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ANNA BLUNDY meets war correspondent, FAITH ZANETTI.

 
Favourite film: Brief Encounter. Is that weird?
Favourite record: Elvis – I Just Can’t Help Believin’. I’ve got Elvis’s signature tattoed across my pelvis. Seriously.
Favourite drink: Ooooh. Vodka. Straight out of the freezer.
Favourite bar: The American Colony bar in Jerusalem.
Catch phrase: Oh fuck off! Not really? What am I? Bernard Manning?
How would you like to die: I wouldn’t. Or – in a blaze of glory.
How would you like to be remembered: I was happy when I was with her. Fat chance!
Favourite colour: Who thinks up this crap? Ummm. Orange. Yes, actually. The colour of a sunset over the Bekaa Valley. So there!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

In the end it was easy enough to forgive The Chronicle’s Number One firewoman, Faith Zanetti. She was late, of course. Sitting in the lobby of London’s Dorchester hotel, I sipped a cooling cappuccino and started to hate Britain’s most famous female war correspondent, winner of endless awards for intrepidness and generally held to be the grittiest, bravest, brightest and, irritatingly, most beautiful, woman in the foreign press pack. If, that is, one counts the kind of beauty that has survived fifteen years of chain smoking hangovers and no end of blistering wars around the world. Most people, it turns out, count it.

Nearly an hour late, Zanetti, 35, came flying through the revolving doors, a fag between her lips, a wild blonde afro practically blinding her as she seemed to be searching her jacket pockets frantically for what turned out to be my visiting card. She looked around the lobby like most people would look around a bombed out city. It’s not hard to see that she is uncomfortable in comfort. I waved, a bit nervously, worried, as I’m sure a lot of people who meet Zanetti are, about seeming boring – a married feature writer with children and clean shoes. When she saw me she looked briefly startled and then pushed her sunglasses up on top of her head and shook it in apology.

‘Fuck. I’m SO sorry. I’m so crap,’ she said, grinning, and, pulling her cigarette out of her mouth she stubbed it out in a monogrammed ashtray, her nails ragged and bitten. Faith slumped down into a big armchair and crossed one leg over her knee, her signature jeans and cowboy boots looking as exhausted as she did. ‘I came straight from the airport.’

Faith Zanetti, as if we didn’t know, is the kind of person who goes everywhere straight from the airport. Does she even have a home, I wonder?

‘Ugh,’ she says, rolling her eyes at the ceiling. ‘I don’t know if I’d call it that. I wish I could. It’s somewhere to sleep in London. I’m never here long enough even to put the pictures up.’

I wonder what the pictures would be of if she did put them up, and I imagine a photogallery of herself in a flack jacket, shaking hands with the world’s luminaries, the usual war correspondent stuff. But she surprises me, as she will do again and again over the next six hours.

‘Well, there’s a Repin sketch that cost me a year’s pay. I really need to get it insured too. People keep telling me.’ Ilya Repin is one of the Russian Realists, a contemporary of Tolstoy, a Russian national treasure whose work packs Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery and St Petersburg’s Russian Museum. So Faith tells me. ‘Insurance and..you know…that stuff….isn’t really my forte,’ she laughs, ordering a double espresso and looking fidgety. This is a woman with so many fortes it’s hard to see why she should need another one.

‘How long have you been married?’ she wants to know, glancing at my rings. It’s not the first time this has happened. People often try and turn the interview around – a classic defensive technique. But the way Faith Zanetti looks you in the eye and smiles, as though she already knows all your answers and understands them, it makes you realise why she’s so good at what she does. If I’d been Saddam Hussein I’d have told her where the weapons of mass destruction were, and if I didn’t have any I’d have made some up for her. Following a harrowing stint in Iraq, Zanetti won an award for her exposee of the Bonny Hernandez story. In case you hid under a rock throughout the Iraq war (and who could blame you) Private Hernandez was allegedly captured and tortured by Saddam-loyal troops, rescued by her fellow Americans and taken back to the US where she lost her memory and later died in a car crash. Faith Zanetti, in her successful (though insanely brave and altogether hair raising) attempt to rescue her boyfriend, fellow hack, Eden Jones, discovered that Hernandez was, in fact, a deserter who had chosen to hide in a Tikrit hospital.

‘Ha!’ Zanetti throws her head back laughing. ‘Jones…what an arsehole. He jumped off a tank with her because she got scared. Well, really because she was nineteen with big tits….’ She took a sip of her coffee. ‘Wanker never did say thank you.’ The British Press Awards did though.

Her first award came after getting shot covering a story in 2001 about the maras (street gangs) of San Salvador. I wondered if she had felt any resonance then with her own father’s death. Karol Zanetti was killed covering Northern Ireland for ITN in the 1970s when Faith was just nine.

‘Seriously, I was bleeding to death. I wasn’t thinking about him at all. In fact, you know, I was looking at the sky. It seemed strange that it was so blue and I was lying in the back of this Toyota pick-up dying. You don’t think about your parents in a crisis. Do you? God, maybe you do!’ she smiled, giving in to herself and lighting a cigarette.

I mentioned her mother at this point, a woman from whom Faith was estranged but who died recently. Those close to Zanetti informed me that she was an alcoholic. Faith herself is no temperance society member. She laughs these issues off with a shake of her hair, but she denies neither.

‘Yup. I’m an orphan! Honestly though, it’s only in England that being an orphan at thirty-five is worth commenting on. Are both your parents still alive?’

She fixes me with those famous green eyes and I believed, which I suppose must be the technique, that she wants to know the intimate details of my suburban life.

The Chronicle has now posted Faith Zanetti to Moscow, a country she knows well. Waving to the waiter whose name she has already found out and whose language she apparently speaks, she orders a vodka. It is 11.30am and he (Karim if you must know) is plainly in love. In Faith’s case this seems to be done in under a second with a wink and a smile.

‘Oh Jesus. Well, yes. I mean, I did marry this bloke. I was NINETEEN!’ she laughs, her hair flying around in chaos. ‘How did you find that out? I met him on Red Square at midnight watching the changing of the guards. It was minus twenty and we were being followed around by the KGB, schoolgirls for fuck’s sake. Us, not them. And he had these black eyes and it seemed……oh, I don’t know.’

Zanetti’s face lost its wild animation at this point and she looked serious, genuinely lost in a memory. ‘He was lovely,’ she says, and she seemed to mean it. They are no longer in touch, she says. ‘It did get me out of going to university though.’

And what about her on-off boyfriend, New Yorker writer, Eden Jones? ‘What about him?’ She raises her eyebrows.

She has persuaded me to join her in a shot of vodka and I find myself droning on embarrassingly about my own marriage and children. Does Faith Zanetti see herself hanging up her helmet and trading her notebook in for a rattle and a packet of wet wipes?

‘Oh no! I couldn’t. Look at the mess my parents made,’ she says. Frankly, given the unique and beautiful view of the boiling world she has brought us and what a brave and beautiful woman she is herself, it looks like a success story to me, but I don’t say so.

‘Eden talks about it sometimes, but….’ She trails off and waves for Karim. ‘Don’t you love that caramelly skin?’ Karim overhears her and looks embarrassed.

In short, Faith Zanetti and I spent most of last Friday together drinking vodka and I hardly noticed that we were still in London. She brings the hot desert sand with her in her wake like stardust. She talked about Rwanda (‘It was the worst conflict I’ve ever covered. We are all still completely fucked up. And we’re the ones who got to leave.’) where she defined the war with a groundbreaking piece about a Hutu-Tutsi couple whose family had been ripped apart. She talked about Israel (‘God, we had a great time in Jerusalem. Will they hate me for saying that?’) where, apart from covering the ongoing conflict, she also uncovered an international paedophile ring which allegedly included her own foreign editor, a man killed in crossfire in Bethlehem. ‘I really don’t want to comment on that,’ she said, crossing her arms over her chest and drifting away from my gaze.

After her four months stint in Baghdad she admits to having gone ‘as mad as a fish’ and ended up moving back in with her step mother, legendary model, Evie Spears. ‘If I wasn’t mad before I was by the time I left!’ On prozac, on sick leave and in love, this time last year Faith Zanetti thought it was all over. ‘I had this heart breaking thing with someone who turned out to work for the US Government. Who lied to me about everything. I gather that’s par for the course as a woman, but I’ve always been too defensive to get in that far. I was an idiot. Anyway, his son shot him.’

She does have a way of throwing away the most staggering information.

‘No, he did. He was mentally unstable. The kid. I was standing right there. It was Eden who saved me. Psychologically speaking.’

But now she’s back with a new posting and a new energy and determined to remain a role model for every woman alive. ‘A what?!’ she asks.

‘Well,’ I tell her. ‘Who wouldn’t want to be Faith Zanetti?’

She puts her cigarette out and blows a long plume of smoke across the table.

‘Errm. Me?’ she says, her eyes glittering.

And me too, now I come to think of it. It took me two days to recover from that short meeting. I know I couldn’t do it every day. But I think we’re all glad that somebody can.