Clarissa Ward has reported from the most disastrous war zones to the front lines of unimaginable conflict and human suffering, sharing these stories with the world with empathy, courage and compassion. We’ll talk about her fearless nature, her new book, and what’s next for this bold reporter, mom, storyteller and leader in her field.
“Fear is natural, fear helps us, it educates us, it informs us, it can also impede and inhibit us and we can’t let it take over, but if we try to fight it so hard, that is also not healthy. Sometimes it’s good to just accept that you’re feeling fearful, accept that you can’t control the universe, and kind of just try to ride the wave instead of fighting it so hard the whole time.”– Clarissa Ward
And we’re live on June 17! Hi, I am here today with chief international correspondent from CNN Clarissa ward. And this is really exciting because, um, if you’ve seen her report, you know, I don’t amazing her work has been. Um, but especially at a time like this, where we’re all dealing with fear. A fear in a different way, whether it’s fear of going back to a grocery store, if you’re reentering back into real life or in her case, maybe fear of, of, you know, um, being in a war zone or, you know, I could go on, but I’m, she’s got amazing, amazing stories.
Um, I think that she’s done in her career that, that have all been able to, I haven’t achieved by pushing past fear. So welcome. Thank you for taking a little bit of time to talk with me heavily pregnant. It almost pretty gross. I appreciate it even more. Welcome.
Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
And I apologize in advance. I have a two year old downstairs and yeah, I’m about 10 days away from my due date. So, um, hopefully this will go smoothly, but no, it’s my pleasure, thank you Gabriella.
Thank you. And I think we can all be very forgiving about the children running around the house. So we get it. So fear, it gets in the way of a lot of what we want to do. And especially right now at the moment. And did you, was there a significant moment in your life or were you just kind of born this way or was there something that maybe compelled you to feel that you had to tell stories and Broadway?
I think that like one of the common misconceptions about fear just to touch on that is that like, you know that I don’t have it or I’m so gutsy or, umm, no. Like, fear is there a lot with me and whether it’s navigating life in lockdown in some ways, or whether it’s being in Aleppo, Syria and bombs are falling. And I think that what you learn to do doing the job that I do, and maybe this has helped me get through a crises at home, as well as you kind of learned to just like embrace and accept fear. Fear is natural fear, uh, helps us. It educates us, it informs us, it can also impede and inhibited us and we can’t let it take over, but she tried to fight it so hard is also not healthy. Sometimes it’s good to just accept that you’re fearing that you’re feeling fearful, accept that you can’t control the universe, and kind of just try to ride the wave instead of fighting it so hard the whole time. So I think it’s a really natural time right now with all the instability between the pandemic and then this huge social justice movement, like erupting across America and across the world. And you know, all this political divisiveness and sort of dehumanizing language. It is really natural to be a little fearful right now. And I think instead of being so like, embarrassed about it or ashamed of it, or trying, as I said to suppress it all the time, sometimes it’s okay just to like hand it over to the universe and be like, you know what? I am anxious about this and I, and this is freaking me out a bit, and, and then it really helps you get into a better place to deal with it.
Yeah, and to push through it anyway. Now I’m going to, I guess, dive deep into one of the most extreme situations I had seen you in and you embedded yourself with the telephone and you, you know, you’ve, you’ve spoken to two radical extremists and all of that stuff.
Where does one even begin to prepare? For an experience like that, because I think at the core fear is the same. Whether it, as I mentioned, if you’re applying or fear of anything, where do you begin with an, a task, as extraordinary as that?
I think it’s, you know, everybody has different things that they’re drawn to and in this field, And some people are really drawn to like being on the front lines and the bullets are whizzing and the bombs are dropping; that’s not my bag. I’ve done a lot of it sort of comes with the territory, but I don’t love it. It makes me extremely nervous. I feel like I have no control or agency in that kind of situation where I excel or where I like to sort of focus my energy is on trying to build relationships. Or build trust with people or actors who are considered to be, you know, bad actors, enemies, bad guys, terrorists, whatever you want to call them. And, and I think that that requires a different kind of patience because it can take months and months or else it requires finding someone who has already got those established relationships. So in the case of the Taliban, I approached and ask an male filmmaker who I have a huge amount of respect for who is not sympathetic to the Taliban, but has made a lot of films about them is respected by them for his fairness. And he was the one who kind of provided the, the entree and the introduction. And. Um, from there, it was a very lengthy process. Or first of all, persuading the Taliban that it was going to be okay to have two Western women coming to their territory after like basically, uh, a decade of almost no Westerners going into their territory. Um, and then the even longer part of the process, honestly, it was like, Persuading CNN that it was, uh, that it could be done safely. And it’s kind of like cracking a safe you’re sitting there and you’re, you’re gaming out every possible scenario. What do we do if this happens? What do we do that happens? What’s our evacuation plan. What’s our medical plan if something goes wrong and eventually you get to a place where you feel like, okay, we’ve kind of cracked the safe or we’ve cracked it to the best of our ability. And there’s so many factors to take into consideration. Um, and, and the fact that they’re at the Taliban and, you know, they have these attitudes towards women and they hit Westerners and they blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, it’s just one part of it. Another part of it is like you’re in very rural and Afghanistan in February. And what do you do if it’s snows? How are you going to get, you know, so these are like many, many, many questions that you have to ask yourself, but I find myself drawn over and over again to doing these kinds of stories, because I like to get under the skin of the labels that we give each other. Like I said, whether that label is terrorist or militant or Islamist, or, and really try to get a better understanding of what communities are like, how they live, how they’re different from us, how they’re similar to us, how they interpret and understand events, because I think that what you learned from that exercise and listening, which is different to being just a mouthpiece, but. Is something that can be transferred back home as well. And, and to many different situations to like allow yourself to not associate listening with people who you don’t necessarily agree with as being a form of weakness.
It’s interesting because I think you need to often see the other side of the story to learn, to understand whether or not you agree with somebody, but that, I mean, even with racial tensions and stories that people are doing, how, how do you balance that when you’re speaking to somebody that you obviously differ from, or that you know, that most of the viewers would differ from and viewpoints, how, how do you stay calm and measured and yeah, and listen in those moments where you might be emotionally all over the place, because..
Well, it’s a really good question. I think it’s a work in progress. I have noticed when I watch interviews, if the interviewer starts to lose their cool or like really start ragging on someone or taking a very aggressive set for me, the interview becomes very uncomfortable to watch, even if I’m inclined to sympathize with the interviewer and some of the best interviews I’ve seen have been in situations where the interviewee, the subject is unbelievably obnoxious or a total racist or whatever it may be, but the interviewer doesn’t lose their cool. They keep probing. They keep pushing, they keep using knowledge and facts to just gently push back, push back, push back so you can retain moral authority and a sense of control in the interview, much better. If you are not pouring your emotion into it, if you are using your head primarily and really focusing like a laser on what they’re saying. Now, obviously it’s difficult when you’re interviewing someone from the Taliban you’ve been told about by the Taliban that you’re not allowed to ask political questions and you’re having a back and forth with them about civilian casualties and this guy’s looking at you, like he wants to like punch you in the face because he can’t believe that you have the audacity. To keep pushing back on him about it. But you know, in the, in the grand scheme of things, you sort of do the math and you’re like, okay, the Taliban, if when they finally do agree to invite you into their territory, and let you do this, and you know that you’ve gone through the correct channels and the upper echelons with the telephone are aware and the elders have brokered the deal.
They’re not going to kidnap me or do something crazy just because I ask them tough questions. Um, and you also have a little bit of wiggle room with, like, I know that the person translating for me is not necessarily translating everything that’s implied with my tone, maybe. And so between those, and you just think, okay, I have the element of surprise, I keep pushing on with it. And I have in somewhere in the back of my mind, A viewer in the U S wherever they may be, and I’m listening to them as well and I know that, yeah, they’re fascinated to see and hear more about the Taliban, but they’re never going to forgive me if I go all this way and make this effort at and find these people and sit down with them and don’t push them on like really important issues, like civilian casualties. Like you just it’s, there’s no point. If you’re not going to do the interview properly, then don’t bother, but you don’t need to be to noxious. You don’t need to be in their face about it. There is a way, um, and I’ve learned how to do this, particularly as a woman interviewing a lot of extremists to kind of keep pushing forward on your point, but without raising your voice and without losing your cool.
It’s amazing. It’s extraordinary to watch. And, and you’ve been in a lot of places where it’s visual, you can see bombs and you can see war and you can see refugees and all of that stuff. I’ve seen your reporting during COVID. Through coding and you’re reporting on something that none of us can really see. We’re relying on numbers and stats, but you’re telling the story every day, but we can’t actually see it if we don’t know anyone who had it, or, you know, if we’re sort of not really sure what’s going on around us with it or how we should behave. Is that more challenging to talk about an unseen enemy than, you know, pictures?
It’s such a good question. I think it is more child for me. It’s more challenging. Because the kind of storytelling that I am drawn to is, um, you know, it’s visual, it’s visceral, it’s human, it’s palpable. It’s real. And with COVID as you point out, well, first of all, it’s invisible, right? So the only place that you can really get a sense of it are in hospitals.
Um, or in care homes and even in the hospitals, you know, there’s so many rules and a lot of them for very good reason, um, about how journalists can shoot what they can shoot, who they can shoot. You can’t show faces, you can’t show, you know, like most hospitals have a huge amount of regulation around what kind of video material you can even really, uh, get from these places. So. And compounded by the fact that I’m heavily pregnant, which meant that, okay. I was happy to go out on the streets every day and do live shots and, and that’s fine, but I can’t go into an ICU, uh, you know, that’s overrun with COVID. I just like, for me personally, that just would feel irresponsible, um, given that I’m pregnant. So I do think it’s very frustrating. I also think it’s frustrating because the reality is I’m not a scientist. And I’m not a doctor, so, you know, I’m trying as hard as I can, like every other journalist to educate myself to the best of my ability to talk to all the experts, to familiarize myself with the central issues. But when it comes to that interview, that like, I was just giving you an example of the Taliban. Like I know how to push back. I know how to get the stats and the facts and figures and be like, well, actually this bombing, we know full well that the Taliban was behind it. And however many civilians were killed. It’s very hard for me to push back against the scientists, talking about a vaccine when I don’t have that level of, uh, of scientific knowledge to be able to, to really challenge them or to really frankly understand what I do, challenge them. And they come back with this, you know, um, incredibly impressive sounding response, I don’t have a good sense of. Of of how, of how true or not it is. So I think there are a number of real challenges to, uh, reporting on COVID. I think that we’re lucky to have people like at CNN, Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Elizabeth Collin, who, and, you know, there’s many more like them who are doing really incredible important work and kind of educating all of us, um, and also being our kind of eyes and ears and looking out for us as journalists. But as a story. Yeah. It’s very frustrating. I think what you try to do is find the human angle and stay on that for, for someone like me. And, um, but it’s not easy and none of us have ever dealt with anything like this. I mean, even people who covered Ebola, it’s a totally different story. Um, so we’re all kind of making it up as we go a lot more- hopefully not making it up, but, haha learning as we go learning as we go.
And I’m going to call you out because you said, I, you know, I’m heavily pregnant. I shouldn’t go here, but you’ve got a new book coming out and I’ve ordered it and I can’t wait! But you talk about all of these things that you did while you were pregnant and it’s impressive!
Um, you know, what was, I guess, what was the most challenging part of going from the extreme of one extreme climate to another, and that’s what I had read or, you know, different, different areas that you have put yourself in. I mean, what was the, what was the most challenging?
I think it’s really interesting. I mean, you know, I, I went to Greenland and I was on top of the ice sheet, you know, there’s like no oxygen up there and I was sleeping in a tent and it was, you know, be below well below freezing and. I was in Bangladesh, which is like malaria central, the area that I was in covering the Rohingya crisis, I was in Yemen covering the civil war where obviously there’s, you know, difficulties and dangers with that. I’ve got to tell you though. I mean, well, I wasn’t prepared for the thing that kind of floored me because I was prepared for the risks. And I had really given them a lot of thought and I was actually doing assignments that might sound a little more dangerous or dramatic than most pregnant women would embark on.
But actually when I’d really done the reading and gone to the hospital for tropical diseases, and I felt pretty comfortable that I wasn’t taking any outlandish risks, but what I wasn’t prepared for was to be sitting on the floor of a small house, interviewing a woman whose son was dying of malnutrition in Yemen and he was lying on the floor between us and subconsciously, I reached out to just like touch his hair or something, cause he was so he could barely breathe and I just totally lost it. Like I could not. I mean, even now I think of this little boy and it’s like, I don’t know if it’s, I always of course have a huge amount of like compassion for children and it’s never easy to see bad things happen to children and conflict sense, but pregnancy and now being a mother has made it, like, it’s just like your heart is outside of your body and you you’re so raw and you’re so open and that… blew me away because I don’t break down and start crying in interviews, that’s not what I do. And it was embarrassing because the mother wasn’t even crying and I’m the one crying and it’s first time. And it really was an awakening for me that like, wow, it’s not just your body, that changes. It’s not just your life, that changes. And logistically, like there’s a shift in your HeartSpace. And in, in all of it, it’s like, It’s a profound, you know, I had always thought of motherhood is like the least interesting thing you could do. I wanted to be a mother, but I was like, there’s nothing. Everyone’s, you know, you know, whatever it is, 90% of its female population, aren’t gonna be mothers or 80% or whatever it is, there’s nothing extraordinary about it. And then you go through it and you’re like, Whoa. I mean, it’s pretty profound. The, the, the, the, the sort of like, the level of opening up and, and, and how that changes you emotionally and how much more raw everything becomes, particularly where children are involved. So that was the one thing that I no amount of trying to ‘crack the safe’ and making notes and talking to doctors.. none of it prepared me for that moment, feeling that little boys warm hair underneath my hand, and just completely, just breaking down.
I would like, I would probably break down right now from you telling me that story. So I couldn’t imagine being there and it, once you become a parent, it’s, um, it’s like nothing else in the world and you’ve been through a lot, but I’m sure motherhood, you know, it doesn’t quite compare to the things that you have dealt with. It’s, it’s a, it’s an extraordinary thing, but I think you get to see a lot of, I would love for you to leave us with something good, because we have seen nothing but rough, bad, challenging, scary, um, for months now, really. And, um, I, you know, I think I’m in tourism as my main business, and I think it’s hard for me to consistently remind people, the world is still beautiful, which isn’t still there, you know, the oceans are still there. Rainforests are still there, all of that. Um, when everybody’s terrified, maybe tell us some, some of the good stuff that you have seen or what you’ve seen recently, you know,
I think, look, change is always really painful. It’s full of anxiety. It’s full of challenge. It’s unfamiliar. We’re hard wired as humans to try to avoid it. But when you look at places, even coming out of the sort of spasms of a violent conflict or a war, and you see the integrity of some people, the generosity of spirit of some people, the commitment and dedication of some people, the willingness to sacrifice everything for an idea or a greater good, in spite of all that’s been lost already in spite of all of the sadness and the tears that have been shed. And of course there’s no undoing the ugliness and the horror and that’s part of it too. But man… the ugliness and the horror also provide the contrast to see like these beautiful moments and then an incredible spirit from people. And so I think as, as painful and as difficult as, and as scary as what we are going through now is. There is going to be.. beautiful things will be born out of it, you know, and on every level, on the BLM level, on the pandemic level, like this is tectonic plates shifting, but something new will come from it. There will be some kind of change and it may be incremental, it may be difficult for awhile ahead, but it will come and I hope there’ll be a kind of opening up that comes with that, that I think, um, I think ultimately we will be really, really grateful for. So I always tell people, just try to ride the wave, you know, just stay on the surfboard, ride the wave. It’s a little scary, but it’s it’s happening. And, um, and this too shall pass and whatever comes next, I’m sure there’s going to be beauty in it. I really, I really believe that. And I don’t know when it will happen or how it will happen, and, um, but yeah,
And you will be there to tell us the great stories I think is as well as the ones that are challenging. So tell us quickly, before we go, um, you have a book coming out. I’d love to know about it!
It’s it’s coming out in September. It’s called on “Old friends, the education of a journalist” and you know, really what it’s about. Is I think my experiences as a young woman, traveling in some of the most dangerous and difficult places in the world, then learning who I am through it as an American, as a woman, as a journalist. And, um, and also it’s a tribute to like all the incredible people I’ve met along the way, who didn’t make it onto the evening news. But these, you know, like the story I just told you about Afnan, this little boy sort of dying on the floor in front of, you know, that’s not ever going to be on the news, but it was such a huge, uh, event for me. And so there’s lots of stories like that, and I’m, I’m hoping that, you know, even if people are not really interested in news, you don’t really need to be interested, it’s a human story about, um, very intense, often dramatic human experiences that I’ve had the privilege of witnessing and, and lives that I’ve intersected with, but I also hope it will give people just a little bit of escapism, you know, knowing we can’t travel really right now. So, you know, People can live vicariously through some of my travels over the years. And hopefully we’ll put some of this stuff in perspective as well.
I cannot wait to read it. Thank you so much for spending 20 minutes with me.
I appreciate it. And thank you! Take care, bye.