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Veteran VOA Reporters Share 2013 Burke Award

Scott Bobb (left) and Idrissa Fall are co-winners of the 2013 Burke Award for VOA.
Scott Bobb (left) and Idrissa Fall are co-winners of the 2013 Burke Award for VOA.
Scott Bobb and Idrissa Fall, co-winners of the 2013 David Burke Distinguished Journalism Award, share a taste for war reporting that few can match.

Scott Bobb had a bomb explode near him on assignment in Syria last year. Idrissa traveled to northern Mali last June, after Islamist fighters had ruthlessly taken over the city of Gao.

Combined, the two VOA reporters -- Bobb from Central News and Fall from French to Africa -- have more than 50 years of journalism experience and have covered wars and conflicts around the world.

Fall was the first foreign reporter allowed into rebel-controlled regions in former Zaire during the 1990s. He covered the Rwandan Genocide and the civil war in Burundi extensively as a broadcaster for French to Africa.

Scott Bobb has traveled in and out of war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was on the front lines of the upheaval in Libya in 2011. He is currently VOA’s Jerusalem bureau chief, with six previous correspondent postings that put him in the trenches in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Their courageous reporting in Mali and Syria, prompted the Burke Award committee to name not just one, but two winners from VOA this year. Below, Fall and Bobb describe how their assignments shed light on the raw realities of war.

Three Days in Hell

In June 2012, Fall embarked on a treacherous journey into regions of northern Mali that were overrun by Islamist fighters. “I had heard about the destruction and all of the reports of the violence,” Fall said. “But no journalists were there to confirm anything. Someone needed to go.”

Fall said the destruction of the city of Gao was immediately evident. Old churches were destroyed and banks looted. Bars that sold alcohol were pulverized. Women caught without a hijab were beaten in the streets. Youths who were allegedly caught stealing had their right hands chopped off.

Fall was the first foreign correspondent to report that two of the most wanted al-Qaeda commanders in the region at the time were operating out of Gao.

“I thought I had come here to cover local rebels, not al-Qaeda,” Fall said.

He summarized his trip as “three days in hell,” and filed a radio report once he crossed into Niger, as the Internet and mobile networks had been shut down in much of Northern Mali.

Each Integer a Tragedy

In August 2012, Scott Bobb crossed into war-torn northern Syria and was interviewing a rebel Free Syrian Army leader in the city of Azaz when he witnessed a government airstrike with VOA cameras rolling.

“It was a mix of being unlucky and lucky, in that we could record the immediate aftermath of the attack,” Bobb said. “But that bomb missed its target. Its target was the building we were in at the time.” The attack left nearly 50 people dead.

Bobb and freelance reporter Paige Kollock rushed to the scene of the bombing, gathering footage of the destruction and casualties. They also followed the wounded crossing into Turkey to receive medical treatment. The two returned to the area the next day to report on the aftermath and interview Azaz civilians who had lost loved ones.

“We’re hearing estimates of 100,000 deaths in Syria so far. One-third of them have been civilians,” Bobb said. “Each death becomes just a number too easily, but each one of those integers is a tragedy – a family broken, people crying, angry people seeking revenge. That is what you realize being on the ground.”

Since last August, Bobb has crossed into Syria via southern Turkey four times to cover the war.