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On surviving: Sophie Cunningham, Niromi de Soyza, Denise Leith and Sally Neighbour

In 2010, following a series of global natural disasters, the Griffith REVIEW began compiling a collection of survival stories for the edition entitled Surviving. Sophie Cunningham’s story ‘Disappeared’ explored the minimalist media coverage on Cyclone Tracey before the days of media saturation and long before social media arrived.

Sitting on the Surviving panel today at the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, Sophie Cunningham reflects upon the evolving nature of media coverage, particularly on war and natural disasters, and the way in which recent disasters such as ‘Black Saturday’ have been excessively covered by the media.

It is difficult to imagine an experience more harrowing and chaotic than war or natural disaster. For investigative journalists, the day-to-day business of frontline reporting means they must find ways to cope with and survive the trauma and the unpredictable chaos unfolding around them while still keeping it together to do their jobs.

This session brings together a panel of all female writers and journalists in an emotional personal exploration of what it means to be a survivor. Chaired by the editor of the Griffith Review, Julianne Schultz is joined in conversation with Sophie Cunnningham, Denise Leith, Sally Neighbour and Niromi de Soyza – one of the first female soldiers to join the Tamil Tigers.

Denise Leith as a Ph.D. in International Relations, which she teaches part time at Macquarie University in Sydney. Her special interests are the politics of war, human rights and humanitarian action, peace keeping and peace enforcing, Middle East Politics, the Rwandan genocide, the United Nations and US foreign policy. Her novel What Remains was published in 2012 and she has written two nonfiction books including Bearing Witness: The Lives of War Correspondents and Photojournalists. In war reporting, Leith explains that war impacts journalists both physically in terms of how they stay safe, and emotionally insofar as they are witnessing horror on a daily basis and yet are still required to get on with the job.

Sally Neighbour describes the role of frontline journalists as ‘seekers of truth’. It is this truth seeking that compelled her to reconstruct the Christmas Island tragedy in which a vessel carrying asylum seekers smashed against the rocks killing many of those onboard. Describing her work during the Bali Bombing, Neighbour strives to seek a balance between doing her job and finding some sense of meaning in all of the horror.

“All you can do is your job, and later on you’re left to try and find meaning,” Neighbour says.

If there is one theme that emerges from the panel’s very individual perspectives on survival, it is that people want the chance to tell their stories, to find meaning and to find an accessible way to process their experiences. This is exactly what compelled panellist Niromi de Soyza to write about her experiences as a Tamil Tiger during the Sri Lankan civil war.

In her memoir, Tamil Tigress, de Soyza describes leaving home at the tender age of 17 to fight in the Sri Lankan civil war. As a teenage girl I felt helpless, de Soyza explains.

“I wasn’t a journalist and I felt like there was nothing else I could do to help, so I decided to pick up a gun and go and fight in the war.”

By 2009, the war had ended and Sri Lankan refugees starting arriving in Australia.

“It wasn’t until Sri Lankan asylum seekers were being demonised in the media that I realised I had a first hand account of why people were fleeing Sri Lanka.”

Sharing their uniquely moving and intimate experiences from the frontline of war and disaster, the panel each recount their own strategies for coping with emotional trauma. Niromi de Soyza describes a spine-chilling scene in which she is bunkered down in the trenches of war – mid battle- with a cyanide capsule between her teeth ready to bite down at any moment, when all of a sudden she is overcome with panic.

“I panicked because I suddenly realised I was menstruating!” she says and the crowd erupts into spills of laughter.

Sophie Cunningham describes an equally humorous account of the day following Cyclone Tracey, when amidst the chaos and the devastation, the local cinema decided to screen the aptly titled Gone With The Wind.

“It was an attempt to raise community spirits,” says Cunningham, and it worked.

Even in the most horrific of circumstances, humour shines through as a way to bring some comfort and relief to those survivors who have lost so much. It becomes a coping mechanism, a way to process the trauma, and a very human mechanism for survival.

Michelle Sim is a Southern Cross University media student.

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