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Reporter Peter Slevin

Washington Post reporter, Peter Slevin, talks about his colleague and friend, Elizabeth Neuffer. He was called to the scene of her car accident. We talked to him on his satellite phone from Baghdad.

02:57

Other segments from the episode on May 12, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 12, 2003: Interview with Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland; Obituary for Elizabeth Neuffer.

Transcript

DATE May 12, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Interview: Peter Slevin on the death of Elizabeth Neuffer
TERRY GROSS, host:

We were very sad to hear that Elizabeth Neuffer, a reporter for The Boston
Globe, was killed in a car accident on Friday in Iraq, where she was covering
the aftermath of the war. She's the 13th journalist to die in Iraq since the
war began. She was returning to Baghdad from Tikrit, where she was
researching a story, when the car she was in blew a tire and slammed into a
guard rail. Her translator was also killed. The driver survived.

We called Washington Post reporter Peter Slevin in Baghdad. He was Neuffer's
friend and was called to the scene of the accident.

What story was she working on?

Mr. PETER SLEVIN (The Washington Post): She was working on the story on the
Ba'ath Party, the ruling party in Iraq under Saddam Hussein's era. She had
found some remarkable documents at a Ba'ath Party headquarters that details
how the party itself snooped on Iraqis and intimidated them. She thought it
would work particularly well if she went to Tikrit, which is up the road and
is Saddam Hussein's hometown and a Ba'ath Party stronghold, to write about the
current nominal mayor of this town, who is a former Ba'ath Party player,
Ba'ath Party figure. And she intended to write that, and alongside the story
on the documents that she found.

She had hoped before leaving the country in a couple of weeks to do a story on
the process of de-Ba'athification, the idea that the old party needed to go
and the difficulties of figuring out who was good and who was bad and how Iraq
would move forward after the legacy of the party.

GROSS: Had you been traveling with her?

Mr. SLEVIN: I had not been traveling with her. I ran into Elizabeth when we
separately found ourselves in Najaf, the Shiite holy city south of Baghdad.
She was working on a story of the Hawza, who are religious figures, very
important in Shiite culture and perhaps increasingly important in the politics
of Baghdad. And funny scene because I was waiting to talk to the new mayor of
Najaf, and I saw a woman in abaya, a black cloak that women are required to
wear in the holy site. And something didn't quite compute, and someone said,
`Peter.' And I realized it was Elizabeth. I had thought maybe it was a
Catholic nun perhaps coming to offer some aid. But she was wearing what she
needed to wear to do the story.

GROSS: Well, Peter, we're all very sorry. And I want to thank you so much
for talking with us.

Mr. SLEVIN: I'm glad to talk.

GROSS: Peter Slevin speaking to us from Baghdad.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Remembering an interview with Elizabeth Neuffer
TERRY GROSS, host:

Those of us at FRESH AIR had become great admirers of Elizabeth Neuffer.
She'd been our guest three times in the past few months talking about her
reporting from Iran and Iraq and her earlier work covering Bosnia and Rwanda,
which was the subject of her book "The Key to My Neighbor's House." She had
also covered the first Gulf War and the war on terrorism in Afghanistan. Our
first interview was recorded last December. She had just completed boot camp
for journalists reporting from war zones. She was preparing to go to Iraq. I
asked her about the possibility of being exposed to weapons of mass
destruction. I wanted to know if she found that prospect terrifying.

(Soundbite of 12/3/02 broadcast)

Ms. ELIZABETH NEUFFER: I'm always terrified when I go into a war zone.
People sometimes think I'm a glutton for punishment, but I do always find that
the stories of the people who will be there, the citizens and who are, in
fact, unprepared for these kinds of disasters, are always just extraordinarily
compelling. They're usually worth the risk.

GROSS: Now we were talking about how one of the role-playing things you did
during this boot camp for journalists entering war zones is that you were
abducted, you know, in a role-playing scenario.

Ms. NEUFFER: Right.

GROSS: Have you ever been abducted in real life while covering a war?

Ms. NEUFFER: I was hijacked, I guess would be the way to put it. I had an
incident occur in Bosnia. Imagine it's the height of the war, there's intense
shelling, it's dark at night. A colleague and I are up on Mt. Igman. We can
watch the city being bombed below. And we're attempting to drive out. We're
driving a heavily armored car. The road is slippery, it's rainy, it's a dirt
track. Our car slips in the mud and basically falls into a ditch. We climb
out. It's an exceedingly heavy car, and we can't get it out of the ditch.

Unfortunately, the people we flagged down are extraordinarily drunk soldiers,
and they proceed to sort of take the car battery, to, you know, sort of try to
harass us. They surround my colleague with guns. One of them starts pawing
me rather intensely. And it becomes pretty clear at a certain point that, you
know, rape can be a real option. It was a rather nasty experience and kind of
a horrible realization at the time.

GROSS: How did you get through to the other end on that one?

Ms. NEUFFER: Well, just sort of one of those moments of insight that, in
fact, what these guys probably were more interested in was the car than they
were me. So I spoke a little bit of Bosnian. I kept talking to them, again I
kept trying to humanize myself. I kept saying, you know, `Hi. I'm a
journalist. This man is my husband.' He wasn't, but he was convenient for
the time. And, you know, `Here's our car. Can you help us fix it?' you know,
and eventually handed the car keys over.

And they got very distracted with the idea of getting this car out of the
ditch. And once they took their hands off me, we grabbed the satellite
telephone and ran and found our way to a UN soldier in a tank and had
literally just set up the satellite telephone. And we're radioing for help
and whatever could happen and watched our car drive by us--Vroom!--and saying,
`Whoops,' because now it's like 2 in the morning and we have to hitchhike off
of Mt. Igman in the middle of a terrible shelling raid. But, in fact, we
were able to hitchhike off of Mt. Igman and we did get down to safety. And
eventually the car, in fact, was recovered from these particular thugs. So it
all ended very happily.

GROSS: Is there a story that you've told that has had the biggest impact, you
know, that you feel really good about?

Ms. NEUFFER: Well, I'd have to again refer back to "The Key to My Neighbor's
House." I was really haunted by some of the people I covered in Bosnia and
Rwanda, and that's why I chose to take time off and to write the book. So the
two stories I feel most strongly about are Hasan Nuhanovic. And I told his
story at various points throughout the Bosnian War. Hasan is a survivor of
Srebrenica, the UN safe area that was overrun by Bosnian Serb troops; 8,000
Bosnian men and boys were slaughtered. Hasan survived, but he lost his
family. And a series of stories I did I know answered a lot of questions for
him about sort of who had pulled the trigger and why. And that was a kind of
pretty neat thing to be able to do.

The second story is, again, witness JJ, this remarkable woman I met in Rwanda
after the genocide. I'd told her story, along with that of other women,
of--they were willing to come forward and talk about their rape. Just an
extraordinary set of accounts particularly in conservative Rwanda, where women
rarely talk about issues of sex--and wrote that story.

And when I returned, I guess, three or four years later, I found that, in
fact, witness JJ--and you notice I'm calling her witness JJ and not by her
name--had gone on to be a lead witness at the UN War Crimes Tribunal. And, in
fact, it's due to her testimony that rape is now considered to be an act of
genocide. That is a historical first for women.

GROSS: What did she say, and what was the importance of it?

Ms. NEUFFER: You know, she went in front of the tribunal and basically looked
the man in the eye who had ordered the rapes. His name was Jean-Paul Akayesu.
He was the mayor of her village, of Taba. And she gave extraordinary
testimony about how Akayesu, as he was discussing the women, turned to one of
the Hutu Interahamwe, the sort of Hutu thugs, and said, `Never ask me again
what a Tutsi woman tastes like,' in reference to the fact that the women had
just been raped. And then added, you know, `Because tomorrow, they will all
be killed.' It was that particular set of phrases just--you know, the
courtroom was just dead silent at the sort of gall that this man had to sort
of talk about these women's rape and then basically order them to be killed
the next day.

GROSS: And where is he now?

Ms. NEUFFER: Behind bars for life.

GROSS: A question that's come up is: Should journalists have to testify at
war crimes tribunals about the information that they have? Is there
information you would voluntarily give up to the War Crimes Tribunal because
you didn't think it would hurt victims and that it might help get justice?

Ms. NEUFFER: Yeah. No, it's obviously my company's decision whether or not
they want me to testify or whether or not they want me to turn information
over. But there was a time when I led war crimes investigators to a mass
grave. They wouldn't have found it otherwise. And I didn't see that it was
any dereliction of duty. I happened to be in the neighborhood. I had just
stumbled on it. It was clear that it needed to be safeguarded, that it needed
to be exhumed, that it was an important piece of evidence. And so I, you
know, said, `Hey, follow me. You know, we'll show you where it is.' I didn't
feel that that compromised me in any way as a journalist.

You know, by the sheer fact of the reporting we did--a lot of the reporting we
did in Bosnia, in fact, helped the War Crimes Tribunal. So I think that
it's--you know, we end up often chasing the same things.

GROSS: Elizabeth Neuffer recorded last December. Neuffer was a reporter for
The Boston Globe. She was killed in a car accident Friday in Iraq while
covering the aftermath of the war. She was 46.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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