Rukmini Callimachi, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, delivered the annual Marie Colvin Distinguished Lecture in the Student Activities Center on Tuesday night with a speech that illustrated what it means to be a journalist in an increasingly dangerous world.
The Marie Colvin Distinguished Lecture Series was established in honor of American journalist Marie Colvin, who died while covering the siege of Homs in Syria in 2012, on assignment for British newspaper The Sunday Times.
Colvin’s last television dispatch was an interview with CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, in which she discussed the importance of showing the American people graphic images, particularly of children, to highlight just how brutal the siege in Syria was.
Callimachi spoke about her own experiences as an overseas correspondent and the importance of bearing witness to the world’s atrocities.
“Marie Colvin stood for the act of bearing witness,” she said. “I want to take you back to a time where I too was able to bear witness.”
Callimachi then spoke about her experiences reporting in the Ivory Coast, where she saw with her own eyes the dead bodies of women and girls who were raped and killed in the thickets of a forest. She said it was a sight that left her doubled over and that she still revisits in her nightmares.
“That sight has forever changed me,” Callimachi said. Even though she had heard the term “raped and killed” many times before, she didn’t understand the gravity of it until after seeing these women.
Some of the women were old, some were young and some were disabled, dead on the forest floor with their clothes in a disheveled fashion that made it clear what had transpired, Callimachi said.
Some of the less graphic images of what Callimachi saw were shown on a slideshow behind her, catching the attention of freshman physics and applied mathematics major James Glazar.
“I was touched by the emotional depth of the photos,” Glazar said after the lecture. “It transports you to this world and made me feel for these people.”
Callimachi said throughout her years covering atrocities such as this one in Africa, there was one constant: the authorities always denied the crime when she asked them about it.
However, their rejection of the rapes gave her some small semblance of hope because their lies indicated they were at least ashamed of it, she said.
This is where the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, diverges from other terror groups. Islamic State group militants not only admit to raping women and girls — some as young as 12 — but claim that the Quran permits rape and even encourages it if the victims are not followers of Islam.
Callimachi described the abduction and enslavement of Yazidi women and girls living on Mount Sinjar as a “well-meditated and orchestrated plan.”
These women were forced at gunpoint to load onto white buses to be taken to warehouses where they are held as sex slaves, referred to as “sabaya,” waiting to be sold to the highest bidder.
Once abducted, the girls were interviewed, in a sense, by Islamic State group fighters. How old were they? Were they married? Were they a virgin? Virgins were considered the most valuable and beautiful.
These girls quickly realized that their “beauty was a liability,” Callimachi said. Their solution to this problem was to attempt to make themselves as ugly as possible by not showering and letting their hair get matted and dirty. Callimachi recalled one girl smearing dirt on her face in the hopes of not getting chosen.
Perhaps the most disturbing characteristic of the rapes was the belief held by the militants that what they were doing wasn’t only permissible, but also virtuous in the sense that it draws them closer to God by punishing those who don’t follow Islam.
The Arabic word “ibadah” was repeatedly uttered by the soldiers during these assaults, signaling that they believe raping these women is a form of worship. Callimachi said that in the women’s accounts, the men would prostrate themselves before and after the assaults, bookending each rape with a prayer.
Callimachi explained that many people write these acts off as plays for money or for power, but she doesn’t believe that is true. After studying and speaking to current and former jihadists, she said she thinks that Islamic State group militants truly believe that the violent and sexual acts they perpetrate are true to Islam.
Iman Esmailzada, a 23-year-old nurse at Stony Brook University Hospital, said that the most striking aspect of Callimachi’s speech was Callimachi’s thoughts on the Islamic State group’s beliefs, which are ultimately baffling to people living in the U.S.
“They are clear-minded when making these decisions that we can’t possibly fathom, so we reach for ideas to try to understand,” Esmailzada said.
Iman’s sister, Leila Esmailzada, an anthropology major at Stony Brook, said the men engaging in prayer before and after the rapes was a “shocking revelation.”
Callimachi’s career as a journalist was in part inspired by her Romanian stepfather Mihai Botez, who spent a decade under house arrest after criticizing the regime of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
When asked about her stepfather’s role in her pursuing a career in journalism, Callimachi tilted her head back slightly and laughed.
“It’s funny that you say that,” she said, “because he was the only one who supported my writing. The rest of my family were all doctors, and they were all horrified at the idea of me becoming a writer.”
In her lecture, Callimachi said there is no guarantee that her stories will bring justice for the victims of violence, but it’s not impossible either. On the walk to her car, Callimachi said telling other people’s stories is important.
“The amazing part of it is you have a chance to make change happen,” she said.