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Remembering longtime NPR foreign correspondent Anne Garrels who died at 71


In September 2001, an NPR correspondent came on the line from Afghanistan. Anne Garrels was there soon after the 9/11 attacks, as the U.S. prepared to go to war. The first line of her report could summarize her career.


ANNE GARRELS: I'm about as far away from you, I think, as I could possibly be. I'm in Faizabad, which is the only city in northeastern Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: Anne Garrels introduced Americans to people in many faraway places. She's died at 71 after living years with lung cancer. During the wars that followed 9/11, Garrels constantly sought the perspectives of people on the ground. When the U.S. prepared to attack Iraq in 2003, she was one of the few U.S. correspondents to stay in Baghdad as U.S. bombs began falling.


GARRELS: Just from my window alone, I can see eight sites that have been hit, vast plumes of dark smoke billowing out. And now it appears they've set fire to trenches around - the Iraqi forces have set fire to - begun to set fire to trenches around Baghdad. These are full of heavy oil. It's something they've done in prior wars.

INSKEEP: The sort of details she would know, having covered many wars. Garrels traveled with U.S. Marines as a seemingly easy victory turned into house-to-house combat in Fallujah.


GARRELS: When it's not the thought of mortars or grenades, there's the constant buzz of a Dragon Eye pilotless airplane hovering overhead, as its video cameras beam real-time images back to the base. Corporal Jason Hampton (ph) says the units know only what's happening a block or two away, and that's about it.

JASON HAMPTON: You just keep rolling with the punches, and you keep going 'cause it's no longer about fighting for whatever cause it's for. It's just fighting to keep the buddies around you, you know, safe or fighting, you know, to keep yourself and your buddies alive.

INSKEEP: And when she came out of Iraq, she talked with us about the experience.


INSKEEP: Does this story become personal to you in any way?

GARRELS: Of course, it becomes personal. I have translators who work with me every day, who put their life at risk. They're doing it for a lot more than just the money; they're doing it because they're trying to find some kind of truth themselves in madness.

INSKEEP: Anne Garrels' search for truths abroad began when she studied Russian in college. She moved to the Soviet Union in the 1970s, working for ABC News as one of the few women in her profession at that time. Soviet officials expelled her, but she made it back as an NPR correspondent in time to see the Soviet Union fall.


GARRELS: By early this morning, kiosks in Moscow had been cleaned out of newspapers. People here are desperate for any piece of information about events that affect both their daily lives and their future. Today's headlines reported the potential death blow to the Communist Party.

INSKEEP: Years later, she met a man who was still maintaining the body of the Soviet Union's founder, Vladimir Lenin.


GARRELS: According to Yuri Romakov, Lenin is in excellent shape - for a corpse, that is. Of the two, Lenin at 126 is looking a lot better than Romakov, who's 75. He's been tending his mummy since he was...

INSKEEP: One of the other stories Garrels covered in those years was the independence of the former Soviet Republic of Ukraine, a story now back in the news.


One of Anne's colleagues over the years was Ann Cooper, who is now professor emerita at the Columbia Journalism School, and she joins us now. Ann, thanks for being here.

ANN COOPER: Yes, thank you.

MARTIN: What struck you as you heard Annie's voice in those reports?

COOPER: Well, you know, the obituaries talk about this fearless war correspondent. And of course, her reporting from Iraq was memorable, and I suppose if you report on the war in Iraq and write a book called "Naked In Baghdad," it's hard to escape that label.

MARTIN: Right.

COOPER: But for me, what really set Annie (ph) apart as a journalist was her decades of reporting on the Soviet Union and then Russia after the Soviet collapse. You know, Steve mentioned she went first as a TV reporter for ABC, a different kind of risk. You walked out on the street with a TV camera in Moscow in those days, you were going to get harassed. People were going to run away from you. Nobody wanted to talk to her because it was just too dangerous. So she talked to the few people who were not scared, like Andrei Sakharov and other prominent dissidents like Roy Medvedev and Sergei Kovalyov. And, you know, as Steve pointed out, she did get expelled, couldn't come back for six years. When she came back in 1988, I was NPR's Moscow correspondent. Everything was changing, and I could be her guide, to some extent, to what was going on.


COOPER: But she was always my guide on understanding Russia through its history and what its people had been through.

MARTIN: She was a guide to a lot of us. I met her in Baghdad in 2007. It was my first time there. I was, frankly, overwhelmed by that story. And she led by example. Just - she just kept doing the work, right? I mean, even when her bosses said, Annie, you need to get out, you need to take a break, she just kept going. Where did that drive come from?

COOPER: (Laughter) Well, you know, I can tell you that in Russia, the drive came from the fact that, you know, she loved the place. She loved the people. Everything fascinated her. You played a clip from her story about the guy who's in charge of maintaining Vladimir Lenin's embalmed corpse on Red Square. That was one of many stories that helped win her duPont-Columbia Award in 1997. She covered everything.

MARTIN: She did. And it is important to say again, until the end of her life, she was concentrated on the news, and she was fixed on what was happening in Ukraine. I mean, she tried to get NPR to send her there even when she was very ill.

COOPER: Yes, she did. She called me - I feel like it was about 5 minutes after the war started. And she said, I'm going to Ukraine to report. And I'm like, you're what? At that point, I don't think she weighed a hundred pounds. She was very frail. But I just thought, who am I to tell Anne Garrels she couldn't go? You know, she and I and so many other people who've covered that country were appalled by, you know, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and wringing our hands, saying, what can we do here? And that was her idea. Fortunately, some editors, probably some you know, resisted that. And, you know - and she understood. But she did find something that she could do, which was raising money for medical equipment, medical kits to help those who are wounded there. And the last time I asked, she told me that the nonprofit that she was working with had raised $1 million for assistance for Ukraine.

MARTIN: Ann Cooper, thank you so much for helping us remember our friend and colleague, Anne Garrels. Thanks, Ann.

COOPER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.