So They Will Know I Told

Girl on Fire: Confessions of a Former Journalistic Neophyte
by Meghann Farnsworth
March 25, 2007

I was the adult, a 25-year old journalism student on my first reporting trip abroad. She was the child, 16 going on 40. I had the translator, the driver waiting outside, a hotel room in the safest part of the city, a ticket out of the country in three days. She had her mother, fidgeting nervously in the waiting room, a multitude of STD tests, a house she rarely left in a violent neighborhood, and one of the most dangerous gangs in Guatemala City threatening her life if she talked.

A journalist’s job is to ask questions. Journalism school emphasizes the need to get “color,” “scenes,” “details.” Final articles are to be written in an authoritative, confident voice. And yet, what rules of engagement apply when a reporter — OK, in my case a young reporter — is faced with a source as vulnerable and traumatized as this girl?

Increasing violence against women in Guatemala City, that was what I had come down to investigate. Although I knew my subject, had read the literature, the government briefings and the daily local news reports, there was no way I could have prepared myself for the reality. Covering violence means being physically exposed to its final product: its victims, dead or alive.

Two weeks, visiting the morgue, the cemetery, prosecutors, police, human rights lawyers, forensic scientists, a women’s shelter, families of victims. A litany of horrors running through my head. Nearly 600 Guatemalan women murdered in 2006, according to the national police. Almost two a day. Only seven men put behind bars for murdering women last year. Witnesses to crimes threatened into silence, sometimes killed. Domestic abuse, still legal. Bodies buried alone, unnamed, without family, without prayers.

Until you see a man, woman, child slipped into the ground without a headstone or an identity you have no idea how alone a body can be in this world. But here it was and here she was: all the violence, all the statistics and one kid. One kid, in perfect honesty, that I was almost afraid of — her story so powerful that it threatened to overwhelm sheltered American me.

I began interviewing her confidently enough in that small room in a women’s center in the heart of Guatemala City, but soon I noticed my voice had become unrecognizably soft, motherly. I was all too aware I had abandoned my confident journalistic-authority voice for fear that she might shatter. Each of my questions — Who did this to you? What prison did they take you to? How long did they keep you there? What did they do to you? Did you go to the police? — pushed deeper into her still fresh pain. And yet — and this was the most unnerving thing of all — each of her replies came in that steady, flat voice of hers, as if she were the reporter and her subject were as dull as the weather:

They took off my clothes. Held me down. And then they raped me. Ten of them. Then ten more. Then ten more.

Do journalists comfort their subjects? I didn’t remember that from my J-school courses. Do journalists get this nervous? I didn’t remember my professors mentioning that either. Had I gone too far?

I kept thinking each question was inappropriate, too personal. I told her she could walk away anytime. Say something off the record. Refuse to answer a question. I said these things early on, almost as a prayer. Maybe I was trying to get her to stop. For my own sanity, did I really want to know the answers to these questions? Maybe I also wanted to protect her from the media, from me. Did she know what she was doing? In the end, do sources ever really know what they are doing? And what was I anyway — all these things were spinning in my head — just a parachute journalist, jumping into the ashes of Guatemalan violence to bring out this jewel of a story — the perfect example of one society’s indifference to women?

Whether warning her was the correct thing to do journalistically, it felt like the only thing to do humanly. She was risking her life speaking with me and I could offer her no protection other than her anonymity.

In the end, she answered every question. Willingly. And she seemed to grow bolder with each statement.

I want you to print this. Tell my story. Print it in Spanish so they will know I told.

She was, of course, just one girl, one story amid hundreds, thousands. And certainly, impunity for rape and violence is not unique to Guatemala. It occurs in every country around the world. But she was the one sitting in front of me. And her story was no cliché: Kidnapped by armed men, she — a petite 16-year old — was taken to a notorious gang prison and raped for hours by dozens of inmates.

Read the rest here.

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