Storytelling with a sting: Fifty years in journalism and academia
Astri Suhrke always wanted to be a journalist. She has loved writing ever since she was a little girl. Talking about expressing herself through words, effortlessly letting them stream onto paper, makes her visibly energized. Or, is it rather the chance to ask critical questions?
After completing her degree at the Norwegian academy of journalism, she worked for the local newspaper, did night shifts in Vårt Land, and was a summer temp in Aftenposten before being offered a scholarship at the University of Denver in the US to study international relations. And academia swallowed her whole. Her PhD dissertation about Norway and Belgium’s role in NATO became the first in a long line of academic publications, and a pointer to many of the topics she later chose to work on. It is no coincidence that many of her research projects have focused on conflict and peacebuilding, and on the role of international organisations.
We will return to this, and to one of the topics she has grappled with: Is there such a thing as a common humanity, one human kind where we all can feel each other’s pain and grieve for the same victims?
But first, more about what inspires her to write. Becoming a researcher did not make her to let go of her journalistic aspirations. With a PhD in her pocket and a position at the American University in Washington D.C, she continued to write for newspapers. She was a columnist and regular correspondent for Arbeiderbladet also when her husband’s work took her to India for three years during the mid-80’s.
Research and journalism were the perfect combination also after she joined CMI in 1992. The journalistic approach to topics she caught an interest in made her explore them even more thoroughly as a researcher.
-When I hear or read about something that sparks my interest, my instinct has always been to write about it. It seems an idea or a thought only becomes real when I put it on paper, and yet words on a piece of paper are so transient. One day, the words in a newspaper are there for everyone to read. The next day, the newspaper is wrapped around someone’s fish and chips, only to be thrown in the garbage bin. Yet writing gives me satisfaction. I enjoy the process of writing itself as well as the concrete product, she says.
Asking the uncomfortable questions
When a journalist gets to interview one of her own kind, there are topics that will invariably come to the surface. Like the wonders and quirks of storytelling, the ways of connecting with your audience. So many journalists, and also increasingly researchers, place much emphasis on the need for a human and personal angle. Suhrke thinks that it all can get too much. Should we skip telling people about unfair overarching societal structures just because we have no face to pin it on? Complexity is never an excuse not to cover a story argues to Suhrke.
-You do not necessarily need what many think of as a good story to make people listen. What you need is good questions. And just like journalism, research should be critical and investigative, she says.
Sometimes she finds a way of telling captivating stories simply through taking a critical stance. Sometimes a combination of luck and a good nose leads her to an important story. It is probably more than a fair share of both.
Her articles have featured in the most read media outlets in Norway. She admits that seeing her byline in big international newspapers still gives her an extra buzz -notably op-eds in the International Herald Tribune (before the paper folded).
The articles have been on various topics, but always with a sting; to hold those responsible for failures or atrocities to account, to ask the questions that need to be asked. Often, efforts to hold the responsible to account deal with human rights violations. Her human rights concerns have not only led her to do research on topics like the humanitarian consequences of violent conflict, the concepts of human security and peacebuilding, and the plight of refugees, but also to serve on various committees.
Suhrke was for many years a member of a committee of experts serving the Norwegian Nobel Committee. In 1992, just after she came to CMI, she was member of the Norwegian Disarmament Commission, which among its work included a mission to Kiev. Before then, she wrote a book about the US invasion of Iraq in cooperation with then NRK journalist Eva Bratholm.
-Saddam Hussein described the Gulf war as the mother of all wars and became the entire world’s laughing stock. But he was right, says Suhrke.
Her work as a researcher has taken her to many places in the world. But even a seasoned traveler needs a place to call home. For the past decade, Australia has been home, and trips to Norway have become less frequent. Swimming in the ocean outside her home in Sydney brings her peace and calm like nothing else. It is a passion that has only grown with time. Cold water does not stop her. She simply puts on a wetsuit on during the cooler months. The sight of small sharks roaming the water underneath, does not scare her – particularly, she adds, as this type is harmless to humans.
The need for peace and calm does not necessarily spring from the suffering and violence she has seen working in and on some of the most conflict-ridden countries on earth. Rather, she has developed a clinical approach to violence and conflict. Her training and work as a researcher, perhaps also the tools of journalism, have made conflict and violence easier to process.
This does not mean that she is unaffected. And sometimes, it hits you when you least expect it.
-In 2002, I was in Kandahar in Afghanistan on a field work for a research project. My Afghan colleagues and I were watching the news about the terrorist attack in Bali, where bombs detonated in night clubs in the tourist district killed more than 200, mostly Australian, young persons. I thought : How terrible - so many young men and women who were out having fun and partying lost their lives.. But my Afghan friends’ reaction was that they deserved it, being out ‘drinking and whoring’, says Suhrke.
Their very different reactions to what had happened made her reflect on the importance of different backgrounds and cultures. Is it possible to have a mutual understanding of who is a victim ?
Back in Norway in 2004, riding on the slow and cumbersome # 20 bus in Bergen, she noticed all the half-mast flags. Almost 200 people on their way to work in Madrid had been killed by coordinated bombs on the city’s commuter trains. As a nation, we shared Spain’s grief and mourned for the country’s victims. And again the question came to her: Can we mourn for the same victims?
When she got off the bus, she went straight to work. She wrote an op-ed for Bergens Tidende, which to date is the one she has received the most comments on.
Discussion and critical reflection should be at the very core of both research and journalism according to Suhrke. She argues that conflict can have positive consequences, and she thinks that the idea that there can be or even should be consensus on all major questions is utopian.
-Critique is in itself an understanding of the way in which society works, and conflict can be the force that moves society forward, she says.
-My friend and colleague Chris Cramer once wrote a book called “Civil War is not a Stupid Thing”, which in a Gramscian-in spired analysis explored the positive, downstream historical consequences of civil war. The view is of course controversial, and the American publisher of his book, originally published in the UK, asked him change the title to something more innocuous.
This leads to a different, yet somewhat related question: To which degree can research be an instrument for change?
Suhrke’s experience in this regard is mixed. Some 35 years ago, she co-authored Escape from Violence with Aristide Zolberg and Sergio Aguayo. The book asked basic questions of why there are refugees, and why and under which conditions they return. The work became a classic text in refugee studies but decades later, little has changed to mitigate refugee crises. The book is still just as relevant.
At other times, research that resonates is being picked up by an audience that has the power to influence decisions and strategies.
This is Suhrke’s experience regarding the US-led coalition’s engagement in Afghanistan. After NATO’s invasion in 2001, it quickly became clear to Suhrke and some of her colleagues working that the international strategy was heading for serious difficulties.
-The Bonn Agreement which was supposed to re-create Afghanistan was an agreement for and between victors, and developments quickly took a wrong turn, she says.
Along with fellow CMI researchers Arne Strand and Torunn Wimpelmann, and then PRIO director Kristian Berg Harpviken, she was among the earliest critical voices who raised concerns about the international operation. At first it felt like they were talking to the wind. But after a few years, their concerns started to echo.
-Although the situation in Afghanistan is still terrible, that gave me hope that research can make a difference, she says.
She tells of a similar experience from her first big assignment after she started working at CMI, which was to participate in a multi-national team commissioned to report on the international response to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The mass slaughter of Tutsi and moderate Hutu posed some deeply disturbing questions. How could this happen as the world watched, doing little or nothing to stop it, and in a country where a UN peacekeeping mission was deployed? Suhrke and her team set out to find the answers in an assignment financially supported by 18 donors and international organizations. Their conclusions were harsh, pointing to negligence bordering on complicity by the United Nations, the US and, in particular, France.
The initial report angered the French government, which had expected a simple technical evaluation and not a critical assessment. France withdrew its financial support, prompting Finland to offer to cover their part, and the research was completed. The report was the first of several inquiries into the responsibility of the UN and international peacekeeping operations to prevent mass violence.
It somehow feels fitting to conclude the interview with Astri Suhrke here. The French reaction did not even make her raise an eyebrow. She had done exactly what research should do: Cause discomfort and raise questions. She says herself that she is quite pleased with the headline of an interview with her in the Norwegian paper, Klassekampen, when she retired. The title was “Hun som stilte spørsmål” ("She who asked questions").