This blog post is the first in a new series co-sponsored by Sustain Champlain and the Champlain College Publishing Initiative. It’s called Profiles in Sustainability, and will feature periodic in-depth feature stories on individuals in and around our campus community who are working to further institutional goals around sustainability in innovative ways.
Profiles in Sustainability: Moni Basu
By Kiera Hufford ’18
Iraq War veterans, victims of devastation and abuse from her hometown and around the world – CNN
Journalist Moni Basu works to uncover the truth and advance human rights by telling their stories.
Born in Kolkata, India, she lived in several different countries before her family moved to Tallahassee, Florida, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Florida State University.
“There are some things I carry with me through life. I was left on the steps of an orphanage at one day old,” she says. “I was adopted by two lovely parents who gave me everything I needed.”
It wasn’t until 2001 that Basu first experienced deep personal loss. The year started with an earthquake in India, one of the first times, she recounts, that she saw mass death. That was followed by the death of her parents and the attacks of 9/11.
“I discovered the power of human resilience,” she says.
The experience drew her into writing stories about survival. In the 2013 CNN story The Girl Whose Rape Changed a Country, she writes about a woman, Mathura, who was raped in India in the early 1970s. Women in developing nations like India are often at increased risk of physical and sexual violence based on their access to basic community resources and household items, like streetlights, the privacy of a bathroom or a secure heat source.
Due to the stigma surrounding such crimes in that place and time, Basu writes, “she might as well have worn a scarlet letter on her chest.”
People in Mathura’s community didn’t believe her story of the attack; they shamed her. She took her case to court and lost. Her attackers were set free. The case was monumental for women’s rights in India, provoking protests and leading to reform of sexual assault laws. It formed the foundation of the women’s rights movement there.
Then forty years later, Basu went back to find Mathura and tell her story. She had restarted her life in another town with a husband and children. Basu asked her if she was happy.
“Happiness. Sadness. What does it matter?” Mathura told her. “What’s important is that I’ve survived.”
Basu later turned her attention to another event from her past, this one from late 1980s, when she worked as editor of The Florida Flambeau in Tallahassee. When the newspaper broke the story of a gang rape at a fraternity house on the Florida State campus, the Flambeau and covered it every step of the way, including the trial. But at the time, no one interviewed the victim.
Basu’s Ghosts of rape past: Can a survivor find solace in return to the crime scene?, published by CCN in 2015, follows her journey with Maria (a pseudonym) from beginning to end, focusing on Maria’s perspective. It was an emotional return to the FSU campus for both women.
“I thought it was important for young women today to hear her story,” Basu says. “I tend to gravitate towards stories of women and women’s issues, which stems from personal experience of facing issues of identity, gender, and race.”
Basu has also produced award-winning work from the ten trips she took to the battlegrounds of Iraq. Chaplain Turner’s War, a collection of articles she began researching in 2008, follows the life of Chaplain Darren Turner on the front lines of the Iraq War, and his journeys back home. She was able to shadow Turner, observing as he counseled soldiers and, like many others, dealt with the toll of the war.
“There were many times in Iraq where I was the only woman around for miles,” she notes. “There were no women in the marine and infantry units.”
Another story, Seven months in Iraq, six years back home: A soldier’s war on two fronts follows the story of Specialist Shane Parham, whom Basu met while embedded with the National Guard Unit.
When she first spoke with him, Parham was dealing with the loss of eight soldiers from his platoon. The two kept in touch over the years after he’d gone home. At one point, Parham’s family encouraged Basu to visit him, thinking he’d open up to her and allow her to write his story. He said yes, hoping it would help others who were struggling through their memories of war.
“I think they saw me as a softer person to confide in. That helped me discover the mental effects of war,” Basu says. “It was a challenging experience, but I’m proud of what came out of it.”
Basu is set to visit the Champlain campus as the keynote speaker for the Women’s Empowerment Symposium on Monday, March 7th.
“I want to talk about my personal experience and how all of this taught me to be aware and to be super sensitive in reporting different situations,” Basu says. “It’s so rewarding to be surrounded by younger women … If I can make a change in even one of their lives, no matter how small, it’s worth it.”