I am packing up my office at the Boston Globe, preparing to move to the Broad Institute in Cambridge on June 8. A rush of memory and nostalgia is inevitable. I found a French backpacking guide — wedged into the back of a bookcase — from a trip I took in 1995 with Elizabeth Neuffer, who was covering the war in Bosnia for the Globe. Neuffer, also a childhood friend of my partner, Ellen Zucker, was on hiatus from the war, taking time to tour with her father. By the time she met us in the south of France, she was ready for a few laughs.
We took the fast TGV train to Marseille, met Elizabeth, and, for lack of a better mode of transportation, asked a cabbie to take us to the French Riviera town of Cassis. As the cab lurched along, we picked an inn from Le Guide du Routard, the French backpacking guide we had bought in Paris. Elizabeth and Ellen Zucker both spoke French, and had no problem leafing through it. I could read a bit, thanks to years of high school Latin and numerous dinner-table quizzes about cognates. The cab dropped us at a rental car office outside Cassis, and Elizabeth and Ellen Z. haggled over the price of a tiny Renault. There was room for two adults and luggage — I lay across the luggage on the back seat. After a bone-rattling ride, our accommodations hove into view: The Hotel France Maguy, bright pink, with some rooms that went for the equivalent of $25 a night. Because it was off-season, and because it was perhaps on the low end of the luxury scale, we were the only guests and had our choice of rooms: small, smaller, smallest. Some of the hotel doors were missing, but the Dutch hippie proprietors had put up colorful shower curtains in their place. That was fine by us. With no doors, and no guests to object, we could shout jokes between the rooms as late as we wanted.
We dropped our luggage and headed for town, where we bought bread, local cheese, tomatoes, olives, and a cheap rose. By now it had begun to rain, but we were determined: we had a picnic on the beach. Soaked to the skin and slightly tipsy, we got back to the Maguy to find that the proprietors had set out generous bowl-size lattes — a treat because we had put ourselves on a coffee diet in Paris to save money.
We had plenty of laughs, toured the craggy calanques on the coast, played boules on the town green — all in the incessant rain — and got to know the owners of the Maguy over the next few days. The owners rode into town every morning on their bicycles and brought back fresh croissants and fruit for breakfast. We scoured the local flea markets and gossiped and generally tackled the problems of the world over numerous bottles of the local wine. It was a seemingly carefree respite, despite the rain, despite her father’s encroaching illness and despite the fact that she would be returning to her coverage of war and disruption.
Elizabeth, of course, went on to win numerous awards for her reporting in Bosnia and in Rwanda, including the Novartis Prize for Excellence in International Journalism and the Edward R. Murrow Fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations. Her book, “The Key to My Neighbor’s House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda,” documents her search for justice for the disappeared. She seemed to be in a place in her career where she was ready to give up reporting from war zones in favor of a more settled life. When the war in Iraq appeared to be winding down, in April 2003, she made a trip to report on the aftermath. The struggles and dreams of ordinary people had always interested her more than combat, at any rate. Always cautious, she ventured out on May 9, 2003, with a trusted driver and translator to Tikrit to gather string for a Sunday story on the Ba’ath Party. On the trip back to Baghdad, the car struck a guardrail. Elizabeth, 46, and her translator, Waleed al-Dulaimi, were killed.
I recently stumbled across a link to a forum at the Kennedy Library where Elizabeth and Samantha Power talked about their work on genocide. The forum was in February 2003, three months before her death. The International Women’s Media Foundation, which gave Elizabeth the Courage in Journalism Award in 1998, established a scholarship in her name that continues to survive, despite the downturn in the newspaper industry. I often wonder what Elizabeth would make of the current state of affairs in journalism, her passion. As someone wrote on the obituary website: When Elizabeth died, it was another bad day for the truth.