Tag Archives: literary journalism

“The Angel of Grozny” by Asne Seierstad

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‘That’s where I wrote the song “Russian Mothers”. I was washing clothes and weeping, and suddenly I thought: our tears are the same, the Chechen mothers’ and the Russian mothers’. (Singer Liza Umarova)

I was speechless when I finished the book. It made me remember that we know nothing. And to never judge anyone, under no circumstances. I admire how Seierstad treats all people with utmost respect for their dignity. Talking to and presenting the story of abused children requires such a compassion and ethics that very few are capable of in her line of work. Same goes for victims of torture, and so many more victims of a merciless system. This should be in a manual of journalism schools, I think.

Much is written about this book. I will not describe it here. I would only mention what I found insightful.

When you talk with people who share different views, try to grasp how much propaganda they have absorbed. “Rizvan would not discuss whether the struggle was worth the countless innocent victims. ‘Svoboda ili Smert,’ he replied again. ‘We’ll fight to the last man and the last drop of blood. But don’t look on us as fanatics; we want a secular state, like Norway, for example.’”

Before we embark on a judgement journey, we should ask ourselves what did we do, what is our responsibility and how it is seen by others. “The West, with its so-called humanitarianism, could have helped us, but you don’t say a word!’” “No one trusts anyone else any more, because Putin had a stroke of genius: he let Ramzan Kadyrov do the dirty work. Now it’s Chechen against Chechen.’ It’s called ‘chechenising’ the conflict. Whereas before, Russian forces committed the worst abuses, now the Chechen militia maintains control in a society maimed by fear.” “Religion is the only real way to get rid of crime, to teach people, improve them, purify them.” Only then perhaps we will start to understand. “Something about Chechen men gives the impression that they are always prepared. Ready to attack or to defend themselves. It’s as if they are filled with a perpetual, unreleased tension.”

Always remember the ones who are behind, in the shadow or totally invisible: “Vladimir Putin is only the latest in the line of conquerors. The latest to try to tame the wolves. Myself, I am more interested in the wolf cubs. Zaira knew where I could find them, and had promised to take me to a woman they called the Angel of Grozny.” Seierstad made us see the orpahns we pretend do not exist.

“With their backs to the world. Portraits from Serbia” by Asne Seierstad

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One of the things I noticed in common in all her books is how Seierstad talks about sisterhood. Her fellow reporter Bojana in Serbia, or in Iraq…

Back to “With their backs to the world”, the book came to life after three visits to Serbia between 1999 and 2004. She wanted to understand: “I couldn’t stop wondering about the Serbs, these outcasts of Europe. This people that started one war after the other, and lost them all.” And so she does and helps us understand.

I have to say that whenever I met Serbs, my brain was full of stereotypes from both western and eastern media. The book broadened my perception and I will look with a lot more compassion and empathy at anyone coming from a Serbia governed by Tito, Milošević and other subsequent governments. Seierstad talks to people and listens to them. She does not judge and offers no personal views. So that we take it unaltered from Serbs of different background, genders, age, social status, regions and income. By sharing their daily bread, she teleports us into their lives, dreams and regrets.

The lines I found insightful about the way Serbs think:

‘The bombing was the worst thing the West could do to us – it only validated Milosevic’s rhetoric about the West hating the Serbs. The West has committed a series of blunders in its dealings with Milosevic,’ Bojana explains.

‘I can’t let them down. I’m their voice, and I have to go after those in power, the new and the old.’ – a Serb journalist.

‘The media is another problem – journalists here have been taught to repeat what they’ve been told and have grown up in a culture of self-censorship. Most of them do what they’ve always done – they just have different bosses. And the new power base is happy to exploit the situation.”

‘The only way for a reconciliation to occur is by knowing the truth about what has happened here. So many atrocities have taken place, but in order to forgive I need to know who I am to forgive, and why. It will be a difficult and painful process, but we have to go through it in order to proceed. We need a truth commission, like in South Africa. If we don’t determine who is guilty of what, the entire nation will be guilty – just of being Serbs.’

“Because no one was ever held accountable for anything, people allow themselves to forget – or, rather, remember only the parts they want to remember.”

“And this is how so many wars have started in the Balkans – through stretching historical facts to fit an emotional state, through lying about everything from statistics to myths. Great wars start out as folk songs and camp-fire stories, and end in genocide and bloodbaths.”

‘The West should be ashamed. The bombing presented the opposition with enormous difficulties. At the last election I urged people to vote for a democracy styled on Western Europe, and then these very same democracies attack us. How am I supposed to justify this? I asked people to put their faith in the EU flag – and the next thing we know, we’re bombed by the EU!’

“The best way to shake people out of their inertia is to put them in debt. Then you give them the power to realise their dreams overnight, while ensuring that they’ll spend years paying for their dreams. This is the principle upon which the stability of the Western world rests.’

“Two sisters” by Asne Seierstad

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This is the second book by Asne Seierstad I read. “Two Sisters” is her sixth book. Released in Norway in November 2016, it became the bestselling book of the year, and won the prestigious Brageprisen.

The book is about the journey of two Somali sisters from Norway into the jihad in Syria. The author did a tremendous job to reconstruct the scenes as accurately as possible, which is not at all an easy task. In literary journalism the accuracy depends almost entirely on sources and in this case there were scattered, plentiful and fragmented. If you are interested in the methodology the author applied, read the post-face.

The “entire world is trying to understand the reasons for radicalization among Muslim youth” and this is the impetus of the book. As the author herself puts it: “There is no single explanation, but one can point to several factors, including the search for identity, meaning, and status; the desire to belong; the influence of others; excitement; the need to rebel; and romantic notions.”

Imagine waking up one morning and reading an email from your daughters saying “We have decided to travel to Syria to help out down there the best we can … . It was painful to read about the struggles of the father who travelled to Syria to bring back his daughters and who gave it up failure after failure of rescuing them. It was even more painful to read about how judgmental or indifferent humans can be in the face of a family’s tragedy. This book is a must-read for parents and guardians. As children grow and start interacting more with circles outside the family the vigilance must increase.