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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Tales from the Abyss

Two of your stories, one from the conflict in the Congo and Rwanda and one from Bosnia, struck me as similar. In the case of the Bosnia story you have an account of a Dutch UN soldier, or maybe he was a NATO soldier, who came back a year after his platoon had failed to fulfill their moral responsibility in saving the city that you just described. The other story followed a Hutu, a man who had murdered Tutsis in his country, who was returning to his homeland after having fled to the Congo. Tell me about the shaping of those two stories, because in both you focused on an individual coming to grips with the moral ambiguities of his time in a particular context.

As with most good stories I didn't plan them, I kind of fell into them. I think that's how most things happen in life. Good journalism, I think, represents life and if you try to organize something too neatly it usually blows up in your face and doesn't really happen the way you want it to. I followed these guys to Srebrenica. I contacted them in Tuzla.

These would be the Dutch soldiers?

Yes. I followed them into Srebrenica, talking with them all the way.

They were returning for a reunion?

They were returning, basically, on a personal voyage and I found out about them through a Muslim translator who had survived the onslaught. All of his family members had been killed, or rather they have disappeared and are presumed dead. And so he tipped me off about these guys. I contacted them and they said no problem, I could return with them. And we went back. Effectively, I tried to stay out of their way, although we talked numerous times during the course of the day as they walked through the tatters and the shattered UN base that was there. And through the process of being there and walking through the halls with them, they gave me a very, very good idea of what it was like to have been there and their feelings now that they had let so many people down, that they had failed in their mission. The failure of the Dutch battalion in Srebrenica to have accomplished any of its tasks has been an extraordinarily wrenching experience for the Dutch because they had such pride in their military.

With the Hutu man, like with the Dutchman, I bumped into him. I bumped into him at a refugee place in the far western Congo. He'd walked across a country twice the size of Texas on his feet. It's just striking. Obviously some of the time was in canoes, but really he was on his feet. At the beginning of the interview he had an old 1950s Belgian colonial map of the Congo, so all the villages were named after Belgian aristocracy and none of them their Congolese names. And as we traced his voyage on the map, scribbling in pencil the name of each of the places where he stopped and stayed, his story changed and became more and more honest, until we got to the far western point where he ended up, where he finally revealed to me what he had done to leave Rwanda in the beginning. When he started in Goma he was an innocent school teacher. When he got to central Congo he was a government official but, nonetheless, an innocent person. Finally when we got to Mbandaka, the far western Congo, he acknowledged that he had been involved in slaughtering people. And I thought that process, moving in this very sweaty Red Cross hut in the middle of nowhere in the western Congo, was a fascinating journey for him to take with me, and for him to take on his own. I thought, here's a guy that I can use to illustrate this extraordinarily horrible problem presented to these people and what they have done.

When one reads the stories, one is struck by what you were witnessing in these situations and what these people have gone though. It's as if, in these particular places, it's an amoral world, that the chaos has created a situation where moral people are overwhelmed by circumstances, not so much that they become immoral, but they become a party to immoral actions. Is that a fair description of the impact of what you're writing?

I think to a certain extent in Bosnia and among the Hutus in Rwanda and also among the Tutsis in Rwanda who then took revenge on the Hutus, there is a sense of being swept up and a sense that the society in which they live has gone mad. The norms of society have effectively broken down, and people have embraced other norms that are quite different from how normal people would live. But on the other hand, in the midst of the chaos, you find normal people. You find people who are willing to risk their lives to tell you what they saw, even though they have no dog in the fight. For example, in the case of Congo, even though they very much act the rebels in their desire to overthrow Mobutu, they were appalled at what the rebels did to the Hutu refugees who were unarmed. And people were willing to sit down with me and tell me their story, tell me what they witnessed, with no real reason other than the fact that they were morally repulsed by such activity.

And, to explicate this for the audience, we're talking about situations where people are talking about the immorality of their allies, people whose positions they supported. They're able to stop and look and say, "This was wrong, even though the people I side with did it."

Yes.

And this was true in Bosnia and in the Congo?

Well, in Bosnia you didn't see it as much from the Serbs as you did from the Muslims. I'm loathe to explain why, but among the Muslims there was much more sense of an opposition. The Serbs, in the Republic, were much more harried and hassled by their paramilitary forces. There was much more of a sense of a real totalitarian state. Among the Muslims, yes, it was effectively a one-party state, but there were sprouts of a civil society. In the Congo though, there was much more of a sense of a civil society. There were functioning NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] which collected information on human rights abuses. And their information was good, it wasn't just the local rumor.

These were international NGOs?

No, these were local NGOs. It was a much more, in a sense, sophisticated society, which is interesting because we come from this perspective that they're white people in Bosnia so they must be much more elevated than the Africans in Africa, which was not the case at all. In the Congo I got much more cooperation from local people who understood what they believed to be the righteousness of what I was doing.

So the norms come from where? Amidst this chaos, you're telling me positive stories here. Something is still functioning, and it's the seed that's going to lead to something bigger. What is that dynamic?

In Zaire it was the church, by far, and it was a very, very strong evangelical and also Catholic influence. And that had a great deal of influence, because the people who came to me talked about Jesus. I'm not deeply religious myself, but they invoked his name on an extraordinary number of circumstances and it very much gave me the impression that the reason they came to me and talked was because, as someone said to me, "The Bible told me that this should not be done. I have never seen anyone do this before and therefore I'm telling you what I saw." That was very striking to me. In Bosnia, people who would come forward would usually cite Helsinki agreements, other international norms of human rights behavior, but no one ever cited religious principles in taking the risk of exposing their allies, for example, to international criticism.

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