Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya did not have to die. The child of diplomats in the Brezhnev era, she could have made a career of ease. The mother of two, she could have stayed home without questioning the war her government was fighting in her name. Even within her chosen profession, she could have stayed safe by reporting the news approved by Putin's administration. If she had taken the easy way she likely would not have been gunned down in her apartment elevator last Saturday afternoon. But she also would not be the Anna Politkovskaya we mourn today.
We first met Anna in 2001 while working with PEN International, an organization dedicated to defending endangered writers worldwide. A seasoned journalist covering the war in Chechnya, Politkovskaya had been receiving threats since 1999 as a result of her reports on human rights abuses committed by Russian armed forces. In 2004 she survived an attempted poisoning. A few months ago her car was attacked.
But Anna refused to be intimidated. With her cropped gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses this small, fiercely intelligent woman looked more like a young grandmother than a firebrand. Her diminutive appearance helped her slip across borders as few others dared, to the heart of a vicious conflict. Politkovskaya's primary concern was for Chechen civilians who were being killed, maimed, raped, and traumatized by fighting that served no discernable purpose or end.
Anna was riveting when she spoke about the desperate situation in Chechnya. The power and penetration of her conviction was evident even from afar. Up close, however, she seemed fragile and luminous. Her wry smile belied the danger that stalked her.
In 2002 Los Angeles-based PEN USA honored Politkovskaya at an awards dinner at the Biltmore Hotel. As we sat at the hotel bar before the ceremony, we asked about her children. Her face softened and she thanked us for asking about them. "My son is getting used to checking with a mirror under our car for bombs." Her voice broke with sadness. But in the next quiet breath it became clear why Anna knowingly accepted such risks.
She told us that Chechen terrorists had seized a Moscow theater a few hours earlier. Her daughter's boyfriend, a musician in the theater orchestra, was among the hundreds of hostages. Anna fervently believed that the only way to save those innocent lives was through negotiation. Since she was the only Russian the Chechens trusted, she had volunteered to act as mediator. And so, she apologized, she would have to leave immediately following her speech to return to Moscow - to try to prevent the crisis from turning into a bloodbath.
The next day, the Putin government agreed to allow her in. She was in the theater attempting to negotiate when Russian commandos released the deadly gas that killed 129 hostages along with all the Chechens. Anna and her young friend survived the attack. Later, she told us she was scared witless during the whole ordeal.
Her intention was never to "defend terrorists," as her detractors often claimed. Politkovskaya believed that all hostage taking and acts of violence lead only to more of the same. She wanted readers, specifically world leaders, to understand the devastation that results when warfare preempts diplomacy and negotiation. This stand won Anna admiration and respect internationally -- and deadly adversaries in her mother country.
At a PEN meeting on Macedonia's Lake Ohrid in 2002 Anna showed us the twisted piece of gunmetal colored shrapnel she always carried in her purse. In spite of the hassle of passing it through airport metal detectors and the countless questions it prompted from security officers, she was determined to show the unknowing what a piece of shrapnel looks like. She told us that many people refused to look at this jagged fragment even when she held it in front of their eyes. To see it, she said, was to acknowledge that the "collateral damage"of war consists of the shredded faces, bodies, limbs, and hearts of women and children.
The last time we saw Anna, at a 2003 PEN meeting in Barcelona, she opened her arms to us, smiling broadly, and said, "My L.A. girls!" Anna's openness and compassion transcended what most of us recognize as conscience. She understood that her passion for reporting injustice would define both her life and her fate. And she knew that journalists who dare to speak truth to power are being assassinated today throughout the world at an appalling rate. But Anna's was one of the rare voices to defend the true principle of peace and reconciliation.
Her own words, from a 2004 interview in The Guardian, express this principle best: "I want to be able to live the life of a human being, where every individual is respected, in my lifetime."