affecting work to date is a short film ‘War on Women in the Congo’ in which she speaks to the perpetrators of rape. While Glynn was studying for a Master’s in Development, she was rigorously researching violence in the Congo and couldn’t find any dialogue from the men. She saw the value in hearing their side and began the project. “If we want to stop this rape surely we need to talk to the men to find out why they’re doing it and include the men in the gender violence programming”. Friends and family at home told her she was crazy, that the men would never speak to her and it was too dangerous. Despite the consternation, to date Glynn has spoken to over fifty men guilty of war crimes against women, who were extremely open with her. What she found was that many of them didn’t know what they were doing was wrong. Having grown up in the context of war, many had been soldiers from a young age, without families to help direct their moral compass. One man who, by the age of twelve, had raped two girls, speaks of hearing rape was a crime for the first time on the radio and becoming overwhelmed with guilt.
Glynn is not forthcoming when it comes to how her gender specifically plays into her experiences saying “I don’t know what it’s like to be a man, so I can’t say.” Tall, blonde and Irish, Glynn is aware of how alien she may appear to residents. She takes care to travel very low key on a motor bike and always with a local person, someone who knows how to deal with rebels or drunk army officers. Though as the only international journalist covering the Beni massacre in the Congo, seeing the blood and the bodies on the ground was a moment of particular vulnerability for Glynn. “You know the people that did this aren’t far away, and you hope as a white person that you aren’t targeted.”
The risks are worth it, it seems, in order to get to know the strong willed survivors of these hardships. “I find the women and the men that grow up within the context of war unbelievably inspiring. The women are unbelievable resilient and strong.” Just a few weeks ago, she spent time with a group of elderly women that had been gang raped. Upon meeting them they were singing and dancing. When they shared their stories of personal rape and familial murder with Glynn, they were of course emotional, but within half an hour she says they were up dancing again. It is this resilience and unrelenting spiritedness in the face of such anguish that inspires Glynn. “They very much live in the moment and get on with life.” Glynn stressed that these women are not victims of rape or war, they are survivors.
What do the children in these conflicted areas dream of? Many of which have experienced high levels of trauma from a young age. “Very simple dreams that we take for granted.” says Glynn. Living in such an unstable situation, where they could easily be displaced, dreams are at their most primitive. A lot of kids dream of going to school says Glynn, an opportunity often only reserved for the privileged. Little girls dream of getting married or finding a ‘good man’. Boys hope to be able to work the land. Above all, these children hope to one day live in peace.
“They live in a very unstable situation where they could easily be displaced. To live peacefully in their homeland where their families come from would be a big dream.”
It may be a little grandiose to say that these women are on a quest for justice, but in their own way both Murray and Glynn are playing their part to make this dream a reality. “That’s the small role that I have, that I can carry these stories out. Crimes against humanity are often geopolitical. It should be a huge problem for the world internationally, not just geographically.” says Glynn. Some of us in the Western world choose to put the blinkers on. Many of us wear them subconsciously. It can be hard to relate to situations that seem so far from our own reality that they could almost be a dream, or a nightmare. These women are giving us to tools to wake up to the world around us.
If there was one thing Murray could change in Irish people’s mind it would be our perception of charity. “I don’t want to be lecturing people.” she says “Irish people are very good about charity, but if people could maybe be indiscriminate about it. In that it doesn’t have to be that charity begins at home or to go to always Irish people.” She stresses that the money that goes to NGOs does make a difference . “They’re human beings and they need our support, so I suppose it would be a bit more empathy for human beings.” Conscious that she may sound sanctimonious, Murray ends this thought with a chuckle, exclaiming “that sounds really fucking knobby!”
Murray is no Mother Theresa, nor does she intend to be, but what she is saying rings true as the reverb of rockets in the war zones she visits. By opening our eyes and our hearts to the suffering of others, we are better equipped with the empathy needed to imagine ourselves in their shoes. Not everyone has to be on the front line in order to ‘walk the walk’, and thankfully we don’t have to. Murray and Glynn act as a microphone through which these people can share their story on an amplified stage. We owe it to them to listen. By educating ourselves and putting our money where our mouth is every once in a while, we are making the first steps towards a better world: One where nightmares remain a product of our wavering subconscious and dreams become an attainable reality.
Illustration: Sarah Moloney