© Jorge Fregoso – Tijuana, Octobre 2019

“I don’t see myself as a war reporter. I see myself as an anti-war reporter”

At the age of almost 66 Ed Vulliamy belongs to what journalists tend to refer to as the “Sarajevo generation”. He covered the conflicts of the 1990s in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, and in Iraq, but it was by no means a foregone conclusion that he would enter the singular profession of war correspondent.

I hate war: my father was a pacifist and his mother, Irish and a fierce republican who had lived through the war of independence, was too”, he explains. “But war keeps coming to me.”  As a student of politics and philosophy at the university of Oxford, the young Ed was deeply affected by the events taking place in Northern Ireland. The Troubles provided a natural subject for his thesis, which became his first “war report”.  After leaving university he joined the team of World in Action, the investigative current affairs programme produced by English regional channel ITV Granada (formerly Granada TV), and  spent eight years covering the conflict in Northern Ireland for the programme. His first area of specialisation also led to his first awards, with one of his many documentaries earning him the Royal Television Society award in 1985. He left to go to Italy, to investigate and cover organised crime in Europe’s famous “Boot”. His employer the Guardian, with whom he would continue to work throughout his whole career, asked him to “keep an eye on Yugoslavia” from Italy. In the end Ed would keep more than an eye on the Balkans: between 1991 and 1995 he spent most of his time in this region racked by successive conflicts. The journalist who had “become a war reporter by accident” received numerous awards for his work in this perilous zone. Having witnessed some of the worst atrocities, Ed Vulliamy would provide testimony in 2006 at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, in Holland, corroborated by footage filmed in the concentration camps for his documentary Omarska’s Survivors: Bosnia 1992. Facing him in the dock was Slobodan Prajlak, the man who had received him at the Dretelj camp 13 years earlier. At that moment the “accidental“ war reporter became the first journalist since the Nuremberg trials to testify in a war crimes tribunal.

“I don’t really go to war, war comes to me”

At the end of the 1990s it was “Ciao, Italia!” Ed left for the United States where The Observer, sister title to The Guardian, had asked him to be its U.S. correspondent. He had already covered many topics in America for the British Sunday paper during the 1990s.   This time he was able to return to his speciality, investigating organised crime and drug trafficking along the U.S.-Mexican border. The result was the book Amexia, War Along the Borderline, which received the prestigious Ryszard Kapuscinski Award in 2013. In 2001, when he was based in New York, he found himself in the front line when the attacks on the World Trade Center took place: once again “war came to [him]”. He later covered the conflict in Iraq for The Observer but had found himself “censored or ignored” when he tried to publish articles bringing to light the false information being propagated prior to the war and the non-existence of weapons of mass destruction.  His determination and desire to reveal the truth are portrayed in Gavin Hood’s 2019 film Official Secrets, where he is played by the Welsh actor Rhys Ifans.

“To be a good journalist and especially a good war reporter, you have to be a little mad”

When asked how a journalist who has become a war correspondent by accident can be so committed and driven, Ed Vulliamy turns the question round: “What else to do?” He adds, with modesty, “It is our job to write or film the truth, however uncomfortable that is.  In fact I think that’s how we measure professionalism in our work: by doing the best we can.” Measuring professionalism: that’s the big challenge in his upcoming role as chair of the international jury of the 27th Bayeux award for war correspondents. The journalist – who also writes articles and books on such diverse topics as football, painting and music – admits to feeling nervous: “I hope I’ll be up to it. It’s the Oscars of war reporting! It’s a huge responsibility and I’m honoured”.  

I think our definition of war may change as the 21st Century proceeds.
The wars my brave and amazing colleagues have mostly covered are like the wars of history, dragged into our time.
But what are we to make of new kinds of war in, say, Mexico, where the death toll is three times that of Bosnia, and the number of disappeared 50 per cent higher than all the Balkan wars, 1991-9? Yet in this war, which has killed more journalists than any other – people go to market, to school, to Mass; the football league functions well, the universities are good – war in apparent ‘peacetime’. What are we to call the gangland battlefields of El Salvador and Honduras, and refugees from ‘drugs wars’?
Academics use the term ‘slow violence’ to describe many of the world’s conflicts. Young people – journalists, readers and viewers – will include refugees and migration from climate crisis, and future wars over water and resources, as wars as much as any other – part of that time-long war between humankind and nature that will dominate coming generations. What are we to call the violent obliteration of the last indigenous existences, and assaults on indigenous lands and minorities? Journalists are being killed for reporting these stories too.
Where does systematic violence against women fit in to our definitions of war: femicidio in the Americas, the cult of gang rape in India?
That “war between the man and the woman*’ as Leonard Cohen called it!
We cannot call all violence ‘war’ – that would be ridiculous – and focus on warfare is what raises Bayeux to a level of honour above all other awards for journalism.
But I do think young people will want us to be less conventional with regard to what we call ‘War’, and, logically, war reporting.” — Ed Vulliamy

1954 Ed Vulliamy was born in Notting Hill, London

1979 Joined English regional channel ITV Granada (formerly Granada TV)

1985 Won the RTS Journalism Award for his documentary on Ireland

1986 Joined British newspaper The Guardian

1991 Covered the war in Iraq

1991-1995 Covered the wars in the Balkans

1992 Granada Television’s What the Papers Say Foreign Correspondent of the Year

1992 British Press Awards International Reporter of the Year

1992 Amnesty International Media Award

1994 James Cameron Award

1997 British Press Awards International Reporter of the Year

2001 Covered the 11 September attacks in New York

2003-2006 Covered the war in Iraq

2006 Became the first reporter since the Nuremberg trials to testify before the International Criminal Court in the Hague

2013 Won the Ryszard Kapuscinski Award for his book Amexica: War Along The Borderline

2015 Publication of the book Everything Is Happening: Journey into a painting on the masterpiece by Velázquez. He had completed the book for his friend, author Michael Jacobs.

2016 Nominated for the Ryszard Kapuscinski Award for his book The War Is Dead, Long Live the War, Bosnia: The Reckoning.

2018 Publication of the book When words fail: a life with music, war and peace (Louder Than Bombs in the United States)

2019 Was played by actor Rhys Ifans in Gavin Hood’s film film Official Secrets

2020 Made an Honorary Fellow of Goldsmiths College, London

2020 Second, updated edition of the book Amexica: War Along he Borderline, ten years after its first publication