Skip to main content

A fighter with Charles Taylor’s NPFL faction executes a prisoner captured during a frontline battle. The man pleaded for his life but was then stripped naked and shot. (Corinne Dufka/Reuters)

El Salvadoran soldiers carry a fellow soldier wounded minutes before by a landmine into a waiting helicopter during combat between the Salvadoran Army and leftist FMLN rebels in 1988. (Corinne Dufka/Reuters)

Nigerian ECOMOG (West African peacekeeping forces) soldiers protect a Lebanese businessman April 28, 1997 trying to remove goods from his shop in front of the Barclay Training Center. (Corinne Dufka/Reuters)

A NPFL street fighter carries his wounded comrade in Monrovia, Liberia, during heavy battles on May 14, 1996. This picture won in the category Spot News Stories of the 1996 World Press Photo of the Year contest. (Corinne Dufka/Reuters)

A young man from a village near the town of Masiaka, some 40 miles from the capital Freetown, waits for medical attention in May, 1999 after rebels from the Revolutionary United Front used a knife to mark both his chest and back with the initials RUF and then attempted to cut off his ear. (Corinne Dufka/Reuters)

A Bosnian mother who had already lost a child to violence in Bosnia grieves in Sarajevo in 1992 over grave of her second child killed in the Bosnian war. (Corinne Dufka/Reuters)

A woman waves farewell to her husband as she leaves with scores of other Bosnians on a convoy out of the besieged city of Sarajevo in 1992. (Corinne Dufka/Reuters)

A Rwandan man steps over a row of refugees who died during a devastating cholera epidemic, which struck refugee camps in Goma, DRC in 1994 housing largely Hutu refugees who fled Rwanda after the massacre of some 800,000 Tutsis. (Corinne Dufka/Reuters)

Rwandan children abandoned or separated from their families in Goma, DRC in 1994 lie dying in a makeshift camp for displaced children. Many families were separated as they fled genocide in Rwanda and crossed into the DRC. (Corinne Dufka/Reuters)

Shooting War | A series by Dr. Anthony Feinstein

Corinne Dufka

Humanitarian resolve

Corinne Dufka is an Associate Director at Human Rights Watch and in charge of the organization’s work on West Africa. Prior to joining Human Rights Watch, Dufka worked as a photojournalist for the Reuters News Agency.

Corinne Dufka’s innate modesty obscures a remarkable life. At first meeting, she exudes a welcoming, calming presence. She is ordered and measured in her responses, empathic in her concerns. Her voice has a pleasant, rhythmic cadence, which adds to the impression of someone who is comfortable within herself, nurturing and generous towards others. Even when the content of what she has to say turns dark and painful, you are still left with the feeling that here is a woman who is in control of the situation. This equanimity should not, however, be misconstrued as blandness. It masks a fierce will, a great passion for causes held dear. Her action-filled career is testament to someone who has run towards life’s toughest places, seizing the moment at hand to good purpose. What is beguiling is how this complex, multifaceted woman has managed this feat, confronting the darkest recesses of humanity without losing her convictions or composure. The overall effect of her persona is eminently agreeable and I have little doubt that the exterior matches the person within.

Given my observations of Dufka’s temperament, it comes as little surprise to learn she started her professional life as a psychiatric social worker. I can readily imagine her clients feeling at ease in her presence, sharing their intimacies and finding succour in her responses. But I have not come to Dufka’s house on the fringes of Baltimore to interview a social worker. I am here to speak with a celebrated war photographer.

Shooting War

A series by Dr. Anthony Feinstein

Corinne Dufka is an Associate Director at Human Rights Watch and in charge of the organization’s work on West Africa. Prior to joining Human Rights Watch, Dufka worked as a photojournalist for the Reuters News Agency.

To understand how two disparate careers blended seamlessly, we need to look once again at character. Here are to be found those traits, discernible when young, that can explain the drive for a career that eschews the nine-to-five routine in favour of novelty, excitement and unpredictability encapsulated in a cause that is greater than the sum of each of these components. After finishing high school at 17, Dufka immediately set off for Hawaii and Mexico, driven by wanderlust and a desire to step outside the comfort of her own culture. Childhood had not been easy at times: her mother’s blindness and severe depression, a sister’s visual impairment, and parental substance abuse all added to her desire to leave home young and likely steered her towards social work at Berkeley when the travel money ran out.

 

Prisoners in El Salvador accused of supporting the then-leftist rebel group, the FMLN, are led through the HQ of the security forces in 1988. Thousands of men were disappeared by the security forces during the war. (Corinne Dufka/Reuters)

After completing her Masters degree, Dufka was back on the road again, volunteering in a Nicaraguan refugee camp during the country’s revolution. From there it was on to Mexico City to help in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. Her first paid employment was as a lay social worker with the Lutheran Church during El Salvador’s civil war. It was here that she picked up a camera to record human-rights abuses suffered by the Lutheran community. It was dangerous work. Her first photographs appeared under an alias. Her course was set, but in a way that was not yet apparent to her.

Charting Dufka’s early career, I quickly became aware of a social worker with a different agenda, one that would soon find the profession too constraining. In El Salvador, she gravitated toward a small circle of local photojournalists covering the bloody conflict. Increasingly enamoured of photography, she speaks fondly of being mentored by Roberto Navas Alvarez and Luis Galdamez. In 1988, both photographers were gunned down at a government checkpoint. Navas was killed; Galdamez lost an arm. The loss, painful as it was, provided the catalyst for a career change. With her Church contract coming to an end, Dufka left social work for photography.

It was in El Salvador that she came to regard herself as a combat photographer. Emboldened with a Reuters contract, she now looked beyond Central America to war in the Balkans, and received a one-month assignment to Sarajevo. Her mettle was soon tested when she was dumped by three more experienced colleagues en route to Sarajevo, leaving her to navigate the military checkpoints with little more than a Serbo-Croatian phrase book. Arriving on the outskirts of a city under siege, she had to traverse the airport runway, an unprotected no-man’s-land that provided easy targets to the snipers in the hills above. Undaunted, she persuaded a Serbian tank commander to provide the necessary cover. Hugging the side of his tank in her soft-shell Opel, she could hear the incessant ping-ping-ping of bullets striking the armour as she made the crossing. Mission partly accomplished, she was introduced to a celebratory slivovitz. Then it was on to downtown Sarajevo, negotiating Sniper Alley to reach the offices of Oslobodenje, the city’s main broadsheet. Dufka vividly remembers her sense of relief as she finally made it into the underground parking garage. The erstwhile social worker had come a long way since leaving Berkeley’s genteel campus.

The long-running Balkan wars gave Dufka the chance to hone her skills as a war photographer. There was no more talk of one-month contracts from Reuters. She remained in the region from 1992 to 1994, during which time she was seriously wounded. The Reuters armoured car in which she was travelling with two colleagues ran over an anti-tank land mine. She recollects the windshield filling with bright orange and red flame, before she stumbled out the car, bleeding heavily from a deep facial laceration. Out in the open, she came under fire from Croatian soldiers before being pulled to safety by Bosnian forces, but not before photographing her destroyed vehicle. On the way to a makeshift military hospital, dosed up with painkillers and riding the euphoria of survival, she remembers bantering with her rescuers, “Do you think my modelling career is over?”

Struck by Dufka’s insouciance in the face of grave peril, I wanted to know what else she felt once the anodyne effects of survival and medication wore off. In particular, had she displayed any of the avoidant behaviours that are symptomatic of post-traumatic stress disorder? These can take various forms, including attempts to suppress thoughts and memories linked to the traumatic event, and a desire to avoid situations that could remind her of it, such as once again travelling in an armoured car. Dufka’s answer underscored yet again her fierce resolve. Not only were there no signs of avoidance, her near-death experience left her feeling emboldened. She now saw herself as even more “immune” to harm.

Left: An aid worker writes numbers on the arms of Rwandan children who had been abandoned or separated from their families in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo in 1994 as they crossed the border after the Rwandan genocide. Right: Militia fighters with Charles Taylor's NPFL execute a prisoner during heavy fighting in Monrovia in May, 1996. (Corinne Dufka/Reuters)

In addition to a facial laceration that took a year to heal, Dufka had acquired ligament damage, which left her hobbling, and blast-related internal injuries. Trauma researchers now know that the physical consequences of violence can act as constant reminders of a traumatic event, fuelling unwanted intrusive recollections, flashbacks and nightmares. Had she experienced any of these PTSD-related phenomena, I queried? Once again the answer was no. Dufka’s psychological resilience meant that she saw her traumatic experience in a positive light, namely, one of survival rather than misfortune.

Forced to undergo rehabilitation in London, Dufka was restless away from the fray, bored by her convalescence. She badgered Reuters for an early return. Out of concern, her employers suggested a nice, quiet place for a change. How about Mogadishu, they asked? In the early 1990s, the Somali clans had not yet turned to violence. Black Hawk Down was still many months away.

Dufka‘s decision to go to Somalia was a pivotal moment in her career. She remembers landing in Kenya en route, and her first thought on seeing Africa’s light was that she wanted to spend a long, long time on the continent. Incessant regional conflicts ensured her wish was granted. From Somalia, it was on to South Africa and then Rwanda, which she entered at the height of the genocide. There were periods in which she travelled alone through “the heat of the killing” as she described it, negotiating road blocks set up by the murderous Interahamwe, convincing the Génocidaires who had a gun to her head that she was not “Belgique,” witnessing grotesque behaviours and, in the process, obtaining unique photographs documenting the slaughter which in time were used as evidence at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Child soldiers during a pause in fighting between different warring factions in the Liberian capital Monrovia in April, 1997. (Corinne Dufka/Reuters)

By now Dufka was Reuters’s chief photographer in East, Central and West Africa. When civil war broke out in Liberia, she moved into the Mamba Point Hotel in Monrovia to cover the ethnic conflict. By the standards of the Balkans, it was low-level warfare with the combatants respecting the neutrality of the press. None of which made it less lethal for the local citizens. It was here that Dufka witnessed an execution. She recalls that President Charles Taylor’s NPFL faction had caught a man foraging for food in a deserted market. The neighbourhood had changed hands overnight, unbeknownst to the man, who mistakenly thought his captors were from the rival Krahn faction. In a conflict in which collective punishment was the norm, that mistake was his death sentence. He was beaten, stripped naked and executed in the street. Dufka photographed the entire sequence. She had previously intervened to stop summary executions and on one occasion a castration, but this time events had unfolded too quickly. She returned to her hotel aware of a competing swirl of emotions: feeling sick and on the verge of throwing up, hoping fervently that the image would not be overexposed or blurred, troubled by the tug of guilt that came with this hope and finally that surge of relief when the photograph emerged in crystal-clear focus.

In the late 1990s, Dufka was at the pinnacle of her profession. She was widely feted and the recipient of numerous awards that acknowledged her skill and bravery. She had worked hard to reach this point, relentlessly chasing conflicts without respite. And then something extraordinary happened. En route to the Democratic Republic of Congo, news reached her of the bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi. She knew that as a spot news photographer, you had to be on site within the first hour or two. She recalls “fighting like a dog” to get to Nairobi and spending all night photographing at the bomb site, doing what she calls “penitence” for arriving so late. Her images could not be used. Circumstances and logistics had conspired against her.

Thwarted and frustrated. she returned to her hotel in Kigali, switched on the TV and began watching the aftermath of the bombing on CNN. It transpired that many Kenyans working in a glass high-rise alongside the embassy had been blinded by shards of glass. Dufka, given her family history, was no stranger to blindness. The suffering of the Kenyans touched her deeply, resonating as it did so personally. Alone in that Kigali hotel room, this tough, intrepid woman broke down. With her pain came a realization that she had been progressively losing her way as a photojournalist. Her distress suddenly made her aware that her first reaction to the Nairobi bombing had not been one of compassion for the victims, but rather keen disappointment at being beaten to the scoop. After 13 years in the profession, covering 17 conflicts across three continents, Dufka had become habituated to war, increasingly impervious to the suffering of those she photographed. What had started with a humanitarian resolve, as an evolution from social work to social activism photography in the spirit of Eugene Smith, had given way over time to an obsession with garnering awards and personal acclaim. She felt ashamed, believing she had compromised her integrity. And in her damning self-examination, she was finally able to comprehend just “how tired my soul was.” Never one for half measures, she walked away from a stellar career.

There is a biography of Martha Gellhorn, herself a great war journalist, entitled Nothing Ever Happens to The Brave. The Romans would surely have disputed this, for it is to them that we owe the proverbial counterargument that fortune favours those with such a temperament. Dufka, I imagine, would side with the Romans here. No sooner had she quit war photography than a third career opened up for her in West Africa as a researcher for Human Rights Watch. Her task was to record testimony from the victims and witnesses, including child soldiers, of Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war. She was perfectly suited to do so, for the position combined aspects of her past careers as psychiatric social worker and war journalist. She remains with HRW to this day. In 2003, her work with the organization was recognized with a prestigious MacArthur Foundation genius grant.