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

Page 6 of 6

Lessons Learned

Now I want to go back to what I asked you before. What in your moral landscape or what set of values make it possible for you to do the work that uncovers these stories? Is it your professional norms as a journalist? Is it your liberal democratic values? Is it because you're an American? Is it just because of who you are that gets this job done of telling the story?

There's a part of me that has what we call the "adrenaline junkie syndrome." I like to be in a place where I am in some danger and doing work like this definitely puts me in those types of positions. So that's part of it. There is a voyeuristic element to the work, and that does have an effect. When you do a job like this you have to like having cold sweat on your back. You've got to like that because if you don't you shouldn't be there. You have to not mind, or even enjoy, the sound of explosions, because if you don't like that, you shouldn't be there. There are other people who should be there, who will take your place. You have to have the ability to put your personal life on permanent hold and drop it at the drop of a hat, and go off and dedicate yourself to your work. The work is a calling. It demands that type of obsession.

Why particularly human rights-oriented work? Because I think that how people are treated matters. When I see somebody being mistreated, my eyes tear up and I want to stop it. And I believe that the best thing I can do is to write about it, because if I insert myself into the equation it doesn't really do much good, but if I write about it I think it could do more good. Hopefully. Maybe someone's reading it somewhere.

Does this "syndrome" that you're describing lead you to want to take up the fight, so to speak? Or rather to gather evidence and take it to the [International War Crimes] Tribunal?

I think that there are other people who are much better equipped to do that type of job than I am. I think that I'm equipped to write about it and to broadcast it to my readers, to convey the information to the general public. I think that's the work of forensic anthropologists, prosecutors, and investigators. I would never want to take anything away from them and I wouldn't want to pretend to be one of them. But I can amass information and package it in such a way that it can have an effect on people who read it. That's what I like doing.

We talked about one theme that I found in some of your stories, the moral responsibility of individuals and how they restore that sense of morality in their own lives amidst this chaos. The other issue that I want to address which emerges is the failure of "good organizations" to respond to these situations. In one of your pieces there was a critical look at some of the nongovernmental organizations and the role that some of the relief organizations played in the Hutu camps, which became a real dilemma in that part of the world. What were essentially altruistic goals became something else in the context of this political/military void. Would you talk a little about that and what conclusions you came to?

I think that that issue, which will probably bedevil us for the next fifteen to twenty years, is that in the post - Cold War world the United States and the Soviet Union, which had carved up the globe previously, cannot control things like we used to. Number one, the Soviet Union doesn't exist anymore. And number two, we don't care that much about regional conflicts because they're not a broader part of the Cold War world, they're just sui generis, in an of themselves. An explosion in Bosnia, an explosion in Africa -- look, it doesn't really affect the price of oil so let's not deal with it. As a result, the United Nations and this whole coterie of international aid organizations like CARE, Catholic Relief Services, the International Rescue Committee, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Federation of the Red Cross, they have been tasked with dealing with these problems.

The problem is that these people were accustomed to working in the Cold War world where the big boys had the military might and the diplomatic influence to set out a deal. They then would go and clean up the mess. They would feed the babies and house the hungry and everyone would be warm and that would be their job. Now they're being asked to do everything. They don't have the equipment and the ability to deal with these problems. As a result, in a situation of international military and diplomatic vacuum, these people are being given a lot more responsibility but they don't have the tools to deal with these problems. So their blankets, their food, their water, have become weapons in a war. Why, for example, have so many of these aid workers been killed in the last several years? Scores of them have been killed. Some people would argue that it's because war has become more violent or random. Well I'm sorry, war has always been violent and random. They are killed because they are now perceived as combatants, as taking one side or the other, and that is a huge problem for them.

Secondly, because of this vacuum, their blankets, their rice and their water systems have become so much more important to the fighters, the combatants in these conflicts, that they're often used to facilitate the territorial aggrandizement of one party or the other. And they have a certain amount of responsibility for that because the line that "Oh, I'm sorry, we don't do politics, we just do food for babies," no longer works. It doesn't work anymore because food formula for babies has a huge political ramification within this structure of no American or Russian or international direct diplomatic involvement in these crises. That's a great dilemma for these people.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees thought about leaving Zaire during this Hutu refugee crisis because they just couldn't do their work. They were failing, effectively, in everything they tried to do. They couldn't leave. They were stuck there. And by being stuck there, they created the foundation for the downfall of Mobutu and the rebellion in Zaire.

You really fault, for example, the UN organization there for the way it became complicit in a situation that had real political meaning for one side or the other.

I think that they were in a very difficult position because they were not getting the backing that they asked to get. And in some senses you can't blame them. But in another sense you have to begin to say that you are responsible when you're the only one on the ground and the decisions that you make lead, in many cases, directly toward conflict. They didn't demilitarize the refugee camps. They didn't encourage the refugees to go home, or if they did they didn't do a very good job about it. And they didn't inform the international community and warn the general public that there was going to be a real problem if the situation continued to exist. They were complicit in that they accepted the status quo, and the status quo was leading directly toward the destabilization of Zaire and another conflagration in the Great Lakes region of Africa.

In looking at this post - Cold War world, what do you see as the most positive elements to suggest that some order will emerge?

I think what's positive is that Bosnia scared the bejesus out of other people in Eastern Europe, specifically the Romanians and the Bulgarians and the Slovakians, and that there will most probably not be a war between those countries over the fate of the Hungarian minority. I think that is very positive.

Pomfret In Africa it's very difficult to see much that's positive right now, because it still has yet to play out, although I think that the initial euphoria over the downfall of Mobutu has been replaced with a sense that maybe this fellow Laurent Kabila is not as wonderful as we thought he was. It's very difficult for me to see what's positive in Africa right now, in the Great Lakes region. But I think in Eastern Europe there is a very strong sense that the horrible destruction of Bosnia and also of Croatia have scared Eastern Europe enough to realize that that was not a way for them to go.

In places like Chechnya, I don't know that much that is positive. I don't really see their victory there as meaning something good for the strength of the Russian Federation. I think that that could encourage other people to rise up against Russia and that could be potentially very negative, although the destruction of Chechnya might encourage Moscow to adopt a more intelligent line with the rest of the republics that make up the Russian Federation, so maybe that might be a negative example that they might learn from.

What might be your recommendations for students who wanted to reflect on your career? What lessons are there here for how one prepares for engaging the world, so to speak, as a foreign correspondent? What does one study?

I think that it's very good to live in another country when you're younger and to take a year off to get out of the university environment, to learn how normal people live in another country, particularly if you think you might want to go there later. For example, my experience as a student in China in 1980 - 82 taught me a great deal about China. It taught me a great deal about myself, but it taught me a great deal about China. And as a student I had much more freedom, even in 1980, than I will ever have as a journalist, even in 1997 and 1998, 1999. Because as a student you have this wonderful status as an interloper, someone who doesn't really matter.

A voyeur.

Yeah, the voyeur in training, exactly. "V.I.T." You can do a lot and you can make mistakes and you can push the envelope and it doesn't matter. It's very important because you learn a lot about yourself and you learn a lot about the other culture. I think that's extremely important for Americans to do.

You don't buy the notion that Americans aren't interested in the world do you -- even when your editors and your publishers are telling you that?

Yeah, I don't buy it at all. Maybe part of the reason is that I haven't lived here long enough to be completely turned off by it. But I do travel a lot in the States. I was recently in Kansas; I spent a week there talking to Kansans about what Kansans think about China, and I got a wonderful grab-bag of stories. They care. From the farmers who are worried about sorghum prices to guys in Wichita working for Boeing to fellows that are selling boilers in the little town of Hutchinson to teachers at Bethel College with a student population of 626 (six of their faculty members had spent a year in China) to the Kansas State government which had recently hired a recent Chinese immigrant to push China trade. I think it's extraordinary. I was told that Americans in the Midwest don't give a damn about anything else but the United States and that's not the case. I was very much surprised and it strengthened my sense that Americans, if allowed to and if given interesting information, will engage.

It could be that they aren't interested in the stories of moral bankruptcy which we spent some time on, or the machinations of high politics, but they do care about what the people are doing and how what they're doing affects what we're doing. The mutual interaction.

Yes. Moral bankruptcy, I think, does resonate, but like you said, I think it's more interconnectedness. One of things that I felt living in Washington is that among the Washington community and among some academia it's very easy for us to say that other Americans don't care about foreign relations. In a sense, that gives us a justification for being the only ones who can make decisions about what the United States is going to be doing abroad. It's sort of a self-fulfilling prophesy. If they don't care, then we can have all the power to make decisions. I think that's a bogus cycle, if you will. It doesn't make sense to me. It's a way to shut people out of the debate.

On that hopeful note for the future, I want to thank you very much, John, for spending this time with us and talking about the work you've done, and for helping us understand this morass of the post - Cold War world. Thank you very much.

Thanks. I look forward to several more years in the morass.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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