Meanwhile, my story was narrow. At some point in each interview – sometimes five minutes in, sometimes twenty, depending on the person and all kinds of verbals and non-verbals – I had to ask questions that subtly tried to uncover whether their stories were the ones I needed for my story. Were these women who fit the Special Court's new legalism "forced wives?" The precedent-setting case was all about how a forced marriage is a distinct crime, different from rape or sexual slavery, already defined (and sadly oft-used) in international law. I found myself thinking like a math teacher: All forced wives are raped, but not all rape victims are forced wives. It was an odd kind of consistency to have to maintain between the memories women wanted to share with me and the lens of the story. How do you tell a woman, "What you went through was horrible... but a different kind of horrible than I'm writing about?" (For the record, you don't. I think you just listen, as long as you can, and thank them.)
Later, in Rwanda, I interviewed a genocide survivor who told me about the weeks she spent hiding from the interahamwe, gangs of young genocidaires who did the brunt of the killing. She told me about how men beat her and those around her, killed her family, tore her clothes off and then cracked her own skull with a weapon, leaving her to die.
She didn't say what happened in between when they took her clothes and when they struck her. I had to decide whether to ask. I had a hunch -- mass rape was a tactic of genocide – and a hunch is what leads a journalist to ask questions. Also, journalists have to be loyal to the story they are telling, and to tell all of it, even the uncomfortable parts. When we sit down to interview trauma survivors, we know this is going to make them uncomfortable. That's why we do our best to explain why we're asking and give them the freedom to choose to say no. We have to trust that we explain our mission and its risks – and at some point, we also have to trust their consent.
But there are times when we also have to recognize that these stories belong first to someone else. I decided not to press. I was telling a story, yes, but it was her story, and this was one part of that story I felt I had no business asking for if she didn't want to give it to me. (There's a corollary to holding back, of course, which is that maybe someone needs help with the thing you don't ask... and so later I did ask her later, in a women-only room, if she has had access to the medical services and any medications she may need since the war. She said she had. The truth? I don't know, but I let it be. It was the truth she wanted me to have.)