Telling people's stories into existence

by Jo Hart | Posted in Interviews

Brutally honest. Always on the move. Seemingly fearless.

This is how I can best describe Francesca Borri – a woman I was lucky enough to meet back in 2014. A woman who broke my supposedly resistant heart, who brought me to tears, by showing me what the war in Syria was really about. And I am not talking about such real understanding in the form of finally “getting” Syria’s political backdrop, the hidden power-relations nor its complete history of religious conflicts.

I am talking about “getting” that the war is responsible for an unimaginable number of civilian deaths. “Getting” that love stories and families have been forever destroyed. “Getting” that people still live, people still hope, in the midst of an ongoing inferno.

I still don’t get it completely. I doubt that any outsider can. But Francesca helped me shift my focus. In fact, she gave me no choice, as her mantra from our very first meeting permanently stuck to my brain, my heart, my conscience: “You cannot close your eyes once you have seen. I am not the only one in Syria. We are all in Syria. And when we have all seen, we are all responsible”.


Being the first witness
The Italian journalist is currently based in Baghdad, and has put her life at risk covering frontline clashes in Syria and Iraq since 2012. Although seldom fearing for her own life, Francesca is driven by a deep fear of not getting to tell the stories of people experiencing war. The ability to tell such stories in a non-sensationalist manner is probably reserved for the few war-journalists who linger. Francesca indeed lingers, both in advance and in the aftermath of the main clashes that reach the bold headlines. She is determined to bring civilians’ and victims’ broader stories to the fore, and holds that no matter where she goes, her focus is always the same:

People. Wherever I am, they are my true journey.

But being on the ground before conflicts escalate and unfold, can also be very frustrating. In fact, Francesca terms it the worst part of her job.

– I saw the first foreign jihadists three years ago. I saw the first refugee corpses getting washed to shore. As a journalist on the ground you see things in advance. You see things when they can still be changed. But the editors don’t care. They just want you on the frontline, where there is action. Blood. Sometimes I feel I am just cannon fodder.

Things only exist once they are told
I remember the rollercoaster of reactions I experienced the first time I heard Francesca talk about the war in Syria. I remember the photo of a dead toddler stowed in the back of a car.

At first, I panicked. I had to go out for air, and couldn’t stop crying. After, I went into some kind of zombie-mode. I went to work, I went to Uni, I hung out with friends. But I was not at all present, and the feeling of emptiness was truly suffocating. The only thing that got me out of that mode, was processing an earlier in-depth interview I had done with Francesca. Actually digging deeper into that very matter that made me feel like shit, turned to be the only way out of it. Telling her story to a Norwegian audience, documenting what a humble day-to-day heroine keeps seeing and doing, was something that made some sort of sense.

The feeling of hopelessness and devastation is something Francesca says she deals with every day – “every damn day”. However, there are times when change feels more within reach.

– Things only exist once they are told – and only once they exist, can they be changed. I can’t change anything with my words, I am not so powerful. But I create the space for change – for the actors of change to step in. So when somebody like Jan Egeland, like you, pick up my words, and go out challenging the injustice I see – that’s when I feel this awful life makes sense.

Although that last particular “you” may have been addressed to me, my mended little heart hopes that all of you readers pick up on this sincere, crude and unique journalist’s words. To me, those on the actual ground will forever represent the greatest source of inspiration and activism.

If you want to know more about where in the world Francesca is, and what kinds of stories she comes across, you can follow her on Twitter or Facebook. Francesca published her last book, “La guerra dentro”, in 2014, and is currently working on another one.


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