Elizabeth Neuffer | 1998 Courage in Journalism Award
(June 15, 1956 – May 9, 2003)
The Boston Globe, United States
One of the only a few reporters present in Sarajevo on February 1994 – the day a bomb exploded in a marketplace, killing 68 and prompting NATO intervention – went on to cover every pivotal event of the Bosnian conflict and post-war Bosnia. She received repeated threats by Bosnian Serbs for her series on war crime.
She was the first American correspondent to expose the Dutch UN forces’ culpability in the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces following the fall of the UN safe haven of Srebrenica.
In 1996, Neuffer also covered the return of thousands of Hutu refugees from Zaire to Rwanda. Her series detailed corruption and nepotism in the UN war crimes tribunal for Rwanda.
Before being assigned to Europe, Neuffer served in the Boston Globe’s Washington Bureau, where she covered the Clinton Administration’s efforts to reform health care. Prior to that, she covered Gorbachev’s resignation and the break-up of the Soviet Union. She also covered the 1991 Gulf War, reporting from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq.
She didn’t want to cover more wars, more mass graves and destruction, she often told her partner, Peter Canellos, now bureau chief of The Boston Globe in Washington, DC.
Yet, in 2003 she found herself again in the thick of the war in Iraq, where she died on May 9, 2003, in a car crash. Her driver had been racing to get her home safely, before nightfall and the attendant dangers of ambush, snipers and kidnapping. She was due to come home in two weeks.
So why was Elizabeth Neuffer in Iraq?
The week before she died, she wrote Canellos an e-mail saying she “had found the story: the mistakes the United States was making, a sense of wasted opportunity with the de-Baathification.”
The decision by the U.S. civilian administrator to refuse jobs to the police officers and professionals from Saddam Hussein’s Baathist party now is recognized by many as a major tactical mistake, one that helped fuel a formidable insurgency. Neuffer’s reporter’s instincts were correct.
Given her experience, it made sense that she would cover the war in Iraq. She had covered the end of the Cold War and the first Gulf War in addition to the Bosnian and Rwandan conflicts. In 2002, she spent considerable time in Afghanistan. Late that year, she interviewed Iraqi exiles in Jordan and Kuwait.
In early 2003, she spent much of January in Iraq, came home to the United States for a week and then went back to the region for most of February. After that, she was back in New York covering the U.N. debate on Saddam Hussein.
She told Canellos that she was glad to be at the United Nations. But once the fighting began in Iraq, she became restless to go. In mid-April, after the end of formal fighting, Neuffer went back to Iraq as the lead reporter for a Boston Globe team of three younger reporters and a photographer.
Canellos said she was very aware of the dangers and had mixed feelings about being there. She knew the complexities of rebuilding Iraq. For example, she understood that the Iraqis could hate Saddam but not want to be liberated, let alone occupied, by Americans. She also knew the distrust level was very high.
“I don’t think she thought the abuses of Saddam Hussein were why she was there. She hated him but she was against the war,” said Canellos. Still, as a reporter, she felt that she should be there to cover the story.
National Public Radio’s Scott Simon spent hours with Neuffer the month before she died. In Simon’s eulogy at her funeral he quoted her as saying, “You and I have to see these places because we can come and go and no one censors us.”
At the memorial service for Neuffer in her hometown of Wilton, Connecticut, Canellos said, “Elizabeth believed that foreign reporting was a way to express her deepest values. It was her mission in the world, the work that all her experiences had prepared her to do. And it gave expression to skills and sensitivities that could not otherwise be expressed. She understood chaos and crisis and kept her bearings. Where others might be shy or self-protective, Elizabeth knew exactly how to connect with people.”
Canellos said Neuffer had a “sense of generosity for the world, a compassion for people who were suffering and a sense of both great good and great danger that the United States could do in a war.”
Some foreign correspondents carry treats such as candy bars to curry favor with the locals, including children. “Elizabeth always brought boxes and boxes of pens,” he said. “She would look children in the eye and say, usually with the aid of a translator, ‘This is the greatest weapon of all – you must learn to use it.’ ”
During her stint covering Bosnia, Neuffer had tracked down some key war criminals who later were brought to justice as a result of her reporting. She had also found unnamed witnesses whose testimony established rape as a war crime. While reporting on the Rwandan genocide, she found ways to write about gruesome discoveries: a schoolhouse that held corpses discovered in a mass grave, where leg and arm bones were lined up in rows like matchsticks. “Twenty-five skulls across by thirty-five deep on a table: 875 genocide victims. Mathematics lets you try to calculate an otherwise incomprehensible atrocity,” she wrote.
Winning the Courage in Journalism Award transformed Neuffer, said Canellos.
She was a “courageous person on many levels, including but not limited to physical courage,” he said, but the recognition she got through the award gave her the confidence to go beyond reporting. After receiving the award, she wrote The Key to My Neighbor’s House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda, which was published in late 2001. She also began a transition from her role as a reporter covering great events to someone who gave speeches and put in perspective the many changes she had witnessed, a person who taught and who was also a resource for academics.
Her experiences in Bosnia and Rwanda had also changed her, made her more aware of the human rights aspects of conflicts.
She was intent on writing another book about the changes she had witnessed in Afghanistan, as well as those to come in Iraq. When Neuffer went back to Iraq in April 2002, she “saw the security situation getting chaotic. I think she had a sense of a bad outcome,” Canellos said.
Canellos said Neuffer hated the “social niceties” of mixing with diplomats and famous sources. She preferred to be out in the world, reporting. Her role models were her foreign correspondent friends, including Pamela Constable of The New York Times, Carol Williams of the Los Angeles Times and Edie Lederer of the Associated Press. But she saw networking not so much as schmoozing with her peers as covering the locals, on the ground in one country after another.
She wanted to know about her translators and their families, for example, not just about the lives of the influential and the powerful. On her 45th birthday in mid-2002, her Afghan translator named his baby Homaira Elizabeth in her honor. Canellos said she was intent on seeing how global changes might play out in the life of that child and often “talked about wanting to go visit that little girl.”
Elizabeth Neuffer is the fifth Courage in Journalism Award winner from the United States, following Caryle Murphy(1990), Donna Ferrato(1993), Christiane Amanpour(1994) and Corinne Dufka(1997). U.S. awardees after Neuffer are Anne Garrels (2003) and Jill Carroll (2006).
The IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship is named after her. Created with Neuffer’s family and friends, it aims to provide training opportunities for young women journalists and enhance their understanding and reporting skills of human rights and social justice issues.