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Woman in a 'Man's job'

Article for the BBC Newsgathering Magazine - June 2003

‘You don’t want to know’.  Those were the words I kept hearing throughout my three and a half years based in the BBC Moscow News Bureau. I learnt quickly that it usually related to my gender.  An early example happened within the first few weeks. I was standing on location with correspondent Rob Parsons, my large SX broadcast camera was in full view on the floor between my feet. Our Russian male interviewee walked over and started chatting to Rob.  After four or five minutes he asked, ‘So when is the camera crew arriving?’

 

I arrived in Moscow in August 1999, two days before the apartment bombings that led to the second Russian conflict in Chechnya. I’d just spent two and a half years in New York with the BBC’s Business bureau so you can imagine the culture shock.  But it was exactly what I wanted. I was ready for a new challenge and a change of scene.  However I wasn’t prepared for such a change in attitude. Many Russian men, as well as women were never shy in telling me that they thought my job was an inappropriate occupation for a woman. Hmmm!

Two months into my posting and I was on an airstrip in Mozdok, Northern Ossetia.  This was the Russian Army’s HQ and the place from which it launched attacks on Chechen rebels within the war-torn republic.  

Correspondent Andrew Harding and I stood patiently with other international and Russian News crews, desperately hoping for a place on board the MI-8 helicopter bound for Grozny. As luck would have it, among the official delegation was a government minister who recognized us from a previous trip. A few moments later we heard the words ‘BBC’ being shouted across the commotion. We were on!

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Andrew and I eagerly sat down on the first available seats we came across.  But it wasn’t long before a Russian man with an unbelievably thick neck stepped on board, took one look at me and then started ranting at Andrew. I sat there, happily oblivious to the huge ‘problem’ I was causing.  He eventually sat down a few seats along and threw me a dirty look. I asked Andrew what was wrong with him. ‘You don’t want to know’ he said, trying not to capture my curiosity. ‘Err, yes I do!’

Turns out he wasn’t happy that I was sitting in one of the prime seats at the front of the helicopter. Apparently my place should be at the rear, where the only comfortable option was to sit on the floor with my back leaning against the internal fuel tank. I threw him a dirty look back, what an idiot!


This kind of thing was to be repeated time and time again, only the locations changed.  As a camera crew, working in Russia was difficult enough. The constant presence of obstructive and rude custom officials, corrupt traffic police, long hours travelling in cramped and uncomfortable seats, a total lack of trolleys for my numerous and heavy bags and boxes, freezing temperatures, seedy provincial hotels and of course the language barrier, all added to the day to day frustrations. However, occasionally things did work in my favor. Correspondent Orla Guerin and I were travelling in a car through Ingushetia, close to the border with Chechnya. Our driver Ruslan and security guard Jumbulat were in the front seats when we were stopped at one of the many checkpoints by masked militia.  They looked into the car, stared at the big camera on the back seat, briefly glanced at the obviously foreign women sat either side of it and then asked for ID from the only two locals in the car. We could have been over the border in minutes although the threat of kidnap and death meant we kept our sensible heads on, literally!

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'Kremlin Tours' group, Matthew Chance & CNN team with Caroline Wyatt & BBC team

Another catalyst for chaos is the Russian love of liquor. Any time of the day and with the slightest excuse they would bring out the vodka. Checkpoints were a favourite venue.  During one of the many Kremlin-organized trips into Chechnya, myself, correspondent Caroline Wyatt, producer Chris Booth, Matthew Chance and his CNN team were all driven into the dangerous and demolished city of Grozny under army escort. As we entered the suburbs, the atmosphere became more tense and the checkpoints more frequent. As we approached, a gunman in fatigues lurched towards us, his weapon aimed at the driver’s cab where Caroline and I sat alongside. He started yelling but our driver for some reason decided to ignore him. We travelled another few meters then heard the sound of gunfire across the top of our van. The soldier out front was now pointing his gun straight at our faces. A stereo scream of ‘STOP’ was directed at the driver who finally got the message. 

 

Khankala is the Russian Army base on the outskirts of Grozny. Two years before it had been a collection of tents and a few railway carriages surrounded my deep mud. I had stayed there with Andrew Harding during the war and vividly remember the rats running beneath our carriage bunk beds. Now a substantial army base had emerged. Our hosts proudly showed us around and then led us to dinner. There were the usual seven vodka toasts during the meal but nothing we couldn’t handle with some well rehearsed sipping. But that was before we saw what was planned for us back at our barracks.  About 20 vodka bottles had been laid out on a table between our bunk beds. My heart sank! We reluctantly sat and listened politely to the various ramblings of each officer, colonel and lieutenant who chose to make a toast. Caroline and I glanced knowingly at each other, still confident that our fake vodka drinking abilities would save us. Having worked together in Russia for two and a half years, we were old hands at this by now. It was, after all, a game that Russian soldiers everywhere liked to play on their media visitors.

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After several more hours, the knowledge of a full day’s filming in Grozny eventually gave me the courage I needed. I stood up, defiantly confronted and conquered the mass vocal objections from around the table, and retired to bed. First I headed to the communal bathroom, the long drive had left me desperate for a wash. So much so that even the sight of bare male bottoms parading behind me in the mirror wasn’t going to distract me from my cleansing routine. When I eventually hit the sack, the party happening only meters away from my bunk was in full swing.


Even with earplugs, the alcohol-induced noise and dancing kept me awake and on edge. Then the inevitable happened, from beneath the covers I felt a body sit down on the side of my bed and then a hand shaking me to get up. ‘Jewwwwleee, come and dance’, his voice was half singing as if that would be more persuasive. I ignored it, feeling some protection from the blanket barrier between us. Thankfully Mr Travolta had a very low attention span and soon returned to the dance floor alone. The next morning I heard that our heroic producer had taken one for the team. Chris was our only Russian speaker so he stayed up, played along with their games and then promptly threw up over one of them. Good work!

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Despite my many tough, bizarre and often frustrating experiences, I still consider Russia to be a fascinating place and I feel very privileged that I had the opportunity to live and work there.  I had some great times, mostly due to the wonderful people I worked with and met throughout my time there. For me, the country itself still has a way to go before it matches the sophistication and level of social and economic equality seen in it’s European neighbours. However that's not what Russia is really about. If it were, it wouldn’t be so special.

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