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Alumni About alumni In the footsteps of Aletta Jacobs

‘I’ve never felt that I’ve been reckless.’

Ana van Es, journalist
Ana van Es
Ana van Es

Text: Sara Plat, translation UVC

Until recently Ana van Es (Groningen, 1985) has been a Middle-East correspondent, stationed in Beirut, for newspaper de Volkskrant.

You have now returned from the Middle East, where you were confronted with a great deal of violence in your past five-and-a-half years as a correspondent for de Volkskrant. Has it changed you?
‘I have noticed that I came back different from the Middle East. That’s inevitable. One thing that made this clear to me was that my tolerance for risk is completely different from that of my friends. I pay attention to different things. When I had just returned from the front line in Yemen, I went on a hiking holiday in Switzerland with a friend. She picked me up in Geneva, which is as neat and tidy as it gets. On the way, she suddenly stopped on an empty road. I yelled, “Why are you stopping?” It turned out that there was a traffic light, and it had turned red. Then I realized that this said something about how a person comes back from a war zone. It’s really a switch.’

Journalism can be practised in many different ways. What motivates you?
‘For me, it’s primarily reporting, being on the scene. If no one does that any more, there will be major consequences. The facts will literally be buried under the rubble. When the Syrian city of Aleppo was recaptured from the rebels in 2016, hardly any journalists were left. That makes you dependent on local activists, with their own agendas, for information. This has major consequences for government decisions, as well as for the community as a whole.’

You were on the border of the Caliphate when IS had just seized power, you spent the night with rebels, you’ve been on the front line in Yemen. If you sum all of that up, it sounds as if you aren’t afraid of anything.
‘I’m frightened quite often. I would not characterize myself as courageous. I would never have guessed that I would do these types of things. When you go into war zones as a correspondent, however, you do give it very careful consideration. Because you prepare for these high-risk trips well, there are fewer problems with them than there are with trips that are actually less risky but that you go in thinking that you can do them quickly. I’ve often been in situations where I thought, “I hope this turns out okay”. But I’ve always done my homework, arranged for a fixer (someone from the region who helps to arrange things – ed.) and a driver, and taken maps and an extra telephone with me, as well as a first-aid kit that I know how to use, and a bullet-proof vest. In spite of all that, however, things can obviously go terribly wrong, but I’ve never felt that I’ve been reckless.’

When she was a general practitioner in Amsterdam, Aletta Jacobs fought for women to be able to be on the streets, even after 10 o'clock at night. She said, ‘I reserved the right to walk down the Kalverstraat at any hour of the day or night.’ Is that something you take for granted?
‘I like to walk the streets at night. A city is quite different at night than it is during the day. I like that it’s peaceful then, and it’s nice to let everything sink in after going out. Before I started as a correspondent, I took a six-week Arabic language course in Beirut. At that time, I looked at a lot of potential houses. I also visited them at night to see how it felt then. I ruled out one neighbourhood where I had the feeling that I was not safe. A male colleague did take a house there, but he moved within a year. He said, “I was always afraid of being robbed there.” That was really striking to me: a man is thus afraid for his things, while a woman is afraid of being raped. Although they both have the feeling that they are not safe, they have different views of what might go wrong. Violence against women is often sexualized. I think that’s a real shame. The public space becomes much safer when we all go out at night.’

Despite your record as a journalist, you studied law. How did you get into journalism?
‘I’ve always been societally engaged. That is why law seemed a logical choice at the time. I come from a family that is intellectual, open-minded, and a bit anti-authoritarian. My parents taught at the University and at Hanze University of Applied Sciences, and they encouraged me to be involved in current affairs. Starting in my last year of secondary school, I freelanced for Skepter, a magazine that tries to debunk pseudo-science. During my years as a student, I worked at the Universiteitskrant. I devoted more time to that than I did to my degree programme. That is where I learned the craft of journalism. I learned how to write news items and how to interview people, as well as how to keep a source secret. Nevertheless, I could not conceive of ever becoming a journalist. I thought that I would have to be faster, more of a sprinter. It was not until the last year of my studies that I started to consider the options that were open to me with a law degree, and they all seemed boring. I also started to realize how much I would miss my work with the Universiteitskrant. Then I saw a job vacancy at de Volkskrant. They were looking for young reporters. I applied for the job and was hired. I think that, at first, they were wondering, “What have we let in the door with this one?” During my first three months, I mostly got in the way.’

What are your plans for the future?
‘Right now, I’m taking a year of unpaid leave to write a book on the railway line from Berlin to Baghdad. The subtitle will be something like “A book about the Middle East that you can understand”. The book will also be about history, about how the West has wreaked havoc in the Middle East. I don’t know yet what I will do next at the newspaper.’

And you’re living in Groningen again. How are you liking it?
‘I feel at home in Groningen, and I’m always happy to be back. In the Middle East, I encountered so many people who had lost their homes or who would never be able to return to their places of origin. It’s nice to have roots and to be able to keep them.’

Ana van Es

In recent years, Ana van Es (Groningen, 1985) has been a Middle-East correspondent, stationed in Beirut, for newspaper de Volkskrant. Van Es grew up in Eelde and studied law in Groningen. In 2010, she won the Groninger Press Award for a piece in the Universiteitskrant about a fatal fire in a student house, as well as the Dick Scherpenzeel Encouragement Award for journalistic talent under the age of 26 years. She was nominated for the Dutch Journalist of the Year prize in 2016 and, in 2019, she won the journalistic award De Tegel for reporting from Yemen.

Last modified:09 November 2021 12.49 p.m.
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