John Pomfret Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Covering Human Rights: Conversation with John Pomfret, Foreign Correspondent, Washington Post; 11/18/97 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by L. Carper

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Foreign Correspondent in the Post - Cold War World

In a way, the Chinese events were consistent with the end of the Cold War and the end of that period. It appeared that they were turning toward democracy and rejecting communism. You've since gone on to other experiences which are more typical of what we might call the post - Cold War world, and I wanted to talk a little about that. You covered Bosnia and the Congo, and Rwanda too as it related to the Congo. I want to take a little time to talk about those experiences. How do you conceive your role in places like that? Are you a witness? A recorder?

I think you're a witness and a recorder. You're also a reminder to people in the States that things are going on outside our borders that mean something, specifically in this day and age when fewer and fewer people seem to be seized with the importance of foreign affairs, or there's a general impression in Washington that the rest of America doesn't care about foreign affairs, which I think is wrong, actually. You're there to remind Washington (working for the Washington Post), that actually things do matter and things can spin out of control. And when they do spin out of control there are important ramifications that affect America, not just its direct national interest but its broader interests as a nation which has thought of itself as a beacon to other nations, of freedom, liberty, democracy, whatever.

When you say, "spin out of control" in Bosnia and the Congo, which are both regional conflicts, involving several states and many different peoples, it's not so much that these situations will lead to a world war, which was what our feeling was during the Cold War, but rather a kind of an unraveling of civilization as we've come to know it, not just in the West.

I think that's the main threat in Bosnia and Rwanda and Zaire. There doesn't seem to be much willingness to engage these problems unless they directly affect national security interests. You look at America's engagement in Bosnia, it really happened only when the Atlantic alliance had become so stressed over this particular issue that we chose to engage. All the war crimes in the world wouldn't have mattered a hill of beans if Britain, France, the United States, and Germany weren't really having a serious tussle over what to do in Bosnia. That, I think, is a sad testimony.

In a way, the China experience was atypical for what followed for you, because in that experience the world was watching. But in reporting these other two situations, I guess you were always asking yourself, is the world watching? Is the world listening?

Yeah, there were some pretty lonely times in 1994 in Bosnia, when I had been posted there for long periods of time in a really very harsh environment. I had an 82 mm shell blow up on my windowsill. I've been shot at on numerous occasions. The Post was good enough to buy an armored car and it saved my life on several occasions. But other times you just don't have the car around and yes, a lot of times you have to ask yourself, does this really matter? And I had come to the conclusion that it hadn't. But then things change and suddenly someone slaps you on the back and says, "You're doing a great job, keep on doing it." So you kind of bite your bottom lip and continue.

What is it that changes? The political dynamic back home and then the political dynamic of international politics?

Yeah, I think with the case of Bosnia what happened was a decision on the part of the United States to engage, again, because the Atlantic alliance had shown signs of breaking down. At that point people start to read you again because it matters, because there's a prospect that American troops can be sent there. And then all the work that you've done before that starts to have meaning to you, because it set the foundation for the next moment of your life. You're in a period where you can bask in a lot of people's attention. Then you go back to being a forgotten hack in the middle of nowhere until the next go-round occurs.

Now, in talking about China you were honest enough to talk about some of your biases which led to errors, in retrospect, in your reporting. These two situations, Bosnia and the Congo, are really a lot messier, aren't they? How do you dig out the complexity of the relationships of these different peoples as you tell the story of a particular atrocity or a particular battle?

The one indication that I got that I was doing the right job in Bosnia was that at different periods of time all the factions came down very hard on me. I had my life threatened by Bosnian Serbs on numerous occasions. I was criticized publicly in the state-run Croatian press. I was criticized publicly in the Muslim press that was run out of Sarajevo. So I felt that I'd encouraged the enmity of all the factions and that indicated to me that I must be doing something right. It's kind of a negative example but that's effectively how I could justify that I was being hard on all three sides, equally hard and equally fair as a result. I think the Serbs got a lot of bad press, continue to get a lot of bad press, but deserve a lot of bad press. They have done horrible things to people, as did the Croats. And now the Muslims increasingly are getting the bad press that I think they deserve.

Earlier you talked about an incident of going to some of the places where atrocities have been committed and wondering about the moral ambiguities of how you came to uncover them. Will you tell us a little about that? This would be about the time that America has been arming the Croatians. Fill us in on that story, giving us some specific examples of some of the difficulties that you as a reporter had to deal with, and not just digging up the facts.

In July of 1995, the Serb forces led by General Ratko Mladic took Srebrenica and proceeded, according to many eye witness reports, to slaughter as many as 6,000 Muslim men in what is really the worst war crime since World War II in Europe. And the United States took satellite photographs of areas that were believed to have been mass grave sites. They took before and after pictures. And they released these photographs almost a month after the incident occurred.

Pomfret The disturbing thing was that the release coincided with a huge Croatian offensive into Serb-held parts of Croatia and Serb-held parts of Bosnia. And that offensive was the key development that set the foundation for the Dayton peace deal. Yes, later on there were NATO bombings that further pushed the Serbs into a corner, but it was the Croatian land-grab that really made the Dayton peace conference possible. The Croats had supplied their military plans to the U.S. embassy in Zagreb. The Croats had been trained by former U.S. army officers in Croatia. America never armed Croatia directly (or no one has ever uncovered information to that effect), but America did stand by while others armed Croatia (international arms merchants), and did very little to halt the shipment of weapons to Croatia. The speculation was that the Americans were outraged about Srebrenica in order to draw attention away from Croatia's offensive operation storm which, in and of itself, resulted in the largest mass ethnic cleansing that occurred during the war.

Srebrenica was a horrendous war crime and it had to be uncovered. On the other hand, why did the Americans come up with this information so late? Was it simply, as they have argued, that they were analyzing the photographs, that it took a while to generate the information? Or were they, in effect, running cover for the Croatians so they could conduct what in effect was a very dirty business that resulted in cleaning up the map? That laid the foundation for Dayton? These are questions that I have no answer to, but they're dilemmas that you face as you write about issues of such importance as this.

Where does your gyroscope or your guide come from as you're dealing with situations like that? Is it a question of values that you've acquired, what you've learned about good journalism? Your position on war crimes? What gives you a guiding star, so to speak, for the choices you have to make?

On an issue like that, the crime is so horrendous that you have to report the crime, and it doesn't really matter the source of the information. I always wanted to go back and research the U.S. connection to Croatia. I attempted and spent many, many hours trying to do that and never got it. So for me it's always been the unanswered question. A lot of the emphasis in the American press has been on what the Americans did to help the Bosnian army and their connections with Iran. For me the much more significant question is what did the Americans do, if anything, to help the Croatian army, because they are the ones that changed fundamentally the map of Bosnia, not the Bosnian army. But it's an unanswered question for me. I left the region and I left it behind.

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