Clarissa Ward on the Close Calls and 'Bitter Pills' of Covering War
Whether she's reporting on the complexities of India's COVID catastrophe or the military coup in Myanmar, Clarissa Ward provides a clear firsthand account of what is actually happening in hot zones. In August she was in Kabul when the Afghan government fell to the Taliban. As she and thousands more scrambled to evacuate, her crew had a close call while covering the chaotic scene.
"The Taliban outside the airport had whips, they were shooting in the air, and they tried to pistol-whip my producer," says Ward. "I've spent a lot of time with the Taliban at this stage, so I feel I know how to deal with them a little bit and how far I can push. In that situation, I pushed for, like, two seconds. It's always on a case-by-case basis."
Here Ward, 41, recounts her time on the ground in Afghanistan and explains why she's motivated to keep returning to the front lines. For more of her stories, tune in to Ward's new limited-series podcast, Tug of War, which premieres today on CNN.com.
What was the atmosphere like in Kabul in the days leading up to the collapse of the Afghan government?
It was clear things were declining at a much faster rate than expected. Afghan forces weren't interested in putting up a fight any longer because they didn't — I think — want to die. There was a moment when U.S. intelligence officials said they thought Kabul could be isolated in 30 days, and I remember going on air saying that sounded like hyperbole to me. Two days later, the Taliban were surrounding the city. We thought, "OK, there'll be talks between the two sides," but by the afternoon, [the Taliban] were in the city because the government surrendered in such a quick way that they didn't even officially surrender, they just left their posts. When something like that happens, you almost feel you're hallucinating. No one's able to fully comprehend in the moment just how huge it is.
It was an incredibly rapidly evolving situation.
Unbelievable. I've covered a lot of wars and seen a lot of situations deteriorate quickly, but this was unlike anything I've ever witnessed. They went into Kabul in a matter of hours and took a city of 6 million people without hardly firing a shot.
On August 21, after reporting from various locations in Afghanistan for three weeks, you departed from Kabul airport on a flight to Doha, Qatar. Describe your experience being evacuated on that plane.
We left our house at 6 in the morning with some Afghan local staff who we wanted to get out, and when we arrived at the gate of the airport, there were 60 or 70 people desperately trying to enter. I knew that as a Westerner, I had a better chance of getting in and that if I was ahead of the local staff, they would be left out. The door opened, and the whole crowd tried to squeeze through — it was one of the more intense experiences of my life. A soldier came out and started pulling people in; I was the last in the line. I saw all my teammates and local staff make it in, and I was like, "Thank you, God." This soldier grabbed my arm and ripped me through the people and through the door. I was feeling very blessed to help anyone evacuate, and then very guilty about all the people who couldn't get out.
You're facing the same immediate dangers as everyone on the ground, but you're navigating it as part of a different class, a protected class. I know this work takes an emotional toll; how do you cope?
The way you make peace with it is like this: I have this privilege, I better make damn sure that I'm doing something with it, telling these stories, and going back to these places with a level of commitment.
Is there any particular assignment that changed you as a person?
The Syrian civil war [which Ward has covered since its outset in 2011] was the conflict that really grabbed me by the heart and didn't let go. I definitely was the most connected to it and suffered the most depression as a result of covering it so closely and losing so many friends.
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You are a proponent of therapy, right?
Yeah, I'm a big fan regardless; if you can go get some, do it. But if you're doing this job, you should be regularly checking in, because the reality is, you'll process something months later and won't even know it because you buried it in the body, but you're not mentally processing it.
You continue to embark on these very dangerous experiences. What keeps you going back out onto the front lines?
Partly because there's nothing else that I can do. I've done some anchoring, and I have huge respect for anchors, but I was like, "Oh my gosh, I cannot be wearing a dress every day and putting on all this makeup and sitting in this freezing cold studio — this is just not for me." Field reporting is my groove; it's what I love to do. Sometimes it's really hard; sometimes you need to press the pause button and take time out to regroup. But I'm blessed, and I feel to my core that I'm doing what I'm meant to be doing.
How have you honed your instincts as a reporter to gauge when a person or situation is about to become volatile?
You need to learn how to read the room and know when you're not wanted there. Listen carefully, observe carefully, and develop a language [with your crew], sometimes an unspoken language. If I'm getting into it with someone, I'm not paying attention to what's going on in the corner, but my producer is. Work with people who know the culture — even if you're the most experienced journalist in the world, you still don't have a tenth of the knowledge of an Afghan. Listen, work with great people, and follow their lead.
Are you in touch with any people still in Afghanistan whom you're concerned about?
Oh yeah, a lot. I interviewed a wonderful woman, a mother of two daughters, who worked for the U.N. and other international aid organizations for many years, desperate to get out, absolutely petrified that something terrible was going to happen to her. When I interviewed her, she was literally shaking like a leaf, crying through most of the interview, and she has emailed me and texted me almost every day since, asking for help. I've really been trying, but I'm only a journalist. People a lot more well-connected and influential than I are trying and still not able to get people out.
What is the biggest misconception about your work?
There's a perception that we love danger and are adrenaline junkies and cowboys and war tourists and all that. I hate getting shot at. I laugh when people say I'm brave; I'm really not. I don't at all like being in an active combat situation. I just want to talk to the people who are most affected by these situations, so I go to these places to tell their stories in a more compelling way. I'm not an adrenaline junkie, that's for sure.
What is the toughest lesson you've learned on the job?
That the world is fundamentally unfair and unjust. It doesn't matter how hard you work, how much you risk your life, or how great your stories are. You're not going to change the world — and that's OK. It's not your job to change the world; it's your job to give a voice to people who might not have one or to shine a spotlight on an area of the world that people should be paying attention to. But that is a bitter pill to swallow.
Do you have a sense of how long you'd like to continue doing this?
If you're planning too much for the future, you're missing out on what's happening in the present, so I really try to be guided by something more authentic. I don't rule anything out, but I definitely love my job. There are many people who love me who would love to see me do something else, but unfortunately it feels like this is what I was meant to do. For now, at least.
What are you currently looking forward to?
Honestly, getting back to Afghanistan. Once a story gets under my skin, I just want to keep telling it.
For more stories like this, pick up the November issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Oct. 22nd.