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Reference Guide to the Geneva Conventions
A Guide for War Reporters
By Maria Trombly
In the mid 90s, I covered a series of civil wars in the republics of the former Soviet Union. My entire preparation for the job of war correspondent consisted of a year and a half covering school board and city council meetings, and a couple of months copy editing for a Moscow human rights newspaper.
I looked, but I couldn't find "How to be a War Correspondent" anywhere. The closest I could get was a small booklet by the Committee to Project Journalists about the safety precautions reporters should take while covering the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.
Nowhere did I find advice about what I should look for in the field. If I met refugees, I didn't know what questions to ask. If I saw prisoners of war, I didn't know how they were supposed to be treated. I couldn't tell a war crime from the everyday horrors of war. And, unfortunately, neither could many of my editors and fellow journalists.
In one of the wars I covered, I was on the front line with a group of nurses and soldiers. The nurses were mostly young women, my age, many of them still students. The soldiers were mostly angry and frightened young men and they used everything they could to turn the odds in their favor.
One day, they boasted to me that they were going to go behind enemy lines, to a little outpost surrounded by enemy forces. The best part, they said, was that they were going to fly in a helicopter marked with a red cross, so that the enemy wouldn't shoot.
I had promised not to give away any military secrets I came across, so I didn't write the story. The soldiers went, and some of them came back. They said that they even boasted over the radio – so the enemy would hear them Ð about how they had tricked them.
Soon afterward, a real Red Cross helicopter headed to that same outpost to help the civilians who were trapped, starving, and in need of medical assistance. It was carrying the nurses I had stayed with earlier. It was shot down and they burned to death. I couldn't help thinking that if I had done my job and written that first article – about the soldiers on the helicopter – then that side might have stopped using Red Cross helicopters to ferry soldiers and munitions.
I missed the news because I did not know the difference between a legitimate – if unsavory – military tactic and a violation of humanitarian law.
How many other opportunities did I miss to write something useful or significant? I had talked to so many refugees, so many soldiers, so many prisoners. As I grew in experience, my writing focused less on the "he said, she said" propaganda and breathless reports of frontline action and more on the wars' effects on civilians, on human rights, on politics and economics.
But I still had not found any reference materials to help me understand the principles of humanitarian law.
This gross deficiency was addressed in 1999 when W.W. Norton and Co. published Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know. Roy Gutman and David Rieff edited this concise encyclopedia of the major issues that journalists must face when covering wars. It will go a long way to raise awareness. The work that you are holding now is a companion – a dictionary, so to speak, to their encyclopedia – covering specifically the Geneva Conventions.
We focus on the four 1949 Conventions and the two 1977 Additional Protocols because they encompass the rules that virtually all countries have agreed to abide by when they wage war. They include guidelines for the treatment of wounded soldiers, prisoners of war, and civilians.
If I ever get nostalgic for the sound of whistling bullets and return to the front lines, I plan to carry this reference guide with me.
Massachusetts, Summer 2000
Copyright © 2003 Maria Trombly. All rights reserved.