Elaine Monaghan dodged death in Albania and skirted bombs in Northern Ireland. A journalist’s job? To ask the right questions.
By Amari Leigh
Dressed in a red T-shirt and jeans, youthful Elaine Monaghan mans a barbecue while surrounded by co-workers in Kukës, Albania.
Sent to the region in 1999, Monaghan was in northern Albania to report from refugee camps holding Kosovans who had fled their homes in one of the largest movements of people in Europe since World War Two. Monaghan’s stint in the Balkans remains one of her most memorable experiences as a correspondent on the front lines.
As a high school student of Scottish ancestry, Monaghan was passionate about the power of words and curious about exploring the world. So her interest in journalism and storytelling was obvious.
In 1989, while studying abroad in Berlin, Monaghan witnessed the fall of the Berlin wall. She decided she wanted to turn her passion into a profession.
“Heaved up onto the wall by German friends, then looking down into the faces of soldiers who on a different day might have shot me, I wanted to share what I was seeing,” Monaghan wrote in a 2015 News-Decoder article. “I joined Reuters News upon graduating in 1993.”
After more than two decades of experience as a foreign correspondent, Monaghan subscribes to the credo: “Strike up conversations with strangers everywhere you go.”
Journalism spells out our common humanity.
The journalist has pursued this approach in Berlin, Ukraine, Belarus, the Balkans, Chechnya, Ireland, Northern Ireland and the United States, where she has worked for some of the biggest news outlets in Western media. She came close to death in Albania and skirted petrol bombs in Belfast.
“The drumbeat of death, bloodshed and destruction always depressed me,” she wrote in 2015. “But I was able to shake it off, convinced my reporting had value.”
Monaghan speaks to the value of her work as a reporter when discussing her coverage of peace talks in Northern Ireland, where “the words flew out of my fingers.”
“With every killing, I reassured myself that we were headed for peace — an imperfect one perhaps, but proof that any conflict can end.”
In 2014, Monaghan moved to academia, assuming a post as professor at Indiana University. There, Monaghan shares memorable moments from her career, helping students understand “journalism’s greatest gift.”
For Monaghan, this means “to give voice to someone else’s most deeply-held, intimate beliefs, to really have a chance to spell out our common humanity and reveal at least some of life’s complexity.”
For News-Decoder, Monaghan has written about threats to journalists around the world, autocracy, separatism in Scotland, Northern Ireland and fake news. She held down an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit focusing on Russia and hosted by News-Decoder. She helps coordinate work by Indiana University students for News-Decoder.
In her words, “Every story is unique.”
Q: What was the biggest story you ever covered?
Elaine Monaghan: Hard one to answer. I’ve been really lucky and had a lot of big stories on my plate across the years. One of the biggest ones in terms of its historical and political impact was the run-up to and signing of Northern Ireland’s peace deal in 1998.
I also covered the rise to power of Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenka. I covered the 9/11 attacks and their impact, first as State Department correspondent, and later as a correspondent for The Times of London I covered the Iraq invasion from the Washington perspective.
Perhaps the most memorable experiences I had were during the Kosovo conflict, when I was posted for several weeks in the refugee camps of northern Albania, and later in the province itself, as NATO forces seized control.
Q: What story was the most unusual to cover?
Monaghan: For me, every story is unique, and the experience of reporting and retelling many of them left a lasting impression. So this is very hard to answer.
In 1996, I wrote a story about a Gulag survivor. He was supporting Boris Yeltsin because he was so terrified of communists returning to power in Russia. The life story of the man — a historian named Pavel Negretov — was not really that unusual. Given the circumstances he grew up in, it was unsurprisingly tragic, dramatic and magnificent.
But what made it truly unusual was a deeply personal and moving story he told me. War’s cruelty separated him from his first love in their youth, when she and her family fled west from Budapest and he fled east. When they parted, they thought they would never see each other again.
But then one day in October 1977, he felt her right beside him, by his writing desk in his modest flat in Russia’s Arctic north. He fell sick for two months, stricken by the psychological weight of his conviction that she had in that very moment read an article he had had published in English. And because he was reminded, again, that they would never be able to see each other.
His wife Ursula saved him and nursed him back to health or he would have surely died, he told me. I ended the story with this quote from Pavel: “We met once in the war, for a second time right here, and we will meet again there, in another place. Of this I am certain.”
It was one of those rare moments when I knew that by being patient and kind, and by asking the right questions and really listening, I had done my job right.
Q: What story was the most challenging to cover?
Monaghan: So many. Logistically, the most challenging one was in Russia’s Kurile Islands off Japan’s north coast. It took us a week to get there, because the plane only flew when it was full. And it was indeed packed. There were crates of live chickens and all manner of other things up and down the aisle of the small aircraft.
We had to stay in a flat we found by talking to a guy on the street because the one hotel was full. The door jammed, and we had to jump off the balcony to get out! Some of the roads were made of sand. And it was really hard to communicate with people.
We had to rely on happenstance a lot, which looking back was a wonderful way to work for a change, and would certainly be a wonderful way to work right now!
Amari Leigh is News-Decoder’s 2019 summer intern. An American citizen, she is studying French and world politics at university in the U.S. state of New York. Born and raised in New York City, Leigh has lived in Brazil, France and Portugal. She enjoys theater, learning languages and exploring new cities.