‘Women and Girls Were Not Jumping Up and Down to be Interviewed’: Rukmini Callamichi on Interviewing ISIS Sex Slaves

Rukmini Callimachi
Rukmini Callimachi. Screenshot via Charlie Rose.

Columbia Journalism Review has an as-told-to account of New York Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi’s experience reporting a page-one story that ran in March of 2016, which bore the headline “To Maintain Supply of Sex Slaves, ISIS Pushes Birth Control.” Callimachi talks to CJR‘s Elon Green about various aspects of getting the story, spending time with the victims, and earning their trust.

Being a woman was helpful. I say that with caution, because some of the most revealing and sensitive stories on rape have been done by my male colleagues: Jeffrey Gettleman on male rape in eastern Congo and Adam Nossiter on the rapes inside of a soccer stadium in Guinea, for example. Both stories put important issues on the map. But I could get these girls to open up by telling them, Somebody very close to me, in my own family, was gang-raped as a teenager. I was raised with her story. I’d tell them they should not suffer any shame for what happened to them. It was not their fault. I tried to make it clear to them that what they’re about to describe is something quite personal to me, given my family’s history, and I do not come at this with some morose curiosity.

Callimachi also discusses her process as a writer.

I tend to fight. I think I’ve been a pain in the butt for some editors. Because writing is so hard for me, when I find a formulation that I love — moments of inspiration usually happen when I’m going on a run; I’ll have an ah ha! moment — it’s painful when editors cut that very thing. I know that the editing is obviously a very important step in what we do. It’s why The New York Times is what it is. So I am trying my best to push less and to be less attached to the specific phrasing.

I don’t editorialize. Sometimes people ask why I don’t condemn ISIS. Why don’t I say this is terrible? I’m like, Are you kidding me? Why would I need to say that, when it is so transparently terrible, right? It’s so obviously horrible and what do I, Rukmini, this writer from America, have to add by saying, This is awful? I think that gets in the way of the narrative.

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