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Chinese female war reporters take no flak

NOT many Chinese female journalists go to war and few want to be war correspondents, facing various dangers and death, working brutal hours and being separated from their families.

Recently a Western female correspondent in Libya discussed her sexual abuse by a crowd of men, a reminder that women reporters (and women in general) in war zones are especially vulnerable.

But two veteran Chinese war correspondents, both Shanghai natives, have put their lives on the line for many years to get the story, find the truth and tell it, often giving voice to the voiceless.

Luqiu Luwei and Zhou Yijun are both reporters for Hongkong-based Chinese language Phoenix TV.

Lu was known by colleagues as "Battlefield Rose" who broadcast live during the Iraq war, even during air strikes in war-torn Baghdad. She also covered the war in Afghanistan back in 2001 and the tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan in March.

Zhou was posted in the Gaza Strip for two years covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Both recently returned from Libya.Luqiu Luwei: When news breaks, I'm on the scene

Luqiu Luwei, or "Battlefield Rose," doesn't want to be known for her courage under fire but for her professionalism and political insights.

She arrived in rebel-held Benghazi on April 22. On that day correspondents were mourning the deaths of two Western journalists who were killed in the besieged city of Misrata while covering battles between rebels and the forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi.

"Everybody was calm when talking about their deaths since war correspondents are aware of the risks they face," she said. "We worried most about whether they were hit by government forces."

She was well aware of the propaganda war on both sides. Without confirmation by a third party, people can't trust any side and reporters should be prudent because many words are simply propaganda, she said.

She listened and reported the voices of local residents. She frequently asked whether they wanted to rely on Western forces or Arab countries for help and cites a typical response by a university student.

"This is the internal affair of Libya but we don't have the military capability to defeat Gadhafi and we would like the peacekeeping forces of the United Nations to be involved rather than Western forces."

Speaking of the rebels and residents, she said, "Their aim is not simply a Western-style democracy, but a common wish of mankind - respect for individual rights."

She reported on a group of girls in Benghazi who borrowed money from their families and founded a weekly English-Arabic newspaper with six pages. It sells around 3,000 copies.

"They look stylish and the youngest was only 17 years old. Seeing the photos of the newspaper and their in-depth reports, I was astonished, thinking they are so young.

"They are curious and like communicating with others and accessing social websites, and their rooms are posted with photos of celebrities, just like the rooms of girls elsewhere."

She returned to Hong Kong late May.

Luqiu entered the spotlight in 2003, when she broadcast live from Baghdad which was under bombardment. She was the only female Chinese reporter in the city at that time, which made her China's most famous war correspondent and the idol of many young reporters. She was also the first female Chinese reporter in Kabul in 2001 during the war in Afghanistan.

In Baghdad, she heard bombers overhead, saw heavy black smoke blanketing the sky and felt buildings shake. The thought of being bombed flashed through her mind.

"At that moment, I realized that what I faced was war, which was out of my control."

Being a journalist was Luqiu's dream since childhood.

"Life is precious, but my job comes first. I must be responsible," she said.

"When the news breaks, I am on the scene," she said proudly at a lecture in Shanghai in February.

Thinking deep

The experience of conflict and suffering in Benghazi, Kabul and Baghdad prompted her to think deeply about life. She saw how people survived and even stayed upbeat:

A driver sang joyfully; poor people bathed in sunshine for warmth and inhaled the fragrance of roses. Afghan soldiers danced in the streets. Her Iraqi interpreter spent 30 minutes making a cup of cappuccino. US soldiers read letters from their families and sweethearts at sunset and remembered sweet moments aloud.

On March 13, she rushed from Beijing to Fukushima to cover the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. She rented a car and stayed at a Chinese student's home since there were no hotel rooms. A group of Chinese students refused to leave because they wanted to help elderly Japanese who were living alone.

Today, Luqiu is director of the Phoenix InfoNews Channel and still scrambles to write several stories a day.

Born in Shanghai in 1969, she attended Fudan University, majoring in philosophy. She moved to Hong Kong in 1995. In February she delivered a lecture on citizenship and journalism at the invitation of The Bund magazine.

"Avoid making judgments to easily and quickly. For a reporter, what matters is judgment based on facts, then come other attributes such as quick reactions, writing skills and physical condition."

She urges prospective journalists to major in finance, political science or another field in university, not journalism because that can be learned on the job.

"I pay attention to details when asking questions and I don't use the word 'most,' as in most unforgettable experience, because those questions are seldom meaningful."

Luqiu reads widely, from literature to law and philosophy, and enjoys spending time with her daughter.

"I don't want to talk much about my past," she said. "At different stages, we have different perspectives toward life. The most important thing is that you have experience, not whether you performed well or not."

And she has wide experience.

During university she worked as a waitress at a coffee shop to make ends meet.

She went to Shenzhen and worked at a company set up by her mother, but left when it went bankrupt.

She promoted a beverage, lived for a while in a farmer's house, sold T-shirts and watches in Shenzhen. She studied accounting and was hired by PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) as an auditor in 1992.

In 1995, she moved to Hong Kong. "By chance, I saw a recruitment notice by Phoenix TV and had a try. Luckily, I succeeded," she said.

She has been a reporter for 14 years and writes a miniblog that often generates vigorous discussion. "I tried different kinds of jobs and finally found the most suitable one to realize my childhood dream."

Zhou Yijun: I make my own judgments and don't just accept what I'm told

For two years, from 2002-04, Zhou Yijun was the only female journalist based in the Gaza Strip and she knows about bombs, gunfire, armed gangs and confinement.

At the time she was working for the Xinhua news agency and had to overcome her bosses' reluctance to send a woman on a dangerous assignment. She persisted and she was clearly the most qualified, having majored in Arabic.

Today Zhou, who is in her mid-30s, is a Hong-Kong based Phoenix TV reporter. At the end of March, she rushed to Libya and remained for 40 days, making Phoenix TV the first Chinese media to enter Tripoli since NATO-led coalition forces launched air strikes in Libya.

"Journalists have limited freedom to do interviews in Libya, so we cannot see the whole situation clearly and report what we want to report to the public," Zhou told Shanghai Daily in a telephone interview in Hong Kong.

More than 100 reporters from around the world stayed in a hotel in Tripoli and they had to apply for permission to leave the hotel for anything except government-organized interviews.

Even if she wanted to go out and buy a bottle of water, she had to apply to a government press officer, she said.

"The hotel is just like a boarding school and we are more like prisoners," she joked.

Wisdom trumps guts

Wisdom and experience were more important than courage for a war correspondent in Libya, she said. The ability to obtain and analyze information is essential.

Reporters were divided into groups and accompanied by Libyan officials to designated areas to report, often on air strikes.

Once, journalists were told they were in the center of the downtown area but they checked Google Earth and found they were several kilometers distant.

Another time, they were shown the rubble of a bombarded building and told it had been a school, but it turned out to be an ammunition depot, considered a legitimate target, she said.

"I have to make judgments by myself, based on my own experience, rather than accept what I am told," she said.

When she was shown a site bombed by US and the NATO-led coalition forces, she tried to reach locals for information and thought twice about why the place was targeted, and its possible military importance.

She even checked the holes and craters left by bombs; sometimes the place reporters were shown had been blasted by Libyan government troops, not US or NATO forces, she said.

She listened to many voices.

When Zhou learned that two Western photojournalists were killed while covering battles between rebels and government forces outside Tripoli, she didn't feel scared but was overwhelmed by sorrow.

"Their death may pass into oblivion, but the group of reporters who will never stop fighting will be remembered," she wrote on her weibo account, an equivalent of Twitter.

Her biggest regret was that she didn't have the chance to interview Gadhafi himself, though she and several Asian reporters had applied. It fell through for security reasons.

"I put too much energy into that effort but I could have worked harder on down-to-earth coverage from different angles," she said.

Zhou studied Arabic at Beijing International Studies University and began her career at Xinhua in 1998.

In 2002, when she learned of a vacancy in Xinhua's Gaza bureau, she applied without hesitation. She was 26 years old at the time and only male reporters had worked there previously, and only for a few months at a time.

Her application was rejected several times for reasons of danger and hardship.

She insisted that women are tougher and more tolerant than men and finally she got her chance.

She had no insurance and virtually no training for war coverage and personal safety. When she joined Xinhua, she took a three-month training course but there were only a couple of classes about war reporting and preparation, and they were far from enough.

"As Chinese media were late in taking part in international coverage, there was no complete training system for Chinese war correspondents until 2003 when the Gulf War broke out," Zhou said.

War training

Many Western journalists attend weeklong training camps to help them handle various situations such as kidnaping. They have insurance, armored vehicles and sometimes bodyguards.

"But the training system is being improved in China over the years," she said.

She said her work as a journalist has broadened her outlook, changed her prejudices and given her courage to confront life and death.

In Gaza, a bomb hit a building 500 meters from Zhou's residence. She fell to the floor and hide under a desk. At night she counted 14 bombs hitting and felt "death was approaching."

"I don't deny that I also feel scared, but I had to get used to the roaring overhead and the shelling and shattering of windows because it's my mission to keep people informed," Zhou said.

She got used to blackouts, followed by air strikes, followed by bombs.

"I know I am not the target, but the uncertainty of where the bomb will hit a second later is scary," she said.

Zhou interviewed Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

She witnessed numerous deaths and felt it was cruel to shoot civilians.

She was sorry she didn't have more time to be with her family.

"When there was bloodshed in Jerusalem, I told my mother I was in Gaza, and vice versa," she said.


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