“Jimmie Briggs ponders one of the most troubling problems of our time: why children, hardly free from their mother’s apron strings, go to war,” Director of the Human Rights Center of the University of California at Berkeley Eric Stover wrote. “He combines book-strap reporting with thoughtful insights that help us understand why so many children in war-torn countries fall prey to this perversion of innocence and what we must do to end it.”
Jimmie Briggs, an investigative journalist, came to Colgate this week to discuss his new book Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers go to War. The book is a powerful depiction of Briggs’ six- to seven-year journey to document the lives of child soldiers around the world. He writes about the psychological and gender aspects of war with regard to children, based on his observations in Rwanda, Uganda, Colombia, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.
Briggs never envisioned himself as a journalist when he was a student at Morehouse College; in fact, he planned to become a doctor and double majored in biology and philosophy. He decided that journalism was a better fit for him, however, and took on a job as a mailroom clerk at the Washington Post in Washington, D.C. With some luck, Briggs was able to publish a music review, and that led to more publications, a job at the Village Voice, an assistant editor position at Emerge Magazine and, finally, a job as a reporter for Life magazine. It was while in this job that Briggs came to his current project.
In 1997, Briggs traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to write an investigative report on the guerilla movement occurring at that time. It was there that Briggs first encountered the use of child soldiers and met many women and children refugees from Rwanda. At an AIDS station in Kisangani, Briggs was compelled to help women and their dying babies, although there was little he could do for them. Eight or nine babies died in his arms from starvation in just one day. From this Briggs realized what war meant at a fundamental level and also that what he was doing was not enough.
“At this point, I saw more clearly what I had to do with my life,” Briggs said.
This event proved to be a turning point for Briggs. He continued to work at Life for one and a half more years, before pursuing his idea of a book on child soldiers, specifically focusing on the loss of childhood through war.
“Childhood is the kingdom where no one dies,” Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, but as Briggs discovered, this is not true in many places throughout the world.
Briggs delivered two lectures to the Colgate community, one at the Women Studies Center focusing on the gender aspect of war and girl soldiers, and one at the African, Latin American, and Native American (ALANA) Cultural Center. He offered a general overview of his book, complete with a slide show of photographs taken throughout his journey. Briggs recounted his experiences in the five different countries he visited.
Briggs’ book was an immense project, taking almost a decade to complete. It involved a significant amount of research, travel to dangerous locations and dealings with emotionally and psychologically complex issues. Briggs explained that he was not afraid to fail in his project, because failure might mean that he would not have come back alive. His emotional involvement was a factor as well. He said that he initially lost hope in writing the collection of tragic stories, but was able to regain it from the victims he spoke to who trusted him with their stories. This kept him going at difficult times.
Briggs said he is not the same person he was when he first began the project. As a result of having to speak with violated women, he was forced to alter his gender identity. He had to accentuate qualities, specifically more feminine qualities, that he had never utilized before in order to talk with women and encourage them to tell their stories.
Briggs also spoke about the role of the journalist in society. A journalist is expected to be objective, he said, but must also convey the emotions of the story so that readers are able to get a sense of the truth. Briggs acknowledged that subjectivity is a natural part of journalism.
“There is no consistency in objectivity,” Briggs said. “Your background will always influence what you do.”
He had difficulty not becoming emotionally involved in the stories he was retelling as they evoked such a strong sense of compassion.
Briggs encourages college students to learn about what is going on around the world, support institutions that work to help children, contact representatives in Congress, keep the issue alive and look beyond traditional media outlets, which do not typically address such issues.
“Where there is hope, there is light, and people do survive and overcome,” Briggs said.
Students expressed their reactions to the lecture.
“Briggs explained compassionately the issues at hand,” sophomore Tanya Lubicz-Nawrocka said. “He also helped to raise awareness about our American privileges and our lack of knowledge about the atrocities taking place each day that violate the natural rights of women and children. I hope that the Colgate community can take action to help the many others in the world who are in need.”
“The lecture was an eye-opener for me to learn that it wasn’t just Colombia and North Africa where women and children are being abused, but in other countries as well,” Sarah Helpern said.
Briggs has received numerous fellowships to pursue his reporting, including the Alicia Patterson Fellowship and Dart Trauma Fellowship. He has also been presented with the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust Media Award, the NABJ Magazine Award and the John Bartlow Martin Award for Public Journalism. In 2002, Briggs served as a Special Consultant for the United Nations Special Session on Children. He is currently speaking to different groups about his book and experiences and plans to begin a second book, which will focus on similar issues in other countries, including Iraq.