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Sunday, January 31, 1999 Published at 19:28 GMT

Jane Standley

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"Nothing could prepare me for the Rwanda genocide," said our Africa Correspondent, who has since covered many other conflicts.

Jane Standley answered your questions live from Johannesburg this Sunday.

Click here if you would like to read more about Jane's biography or access videos of her reporting

Or scroll down to read and listen to the Newstalk discussion.

Jane Standley takes your questions

Robin Lustig: Jane so much of what you report is about conflict, about misery, most recently, of course, and particularly in Angola now - do you manage to retain any kind of faith in the human race when you see what you see?

Jane Standley: "You meet the most amazing people"
Jane Standley: It's hard to retain much faith in the political leaders in Africa. A lot of the time whether it's a political leader of a government or a political leader of the rebel movement. For example in Angola I felt that neither side really cared about the people. I mean you go to somewhere like Angola despite three decades of conflict you meet the most amazing people. One man actually said to me recently: "We managed to get our family out of the conflict area intact." And I wrote about him for a programme called 'From Our Own Correspondent', he was referring to the fact that he got all his family members out of the conflict area. He stood on a landmine and lost both his legs and he was still trying to find a job, trying to find somewhere to plant - somewhere to grow some crops - and that is very difficult to retain some faith in human nature when you see people being put through that kind of experience and their belief in a better life, the belief in the future, their ability to keep going that really is a very, very humbling experience and makes people like us keep going I think in reporting these conflicts and making people still care or at least trying to make people care about them.

Paul Wesson from Luanda in Angola: I wonder if Jane believes that the UN recognises it may have made errors in Angola, and whether it's got the ability or the will to resolve those errors?

Jane Standley: "The UN has had great difficulties"
Jane Standley: Well Paul I think that the UN does recognise that it made some errors. I think it's now the forces are almost certainly going to be pulled out. I think the errors are the errors of the mandate in terms of making sure that both sides disarmed in the conflict in Angola during the years of some peace between 1994 - the Peace Agreement - and now. It's an error they perhaps should have learnt in Rwanda in not having a strong enough mandate. But it must be said that the UN has had great difficulties, it hasn't had, I think, the full backing of the international community in Angola and the problem is that it was there on a monitoring mission, it wasn't there on a peace enforcement mission and we all knew that UNITA - the rebel movement - was rearming and remobilising, in fact had never really demobilised. So it's a question of the collective will of the member states of the United Nations, I believe, quite often Angola, Rwanda, Somalia even to actually make people stick to what's been agreed and Angola is, sadly, very much suffering from the lack of will to impose that.

Mark Vergara from Switzerland: I have a broader question on African news coverage. I noticed you're introduced as Africa Correspondent, it reminds a bit of Lenny Henry - the British comedian - who said at a charity event that Africa was a big country. Now I know the BBC has many correspondents and stringers in Africa but don't you think it's a sign with some 53 countries and so much diversity that the Continent is relegated to, what I would call, the horror of stories from faraway places?

Jane Standley: "It is very, very difficult to report Africa"
Jane Standley: Sadly a lot of African coverage is about horror stories in faraway places. Sadly it is, unfortunately, the nature of the continent at the moment that a quarter of it is in a state of war. But I think there are other stories that we do do which show that people aren't just fighting or that people are showing great, you know - a theme that I really like to push - that people show great strength of human nature despite the conflict they live in. For example I choose, very much, as often as possible to go and talk to ordinary people. I remember doing a story in Mogadishu when the United Nations had pulled its forces out everyone said Somalia is going to go completely and utterly down the pan and we haven't seen a great improvement it must be said but we did see, at that time, people emerging around the front line in Mogadishu, people going swimming in the sea, people visiting each others homes. We went to kind of do stories like that to show that these people are human, they're not relegated off the face of news coverage. And it is very, very difficult to report Africa. For example one of the stories I'm going to do in the next couple of weeks is to talk to women who are trying to do something about the appalling levels of rape in South Africa because they are challenging the image of Africa as a continent of conflict, of misery, of difficulties - it is very hard to get those stories on air, they're often the most difficult stories to do but I think it's a question of everyone actually working together to try to get the positive stories - the stories that are more challenging - on air as well as the stories of misery and disaster.

Robin Lustig: But Jane you have very difficult choices to make don't you, I mean at any one time, in Africa, there must be a dozen or two dozen interesting and important stories that you could hope to be able to cover. Now how on earth do you choose - how do your bosses choose - which of those you are actually going to go and report on?

Jane Standley: Well that's an extremely good question of an extremely good issue. I would like to do more of the positive or perhaps deeper stories about Africa rather than this is another conflict between people who are fighting for some reason that we don't really understand. I think the choice is often made because the international agenda of the other news agencies is also one of the headlines, the conflict, this place is about to fall to rebels of this movement, or the government's about to retake this place in this conflict. It's really, really difficult and there's a certain element it comes down to - money, how expensive a certain story is to cover sometimes, where our other correspondents are, who can be on base to hold the ship together here in Jo'burg. Those things are very, very frustrating, they're the nitty gritty that are actually the realistic choices but you have to keep arguing - let's go and do a story. Another one I want to do is to go and talk to some groups in Senegal who succeeded in outlawing, through legislation - you know pushing and pushing from the grass roots - female genital mutilation - great success story - let's go and tell that tale.

Sandy Walsh with an e-mail from Anand Doraswami in India: He wants you to pick out a couple of your happiest moments in Africa to show what arouses your affection for the continent.

Jane Standley: They've been, surprisingly, very many happy moments. And perhaps one is in Somalia. The BBC has a very, very popular Somalia language service and the joke always is that the fighting stops so people can listen to the Somali service. But that, to me, has been quite an interesting experience because at one time a lot of the newsreaders on the Somali service who would translate my reports would be men. So I would go to Somalia and often meet huge groups of women who'd come out because they heard that the correspondent from the BBC was visiting their village or their town or whatever and these women would stare in amazement that I was female because they just assumed I was a man because they'd heard a man's voice reading my reports. I remember on one occasion actually getting mobbed and groped by these women who said: "Our husbands, our brothers, our fathers have said that a woman can't do this job but we're so, so proud of you." And I'm completely being swarmed over by these women who are so friendly, they want you to go into their home and talk to them about what it's like being a woman doing this job and that is one of the great, great moments that you feel, not only are you bringing news to people who are so hungry for it but you're doing something a bit uplifting and a bit inspiring for women who don't really have perhaps a full participating role in politics in a country like Somalia. So moments like that are just fantastic.

Ed Edet calling from California, USA: I'm interested in finding out your impression on the international tribunal over the Rwanda and Burundi genocide?

Jane Standley: Well the international tribunal are only, at the moment, looking at the Rwanda genocide and some of the events running up to it. I was very disappointed when I first started covering the tribunal - I felt it was very slow in getting suspects actually to its headquarters. But it must be said that a lot of that was other countries in Africa who were sheltering suspects - while in Kenya, where I used to live, I used to see some of the leading architects of the genocide wandering round freely and the tribunal seemed to have very little power to actually get hold of them. Now I can see that the tribunal is passing life sentences, it is getting very slowly still to the core of the issues. And it's one of the things, I suppose, we have to put our faith into that if there is an international court dealing with these absolutely greatest abuses of human life then perhaps that will deter other people from murder and from massacre if they see that they will be caught, they will be put in jail for the rest of their lives. And we can only hope that that is a way forward.

Sandy Walsh with an e-mail from Margaret Kierton in Modena, Italy: She says that from reading African novels she's got the impression there must be some absolutely wonderful food on the continent. So what is your own favourite African dish and what's your ideal place to eat it?

Jane Standley: Oh my goodness. You know that often working in the war zones of Africa as you know that I do most of the time, we don't often have food high on the agenda but I think probably some Mozambican prawns sitting overlooking Maputo Bay would be wonderful particularly as Mozambique, every time I go there now, it's ended its decades of war, it's really moving ahead, that's a really, really nice environment to sit in and see that things are really improving. I've had camel in Somalia which is a bit chewy. I've managed to avoid the worms and other delicacies that, I'm sure, are very nice - Africans tell me they're very nice.

Watiti Masokoyih, a Ugandan calling from Norway: I was in Kampala at the time of the bombings in East Africa and in Kampala there were four or five bombings in the government buildings and at the US and British Embassies. How did you feel about the possibility of being the target of such attacks and do you think innocent Africans are unfairly suffering for American interference?

Jane Standley: I went back to Nairobi - I flew there in a rush on the day of the bombing of the Embassy there - and I felt absolutely devastated arriving there. This was a city I'd not long left, I lived there for three years, I knew Kenyans and Americans who were killed in that bombing and many more that were injured and I felt absolutely - it was just awful to see the situation. I felt very angry as well that somebody had planted a bomb in a country that really didn't have the infrastructure to cope with a big rescuing effort. I think certainly the Americans were to blame if it's to be believed that they had warnings that they was possibly going to be a bomb attack and that the American Embassy was allowed to be right in the middle of Nairobi - when most other Embassies have moved outside. And I know that the Americans when they re-build the Embassy will take it outside Nairobi for security concerns for everyone. It was an absolutely devastating experience to see what happened to Kenyans on that day.

Robin Lustig: Jane you were already referring in Somalia to the fact that obviously as a woman correspondent you stand out, obviously as a white skinned person in Africa also you stand out - do you feel particularly vulnerable sometimes on occasions like that?

Jane Standley: I think that most Africans, well certainly in my experience - of course they can see that you're white and perhaps if they're in Rwanda or where there's a strong anti French and anti Belgium feeling after the genocide they always took their time to find out where you came from, they were always interested to know what your views were. I haven't felt particularly targeted because I'm white. It's interesting that in South Africa now I feel much more conscious of being white and of being from Europe than I do anywhere else on the African continent because of the legacy here of apartheid. But being female, I think, has had its horrible moments in jail with drunken soldiers in former Zaire - it's a particularly difficult threat being female and being by yourself as I have been. But I've found actually that being female is quite helpful. You have to deal with political leaders who are, invariably, male in Africa, sadly, on a very personal basis and perhaps they're a bit disarmed by this - I don't know. And you often find that you can establish a better relationship, a more open frank discussion - whether it's a personal relationship before you do an interview or while you're doing an interview - I often feel it's actually quite a positive addition to the range of skills.

Sandy Walsh with an E-mail from Andy Burroughs in Reading, England: He wants to know what, in practical terms, can be done to give Africans an identity beyond famine, war and victim? He also wants to know if you're optimistic for the future and do you feel that the West could or should be doing more?

Jane Standley: I must admit I don't feel particularly optimistic for the future at the moment because there are so many new conflicts brewing and taking place in Africa at the moment - the war in the Democratic Republic and the number of countries that are being pulled into that, the conflict between the former friends Ethiopia and Eritrea - it's not particularly inspiring. I feel things are going backwards at the moment rather than forwards. I think the West could or should certainly be doing more but in terms of perhaps in education the money that is given out often from Western governments direct to African governments gets funnelled away by corruption and I think there are ways that the West could make sure its money that it gives to Africa could be better used because education it breeds a tolerance of different religions etc. which would stop a lot of the wars in Africa. It's, for example, a tolerance towards people with Aids - here in South Africa we've seen people with Aids recently who've been publicly trying to talk about the disease being attacked and killed - if there was more education people would also, as well as build tolerance, would build a strong economy and if Africa had a strong economy, these are bright people here, if they had more education people would be able to have more skills, if there was more jobs, if there was more investment those are the poverty and boredom sometimes when their skills and their abilities are underused - that contributes toward conflict and it becomes a terribly vicious cycle. So I think there is a lot to do.

Robin Lustig: You were reporting just a few weeks ago, I remember hearing one of your reports about Thebo Mbeki the Deputy President of South Africa and his African renaissance idea. This idea that there could be and there should be a brighter future for African. Do you not place much store by that?

Jane Standley: I agree 100% with Thebo Mbeki view that there needs to be a return to African dignity, Africans no longer being seen just as victims of famine and war and I just don't see where it's going to come from - it's a case of putting the building blocks together but there's got to be some foundation. And at the moment everyone just seems, I'm afraid, very interested in conflict - there are very few countries that are not in conflict or have a massive problem with corruption. For example, Zimbabwe at the moment is going through a very, very difficult time, they're at war in the Congo, those are the issues I can't see how we're going to tackle them and they need to be tackled quickly because all the time Africa's losing ground and I hate to see that.

Amare Mebra calling from Stavangar, Norway: Why do you think the international community is ignoring the inhuman actions being taken by the Ethiopian authorities against the innocent Eritreans and Ethiopians of the Eritrea regions?

Jane Standley: I don't think they're actually ignoring them. I've just been reading Amnesty International's report in the last couple of days saying that the Ethiopians have deported tens of thousands of Eritrean extraction people from Ethiopia - so that certainly is bouncing around on the international agenda. And there are a lot of envoys at the moment who you will be aware going through to both Ethiopia and Eritrea, there's Anthony Lak [phon.], Bill Clinton's envoy, Kofi Annan has sent Mohammed Zanoon [phon.] - the diplomat - to try and talk to both sides, the Italians are involved, there's lots of people talking to both sides to say please don't start fighting again because we've had no fighting since June. But I don't think there is a lack of will to actually stop both communities fighting again and people are talking about what is happening to citizens of both countries.

Jane Standley - Biography

Jane Standley joined the BBC as a graduate trainee (for domestic news) in 1989 - and learnt the ropes in local, regional and national radio and TV.

Having always wanted to be a foreign correspondent, she quickly progressed to foreign news reporting with the World Service (first radio then TV) in 1992.

She had spent several years freelancing and backpacking around Asia, Africa, the Middle East between university and the BBC traineeship. "So you could say I was well-trained for the job here - which often feels like backpacking with a lot more silver cases of TV and radio satellite equipment!" she says.

Jane took up the East Africa correspondent's job in mid-1994 - as the Rwanda genocide was coming to an end.

Rwanda's lost children, December 1994
"Nothing could prepare a person for that - I was camped in the grounds of a mission station where all the nuns and priests had been massacred. When I opened my tent zip in the mornings, dogs were running around with human body parts in their mouths which they had dug up from mass graves.

"No one who worked in Rwanda at that time will ever forget the smell of the country. From my base in Nairobi from then until mid 1997 I returned to Rwanda many times, and worked in many other dangerous, difficult and depressing countries - Burundi, southern Sudan, Somalia and the former Zaire.

Report on the plight of Hutu refugees in Kinshasa, April 97
Jane was expelled from the former Zaire by the Mobutu regime (for life) in February 1996 - but by October was back - covering the war which brought Laurent Kabila to power.

At the end of that war in mid-1997 she finished her posting and returned to London for a few months - on mainly the domestic TV and radio beat - but with some foreign excursions. "A trip to Bosnia and the comparisons it brought with central Africa was very interesting," she says.

Jane Standley won the SONY radio reporter of the year 1997 award for the Zaire war coverage and was awarded an MBE in the Queen's 1998 New Year's Honours list for services to broadcasting.

In June 1998 she returned to Africa to a more senior job - that of Africa Correspondent - with a brief to cover the entire continent.

Aftermath of the Nairobi bomb, August 1998
"Sadly my first few stories were of conflict again - the new war between the former friends Eritrea and Ethiopia and to Zaire - now the Democratic Republic of Congo's new war. The bomb in Nairobi which claimed more than 250 lives last August made me very sad - the city had been my home for 3 years and I knew far too many of the victims.

"Africa is the hardest of postings - not just the danger level which is extreme. A friend of mine from the American media was killed at the age of 34 in Sierra Leone (mid Jan 1999).

"It's a hard continent to make people understand, and to try to make them see Africans as real people with very similar concerns to people in Britain and elsewhere in the world - to give Africans an identity beyond famine, war and victim.

"This is the challenge which has brought me back for another 3 or 4 years on this continent - a continent of misery - but also of some of the most fantastic people who make the very best out of little opportunity and a continent of the most beautiful red earth and wonderful smells of rain on the greenest of vegetation."

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