A Foot in Two Worlds: Holly Williams on Reporting—and Parenting—in War Zones
Just weeks after giving birth to a baby girl, journalist Holly Williams headed to the jungles of Burma, bedding down in bamboo huts for a story on tribal soldiers. Then she flew to Rangoon to cover the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from 15 years of house arrest. All the while, she was pumping breast milk every few hours to make sure she could still produce milk upon returning to her home in China.
That was two years ago, and it was “ridiculous,” Williams says with a laugh. “I should have been enjoying being a new mother. We were in the jungle, in bamboo huts, no electricity; I’d finish an interview and say, ‘I’m going off to pump milk.’ It was horrible.” Later, while on “stakeout” waiting for Suu Kyi to be freed, she recalls, “I was sitting in the back of a taxi with a breast pump. I was weeping and telling myself, ‘Don’t cry—that’s dehydrating.’”
Williams, now living in Turkey and working as a correspondent for CBS News, is quick to note that she, like many women, is the one who pushed herself to return to work so quickly—after working right up until she went into labor. “It wasn’t the company pressuring me,” she says of the company she worked for at the time, Sky News. “It was me putting pressure on myself. I felt that I had to prove I wouldn’t be slowed down in any way by having a baby.” In retrospect, she says, “I have mixed feelings about it. It was a really important news story. I felt I had to go do that story. But it was a crazy thing to do, and unnecessary, really. I look back and think that was a terrible thing to do.”
Williams has spent her career in TV news, working as a producer and reporter for outlets including CNN and the BBC, mostly while based in China. A native of Australia, she says being a mother has changed her perspective on the stories she covers, especially recently, as she reports from the refugee camps on the Turkish border, where thousands of Syrians are seeking shelter from the conflict. “I did a story on three little boys, a harrowing story of how they saw their mother and father killed on a bus. The mother was shot in the head with a 3-year-old in her lap. All three boys have wounds. You think, how will they fend for themselves? Being a parent has just made me feel things a little differently,” she says. “Everyone would be affected by a story like that, but as a mother, I see these kids and think of my daughter.”
Williams, who is married to a Spanish entrepreneur she met in China, adds, “I felt the same way about Aung San Suu Kyi. She was forced to give up her family while on house arrest; her husband was dying of cancer in London. She must have felt all this pain. When I thought about it as a mother, I felt it so powerfully.” Williams notes that she saw Suu Kyi again recently, and was again impressed by her strength. “I went back earlier this year before she was elected to Parliament. She held a press conference on her front lawn and I was able to ask a question: ‘You’ll be working with the same men, the same regime who put you under house arrest for years. How can you work with them and forgive them?’ She said, ‘Forgiveness has nothing to do with it. This is politics.’”
Williams says being a parent has made her set certain limits. “There are some places I don’t want to go,” she says. For instance, she would only go into Syria under “fairly limited circumstance,” she says. “There are plenty of mothers and fathers who would do otherwise. That decision is very personal. There’s no right decision, no wrong decision.”
She recently reported on the riots in Egypt in the wake of the controversial anti-Muslim video that made the rounds on the Internet. “It’s a relatively new patch for me, the Arab world,” she says. In Egypt, she says, she dressed conservatively in a long-sleeved shirt and pants but didn’t cover her hair, as her Egyptian advisers didn’t deem it necessary. She notes that “a disturbing number” of Egyptian women are sexually assaulted in Egypt despite covering themselves from head to toe.
Williams says she has been sexually harassed during her reporting, but nothing along the lines of the brutal sexual assault that Lara Logan, also a correspondent for CBS News, suffered in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution last year. “I’ve been groped before in different countries, in Pakistan, in India,” says Williams. “But we shouldn’t assume women are at any greater danger than men.” She dismisses reports that foreign correspondents tend to keep sexual assault to themselves, for fear of losing the next assignment. “I’ve heard journalists talking frankly among themselves about being groped.” She adds, “Most organizations are very straightforward and say if you don’t want to go to a place, you don’t have to.”
Williams began her career after college as an intern with CNN in China, where she lived on and off for the past 12 years before the recent move to Turkey with her husband. That move was based on her husband’s job, she says; he had launched and run a booming bread-making business in China before taking a job as chief executive of a Turkish company.
She says she “loves” her new home in Istanbul—”it’s such an amazing city”—but misses China at times, and plans to keep her eye on developments there. “The Arab Spring clearly has made the Chinese government nervous that something similar might happen,” she says. “The Chinese government is unelected. It’s the unelected regimes in other parts of the world that are in trouble.”