The Colgate Scene
Behind enemy lines
|by Rebecca Costello|
In the rubble on the south side of Kabul, Afghanistan, December 2001 (Photos bourtesy Bob and Lee Woodruff)
He interviewed former mujahidin commander Abdul Haq shortly before Haq was murdered by the Taliban. He reported from the rubble of Rish Khor, the al-Qaida training camp where terrorists learned how to blow up airplanes, bridges and buildings, after American bombs had decimated the site. He spent a day at a hard-line fundamentalist school, to shed light on a six-year-old Pakistani boy's unimaginable hatred of America.
ABC television viewers have learned much about events and life in Afghanistan and Pakistan since September 11 through the reports of foreign correspondent Bob Woodruff '83.
He was among the first reporters to arrive in Islamabad after the attacks.
"This is the most important story that a lot of journalists have ever worked on, and that's true also with me," he said. "That drives you. The U.S. was attacked in a way that changes the world. To try to get to the root of that, the reasons behind it, is something that is not only challenging but extremely important.
"I love being out in the field. I love reporting," said Woodruff, who since taking his London-based assignment in Sept. 2000 has been to Jerusalem six times to cover the intifada and has spent much time in Belgrade, including covering the fall of Slobodan Milosevic. In late September he was recognized by USA Today as someone to watch among television correspondents covering the aftermath of the attacks.
"Part of being a reporter is that you have to be somewhat addicted to adrenaline, particularly when you're working in foreign situations, covering wars and conflicts and civil strife," Woodruff said. "You have to be curious about the world, to want to know what makes it tick, because it's never a convenient assignment. You're rarely in nice hotels. You often don't get very good food. You're almost always tired or jet-lagged, and you are throwing yourself into places where you have few or no contacts and have to familiarize yourself with the story and your surroundings in very short order." Woodruff noted that shortly after the Northern Alliance took control of Kabul in November, he even had to make do without a camera crew. "We were shooting our own stories by ourselves, cutting them on the computer and sending voice tracks back to London over an ISDN line."
Colleagues say his insatiable curiosity and work ethic, combined with a disarming personality, adventuresome spirit and true compassion, make Woodruff a strong correspondent.
"When Bob comes at a story, he's not just there to read a script," said ABC News producer Andrew Morse. "He'll do everything from carrying the cameraman's gear to running out and getting everybody drinks to sitting down and doing the nitty gritty of the reporting. When he's doing an interview, he won't stop at the surface. He keeps digging until he gets what he wants, and he gets excited about everything -- any new lead on the story, any new detail, he's jumping to cover it."
Morse and Woodruff scoured bookshops in Albania so Woodruff could gain more background knowledge for a story about the trafficking of girls and women from the Balkans to Western Europe for prostitution.
"That's something a lot of correspondents don't do," Morse said. "And Bob was incredibly well-read into the story. But it takes more than that. It's one thing to be analytical; it's another to be human." Morse described sitting in a single-room home shared by an Albanian family of 10. Two daughters had been sold into prostitution -- one of them was dead, the other missing.
"I was watching Bob do an interview with this father and mother whose lives had been so utterly shattered. First they started talking very tentatively. By the end, Bob had gotten them to loosen up in a way that was just remarkable. He was listening to the story, but it was clear that he wasn't just hearing their words. He was moved. It was his empathy that made the story really work and made these people comfortable talking to him."
Bob Woodruff '83 spent much of last fall and winter reporting from Pakistan and Afghanistan for ABC News.
"Bob loves to go to places that the rest of us would feel are crazy, abnormal
places," said Vinnie Malhotra, a World News Tonight producer who spent
three months with Woodruff in Pakistan and Afghanistan last fall. "And you're
trying to keep up with him as a producer because he's up at the crack of dawn,
he's filing late into the night.|
"He's not shaken very easily," Malhotra added. "He can sit down and interview some warlord and not be scared that he's going to say the wrong thing. He's going to ask the tough questions. I think a lot of it comes from having a legal background. He's sharp, and I think that serves him very well in the field."
Woodruff practiced law at both the New York and San Francisco offices of Shearman & Sterling, with a teaching stint in Beijing in between, before becoming a journalist in 1991. He agrees that the skills he gained practicing law are helpful in reporting. The ability to "navigate through certain kinds of documents, court papers and other pieces of information" was especially useful in his previous ABC News assignment as justice correspondent covering the attorney general and federal law enforcement. And in general, "you have to take a lot of information and facts and synthesize it into something that's understandable in a very short period of time," he said.
As a war correspondent, determining the stories to cover is "very much an on-the-ground, field reporting situation," said Woodruff. "Nobody at the desk in London or New York could possibly know what stories are interesting. For example, shortly after Kabul fell, you could walk around the city and find a story just about on every street corner."
Then there is that six-year-old Pakistani boy, whom Woodruff and his colleagues met at a pro-Taliban rally in Quetta.
"He was holding his finger up in the air gesturing to the crowd and promising to gouge out the eyes of the Americans, his voice filled with hatred," he said. "We followed him back to the religious school where he'd been studying, to see how these ideas had been formed in his brain at such a young age. We were granted full access to his speech classes where they practiced these types of anti-American diatribes, to his religious classes where he memorizes the Koran and is schooled in jihad.
"We did a Nightline piece on that," said Woodruff. "Here was this young kid who was already filled with hatred for us. He had never met an American before me, yet he hated all Americans. He had no idea where America was, yet he hated America as a country. And you know, you see the world that he's growing up in, a kid born of poverty in this little frontier town in Pakistan and all these adults around him have filled him with these ideas. Now, every kid is filled with ideas from adults. But these particular ideas were venomous."
For today's foreign correspondents covering war zones, there's a new level of risk. "Until the Gulf War, there was no such thing as reporting behind enemy lines," Woodruff said. "This is one of the new developments in war coverage." During WWII or Vietnam, he explained, "to the extent that you were getting wartime stories, you were getting them with the U.S. military on the front lines, which had serious hazards attached, but you weren't in Hanoi reporting on the Viet Cong." Members of the media now often are on their own, in locations where no one is in control, anyone they talk to could pose a threat and keeping safe "may boil down to, you could go to this house but don't go to this house; you could stand on this hill but don't stand on that hill, depending on where the shelling might be -- just watching where the missiles are landing."
Woodruff mentioned reporting from Belgrade during the NATO campaign. "While my country was dropping bombs on the city, I was there asking the citizens what they thought about it, and clearly I'm an American. Now we're reporting in Afghanistan as Afghanistan is being bombed."
In January, after spending about 15 weeks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Woodruff was on the last leg of his trip back to London "to finally see my family again." Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl's kidnappers had just set a deadline for Pearl's execution and announced their intent to go after other members of the press. At 2:00 a.m. in the Dubai airport, waiting to get on the plane, Woodruff said he "made the mistake of answering my cell phone." It was his chief assignment manager in New York, who asked, "Do you know why we're calling?"
"I said, kind of tongue-in-cheek, `Let me get this straight. They've threatened to kill all the foreign journalists in Pakistan, so you want me to go back,'" Woodruff said. "And of course I went. We're being targeted now, there's no question about it, by certain elements.
|"Sometimes . . . you interview people and two weeks later they're dead. That is something that still shocks me."||
For most of this conflict, Wood-ruff and his colleagues have avoided using
weapons or guards for protection. "In Pakistan and Kabul, our feeling was that
guns attracted potential gunfights. Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance, which
cleared the town out of any potential al-Qaida or Taliban elements. It was
quite clear that it was under very strict control. But when we went to
Kan-dahar after it fell, two or three armed guards accompanied us just about
wherever we went. Kandahar fell by negotiation, which allowed a lot of the
Taliban and al-Qaida elements to disperse into the hills and into the
population. So there was this inherent danger that made us much more vulnerable
there. Whether or not that's true is unclear, because no one from the foreign
press has been killed in Kandahar, but part of it may be because essentially
everybody was using armed guards there."|
"You stay vigilant," he said. "You try not to make any stupid mistakes or go into unknown situations, to the extent that you can." Woodruff noted that he and his colleagues also rely on Afghan journalists, photographers, former soldiers and police "to give us a good read about where there may be hostile elements."
Among the stories in the palette of reporting he's done since Sept. 11 are some -- like the school piece -- that have had a particular impact on him. "I went to Peshawar and did an interview with Abdul Haq, who had fought against the Soviets and then had left the country after the Soviets fell," Woodruff said. "He was considered by the Americans and a lot of people as a great hope, a unifier of Afghanistan, possibly, or someone who could help overthrow the Taliban. He went into Afghanistan about two weeks after I interviewed him to try and gather support against the Taliban, and he was shot by the Taliban and killed.
"Sometimes . . . you interview people and two weeks later they're dead," said Woodruff. "That is something that still shocks me."
In spite of the dangers and other drawbacks, he says he loves what he does.
"It's a remarkably rewarding and interesting job. It's probably the best job I could have for my own personal strengths and weaknesses," said Woodruff, although there's also the fact that it's "a very difficult lifestyle for a family. I probably have more kids than most people reporting in war zones." He and Lee have four children, two aged ten and eight and two-year-old twins. "It would have been nice to have done this ten years ago [before the kids came along]," he mused. "But on the other hand, if I had done this ten years ago, I might not have the family I have now."
Woodruff occasionally fills in as news anchor on Good Morning America
No matter where in the world he's traveling, Woodruff stays in constant touch
with his family, which is "crucial. Without that, it would be very difficult,"
he said. While correspondents without families don't need to worry about those
back at home and might feel more free to go into dangerous places or to be away
for long periods of time, Woodruff says, "throughout my career, it's really
been a source of strength for me to have Lee and the kids."|
Of the Woodruffs' relationship, Malhotra, who's a frequent roommate of Woodruff's when they travel for stories, remarked: "What strikes me is, they have four kids, they've been married a long time, but they would be on the phone and I could have easily believed he was talking to his girlfriend. They have that kind of jokey, flirtatious conversation. It's wonderful. You can tell that they're so much in love."
While their two older children take Dad's being on TV in stride, Woodruff said "they certainly have curiosity about where I am and what I'm doing. I tell them what's happening in the Middle East, to try to make them understand what that conflict is all about, what the war in Afghanistan means to them and to the United States. I don't try to shield them . . . certainly, the gore and the truly troubling stories I keep away from them, but I like to use what I do as a way to teach them about the world."
And, he quipped, "they're among the few kids who know how to pronounce Slobodan Milosevic."
Of his job, Woodruff says he most enjoys the variety, the people he meets, and "the understanding that it provides you, by seeing so much of the third world, at a time when I think understanding is so crucial.
"I always wanted to be an international lawyer," he said, "but I found that it was going to be conference rooms in cities throughout the world . . . instead, I've been able to have much a more diverse experience in these places that I've visited and had contact with people that I probably would have never come in contact with had I been doing large corporate deals.
"I've got to tell you, it's the first job I've ever had where I really can't wait to go to work."
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