Jeffrey Gettleman: On Reporting Somalia's Crisis

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This week, New York Times correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman will receive a George Polk Award for being the first to report that the militant Islamist group al-Shabab had prevented starving people from leaving Somalia.

On Wednesday's Fresh Air, Gettleman, who has covered Somalia for almost six years, explains how he found out that al-Shabab, a militant group with ties to al-Qaida, first prevented Western food agencies from operating in their territories and then blocked escape routes to prevent people from leaving drought-inflicted areas of Somalia during a famine.

"I started working in refugee camps in Kenya, then I went to Mogadishu to where people were gathering and they just had these horrific stories about how they were starving to death, watching their children die of malnutrition and starvation and malaria and a lot of other diseases, and the Shabab was still refusing to allow any aid in," Gettleman tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

"And then it got worse. The Shabab wasn't allowing anybody to leave. They were even blocking rivers and diverting the river to their backers who were commercial farmers," he says. "So it was like this perfect storm: You had this horrible drought, you had a country that's very inaccessible to begin with and then you had a vehemently anti-Western group that was making matters even worse."

Gettleman traveled through Africa with veteran Times photographer Tyler Hicks, who is also being honored with a George Polk Award.

On Aug. 2, The New York Times ran a Hicks photograph taken in a Somali hospital showing a young child dying of starvation. Gettleman, who was with Hicks at Benadir Hospital in Mogadishu, says he saw dozens of children in similar conditions. The two men watched one 3-year-old girl die in front of them, and then watched her father openly sob as he looked for a place to bury her.

"We associate Somalia and this part of Africa with so much suffering and disaster and famines and war and civil war and poverty, and even with the people who are surrounded by that, it's still devastating for them to go through this," he says. "And they still grieve. They still suffer. And we could see it."

Gettleman says his goal is to reach people who may not be thinking about these issues day in and day out.

"Part of my job is to present the story in as clear and powerful terms as I am able to," he says. "Use my understanding, use my experience, use my ability to boil things down. ... In this case, people responded. We had these stories on the front page. There were a number of aid organizations that contacted me directly. ... I can't feed the people myself. It's a huge problem that's overwhelming for any of us."


Interview Highlights

On the photograph that Tyler Hicks took of the dying child in Somalia

"I don't think of it as graphic. Other people have used that word and we took a lot of criticism for that front-page picture. That picture that Tyler took in the early days of the famine we put above the fold very prominently on the front page of The New York Times and a lot of people said, 'It's graphic, it's too disturbing, it's sensitive.' And our point was, 'It's supposed to be disturbing. What's happening is disturbing.' Is it graphic? Graphic almost [means] a gratuitous sensationalist approach to depicting something. We didn't feel that. We weren't trying to exaggerate or be especially dramatic. Our approach was to be very nonjudgmental — not so much understatement, but just be very straightforward."

On life for women in Congo and Somalia

"Congo is infamous now for these mass rapes. I did a story about a year ago where there was one village, and one night an armed group came in and raped 300 women in this spree of violence. They didn't kill anyone. They just raped woman after woman after woman, including the 84-year-old woman who I had interviewed. She had been gang raped by young men and she screamed, 'Grandsons get off me.' It just boggles the mind of what's the strategic purpose of this, what would drive people to do that.

"In Somalia, we hadn't heard much about the rape issue. Of course, we knew it was going to go up during a conflict, that women are going to be exposed, that women were on the run with their families, but we weren't hearing a lot of detail. But then through sources of mine, we started hearing more and more. And this winter, I went to do a story specifically on this problem and I met more than a dozen women who gave me very detailed accounts of being raped, many of them by the Shabab."

On music returning to Somalia now that al-Shabab is being driven out of some areas

"There's this sense of a prisoner stepping out from a dark cell into the sunlight. That's what we're seeing in Somalia. There's artists that are painting again. There's singers that are singing in public. There's radio shows that are, God forbid, playing music. And we have to remember, the radio is the most important piece of technology in most of Somalia. The literacy rates are very low. It's traditionally been an oral society. People don't have TVs. So the radio becomes their way to connect to the wider world. Al-Shabab were micromanaging even the smallest radio stations and their daily programs to make sure they didn't play music. Now, that's one of the first things people happily jettisoned and put music back on the airwaves."

On what he eats when he's covering a famine in Somalia

"You eat fine. A couple of years ago, the World Food Program took a bunch of journalists into Somalia to show them an area that was right on the verge of famine. And the minute that we flew in on this chartered plane and we were whisked into this hospital, we were herded upstairs and we step into this room and there's an abundance of food — camel meat, potatoes, mangoes, bananas, stacks of pita bread, soda, bottled water. And that was to welcome us. And that was a really jarring, eye-opening experience to think, 'What's going on here? Why is this food here? How can I eat this if we're here to cover a food crisis?' But this is the thing: famines are about distribution; they're not about total capacity to feed people. In Mogadishu, there was plenty of food when I was there. So I was eating chicken, beef, vegetables — I was eating fine."

On why he goes into Somalia

"There's a bullseye on my head when I step into Somalia, wherever I am. People have been kidnapped and killed. Westerners have been taken hostage. I'm going into this area — and putting myself in danger and so is the photographer — and the paper supports us doing that because we feel that this is important, this is part of our job and we have an opportunity as journalists to make a difference."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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