David Remnick: The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought about devastating violence and destruction. It's displaced an estimated 10 million civilians, Ukrainian citizens, immigrants, and visitors to the country. Staff Writer, Alexis Okeowo has covered conflict in human rights issues around the world. To someone familiar with the plight of refugees, what's happening now around Ukraine seems both familiar and startlingly different. Alexis Okeowo spoke with one of our producers, Ngofeen Mputubwele. Here's Ngofeen.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: We're going to start back in 2017, 2 men detonated two truck bombs in the capital of Somalia, Mogadishu. Around 2000 pounds of explosives went off. At the time, Alexis Okeowo was living in the states, but they were doing a lot of reporting related to the continent.
Alexis Okeowo: It was interesting, I was on social media and it felt like I was in two parallel realities and one, a lot of my American friends, colleagues, et cetera, were talking about other news, and then in the other one my Somali friends and colleagues, East African friends and colleagues, were all talking about the recent attack. I had that thought, why doesn't anyone seem to care about this? Anyone, I mean anyone specifically in the United States where I live and work.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: The explosives went off on a Saturday afternoon in a busy intersection blowing out at least 512 lives, the most lethal terrorist attack that Somalia has ever experienced. Yet, over here, in the states, the news didn't make much of a splash, barely even a ripple. Here's what Alexis wrote at the time, "What is often missing in the days following attacks in Somalia are the intimate stories about the victims, the sense that real--
Alexis Okeowo: The sense that real breathing people were affected, and that these catastrophes are neither normal nor expected. With a place like Somalia defined by stereotypes beyond its borders, it has become acceptable to think of the country as holding only war and extremism and to forget that the lives there are multi-layered, possessing similar and universal concerns, interests, and desires.
I think that in that piece, I was trying to think about what does it mean when a place is written about and covered in a certain way for years, for decades? Things like that insanely begin to be seen as routine there, even though for the people who live there, who experience it, it's nothing like routine, it's devastating. Then how do you, as a journalist, try to convey that to people who live very far away and who, again, hold these stereotypes of this place in their head?
Ngofeen Mputubwele: All of this came to mind for me when Russia invaded Ukraine in February. It was as if a trigger went off, like someone flipped an empathy switch for us as a society to pour out support for Ukraine. Within 24 to 48 hours just watching the news, I absorbed hundreds of years of Eastern European history, I knew the colors of the Ukrainian flag almost immediately, and images of grieving victims saturated news coverage.
For context here, I'm the child of a country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, that's been at war for at least 20 years, bleeding refugees, child soldiers. In graduate school and then in law school, that's what I focused on how conflict displaces people and how conflict intersects with international criminal law, but as someone whose job is now to craft stories, as a journalist, since the war started, I can't pull my eyes away from the stories we tell about Ukraine and how we formulate them.
The characters we select, the verbs we use, and how that varies from other parts of the world I know. Frankly, where I would live, if it hadn't been for me by the luck of the draw being born while my parents were here and not there, so I called Alexis. We started by talking about a piece Alexis published right after Russia's invasion about how Ukrainian refugees were being received.
Alexis Okeowo: I remember I was on a plane to Europe and I just felt the impulse to write this so keenly because I was on my way to start reporting a piece about migration, but about very different kind of migrants. I was reporting about refugees from Africa and the Middle East who were being ignored and facing a lot of difficulties because they were encountering a lot of hostility and rejection from many places in Europe that they were trying to flee to.
Then to look at the news and see how Ukrainian refugees were being received so warmly, it was mind-boggling to me. It was this strange feeling. Then not only reading that, but then to see that Black people, brown people who are also trying to flee Ukraine were also facing the same kind of discrimination I was seeing that refugees from Black and brown countries were. I felt very upset about and I felt like it's something we needed to point out.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: When you say they were being received warmly, the Ukrainian refugees, what does that look like and how does that compare to how you've seen other refugees treated?
Alexis Okeowo: When Ukrainian refugees first started leaving their country and up until now, neighboring countries, other nations in Europe immediately expressed a sentiment that they wanted to take them in. They wanted to help. They wanted to assist them. Germany and Austria began offering free train rides to Ukrainian refugees who wanted to come in.
The European Union enacted a temporary protection directive which gave citizens and permanent residents of Ukraine residency for at least one year which allowed them more time to go through the asylum process and to have a place to live and access social services, but on the other hand, Italy and other countries in Europe have been prosecuting people who they've accused of helping migrants from other countries.
The prime minister of Hungary has said that he wants to-- well, he has, he's built a border fence to keep out what he calls Muslim invaders. Last year, refugees were trying to cross Poland's border with Belarus and they were pushed back by security forces with tear gas and water cannons in the freezing cold. I think the question then becomes why. There are reasons that seem pretty obvious racism, Islamophobia, but then that can't explain it all. I think as you've said to me, you don't doubt that people want to help, it's just a matter of why certain people are being seen as worthy of help and others aren't.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: I've felt a sort of conflict where I'm like both, yes, this is something that we should care about, but also at the same time, why am I being steered to care about this? If that makes sense.
Alexis Okeowo: Yes. What are your theories as to why?
Ngofeen Mputubwele: My theories? I think I have the same inclination where I'm like, well, racism seems like a thing, but I think the other thing that's jumped out to me is it's not that we say that like a war in Congo, where my family is from, doesn't matter, but more we have this idea that a war in some of these other countries is normal. You look at Black and brown people and you say, "Well, these people are used to this," or like, "This is what it's like where they're from."
The sad reality is just some parts of the world, we just can't fix it, but it's almost like the racism comes out in a sort of it shouldn't be this way in Ukraine. The hardworking people in Ukraine don't deserve this. It's like a full humanity given to them versus a partial humanity if that to non-white folks.
Alexis Okeowo: Well, I think what you just described is a definition of racism.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Right.
Alexis Okeowo: It's who is given humanity and going back to media coverage, and I think the role of any journalist especially journalists who are reporting on places or communities that aren't their own is to try to portray your subjects with as much humanity as you can, but because that hasn't always been the case especially, with the places we're talking about, who are supplying most of the world's refugees right now. I think that's part of the cause of the problem we're in right now.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Yes, to me it feels like we have a really anemic politics of care. I'm of two minds about this because I do think it's true that people can only handle so much conflict before they shut down. I think that that's true as a general statement, I know that it is true in my own life when it comes to things in Congo, in particular, I only have a certain threshold before I have to be like, I can't, I just have to put this jet in this otherwise I will not function. I think that's real, but I also wonder if there are ways that we can make our ideas of who we care about more robust.
I think a thing that I struggled with at some point in the Ukraine coverage was I almost felt people were like, oh yes, the coverage is racist. Oh, we're racist, we're racist again and I'm like, "Yes, we are but can we do something?" [chuckles] Is there a way to reframe our behavior or our discussion so that reality changes and not just mere a culpa, oh, look, America's racist again. I'm like, "Be better." [laughs]
Alexis Okeowo: Is there something you can see in your head if we got to that next step, what would it look like?
Ngofeen Mputubwele: One of the ways that I feel our storytelling in journalism, or communication of stories about places like Africa or Latin America or the Middle East diminishes people's humanity is by not affording them full agency. I think that happens through the actual language that we use, like the actual craft of putting our sentences together. It's the difference between saying a bomb went off, there was a bombing, there was a terrorist attack instead of two people detonated a bomb or that sort of more active role which I think gives people motives an agency and already you're more interested.
Alexis Okeowo: Yes, I think that's a great point. I think part of that is because when you do frame the headline like that, so, and so did this, then you have to explain why. I think for a variety of reasons laziness, resources, lack of interest perhaps, that why part has influenced why we don't see headlines that are phrased that way.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Yes, totally. I think that immediately you have a why and then I think a lot of us realize that the why especially with a terrorist attack gets pretty complex. It's like, are we going to talk about what led to the condition so that someone found themselves in this? Alexis, you asked me if there was a future I could see in my head, that next step in media coverage say. I'm curious if you have any thoughts on that. What would that alternate universe look like to you?
Alexis Okeowo: I agree with you. I think it would look like a place where we're receiving stories from all corners of the world not just told by Westerners too. I mean, told by people from those places that are nuanced and enriching and complex, and that we're seen on the homepages that we visit every day and we're seen in our feeds. While on the one hand, we're hearing all about Ukraine, we're also hearing all about Ethiopia. We're also hearing about the Congo and there doesn't feel like such a huge difference.
David Remnick: That was Staff Writer, Alexis Okeowo speaking with Producer, Ngofeen Mputubwele.
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