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Female war correspondent finds gender an asset in Chechnya

By Laura Bailey


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ARLINGTON, Va. — Being a female reporter was an advantage in covering the latest war in Chechnya, says Anne Nivat, Moscow correspondent for the French newspaper Liberation.

Nivat, who spent six months as a free-lance journalist in Chechnya before being deported last year, discussed her new book, Chienne de Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya, on April 19 at The Freedom Forum World Center.

"The fact that I am a woman was a great, great help. Women don't really count in Chechnya. They don't pay attention to women, which would irritate me a great deal, but in this case it worked in my favor," said Nivat, noting that her male colleagues often problems with Russian authorities.

"It is very difficult for these men to go across the country, to travel by themselves, because they can be stopped at every checkpoint."

The 31-year-old French writer said that in the war zone Russian soldiers constantly stop men between the ages of 15 and 60, but she was able to pass through unnoticed by presenting herself as a Chechen woman.

Being a woman helped in other ways, too, Nivat said, including information gathering. She said she found that easier because as a woman she was sometimes not taken very seriously, which made sources more willing to talk.

"I was able to play that card," she admitted.

The journalist, whose book describes her daily experiences, defied Russian authorities by following the rebels and staying with Chechen families. She traveled from home to home each night, often sleeping in her clothes without so much as a sleeping bag. She wrote her stories by hand and then filed them — to two French newspapers, Liberation and Ouest-France — by dictating them over a hidden satellite phone that she strapped to her stomach each day.

Asked if her gender was ever an impediment, Nivat said no. "Chechnya is a very divided society with women and men, but they let me in because I was a foreign journalist," Nivat said of the access she had to both circles. She added she was also able to move with ease in part because of her fluency in Russian.

While journalists freely covered the Chechen war in 1994-1996, Western journalists are now barred from covering the new conflict. With a few exceptions, Russian journalists who cover the latest conflict do so only with a military escort to locations predetermined by the government. This control, Nivat and other say, has helped the Russian government retain popular support for its military campaign in the breakaway province.

"We can say that Moscow won the propaganda war. That's for sure. The coverage of this war has been very biased. Of course, I don't blame journalists. It's amazingly dangerous to do what I did," Nivat said. "I refused from the very beginning to be shown what I should write about. I don't consider that journalism," she added.

Russian authorities deported Nivat from Chechnya in February 2000. Since then, she has returned for two shorter reporting trips. The first was a three-day trip escorted by the Russian Army. Then in September, Nivat again crossed the border illegally from neighboring Ingushetia to cover the war from the Chechen side until October.

Before her free-lancing stint, Nivat worked for three years as a writer for Radio Free Europe's Transitions magazine in Prague.

Laura Bailey is an intern in The Freedom Forum International Division.