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War Reporter Clarissa Ward Talks Fear, Family And The Front Line In British Vogue

It is chaos at Clarissa Ward’s home. As Vogue’s shoot with the renowned war reporter and her children nears completion, rows of tiny shoes for tiny children, rails of larger sized clothes for their mum, and random pieces of camera equipment and kit boxes have all taken over what may or may not have been – I can’t tell – a dining room. Her two toddlers – Ezra, three, and Caspar, one – are ushered out, little foot after little foot pitter-pattering down the hallway on their way to a mini music class and a play date, nannies in tow. Upstairs in the Notting Hill town house, Ward gets ready for the next shot. It is to take place in a playground, for which the stylist has picked out something a little more casual: a pair of flared, pink Oscar de la Renta palazzo pants, which are about a foot too long, and 2ft too wide at the ankles. Clarissa is unsure. “I could always wear… jeans?”

She’s no stranger to chaos – you might even say it’s her comfort zone. As CNN’s chief international correspondent, the 41-year-old British-American multi-award-winning journalist is based in London. Not that she’s here all the time. In the past year alone, she has reported from Myanmar, leading the first foreign news team permitted to enter the South-East Asian nation and confronting the military junta as peaceful protests were violently suppressed. Afterwards, we saw her in crematoriums in Delhi and crowded Covid-19 wards in Uttar Pradesh as India experienced its second wave of coronavirus. And, perhaps most memorably of all, by summer she was in Afghanistan covering the US withdrawal, arguing on camera with Taliban leaders about women’s rights while being asked – as a woman – to step aside. The author of a memoir, On All Fronts: The Education of a Journalist, and the winner of nine Emmys and a Peabody Award, in months her following on Instagram went from tens of thousands to just under 300,000. But what her rapid rise in social media popularity belies is 20 years of hard slog in parts of the world most would avoid: spending time in Beirut during unrest in the early 2000s; covering military action in the Gaza Strip; reporting on the execution of Saddam Hussein; and delivering stories from Aleppo, Syria, in 2012, where she experienced repeated shelling, morning, noon and night.

The latter experience was perhaps the one that scared her the most. “Shelling is psychologically a very challenging thing to deal with,” she tells me. “I was just so scared to leave the safe house.” News reports take time to craft. “You can’t just go bim bam boom – you have to get a shot from here, a shot from there, build up a sequence.” Hanging around in Aleppo, she would wait nervously in the car with the driver. “He was chatting to me, partly in Russian, and he gave me some chocolate. Just having that human moment, eating chocolate together and talking about Russia, was soothing. And I thought, ‘Well, if I go, this is kind of a nice time.’” Her voice drops. “You’re not really making peace with death, but at least if you can give yourself the illusion that you could make peace with it, then you get over the fear. Fear can be very crippling.”

In part, her strength of character can be attributed to a childhood that was privileged, growing up in London the only child of an American mother, an interior designer, and a British father, an investment banker. But it was, at times, lonely, isolating and unconventional. She had 11 different nannies by the time she was eight and attended two boarding schools – feeling like an outsider, an experience that taught her to be adaptable and self-reliant – before heading to Yale. There was no room in the Ward family for that oh-so-English trait of self-deprecation. “I would never be where I am today without my mum. Never,” she says. Driven to become a journalist following 9/11, and with her career newly under way, she once said to her mother, “I’m happy to be a producer.” Her mother had other ideas. “She’d say, ‘No you’re not. You’re meant to be in front of the camera.’ She taught me to stop being afraid to step into who I really am, which is harder than you think.”

We’ve met before, sort of. Ward’s biggest following on Instagram – even more than in London or New York – is from Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar, where several months on from her visit, and with the crisis still far from being peacefully resolved, many remain indebted to her for bringing their brutal repression to the world’s attention. Being part-Burmese, I messaged her on Instagram at the time of her report – with no friendly introductions from friends, associates or PRs – and ventured a request: would she speak of her experiences for a fundraising event I was organising? Sure enough, a few weeks later, she interrupted a rare and short holiday in France, ignored the laryngitis she was suffering from and spoke via Zoom to a London audience who were so touched by her stories that they donated generously.

“Myanmar was extraordinary in some ways because I’ve been in places with despotic regimes before, but I’ve never had people opposed to those regimes approach me when surrounded by security forces,” she says now, of her seven-day visit. “I mean, the courage that takes is just mental.” When she heard that some of those who approached her with the three-finger salute – symbolic of their call for democracy – were subsequently thrown into the notorious Insein Prison, she demanded the military junta release them, and they did. “The military was saying, ‘We’re going to take you to the Gems Museum,’ and I was saying, ‘I’m not going to any museum until you release these people.’” Were the junta perhaps naive in thinking they could present a sanitised version of their coup? “They don’t have a huge amount of experience with international media. They then took us to a second market, which was next to a military base, and had stooges come up to us with two fingers. I was like, ‘What’s that?’ Still, in that second market, 15 minutes after we arrived, we got mobbed again by ordinary Burmese people, waving three fingers at us, and saying they wanted democracy.”

The generals might also have been caught off-guard because she’s female, which Ward says has its advantages, such as allowing her greater access in conservative cultures like Afghanistan, a country she visited twice in 2021 (at time of press). “Traditionally, in war reporting, women’s voices in some parts of the world were missing,” she says. “You have two worlds in Afghanistan – and even ‘two worlds’ is to simplify it, obviously – but in the rural areas, as a Western woman, I’m very privileged because I get to go where the women and children are, which my male colleagues have zero access to.” 

Confined to their compounds, with little or no education, Ward says that some of these women were “receptive to the Taliban taking over” because their presence would mean an end to the drones and airstrikes. But the fate of women in cities such as Kabul, Kandahar and Herat was altogether a different experience – and heart-wrenching. For two decades they’d led independent lives, building careers and, as Ward puts it, “daring to dream”. “I interviewed one woman, who worked at the United Nations. She was crying and crying, and I said, ‘Why are you crying, are you scared?’ She said, ‘No… it’s because I have to tell my daughters that all those things I told them they could dream of are no longer attainable to them.’ As a woman and a mother, you can’t not feel crushed when you see someone weeping like that – not weeping for themselves, but weeping for their daughters.”

Does she find it hard not to scoop up that mother and her daughters? How does she walk away from the democratic protestors in Yangon? “It’s very hard,” she says. “You constantly have to remind yourself that the way you help is by shining a light on what’s happening and by giving a voice.” Ward and her CNN crew in Kabul managed to get two of their Afghan team out of the country with them; a female cook and a male translator. “What was so crazy was that within 30 minutes of me asking our translator, Shafi, if he’d like to evacuate, he was at our house with nothing but a little briefcase, which had his computer and some papers showing he’d worked with the US military. And you just think, how much courage, heartache, desperation, bitterness does it take to leave your entire life within 30 minutes?” Ward acknowledges the sad truth that once the cameras are gone, so is the world’s attention. “The reality is that no one is coming to save these people,” she says. “Not the UN. Not the Americans. Not the West, or the international community. And I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and say, ‘The international community needs to do more.’ But all they can do is wring their hands on the sidelines and issue condemnations. If you don’t have China and Russia singing from the same hymn sheet, it is really difficult to have any effect.”

Our conversation is interrupted as the Vogue team, now all packed up, are leaving, and Ward, ever polite, insists on running downstairs to say goodbye in person. When she returns, she confides she initially had doubts about the shoot. “I said to the photographer, ‘Whatever happens, we cannot let this look like, “She’s got her sweet little boys and her award-winning career, she’s got it all,”’” she says. “Because it’s so damn hard.” And yes, she’s the first to admit that with her husband Philipp von Bernstorff, a fund manager whom she met at a 2007 dinner party in Moscow and married at Chelsea Old Town Hall in 2016, often travelling for work, too, she has a huge amount of help. “Does it take a village?” I ask. “It’s more like an army!” she says. “You’ve got five balls you’re juggling all the time and it’s hard organising doctor’s appointments and playdates when you’re in the field. It’s hard missing important events. It’s hard trying to be fully present on certain elements of my work when I’ve just had a baby or I’ve got a sick child.” She adds, “Women are so excited to get their foot in the door and be major players in the workplace that they came up with the big lie, which was that being a mother wouldn’t change anything, but can we stop pretending that this isn’t unbelievably hard? We’re afraid that if we admit, ‘OK, having kids consumes a lot of my attention,’ others will think, ‘Does that mean you’re not focused on your work?’”

Is there female camaraderie now? Or is the newsroom still cut-throat ambition cloaked in Roland Mouret-esque dresses, as portrayed in Bombshell (the 2019 film based on the scandals at Fox News) or Apple TV+’s The Morning Show? After all, Ward began her career as an overnight desk assistant at Fox in 2003, during Roger Ailes’s toxic rule. “When I started out, it was all, ‘Why aren’t you wearing your hair down?’ Do you know what the irony is? You stick to your guns, you wear things how you like them, and afterwards, it becomes your signature. ‘Oh, I love the way Clarissa wears her hair.’ I’m like, ‘You know what? Shut up, because you were telling me for years to cut it, curl it, wear it down!’” The landscape is changing. “With the previous generation, it was more about ‘pull the ladder up’, but with my generation, it’s a bit different. I’m happy that I exist in a media ecosystem that is much more diverse and vibrant than the one I started out in 20 years ago. Before in the US, you had three middle-aged white men on ABC, CBS and NBC telling you what the world was like on any given day, and that was considered to be neutrality.” 

Often likened to Christiane Amanpour, whose role at CNN she took over in 2018, Ward – who speaks six languages – admires women reporters such as Liz Palmer at CBS and Martha Raddatz at ABC, “who were very gracious to me coming up in my career”, as well as Isobel Yeung from Vice, Alex Crawford from Sky News, and Salma Abdelaziz, who is also a reporter with CNN. “I’m big on mentorship. I get emails and messages every day, and I always reply because it is so important – you have to pay it forward.”

Ward is off to Kabul again at the weekend; there is much to prepare. It’s been a long day, and there’s a house downstairs that needs tidying. More importantly, there is a little boy back from his playdate, who clambers on to her lap looking for a cuddle. I can’t help but think that it’s true we might not have it all, but there is something to be said for trying.


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