The Marie Colvin Distinguished Lecture Series: Rukmini Callimachi

New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi’s dreams are still haunted by the raped and killed women she saw sprawled across the jungle floor in the Ivory Coast, a West African nation.

“Everywhere it’s the same: the perpetuators always deny raping someone,” she said. “But denial itself is an indictment of shame and that the perpetuators realize what they had done was wrong.”

Callimachi, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist who now covers terrorism for The Times, gave the 2016 Marie Colvin Memorial Lecture on Tuesday, March 8 at Stony Brook University. The annual lecture series, sponsored by the School of Journalism’s Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting, honors Colvin, a Long Island native who was killed while covering the war in Syria in 2012.

At the event, Callimachi, 42, spoke about her chilling discovery of women’s bodies, naked from the waist down and with their legs splayed, near the remains of a forest compound in the Ivory Coast where military troops had conducted a massacre days before. The women’s bodies were a crucial finding, she noted, as government officials later denied that civilians had been harmed.

She also described her experiences in Iraq, where she interviewed rape victims of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, also called ISIS or ISIL.

“I want to tell you about J, who was 12 years old when she was kidnapped,” Callimachi said. “When he first raped her, he gagged her, then prostrated himself in prayer, raped her, and then went to shower.”

Students later asked Callimachi whether the things she saw and heard from members of ISIS made her believe that they committed these atrocities as acts of power or simply out of belief. “You want to think that the people who can do this must have been on drugs,” she said. “But from speaking to jihadists, they are Muslim and very much believe in this flawed interpretation of Islam and the Qu’ran.”

Callimachi, who has written a series of articles on Al-Qaeda and other terrorists groups, drew in her audience with her comments on Islamic extremists.

She said after living in a Muslim country for eight years, she does not believe that the warning signs of people interested in ISIS is whether they attend a mosque. But, she said, with prejudices displayed in the 2016 presidential debates, any moderate Muslim might easily feel isolated from American society.

Long before Callimachi joined The New York Times in 2014 and launched her series covering jihadists, she was 27, a graduate of Dartmouth College and Oxford University, roaming New Delhi, India in search for a job at a news organization. Her path into the field of journalism was not an easy one, despite her educational background, Callimachi said.

Even after her first story on the earthquakes in Gujarat, India made Time Magazine’s front cover, she was offered an internship at only one news organization of the 100 she applied to. She worked for two years at a small daily paper in a Chicago suburb before the Associated Press hired her in its Portland, Oregon bureau.

It wasn’t until 2006 that she went back overseas as a reporter, this time to the AP’s bureau in Dakar, Senegal, where she was based when she stumbled upon the Ivory Coast massacre.

During a question-and-answer period following Tuesday night’s lecture, a student told Callimachi that she hoped to emulate her career as a reporter covering conflict zones. Callimachi tried to warn her off.

“The world is even more dangerous then it was before,” she said, because terrorists have discovered the publicity value of murdering journalists such as James Foley, an American freelancer, whose brutal murder by his ISIS captors in 2014 was filmed and posted on the Internet.

“You must think long and hard and know about the journalists who were beheaded,” she said.

Reported by Rawson Jahan
All photos Kevin Urgiles