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 Posted August 21, 2003

On the job with the Chronicle’s Anna Badkhen
Risking her life for the morning news
By Michael Stoll

Anna Badkhen knew that her job was dangerous.

In the last two and a half years she’s been shot at, bombed, threatened by a rapacious militia, stricken with a rare tropical illness and forced to traverse a minefield, all to get her stories into the next day’s San Francisco Chronicle.

One of her scariest moments came not on a battlefield, but on her way to the front lines in the U.S.-Afghan war. She found herself clinging to a stallion crossing a turbulent river.

“You don’t have a saddle,” she recalled in a recent telephone interview from her home in Moscow, “you don’t have anything to hold onto, and the river is really, really fast, and you can’t see the bottom because it’s brown, muddy water.

“And then your horse stops in the middle of the river and starts drinking, and you’re sort of sliding down the horse’s neck, and thinking, oh my God, this is my last — this is how I’m going to die, in this awful, stinking river.”

Her courage has paid off professionally. Now, at the ripe old age of 27, Ms. Badkhen is the Chronicle’s only full-time foreign correspondent, a position her editors acknowledge she won through her stubborn bravery, endurance and keen eye for the suffering of civilians in wartime.

‘Totally fearless’

“She’s totally fearless,” said Mark Abel, the Chronicle’s foreign editor. “We’ve all been kind of stunned by that. It’s natural for her. She must have a way of disarming people and blending into the culture wherever she is.”

Since April 2001, Ms. Badkhen has reported for the Chronicle from the former Soviet Union and war zones ranging from Iraq to Afghanistan to Chechnya to Kashmir to the Middle East — up to 17 countries, depending on your definition of the word.

She has donned a burqa for a day to describe what Afghan women experience, sat sentinel during a lapse in security with an AK-47, and ventured to a remote corner of Iraq to witness poor people emptying drums of nuclear waste and using them for drinking water. Her stories come off as spontaneous yet authoritative. Mostly they are compelling reading about important topics, a combination her editors quickly appreciated.

A former reporter for The St. Petersburg Times and The Moscow Times, both Russian English-language newspapers, Ms. Badkhen has also written for Newsweek, The Boston Globe, and USA Today. A native of Russia, she lives in Moscow with her husband, David Filipov, a reporter for The Globe, and her 6-year-old son, Fyodor.

‘Mama, you know there are tanks where you are and you better be careful’

Raising a child while reporting from abroad for weeks at a time can be hard for both of them. Fyodor is now old enough to understand that his mother ventures to dangerous places alone. When both she and her husband are away on assignment, Fyodor stays with a nanny. She said leaving him makes her feel guilty.

“When he was 4 and I was in Afghanistan he called me on my satellite phone and he said, ‘Mamma, you know there are tanks where you are and you better be careful,’” she said. “He probably knows and worries more than he lets on. He knows that I go to war zones.”

‘It sometimes helps to be female’

Her age and her gender, she insisted, are not barriers to being a foreign correspondent. In fact, for a reporter in Muslim countries it sometimes helps to be female, she explained, because men are less likely to object to an interview with their wives and daughters. That additional access helps give her insight into the cloistered lives of innocent people living through the trauma of war, poverty and social unrest.

In May, she reported from Mahawil, Iraq, on women searching for their relatives among hundreds of bodies in mass graves dug by the former government. Cries of “Oh god, I have no children! I have no family!” typify the kind of personal experiences Ms. Badkhen uses to illustrate everyday horrors in conflict zones.

At the height of hostilities in Afghanistan, she was filing stories and moving on to the next town practically every day. That frantic pace was exhausting, but rewarding, she said.

On the side of the people caught in between

In conflicts that cause the kinds of profound misery she documents, it’s hard to avoid taking sides sometimes. But overall, she opposes war regardless of who the aggressor is.

“I’m anti-war,” she said. “I don’t like wars. I think wars are bad. I see a lot of people suffer … If one government doesn’t like the other government and they go to war, or if one regime doesn’t like the separatists, and they go to war, then the people who suffer are not just the government and the separatists. The people who suffer are the people in between, just people who are living their lives. I’m on their side.”

It has become a common a failing of American journalists to simplify foreign conflicts. Indeed, it’s human nature to want to boil everything down to black and white, good and evil.

Judging from her body of work, available free online through a search on the Chronicle’s Web site, Ms. Badkhen doesn’t shy away from complexity, even irony: the women in postwar Iraq who are losing the civil rights they took for granted under Saddam Hussein; the heroin trade that has flourished after the defeat of the Taliban; the rape and pillage perpetrated by the U.S.-allied Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan.

‘I would do my daily cry’

It never gets any easier to witness the death, destruction, disease and depravity, she said. After reporting from the Palestinian territories, the scenes were so depressing that “every night I would come home and before writing my story I would do my daily cry. Because there were things that saddened me immensely.

“I think what helps is that I tell this to people by writing stories about this,” she said. “So, even though I am the filter for all this pain and misery, I give some of it away, and that’s very therapeutic.”


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