KUWAIT — The Philippine police knew they had an unusual case when they arrested Abdul Hakim Murad on Jan. 6, 1995. After Mr. Murad accidentally set a small fire in his Manila apartment, the police reportedly found gallons of sulfuric acid and nitric acid, as well as beakers, filters, funnels and fuses. A week before Pope John Paul II was to visit Manila, they had uncovered a bomb-making factory.
In many countries, terrorism suspects like Mr. Murad rarely receive the local equivalent of the Miranda rights; instead, they are tortured. Perhaps the authorities are trying to get sensitive information, perhaps they are trying to dispense extra-legal punishment. The methods vary, from gentler tactics, occasionally referred to as “torture lite,” like sleep deprivation, to hard torture, like the administration of electric shocks. If a prisoner happens to die, this can be explained away as a suicide or “a sharp drop in blood pressure,” as the Egyptian authorities have described the demise of prisoners who were brutalized to death.
Mr. Murad, a Pakistani, was not a talker. Although a computer in his apartment contained information about his plans, he resisted requests to give details of what he was doing. His interrogators reportedly beat him so badly that most of his ribs were broken; they extinguished cigarettes on his genitals; they made him sit on ice cubes; they forced water down his throat so that he nearly drowned.
This went on for several weeks. In the end, he provided names, dates and places behind a Qaeda plan to blow up 11 commercial airliners and fly another one into the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency. He also confessed to a plot to assassinate the pope.
Mr. Murad’s case has been used, in some quarters, to justify torture. Without violent pressure, terrorists might never talk, and then their plans will proceed and civilians will die. This thinking is receiving renewed attention after the arrest, in Pakistan, of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Al Qaeda’s chief of operations and the operational mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
After his capture last week, Mr. Mohammed was handed to the United States and taken out of Pakistan, though it is not known where he is being held or how he is being interrogated. United States officials have said that Mr. Mohammed, or any other terrorist suspect, would not be tortured. But if he prefers not to talk, should he be made to?
The easy answer, in these times of war and fear, is yes. But relieving a suspect of his fingernails is not always the best way to get him to talk, and if he does talk, he may not tell the truth. A suspect who wants to avoid the unkindness of having his teeth extracted with a set of dirty pliers may say whatever he thinks his torturers want to hear.
Beyond that, many terrorism experts believe that in the long run torture is a losing strategy. Pain and humiliation will turn some innocent suspects into real terrorists and turn real terrorists into more-determined monsters.
James Ron, a professor of conflict studies at McGill University in Canada, is the author of a lengthy report on torture in Israel. He met with Israeli officials and soldiers, as well as Palestinian detainees who said their interrogators made it known that they had detailed information about terrorist groups. Mr. Ron believes this intelligence was gathered largely by the use of physical and economic coercion, but at a significant and counterproductive cost.
“Most studies show that torture is hugely degrading and humiliating, in addition to being painful,” Mr. Ron said. “Some people get destroyed in the process and curl up in a ball and go away, but some people fight back. If you’re doing this to just 10 people it’s perhaps not a security threat, but if it’s the F.B.I. and all its allies across the world, then it’s a big deal. A large chunk of the people who are being interrogated aren’t militants, they just might know someone who is. If they weren’t committed anti-Americans now, they would be after this process.”
Another reason brute force may not work well is simple: many terrorists have been through it before. No small number of Al Qaeda members have done jail time in Middle Eastern countries that practice torture. And most terrorists are steeped in cultures of deception; they know how to divulge bad information in a manner that might seem convincing.
In fact, in its apparent success, Mr. Murad’s interrogation shows torture’s limitations. Mr. Murad may have nearly died, but he didn’t crack until a new team of interrogators told him falsely that they were from the Mossad and would be taking him to Israel. Mr. Murad, who feared Jews as much as he hated them, quickly spilled the beans.
Thus, the real lesson. Prospects for gaining useful information are enhanced when interrogators apply psychological pressure, which includes lies, false promises and threats. “It is not the violence that is the core solution but the psychological techniques,” said a prominent terrorism expert. “You’ve got to engage in this psychological game. Not just pain but wearing him down physically and spiritually.”
For example, Mr. Mohammed’s two sons, 7 and 9, are reported to be in custody in Pakistan; threats against them, serious or not, might be far more persuasive than threats against Mr. Mohammed himself.
Although it may be less offensive to our moral sensitivities, “torture lite” may be no less illegal than its harder cousin. The United Nations Convention Against Torture, which the United States ratified in 1994, defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession.”
But what qualifies as severe pain or suffering? A hood over the head? Putting a suspect in an uncomfortable position for a long time?
It depends on whom you ask. After it was reported in December that prisoners in American custody in Afghanistan were exposed to “stress and duress” interrogation techniques, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, sent a letter to President Bush. “Torture is never permissible against anyone, whether in times of peace or of war,” Mr. Roth wrote.
His letter also noted that news reports have said the United States is handing over some suspects to countries like Egypt and Jordan, where torture is routine and brutal.
Human rights advocates are not the only ones disturbed by this strategy. “Such a practice of vicarious torture is imbued with an obvious hypocrisy that prevents the sending state — such as the United States — from having clean hands,” said an article in the summer edition of Parameters, a respected quarterly published by the United States Army War College. “Moreover, obtaining human intelligence from foreign governments is fraught with its own downside risk: such intelligence, filtered through a foreign government, may contain information tainted by that governments biases or hidden policy objectives.”
The White House has not officially said whether it hands over terrorist suspects to other countries for questioning, nor does it detail the techniques used by American interrogators, though it says all international laws are followed. In a sign of unease, the Pentagon now refers to its interrogators as “human intelligence collectors.”
The line between legitimate interrogation and outlawed torture is ill defined, and the reluctance of governments to disclose what they are doing intensifies this murkiness. It is nearly impossible to know whether, in a fetid basement cell in Cairo or Amman or Islamabad or Kabul, a suspected terrorist is having his limbs broken to safeguard against terrorism. And it is just as hard to know whether such deeds, if they are occurring, will enhance long-term national security or fuel a desire for retribution against America.
(This story was published in The New York Times “Week in Review” section.)
On an April day in London last year, Yosri Fouda’s cellphone rang, and a stranger introduced himself by saying, “I’m a viewer of your show.” He claimed to be in a position to “provide something top secret” and asked for Fouda’s fax number. Then he hung up.
Fouda is a star reporter for Al Jazeera, which functions something like CNN for the Arab world. His monthly program, “Top Secret,” features reports that range from the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to the exploitation of young camel jockeys in Qatar. He gets a stream of have-I-got-a-scoop-for-you offers, and most of them lead nowhere. But when he received, several days after the cellphone call, an anonymous three-page fax proposing a documentary for the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, he sensed that the call and the fax had come from Al Qaeda.
What do you do when Al Qaeda beckons? Fouda quietly asked his colleagues at Al Jazeera for advice, because if Al Qaeda was interested in talking with him, he was interested in talking with Al Qaeda, though he also wanted to stay alive.
Several days later the stranger called again.
“Are you ready to go to Islamabad?” he asked.
“Yes, absolutely,” Fouda replied.
He flew to Pakistan and was passed, secretly, from one Qaeda operative to another. It was the sort of cloak-and-dagger intrigue that led, months earlier, to the kidnapping and murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Fouda fared immeasurably better—he was trundled to a safe house, where he met Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, chief of Al Qaeda’s military committee, who confirmed that he was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Also present was Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who was introduced as the coordinator of the attacks and who had lived in Hamburg with Mohamed Atta, leader of the hijackers. Fouda’s hosts were among the most-wanted terrorists in the world. Mohammed alone was worth $25 million in bounty money from the U.S. government.
If you want to explore the intricate dance that takes place between a journalist trying to get a story and a terrorist trying to disseminate a message, and if you want to delve into the unusual relationship between Al Jazeera and Al Qaeda, you can do no better than examining Fouda’s odyssey to Karachi. I visited Fouda in London, where he has lived for the last 12 years and where he works from Al Jazeera’s bureau on the bank of the Thames opposite Parliament. Although he is just a face in the crowd as he walks to the tube station next to Big Ben, he is rock-star famous in London’s Arab neighborhoods. Throughout the Arab world, in fact, he carries the celebrity of Geraldo Rivera and the cachet of Bob Woodward.
Fouda is a chameleon. He wears a banker’s suit on important occasions but otherwise prefers a leather jacket; in Karachi, he wore a shalwar kameez, the pajamalike outfit favored by Pakistanis. He mixes easily at both mosques and pubs. He is, in this way, an excellent journalist, because he can pretend to be all things to all people, including a friend to terrorists.
“If you want to keep your access, if you want to remain useful, you have to keep your impartiality,” Fouda told me. “It’s no use if I came on my program and said, ‘The bastard sat in front of me and said this and that.’ Then you have blown every chance you may have to talk with them again and with other groups. Yes, put things in context, but keep yourself on the fence.”
The mysterious caller told Fouda to fly from Islamabad to Karachi and check into a $30-a-night hotel there. The caller, who appeared to be an Arab, furtively visited Fouda at the Karachi hotel and told him to leave by a back door and take a taxi to another part of the sprawling city. There, Fouda met another Qaeda contact, exchanged a password and drove with him to a crowded square, where the contact told him to take a motorized rickshaw to an address where another operative was waiting. After giving a different password—it was “Lahore” (another city in Pakistan)—Fouda was driven out of the city, and eventually his contact pulled up to a car parked by the side of the road.
Fouda was transferred to the other car, where two Qaeda escorts taped cotton patches over his eyes. He was not searched, nor was he asked if he had a weapon. The trust worked both ways. As the car drove aimlessly outside Karachi, so that Fouda would lose his bearings, he sat in the back seat and told his escorts that he would have shut his eyes even if he hadn’t been blindfolded; he did not want them to think he might be interested in knowing the whereabouts of the “brothers” he was being taken to interview.
“I would be considered, as far as they were concerned, more on their side,” Fouda noted as we ate breakfast at a hotel. He was dressed in a conservative blue suit, smoking one Marlboro after another and sipping a cup of coffee. He spoke precisely, as though narrating someone else’s journey. “I had a strong feeling that they would actually care about my safety so that I would come back and do the program that they wanted. I made sure that I gave them the feeling that I am all theirs.”
This is standard operating procedure for many journalists—make your sources think you are on their side. Smile sympathetically. Nod approvingly. Laugh at their jokes. Sometimes this behavior is genuine, sometimes contrived. It is one of the oddities of journalism that although reporters are always trying to convey the full truth in what they report, with some sources they may not convey the full truth of their opinions and feelings.
After half an hour or so, the car stopped, and Fouda was led into a building and up four flights of stairs. He was pulled into an apartment, and when his blindfold was removed, Fouda heard someone say: “It is O.K. You can open your eyes now.” He did, and standing in front of him and saying hello with a smile was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who addressed him as “Brother Yosri.” Moments later, as he walked deeper into the apartment, Fouda was greeted, warmly, by Ramzi bin al-Shibh, who was sitting amid several laptops and cellphones.
“Recognize us yet?” Khalid Shaikh Mohammed asked.
The atmosphere was friendly. Fouda placed his hand on a Koran and swore not to divulge information that would help anyone catch his most-wanted hosts. For 48 hours, Fouda lived with Mohammed and bin al-Shibh, sharing tea and takeout meals with them and listening as they explained how they plotted the 9/11 attacks. They said that they had decided that the time had come to take responsibility for a day of mayhem that they were quite proud to have organized. The decision to select Fouda as the messenger was made, they said, by bin Laden himself, apparently a fan of “Top Secret.”
The apartment had scarcely any furnishings. They sat and slept on the floors. There was no television, and the windows had metal bars. Mohammed had several cellphones he constantly used for text messaging—he was as dexterous as a Japanese teenager. Bin al-Shibh was frequently working at his laptops and copying data onto disks. When he wasn’t talking with them, Fouda behaved as nonchalantly as possible, not wanting to appear too interested in their secretive work. Fouda and the two Qaeda men prayed together, five times a day, which is not Fouda’s habit.
At one point, bin al-Shibh brought a gray suitcase into the room. Handing a cup of tea to Fouda, he said, nodding to the suitcase, “Yes, it is my Hamburg souvenirs, and you are the first outsider to have a look.” He placed his “souvenirs” on the floor, including a “how to fly” textbook and flight-simulator CD’s that had been used by Atta. Bin al-Shibh showed Fouda, on one of his computers, his last e-mail exchange with Atta; to evade detection, Atta had pretended to be a young man in America chatting online with his girlfriend in Germany, using code words—two high schools and two universities”—for the targets of the coming attacks. (The fourth target, Fouda was told, was the Capitol Building.)
Fouda’s desire not to offend his fundamentalist hosts ran into a stumbling block: he is a heavy smoker, but smoking is viewed as un-Islamic. He meekly asked permission to light up, and this prompted bin al-Shibh to deliver the sort of anticigarette lecture that teenagers get from parents. Fouda readily agreed it was a horrible habit that he should not indulge in, but until he gathered the strength to quit, might he have a smoke? Because the authors of 9/11 had an interest in not alienating their chosen messenger—the confidence game works both ways—they granted his wish. Fouda shifted to a spot closer to a balcony and savored his Marlboro.
Yosri Fouda was born 38 years ago in an Egyptian village, the son of a doctor. He earned a master’s in television journalism from the American University in Cairo and won a scholarship to work on a Ph.D. in Britain, but he left school to take a producing job at the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Arabic-language television service, reporting from the Balkans alongside veteran BBC journalists. After the Arabic service collapsed in 1996, Fouda agreed to work for Al Jazeera in London. “He has an image as the Arab world’s leading investigative journalist, not that there’s a lot of competition for the title,” says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Fouda’s program about his Karachi journey, broadcast for the anniversary of the attacks, ran nearly two hours. It began with Mohamed Atta’s father saying, agitatedly, that his son had not taken part in the attacks on Sept. 11, and that he was either in jail somewhere in America or had been killed to keep him silent. Atta’s father was expressing a viewpoint that remains widespread in the Arab world—that Israel and perhaps America were behind the whole thing, and that Al Qaeda and 19 Arab men were not involved.
Fouda demolished that notion. He laid out, in careful and well-produced detail, the preparations by Atta and other hijackers from Al Qaeda, drawing on the information provided in Karachi by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi bin al-Shibh (who was arrested in Karachi, apparently coincidentally, soon after the broadcast).
But something funny happened on the way to the full truth. Fouda told his viewers about the whistle-blowing memo from the F.B.I. Agent Coleen Rowley, who exposed grievous lapses in the handling of the terrorist suspect Zacarias Moussaoui, and a memo from an F.B.I. agent in Phoenix, who pointed out, before Sept. 11, that a suspicious number of Arabs were learning to fly planes in America. Fouda then asked, “Was Al Qaeda simply the knife edge in the grip of someone somewhere?” He cut to a follower of Lyndon Larouche who speculated that the attacks were engineered by “intellectuals in the Brzezinski crowd and ... the special warfare crowd in the Pentagon,” with Al Qaeda being used to do the dirty work.
Fouda ended his program by speaking directly to the camera from a street in New York. “Through this investigation, we were able to dispel doubt and ascertain the truth about those who wanted, who planned and who succeeded in delivering a severe slap to the U.S. administration,” he said. But then he raised the possibility that officials in the United States “did not actually object to receiving such a slap, in the hope they can push and bully anyone, anywhere with impunity.”
It seemed odd to conclude the program by shifting attention toward a supposed American role—especially since there is not a single mention in the documentary of the notion that the Muslim world needs to examine what went wrong and take responsibility for the mass murderers it nurtured. Was Fouda pulling his punches? Although he agrees, as most Arabs do, with Al Qaeda’s political complaints about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and America’s support for corrupt Arab regimes, he did not cheer the destruction of the World Trade Center or the bombing of a tourist-packed disco in Bali. He describes himself as a secular journalist and says he prefers living in London over Cairo; he seems to believe that fundamentalism is a problem, not an answer.
But the fact is that if you wish to remain popular in the mainstream media, you invite trouble by deviating too far from the views of your sources and audience. Harping on an unpopular truth is rarely a career-advancing or an audience-building move. Fouda delivered a bitter pill to his Arab audience simply by reporting that Al Qaeda carried out the 9/11 attacks; delivering another unpopular message, by focusing on what has gone wrong in the Arab world, might have been too much, particularly for his fundamentalist sources. It’s easier to blame America.
Fouda practices the journalism of access, which is a widespread practice, but a journalist in need of access must remain in the good graces of the giver of access. And that sometimes leads to dangerous trade-offs. There is a price for playing the game, and Al Qaeda plays it well. Two months after Fouda’s 9/11 report, Al Qaeda faxed him a six-page communique, announcing that it would devote more attention to fighting Israel. (This was just weeks before the attacks on Israeli tourists in Mombasa.) He had another global scoop, though he wasn’t the only one to gain from it. By tossing occasional exclusives to Yosri Fouda, Osama bin Laden helps ensure that one of the most influential voices in the Arab media stays on the fence.
Do we need to remember Sarajevo? The war in Bosnia ended in 1995, and much has happened since then, not only in Bosnia, but in the rest of the world. We have lived through the events of 9/11, we have engaged in war in Afghanistan, and we are on the verge of another war in Iraq. We are being told that America’s survival is at stake, and though we may doubt the severity of the threat, or the wisdom of the government’s response to it, there are people who wish fatal harm to America.
Sarajevo, and the agony it suffered in the 1990s, would seem to carry little importance today. It is just a scarred Balkan city filled with aid workers, peacekeepers and a population that sadly remembers its history even as others forget it. Bosnia is not in material breach of anything today. Sarajevo is fading away, filed in the recesses of our historical memory between the tragedies of Somalia and Rwanda, which briefly grabbed our attention before they faded away, too.
Yet Sarajevo was besieged not just by men with weapons but by evil. It was a multicultural city set upon by nationalists who engaged in ethnic cleansing on a scale not seen in Europe since World War II. In the past year or two, the phrase “ethnic cleansing” has retreated from the lexicon of national discourse, replaced by the new catchphrases of our fears, such as Al Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction and Osama bin Laden. Even so, the evil of ethnic cleansing must be recalled, alongside the shameful fact that America and its allies tolerated mass murder because it did not seem to threaten us. When, finally, it did menace our interests—the NATO alliance was beginning to unravel over the morass of Bosnia—a U.S.-led bombing campaign began, and the Serb nationalists who started the war were forced to end it, but awarded nearly half the country as a sweetener.
Sarajevo teaches us that we must be prepared to act even if a force of evil does not directly threaten our homeland. It is possible for genocide to occur almost anywhere on Earth and for life to continue in New York and Washington without a ruffle of concern or dislocation. Sarajevo is proof that our indifference can kill. It doesn’t kill us, but those upon whom we allow evil to have its way. Even if it doesn’t imperil our territory or the price of gasoline, we are diminished by its triumph, and a world in which such triumphs occur is not a safe world.
Roger Richards was among the many journalists who worked in Bosnia during the war, and he continued to work there after the country was carved up under the Dayton peace treaty. His evocative photographs—click here to see them—take us back to that time, as do the accompanying remembrances from Sarajevans who provide a pitch-perfect narrative to his stark and damning pictures. This combination of pictures and words is powerful. “Remember Sarajevo” makes us do just that, and for that reason, it merits a wide audience.
“These photographs were made with the intent of making the world look at an evil that was taking place before their eyes, and to force it to face unpleasant truths,” Richards says. “We journalists kept doing our jobs, to the point where we became resented by the citizens of Sarajevo as voyeurs. But the fact that we kept on making these images of horror eventually led to a time when the world could avert its eyes no longer. I consider myself to be a caretaker of historical documents and with it comes the responsibility to remind my fellow humans of what can happen when evil is allowed to flourish without challenge from the good.”
Evil recedes rather than dies. It is persistent. We must not avert our gaze when it begins to draw the blood of innocent people stricken by the machetes and bullets of genocide. The photos and text in this exhibition explain, elegantly and painfully, why that is so.
Major Christopher Miller lay awake on a cot in a filthy room, no larger than a prison cell and cluttered with weapons and ammunition. He couldn’t sleep. It was a cold January night at the Special Forces base in Kandahar, and Miller was on the verge of commanding an assault against six Qaeda fighters barricaded inside a nearby Afghan hospital. So many things could go wrong, Miller realized, and it could be disastrous if any of them did. For the first time in his life, Miller would be engaging in C.Q.B.—a military abbreviation for “close-quarters battle.” After years of training, he would finally become, as he told me recently, a “manager of violence.” An eight-year veteran of the Special Forces, he had never killed before, had never given an order to kill, had not even seen a dead soldier. All that would change at dawn, because men would surely die in an attack he would initiate with a one-word command: execute.
“That was the first time when I really thought of the human dimension of it,” Miller recalled. “At first, it’s an intellectual challenge. Then you go, ‘We’re really going to do this.’ All of a sudden it dawned on me, Those bastards are in there right now and they don’t have a clue what’s fixing to come their way. It was the oddest damn thing.”
I first met Miller last December in Kandahar. We had several conversations, but he was under strict orders not to discuss his job. Yet his job—that of a new kind of soldier—interested me. The Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan looked different, with their thick beards, fleece jackets, wraparound sunglasses and high-tech weaponry. Did they think and feel differently than the traditional foot soldier? Earlier this fall, I caught up with Miller at Fort Campbell, Ky., where the Special Forces Fifth Group is based. Safely back from battle, Miller was allowed to discuss his brand of warfare—and how he was built to carry it out.
Miller’s dawn assault on the Qaeda fighters in Kandahar, I learned, was but one step away from hand-to-hand combat. It involved grenade exchanges from a distance of just a few feet, and it finished with Miller and his men standing amid their dead and bloodied foes. “They fought to the last minute,” he recalled. “For these guys, surrender was not an option.” He later added, “It was amazing to see the carnage.”
The attack was the kind of urban warfare American soldiers will be engaged in should the United States have to shoot its way into Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. When the Cold War ended, many thought that C.Q.B. would become a thing of the past. Conflicts would be fewer, and any interventions undertaken would rely on overwhelming force and precision munitions, not house-to-house fighting. Yet since 9/11 we have begun a war that may draw our soldiers into many battles involving intimate killing. What will that mean for Miller and his men?
The last time this kind of fighting occurred on a grand scale, in Vietnam, 50,000 Americans died, and many survivors had injuries that were not just physical but emotional. The clunky phrase “post-traumatic stress disorder” entered the national lexicon. Today, the military believes, the United States is fighting an intimate war in the right way, because soldiers have been prepared and equipped in a manner that increases the prospect of their victory and decreases the prospect of their injury—whether physical or psychological. Just as smart bombs are less likely to go astray, 21st-century warriors are more lethal than before, yet less likely to suffer P.T.S.D., according to military instructors and psychologists. Dave Grossman, a former Army Ranger and West Point professor of psychology, refers to this phenomenon as “the bulletproof mind.”
Such confident assertions may seem surprising, considering what happened this summer at Fort Bragg, N.C. Four soldiers there murdered their wives; three of the soldiers had Special Forces training and had served in Afghanistan. The news media rushed to link the murders to post-combat stress, although there is little proof and investigations continue. Military officers, not surprisingly, doubt the idea that P.T.S.D. played a significant role, and they may have a point. Fatal spouse abuse, sadly, plagues the military even in peacetime. As they see it, the furor over this incident has obscured a broader truth. Today’s Special Forces soldiers, they claim, have been unusually well trained to succeed not only at war—but also after war.
Chris Miller, the son of an Iowa cop, joined the Army Reserve after high school in 1983. He attended George Washington University on an R.O.T.C. scholarship and became, after graduation, an infantry officer. But it wasn’t long before Miller became bored with his life in the Army.
“All you have to be is physically strong,” Miller, who is the size of a linebacker, told me, sitting in his ramshackle Fort Campbell office. “Infantry’s brain-dead. It has nothing to do with mental agility. I wanted to try the Special Forces because I was driven by the challenge, man.”
The Special Forces are a highly trained elite within the Army, specializing in unconventional warfare, which is anything from operating behind enemy lines to fighting with guerrillas in the jungle. There are about 10,000 soldiers in the Special Forces, who are also known as Green Berets. They are the core of the military’s Special Operations community, which includes what are believed to be hundreds in Delta Force, a secretive unit that performs classified counterterrorism missions, as well as Navy Seals and Special Operations units in the Air Force.
Special Forces soldiers are trained principally in North Carolina, at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg. Known informally as the Schoolhouse, it’s the nerve center for an arduous two- to three-year training course. Skills taught to Special Forces soldiers include how to survive in jungles and deserts, how to leap from a plane in the jet stream and wait until the last second to open your parachute, how to stage ambushes behind enemy lines, how to escape a P.O.W. camp, how to speak foreign languages and how to kill with rifles, grenade launchers, shoulder-fired rockets and your bare hands.
When I stopped by the Schoolhouse in September, about 200 soldiers were starting their third day of training. In a dirt pit, they were hoisting logs over their heads, then shifting the logs from one shoulder to the other, then crawling through the dirt, then carrying one another on their shoulders, then doing push-ups and cartwheels, then hoisting the logs again—over and over, until some began weeping.
It was boot-camp misery multiplied by 10. Yet there was a twist, because physical misery was not the end point, as it might be in the infantry, but the starting point. I realized this as I talked beside the pit with Captain Smith, who assesses aspiring Special Forces soldiers (and insisted that I not use his first name). Smith wants to find out who can endure pain and sleep deprivation and situational uncertainty—and still make the right choices. “We never inform them what they’re going to do, how long it’s going to go on,” he said. “We set the conditions for ambiguity from the start. A lot of these guys are not comfortable not knowing what they’re going to do next. But a lot of times on our operations, there’s no way that you can know exactly what you’ll be doing. Strength must be combined with intelligence.”
Miller recalls his experience at the Schoolhouse vividly. “It was the most outrageous thing,” he said, laughing loudly. “You’re smoked, you’re physically and mentally drained, and then, boom, there’s a decision you have to make. Do I go left or right? And there’s only one right answer.”
Because Special Forces work requires nerves of steel, training never really ends. After graduating from the Schoolhouse, active soldiers on operational teams train regularly in urban environments. Every 18 months they must complete a course established at Fort Bragg called Advanced Urban Combat—that is, the storming of buildings. Of course, all Army units train for battle, but the Special Forces say they do it with far greater frequency and under conditions that are a good deal more realistic. They use live ammunition much more often. And instead of being shown once or twice how to, say, clear a room without firing guns, the Special Forces do it again and again and again, firing real bullets, until every move they might need to make in a Baghdad-type scenario becomes a reflex.
“It’s so instantaneous,” explained Master Sgt. Danny Leonard, who joined the Special Forces in 1989 and engaged in urban warfare in the Gulf War and in Afghanistan. “You don’t even realize you did it.”
American soldiers have not always pulled the trigger with such reliability. During World War II, according to the military historian S.L.A. Marshall, as many as 80 percent of the American infantrymen he interviewed failed to fire their weapons in combat. Marshall attributed the low “fire ratio” to a mixture of poor training and a natural reluctance to kill. Even though his methodology has come under attack—critics say his numbers are exaggerated—his premise is generally accepted, and his book, “Men Against Fire,” is read throughout the military establishment. After it was published in 1947, the military revamped its training to make G.I.‘s more comfortable firing at humans; soldiers shot at targets shaped like people rather than at bull’s-eyes, for example. Today, Special Forces units make their training as realistic as possible, using pop-up targets with human faces, and setting off smoke bombs and small explosions to simulate the battlefield experience.
Dave Grossman, who spoke to me about “the bulletproof mind,” has written about the hidden logic behind military training. In his controversial book “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society,” he writes: “It is entirely possible that no one intentionally sat down to use operant conditioning or behavior modification techniques to train soldiers in this area. But from the standpoint of a psychologist who is also a historian and a career soldier, it has become increasingly obvious to me that this is exactly what has been achieved.” Grossman interprets the process of a target popping up, a soldier’s shooting the target and the soldier being praised or criticized for accuracy, as a classic conditioning model. “What makes this training process work is the same thing that made Pavlov’s dogs salivate and B. F. Skinner’s rats push their bars,” he writes. “What makes it work is the single most powerful and reliable behavior modification process yet discovered by the field of psychology, and now applied to the field of warfare: operant conditioning.”
Indeed, Special Forces officers openly discuss the use of “stress inoculation”—in which they are exposed to heartbeat-racing drills that raise their threshold for staying calm. It doesn’t mean Special Forces soldiers are immune to stress or the mistakes that stress causes, but it takes a lot more to rattle one of them than an old-time draftee.
An important dose of stress inoculation occurs during a three-week training nightmare that comes at the end of the Schoolhouse course. It goes by the acronym SERE, which stands for survival, evasion, resistance and escape. SERE teaches Special Forces soldiers how to avoid and endure capture by the enemy. The exercise places them in a “resistance-training laboratory” that is, essentially, a prisoner-of-war camp, with guard towers, barbed-wire fences, blindfolds, putrid food, irregular sleep intervals, abusive guards and brutal interrogations. Details about SERE, such as the types of punishment inflicted on the “prisoners,” are classified; Special Forces officers told me that torture is not practiced, though they did not deny that physical pressure is applied. The unpleasantness apparently includes being buried in wood barrels. When I asked Miller about SERE, he shook his head and said, “It is imprinted on my brain.”
Making a soldier stronger and better through stress inoculation and operant conditioning seems a bit Kubrickian—and unsettling. I wasn’t sure what to think when Col. Charles King, who commands the First Special Warfare Training Group at Fort Bragg, told me that he trains his soldiers in negotiation and combat—and that they can turn from one to the other in a split second. “These guys have got to be able not only to work with you but to shoot you, if necessary,” he said. We laughed awkwardly, and he quickly added that Special Forces soldiers would never shoot a journalist. We laughed again, awkwardly, and I chose not to mention that a U.S. military commander had threatened to shoot a Washington Post journalist who was trying to visit a site in Afghanistan where an American airstrike appeared to have killed civilians.
Of course, the commander hadn’t actually fired his weapon. Special Forces soldiers may develop cold-blooded reflexes, but they are also trained to know when not to kill. Targets that pop up during shooting drills include women and children who are not supposed to be shot. Being able to remain steady in combat doesn’t just mean you will be a quick draw; it also means that you will do a better job of deciding when to hold your fire. As Grossman writes of the calibration of aggression: “This is a delicate and dangerous process. Too much, and you end up with a My Lai…. Too little, and your soldiers will be defeated and killed by someone who is more aggressively disposed.” Colonel King put it like this: “Our guys have got to be confident in their ability to use lethal force. But they’ve got to be principled enough to know when not to use it. We’re not training pirates.”
In Kandahar last January, the Special Forces tried to avoid a head-on clash with the Qaeda holdouts at Mirwais Hospital. A small group of Qaeda soldiers, wounded before the city fell to American-backed forces, were left behind when their fellow fighters headed for the hills. The men barricaded themselves inside a wing of the hospital and vowed a fight to the death if challenged. For more than a month, the Special Forces detachment, of which Miller was third in command, patiently waited for them to surrender.
Then one night in mid-January, one of the Qaeda fighters slipped out of the hospital, only to be surrounded by Afghan guards. He blew himself up with a grenade. Soon after, senior officers decided that any members of Al Qaeda who were in Kandahar should be in custody or dead. The Special Forces contingent was ordered to attack the six men who remained.
The Americans didn’t consider an airstrike on the building or using rocket-propelled grenades; those would have been loud and messy solutions, which the Special Forces, who refer to themselves as “the quiet professionals,” disdain. Miller, who has a master’s degree in national security studies from the Naval War College, relishes devising fresh solutions.
During a meeting at their base in Kandahar, the Special Forces brain trust, which was led by Lt. Col. Dave Fox and included Miller and several other officers, didn’t consider a brute American assault on an Afghan hospital. Instead, the decision was made to train a squad of local Afghan soldiers to do the job, backed by the Special Forces. Miller would be the “ground tactical commander”—that is, the manager of violence.
On the outskirts of Kandahar, at the former residence of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader, an “A team”—a 12-man group that is the core fighting unit of the Special Forces—began training 25 Afghan soldiers in the finer points of storming a hostile building. A mock-up of the hospital wing was built, and the Afghans were taught to rush through the hole—the “fatal funnel”—that would be blasted through a wall. They were taught to stay away from doors and windows, to clear rooms one by one before moving down a corridor and so on. Language was a problem, but translators were used and the Americans picked up essential Pashto words, such as “shoot,” “stop shooting” and “grenade.”
Just before dawn on Jan. 28, everything was set. Capt. Matthew Peaks, leader of the A team that trained the Afghans, was ready. Using his code name, Python 33, he got on the radio to Miller, code-named Rambo 70, who was at a command post 150 feet away. Miller gave the order to execute the assault. The explosives blasted a hole in the wall, and a wave of Afghan soldiers rushed inside, tossing grenades down a corridor leading to the Qaeda room. The Afghans were promptly halted by an explosion, most likely of their own doing; in their eagerness to attack, they had run over their own grenades. The injured men were dragged out.
“We’ve got a bit of a problem,” Peaks radioed to Miller. “We’ve got six guys down. The assault has stalled.”
One of Miller’s favorite words is “knucklehead,” which he applies to most anyone he is talking about—the Taliban, his commanders, himself. When the assault stalled, Miller said he felt like the knucklehead of the moment.
A military axiom says a plan of attack rarely survives its first contact with the enemy, and it is particularly true for unconventional warfare. This is what the Special Forces are taught to expect, as I learned from Colonel King. “You can sit people down and teach them that in situation A you do B, but what do you do when you get into a situation you never anticipated?” he said. That pretty much describes the predicament Miller was in. The first assault had failed. The Qaeda soldiers were riled up. Moreover, the grenade explosions had inadvertently started a fire inside the building. This was a problem because a building that was torched courtesy of the Special Forces would not look good on CNN.
Then something unexpected happened. Smoke prompted two Qaeda fighters to stand next to a window for fresh air. Miller had placed snipers at nearby vantage points, and one of them, just a few feet away from him, leaned over and said, “Sir, I’ve got a guy who keeps poking his head up.”
Miller immediately told him to fire. He got on the radio and told the other sniper to shoot. One Qaeda soldier was dropped, then another. Miller gave the order for smoke grenades to be thrown inside the building, to encourage window visits by the others. But the remaining Qaeda men realized the cost of fresh air and stayed put.
They were given a final warning. “We can end this right now!” a Special Forces soldier shouted to them in Arabic. “We promise you won’t be mistreated.” Arabic curses were shouted back.
Miller ordered another Afghan assault. A squad of Afghans rushed inside the building but rushed out after a small explosion was heard. Peaks, who enjoys an absurd moment as much as Miller, told me, with a good laugh, what happened: “These Afghan guys come running back to us with big wide eyes going, ‘They got grenades!’ We said, ‘Well, yes.’ ”
That’s when the decision was made for the Special Forces to go inside. This would be the real thing, C.Q.B., against an enemy eager to kill Americans. Three Special Forces fighters moved down the main corridor with three Afghans, closing in on the room where the Qaeda fighters were barricaded. The Special Forces tossed several grenades into the room, but the Qaeda men scooped them up and tossed them back. It was a lethal game of hot potato. The American team dove for cover. Staff Sgt. Joe Haralson was one of the grenade dodgers. I met him at Fort Campbell, and we talked under a gazebo as he calmly cleaned an M-4 assault rifle. He explained that before throwing the next grenade, he held onto it after releasing the pin, so that the enemy wouldn’t have time to toss it back.
“We started cookin’ them off,” Haralson said. “Pop the pin, wait a second or two, then throw them in.”
I asked, “The delay is how long on the grenade?”
“About three or four seconds.”
“Not much margin for error.”
“Yeah,” he replied.
Haralson’s training—or, as Grossman might describe it, his operant conditioning—helps explain why he had the presence of mind to instantly fling himself to the ground when his grenades were thrown back at him. Ordinary soldiers might freeze for a split second, and this could cost them their lives. Then Haralson, amid the violence, was able to calmly figure out, as though fine-tuning a tennis stroke, that he needed to hold a live grenade in his hand for a couple of seconds before throwing it, and then do just that.
The battle was won and months later I asked Haralson how he felt about the mission. “Nobody is acting out of anger,” he said. “He’s the bad guy, we’re the good guy. It’s just the way it is.”
As Sergeant Leonard told me, “We understand the importance of what we’re doing, so if we’ve got to cap a guy, we’ll do it.” He continued: “You’re in a zone. You’re trying to keep your people safe. So there’s a sense of elation: ‘I got him before he got me.’ I never felt sad for any of those guys. It doesn’t bother me a bit.”
It’s possible that these men were more disturbed by the killing than they let on; then again, if they were haunted by what they did, they probably would not have talked so openly about the violence they engaged in. And in general, the soldiers did not hide the after-effects of spending time in combat zones. Leonard told me that upon returning from the Gulf War, he woke up one night and noticed a red beam; thinking it was a laser, he rolled out of bed and reached for a weapon. The beam was his stereo’s power light.
The issue of post-combat stress was widely discussed after the three Special Operations soldiers returned from Afghanistan to Fort Bragg and killed their wives last summer. Those killings, and our military’s latest involvement in C.Q.B., have resurrected an old debate: is it possible to be an efficient killer one day and a good citizen the next?
“The theory that interspecies homicide is unnatural—go watch ‘Animal Planet’ for a while,” said Maj. Gary Hazlett, a psychologist at Fort Bragg. “It’s common. We sent millions of people into combat situations in World War II and we didn’t have busloads of Charlie Mansons coming back. We had people who had gone out and done this grisly job, done it extremely well and then came back and now we’re calling them the greatest generation.” That may be true, but Vietnam veterans are a different story. It was a nastier conflict than World War II or Afghanistan: G.I.‘s were killed in grisly ways by men, women and even children who did not wear uniforms, and at the same time, many Vietnamese who didn’t wear uniforms were killed. Psychologists believe that the likelihood of being haunted by killing is greatly increased when the carnage a soldier sees or engages in is hard to justify.
A recent article in Military Review, a magazine published every other month by the Army, warned that reflex-quick killing can be a psychological time bomb. “Training soldiers to kill efficiently is good for them because it helps them survive on the battlefield,” wrote Maj. Peter Kilner, who teaches philosophy at West Point. “However, training soldiers to kill without explaining to them why it is morally permissible to kill in combat is harmful…. When soldiers kill reflexively—when military training has effectively undermined their moral autonomy—they morally deliberate their actions only after the fact. If they are unable to justify what they have done, they often suffer guilt and psychological trauma.”
Miller says his sleepless night before the assault in Kandahar was his way of confronting the ethics of his actions. He zeroed in on two things—the targets were terrorists, and they had been given ample opportunity to surrender. Killing them, if it came to that, was justified. “I needed to go through the moral calculus,” he told me. “Once I did, I was steeled for combat. But I felt I owed it to myself to consider the implications of what was about to happen.”
Miller let out a knucklehead laugh as he said this; for him, it was a foolishly obvious point. Indeed, when the Kandahar assault was completed and he left his command post to survey the carnage he had managed, he said he did not feel horror or regret—just a grim awareness that there will be a lot more C.Q.B. for American soldiers in coming years. “We’re going to have to hunt ‘em down,” Miller said.
Miller remained in Afghanistan for almost four months and did everything he trained for: combat, patrols, surveillance, negotiations. For several crucial days, he was even in charge of security for the new leader of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. He completed his duties and returned home in March to his wife and three children.
That said, the experience has left its marks on Miller. North of Kandahar, before the Taliban fled, a Special Forces team was hit accidentally by a misguided smart bomb. Three men were killed, and two of them were good friends of his. “If I could have those guys back, I would gladly give it all up,” Miller said as we sat in a planning room at his battalion headquarters, which is a surprisingly unimpressive place, with leaking pipes and mold growing on the ceiling tiles. The United States military is a $355-billion-a-year outfit, but few of those dollars are lavished on the aged cinder block buildings housing the Fifth Group. Miller continued: “There’s probably a little guilt, like, Jesus, I wanted to see action so bad…. ”
Suddenly he stopped talking. He took several deep breaths, looking down at the floor. Then he hurriedly got up and headed for the bathroom. Through tears, he said, “I promised I wasn’t going to do this.”
Several minutes elapsed. I poured myself some coffee as I waited for him to return. I was not terribly surprised by his lapse into sadness. I spent three days with him at Fort Campbell, grabbing meals with him and his Special Forces colleagues, going on a five-mile run with him in the Kentucky backwoods. I heard him laugh at himself and his commanders and the absurdity of the world around him. But I also heard him turn cold serious when the phone rang in his office and he answered with his usual greeting, “Hello, this is not a secure line.” His temperament was adaptive, exquisitely calibrated to the moment. And here was a moment where Miller was allowing himself to be reflective.
In Special Forces training, flexibility is sought out and reinforced in recruits. Respond to the situation, they are taught; don’t be rigid, stay aware of your environment. In the model Special Forces soldier—and not all of them are, not by a long shot—those maxims apply to emotions too. Block them out in combat, but don’t ignore them afterward.
Miller emerged from the bathroom and said: “I don’t feel guilty for wanting to do something. We wanted to go, hell, yeah. Everybody wanted to. The big lesson I took was, Be careful what you ask for, because it’s a horribly costly business. I don’t have any doubt about the value of the sacrifice. I’m not sitting here gnashing my teeth like Vietnam or something, going, ‘God, it’s such a waste, the flower of our youth.’ I mean, it was necessary. A friendly-fire accident—that happens. It’s the nature of war.” Miller had a logical argument, but emotions don’t always respond to logic.
Miller talked about other difficulties he had faced in Afghanistan. In January, Special Forces soldiers discovered a series of Taliban ammunition depots. The decision was made to blow up the dumps so that fugitive Taliban or Qaeda fighters could not sneak back and re-arm. Two ordnance experts and a medic were assigned to the job. They were all blown up doing it; either they mishandled the explosives or were killed by a booby trap.
“The most wonderful guys in the world,” Miller told me. “We could have waited and handed it off to an engineer unit and said, ‘It’s your problem.’ We made the decision to do it ourselves right away. It was the wrong thing to do. We should have just left it. Two guys I knew really well. It shows the seriousness of the business, which I had never fully internalized. I would just laugh when my bosses would say, ‘This is a serious business.’ Well, guess what? Now I’m the moron going, ‘This is serious business.’ ”
The Special Forces are well trained, but that does not mean they will come back alive or sound, especially if they fight a war that should not be fought or embark on missions that are poorly planned. Their bodies are not bulletproof, nor are their minds. The discipline that is driven into them in training and at their bases can wear down if a war is long enough or murky enough or if they see too many of their comrades killed or injured. The ousting of the Taliban (though not what followed it) had the merit of being well executed and mercifully brief, yet still there was a price to pay.
I stayed in touch with Miller after my visit to Fort Campbell. We had developed a running joke, because he couldn’t talk to me about his next mission, which I knew was Iraq, and which he knew I knew was Iraq. The soldiers of the Fifth Group specialize in the Middle East, and they wear desert fatigues even at Fort Campbell, with their names printed above their breast pockets in Arabic. I would ask, when I called Miller, how things were going, and as September became October and Congress passed a resolution authorizing war, his responses went from “not doing much” to “it’s getting busier” to “real busy.”
“If there’s going to be a fight, we want to be in it,” he said last month. “But it’s more deliberate this time. Last time, it really was naivete.” He mentioned that the widows and children of his fallen friends still live in his close community; he is reminded of their sacrifice every day. “The cost is huge and it requires serious deliberation. I’m privileged and truly want to be a part of it, but it’s not cheap. It’s not a big laugh.”
If you happen to believe the only good terrorist is a dead terrorist, you are quite possibly a member of the U.S. government. I realized this while visiting the home of a U.S. official in Pakistan one Sunday afternoon. Security guards are always stationed outside his residence. When he ventures beyond his front door he does so in an armored car, with bodyguards at his side, and another vehicle follows his—lest he end up like Laurence Foley, the American diplomat who was killed outside his home in Amman, Jordan, on October 28.
We drank coffee and nibbled biscuits in his living room and chatted about the best place to buy handwoven carpets, which are plentiful in Pakistan, at prices that coincide with the sum the salesman believes he can extract from your American wallet. Our conversation then moved to the crackdown on religious extremists by Pakistan’s military leader, General Pervez Musharraf. I assumed the official wanted every actual or potential terrorist thrown in jail. He shook his head; I didn’t get it at all.
“We don’t want them arrested,” the official said. “We want them e—.”
He interrupted himself. He was reconsidering his choice of words.
“Were you going to say, ‘exterminated’?” I asked.
He smiled uncomfortably.
“No. I was going to say, ‘eliminated.’”
I cannot disclose his name or the city where we met, but I can add one detail about my host: He was telling the truth. It is impolitic for U.S. officials to give their blessing on the record to regimes that skip judicial niceties and go directly to the gallows, but that is the reality of America’s war on terrorism. Due process is a rarity in most Muslim nations; police and courts are rotten with ineptness, corruption, torture, and meddling by political and religious authorities. When the White House urges a crackdown, as it frequently does in public statements and private meetings, it knows—and does not mind—that terrorism suspects are far more likely to face summary executions than fair trials.
Publicly, the administration pretends this isn’t true. “In the context of our counterterrorism efforts,” Secretary of State Colin Powell said after meeting his Asian and Pacific Rim counterparts at the end of July, “I made the point to all my interlocutors that we still believe strongly in human rights and that in everything we do we have to be consistent with the universal standards of human rights.” The next day Powell added, “The United States feels strongly about these sorts of issues and believes that if we are really going to prevail over this plague on the face of mankind, then we have to do it in a way that respects human dignity.”
Powell, who is a smart man, knows this is nonsense. Earlier this year, in a report titled “Rights at Risk,” Amnesty International warned that “the `war on terror’ may be degenerating into a global `dirty war’ of torture, detentions, and executions.” In a statement accompanying the report, which cited a pattern of abuses in Egypt, China, Malaysia, Turkey, and elsewhere, Amnesty International said, “A number of states have introduced new laws that violate human rights standards while others have used existing measures to crack down on opposition.” Says Peter Bouckaert, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, “The U.S. is facilitating these countries in committing torture to further its aims in the war on terror.”
Take Egypt, which is second only to Israel in the amount of aid it receives from the United States. Under President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is a brutocracy in which Islamic fundamentalists have in recent years been snuffed out in ways so unkind that even the State Department feels obliged, in its annual human rights reports, to criticize it. Mubarak’s regime has jailed several thousand Islamists without trial—some held for more than a decade—while hundreds of others have been convicted by military courts in which defendants’ rights are few. Since September 11, 2001, arrests and sham trials have been ramped up, according to human rights groups. This is not good news for the alleged perps because, as a 1996 U.N. report has noted, “torture is systematically practiced by the security forces in Egypt, in particular by State Security Intelligence.” Their preferred methods include electric shocks, whipping, suspension by the wrists or ankles, death threats, and threats of rape against male prisoners. Detainees occasionally die in custody due, as the authorities put it, to “a sharp drop in blood pressure.”
This is the environment into which, according to newspaper reports, the United States is discreetly transporting some of the terrorist suspects for interrogation. (Others have been transferred to Jordan and elsewhere.) “After September 11, these sorts of movements have been occurring all the time,” a U.S. diplomat told The Washington Post on March 11. “It allows us to get information from terrorists in a way we can’t do on U.S. soil.” As Powell put it in a remarkable statement on September 26, 2001, during the hot aftermath of the September 11 attacks: “Egypt, as all of us know, is really ahead of us on this issue. They have had to deal with acts of terrorism in recent years in the course of their history. And we have much to learn from them and there is much we can do together.”
It’s not surprising, then, that Mubarak is bubbling with satisfaction over the go-for-it signals he has received from Washington. “[W]e were right from the beginning in using all means, including military trials,” he said in a December interview with Al Gomhuriya, a state-owned newspaper in Cairo. “There is no doubt that the events of September 11 created a new concept of democracy that differs from the concept that Western states defended before these events, especially in regard to the freedom of the individual.”
Many Americans might agree (with apologies to Barry Goldwater) that Egyptian-style extremism in the name of anti-terrorism is no vice. They would be wrong. Not only for moral reasons but for pragmatic ones as well: Arbitrary arrests and executions, carried out by unloved governments at the bidding of the unloved United States, can lead to those governments being replaced by ones that support terrorists instead. The election in Pakistan in early October was a warning sign: A coalition of religious parties, which had never before fared well at the voting box, won a shocking 45 out of 272 available seats, making them the third-largest group in the National Assembly. Their campaign was based on explicit opposition to Musharraf’s support for America’s war on terrorism, almost every component of which—from ousting the Taliban in Afghanistan to rounding up Islamists in Karachi—has led the public to view their government as a puppet of Uncle Sam. It would not be terribly surprising if the October 12 terrorist bombing in Bali sparks a similar process in Indonesia, in which an abuse-laden crackdown by a moderate and inept government leads to a surge in support for Islamists. The United States cannot afford another round of blowback. If history teaches us anything—our support for anti-Soviet fighters in Afghanistan begat the post-Soviet chaos that led to the Taliban, which hosted Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, spawning Mohammed Atta and September 11—it is that unintended consequences matter.
Pakistan’s criminal justice system does not operate in a way that William Rehnquist or even Johnnie Cochran would recognize. If police cannot find a suspect—a common occurrence—they often lock up his family and wait for him to turn himself in. The police are, with the exception of elite units, ill-paid and corrupt. You can pay a police officer not to arrest you, or you can pay him to arrest someone else; you can pay him not to torture you or to torture someone else; if you offer suitable incentives, you can involve a police officer in a crime that you wish to commit; and if you wish to escape from jail, that can be arranged for a price, too. A police officer’s typical official salary is the equivalent of $30 per month—not enough, as Karachi’s police chief told me, to survive on.
Judges are generally made of the same gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight fiber as the police. When a judge in the Daniel Pearl kidnapping and murder case was asked to subpoena Yahoo for information—the kidnappers issued their demands through e-mail—he suggested the police just arrest “Mr. Yahoo.” In addition to ignorance, judges are vulnerable to intimidation. Since the police cannot assure anyone’s security, even their own, criminals know that a whispered threat will silence most witnesses and persuade most judges to modify their decisions. It is a vicious circle because police have little incentive to arrest criminals, or let them survive until trial, if they know a conviction is unlikely.
Pakistan has special anti-terrorism courts that were set up in 1997 and—in contrast to regular courts—are supposed to dispense swift and fair justice in cases that involve major crimes, especially sectarian murders and kidnappings. That’s the theory, at least. The trial of four of Pearl’s murderers was intended to showcase the system. But the case was transferred from one anti-terrorism judge to another and then another; and it involved a change of locale, from Karachi to Hyderabad, because of security concerns of every sort—for the defendants, the lawyers, the witnesses, the judge. The trial was finally held in a jail with no reporters present, and—although the defendants were convicted in July—the verdicts may be overturned on appeal due to evidence that emerged after the trial that indicated the men were not the principal killers.
Whether or not the kidnappers are released on appeal, the men who testified against them are in jeopardy. Jameel Yusuf, director of the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC), a private-sector crime-fighting group, now travels with an armed guard and varies the cars he drives so that colleagues of the men he helped to convict will have a harder time assassinating him. Yusuf met with Pearl just before he was kidnapped and later testified at the trial, prompting one of the defendants to call him a “Jewish agent”—tantamount to a death threat in Pakistan. “In this country you can be bumped off very easily,” he told me as we were driven to lunch at a private club. There was a police guard in the front seat of our car, and an unmarked car with more bodyguards followed us.
The upshot is that police in Pakistan, as in other judicially deficient nations, take shortcuts to what they consider justice. These days Pakistan faces enormous U.S. pressure for action against suspected terrorists because it has been a breeding ground for extremism for more than two decades, since the days of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Many Al Qaeda members have fled to Pakistan since the Taliban’s fall and have linked up with local militants who wish to destabilize Musharraf’s pro-U.S. regime. Since May, car bombs outside the Sheraton Hotel and the U.S. consulate in Karachi have killed more than two dozen foreigners and Pakistanis, and in August a school for the children of Christian missionaries was attacked outside of Islamabad.
In response to this escalation and to American pressure, Musharraf’s government has arrested some of the perpetrators, including key figures in Al Qaeda. It has also, according to Amnesty International, arrested hundreds of Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis without just cause. “The rule of law has been swept aside,” the group said in a June report. “Detainees are not treated in accordance with either Pakistani or international law. ... Who is being held where is unknown. Detainees are cut off from family and lawyers, and there are no official notices.”
If you want to know why these excesses occur, a look at Yusuf’s work is instructive. When he co-founded the CPLC in 1989, Karachi—a city with a population of approximately 12 million—was known as the “City of Death.” Every morning a few dozen corpses would be scattered around its streets, often with fatal wounds caused by unconventional instruments of torture, such as power drills. The city was a free-fire zone in which violent turf battles were fought among political parties, criminal gangs, and the police; the streets would empty at dusk, like Dodge City at the worst of times.
The police were worse than useless. They were such notorious shakedown artists that citizens were afraid to enter a precinct station to report a crime because they might be arrested or tortured by police trying to extort money from them. Kidnappings by criminal gangs seeking to gain lucrative ransoms from businessmen and their relatives reached epidemic levels because the police were incapable of catching the perpetrators and not terribly interested in doing so; families didn’t report abductions until after they paid the demanded ransom, fearing the police would botch any raids they attempted. Of course this fed the epidemic; kidnapping became an industry.
Enter Yusuf and the CPLC.
Under Yusuf’s direction, the CPLC adopted a ruthlessly efficient strategy of investigation, intimidation, and elimination. The CPLC was set up as a semi-official agency by the provincial government; its headquarters is located on prime government property in the city center. Yusuf—who owns a successful textile business and accepted the unpaid CPLC job because he is essentially a good Samaritan with the righteous anger of a vigilante—worked with army commandos and elite police officers, becoming, in effect, their unofficial leader. He is a short man with the don’t-mess-with-me mannerisms of a lion-tamer. His style of speech is not unlike the rhythm of a machine gun—there are short bursts and long bursts that stop as suddenly as they start, and just as you duck when bullets are flying, you listen when Yusuf is speaking.
During a lull in one of our chats, Yusuf pointed to my digital recorder, which was on his desk. He said that he has a digital recorder that looks like a pen. I asked to see it.
“I keep it here,” he said, tapping a pen/recorder on his desk.
“A spy device?” I asked.
“This is the type I want,” he replied. “You ask permission [to record]. We don’t ask permission. No laws to prevent us.”
“There are some,” I noted delicately.
“We misuse them,” he smiled. “That’s how we get a lower crime rate.”
In the early days of his work, when he wasn’t sure whom he could trust, Yusuf deployed his wife and teenage daughters on stakeouts; because Pakistan is a male-dominated society, kidnappers did not imagine that women would be used against them. Yusuf’s daughters, wearing scarves over their faces, would stand near drop-off points for ransom payments and provide descriptions of the kidnappers. At times his wife trailed the kidnappers in a car.
The core of Yusuf’s strategy was, as the euphemism goes, extra-legal. And it worked. According to CPLC figures, the number of abductions has dropped from 79 in 1990 to 13 in 2001. The reasons why this happened became clear as Yusuf described a case that occurred in October 2001, when two kidnappers were caught by police teams led by Yusuf and other CPLC members (most of whom are, like Yusuf, businessmen donating their time and risking their lives). A third member of their gang remained at large, along with the hostage, who was a businessman’s wife.
“When we get two guys, it is very nice, very easy,” Yusuf said, sitting in his modern office at the CPLC headquarters in downtown Karachi. Across the hallway were several rooms with modern computers and neatly dressed workers who would not have looked out of place in an American crime lab. (In most police stations in Pakistan, by contrast, you rarely see a computer.) Yusuf recalled that the kidnappers were taken to a nearby police station where he interrogated them. “One guy was weaker so he broke really fast. I told him, `Look, I am going to torture you so much that you might die. We don’t bother about that because we have two of you. Whether a man in custody dies or not, who cares? You better save your life. The earlier you speak up the better; otherwise let’s see how much torture you can take. If you die we will throw you out. Who cares?’”
Yusuf began chuckling, because, as he has been delighted to discover over the years, terrorists themselves can be terrorized quite easily.
“And then of course we promise him, `Look, we’ll feed you. Don’t do it again, alright? We’ll spare you if you promise on the Koran you won’t do anything after this.’ Oh, he is most happy. He thinks he’s going to be left [alone]. He says, `Alright, alright.’ We get some hot tea for him. So from the hard treatment you come to this state.”
The kidnappers were told to give a precise description of the house where their hostage was being held; not just its location but what it looked like, the number of entrances, the room in which the abductee was held, and so on. The kidnappers were then taken to the site with Yusuf, on the excuse that further help might be required. As it turned out, the third kidnapper left the house moments before Yusuf and his squad of police officers arrived, so the hostage was freed unhurt.
But the work was not finished. Karachi’s newspapers often report in crime stories that a suspected robber, kidnapper, or murderer was “killed in an encounter with police.” This tends to be shorthand for saying that the police dealt with the suspect in a summary manner, though as a courtesy they might permit the victim or a relative to deliver the coup de grace. “Encounters in our country have never been a problem, you know,” Yusuf said. “When a judiciary fails, extra-judicial systems take their place. It’s a very natural phenomenon, however bad you may feel about it. Everybody wants to protect their people.”
So what happened to the captured kidnappers? “Wiped out in the encounter, sadly,” Yusuf smiled. “That’s how it is. Look, in America you used to hang horse thieves.”
That’s true, but if you want to understand the downside of “justice” of that sort, all you need to do is go to the nearest video store and rent The Ox-Bow Incident, a classic western starring Henry Fonda in which three men accused of murder and cattle-rustling are captured by a lynch mob. As one of the posse members says in the film, “‘Cause the law’s slow and careless around here sometimes, we’re here to see it speeded up.” Fonda, who opposes the hanging, tells the posse leader, “All you know is you’ve lost something, and somebody’s got to be punished.” The three men are hanged, and, as it turns out, they were innocent.
But in today’s world, might not this unhappy trade-off be an acceptable price for security? I mentioned to Human Rights Watch’s Bouckaert that the unkind methods of justice, such as those used by Yusuf in his anti-kidnapping campaign, can work.
“I’m willing to take those arguments into account, but I don’t think we should accept their validity at face value,” he replied. “I can just as well say that it’s been proven time and time again that torture is not useful in interrogation, that it doesn’t lead to reliable information. Look at the Algerian civil war—[torture] led to an escalation of the conflict. The same thing for Zimbabwe’s civil war. Israel has been using these techniques for decades, and they certainly haven’t stopped terror attacks against Israel.
“I think that’s a fundamental error in the war on terrorism. The U.S. could take the moral high ground to distinguish its actions from the actions of the Russian government and Egyptian government, who have committed serious abuses that serve as prime recruiting propaganda for Osama bin Laden. His websites are filled with information about abuses by Russians in Chechnya and the Egyptians and Saudis. It would benefit the U.S. if it clearly distinguished itself from those abusive campaigns and said there is no need to commit torture and kill civilians.”
In fact, however, the Bush administration has yet to break a sweat promoting democracy in any country that is not spelled I-r-a-q or C-u-b-a. When Musharraf, who came to power in a coup, staged a crooked referendum in May that extended his rule by five years (one woman said she voted for him 60 times), the State Department had little to say. It has been almost as muffled about Mubarak’s crackdown on pro-democracy activists. (The United States decided not to increase aid in protest of Egypt’s imprisonment of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, but Cairo’s $2 billion in annual aid was never in jeopardy.) And you will need to be infinitely patient if you wish to hear a word of serious criticism from President Bush about the Russian army’s continuing violations in Chechnya. The White House has even refused to criticize Russian authorities for using chemical gas to end the siege of a Moscow theater by Chechen terrorists, which killed more than 100 hostages, including one American. “Given the fact that the terrorists were clearly serious and had already killed people, and apparently had the theater booby-trapped so all would die, it’s important to know what the full circumstances are before venturing further,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters Sunday.
All is not totally bleak, though. The FBI is increasing its presence in Pakistan and throughout the Muslim world, working with local police departments and security agencies as much as its hosts permit. This can improve the efficacy and fairness of faulty criminal justice systems. In Karachi, terrorist attacks have led to close cooperation between the FBI and the police department’s Criminal Investigation Division, an elite unit that focuses on terrorism, and that cooperation has helped produce some of the recent arrests of Al Qaeda members. The FBI has also agreed to train members of the Pakistani police department in the United States and to provide crime-fighting equipment, such as computer and telecommunications gear. Much more of this is needed throughout the Muslim world.
Senior police officials in Pakistan welcome their contacts with the G-men. I had lengthy conversations with Karachi’s top anti-terrorist investigator, who, it turned out, is a fan not only of the FBI but of movies about the FBI. When I happened to mention In the Line of Fire, which stars Clint Eastwood, the investigator corrected me, noting that the film is about a Secret Service agent. But the world of the FBI, and the world of due process, is far away from his; on his wall is a framed slogan that sums up the quandary of a good cop in a dysfunctional system: “We the willing, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.”
For the foreseeable future the war on terror in foreign lands will be waged by the faulty criminal justice systems that do exist, rather than the ones Powell wishes us to believe exist. The United States needs to be more honest about what our allies are doing, and we must do more to ensure that the eliminations we have urged upon them do not backfire. We have already seen, after all, where that leads.
The war-crimes tribunal in The Hague is supposed to put the bad guys behind bars. I never thought it would go after an American journalist. But last month the tribunal upheld a subpoena against Jonathan Randal, requiring him to testify about events he covered in Bosnia for The Washington Post. If the tribunal has any sense, it will rescind the subpoena and the threat of penalties that it implies.
Mr. Randal had spoken with Hague prosecutors and provided a written statement before they issued the subpoena. Such cooperation from reporters is unlikely to last if the tribunal turns to issuing unwarranted threats. When the tribunal contacted me to testify in another case, in 1997, I agreed to give evidence. This week a representative of the tribunal asked me to testify in an upcoming case, but I am hesitant to do so, mainly because of Mr. Randal’s experience.
The Randal subpoena is the latest example of journalists’ being drawn into legal efforts to punish war criminals as the Balkan and Rwanda tribunals quicken their pace. On Monday the statute establishing the International Criminal Court, which may also draw journalists into its proceedings, entered into force.
The attempts to offer justice to victims of genocide are one of the bright spots of our age. Most journalists — who are the people most likely to witness war crimes, other than the perpetrators and their victims — support war crimes investigations. I don’t believe journalists should be exempt from subpoenas. But in most cases the decision to testify should be the journalist’s, with exceptions made only in very rare circumstances that fall within published guidelines. Even The Washington Post’s lawyers, in trying to quash the Randal subpoena, acknowledged that in particular situations subpoenas might be warranted: for example, if a journalist’s testimony is absolutely vital and cooperation would not imperil him or his family and colleagues. The Post lawyers argued, unsuccessfully, that under those criteria the Randal subpoena should be withdrawn. Their request for an appeal hearing has been granted.
In 1997, prosecutors contacted me because five years earlier, as a reporter for The Washington Post, I had met with Milan Kovacevic, a warlord in Prijedor, a Serb-held town in Bosnia. Mr. Kovacevic had reluctantly agreed to let me and several other journalists visit the prison camps he presided over at Omarska and Trnopolje.
Mr. Kovacevic became the first war-crimes suspect arrested by Western peacekeepers in Bosnia and dispatched to the Hague. The prosecuting team said my testimony would be vital to showing his command over the camps. Because he had not killed or tortured with his own hands, demonstrating his overall command was the only way to convict him of crimes against humanity.
The tribunal’s request confronted me with an increasingly common set of quandaries. The main problem is that testifying at a war crimes tribunal could imperil a journalist’s safety or make it difficult to uncover future misdeeds. This is not a hypothetical debate. A friend of mine who reported extensively on the Balkan wars and continues to produce award-winning investigative stories from the region has been asked to testify in an ongoing case. If he testifies, he is likely to be in physical jeopardy on his next reporting trip to Serbia or Montenegro; alternatively, he will have to choose never to return there. Local journalists would have still fewer choices, since leaving is not always an option.
“On the one hand it’s our job to go to dangerous places to get the truth out,” my friend told me the other day. “We meet with unsavory characters, gain their trust and risk our lives to expose these things. So we’re sympathetic to anyone who’s trying to get at the truth and punish the guilty parties. On the other hand, the minute we are forced to submit to the court in a genocide prosecution, our independence and survival, professional or otherwise, could be at stake.”
Under what circumstances might a subpoena be warranted? Here’s a personal example: the journalists I was with in Prijedor included an American network television crew that filmed part of the meeting with Mr. Kovacevic. I was told by the prosecutors that the network did not wish to share its raw footage. Let’s suppose the tape was decisive evidence of genocide. If sharing it would not put anyone’s neck on the line, and if the network refused to cooperate, a subpoena might be acceptable.
In my case, if I had testified against Mr. Kovacevic, I would have been ill-advised to return to Prijedor and perhaps anywhere in Serb-held parts of Bosnia. But I could live with those restrictions; only a small portion of my current professional life is spent in the former Yugoslavia, and if it were reduced further, I wouldn’t suffer or mind that much.
I was not swayed by the argument, made by maximalists in the press-freedom camp, that any cooperation would degrade my profession’s independence and make it harder for journalists to gain access to war zones. In truth, warlords already regard foreign journalists as agents of their governments. The prospect of a war-crimes indictment several years down the road is very low on the list of concerns for such people.
In the end, I agreed to testify. Three weeks into the trial, and before I was scheduled to enter the witness box, Mr. Kovacevic died of a massive heart attack. Now I am faced with a second request, in a new case, but this time from a tribunal that has shown its willingness to intimidate a journalist into testifying. I hope that the appellate panel will decide that issuing the subpoena to Mr. Randal was an error. In the meantime, I’ll keep my distance.
My chakras are shot. I know because Tomaz Humar has just checked them.
We’re getting ready for a hike in Slovenia’s Kamnik-Savinja Alps, sitting in Tomaz’s Volkswagen Golf in a patch of forest below the limestone face of 6,014-foot Mount Rzenik, where Tomaz first learned to climb. He pulls a tear-shaped pendant from his pocket and swings it over a small, colorful chart shaped like a dartboard and overlaid with numbers. When he checks my chakras, the pendant hovers at the low thirties. Tomaz checks his own: sixties. He considers the results.
“We don’t have much time,” he says, “but I’ll cleanse you.”
Before embarking on any venture with Tomaz Humar, your chakras should be in overdrive. With more than 1,200 ascents to his credit and 60 solos of new routes, the 33-year-old Slovenian has earned a reputation as the best-or maybe just the craziest-high-altitude climber in the world. Tomaz takes risks no other climber would consider; he endures suffering best classified as biblical. At mountaineering conferences where he gives his slide show and lecture, you can hear the collective gasp of the world’s top alpinists when they look at what he’s done in the planet’s toughest ranges, particularly the Himalayas.
Here’s Tomaz on 26,504-foot Annapurna I in Nepal in 1995, summiting alone in a blizzard as his expedition leader yells over the radio for him to turn back. Here he is in 1997, downclimbing the west face of another Nepalese peak, 25,770-foot Nuptse, in the dark, after his partner was blown off the summit (and before Tomaz accidentally set his own tent on fire). Here he is on his American vacation in 1998, scaling Reticent Wall, one of El Capitan’s hardest routes, on his first big-wall climb. Here is the suicidal route he took up Dhaulagiri’s south face in 1999-equipped with just three camming devices, four ice screws, five pitons, and a single 148-foot rope. Here he is midclimb on Dhaulagiri, prying the filling out of an infected tooth with his Swiss Army knife.
The south face of Nepal’s 26,810-foot Dhaulagiri is among the longest and highest faces in the world, a concave nightmare of loose granite and overhanging seracs that starts at 13,123 feet and rises another 13,000 terrifying feet to the summit. Two Eastern European teams had made ascents of the face: a Yugoslavian group in 1981 and a Polish expedition in 1986. Tomaz soloed it, on a new route, climbing long stretches without any protection at all. The mountaineering world was stunned. A Slovenian kid on his eighth Himalayan expedition had pulled off the most audacious achievement in a decade.
In Slovenia, a tiny Eastern European nation whose two million citizens love adventure sports, Tomaz became a god. He wrote a popular coffee-table memoir, No Impossible Ways; was named 1999 athlete of the year; and received the Honorary Emblem of Freedom from President Milan Kucan. Today, if you send a postcard to “Tomaz Humar, Slovenia,” he’ll receive it.
Nearly a year after Dhaulagiri, however, Tomaz suffered an accident that almost killed him. On the evening of October 30, 2000, less than two weeks before he was due to give the keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Alpine Club in Denver, the man who’d just established climbing’s new benchmark stumbled into a ten-foot construction pit.
Tomaz was building a house in Kamnik for his family-his wife, Sergeja, their ten-year-old daughter, Ursa, and six-year-old son, Tomaz. In the early-evening darkness, Tomaz was taking care of last-minute chores with the construction foreman and didn’t notice his future basement until he fell into it. When he came to, at the bottom of the pit, he felt something heavy lying on him. It was his own right leg. His left heel and right femur were shattered. He almost died from blood loss. The surgeons who operated on him thought he might never walk again. As for climbing-forget it.
Now, a year and six operations later, Tomaz stands at the base of Rzenik, his shattered bones fused by titanium rods and plates, looking not at all like a great climber. His face is not weatherbeaten; he is neither lanky nor muscular. What he mostly looks like is a Wal-Mart assistant manager. Still, there’s no mistaking his drive. He only recently traded his wheelchair for crutches, but their rubber tips are already worn down from manic and punishing use; Humar’s crutches need crutches. It is with these that he intends to hobble up the rockfall below Reznik’s face.
But first there’s my chakra problem.
“Don’t move,” Tomaz says.
He traces his right hand over my body, an inch or two above my flesh. He flicks his hand, as though shaking water from it. Then he repeats the routine with his left hand-without the flicking, because this time he’s putting good mojo in. His mojo.
He measures me again: My chakras are in the forties. “That’s better,” he says. “If we had more time I could do more, but it takes a lot of energy from me, and we should get going.”
We head through the forest, Tomaz leading. His lurching gait is painful to watch, a cross between Frankenstein and a penguin. This is his first walk in the mountains since his fall. He has not told his doctors or his wife, because if he slips he goes straight back into the wheelchair.
“Look,” Tomaz says. “Look at that rock!”
He points a crutch at a chunk of quartz jutting out of the ground. He bends down and places a hand on the stone.
“It has a lot of energy,” he says. “I can feel it.”
EVEN AMONG RISK-LOVING mountaineers, there are insane levels of danger that 99.9 percent of climbers won’t accept. The other 0.1 percent tend to come from Eastern Europe. They have names like Kukuczka, Wielicki, Groselj, Jeglic, or Belak. They share a fanatical and almost comical embrace of suffering.
“A huge chunk of the sickest climbers in the Himalayas are Polish, Russian, Czech, or Slovenian,” says American big-wall climber Mark Synnott, 32. “They’re hard-core. Everyone knows that. You can tell when you meet them.”
This toughness is rooted in history, of course. Eighty years of Lenin, Stalin, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, regional conflicts, and ethnic cleansing have produced durable people. For the survivors who emerged from the rubble of communism, a long and happy life is not an entitlement, but an exception. The prospect of getting killed in the mountains is simply not as tragic for a climber from Minsk as it is for a climber from Boulder.
“In the West, the art of rock climbing is growing because it has to do with less risk, good muscles,” says Reinhold Messner, 57, the first man to climb (and then to solo) 29,028-foot Mount Everest without oxygen and to summit the world’s fourteen 8,000-meter peaks. “But the people seeking high goals in high places are in Eastern Europe, and they reach their goals because they are willing to suffer more.”
And willing to do more to escape. During the Cold War, Eastern Bloc climbers were on the same short leash as everybody else. They couldn’t travel without government permission, and so, when state-sponsored clubs mounted expeditions to the Himalayas, competition was fierce. “If you’re in a club and your ticket to an annual trip to Tian Shan is by staying on that team, you’re going to do far more to stay on that team,” notes American alpinist Carlos Buhler, 47. “In our system, anybody can go to Tian Shan who wants to bang nails for a month to earn enough money to go there.”
Some of the greatest modern climbers have come from the former Soviet Union and Poland-Russian Anatoli Boukreev and Pole Jerzy Kukuczka, both killed in the Himalayas-but starting in 1991, when Slovenia won its independence from Yugoslavia, Slovenian mountaineers came on strong, with fast-and-light ascents up dangerous faces that have astonished even the Great One himself. “The Slovenians are the very best climbers in the world,” Messner says matter-of-factly. “They are young, and they are hungry for difficult things. I like them.”
Slovenian achievements in Nepal alone include new routes up the west ridge of Everest and the south face of 27,824-foot Makalu, solo ascents of the south face of 27,923-foot Lhotse and the west face of Annapurna, and the first complete ski descents of both Annapurna and Mount Everest. Slovenian casualties have piled up as well. Among those who’ve died in the past seven years are Slavc Sveticic, who soloed Annapurna’s west face; Stane Belak, Tomaz’s first mentor; Vanja Furlan, who climbed Nepal’s Ama Dablam with Tomaz; and Janez Jeglic, Tomaz’s partner on Nuptse-until he was blown off the summit.
Tomaz, however, has managed to live through some of the riskiest climbs ever attempted. “At the moment, Humar is the greatest high-altitude climber of the world,” Messner says. “His power is in surviving in very difficult situations on huge walls. What he has done is special. I know these walls, and they are very difficult, especially Dhaulagiri.” When Tomaz flew home from Dhaulagiri, Messner was among the throng of admirers at the Ljubljana airport. He’d come to Slovenia to congratulate the young man who was leading climbing back to its essence.
“The climbs Tomaz has done in the Himalayas in the last five years have set an entirely new standard for danger combined with difficulty-and probably danger before the difficulty,” echoes Ed Webster, 46, whose 1988 four-man ascent of Everest’s east face was as audacious in its day as Dhaulagiri.
“It’s almost a shame when one person alone raises the bar so high, because people might classify him in the freaky, sci-fi category,” says American climber Mark Twight, 40, who specializes in extreme alpine ascents. “Dhaulagiri-I don’t think anyone considered going up it by himself. Climbers are not prepared for that kind of difficulty, in that length of time, in those conditions. The great evolutionary steps in climbing take place because of people expanding their psychological capacity. We can improve our gear and our training, but it doesn’t matter unless you can see with enough clarity what is possible. The rest of us just aren’t seeing what he is.”
So what exactly does Tomaz see? That’s a mystery to everyone. “I’ve climbed Dhaulagiri,” says Buhler. “I know the energy it takes to go up the northeast ridge. The south face-I’ve never been on it. I’ve looked down on it. I’ve climbed with people who have attempted it. My reaction is-OK, you’re standing at the bottom, and you launch yourself up that route. Where did that energy come from? Where did he get that push?”
THE ANSWER STARTS IN KAMNIK. One day Tomaz and I drive into the countryside in his Golf, a gift from a local car dealership. The car’s sides are plastered with his name and likeness, which would be like Madonna tooling around Beverly Hills with her naked body painted on a Porsche. People stare in shock as we pass.
We pull up to a house under construction. An old couple, dressed in neat, well-worn clothes, are puttering around the site-Tomaz’s mother and father, Rozalija and Max.
His father shakes my hand with an unusually strong grip for a short, wiry man in his seventies. I already know the feeling: When Tomaz shakes your hand, your knuckles crack.
The house is being built for one of Tomaz’s younger brothers (he has two, Marjan and Mataj), and the construction crew stands before us: their parents. Trained as a shoemaker, Max Humar has worked construction his entire life, and though he is retired, you wouldn’t know it. I ask him if he has trouble hoisting the 60-pound cinder blocks that the house is being built with.
“No, why would I?” the old man replies. “I get more pleasure from working than lying on a beach. I never sit around the house. That’s for people who are sick.”
Max Humar knew hunger and misery during World War II. In 1967, before he was married, he escaped the Iron Curtain by fleeing over the rugged Kamnik Alps to Austria, but changed his mind once he arrived, turned himself in to the Austrian police, and was sent home. Humar has always expected his children to work hard. When houses were built for family or friends, the boys pitched in, lugging 100-pound sacks of cement.
I’m shown photos of a boy on a scaffold.
“I was seven years old,” Tomaz says.
“You were six,” his father replies, sternly.
“Was he a good worker?” I ask.
“He never complained,” his father says.
I ask if it was odd for six-year-olds to work construction.
“It was normal,” Max says. “We didn’t have much money. We couldn’t pay for workers. That’s what children are for.”
He turns to Tomaz. “What kind of question was that?”
Tomaz and his brothers slept in an unheated attic room, sharing a pull-out sofa. Their mother tells me that her sons could sleep in the living room only if the outside temperature fell below 14 degrees. “So what if they were cold?” his dad says.
These days Tomaz admires his father, but they used to be at war. “He wanted me to be a normal guy, and I wanted to be free,” Tomaz tells me later. “We didn’t talk. He would work, and when he wasn’t working we would fight. So better not to talk.”
Fury has its uses. Tomaz blew off steam in the Kamnik Alps. The angry young man joined the Kamnik Alpine Club in 1987, climbing under Bojan Pollak, a legendary instructor and a stickler for detail. In his first year, Tomaz was not permitted to wear climbing shoes; he graduated from sneakers to clunky boots weighing several pounds apiece. Pollak sent him on overnight climbs without a sleeping bag, without enough water or food, and insisted he bivouac on the most exposed ledge.
In 1989, when Tomaz was 20, his apprenticeship was interrupted by the Yugoslav National Army, which sent him to Kosovo. At the time, the province was under Serb control, though 90 percent of its inhabitants were ethnic Albanians who despised Serb rule. Tomaz served a brutal and rotten enterprise that he knew was brutal and rotten, and he tried to desert many times.
His description of those thwarted escapes is convoluted, because Tomaz is not a linear individual; he jumps back and forth from one idea to another, one time to another. He spoke of hiding in a ditch and being found out, of hiding in a latrine, of being stuck in a trench with a chronic masturbator, of threatening an officer, of his commander telling him, “You’re never going home, coward, you’re mine for the rest of your life.”
But after a year, Tomaz was given permission to go. He walked to a Kosovo train station in moldy, maggot-ridden combat gear and begged a ticket out. “When I came home I was a real animal,” he told me. “OK, I was not normal before, but after Kosovo I was a total fool.”
“What do you mean?”
“Before army, I was an unusual guy,” he said. “The army made me more unusual.”
This time, when Tomaz escaped to the hills, he climbed alone, at a blistering pace, opening new routes, stealing his father’s hammer to pound pitons. He climbed beyond the supervising gaze of wiser alpinists like Pollak.
“I did some crazy things in those times,” Tomaz says. “Crazier than Dhaulagiri.”
TOMAZ GOT HIS FIRST SHOT at the Himalayas in 1994. He was 25, and had been married since 1991 to Sergeja Jersin, whom he’d met after Kosovo. Their daughter, Ursa, was two years old.
The expedition was to Ganesh V, a technically difficult 22,920-foot peak in Nepal, and was led by Slovenian legend Stane Belak. Only two climbers summited: Belak and Tomaz. Belak became Tomaz’s first Himalayan mentor-until the next year, when he died in an avalanche in Slovenia’s Julian Alps.
It was Tomaz’s next expedition, to Annapurna I in 1995, that made his name. He reached Camp 3, at 21,325 feet, with Mexican climber Carlos Carsolio and Davo and Drejc Karnicar, Slovenian brothers making a first descent on skis. But there wasn’t enough food for everyone, and the Karnicars, with greater seniority, preferred to summit with Carsolio. Tomaz was disgusted but followed orders and went down.
At base camp he fumed and gained permission from the expedition leader, Slovenian Tone Skarja, to make another summit bid. His climbing partner fell ill and turned around, but just before nightfall, in whiteout conditions, Tomaz and Arjun Sherpa found Camp 4 at 24,000 feet. Then a storm nearly swept the tent away. Forget about the summit, Skarja ordered. Get down.
Tomaz switched off the radio. The next morning he headed for the top. After 100 yards, Arjun turned back-another storm was bearing down. Tomaz continued, alone, plowing through waist-high snowdrifts, to the 26,504-foot summit.
The Slovenian climbing world realized a prodigy was born-a kid who could keep up with Belak on Ganesh and who could summit Annapurna on his own. But the kid had a problem. You don’t disobey Tone Skarja. Bolting for the top was like a rookie quarterback telling Vince Lombardi to go to hell.
Tomaz knew he wasn’t a team player, and he wasn’t especially worried about it. The next year, 1996, he and another Slovenian upstart, Vanja Furlan, decided to try a first ascent of the 5,400-foot northwest face of 22,493-foot Ama Dablam. Their ascent, says Ed Webster, was “outlandish.” At one point Furlan fell, but after 15 feet was saved by Tomaz’s belay. The next day the bag that held their ice gear fell away-gone. Now the only way was up. The radio didn’t work well enough for them to understand directions from base camp, so they climbed blind. Tomaz climbed without gloves; the holds were too fine to do otherwise. The two climbed much of the way unroped, because roping would have slowed them down. They made it in five days.
Tomaz had joined the elite of a very elite world, and both the risks and potential costs had escalated. While Tomaz was climbing Ama Dablam, Sergeja gave birth to a boy, on April 26. When Tomaz junior was just a few months old, Tomaz received word that Vanja Furlan had fallen to his death in the Julian Alps.
TOMAZ’S CLIMBS are so stunning that it’s hard to find a logical explanation for them. He says it’s simple-his spirituality makes the difference. “Every rock face breathes life with its lungs and emanates an energy that is proper only to itself,” he writes in No Impossible Ways. “You feel this energy in particular when you climb the face.” On Dhaulagiri, he says, he talked to the mountain and the mountain talked to him. When he put his hand on its flank he felt a pulse, and he knew, even before a serac fell, that it was going to fall. The mountain warned him.
Tomaz’s first true spiritual test came on the Nepalese peak Nuptse. After Ama Dablam, Tomaz soloed the northwest face of Nepal’s 22,336-foot Bobaye and then climbed two more Nepalese peaks: 20,075-foot Lobuche East with Carlos Carsolio, by now his favorite partner, and 23,494-foot Pumori, with Carsolio and Slovenians Marjan Kovac and Janez Jeglic. Jeglic was considered the country’s best climber, and he and Tomaz cooked up an ambitious plan to establish a new route up 25,770-foot Nuptse, straight up the 8,200-foot west face.
They left base camp on October 27, 1997, and after two days were within 3,200 feet of the summit. They hacked out a tiny ledge and pitched their tent in a storm. That night, Tomaz woke up with a headache that felt like an anvil had landed on his forehead, which was strange. He never got altitude headaches. He turned on his headlamp and discovered that the tent had collapsed under avalanched snow; his head was being crushed.
Tomaz and Jeglic also made the unfortunate discovery that their stove had a gas leak. With that vital piece of equipment falling apart, they decided to make a lunge for the summit-3,200 feet up the wall, 3,200 feet down, in one quick push. They began their assault at four in the morning, climbing unroped on separate paths-simultaneous solos. By mid-morning, at 24,600 feet, they were together again. Base camp radioed that storm clouds were approaching from Everest in the west; a strong gale was already flailing the ridge.
“Let’s climb until two,” Tomaz told Jeglic. “If we make it to the top, we take pictures and then step on it and get down.”
Jeglic reached the summit first and waved his ice ax. Thirty minutes later, Tomaz arrived. The winds were huge, and Jeglic (whom Humar often referred to by his nickname, Johan) was nowhere in sight.
“I’m met by the gale and footprints leading toward the south side of the ridge,” Tomaz recalled, “but no Johan. Maybe he’s gone to have a look around. I follow his tracks, cursing and grumbling: Where does he think he’s going in this weather? The gale is blowing in gusts when I reach the last footprints. I collapse on the ground. No trace of him anywhere. He just disappeared. I start bellowing into the hurricane force wind: Johan! Johan!”
There was no answer: Jeglic had been blown off the top.
Tomaz was distraught and disoriented. His mates in base camp pleaded with him to get off the summit. But he’d lost his goggles. The cold had destroyed the batteries in his headlamp. He was alone, in the dark, without his partner, lost in a maze of ice and rocks. His throat filled with phlegm and blood.
Base camp blared music over the radio-anything to keep Tomaz awake as he hacked blindly down the 3,000 vertical feet with ice ax and crampons, craning into the void for the tiny spot that might be his tent. Eleven hours later, he found it and collapsed. He tried to light the stove, but couldn’t. He dozed off, and woke surrounded by flames-the stove had worked after all. His tent and sleeping bag were half gone.
Two days later, Tomaz struggled off the face. But the ordeal wasn’t over. In Slovenia, he was seen as a villain in the eyes of many climbers, who blamed him for Jeglic’s death. The beloved hero had died; the dangerous upstart had lived.
Tomaz is still controversial among many of Slovenia’s climbing elite, who regard him as too interested in publicity and not as skilled as he would have people believe. He does not attend meetings at the Kamnik Alpine Club, nor does he sit on its governing board.
“Tomaz presents himself like a kind of god, or a person who has personal contact with some spirits who are preserving him,” says Marko Prezelj, 36, a top Slovenian climber who heads the club. “If you think like that and climb like that, either you really have contact with ghosts or you have a lot of luck.”
Beyond a curt hello, Tomaz is not on speaking terms with Prezelj. He thinks the falling-out he’s had with other Slovenian climbers began the moment Jeglic was swept off Nuptse.
“His death was like cutting off my arm,” Tomaz told me. “We talked a lot about our climb. We knew how dangerous it was. I said, ‘Janez, if I die on Nuptse don’t think about being guilty for me, and I will do the same.’”
“Janez was the god of climbing.”
“They think the wrong man came back from Nuptse.”
I’VE BEEN HANGING OUT with Tomaz for nearly two weeks, and he has not stopped talking. He talks about his father, Kamnik, George Bush, environmentalism, abortion, Dhaulagiri, meditation, war, food, wine, Yosemite, hang-gliding, paragliding, Slobodan Milosevic, country music, the Internet, pitons, and prosciutto. If we are in the car and I happen to fall asleep, he nudges me awake to tell me more.
I’ve come to realize that being with Tomaz is not unlike hanging out with a hyperactive child. One day we watch an unemployed electrician demonstrate a new sport he has created-“stone skiing”-on a slope of cast-off pebbles from a cement factory. Another afternoon we set off on a bike ride and end up at the home of Tomaz’s reflexologist, Jana Prezelj, a plump and jolly woman he calls his “spiritual mother.” The evening that ensues involves prodigious quantities of wine and schnapps, a guy singing and playing a tuba, the reflexologist standing on her head and clapping with her feet, and her husband playing a didgeridoo, the wooden horn used by the Australian aborigines, as Tomaz throws open his arms, tilts his head back, and lets the vibes seep into his heart chakra.
But there are times when the solitary Tomaz emerges. One afternoon he leads me to a lookout tower in the Kamnik Alps. It’s a rickety wooden thing, but it soars above the trees and gives us a clear, 360-degree view of the rock faces around us. Wind shakes the tower, but Tomaz stands with his hands on his hips, like a commander in a barrage.
“The higher I am, the more comfortable I feel,” he says, his voice echoing. “I don’t really start breathing until 5,000 meters. I need the air. I’m an Aquarius-a man who needs to be free.”
On the way home, Tomaz and I stop off at a nearby pub, where we find two of his climbing buddies, Robert Policnik and Damjan Kochar, both in their midtwenties. Beers are ordered, and after a few rounds Tomaz and Damjan drift off to the men’s room and I hear loud voices. Damjan is one of the best sport climbers in Kamnik-better than Tomaz, though he doesn’t have Tomaz’s intensity or his spirituality. Apparently that’s what they’re discussing in the men’s room-more precisely, it’s what Tomaz is lecturing loudly about while Damjan listens.
Damjan’s flaw, if it can be described that way, is that he prefers to be attached to a rope and to climb with a partner. Policnik-Poli, as he’s known-has the long arms of a spider, and it’s easy to imagine him scaling a Himalayan face. I ask why Tomaz climbed Dhaulagiri and he didn’t.
Poli stares at his beer for a long time.
“Tomaz is…” He stares deeper at his beer.
“I can’t find the word.” He smiles. “Tomaz is vicious.”
“Aren’t you vicious?” I ask.
“Small vicious,” he replies.
“Would you like to be vicious like Tomaz?”
The beer stare again. “It’s suicide, almost.”
When Tomaz decided to solo the south face of Dhaulagiri, even Bojan Pollak worried. One afternoon, Tomaz and I idle away a few hours with his old instructor, drinking homemade blueberry schnapps outside a mountaintop cabin. A bee has just dive-bombed into Tomaz’s glass, and he downs the contents in a single gulp, leaving the drunken bee. It’s classic Tomaz-pulling off something only he could do, and finishing with a loud laugh, as if to say, “And you doubted me?”
Tomaz reveres Pollak’s judgment, because Pollak, now 58, is steady and thoughtful. “Tomaz knows himself better than we do,” Pollak says. “We can’t tell him not to go. If we told him not to go, he might lose confidence, and that could be dangerous.”
He looks at Tomaz and smiles.
“But Tomaz did not ask if we thought he should go. He said he would go. We gave him only a 50-50 chance to survive Dhaulagiri. We trusted him, but not nature.”
Later, I ask Tomaz if he was surprised by Pollak’s odds.
“I think it was less,” he replies. “Maybe 20 percent.”
And once more, the laugh.
THE CALL FROM DHAULAGIRI came in spring 1999. Tomaz was hanging around Kamnik, enjoying his life, and then it hit him.
“I could not believe it at first, but the call grew stronger with every passing day,” he recalls in No Impossible Ways. “It was at the same time the most terrifying and the most blissful moment of my mountaineering career, a moment I had been waiting for these last five years. Dhaula had finally called, and I knew I had to mount the expedition that same fall.”
For Tomaz, it would be a one-way ticket: He’d either make it to the top and down an easier route, or perish. It would be impossible to downclimb over the face’s ice seracs. Three doctors refused to join his support team; they didn’t want to watch a suicide by climbing. Tomaz himself cried as he left his kids.
The trip seemed more farce than expedition. A feud with the Alpine Association of Slovenia had frozen Tomaz out of funding, so his main sponsor, the Slovenian cell-phone company Mobitel, picked up the tab. Most of his gear got stuck in the Vienna airport; when he got to Dhaulagiri to begin his acclimatization on September 26, he realized he had not brought enough food. The weather was atrocious; storm after storm hit the area, costing two of the world’s best climbers their lives-Alex Lowe, on 26,291-foot Shishapangma on October 5, and Briton Ginette Harrison on Dhaulagiri itself on October 24.
Tomaz started climbing on October 25. He went to a shrine to pray, then walked to the bottom of the south face with his old friend Stipe Bozic, 51, Croatia’s top climber, who would stay at base camp to film the ascent. As the two parted ways, an avalanche roared down the main couloir of the face.
His pack weighed more than 110 pounds-food, stove, fuel, pitons, carabiners, sleeping bag, slings, and a five-millimeter rope, just 148 feet long, which would be used not for self-belay but to move his gear. The only luxury he allowed himself was one of his son’s sneakers, clipped with a carabiner to his pack.
Progress was slow the first 24 hours, despite a full moon. Icicles broke from seracs, pummeling him; cold water flowed down cracks, soaking him; avalanches forced him to squeeze against the face. He named the seracs that hung like daggers above him-Guillotine, Praying Mantis. On the second day he heard Guillotine crack and flattened himself on the wall as niagaras of ice, rock, and snow hurtled past.
“How are you? Are you OK?” Bozic yelled over the radio.
“You need some adrenaline?” Tomaz replied. “I’ve got a serious surplus here.”
Tomaz’s back and arms became covered in welts and bruises. An ice block crashed into his leg, and he thought it was broken. Blood soaked through his gloves, staining the snow.
On the fifth night, after covering two vertical miles, Tomaz got a toothache. He lay awake most of the night. In the morning, he went to work with his Swiss Army knife, prying a filling from the infected tooth-this, after some minutes spent laboring on the wrong one.
Things became, if possible, worse. A shelf at 23,000 feet forced him to traverse 3,200 feet to the Japanese Ridge (the southeast ridge); he spent a night there at 24,000 feet and in the morning left most of his gear behind and traversed back. At 25,400 feet he actually dry-tooled, unroped, up 600 feet of loose granite, using his ice-ax and crampons to climb the bare rock. He was now within a few hundred meters of the summit. He bivouacked in the open, exposed, at 25,600 feet, on a ledge cut from the ice. For the second night his stove didn’t work; he had no water, little food. He had been on the face for eight days.
Try to imagine that bivouac. You are alone, breathing air so thin that it’s slowly killing you; you’re without tent or stove; your body is a frostbitten and dehydrated bruise; you’re beyond rescue. How do you survive, not just physically, but mentally?
Tomaz’s answer: “We can control our heartbeat, which in cold, drawn-out bivouacs is preferably as slow as possible,” he writes in his book. “It is necessary to disconnect the arms and the legs and draw most of one’s blood into the core of the body and the head. We switch to other dimensions. We become insensitive to pain, cold, wind, homesickness, thirst, hunger. Instead of having dinner we separate from the physical world. But the further you go into the world where there are no reasons or consequences, points of the compass, time points like yesterday or today, where you only are-the harder it is to return. The reentry into the body is usually accompanied by pain.”
On the ninth day, November 2, waking up at 25,600 feet, he struggled toward the summit. He took off his pack and filled his pockets with essentials-radio, camera, energy bars, one ice screw, one sling, the map of his descent route, family photos, a picture of the Virgin Mary, and his son’s little shoe.
The weather worsened. Over the radio, base camp read messages of encouragement that Slovenians were sending to his Web site, www.humar.com, which was getting nearly two million hits a day. But then Bozic, who knew that even Tomaz has limits, got on the radio. “No one has ever done that before,” he said, referring to Tomaz’s solo route. “It’s time to start thinking about descending.”
Tomaz looked up at the summit, where a gale was gathering force. He took out a photograph of his son and, in his exhausted, depleted state, clearly saw young Tomaz crooking his finger out of the picture, saying, “Come home, Daddy.”
“At that moment,” he writes, “I realize in a flash: You’re going to die! If you go on, you’re going to die.” He turned around.
“For the first time in my life, I realize that if I’m pig-headed, the end is waiting for me at the top,” Tomaz recalls in his book. “Dhaula had let me have the face but not the summit.”
TOMAZ’S ASCENT OF DHAULAGIRI WAS, as mountaineers say, not a climb for a married man. One day I sat with Tomaz and Sergeja in the family living room, surrounded by the spiritual tokens of their lives-crystals, Buddhist sculptures, figurines of the Virgin Mary, a picture of Indian guru Sai Baba. Tomaz interpreted when Sergeja had trouble finding the right word in English, and, being Tomaz, he jumped in with questions of his own.
Sergeja is, if anything, more spiritual than Tomaz. She has walked on burning coals, which Tomaz won’t do. She speaks in a dreamy, Sissy Spacek way, and when I asked what seemed a natural question-isn’t it rather difficult to be married to Tomaz?-she replied that it was hard in the first few years but now it’s different.
“I need this,” she said. “He’s my therapy. Hard therapy. I chose him as Jesus chose the cross. By carrying this cross, I grow spiritually. I can’t grow without it.”
Surely life would be easier with a normal guy?
“I would die,” she replied. “I would rather not be married.”
Sergeja sees things before Tomaz does. She knew, after Dhaulagiri, that a disaster was in the offing. Tomaz was a hero: The phone rang constantly, and Tomaz, who sees life as a big candy store, could never say no. Everyone wanted to know what he would climb next. Sergeja feared for his life, knowing he would push harder on the next climb. There is a law of nature in the climbing world-no individual or nation can remain the best forever, because the more you try to accomplish, the more likely it is that you will die. Sergeja knows this. The man she lived with before Tomaz, Danilo Golob, was killed climbing.
When Tomaz fell into the construction pit, he didn’t imagine any good would come of it. Sergeja knew better. It forced him to stop and think. Among the surprising things that have happened, his bond with his father has changed from spite to admiration, because Tomaz realized that the salt-of-the-earth stubbornness he despised in his father is the same thing that gets him up a mountain face.
“The fall was a gift for Tomaz,” Sergeja said. “On the third day when he was in the hospital, I told him that it was a gift. He didn’t understand. But we both knew it would happen. He had to fall into darkness to see the light again.”
“Yes, yes,” Tomaz said.
He turned to her.
“What do you think? Will I climb again?”
“Certainly,” Sergeja replied.
She looked at me.
“He must go. He must live for this. If you really love something, you must be ready to die for it.”
WE ARE A FEW HUNDRED YARDS from the base of Rzenik. Tomaz turns left, off the rockfall, and crutches up a small hill. The last 50 yards is steep and covered with loose grass, and the crutches are useless, so Tomaz throws them aside. He pulls himself forward, crawling now.
He is grunting like an angry bull. As clods of earth dislodge in his hands, he throws them away, wildly; one hits me in the face. I don’t know what’s fueling him, whether it’s the pain in his legs or the frustration of being reduced to crawling up a little hill, but the mental switch has been flipped.
We reach the top, which offers a clear view of Rzenik. It is not a classically beautiful mountain, with a well-defined peak, but it has a multitude of cracks and crevasses and ledges, a lifetime of problems for a young climber.
Tomaz is quiet. The silence lasts ten minutes, an eternity.
“This is my starting point, my meditation place,” he finally says. “Here I get all the answers. Here the Himalayan voices called me. Here I taught myself everything. And when I come back here after the Himalayas, I see nothing has changed. I am still like this”-he places his forefinger next to his thumb-“small. And this place is still huge. When you ask where I get my power, that’s it.” He points at the mountain.
He talks a bit more, but the day is ending and the wind is picking up. It is time to head down. Tomaz grimaces as he stands, and he is unsteady. Everyone wants to know if he will climb again. At the moment, he is learning to walk.
The lure of the Himalayas is still with Tomaz Humar. There are so many faces out there, and who knows which one will call out to him at night. Two months after our Rzenik climb, Tomaz headlined at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, North America’s premiere showcase of adventure documentaries. He’d thrown away his crutches, defying doctor’s orders, and was hobbling around with his old friend Carlos Carsolio. Ed Webster was there, too; it was the first time he’d met Tomaz, and so he showed him his Everest memoir, Snow in the Kingdom, which included pictures of the north face of Lhotse, a 10,000-foot vertical that’s never been climbed, never even been attempted. Tomaz called Carsolio over. “Carlos, look at this,” he said. “I told you this would go, I told you this could be climbed.”
Webster was amazed. “Tomaz immediately began picking out the weaknesses of the route and the exact time of day that you’d need to go through each area,” Webster says. “He was ecstatic that here was one of the great walls that hadn’t been climbed and that he could do it. I was just shaking my head that here was a climber who had a scary combination of the vision and the technical ability to pull it off. That was when he looked over at me and gave me one of those piercing looks and said, ‘This is a one-way-ticket climb.’”
For now, one-way-tickets are a long way off. This spring I caught up with Tomaz on the phone, and he was with his best childhood friend, Tomo Drolec. They had just finished a climb and were laughing about it, and Tomaz said that it was time for a beer or two. He had started ice climbing a few months earlier, he explained, and now he was rock climbing, too. He said that he would climb a 1,000-foot wall in a few days.
“It’s great,” he said. “Nobody expected that I would recover so quickly…and I am surprised, honestly I am. I was really scared, especially with ice, about what would happen. The first few times when I tried climbing it was quite painful for me, in the bones and tendons. But after a few times the progress was really quick. Now it’s perfect.”
So Tomaz is back. Not back where he was after Dhaulagiri, but back where he started-climbing outside Kamnik with his best friend, having fun, drinking beer, the future unknown. Will he become strong enough to climb in the Himalayas? Will he want to? Should he want to? Should we want him to?
“Actually,” Tomaz says, “I am preparing for something, but even my wife, she doesn’t know. Right now I am in very good shape. On ice I feel great, and once again on rock.” Soon he and Bozic would be heading to Mexico to visit Carsolio.
“That will be a new beginning,” he says. “We’ll drink tequila and wear sombreros. We will take some shots for a movie and climb, and we will talk about the future. I’m alive again.”
Gul Agha Shirzai was the governor of Kandahar Province in the early 1990’s, an infamous period filled with anarchy that was shocking even by Afghan standards. Gul Agha was personally acquainted with the ethos of those times. In 1989, his father, who had joined the jihad after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and became a respected commander and Pashtun tribal leader, was murdered by a cook who slipped arsenic into his lunch. Avenging the crime, Gul Agha tied the cook to a tree, shot him with a Kalashnikov and hung his shredded corpse from a branch for a week.
When the United States government went shopping last fall for someone to lead an army into the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, Gul Agha re-emerged as America’s go-to warlord. He had spent seven years in luxurious exile in Pakistan, waiting for a chance to get rid of the black-turbaned Taliban mullahs who’d gotten rid of him. In early November, he slipped into Afghanistan with a ragtag army of 1,500 Afghan fighters and joined up in the border village of Shinarai with a honed unit of a dozen or so American Special Forces soldiers who arrived in helicopters at night. In the days that followed, weapons arrived after dark, too, falling to earth in wood crates shoved from the bellies of American military aircraft. The crates, attached to parachutes, contained Kalashnikov assault rifles, serrated steel bayonets and rocket-propelled grenades, and they were collected outside Shinarai by the Special Forces troops who gave them to Gul Agha.
A day before his march on Kandahar began, Gul Agha assembled his newly weaponized fighters by a stream outside Shinarai. The first speeches were delivered by local mullahs who urged a just war that would bring freedom to the Pashtun-dominated southern chunk of Afghanistan still held by the Taliban. Gul Agha, the last to speak, ordered his men not to take revenge on Taliban soldiers who surrendered—they were mostly Pashtuns, too, after all. But Arab and Pakistani fighters of Al Qaeda should receive no mercy, he said, because they brought ruin to the nation.
He wasn’t finished.
“If I find somebody who takes revenge on Afghans, or who indulges in looting or something illegal,” he added, “I promise you that in times of war I get very excited, and I will shoot you.”
He turned to the mullahs at his side.
“If I shoot soldiers violating my rules, would that be sinful?”
The mullahs could not respond quick enough.
“Shoot them, shoot them on sight,” they advised.
It is unwise to believe everything, or anything, a warlord tells you in Afghanistan, but when Gul Agha threatens violence, he is a man of his word. One of his commanders recited for me a variety of insults Gul Agha shouts at soldiers who do not please him, but the curses are just a warmup.
“When he’s really angry,” the commander smiled, “he doesn’t say much. He just punches.”
This is a key difference between Gul Agha and Hamid Karzai, the interim prime minister of Afghanistan. The United States government, seeking a Westernized Pashtun to boot the Taliban from Kandahar, assigned a larger number of Special Forces soldiers to Karzai, and far earlier, than to Gul Agha; Karzai was even whisked into the country in an American helicopter, whisked out again when he got into trouble, then whisked back in. But Karzai, a former deputy foreign minister who speaks fluent English, had never commanded anything grander than a government driver, and he rarely visited the front lines. His troops, based north of Kandahar, never reached the city.
Today it may appear, from titles alone, that Hamid Karzai is the leader of Afghanistan. Actually, he is a figurehead, chosen at the behest of United States officials. Afghan delegates at the conference in Bonn that selected the government have told reporters they voted for Karzai only because American officials instructed them to. Karzai’s largest following is in Washington, not Afghanistan.
That’s why, after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan is in the callused hands of men like Gul Agha—veteran warlords who know and care more about power and money than about human rights or civil society. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord who switched sides so many times in the past decades that he gave betrayal a bad name, is back in power in Mazar-i-Sharif and has shown little regard for Karzai. Ismail Khan, another pre-Taliban leader, has returned to Herat and does not wake up in the morning waiting for orders from Kabul. Other regions are divvied up among smaller warlords, and most are doing what Gul Agha is doing—mouthing politically correct words of fealty to Karzai but treating him as little more than a delivery boy for aid checks the United States and its allies have pledged to write.
“Is lunch ready?”
Gul Agha is hungry. After a monthlong march on Kandahar, he has captured the Taliban’s spiritual capital, and now, a few days after he entered the city in a Toyota Land Cruiser, it is time for his midday meal.
“Not yet,” replies a bodyguard in military fatigues.
“Then go and prepare it,” Gul Agha orders. “We must have lunch.”
The new governor of Kandahar Province is a large man of large appetites, not just for food, but for battle and laughter and power. He speaks in a rough growl, as if his mouth is full, which it often is, but even when it isn’t, his words are slurred, like Marlon Brando in “The Godfather.” The absence of a front tooth or two only partly explains matters.
He sits cross-legged on a patio at a military barracks opposite the governor’s office building that people call the “palace”—a palace he has vacated for the day because several hundred anti-tank mines and tank shells are being removed from its roof. The fleeing Taliban planned to detonate the munitions once he moved in, but an informer blew up the plot to blow up the new governor.
Today’s luncheon involves 20-odd merchants and elders, gathered alongside and opposite Gul Agha. I am seated on his left. We are soon served chicken in mustard sauce, as well as rice and nan, the oblong Afghan bread, all of which we eat with our fingers, as is customary. Hefty and ravenous, Gul Agha does not cut a pretty sight while feeding.
A man walks up, looking for a spot on the floor. Gul Agha eyes him and says, “Take off your shoes,” and addresses him with an insult to him and his mother.
The shoes vanish in a split-second shuffle, and everyone laughs, including Gul Agha, who uses profanity as a way of saying hello. With his audience assembled and warmed up, it is time to talk about his favorite subject: war.
“When the enemy attacks,” Gul Agha begins, “I fight them face to face. I do not hide behind my soldiers. When I came into the Kandahar airport, we were in four cars, and I was in the first car. The Arabs came at us. I told my soldiers that anyone who runs is a [see insult above]. I took out my Kalashnikov and killed three Arabs. When my soldiers saw that I killed three Arabs, they were encouraged and jumped from their cars and ran at the Arabs. We killed 18 Arabs at the gate of the airport.”
His version of events may not be precisely true; perhaps he killed only one Arab, perhaps none. But the essence of what he says is correct. I talked with dozens of his commanders and soldiers, and all said admiringly that Gul Agha leads from the front, not the rear. They also spoke admiringly of his bullying; Afghan fighters may have a tough reputation, but in truth they are not reliable and are prone to fighting among themselves or preying upon civilians, especially if they are thrown together as hastily as Gul Agha’s army. Without a commander willing to kill his own men, battles cannot be won in Afghanistan.
Khalid Pashtun, who lived in the United States for more than 20 years and is Gul Agha’s chief adviser, says he believes that the man he serves is a great warrior and that perhaps the man Gul Agha is supposed to serve is not. “Mr. Karzai was in Uruzgan Province for two months,” Pashtun explained to me. Uruzgan Province lies just north of Kandahar Province. “But he didn’t have the guts to get close to Kandahar.”
So in Kandahar, as in the rest of Afghanistan, the Taliban are gone and the warlords are back, and the last time they were in charge the country slipped into a horrid civil war to which the hand-chopping, head-chopping Taliban were the puritanical solution. And right now the biggest warlord of them all is sitting at my side, blowing his nose into the tail of his turban. Gul Agha is ready to tell another story.
“Mullah Omar said, ‘I want to fight Gul Agha once because I have heard about him a lot, and I want to see if he is a good fighter.’ I said, ‘I will give you a knife, and I will have a knife, and we will be alone, face to face, and we’ll see which [that expletive, again] will shout first”—and once more, the insult involving one’s mother.
The Special Forces soldiers who were with Gul Agha had two tasks: coordinate airdrops of supplies and coordinate airstrikes. The second task was more crucial, because without the firepower of the United States Air Force, Gul Agha and his soldiers would not have gotten out of Shinarai.
The Americans lived and worked closely with Gul Agha, according to several senior commanders of his who used, in separate interviews, the same phrase—“shoulder to shoulder.” The soldiers pitched their tents next to Gul Agha’s tent, or shared rooms in the same compound, and frequently ate with him. The campaign’s military strategy was dictated by the Americans—Gul Agha’s troops would probe forward, drawing Taliban fire, then retreat so that American fighter jets could attack the newly revealed Taliban positions.
Initially, Gul Agha was nervous about the Americans—how would his troops react to foreigners in their midst? Might that cause trouble? As things turned out, according to Yusuf Pashtun, a senior adviser to Gul Agha, the opposite was true—whenever the Americans slipped from view, as happened when they went to the front lines or met a helicopter bringing supplies or new personnel, the rank-and-file would get nervous that the Americans were abandoning the fight.
“Our soldiers became so enthusiastic about the Americans, they would say, when they weren’t around, ‘Where are the Americans?”’ Pashtun explained. “We told them they were resting, that it was not fighting time.”
There were three key battles—at the Kandahar airport, at the strategic town of Takhteh Pol and at a village called Potaki. The battle at Potaki was the first, and it occurred because Gul Agha was double-crossed.
It is acceptable in Afghan warfare for commanders to switch sides for the right price, and after an appropriate payment was made to secure the loyalty of several hundred Taliban troops near Potaki, they fell in line behind Gul Agha’s men—and promptly opened fire on them.
Gul Agha, along with his Special Forces friends, was encircled: mountains on either side, Taliban in front and back. The terrain was typical of southern Afghanistan—dusty, arid, nothing for an army to hide behind. But the Special Forces team knew what to do: they quickly called in airstrikes on the Taliban positions, which were shredded by American fighter jets.
The precision and devastation of the attack was magic to Daro Khan, another of Gul Agha’s commanders. (In Gul Agha’s army, there are only the ranks of commander and soldier.) I met Khan at a Kandahar medical school where his 100 soldiers were billeted; judging from the distinct aroma in the room, some of his men had been smoking hashish, which is the equivalent, among Gul Agha’s fighters, to G.I.‘s downing a beer at the end of the day.
“Without the bombing we would have been finished,” Khan recalled. “But when the Americans bombed we were able to counterattack and break free. We killed many Arabs and Talibs.”
Khan, who has a full beard and a bald head and a loose tongue (he talked about killing captured Arabs), evoked the enthusiasm of a child with a new toy when he described looking through night-vision goggles for the first time; an American soldier had asked him to figure out whether a vehicle in the distance was friendly. (It was.) “I didn’t know these things existed,” Khan said.
As much as he admires Gul Agha, he credits the fall of Kandahar to a greater power.
“Give me 50 soldiers, and with the help of American bombing I could capture all of Afghanistan in a week,” he said.
But in Afghanistan you need more than smart bombs to win a war; you need cash. You need to pay fighters so they won’t loot, you need to buy food so they won’t steal it and you need to purchase gas for their 4-by-4’s. Most crucially, you need cash to entice enemy commanders and soldiers to switch sides, as Gul Agha thought he had done at Potaki.
The going rate last fall was several thousand dollars for a midlevel commander and as little as $30 a head for soldiers, in Pakistani rupees. Also, Gul Agha did not imprison surrendering Afghans; he gave them pocket money and told them to go home.
Muhammad Anwar seemed a good bet to know where the money was coming from. Anwar is a commander in Gul Agha’s army and one of his best friends; in calm moments during the march on Kandahar, the two men indulged in their favorite form of tension reduction—wrestling each other.
I met Anwar at his headquarters in Kandahar—a two-story building without windows, carpets, chairs, lights or decorations of any sort, except for mold on the walls and crates of grenades on the floor. He would not tell me how much cash Gul Agha spent, or who supplied it—no prizes for guessing that one—but he said Gul Agha had the foresight to bring rupees rather than dollars, the currency with which the hapless Hamid Karzai paid his inch-a-day men, even though merchants in rural Uruzgan Province would not accept greenbacks.
“We brought a car of cash with us,” Anwar said. “It was a Land Cruiser, full of money. I think it was resupplied too.”
During the march on Kandahar, Gul Agha’s wallet was a Toyota.
After the battle of Takhteh Pol, which cut a crucial road between Kandahar and Pakistan, Gul Agha moved on Kandahar’s airport; capture that, and you have the city in your hands. The airport, however, was defended by several hundred Arab and Pakistani fighters of Al Qaeda who could not be seduced by Toyota money.
The battle was fierce and involved heavy American airstrikes that were coordinated by the Special Forces troops. When journalists first asked questions, Gul Agha’s commanders confirmed that they were under orders from Gul Agha to execute Al Qaeda fighters who surrendered at the airport, and had done so. Once they realized it is not acceptable for soldiers who are fighting alongside the Special Forces to engage in such behavior or, at least, to tell journalists about it, the commanders and Gul Agha insisted they didn’t harm P.O.W.‘s at the airport.
It was at the airport that Gul Agha had his Hollywood moment. The fighting was nearly finished; just a few pops of gunfire here and there, a whoosh or two of rocket-propelled grenades in the distance. Gul Agha, as usual, had been at the front line all the time, rushing from commander to commander, making sure everyone was doing his job, which was killing. As the battle died down, he stood near the battered terminal building, surrounded by more than 20 Arab corpses heaped on the ground like bloody rag dolls, and, according to several commanders, savored his success.
“Look!” he shouted happily to his fighters, like a real-estate agent drawing attention to a great view. “Look at the Arabs now. They controlled our country but now they are destroyed. Look at them!” It was like Robert Duvall, in “Apocalypse Now,” loving the smell of napalm in the morning.
With the airport in Gul Agha’s hands, the Taliban needed to flee Kandahar. They made a hasty deal to surrender the city to Mullah Naqib Ullah, a onetime commander who was on friendly terms with them. Mullah Naqib Ullah, in turn, would support Karzai. It’s not clear whether Gul Agha was part of the deal or whether he was being cut out, or what role the United States might have played, but Gul Agha’s forces rushed from the airport to the dusty city and captured it without firing a shot on Dec. 7. The Taliban were finished; Gul Agha was the victor.
A few days later, Gul Agha was in sultan mode, enthroned on a plastic chair in the reception hall of the governor’s office building, which is in the center of a city built, principally, of mud. Above him, there were vaulted ceilings and murals that had been whitewashed by the Taliban because they portrayed famous Afghan leaders of the past; Gul Agha’s men had un-whitewashed the murals. The floor was covered by new carpets (the old ones vanished with the Taliban) upon which legions of supplicants inched forward, waiting to pay their respects to the man who booted Mullah Muhammad Omar out of town. Gul Agha sat behind a knee-high table that held an assortment of nuts, raisins and cookies, and behind him were two bodyguards in military fatigues; at least a dozen more wandered through the crowd.
Gul Agha was multitasking, shaking one man’s hand as his other hand was being kissed by someone else, and during this he spoke to a third man and might have embraced a fourth. Everyone wanted to see him, touch him, hear him, but most of all, I suspect, they wanted the cash that was inside the envelopes he was handing out. At times, a warlord must be an A.T.M.
“You are all like thieves,” he growled, warmly. “You always want something from me.”
A man came along, tapped him on the shoulder and whispered, “I have some special news,” and Gul Agha walked off to a corner of the room with him. He returned and pulled out a pack of Benson & Hedges for a cigarette break. The commotion continued. An old man approached and leaned forward to hug him; a soldier marched forward in large goose steps and saluted him; a man in a wheelchair rolled front and center. The healthy, the lame, the young, the old—the gathering was biblical in its scope, and in the end, it was too much for Gul Agha, who began sobbing.
“This is my happiest day,” he said between tears that were wiped away with a handkerchief. “I am with my people. I will never have such a day again. For seven years I was in Pakistan. I could not come to my country. Now I will do everything for the nation. I will work for the people.”
It is impossible to enter into another person’s mind, especially if that person is an Afghan warlord, but I think Gul Agha meant what he said—or at the least, he meant it at the moment he said it. His emotions are as large as his girth, and sadness and generosity are not foreign lands to him. But how long will his determination to do good last?
If he becomes a decent leader, it would be a surprising twist in a life full of surprises. He was born into poverty, like most Afghans; his father, who ran a restaurant outside Kandahar, named him Shafeeq. He was not a good student, though he did show an early aptitude for violence. He always carried a knife, according to one of his classmates.
When Gul Agha began fighting under his father he took on his current name, which means “flower.” When his father was poisoned, Gul Agha took on greater responsibilities and added a new name—Shirzai, which means “son of lion.”
But what is on the mind of the lion’s offspring? The United States military would seem to be interested in that question. Special Forces soldiers are never far from Gul Agha’s side—you glimpse them, from time to time, meeting him in back rooms of the palace. And he appears to enjoy their proximity, because America is all-powerful in Afghanistan, at least for now.
Following the American line, Gul Agha says he favors a United Nations peacekeeping force and supports the notion of disarmament, though it is clear he would prefer that weapons be seized from soldiers who are not his own. He knows that there are too many armed men in Afghanistan and that something needs to be done, soon, to prevent a return of pre-Taliban chaos.
That night at the palace, after the tears and the crowd had subsided, I asked Gul Agha why anyone should believe that his new rule will be any less bloody and corrupt than it was the last time, between 1992 and 1994.
“It will never happen again,” he said. “The people of Afghanistan need to reconstruct their country for the future. We will never do what we did in 1992. All my commanders have promised me on the Holy Koran that they will never do evil again. They will work together.”
But the country is already falling apart. The roads between Kandahar and Kabul and Herat are dangerous once again; there are robberies and killings that, under the Taliban, had ceased. Discipline among soldiers is eroding; when I visited a small unit of Gul Agha’s fighters one day, and their commander was away, the fighters demanded money, and I sensed violence in their illiterate minds. I made a quick retreat. Across Afghanistan, bored fighters are a payday away from pillaging.
The destruction of the Taliban has made the United States a safer country, but the same cannot be said for Afghanistan.
In the early days of the Bosnian War, Colin Powell, who at the time chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to the conclusion that stopping the fighting would require the use of 250,000 troops. Then-President George Bush took his advice to heart and, fearing another Vietnam, opted to keep U.S. troops at home, safe and sound. Powell’s estimate seemed reasonable because the fighting in Bosnia was vicious, and under the Powell Doctrine, the U.S. government, when intervening abroad, would rely on the military equivalent of a sledgehammer, never a chisel. You can’t miss with a sledgehammer, Powell believed.
In Washington, few politicians challenged Powell’s judgment. The headlines from Bosnia told stark tales of torture, executions, concentration camps, and sieges. Bosnia was in the grip of genocide, and genocide, as everyone knows, is a massive and infernal machine-Evil and Apocalypse entwined-and it cannot be defeated on the cheap. Americans tend to equate the face of genocide with Adolf Hitler, not Radovan Karadzic. If you want to defeat Hitlerian evil, you must, it follows, amass the forces of D-Day and have a great generation on hand to storm the beaches (or mountains or deserts or jungles, as the case may be). Understandably, few politicians wished to send untold numbers of GIs to an obscure and violent country where it was hard to figure out who was committing genocide against whom and where American blood would seep into soil that contained no oil.
If you were in Bosnia at the time, as I was, the situation would not have appeared so fuzzy. You might have wondered, as I did, where Powell was planning to put all those troops, and what they would do. Genocide is a strange animal; it is monstrous, but not a monster. I met and occasionally shared a glass of brandy with more than a few war criminals in Bosnia, and I learned that these were not brave men and women, and that their numbers were not so immense. Many of the atrocities in the war were committed by paramilitary squads drawn heavily from Serbia’s underworld; these soldiers-I use the word with great caution-were excellent killers of civilians and takers of whatever loot they could find, but they would not have fared well against an army, which, at the beginning of the war, the newly independent Bosnian government did not have. That is why the Serbs were able to seize so much territory at the start-they faced no organized opposition. Once it took shape, Bosnia’s army found itself fighting an uphill battle and suffering from an international arms embargo that starved it of the weapons it needed to mount offensives (or defensives).
The siege of Sarajevo was maintained by heavy weapons and lazy soldiers like Dragisa, who made a point of not volunteering his last name when I visited him in the fall of 1992 at his place of work, a fortified machine-gun nest in the hills above the Bosnian capital. His job, and the job of the three soldiers he worked with, was to fire occasionally at the Sarajevans below them. Their aim was to terrify as much as kill. Return fire was infrequent, more a nuisance than a threat. Dragisa, who had a middle-aged paunch, possessed the high ground as well as a big gun and was surrounded by folded coils of ammunition that evoked the image of a pit of lazy snakes. He made himself comfortable in a cozy bunker with a stove. He was a bully, not a fighter. A few miles up the road from his lair, I visited one of his leaders, Biljana Plavsic. Plavsic is now on trial at The Hague as an architect of Bosnia’s genocide, but in 1992 she operated out of a hotel at the Jahorina ski resort, which was closed for business because of the war. After walking down a maze of empty corridors, I found her alone in a small office, shivering in a winter jacket. There was no heat, no electricity. This was no Berchtesgaden.
That is what Bosnia’s genocide looked like from the inside-cowardly and pathetic. This truth had the misfortune of going against conventional wisdom and political convenience, and so it was ignored or disbelieved for far too long. “The Serbs are not ten-foot-tall headhunters who would fight to the last drop of blood,” an American diplomat in Zagreb told me one day. “Why don’t we bomb targets in Bosnia and Serbia? My God, what are we paying $200 billion a year for-what is our military for? If you define our army as a force that won’t risk taking casualties, then we don’t have an army. We have Boy Scouts.” A few hours later, the diplomat called and asked that I not use the quote, even though, as he knew, I would not cite his name. He was afraid that Powell would figure out who was behind the swipe and exact some form of bureaucratic revenge. It was dangerous for American officials in the Balkans to bring inconvenient facts to the attention of their superiors back home.
Genocide is a fearsome word, evoking a phenomenon nearly biblical in its fury; we should not be surprised that politicians retreat in its presence. How can a few thousand GIs defeat it? Would not their weapons be like spears against a tidal wave? But we should not feel helpless in the search for the DNA of genocide and ways to defeat it. Genocide is a policy, not a monster. It is implemented, often imperfectly, by men and women, not Goliaths. With skill and luck, it can be defeated by military intervention. Not always, but sometimes. The genocides of the 1990s in Bosnia and Rwanda succeeded not because they were unstoppable, but because international opposition was almost nonexistent. In Washington, defeating genocide was less important than getting it off the front page, even if that meant letting genocide succeed.
There was another route. The conflict in Afghanistan presented American policymakers with all of the obstacles that stopped them in their tracks in Bosnia: an apparently fearsome opponent (the Taliban, which wasn’t so fearsome once the fighting began); a potentially slippery slope beginning with limited intervention (which wasn’t so slippery in Afghanistan, because, as of this writing, there appears little prospect of long-term military action); and geographical terrain that was unfavorable to the weapons and warriors of a superpower (yet the rugged Afghan mountains did not protect the Taliban from destruction). If we could crush the Taliban in Afghanistan, we could have crushed the Serbs in Bosnia. The missing factor, in the Balkans, was quite simply the desire to fight that war.
Among soldiers, defeat lingers longer than victory because it involves a loss of pride and a loss of lives on a mission that failed. These failures stain the mind forever, like dye on a shroud. That has been the case with the generation of officers who fought in Vietnam and who decided that the next time they were called upon to do violence in a distant land, they would make sure they had all the resources needed to win. Colin Powell, an Army major in Vietnam during the heaviest fighting there, turned those sentiments into national policy when, as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993, he formulated his eponymous doctrine. Distilled to its essence, the Powell Doctrine calls on civilian leaders to do two things in considering war-provide the military with a clear mission and give the military whatever resources it deems necessary to carry it out. Here is how, in a PBS interview that aired in January 1996, Powell described his preference for “decisive force” in a foreign engagement: “If this is important enough to go to war for, we’re going to do it in a way that there’s no question what the outcome will be, and we’re going to do it by [using] the force necessary to take the initiative away from [the] enemy and impose [our] will upon him. If you’re not serious enough to do that, then you ought to think twice about going to war.”
In the winter of 1992, as he fended off demands for U.S. military action in Bosnia, Powell described the flip side of his doctrine. “If force is used imprecisely or out of frustration rather than clear analysis, the situation can be made worse,” he wrote in a Foreign Affairs article entitled “U.S. Forces: Challenges Ahead.” “We should always be skeptical,” he continued, “when so-called experts suggest that all a particular crisis calls for is a little surgical bombing or a limited attack. When the ‘surgery’ is over and the desired result is not obtained, a new set of experts then comes forward with talk of just a little escalation-more bombs, more men and women, more force. History has not been kind to this approach to war-making. In fact, this approach has been tragic.”
In the war on Iraq, Bush the Elder’s administration provided a clear mission-liberate Kuwait-and authorized the decisive force requested by the Pentagon. Powell was thus able to stand before journalists on January 23, 1991, and announce with the confidence of a general who had a half-million troops preparing to attack, “Here’s our plan for the Iraqi Army: We’re going to cut it off, then we’re going to kill it.” When the dust settled after the hundred-hour ground war, the Iraqi Army had not been killed. Enough of it remained to keep Saddam Hussein in power. But the Iraqi Army had been forced from Kuwait, and the loss of American life was slight. Powell was a hero, hailed as a visionary who knew when and how to fight.
Bosnia was everything Iraq was not, or so it seemed. The threat to U.S. security was not apparent. How could a country that most Americans had never heard of become, all of a sudden, so important that we should shed blood for it? In Washington, Slobodan Milosevic was not viewed as a Balkan Saddam or even a Balkan Mussolini. In fact, there was no shortage of American officials treating him as a respectable statesman. Even if Milosevic was guilty of war crimes that threatened our national interest-a big “if” at the time-what should our intervention seek to achieve: a cessation of fighting, a withdrawal of Serb forces from Bosnia, or the downfall of Milosevic? Powell sensed a quagmire. In an October 8, 1992 New York Times opinion piece entitled “Why Generals Get Nervous,” he did not hide his disdain for reporters whose dispatches indicated a need for American action. “We have learned the lessons of history,” he wrote, “even if some journalists have not.”
But journalists were not the only ones who failed to genuflect before the lessons of history that Powell worshipped. In the crucial first year of the Bosnian War, Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was the principal advocate for intervention within the Clinton administration. She was not afraid to speak her mind to Powell, asking him, during one contentious meeting, “What’s the point in having this superb military you are always talking about if we can’t use it?” This was an accusation, and as Powell recalled in his 1995 autobiography, “I thought I would have an aneurysm.”
Powell cherished the warning from George Santayana that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But Powell turned the warning into dogma, failing to realize that the future may not resemble the past, and yesterday’s lessons may not solve tomorrow’s problems. Albright realized this. The daughter of a Czech diplomat who fled to America as the Second World War began, she knew a genocide when she saw it, and she knew the genocide in Bosnia could be stopped, if only the men with stars on their shoulders could look at Bosnia without seeing Vietnam.
The Bosnian Serb Army consisted of approximately fifty thousand soldiers, according to most estimates. They were a less-than-awesome force, not for any lack of armaments-they had adequate stocks of small weapons, mortars, artillery and tanks-but for their training and morale. The army was an ad hoc collection of new conscripts and veterans of the Yugoslav National Army. For the most part, they had not fought to capture the territory they held in Bosnia. They pretty much took what they wanted in the first weeks of the war, when there was no organized opposition to the paramilitary death squads that were the shock troops of genocide. Until the final months of the war, little territory changed hands. Serbs held about 70 percent of the country almost from start to finish. Their principal strategy was not to attack, but to bomb and besiege and wait for the other side to surrender. It was an effective strategy.
General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader who has since been indicted for war crimes, had a sufficient number of loyalists to lead his troops, but the troops themselves were reluctant to stick their necks out. Except for the early days of the war, there were no queues at recruiting outposts in Serb-held territory; instead, there were roadside checkpoints to prevent fighting-age males from escaping to Serbia. Although the vast majority of Serbs in Bosnia supported the war, few wanted to die for the cause; they had no stomach for close combat against people who could defend themselves.
I learned this lesson in Banja Luka, the largest city under Serb control. On a hot afternoon in the summer of 1992, I came across a teenager named Boris. His blond hair was tied into a ponytail and he wore the sort of small-lensed glasses worn by John Lennon; for all I knew, Boris was a Beatles fan, too. The war was not six months old, but already Boris had no appetite for it. “The Serb people are being seduced,” he told me. “They don’t know what is happening. They see what they want to see, or what others want them to see.”
But Boris was no dissident. He would turn eighteen soon, draft age, and when I asked what he would do he didn’t need to think about it. “I will go to the army,” he replied. “It’s better than jail.” I don’t know what happened to Boris, but it seems unlikely that he would have stepped forward when a call went out in his unit for volunteers for dangerous missions. He was not unusual. There were kids like Boris throughout the Bosnian Serb Army, kids who would much rather watch MTV than risk their lives in a war that was destroying a way of life that had been quite agreeable to them.
There was a Wizard-of-Oz quality to the Serb military machine-look behind the curtain and you will not find the ten-foot tall monsters you expect. This state of affairs was illustrated, vividly, in the winter of 1992, when I visited the town of Rogatica, a choke point of the four-year Serb siege of Gorazde, where thousands were killed by the shells or the cold or the lack of food. Gorazde suffered a shortage of everything but ways to die. I was traveling with two British colleagues, and because we didn’t have passes to be in the area, the commander at Rogatica greeted us by threatening to shoot us. We received the usual anti-NATO, anti-Muslim spiel, then were invited to his office, where the ashtray consisted of a spent artillery shell. One of us said something that enraged the commander and he proceeded to blow up again, grabbing my notebook and ripping pages from it.
After threatening, again, to kill us, he quieted down and apologized for his behavior. He returned my notebook. We talked some more and then accepted his invitation for a meal in his canteen. Over bowls of bean soup, he complained about his hard life on the frontline, telling me that his unit seemed to be forgotten by higher-ups, that he was bored, and that he hadn’t had sex for ages. He asked when we had last had sex. An uncomfortable silence prevailed. When schmoozing with frontline soldiers, I prefer to offer appropriate answers rather than accurate ones, if the two happen to vary. But I did not know the appropriate answer in this case, and neither did my colleagues. Our interpreter volunteered that he had had sex with his girlfriend a few days earlier. This revelation cheered the commander. He liked being in the presence of someone who had carnal knowledge that was not months old.
I mention this incident only because the commander was a losing figure. Yes, he would not hesitate to order another round of shelling of Gorazde, but he seemed more interested in his own well-being and self-pity than anything else. Ho Chi Minh would have booted his fat ass out of the army. If Powell imagined Vietcong-like resistance and fortitude in the hills of Bosnia, I wish he could have been with me in Rogatica. Defeating these bullies would not have required massive intervention; in reality, the military equivalent of a nudge would have done the job, and eventually did.
Bosnia’s government did not need foreign troops to fight its war; it had plenty of troops of its own, more than 100,000. It needed weapons. As the wars began in the former Yugoslavia, the United Nations imposed a weapons embargo on all sides in the disintegrating country, and this strategy played into Bosnian Serb hands, because they had ample stockpiles of armaments and a vibrant weapons industry in Serbia to resupply them. The newly formed Bosnian Army, however, had few weapons and no factories. It was surrounded by Serbia and Croatia (a part-time ally, part-time enemy) and resorted, in dire moments, to handmade mortars.
How could the UN refuse to protect the Bosnians and prohibit them from purchasing weapons to protect themselves? The rationale for arms embargoes is that if you starve a conflict of weapons, the fighting will stop or slow down, even if there is leakage due to black-market deals. In Bosnia, the rationale did not hold, because one side, which started the war, had plenty of weapons, and the other side, which had few weapons and did not want or expect a war, was being slaughtered. (About two hundred thousand people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the war, according to an estimate used by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.) The embargo was immoral because it abetted genocide. It nonetheless suited the U.S. and its allies on the Security Council because they wished for the fighting to cease as soon as possible, and the embargo meant the Bosnians had to accept whatever terms the stronger Serbs demanded. The Bosnians needed to realize they could not win the war, and the best way to make them realize that was to make sure they could not acquire weapons that might enable them to win. It was the kind of realpolitik that brings great satisfaction to the Henry Kissingers of our world, and to the Colin Powells.
To better understand the unfortunate logic of the situation, imagine a lopsided boxing match in which the losing boxer has one hand tied behind his back and pleads with a spectator to free the tied hand. The spectator, who just wants the bloody spectacle to end, balks at the request and urges the boxer to take a fall.
The metaphor is a simplification but useful to keep in mind. Different experts provide different opinions on the effect of arming the Bosnians. My view, which is not a minority one, is that lifting the embargo-and, going a step further, providing the Bosnians with weapons-would have stopped the genocide and enabled the Bosnians to retake territory seized by Serbs in the first weeks of the war. After all, the Serbs were not great or even good fighters. When Croatia re-armed and, in 1995, retook a swath of territory that had been held by ethnic Serbs since 1991, the Serbs hardly bothered to fight. They ran. When NATO bombed the Bosnian Serbs in 1995, they caved in after two weeks. In the following years, when troops of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization made occasional arrests of Bosnian Serb war criminals, there were no revenge killings of NATO personnel. Notice a pattern?
It’s important to remember, too, that the provision of weapons to Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, by Russia and the United States, played a key role-along with the U.S. bombing campaign-in giving Northern Alliance fighters the edge they needed to roll over the Taliban.
But what if the Bosnians committed atrocities with the weapons we supplied or allowed them to be supplied with? Would we have then become accomplices to their revenge killings? This was a frequently heard objection, and it had some validity. In 1995, when Croatia reconquered the Krajina region, the scene was not pretty; ethnic Serbs who had lived there for centuries were so terrified that they fled to Serbia, and many who stayed behind were brutalized or killed by vengeful Croats. In 1999, when NATO’s bombing campaign led to the withdrawal of Serb military forces from Kosovo, ethnic Albanians celebrated by “cleansing” Serb civilians who had not retreated; this retaliation was an embarrassment for the Western countries that had ended Serb barbarism, only to see it replaced by an Albanian variant.
Would the same pattern have occurred in Bosnia? I strongly doubt it. The Croatian troops who attacked in 1995 were fighting on behalf of a government that was every bit as nationalist and thuggish as the Serbian regime led by Slobodan Milosevic. The Kosovo Liberation Army, responsible for the killings of Serbs, was a generally disreputable assemblage of young men who wanted to purge every Serb from Kosovo; most Albanians in Kosovo shared their goal.
Bosnia was different. The Bosnian Army, despite the cruelties inflicted on civilians it was trying to protect, did not engage in systematic killing sprees when it managed to retake slivers of territory. Did atrocities occur? Yes. Were they widespread? No. The majority of Bosnia’s Muslims did not wish to live in an ethnically pure state. To be sure, revenge killings would have occurred if their army had retaken Serb-held territory, but not, I believe, on a significant level. If we demand that an army be atrocity-free to merit international support, then no army including, our own, could ever meet that criterion. In Afghanistan, we have had no trouble looking the other way as Northern Alliance soldiers executed Taliban or al Qaeda fighters.
Skeptics also argued that lifting the embargo would not have been enough. The United States, they said, would have needed to train the Bosnians to use the new weapons, and as everyone knows, military trainers are the first step on the slippery slope to full-scale intervention. This argument is no sturdier than a two-legged table. The warfare in Bosnia was primitive. The Bosnian Army needed simple materiel, such as anti-tank guns, mortars and artillery pieces, as well as ammunition. Little training or assembly would have been required by outsiders. The Bosnians were not in the market for smart bombs.
Pentagon and administration officials talked up a geopolitical doomsday in which lifting the embargo would spark a much broader conflict, because Milosevic might send the Yugoslav National Army into Bosnia to defend Serbs, or perhaps the Russians would become involved, leading to a U.S.-Russia face-off in the Balkans. This scenario was paraded around like a strategic missing link, and it, too, was lacking in reality. As subsequent events showed in Croatia and Bosnia, Milosevic did not send in his troops to defend Serbs once they were attacked by stronger forces. And in 1999, when NATO bombed Serbia, the Russians stood aside, grumbling.
For the sake of argument, let us assume that maintaining the embargo was a wise policy. What other options were available, short of dispatching 250,000 troops? For three years, the Clinton administration and its European allies insisted that bombing could not end the war. David Owen, lead negotiator for the European Union, memorably accused pro-intervention editorialists of being “laptop bombardiers.” But by the summer of 1995, Serb behavior in Bosnia became too odious for Western leaders to overlook any longer-the “safe haven” of Srebrenica had been stormed by Serb troops, who massacred thousands of prisoners and took UN peacekeepers hostage. Shortly after, a Serb mortar attack killed thirty-eight people in Sarajevo. A NATO bombing campaign was begun. It was a limited affair, with just thirty-five hundred sorties on Serb targets in Bosnia over eleven days; when compared to NATO’s seventy-eight-day bombing of Serbia in 1999 with more than thirty-eight thousand sorties, the campaign in Bosnia is revealed as a mild slap. Even so, it worked, with no lives lost by the Western alliance. The Serbs swiftly agreed to a peace conference, held in Dayton, Ohio, that ended the war, although on terms that, it turned out, were unduly generous to the architects of the genocide.
To this day, many opponents of bombing insist they were right. The bombing worked in 1995, they say, because the Serbs were weaker, militarily, than they had been in previous years. This is true, but that only means the mild campaign in 1995 would have needed to be a bit stronger if it had taken place in earlier years. How much stronger? Impossible to say, of course, but the degradation of the Bosnian Serb Army was a slow-moving affair; the army that crumbled under NATO’s bombs in 1995 wasn’t that different from the army that existed in the first year or two of the war. Dragisa, the Serb with the big gun in the hills above Sarajevo, was not much of a warrior in 1992, nor was the commander in Rogatica.
Opponents of bombing also note that NATO’s attack coincided with a summer offensive by Croatian and Bosnian troops that swept through northwestern Bosnia, threatening to overrun Banja Luka. Would the bombing have succeeded without that ground threat? The ground offensive certainly helped drive the Serbs to Dayton, but again, in its absence NATO had much more to throw at the Serbs from the air. In any event, once the Serbs became pinned down by NATO’s warplanes, a ground offensive against them could have begun at any time during the war. From the first day, an aerial blitz by NATO would have tipped the conflict in favor of the Bosnian side, forcing the Serbs to retreat, militarily and diplomatically. The crucial role of the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan is a perfect illustration of the extent to which our Air Force can turn the tide of a foreign conflict.
The United States did not need to use its ground troops to stop the genocide. But what if it had? Our GIs would not have objected. Many foreign soldiers in Bosnia were dismayed because they had to stand aside as genocide unfolded before them. For all but the final stage of the war, the feeble UN peacekeeping force had strict orders to use its weapons only in self-defense; its mission was restricted to helping deliver relief supplies.
In the first winter of the four-year siege of Sarajevo, a cosmopolitan city that had hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984, I met Richard Roth, a sergeant in the 82nd Airborne and a farm boy from Maquoketa, Iowa. The Clinton administration opted, in the early years of the Bosnian war, to limit to a handful the number of U.S. soldiers in the United Nations Protection Force, and as far as I could tell, Roth was the only uniformed GI in Bosnia’s capital, where he worked as a communications specialist at the residence of the UN commander. I sensed, as we talked in a reception room at the commander’s villa, that Roth’s bosses at the Pentagon would not have been satisfied with what he was saying.
“Everybody but the Serbs hopes the Americans will get involved,” Roth said as we sipped tea from porcelain cups, which rattled on their saucers when a shell landed nearby. “I think the Serbs are the bad guys, but that’s not the UN’s position. I know we shouldn’t go sticking our noses everywhere, but this is too close to our NATO allies to sit back and do nothing.” Because there were no other American soldiers based in Sarajevo at the time, Sergeant Roth got a lot of attention when he walked around the city in his uniform, with an American flag on his sleeve. Everyone wanted to know, why doesn’t America do something? I think he knew the sad answer but he shrugged it off, telling me, in the caustic way that grunts in Vietnam handled queries about the morass they knew they were in, “I’m not paid to think.” Our cups rattled as another shell hit its target nearby.
Most men and women don’t join the armed forces because the pay is good or the food delicious. They join for other reasons, including a dose of altruism. They believe that maybe they will have the opportunity to represent their country on a just mission that will save lives. They are not afraid to put their lives on the line. They are not Boy Scouts, although their timid leaders treated them as such in the Balkans.
Why are America’s leaders reluctant to intervene except in the most obvious, national-security-threatening situations, as in the Gulf War? The Vietnam precedent plays a paramount role, of course. So, too, does the story of American intervention in Lebanon, where, in 1983, 241 U.S. soldiers who had been sent to Beirut as peacekeepers were killed in a suicide-bomb attack. More recently, the killing in 1993 of eighteen U.S. soldiers in Somalia pretty much eliminated any appetite Bill Clinton might have had for using the world’s strongest military for anything beyond oil-protection duty.
The lessons of Vietnam should not be forgotten, nor should those of Lebanon and Somalia. But one of the lessons politicians and generals drew from those debacles-that the American public has no tolerance for sacrificing GIs overseas-is wrong. Those missions were a political mess, and the deaths were close to pointless. Americans understood that. If a mission is honorable or if Americans believe it is honorable, they will support it. That was the case in the Gulf War, as it was when NATO finally bombed Serb targets in Bosnia in 1995, and four years later, when NATO bombed Serbia. And that was rousingly the case when the Bush administration started its war on the Taliban.
The 1948 Convention on the Prevention of Genocide requires signatories to punish genocide when it occurs. This convention puts a special burden on the United States, the world’s “indispensable nation,” as Madeleine Albright liked to say in her secretary of state days. Of course not every genocide can be stopped with a modest dose of military intervention, and it would be unfair to demand that the United States sacrifice as many lives as it takes to stop mass murder in country X or Y. There are limits to what the United States can do, and limits to what the United States should be expected to do.
What are those limits?
In the spring of 1994, as the genocide in Bosnia progressed like a plow digging into the earth, and as a new and worse genocide began in Rwanda, President Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, who had the most famous conscience in an administration famous for its famous consciences, explained that the U.S. government was not, unfortunately, in a position to stop the bloodbaths that were staining our television screens.
“When I wake up every morning and look at the headlines and the stories and the images on television of these conflicts, I want to work to end every conflict,” he said. “I want to work to save every child out there. And I know the president does, and I know the American people do. But neither we nor the international community have the resources nor the mandate to do so. So we have to make distinctions. We have to ask the hard questions about where and when we can intervene. And the reality is that we cannot often solve other people’s problems.”
Lake’s heart may have been in the right place, but his mind was not. The cowardice of other nations should not be an excuse for our own. As Lake was murderously slow in realizing, the U.S. government could have solved the problems in Bosnia and Rwanda at acceptable rather than extravagant costs, in political and military terms. Regarding Rwanda, just ask Romeo Dallaire.
In October 1993, Dallaire, a lieutenant general in the Canadian Army, was sent to Kigali, Rwanda, to command a lightly armed UN peacekeeping force of twenty-five hundred soldiers that was overseeing a fragile peace accord between the Hutu-dominated government and the rebel Tutsi army. General Dallaire sensed, early on, that Rwanda was slouching toward genocide. In fact, he had hard information from a senior official inside the Hutu Power movement that a mass extermination was being planned. The informant told Dallaire that lists of human targets were being drawn up, death squads were being trained and deployed, and provocations to start the killing were imminent. On January 11, 1994, three months before the genocide began, Dallaire sent a coded cable to his superior at the United Nations, Kofi Annan, who at the time was head of peacekeeping, and now is secretary general.
The cable outlined the informant’s story and requested permission, as a first step, to raid a Hutu arms cache. Dallaire also asked permission to provide protection to the informant. The response from Annan came quickly: The UN forces in Kigali were to do nothing more than oversee the disintegrating peace accord. Raiding arms caches and protecting informers was out of the question. “We wish to stress,” Annan’s cable concluded, “that the overriding consideration is the need to avoid entering into a course of action that might lead to the use of force and unanticipated repercussions.”
It is understandable that Annan, or anyone, would hesitate to intervene before genocide occurs. Perhaps Dallaire was over-reacting, as commanders in the field might do. Perhaps the Hutus would pull back from the brink on their own accord, without the UN’s firing a shot (which, who knows, could make matters worse, not better). It is difficult to sift the false alarms from the real ones. But the UN, like the Security Council members that decide its policies, has what seems to be a standing rule (or should we say a sitting rule?) to dither until blood begins to stain the carpets along the East River and at Foggy Bottom. Often the best and only chance to stop genocide is before the violence becomes widespread; we must be ready to act early and quickly, especially, as was the case in Rwanda, when the required acts are modest.
But Annan and the Security Council did worse than that. Once ten Belgian peacekeepers were massacred by Hutu extremists on the first day of the genocide, April 7, the Security Council decided to withdraw its force from the country, even though Dallaire urged the opposite course, insisting that with more troops, and a mandate to use them in combat, the violence could be stopped. The U.S. government played a key role in keeping the UN out of Rwanda’s genocide. Dallaire has said, on many occasions, that he would have needed just three battalions to “break the embryo of genocide.” In 1998, the Carnegie Commission assembled a blue-ribbon military panel to examine his claim. The panel consisted of more than a dozen senior military officials, including a half dozen U.S. generals.
“The hypothetical force described by General Dallaire-at least five thousand strong-could have made a significant difference in Rwanda,” the report concluded. “A window of opportunity for employment of such a force extended roughly from about April 7 to April 21, 1994, when the political leaders of the violence were still susceptible to international influence. The rapid introduction of robust combat forces, authorized to seize at one time critical points throughout the country, would have changed the political calculations of the participants. The opportunity existed to prevent the killing-and to put the negotiations back on track.”
It would be wrong, however, to condemn the U.S. government for failing to stop the genocide in Rwanda or the one in Bosnia. The situation was more shameful than that. The government failed to attempt to stop the genocides. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that President Clinton wished the killings would finish as quickly as possible, on any terms. For hardly the first time, the quick solution was preferred to the just solution, even though the just solution could be reached at an acceptable cost.
The blind spot at the Pentagon was exceptionally broad. In his occasionally candid memoir, Waging Modern War, published in 2001, General Wesley Clark, who commanded NATO forces during the bombing of Serbia in 1999, recalled that once he got involved in Bosnian issues in the summer of 1994, “I became increasingly concerned about our staff’s lack of experience with the situation on the ground. No one had been there personally.” The Pentagon brass received CIA reports and diplomatic cables, Clark wrote, and perused CNN and the Washington Post, but had not bothered to send anyone of importance to Bosnia to figure out, from a military perspective, what was happening there and what could be done.
In this way, the lesson of the genocides of the 1990s are not much different from the lesson of Vietnam: our political and military leaders can be so out of touch with on-the-ground reality-even if, as was the case in Vietnam, they have plenty of people on the ground-that they are 100 percent wrong in their analysis of what can be done. The delusions are visceral. In Vietnam, the White House wanted to defeat a communist insurrection and persuaded itself that this was possible to do, even though, in reality, it wasn’t. In Bosnia, the White House and Pentagon feared that stopping genocide might become a quagmire involving massive intervention, and persuaded itself that this was the case.
It is not surprising that General Powell, long before he became Secretary of State Powell, threw around inflated force estimates in the early 1990s. He understood less about Bosnia, and what was needed to stop genocide there, than Sergeant Roth from Maquoketa, Iowa. Powell made the mistake of treating a genocidal policy as an unbeatable monster.
The United States Special Forces have had many fine days in Afghanistan of late, but yesterday was not one of their best, at least not in Kandahar.
The Taliban surrendered their spiritual capital a week ago, and now the city’s dusty streets have become an occasional parade ground for an impressive-looking assortment of broad-shouldered, tight-lipped American soldiers who zoom around in Toyota 4x4s—which, until recently, were the preferred mode of transport for Taliban soldiers. Unfortunately, these men from America (I haven’t spotted any women) are reluctant to tell you what military unit they are from, or what they are doing here, or much at all, except a pleasantry or two through gritted teeth. They live in odd places here. For the first few days they were based at a compound that housed Mullah Mohammed Omar until he fled, and now the shy GIs are living in a courtyard behind the headquarters of Gul Agha, the new warlord—excuse me, governor—of Kandahar province.
You never know what might turn up on the streets here, so I paid attention when, driving down one of the main arteries today, past donkey carts and beggars and audio shops doing booming business in music tapes, I noticed a convoy of nearly a half-dozen serious-looking vehicles heading toward me; as they raced by, I realized that the heavily armed men in the back of a jeep and two 4x4s were not Afghan military rabble, nor the usual Special Forces fellows in desert fatigues; these guys wore rugby shirts and black fleece jackets and had bandanas over their faces, like bandits, and they had enough high-tech firepower to capture Fort Knox. As it turned out, the guys in the Toyotas were American, and those in the jeep were British.
I ordered my driver to make a u-turn, and although the commandos had a jump on me, I was able to catch up because, as I neared them, they happened to swipe an Afghan on a motorcycle, sending him spinning onto the dirt shoulder. To their credit, the oddly clad Special Forces guys pulled over while their Afghan escorts sorted things out. Several cars of journalists also pulled up, and this made the men with M-16s, sniper scopes, and pistols strapped to their legs and under their arms somewhat uncomfortable because we milled about asking polite questions, and they stared back at us in silence. Accustomed to stealth, they were stranded like turtles on their backs.
The U.S. soldiers here—no more than 50 in the city itself, though a huge contingent of marines has just arrived on its outskirts—are under orders not to give any interviews, which is unfortunate because they are taking part in a mission that has been, from a military perspective, an astounding success; in less than two months the Taliban and al-Qaeda have been crushed. These men would be written up as heroes if only they would open their mouths and tell us a bit of what they’ve been up to; we of course have other ways of finding out, but it would be so much better if we didn’t have to rely on Afghan soldiers and commanders and civilians whose economy with the truth is exceedingly economical.
As it is, the most you get out of these guys is a polite “No photos, please,” followed, if the photos continue, by a less polite, “I told you, no photos.” They don’t have to warn you a third time. This makes for an upside-down situation, because most Afghans are now delighted to talk, and happy enough to have their pictures taken. In a way, the photo-shy, press-shy Americans are picking up where the photo-shy, press-shy Taliban left off.
After matters were straightened out with the stunned motorcyclist—his brush with the Special Forces yielded only scrapes and bruises—the nearly silent men from America and Britain roared off again, heading out of town. After a few miles, their second encounter with indignity struck: One of the 4x4s got a flat tire. They pulled into a two-pump gas station and performed a task they likely had not been trained for by the Pentagon. They changed the tire. Several journalists gathered around, keeping a respectful distance, along with a crowd of Afghans who took it in stride; they have seen much in their aggrieved lifetimes, so the sight of a half-dozen real-life Rambos performing the work of grease monkeys did not seem to faze them.
The silence was awkward, but what do you say to a Special Forces or Delta Force soldier as he undergoes the humiliation of changing a tire under the gaze of a dozen journalists and Afghan peasants? I thought I had the right question, which I asked to a commando who was standing guard over his colleague who was squatting on the ground, jacking up the Toyota.
“Do you see any humor in this situation?”
“Not really,” he replied.
I’m pretty sure I saw a smile under his bandana.
After ten minutes the tire was changed and the vehicles roared off. I followed for about ten more miles, wondering where they might be going—they were heading west, in the direction of Mullah Omar’s hometown—but the sun was setting and if I went any further I might have had to return to Kandahar in the dark, which would be unwise, as the country is not secure after dusk. So I turned around as the mysterious Americans and Brits sped deeper into the desert, toward the obscurity of an Afghan night.
It was, I suppose, just a matter of time until the Taliban imported a media circus.
About nine days ago the Afghan ambassador in Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, who was his regime’s principal spokesman to the outside world, was instructed by Islamabad to cease his well-attended, anti-American press conferences, held in the yard of his embassy. Losing not only the ground war but the public relations war, the Taliban’s leaders are fighting back on at least the latter front, which is why I now find myself camping out among more than 100 reporters who were just granted, almost overnight, an honor that, for now, may be more sought-after in the world of journalism than a Pulitzer Prize—a visa to enter the decreasing portion of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan that is controlled by the men in black turbans.
For the moment we have been allowed no further than Spin Boldak, a surprisingly bustling town that is about five miles from the Pakistani border and 60 miles from Kandahar, the Taliban spiritual homeland that could soon pass into anti-Taliban hands. There are no proper hotels in Spin Boldak, or, I suppose, improper ones, so the authorities have herded the pack into a brick-walled compound run by the Foreign Ministry. It has a small, single-story building with a few offices, plus an unfinished brick building and a yard and lots of dust. It is upon this unpromising earth that Camp Taliban has come to life.
The best plots have been taken by CNN and the BBC, because they arrived yesterday, a day ahead of everyone else, thanks to their connections. CNN has the best setup, attracting admiring remarks even from a BBC correspondent, who nodded toward his rival’s yellow-and-white walk-in tent, which has enough electronic gear and workspace to run a spaceshot, and said, “My God, those people have an Internet cafe.” The BBC are no slouches, though—their corner of the yard looks like an Everest base camp, with pods of spiffy tents circled around shiny new cooking gear. The Beeb will not go hungry tonight.
Everyone else lives more humbly, some in tents, many sleeping under the stars. It’s quite crowded; you can’t take more than a few steps without tripping over a working or napping journalist, or a satellite dish, or Taliban soldier. They are a friendly lot, the Taliban, at least for now; they pose for pictures with their weapons when asked, and they lend a hand if you’re having trouble starting up your generator, and they gawk like kids at your telecommunications gizmos.
They want to please. When it emerged that my tent was being pitched in their prayer area, the Talibs quickly agreed to pray elsewhere. We’re quite a show, and I mean that literally, because scores of youths hang over the wall staring at us, and some are perched in nearby trees for unobstructed vantage points, like Afghan owls.
The circus exists for a purpose, though—to spread the views of a regime that refuses to go gently into the Central Asian night. This became clear when I interviewed a Taliban official in the compound. We went through the usual questions and answers about the declining health of his regime—he insisted that reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated—and I asked about the calendar on his wall. The calendar featured a colorful picture of the giant Buddha at Bamian being blown up. “We can’t make an image of God with our own hands,” he explained. “So we destroyed it. This is the order of Allah.” The caption over the picture declared, “This is an historic picture.”
And you need only walk a few hundred yards from Camp Taliban to realize, if you need a reminder, that the circus in Spin Boldak is a small sideshow. Spread over the desert plain, and whipped by sandstorms that occasionally yield small twisters of dust, is a sprawling refugee camp that grows every day, like an animal that feeds on desperation. The refugees—who have fled the American-led bombing campaign—live in pitiful conditions, with little water, few toilets, miserable food, and paltry help from the Taliban regime or the international community. Local officials aren’t sure of the number of refugees at this camp, which is so new it does not have a name; there appear to be tens of thousands, living in makeshift tents as far as the eye can see on the desert horizon.
Taliban officials quickly arranged a visit to the camp today and let us loose; we were quite free to talk with whom we wanted, about what we wanted. The stories were tragically similar—innocent people forced to flee their homes because of bombs being dropped in a war they did not wish for. The dissemination of this message would appear to be one of the reasons the Taliban invited us into their tottering realm. There was supposed to be a press conference today by a senior official from Kandahar, but that didn’t materialize. Nobody minded, because the Talibs might ask us to clear out once the press conference is held, and we would like to stay as long as possible. Camp Taliban and the country around it are intriguing and unique entities, and our visas are good for a week. They might outlive the Taliban.
Nusrat motions for me to follow him through the crowd. The situation is hectic, and I hesitate, even though Nusrat was a guerrilla commander in Afghanistan who fought the Red Army for a decade, facing far worse than the assemblage of widows and orphans before us.
We are at Shamshatoo, located on a series of dusty, rolling hills in northern Pakistan. Shamshatoo looks like an ancient city; aside from the Toyota pickups and colorful burkas worn by women, everything is a biblical brown, the shade of baked earth older than life. But looks deceive. The houses and walls are made of dried mud, and none are more than two years old. More than 55,000 souls live at Shamshatoo, though in official terms they are not residents but refugees, the homeless of the world for whom we are supposed to care in our caring moments.
Nusrat, who like many Afghans uses only one name, is chatting with me in an unfinished school building when a subordinate arrives with alarming news—a Malaysian relief group is distributing aid nearby. Nusrat is a malek, one of the leaders of the Shamshatoo refugee camp, and he had not been told of the distribution. It is an affront to his prestige as well as a threat to security; the surest way to create a riot among refugees is to hand out food.
The relief group is operating from the courtyard of a house that is enclosed by an eight-foot mud wall, and for the lucky few who shove their way inside, the prize is a slip of green paper that entitles them, at a future date, to a package of food to celebrate Ramadan, the holy month.
The recipients are supposed to be the camp’s neediest, which is why hundreds of women and children and old men mob the house, waving their ration cards like traders in a commodity pit. A man who works for the relief group sits on the wall, above the entrance, and he has a stick with which he whacks the heads of refugees he finds annoying; his stick connects with a turban, from which a puff of dust rises.
“What is happening here?” an old man asks Nusrat, who stands to the side like a scout reconnoitering his target. Nusrat’s life in the camp is an extension of his life in Afghanistan. As before, he faces hard odds in a war to ensure the survival of his people. This is another skirmish.
“Please, be calm, and trust in Allah,” he says.
“Nusrat,” the old man pleads, “please help me.”
“Don’t worry, I am with you.”
He moves in. Refugees have begun thrusting their ration cards at me because I am a foreigner and foreigners provide aid. It seems wise, after a moment’s reflection, to stay close to the former guerrilla leader who overcame the mines and missiles of a superpower. The crowd parts, and the man with the stick checks his swing as we squeeze inside.
“You are not doing this the right way,” Nusrat tells Mateen, a relief official presiding over the bedlam. “You can’t come into the camp, take over a house and start this work without informing us. There is chaos here.”
“It’s not compulsory to inform everyone,” Mateen replies.
Nusrat’s glare could melt a machine gun. He is handsome and fierce in a central-casting way, and you know, without his having to tell you, that your life will be easier if he is not your enemy.
“Open the door,” he orders a man at the gate. “These are widows outside, and you must respect them.”
Refugees have begun scaling the walls. Instead of helping the needy, relief workers grab shanks of firewood and hit the gate-crashers who are not obviously feeble; the truly feeble are merely threatened. A dog in the courtyard howls fearfully, hens squawk and scramble underfoot, a boy serves tea to the V.I.P.‘s, dust rises from the trampled ground and Nusrat shouts angrily, “Don’t beat the widows!”
Shamshatoo is a strange beast. It has a corruptible police force headed by a Pakistani administrator who leaves day-to-day affairs to Nusrat and three other maleks (the term dates from the colonial era, when the British used it for local administrators). Each malek presides over a section of the camp, though Nusrat is first among equals. They rose to their positions through an informal process that involved gaining the respect of fellow refugees, Pakistani administrators and foreign relief agencies. They are stronger than the earth, which is necessary in their unforgiving job because there are not enough resources for everyone and the maleks are presumed by many to be stealing the bounty of aid that the world is presumed to be supplying to Shamshatoo.
Nusrat is half deity, half scapegoat.
“When these people go back to their homes, they will blame me,” he says as we walk away, our path occasionally blocked by the neediest of the needy, begging for help. “Maybe they will pray for my destruction.”
Actually, not everyone will ask Allah to smite Nusrat. Scarcity is a dominant feature of refugee camps, but the scarcity is not shared equally; the camps are not classless societies. They have an economic hierarchy, as in a city or prison or any place where a clot of people live and die together. The best way to understand their social metaphysics is to imagine a real-life mixture of “Lord of the Flies” and “Atlas Shrugged,” with a few themes from “The Grapes of Wrath” thrown in.
Throughout the world, more than 20 million people live in refugee camps, and few of them are going home anytime soon. For example, more than two million Afghans live in Pakistan, some for more than 20 years. They arrived in generations of exodus: fleeing the 1979 Soviet invasion, fleeing civil war after the Soviets withdrew in 1989, fleeing the 1996 Taliban takeover, fleeing the drought since 1998 and, now, fleeing the United States attack.
In the social structures of the camps, the rules of the outside world are not suspended, just adapted. If you were a village elder back home, you will likely fulfill the same role in a camp, because villagers often flee together. Even if they don’t, they tend to reassemble, over time, in the camps. For an individual or family, the tribe is security, and security is sustenance.
The notion that refugee camps are complex societies becomes clear when I meet Jacques Franquin, emergency coordinator in Peshawar for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Franquin, who is setting up 15 new refugee camps, is surrounded by the accouterments of life in the field, U.N.-style: the driveway outside his office is packed with white S.U.V.‘s, and his desks are laden with enough computers and phones to run a war. But the most intriguing item I notice is a blueprint.
The blueprint, for a new camp close to the Afghan border, does not show row after row of tents ringed by fences. Rather, the camp is divided into sections in which refugees will pitch their tents in whatever configuration they wish: close together, with space for a communal garden, or evenly apart, with a bit of private space for each family. If it appears that they will be staying for a long time, they will be encouraged to build mud huts.
“We are planning a marketplace here,” Franquin says, putting his finger in the center of the map. “We know it is necessary. These people are not in a jail. We are trying to create the social fabric of a society, as in a town, by planning schools and bakeries and more. Here we will have a community of 10,000 people. We know we will need at least four mosques.”
The popular image of refugee camps is simplistic—rows of white tents filled with miserable, helpless people waiting to be fed by American or European relief workers. That is often the case at camps hurriedly assembled in emergencies, though in truth most relief workers are drawn from the local population. When the Western media rush off to a fresh disaster, the refugees usually remain behind, and once the shock of dislocation passes, the camps begin a metamorphosis.
There are more than 100 camps in Pakistan, though U.N. officials often refer to them as villages. Most camps have been around for more than a year or two, so only a few, like Shamshatoo, still distribute free food. Distributions of food are like training wheels for a camp: after a while, as refugees find jobs inside or outside the camps, the donated sacks of wheat and tins of cooking oil disappear. Other subsidized services, like health and education, continue indefinitely. The U.N.H.C.R. budget for Pakistan for 2001 is $18.4 million, but that covers only part of the costs; the U.N. World Food Program pays for food distributions; and private relief groups offer a variety of supplies and services, like building materials, well digging and job training.
That is why Shamshatoo is beginning to look like an established refugee community, like the one a few miles away known as “old Shamshatoo,” which has existed for 15 years. Shamshatoo—the new one—already has 41 secular and religious schools, four health clinics, more than a dozen bakeries, a number of mosques and more than 200 wells.
The camp, which began in December 1999 with 156 families, includes virtually every ethnic group of Afghanistan, with the largest at the camp being Tajiks, followed by Pashtuns. Most are from the drought exodus, so they are not deeply politicized. Still, the ethnic tensions that existed back home are carried into exile; disputes over access to wells is a constant sore spot; and it is the job of Nusrat, who is Pashtun, and his fellow maleks and sub-maleks to smooth things over. They usually succeed, because life does go on; there is a birth or wedding almost every day, as well as funerals.
“When people are put in a survival situation, they become imaginative,” Franquin says. “Refugees need to find solutions in order to survive. But especially with Afghans, they react quite quickly. So if you plan a camp well, you will see a quick development, and it’s fascinating.”
Franquin has an unusual ability to detect, and become enthusiastic about, a camp that moves from abject misery to ordinary misery. In this way, he is not unlike a neurologist who draws satisfaction when a stroke victim recovers some of his faculties. Shamshatoo would fit into the category of ordinary misery. It is not nearly as hellish as Jalozai, a nearby camp where Afghans live under tents made of plastic sheets and in sanitary conditions below appalling. Shamshatoo is home not only to wretchedness but also to hope, as I learned in its bazaar.
The heart of Shamshatoo is a nameless crossroads of nameless roads. More than a hundred merchants have opened shops along the dirt intersection, though none of the shops have signs because signs are luxuries. Several open-air restaurants serve spicy rice and beef kebabs, and stores offer lanterns and vegetables and soft drinks and lumber and bolts of cloth. Until recently, there was an embroidery shop that also sold cosmetics. That shop closed not because business was bad—it was quite good—but because it was looted when its owner went home for an evening meal.
A foreigner stands out in the bazaar, which is why Amin Ullah approaches me in the shade of a vegetable stand. He says his family makes carpets and offers to show me their loom. We walk down a dusty street, then into a narrow alley, then through the gate of a walled-in home that has, in its courtyard, flowers growing from plastic buckets that hang from beams over a patio. Pathways in the courtyard are lined with bricks, and I notice several young trees—pleasant status symbols in a camp with little greenery.
The loom is in the shade, and sitting before it are four of Amin’s siblings, weaving with their nimble hands. There are Samim, 15, and Mubaraz, 14, Shabistan, 9, and Tamim, 8. Amin, 18, no longer works the loom because his hands have become too large. Although his younger siblings work 12 hours a day (except on the days when they go to school), two months of communal labor is required for a rug that fetches 6,000 rupees, about $95.
The loom is an altar of child labor, and the family is lucky to have it. Notions that prevail in the developed world—that 8-year-olds should not work, especially not in conditions that can damage their eyes and lungs—are reversed in a camp. A child who is not working is a mouth to feed, and although aid groups distribute food at Shamshatoo, it is not enough. Young children are economic assets that wise families seek to maximize.
The Ullahs are the flip side of the widows and orphans and disabled who make it impossible for Nusrat to walk through the bazaar without being harangued. The carpet business has enabled the family to diversify and open a vegetable stand run by Amin and his older brother, Humayun. Thanks to their carpet income, they could spare 5,000 rupees to buy the lumber and bricks to build a shop.
Of course, 5,000 rupees may not seem like much—it is barely $80—but within the camp it is a fortune. The Ullahs are, socially speaking, camp millionaires. Their modest but steady income allows them to eat well, sleep with a roof over their heads, have shade in their backyard and hope for their future. They are better off, even, than a merchant I met who sells cloth in the bazaar and earns about $1 a day. He is able to buy meat every week or two for his family (aid agencies do not distribute meat), and thanks to the occasional kebabs, his family is far likelier to remain healthy than families without meat.
These apparently small distinctions mean the difference between life and death. A family that can build a mud hut is a rung above a family that lives in a tent. The family with two goats is better off than the family with two hens, and that family is better off than the one with no hens at all. The pecking order is influenced by the length of time a family has lived in the camp. Basically, the more recently you have arrived, the harder your life is. The best-located tents or huts are already taken, as are the jobs. And because your exodus has likely drained your finances, you have not had a chance to accumulate funds to buy a goat or start a business. You are at rock bottom.
The situation for new arrivals is especially pitiful these days because the Pakistani government is reluctant to let the U.N.H.C.R. register and distribute food to them. The government fears that tales of relative plenty will only encourage more refugees to come. Washington, itself worried about the public-relations disaster of a huge influx of desperate refugees, has not pushed particularly hard for Pakistan to change its policy.
It is difficult to say how many newly arrived refugees there are at Shamshatoo. There appear to be many, but because they could be deported if they are found, they keep a low profile, staying with friends or relatives or strangers who are poor themselves but help out nonetheless. U.N. officials in Peshawar call them the invisibles, though it is not hard to find them because the U.N. estimates their size at 130,000 and growing every minute.
A group of them lives in the courtyard of a mud compound just around the corner from the Ullahs. The group consists of four families that fled Kabul after selling all their belongings to finance their exodus—principally, bus fares, bribes for border guards and fees for the smugglers who led them across. By the time the group of 24 arrived at Shamshatoo, they had nothing left, and their hardened elder, Sadiq Ghulam, wanted to strangle the world.
“How are we going to live here?” he asks as we speak in the only shaded space available in the courtyard—behind an outhouse. “We have no money, no food. Where are we going to stay? There is no bombing here, but we will starve. If I had known that I would be humiliated in this way, I would have chosen to die in Kabul. We are not responsible for the acts committed in America. We are ordinary people; we are not terrorists. Why are we being treated like this?”
As bleak as things may look to Sadiq Ghulam, his situation is no more than typical and for many refugees, like the Ullahs, purely temporary. Amin explains that his family arrived in Pakistan more than a year ago after fleeing their hometown north of Kabul. Because they knew how to make rugs, they struck a deal with a merchant who lent them a loom and yarn in exchange for the right to purchase their carpets at a discount. “Other people here waste time,” he says, “but we have a plan.”
And they live well, relatively speaking. They have electricity, which is a luxury that the family must pay for, and their dwelling consists of several tidy rooms. The main room, where the family takes its meals and receives visitors, is covered with Afghan carpets and pillows and has a cozy feel. When I stop by the house on my last day in the camp, Amin and his industrious brothers are at work again—building a new room.
Another emergency walks into Nusrat’s life. This time it is a dispute between an old man and his nephew, who happens to be married to the old man’s daughter. (This occurs among Afghans.) The nephew/son-in-law is beating his wife, and for Afghans this is not a matter to be handled by the police but by a Solomon figure. That would be Nusrat.
“My son-in-law is mad,” Aman Ullah explains. (Ullah is a common name in these parts.) “Every day he is fighting with his wife, and I am worried about her, so please convince him to leave our house because if not, maybe he will kill me or I will kill him.”
Aman sits on a mat with Nusrat in the unfinished school, which is serving, until it opens, as Nusrat’s office. The old man is about 55, but that counts as aged among a people with one of the lowest life expectancies in the world. Nusrat calls him baba, the Pashto term for a respected elder.
“Don’t worry, baba,” he begins. “We have suffered for the last 30 years. That’s why your nephew has mental problems.”
There is no mention of punishing the nephew, Wase Ullah; this isn’t done in Afghan culture. But Wase is refusing to leave Aman’s house. Nusrat’s solution is simple: Wase should move into a room that will be built onto the back of the house with a separate entrance.
It is a wise idea, but it must be sold to a violent and psychologically unstable man. Nusrat walks with Aman to the house, which is like many others in the camp—surrounded by mud walls, with two rooms and two U.N.-issued tents in the backyard. The house has the good fortune of being located downhill from a well, so the runoff flows through a channel into the yard, which is filled with rows of corn and other vegetables.
Aman loses no time in taking the high ground.
“Why are you beating your wife?” he asks Wase. “Yesterday when you started beating her, she fainted, and when you left the house, we were left to take care of her.”
Wase, a tall and lean man with a look in his eyes that tells you to stay away, loses no time in taking the low ground. “She is my wife, and that is my own business. If I want to kill her, if I want to beat her, that is my affair.”
Nusrat’s offer will not suffice.
“I need two rooms,” Wase says. “One is not enough.”
The guy is trying everyone’s patience, but Nusrat does not lose his cool. He has a way with people that is unrelenting yet soothing. He lectures Wase while holding his hand. He makes threats and quotes the Koran, but Wase continues to resist.
“If you don’t accept this offer, we will try something else that you won’t like,” Nusrat warns.
This is his way of saying, “I’m making an offer you can’t refuse.” Wase catches on.
“I’ll agree with you because you are a respected man in this camp. I accept your decision.”
And then, suddenly, Wase and Aman are hugging.
For Nusrat, a small disaster has been avoided for people who live amid a large disaster with no apparent end.
“Wase has a mental problem, but everyone suffers from such problems,” he says afterward. “If I became angry with them, who would take care of them? There is no one who isn’t injured by the war. Some have injuries you can see; others have injuries you can’t see, that are inside. If their problems don’t get solved, they will fight and get hurt. So I must look after them. That’s my duty.”
Bashir Ahmed Zai’s life was ruined, like so many others, by an artillery shell. It fell on a Kabul marketplace in 1997. Bashir heard the explosion, and because he is a doctor, he rushed to the scene. He was surprised to find his girlfriend’s mother and brother among the panicked crowd.
“What’s happened?” he asked.
He saw his girlfriend lying on the bloodied ground. He knelt and shouted her name. No response. He shouted again. No response. He wiped away the blood on her face and shouted her name once more. Nothing. He pulled off the scarf that was around his neck and covered her with it. The woman he planned to spend the rest of his life with was dead.
It hadn’t mattered that Bashir and his girlfriend despised the Taliban, which had recently seized Kabul. The shell that killed her was fired by soldiers led by Ahmed Shah Masoud, whose anti-Taliban forces had no concern whether their random ordnance killed civilians. Mayhem they wanted; mayhem they caused.
This was the last straw for Bashir. He had already quit the hospital where he had worked, because the Taliban fired the women who worked alongside him, including his girlfriend, who was also a doctor, and they had ordered him to grow a beard. Bashir is a good Muslim, but he doesn’t need anyone to tell him how to be a good Muslim.
Bashir’s life now revolves around Shamshatoo, where he manages a small pharmacy that has a tiny examination room in the back. It is a rudimentary setup. When a man was rushed into the pharmacy with a high fever, the initial treatment consisted of pouring water on his chest and pointing a fan at him. If the patients can pay, and not all can, they offer rupee notes that have passed through so many soiled hands they feel like wastepaper, slippery to the touch.
In a way, Bashir’s lot is worse than that of most refugees at Shamshatoo because he has fallen further. Bashir was born into the bourgeoisie. His father was a successful businessman who loved to entertain foreigners at his home. They had a big house in Kabul, where they lived during the warm months, and another in Jalalabad, where they lived in the winter.
But refugee life is a leveler. Cultural sophistication and higher education reap few benefits. Indeed, if you are a successful professional, you will most likely become an unsuccessful refugee. For example, Pakistan does not recognize Afghan medical degrees. Outside of the camps, Bashir has no marketable skill, and inside the camps, his skills yield only a small income because the most valuable medical commodity at Shamshatoo is not a doctor’s advice—aid groups run four health clinics - but drugs.
Worse, the political rivalries of Kabul followed Bashir into the refugee world. Because of his family’s prominence, gunmen tried to kill him on two occasions, so he moved with his family into a rented home outside Shamshatoo. There are 40 members of the family living in the home—13 adults and 27 children—and they have less than $100 in pooled income each month.
Bashir is unfailingly kind, but his smile is unsteady, as if it were rusty from lack of use. I ask what makes him happy.
“The only thing that gives me pleasure is the thought of leaving this place,” he says.
Nusrat does not want to leave, not yet. he was born and raised near Jalalabad, in a village where his father and grandfather were the equivalent of local aristocracy. Leading his people is a right and, Nusrat maintains, an obligation. That is why, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, he headed for the mountains and took command of more than a thousand mujahedeen.
Once the Soviets withdrew, mujahedeen groups began fighting among themselves and then with the Taliban, and Nusrat wanted no part of it. But a commander of his stature could not fade away.
“I didn’t leave Afghanistan out of fear,” he tells me one day over a lunch of meat in oily water, accompanied by a limp tomato salad and yogurt. “I wasn’t afraid of the Taliban. But I wanted to be neutral, and that was impossible. The fighting was not a holy war. It was a war between commanders, and they were fighting over stones. So I left the country.”
Nusrat has four young children and would like the eldest to become a doctor, but he says this is just a dream. He could probably make it come true, however, because there are better camps than Shamshatoo, and with his intelligence and stature, he might be able to live in Peshawar itself, as the most successful refugees do. These are the merchants and smugglers and warlords-turned-smugglers, some quite wealthy, who have graduated from the camps and live in mansions with marble floors and immaculate S.U.V.‘s parked in front.
But that isn’t Nusrat’s way. “These people want me to help them,” he says. “If life is hard for me, it is Allah’s will. I like my people, so I feel good doing this work. You ask if I would feel better quitting this job. The answer is no.”
I ask how old he is. This can be a tricky question for Afghans, partly because a large portion of them are illiterate, partly because they have had more important things to keep track of. Nusrat is not illiterate, but he can only guess at his age, which he estimates as 40.
“For the last 20 years, we haven’t been able to celebrate our birthdays,” he explains. “We have seen only bombing. If you ask about guns and mines and jets and missiles, we can tell you a lot. But our birthdays we don’t remember.”
And where might he be in five years?
“If there is peace, we will be in Afghanistan,” he says. “If there is war, we will be here.”
Emroz Khan destroys for a living. He dismantles car engines, slicing them open with a sledgehammer and a crooked chisel, prying apart the cylinders, tearing out pistons, dislodging screws and bolts and throwing the metal entrails into a pile that will be sold for scrap. He is 21 and has been doing this sort of work for 10 years, 12 hours a day, six days a week, earning $1.25 a day.
His hands and arms are gnarled works of body art, stained a rich black like fresh asphalt and ribboned with scars. As dusk falls on Cinema Road, where Emroz works in a shop that is so poor it has no name or sign, he rolls up his sleeve and asks me to put my finger along a bulge on his forearm; it feels as hard as iron. It is iron, a stretch of pipe he drove into his body by mistake. He cannot afford to pay a doctor to take it out.
“I’ve had it for three years,” he says.
He opens his left palm and places two fingers alongside what looks like a crease, then pulls apart the crease to reveal a two-inch gash that runs an inch deep. I hadn’t noticed it because the raw flesh was covered with grease, like the rest of his palm and arm. The wound is two years old.
“We work like donkeys,” Emroz says. “That’s what our life is like. It is the life of animals.”
Javaid Khan watched with apprehension. Javaid, who is 17, began chopping up engines three months ago, when he dropped out of school because he could no longer pay the fees. He is new at this work, so he earns just $2.50 a week. His hands and arms have not yet been mauled, but it will happen. A hospital is nearby, and Javaid wishes he could be one of the clean-cut medical sales reps he sees in the neighborhood. “I do not have the education,” he acknowledges. “It makes me sad to think about it.”
There is much sadness on Cinema Road, so named because of the movie theaters at the bottom of the street. A few feet from the shop where Javaid works, children who don’t know their ages (they look 5 or 6) sift through the scraps of the scrap merchants; one of them squats on the ground and pounds the remains of a light socket, hoping to find a morsel of tin or copper. A few dozen yards farther down the road, boys who might be 10 or 11 clean out goat intestines that have been discarded by a slaughterhouse; the intestines, once dried, can be turned into ersatz leather. The boys reek of offal.
If you want to understand why the world no longer feels terribly safe, you would do well to stroll down Cinema Road. You would hear the chants of the muezzin, the shouts of peddlers selling bruised bananas, the heavings of buses so overloaded that passengers ride on roofs and the cries of mutilated beggars pleading for a few rupees. You would taste curry and dust on your tongue at the same moment, and you would feel heat and energy in the air; at night, you would hear gunfire. The sights and sounds would make you think you had walked into a third-world “Blade Runner,” exhilarating and grotesque. And all around, you would notice young men for whom life is abuse. The population of Peshawar reflects the population of Pakistan as a whole—63 percent are under the age of 25. To varying degrees, that holds true for the Middle East, too; everywhere you look in Cairo or Amman or Gaza or Baghdad or Damascus or Tehran, you see young men. You need not visit these cities to know this; just look closely at the crowds in a protest or funeral; the faces are young, very young. And they are very angry.
Television often distorts matters, and that’s the case with the crowd scenes. Most young men in Pakistan are not burning effigies of President Bush or fighting riot police. Their anger is only loosely articulated, often because they are struggling to survive and cannot afford the luxury of taking an afternoon off to join a demonstration. But the young men you see on television and the ones you don’t see belong to the same deprived generation.
They live where globalization is not working or not working well enough. They believe, or can be led to believe, that America—or their pro-America government, if they live under one—is to blame for their misery. Many are adrift, cut off from their social foundations. Perhaps they moved into the city from dying villages, or were driven there by war or famine. There is no going back for them, yet in the city there is not much going forward; the movement tends to be downward. As they fall, they grab hold of whatever they can, and sometimes it is the violent ideas of religious extremists.
Peshawar, one of the oldest cities in Asia, was conquered by Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, and the Sikhs and the Afghans, and, in the 19th century, the British. The conquering ceased when Pakistan was born in 1947, but the city remained the gateway to the Khyber Pass and to Afghanistan. That was a curse, because 22 years ago Afghanistan entered an era of warfare that has yet to end. Nearly half of Peshawar’s two million inhabitants are refugees, most of them living in camps that are several degrees below squalid. The local economy revolves around smuggling—of guns and ammunition, of VCR’s and televisions, of heroin and hashish.
Aziz ul Rahman is a product of Peshawar. He is 18, a vocational-school dropout. He has a job at a tire shop, where he works in the mornings. In the afternoons he studies the Koran at a madrassah, or religious school. The one he attends is of the extreme variety, as most are these days. I meet him at a protest, in the Khyber Bazaar, that was organized by a pro-Taliban religious party.
“The American leaders are very cruel to Muslims, so that is why I am taking part in the demonstration today,” he says, politely, as we stand in a shaded alley to get out of the noise and heat. “I hear that the Americans are not doing anything good in Palestine or Bosnia or Chechnya. They are being cruel to Muslims.”
In the background, the speaker of the moment is inciting the crowd against Pakistan’s military regime, which is backing Washington’s anti-terror campaign. “The generals are stupid,” he shouts. Then, like a rock star inviting crowd participation, he calls out, “Generals!” and the crowd roars back, “Stupid!” They are quick learners.
Aziz wants to get back to the demo, so we part ways after a half-hour. He did not fall into religious extremism by choice; his preferred path, of becoming an engineer, was closed off by poverty. This is common in Pakistan. Poor families do their best to send a son to school, but in the end they cannot manage. The son will get a backbreaking job of some sort or, in some cases, keep the donkey’s life at bay by enrolling at a madrassah, most of which offer free tuition, room and board. And that’s where they learn that it is honorable to blow yourself up amid a crowd of infidels and that the greatest glory in life is to die in a jihad.
Politically-engaged youths are a minority, the tip of the iceberg. They are the ones whose anger you see, whose danger you sense. But the upset of Peshawar’s youth is manifested in many ways; in, for example, visits to graveyards, where, among the newly dead and the long-dead, they sit on bamboo mats and sing about their despair as they smoke hashish.
The Pinza Piran cemetery is a shrine of sorts, holding the remains of five famous elders. If you wish to pay your respects, you take off your shoes and walk into a tiled yard, where tinsel hangs from trees and incense burns next to the burial mounds. You say a prayer, give a few rupees to beggars as you leave and walk across the dirt road to a large yard from which musky smoke is issuing.
Nearly 100 men lounge around, most of them in their late teens or 20’s, though some are in their 40’s and 50’s. They sit in groups of four or five, passing around cigarettes spiked with Afghan hash. Some share pipes, known as chilum, which resemble small hookahs, and their bowls are filled with chunks of hash that throw off smoke and flames like a campfire. A man sitting near me says, “You have your bars, we have ours.”
Unless someone is singing, there is little noise. Some of the youths are too drugged to do more than slump against a tree. Others, emaciated looking, are lying down, glassy-eyed; these are the heroin addicts, wasting toward death. There is a man with a tame bird on his shoulder and another with dreadlocks, which are rare in Pakistan.
The best hash, known as tirra, costs about 35 cents for 10 grams. Smoking hashish is against the law, but because Islam does not condemn hash as strongly and explicitly as alcohol, it has become the drug of choice. There is nothing secretive about the activities at Pinza Piran; the police ignore it, especially if 50 rupees (about 80 cents) are slipped into their palms when they nose around.
I sit next to a youth, Malik, who says he is a student at a technical college. He also says that he is forming his own political party, that he has 450 followers across the country and that he is in discussions with Saudis who might provide financial support. He pulls a two-inch thick set of worn business cards from his pocket; evidence, he says, of his network of contacts. He is stoned and perhaps mad, but he echoes public opinion when I ask why he wants to become a politician: “Because all of our leaders are corrupt, and we have to get rid of them.”
Usually someone is playing the rabab, a traditional stringed instrument, and someone is singing, usually a plaintive song about an aching love. There are no women at these gatherings, as the women of Peshawar tend to spend their lives at home, donning a burqa if they venture outside. That is why posters of the uncovered faces of Indian starlets draw eager stares from men as they pass by on the street. The segregation of the sexes is deeply ingrained, but it’s not easy to live with, as the lyrics of one love song I heard indicated:
“Show me your face/Show me your face/Where are you?/Where are you?”
In the many circles of hell that exist for young men in Pakistan, the lowest is found at Dabaray Ghara, on the outskirts of Peshawar. It is an expanse of pits, dug out of the sunbaked earth, in which several thousand men, mostly refugees from Afghanistan, make bricks. It is the hardest of labor because it takes place outdoors, no matter how hot or cold, pays next to nothing and is, literally, backbreaking.
You see children as young as 4 or 5 in the pits, except they are not playing. They are making bricks. There are few men beyond the age of 30 or so. Horses carry bricks from one pit to another, and they do so without being led; they walk back and forth on dusty paths, too tired or too hopeless to imagine trotting away to freedom.
It is the humans, though, who suffer the most. Bakhtiar Khan began working in the pits when he was 10. He is now 25 or 26. He isn’t sure, because nobody keeps close track; time passes, that is all. He works from 5 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon, making 1,000 bricks a day, six days a week, earning a few dollars a week. He is thin, he wears no shirt or shoes and he cannot believe a foreigner is asking about his life.
“Life is cruel,” he says. “You can see for yourself. You wear nice clothes and are healthy. But look at us. We have no clothes to wear and we are not healthy. Your question is amazing.”
The situation is worse than it appears, because the youths at Dabaray Ghara carry an invisible burden. They don’t earn enough to live on, so they must borrow, especially when there is a wedding or funeral. They borrow from the men who own the pits, but the interest rates are so high, and their wages so low, that they have no hope of paying back the loans. Bakhtiar and his friends are only vaguely aware that they are indentured slaves.
They are illiterate, and the world of politics is beyond their grasp. In a sense, this is encouraging, because they have no time for polemics or protests. Yet it is discouraging too, because they can be led to rally behind any person or idea that promises to improve their lot.
“I don’t have the knowledge to blame a government,” Bakhtiar says, as a dozen work mates gather around, squatting in the bottom of a pit. “I don’t know about politics, but for our problems, I blame the world community. All humans should be equal, but we are not. You ask me who is to blame. You find out who is to blame.”
He is not without hunches.
“We arrived from Afghanistan 15 years ago. Since then I blame America, because it used to support us, but now it leaves us in a place like this. So if someone is fighting a jihad against America, I would support them. But if America is willing to help us, we support that, too.”
In Peshawar, even the lucky are damned. Ihsan u-Din is enrolled at a civil engineering college. Before that, he attended a private school. His brothers and sisters are enrolled in school, too, thanks to their father’s steady income. Ihsan speaks good English, and he has the ultimate luxury in Pakistan—pocket money, which is why I ran into him at a video parlor.
Ihsan is in the first year of a five-year engineering program. Compared with Emroz and the brick makers, and most youths here, Ihsan has it good. But there’s a catch. Pakistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. Even with a degree, it’s very hard to get an engineering job. You need connections and money. Ihsan’s family doesn’t have enough of either.
“It is a game of money,” he explains. “Even if you are a good engineer, you will not get a positive response when you apply, unless you pay. This has been the truth for 20 years. It hasn’t changed.”
Did I say there was a catch to his life? Actually, there are two. The second one is this: Ihsan’s father is in the United Arab Emirates, where he works as a taxi driver earning infinitely more than he could in Pakistan. He sends money to his family so that his children can eat well and go to school. But Ihsan’s father does not earn enough money to buy a plane ticket home once a year, or once every two years—or hardly ever.
“I have not seen my father for eight years,” Ihsan said. “Is that right? He sends pictures and calls. But we don’t want calls. We want to see him. That is the problem of my country. My father is far from me.”
They might not be separated for long. Ihsan is thinking of leaving school and joining his father in the U.A.E., where he can drive a taxi, if he’s lucky. That’s the best he can hope for—not to work in his country as an engineer but to drive a cab in a foreign land. It may not be the U.A.E.
“America is such a fine place,” Ihsan says.
Haroon Bilour has the answers. a lawyer who serves on the town council, Bilour reels off statistics like a computer spitting out mathematical equations. Nearly half of the city is without running water. Away from the main roads, which are in horrible shape, there are few paved roads. The majority of the city’s inhabitants live below the poverty level. They have run their miserable infrastructure right into the ground.
“Peshawar has suffered rather than benefited from globalization,” Bilour says, sitting on a couch in his office. He has bolted the door, because the flow of assistants and colleagues and needy citizens cannot be halted otherwise. “No aid package or special package of any kind has been provided by the world at large, or by the government of Pakistan. This is a very sorry state.”
For Bilour, the answer to Peshawar’s problems comes down to one issue: schools. Building them and ensuring that parents can afford to enroll their children. Not counting refugees, only 52 percent of the city’s school-age children attend school, and of those, nearly one-third attend madrassahs. If the city had the infrastructure to encourage investment and create jobs, and if it had more schools to neutralize the madrassahs, youths might not be tempted to spend their days chanting “Death to America.”
But Bilour is a realist. He knows how reluctant politicians in the West are to lower tariffs, ease quotas or raise foreign aid, even though, currently, foreign aid accounts for only a tiny fraction of government spending. He also knows that the government in Islamabad is unlikely to be much help; corruption is endemic, and a large portion of state revenues go into military spending. So as the United States begins fighting a war that has Afghanistan as its target, Bilour, whose city is the traditional gateway to Afghanistan, is not in a joyous mood.
“We are not against our territory being used for the war against terrorism,” he says. “We fear only that Peshawar will be ignored again. We are petrified that we will have to shelter more refugees, that there will be more bomb blasts here and that we will have no help from the world community. If we are again asked to make sacrifices for the West, we must be able to show our young generation that we can get schools and hospitals and a properly developed city.”
“I am not hopeful.”
A commander in the Hezbul Mujahadeen, a band of Islamic militants, Kiramat Ullah loves to fight, loves to watch videos of fighting, loves to listen to songs about fighting and would be honored to die in battle against American soldiers. When I visited his militia’s provincial headquarters outside Peshawar, a battered stereo was playing a tune that included these lines: “The way of jihad/Is the way of success/The way of jihad/Is the way of the Koran.”
Military training is not conducted at the compound; that happens at secret installations. But reminders of what these men do are quite public. Outside the militia’s office, walls are painted with a two-story list of fighters killed in action in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Inside, I sat on the floor with Kiramat in a spartan room, across from a locker with a sticker that said “Fighting is the way of Allah.”
The atmosphere seemed a bit heavy, so I asked about his hobbies. Did he enjoy cricket, a national sport in Pakistan?
“No,” he said in English. “Jihad.”
There is no shortage of Afghans or Pakistanis who say they are willing to fight American soldiers, and perhaps they all mean it, but Kiramat is the genuine jihad article. For the past 15 years, he has been a holy warrior, first in Afghanistan, against the Soviets, and then in Kashmir, against the Indians. As we sipped green tea, he was awaiting his marching orders, hoping to be dispatched to Afghanistan.
“We would be very happy if America would attack Afghanistan,” he said, “because now all Muslims are divided. If America attacked, it would unite the Muslim world.”
Kiramat is a short man with a thick beard and the physique of an oak tree: it does not matter how big or strong you are; you would not want to mess with him. The fact that he is alive and well after so many years of guerrilla warfare tells you what you need to know. The man knows his business.
Still in search of soft details, I asked what he most enjoyed doing. I thought he might mention spending time with his two children.
“I like jihad the most, when it’s at its peak,” he replied.
“When we start fighting and bullets are flying and we are firing at the enemy and they are crying out and in trouble, and when some of my men are being injured and becoming martyrs. That is the peak. We don’t enjoy sitting around.”
Swimmers love to swim, actors love to act, and as Kiramat reminded me, fighters love to fight. If his actions were not so deadly, it might be tempting to describe his devotion to jihad as childlike in its intensity. This thought occurred to me after the militia’s head of religious instruction, Inayat Ullah, gently tugged my sleeve.
“Excuse me,” he said in good English. “Can you arrange for me to meet your President Bush? Only five minutes needed.”
He was not joking. I said I was not in a position to make such arrangements. He pressed ahead. Might I have Bush’s phone number or e-mail address? He assured me his intentions were not ill. He had a dream the night before in which Allah told him to persuade Bush to embrace Islam. “That would solve the problem,” Inayat explained.
Our discussion moved to other subjects, and several young men came along who wanted to talk with the foreign visitor. Although the militia’s fighters are revved up to fight American soldiers, they are thoroughly civil with noncombatants.
When it was time to leave, Inayat returned to my side. “Excuse me,” he said. “But where does Mr. Clinton live now?”
The following day, when the photographer I am working with returned to the Hezbul Mujahadeen compound, he was told that Kiramat had departed. The reason was simple.
Nawaf Alhazmi, one of the suspected Sept. 11 hijackers, left behind a letter that outlined last-minute things he should do and think about, such as not forgetting his passport and ensuring he was not being followed. The letter, according to the FBI, also included these lines: “Keep a very open mind, keep a very open heart of what you are to face. You will be entering paradise. You will be entering the happiest life, everlasting life.”
It has become unfortunately common for suicide bombers to state, in eerie before-death videos that are released after an explosion kills dozens on an Israeli street, that they are looking forward to their fatal missions because they know they will reach paradise. That is questionable. The Quran forbids suicide and the killing of innocent people, so it’s more than likely that the 19 men who murdered more than 6,000 civilians last month will wake up in the last place they expected to be—hell.
But the question remains—why do Islamic suicide bombers believe they will go to paradise, and why are they so eager to go there? These questions are easy to explore in Peshawar, where it is hard to say a prayer without being overheard by a mullah. Peshawar, a conservative city in Muslim Pakistan, is near the Afghan border and gave birth to the Taliban’s ideas. Many Taliban leaders were trained at local madrasahs, or religious schools.
My exploration began by driving onto the manicured grounds of Peshawar University, which was built by the British during the days of the raj and still has a colonial feel. Students were playing cricket at dusk, and the campus atmosphere was more Oxford than Pakistan. I stopped at the white-washed residence of professor Qibla Ayaz, a leading Islamic scholar, and we were soon joined by professor Maraj ul Islam, whose expertise involves the interpretation of paradise.
Over tea and sweets, the Quranic discussion began. Paradise is explained quite vividly in suras (or chapters) 55 and 56 of the Quran, which note that those who enter paradise will enjoy “abundant fruits, unforbidden, never-ending.” There will be “gushing fountains” and everyone “shall recline on jeweled couches face to face, and there shall wait on them immortal youths with bowls and ewers and a cup of purest wine.”
Wine? Islam forbids alcohol, but only in the earthly life. In paradise, alcohol is no problem at all. It is available not simply for the asking, but for the mere thinking. If you think you want a glass of wine, or anything at all, you shall have it. And that is not the only item forbidden in this life yet plentiful in paradise.
“Therein are bashful virgins whom neither man nor jinnee will have touched before ... virgins as fair as corals and rubies,” states sura 55. A few lines later, we are reminded of “virgins chaste and fair ... they shall recline on green cushions and fine carpets.”
When I asked professor ul Islam, who has a doctorate from Leeds University, what the usefulness of these virgins might be for a male resident of paradise, he patted my forearm in a friendly way and said, “You will know when you get there.” His laughter was abundant; I got the joke.
But why does Allah offer luxuries in paradise that are sinful on earth? Free sex, alcohol, bejeweled furniture—paradise would seem a strangely un-Islamic place.
“You are put to the test in this world,” professor Ayaz explained. “If you pass, there are no bans in the next world. It is free.” He went on: “What is the meaning of life? Is life a big house, a good job, a comfortable bank balance? Muslims who believe in their faith are not trying to have a comfortable life here. They are trying to please Allah.” An eternally comfortable life will come in paradise, which is the payoff for the hard times required by Allah on this side of the great divide.
Professor Ayaz raised, without prompting, the question of a typical suicide bomber.
“What is the force that leads him to this act, leaving his family and friends? It is because he is convinced he is going to paradise.”
Professor Ayaz does not believe suicide bombers, such as those responsible for the attacks in New York and Washington, will wake up in a roomful of virgins. Because those men committed suicide and killed innocents, they are going to hell. Professor ul Islam agreed but downplayed paradise as a motivating factor. He noted the presence in our world of suicide attackers who aren’t paradise-besotted Muslims—the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, as well as the fanatics who shoot up post offices or fast-food restaurants in the United States. “They don’t do it for wine,” Professor ul Islam said. That’s certainly true, but the allure of paradise cannot be ignored. If it’s not important, why would bombers mention it?
In search of more answers, I drove a few miles down the road from professor Ayaz’s house, which is surrounded by a tranquil garden, to another universe, filled with tumult, smog, poverty, laughter, and anger. This is the main bazaar of Peshawar, where beggars and peddlers and cars and donkeys are in a war of noises. I visited a mosque presided over by Movlana Fazle Ahad, a mullah who is also a leader of the Sipah-e-Sahaba, a political party that strongly supports the Taliban. The mullah sat on a rug in a sparse room of the mosque, which doubles as a madrasah, and explained the most important aspect of paradise.
“Jihad”—holy war—“is the way of Allah, fighting against people who are harming Muslims,” he said. “In the Quran, Allah says that jihad is the best way for entering paradise.” There are many ways of doing a jihad, he noted, such as donating money to the cause, but the best method, he said, is to risk and lose your life in battle.
“The West is very materialistic, and people believe only in this world, with all its luxuries,” Fazle Ahad continued. “They have no faith in the next life. But my students are very aware and confident of the next life. Because they are my students, they know about the reward of paradise in a jihad. They are not afraid.”
Fazle Ahad noted the injunction against killing innocents and condemned the World Trade Center attacks as atrocities. But in his view, suicide bombing, if committed properly, is Islamic. For example, he believes the suicide bombers in Israel aim to kill soldiers and that civilian casualties are collateral damage of an unfortunate nature, but not paradise-nullifying.
“It is my hope that [the Palestinian bombers] are going to paradise because they are on a jihad, working for Allah,” he said. “They are defending Islam and Muslims, so they must go to paradise.”
Nearly 50 boys attend Fazle Ahad’s madrasah, all of them from Afghanistan, and a dozen of them were sitting outside the room where the mullah and I were meeting. They were studying the Quran, which is, typically, the only subject at madrasahs. No social studies, no foreign languages or current events, just the Quran, constantly. The mullah’s interpretation prevails.
Just as life is not easy for most people in Pakistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, life is not easy for Fazle Ahad’s students. They sleep on a hard floor in a room that is unheated in winter and without air conditioning in the summer. They have no contact with females. The food they eat is not in paradise-like proportions. There are no chubby students at the madrasah, and their clothes are a few threads from threadbare.
I sat down with the pupils. Atta Ullah, who is 19 and was born in a village near the Afghan city of Jalalabad, offered me what he believes to be the most important bit of information about paradise: “It is for those who go on a jihad, and if they are killed, they will go to paradise.” And what happens up there? “Life in paradise is whatever you want it to be—you can have all the fruit you want, all the beautiful women you want. All of these things are available in paradise.”
Looking around the sparse mosque, and noticing a pile of cast-off bread that seemed likely to compose the midday meal, I could understand the attraction of paradise, and I feared the malleability of the students’ minds. That evening, reading the Quran, I noticed, in sura 56, the following lines about Muslims who go to hell: “They shall dwell amidst scorching winds and seething water, in the shade of pitch-black smoke.”
If you happen to need ball bearings in Peshawar, Abdul Sattar Shah is your man. He runs a shop in the Khyber Bazaar that, as his business card states, “deals in all kind of Ball Bearings, Roller Bearings, Needle Roller Bearings, Bearing Blocks”—and the list goes on. Sattar Shah is particularly busy these days because he is also finishing his studies at Peshawar University, where he majors in accounting and organizes protest marches that warn that American attacks against Afghanistan will provoke a jihad.
Sattar Shah sits before me, sipping sweet tea and speaking in a soft voice that cannot compete, at moments, with the street cacophony a few feet away—horns honking, peddlers shouting, horses whinnying, beggars pleading, merchants arguing, hammers smashing. He is the general secretary of Peshawar’s branch of the Islami Jamaat Tulba, a nationwide student group that wishes to see Islamic law imposed in Pakistan and finds much to admire in the example of Afghanistan.
His position is clear: the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were acts of terrorism, but before the United States can claim the right to retaliate against Osama bin Laden or the Taliban, it must prove they were responsible. Without such proof, Sattar Shah says that his group, which is the student wing of a leading religious party, will have little choice but to embark on a holy war. “We will do it, as we did it against the Russians,” he says.
Satter Shah is joined in his cluttered shop by several friends, all of them speaking Pashtu, which is the language of the Pashtun ethnic group that lives on both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border. When I ask whether they are beginning military training for the jihad that might be in their futures, they roll their eyes like New Yorkers asked for directions to Carnegie Hall.
“Everyone is prepared,” Sattar Shah says. “We all have weapons, and we know how to use them.”
He possesses a pistol and an AK-47. I ask whether they are at home or at his shop. I have misunderstood.
“At home and in my shop,” he says.
After American retaliation, especially one in which American soldiers are based in Pakistan, it might be difficult to persuade Satter Shah to leave his weapons where they are, because he is not inclined to believe bin Laden is the guilty party. He wonders how one man, dashing from one hideout to another in the mountains of Afghanistan, could engineer such a sophisticated attack. A government must be responsible, Satter Shah says, and he knows which one.
“Israel did the attack,” he confides. “The Jews just want to create a split between the United States and Palestinians, and they want to defame the reputation of all Muslims.” His view is commonplace in impoverished Pakistan, where fundamentalism is on the rise; a widespread reluctance to regard bin Laden as a terrorist dovetails with a longstanding enmity toward Israel.
Tea is followed by Pepsi. The shop is suffused with almost as much bewilderment as dust, of which there is an ample layer on the stacks of ball bearings that entomb us. There is little sense of fear among my hosts; Afghanistan is not just a graveyard but a graveyard of imperial dreams, and they are surprised that America would start a war there. As one of them notes, “What’s left to ruin?”
America sounds like a dangerous place. I don’t know for sure, because I was in Macedonia when the World Trade Center was attacked, and I have been in Pakistan since then. But friends in New York, where I live, have e-mailed me about gas masks being scooped up like truffles and antidotes to anthrax becoming popular, too. I have heard about a guy who bought an inflatable raft so that if Manhattan is attacked he can paddle to safety across the Hudson River.
It is easy, from the great distance in miles and affluence that separates Peshawar from Manhattan, to regard this behavior as an overreaction by a pampered society. But I did not inhale burning steel on Sept. 11, I did not see people jumping to their deaths from 100 floors high, and I did not need to fear that perhaps another plane was heading toward the building in which I stood. The America I know—land of comfort and abundance and security—will not be the America I return to.
It therefore feels odd to be warned by friends and family that I am in a dangerous place and should come home. The e-mails and phone calls have been constant because, it seems, there’s a belief that if America has become a much more dangerous place, the rest of the world, and especially countries that are at the center of America’s war on terrorism, must be exponentially more dangerous.
But life has not become appreciably more perilous for Pakistanis, just harder, because business is bad for all but the translators and hotels whose services are under great demand by the army of foreign journalists that has invaded. Nobody is stocking up on whatever defenses might be available against germ or chemical warfare; there is no need to, and no money for it. Osama Bin Laden’s men are not waging a jihad against Pakistan, after all; for some of them, if news reports are correct, Pakistan is a refuge rather than a target.
When people look over their shoulder here, it’s because they’re worried about being run over by an out-of-control taxi. If I get on a Pakistan International Airline flight filled with Muslims, I feel no fear and have no cause for fear, other than the food. But I saw on CNN that passengers on a commercial flight in America refused to board unless several Arab passengers were barred from the plane. That’s fear.
Of course there are new dangers here; perhaps the Taliban will make good on its threat to attack Pakistan if it supports a U.S. offensive, or perhaps anti-government protests will get out of hand and some people will get killed in the crossfire. But these dangers are quite small compared to the everyday dangers that already exist. Even for me, the ordinary hazards of working in Pakistan feel much greater than whatever new hazards I might face as an American journalist in a Muslim nation that is none too happy with America’s campaign against the mullahs in Kabul.
Let me offer an example. As I write these words, I am in considerable peril. I am in the backseat of a Honda sedan that has a cracked windshield and no seatbelts and a driver who is tired, as the masses tend to be here, because they must work long hours to earn enough to survive. We are driving from Islamabad to Peshawar. It is a three-hour trip, and is our return journey after a 6 a.m. start in Peshawar, and we are on a frightfully imperfect road without a hard shoulder or, in most places, a soft one. We must pass overcrowded buses whose worn tires are a pebble away from bursting. There are donkey carts that take up road space, too, and motorized rickshaws and pedestrians darting across our path like hares on a plain (Pakistan is too poor for overpasses or crosswalks on most roads).
Accidents are beyond frequent. If the unfortunate event occurs, there is no emergency medical team to deliver lifesaving treatment before rushing you to a nearby hospital; you will be thrown into another car and driven to a hospital that is unlikely to be nearby, and unlikely to save your life, and perhaps the car that is taking you there will get into an accident, too. It happens.
A few minutes after I wrote the lines you have just read, my car passed one of those overcrowded buses I mentioned before, though this one had jackknifed and was lying on its side, splayed across the road like a metal carcass. I have no idea how many people were killed or injured, and I am unlikely to read about it in tomorrow’s paper, because an accident of that sort is too ordinary. It is not news; it is life.
That’s just the beginning of the everyday dangers of life in Pakistan or any country that shares its impoverished lot. Hepatitis contracted from food; tuberculosis from the infected man who coughs as you talk with him, HIV from recycled needles at clinics, cancer or other diseases caused by the immense and incredible amounts of pollution in the air and in the earth and in the water. You don’t inhale smog in Peshawar as much as you chew it, cancerous particle by cancerous particle.
So is it dangerous for an American journalist here? Yes, but not much more dangerous than three weeks ago or three years ago. It’s entirely possible that anti-American riots will break out if the United States attacks Afghanistan, but I don’t plan on getting too close to that; there is other work to do, other dangers to worry about.
The headbands were flimsy, just strips of white cloth tied across demonstrators’ foreheads with slogans written in black ink. The most popular slogan was “Long Live Osama,” though others said “Death to America” and—simplicity itself—“Jihad.”
The headgear was worn Friday at an anti-U.S. rally in Peshawar, the chaotic Pakistani city in the shadow of the Khyber Pass and within shelling reach of Afghanistan (a relevant measure of distance because the Taliban have threatened to attack Pakistan if it supports U.S. military action). The men with the headbands were followers of Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a pro-Taliban politician here, and several thousand of them marched through the city’s central bazaar, assembling at a square underneath an “Always Coca-Cola” billboard.
The jihad slogans were familiar. Much newer was the theory propounded by Fazlur Rehman: that the assaults against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were the work of Israel. Fazlur Rehman, wearing a yellow turban, told the crowd that 4,000 Jews who worked in the Trade Center did not show up on the fateful Tuesday because they were tipped off about the imminent destruction of their workplace. “Osama is an individual who doesn’t have the resources to arrange this attack,” he shouted from the roof of a red truck. “Israel is behind it.”
A few minutes later, an effigy of President Bush was torched, partly for the benefit of foreign TV crews: It’s their money shot. Despite the fiery headbands and flaming president, the crowd was well-mannered, especially with foreign journalists. Curiously, Bush’s heart was marked by a Yankees “NY” emblem; perhaps the effigy designer was a Mets fan.
Although the Israel-destroyed-the-World-Trade-Center theory is absurd, most people I speak to in Pakistan believe it. It’s not just the headband rabble who sense the hand of the Mossad at work. I even heard the conspiracy theory during a visit to the posh Islamabad home of Ijzal ul-Haq, vice president of a major political party. As it happens, Ijzal ul-Haq is also the son of Pakistan’s late military dictator Zia ul-Haq; an oil portrait of the old man hangs a few feet from the front door.
Ijzal, who was educated at Southern Illinois University and worked for Bank of America for more than a decade, believes a government had to be involved because the attacks were too sophisticated for the likes of Osama Bin Laden. I asked which governments might have been responsible.
“It is just a wild guess,” he replied. “It could be somebody who wants to take revenge on the Muslims.”
“Could be. They’re taking full advantage of it. They want to totally alienate the Palestinians from the rest of the world. ... Time will tell, but the people who are being targeted are not behind it.”
Here’s the truly curious thing: Ijzal, like many the-Mossad-may-have-done-it Pakistanis, isn’t howling about the injustice of a potential U.S. attack on innocent Afghanistan. Like everyone else, he knows Pakistan faces a stark choice—stand with the Taliban and share their fate or side with America and enjoy the benefits thereof. It’s not much of a choice, actually. Few Pakistanis will miss the Taliban regime, often viewed as an embarrassment to Islam and to Pakistan, which supported the mullahs in Kabul and Kandahar until a week ago.
As a result, Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in a 1999 coup, may survive the crisis. He has offered Pakistani airspace to U.S. military flights, as well as intelligence information and unspecified “logistical” help, which could mean hosting U.S. troops. So far, public opposition has not gotten out of hand. The demo I attended disbanded with the calm of a low-scoring game between NFL cellar teams. Tempers will be hotter if the U.S. attacks Afghanistan, but Pakistan’s police and military know how to use their batons and rifles.
The first political payoff for Gen. Musharraf came over the weekend, when the Bush administration announced it was lifting sanctions imposed on Pakistan and India when both exploded nuclear weapons. Gen. Musharraf will likely reap more rewards in the weeks and months to come; he undoubtedly hopes for a tilt in Pakistan’s favor over the perpetual crisis in Indian-ruled Kashmir. For the moment, it’s hard to hear a bad word in diplomatic circles about Pakistan’s somber military ruler. “The government is working a hell of a lot better than it was before the coup,” an approving diplomat told me the other day. “Musharraf is pretty darn good. He’s doing the right things, though it’s unfortunate that he happens to be a general and that he was put in power through a coup.”
This is the new New World Order, and the fact that our man in Islamabad wears a khaki uniform and overturned an elected government (though not a very effective one) is of little import. For now, democratization in Pakistan takes a back seat to security for America. That’s likely justified for a while, so don’t expect to hear any lectures from Washington about the need for ending military rule in Pakistan. On the other hand, if you listen closely you may hear quite a bit from Pakistan about the Mossad’s role in attacking the heart of American capitalism.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001
At the main gate to the U.S. military base outside Skopje, Army soldiers in full battle gear offer visitors a crisp salute and an even crisper shout of their squad’s motto—“Strike To Kill.”
The motto predates the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as do the abundant coils of barbed wire and cement barricades around the base, which is home to several hundred U.S. soldiers and has a basketball court, a cappuccino bar, a chapel, a gym, and a mobile Burger King. Security has been raised in other ways because Camp Able Sentry, like other U.S. military facilities, is now on Threatcon Delta, the highest level of alert. The biggest changes have little to do with security, though, and may not be apparent unless you happen to share a mess hall table with a pair of Special Forces soldiers, as I did today. Then you realize how much the world is changing.
“What needs to happen is that lives need to be put at risk,” Capt. Thomas Thliveris told me. “What I mean by that is people in uniform are in uniform for a reason, and our national leadership should not be afraid, because of public reaction, to use us in the way we are trained to be used, and can be used.”
It’s always pleasant, as a journalist, to meet soldiers who speak their minds. In other times, members of the Special Forces might say only the sorts of things their commanders might wish them to say, or they might say nothing at all. But that was in another era, when a portion of Wall Street was not a smoldering mountain of rubble and corpses.
Capt. Donald Schurr spoke up.
“The first thing is that we accepted risk when we joined, but the political leadership has not had the courage to accept that soldiers will lose their lives. That needs to end. And the second thing is—you can apply any word you want—but let’s use assassination. There is a presidential directive which prevents the U.S. government or its operatives from targeting anybody in particular. That’s because we want to be the good guys, and we are the good guys; fair play and all that stuff. But there is a time when you must target those fellas. We have the capability to do that. But we haven’t been able to do anything because we have our gloves on. That needs to change.”
The wide-screen television in the mess hall was tuned to CNN. I heard the phrase “thousands of dead are feared.” The television was filled with unnatural images that my brain has been reluctant to assimilate: planes disappearing into the glassy flanks of the World Trade towers, followed by fireballs at 100 stories. I hope I can get used to seeing these images, but I also hope I never get used to them.
The conversation had begun with Capt. Schurr—a tall, muscular soldier who doesn’t need a Special Forces patch on his sleeve for you to know that he is not to be trifled with—recalling the scenes of men and women jumping from the burning towers. He said it made him emotional. He cried. When I asked what the emotion and tears meant, he said, slowly, “It ... is ...anger.” Each word was delivered with the force of a punch.
“As the president said, this was an act of war,” Capt. Thliveris noted. He glared at me, an Ali-versus-Frazier glare. “This may not be politically correct, but I don’t want justice here.” His glare did the impossible—it became more intense. “These people do not need to be brought to justice or apprehended. They need to be killed. That’s what you do to your enemy in war—you destroy him. And this is a war.”
This was one of those interviews in which it doesn’t matter what the journalist asks. These men knew what they wanted to say and were going to say it no matter what. I noted that they are members of the Special Forces. Would they wish to be choppered into the mountains of Afghanistan?
“I want to be the first person out the door,” Capt. Schurr shot back. “I’m ready to go. I think to a man every soldier is prepared to do that, and anxious to do that.”
When I sat down at their table the men from the Special Forces told me they would need to leave after 10 minutes. The 10 minutes was up. They grabbed their assault rifles and donned their combat gear—helmets and flak jackets—and strode away, ready for war.
Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001
Night was falling as I introduced myself to four college students in Macedonia Square, in the center of Skopje. What was their reaction to the catastrophe in America?
Ivo, who is 18 years old and studying to be a doctor, was the first to respond, largely because he spoke the best English, thanks to the year he lived in England. The attacks are sad, he said, a tragedy. But then he got to the heart of the matter, not only for him but for many Macedonians who resent what they regard as American support for ethnic Albanian rebels.
“Now you have experienced what terrorism is like,” Ivo said. “Now you can understand what terrorism does, and you should do something about it, especially in Macedonia. You should condemn the Albanians. It’s clear you’re helping them. Even a child knows that.”
His friends nodded their heads in agreement. The rebels are terrorists, they believe, killing civilians and policemen, yet America coddles them, even supplying them with weapons (a popular belief). Maybe, the students added, the assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon will serve as a wake-up call. “Terrorists have never attacked America with this much devastation,” Ivo noted. “America now should see what terrorism is really about and stop it everywhere.”
The feelings of Ivo and his friends are not unusual. There is no satisfaction in Skopje about the attacks on America—none of the grotesque spectacles, seen on television, of Palestinians and Libyans celebrating the attacks. The expressions of condolence here are sincere, but there is, underneath it all, a strong belief that America has imposed its will on the Balkans in ways that are neither wise nor fair and that America should not be surprised that its actions overseas have brought deadly results to the homeland. The same belief exists in Serbia, which experienced a 78-day U.S.-led bombing campaign in 1999, and it exists among nationalists in Croatia who resent U.S. pressure to extradite war criminals to the Hague.
The sourness surfaces not just in the talk of ordinary citizens but in media commentaries, too. All you need to do is pick up today’s issue of New Macedonia, a pro-government paper. “The attempt by western countries to treat Albanian terrorists as human rights fighters gave them a clear field for seven months of terror against Macedonians,” the main commentary states. “The difference between yesterday’s attacks on the United States and the attacks of Albanian terrorists in Macedonia is just in the capacity and power of their action.” In other words, Now you know how we feel.
Anti-Americanism in the Balkans is far from murderous, as it is among Islamic extremists in the Middle East, but it is serious enough to have prompted the evacuation this summer of nonessential personnel from the U.S. Embassy here. If you want to know the consequences of America’s unpopularity, you only need to call 011 389-2 116-180, the Embassy’s number in Skopje. If you press 5 for the options in English, the first words you hear are the following: “To report the death, hospitalization, or arrest of an American citizen, press 3.”
Monday, Sept. 10, 2001
“Hi, my name is Josh.”
This was not what I expected to overhear in Brodec, a mountain village where ethnic Albanian rebels were handing in their weapons to NATO troops. The greeting came from a chubby rebel wearing combat pants and a black T-shirt with the red-and-black insignia of the rebel army, whose initials in Albanian are UCK. His greeting was directed at an American G.I. near me.
“Uh, hi,” the G.I. replied, warily. “I’m, uh, Mark.”
“I lived in the U.S. for 17 years,” Josh continued, delighted to have found someone to speak English with. “I love America.”
“Of course I am.”
Josh Balazhi, as it happens, was born in Macedonia and emigrated to Chicago in his teens, winding up in the restaurant business. He returned to Macedonia six months ago to fight with the rebels in the hills above Tetovo.
Mark, an Army intelligence officer who asked—ordered, actually—that I not disclose his full name, had a video camera that he pointed at his new friend from the UCK.
“Hello America,” Josh waved.
Strange, but not the strangest scene in rebel territory on Sunday. For the past few weeks NATO soldiers have been collecting rebel weapons, and Brodec is the latest collection site. The Macedonian government has pledged, as its part of an ultra-shaky peace deal, to expand political rights for Albanians. This is supposed to end their war.
It was a slow day in the farmhouse basement where French soldiers registered the day’s catch, sitting behind desks like warehouse clerks. Nearly half of the dozen or so rifles I saw on the dirt floor were hunting weapons with wood stocks, dusty and neglected and quite old; it was hard to imagine they posed a serious threat to even the lamest of wildlife, let alone soldiers.
A Swedish journalist looked at the sorry items on display and said, laughing, “This must be the village museum.” Krale Spancevski, a member of Macedonia’s parliament who choppered into Brodec as an observer, just shook his head. “These guns are not from this war,” he said. “Maybe from the Chinese revolution. Maybe from the first Balkan war.”
That was in 1912.
The sights and sounds of Brodec convinced me that Macedonia needs fewer war correspondents and more film critics. The weapons-collection program is, in many respects, a big-budget production that would be better appreciated, and better analyzed, by journalists accustomed to the world of make-believe. NATO has even given the 30-day program a somewhat catchy title—Operation Essential Harvest.
NATO hopes to collect 3,300 weapons, which is widely believed to represent a modest portion of what the UCK possesses. The problem, as NATO knows, is that the UCK will not surrender a meaningful portion of its arsenal. So the U.S.-led alliance is pretending disarmament is occurring and pressing the rebels and government to find a way, in the coming weeks and months, to not resume fighting. What’s being wished for is a military version of the placebo effect.
This provides for bitter amusement in the parlors of Skopje. Darko Mitrevski is a film producer who has the wry sense of humor common among unlucky intellectuals in the unlucky hotspots of the Balkans—notably Sarajevo and Belgrade, and now Skopje. Darko was dressed in trendy black at his elegant office when I visited the other day with Ed Joseph, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. The discussion turned, inevitably, to weapons collection.
“It’s Disarmament—The Movie,” Ed suggested. “But don’t blame NATO. It’s the deal they’ve got.”
“Perhaps,” Darko countered. “But the parody of disarmament shouldn’t be so obvious. I could do it much better. It’s a very badly directed production.”
In a way, Operation Essential Harvest is an upside-down version of Wag the Dog. Instead of directors and actors producing a phony war, generals and soldiers are producing a phony disarmament. It’s an odd thing for generals to do, but even odder is the prospect it may do some temporary good by keeping the guns silent for a bit longer.
At least it is inspiring better productions. The other day I attended a mock weapons collection in front of the run-down parliament in Skopje. It involved several thousand ironic Macedonians poking fun at NATO by piling their “weapons” onto the street, which was closed to traffic. The asphalt was littered with water guns, toy pistols, model planes, paper gliders, watermelons with fuses, slingshots, cardboard swords, and so on. I noticed a man holding an unrolled condom above his head; I asked a student what that was about, and I was told, “Defensive weapon.” The condom was tossed onto the pile.
Of course the situation in Macedonia is not a joke. Many people have been killed, and many more will be killed if the fighting resumes once Operation Essential Harvest finishes its run. Outside the farmhouse in Brodec, I asked Josh, the friendly rebel, whether he would return to Chicago soon. He said he hopes so but doesn’t know for sure. I then asked how to spell his last name. He gave me the Albanian spelling, Balazhi; the Americanized version, he noted, is Belushi.
“You know, I’m related to John Belushi,” he said, smiling.
I could not tell whether he was serious or pretending.
When Bob Stewart, who commanded the first regiment of British peacekeepers in Bosnia, was asked by the BBC for his reaction to the extradition of Slobodan Milosevic, he responded with one joyous word: “Hallelujah.”
Across Europe and America, similar words of thanks — and astonishment — were whispered and shouted by people who did not expect the former Serbian leader to wind up at The Hague so soon after being toppled from power. Yet there he is, behind bars at the United Nations detention center, with a coffee maker in his cell and a war-crimes trial in his future.
The time has come, in other words, to look beyond Mr. Milosevic. The trial’s usefulness will not be to determine his guilt or innocence — even a legal dream team will have a hard time getting him off the hook — but to educate Serbs about the crimes he masterminded in their name and with their support. For Serbia, extraditing Mr. Milosevic may be easier than accepting the truth.
Serbs have been notably reluctant to admit they were the authors, not the victims, of war crimes. Taking responsibility for these deeds is a condition of reconciliation between Serbs and their onetime enemies. The new Serbian government, under Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, recently began the process of deprogramming. It has publicized the discovery in Serbia of mass graves of Kosovars murdered by Mr. Milosevic’s security forces.
But that candor may have had less to do with Mr. Djindjic’s yearning for truth than with his desire to weaken opposition to Mr. Milosevic’s extradition, thus clearing the way for an infusion of Western aid.
With Mr. Milosevic at The Hague, Serbs may be tempted to think, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Most Serbs view the United Nations tribunal as biased, noting that Franjo Tudjman, the late Croatian president, was never indicted, although he was clearly guilty of war crimes in Bosnia.
As a result, Serbs have all but ignored The Hague trials so far. Western governments need to improve the tribunal’s profile and credibility in Serbia.
They need to provide the funds, and apply whatever pressure is needed, to ensure that Mr. Milosevic’s trial is broadcast on television and radio in Serbia. They also need to provide Serb journalists with the financial resources to travel to The Hague to cover the trial, which is likely to be lengthy.
To the extent it’s possible, the goal is to ensure that the verdict is accepted by Serbs. Every effort should be made to include Serb judges on the panel of international jurists who will determine Mr. Milosevic’s fate. And if security concerns can be met, part of the trial might even be held in Serbia.
There is ample reason for supporters of global justice to whisper “hallelujah” this weekend, but Slobodan Milosevic’s extradition is just a first step. Serbia is only beginning its reckoning with history; deadly and durable myths must be destroyed.
In 1993, connoisseurs of government dithering heard Warren Christopher utter a delightful phrase that reflected his befuddlement with the war in Bosnia. The conflict, the secretary of state confessed, was a “problem from hell.” What he meant, of course, was that he hadn’t a clue what to do about it.
In the Bosnian war, Muslims were the victims of genocide at the hands and knives and AK-47s of Serbs and Croats. But was it in the national interest of the United States to intervene in a morally repugnant conflict that did not appear to threaten our national security? That was the problem from hell, and until the NATO alliance began to rupture in discord, creating an unmistakeable threat to our interests, the famous consciences in the Clinton administration couldn’t make up their famous minds.
Now along comes Macedonia, where U.S. troops defused a standoff on Monday by escorting Albanian rebels out of harm’s way, at the request of the government in Skopje; even so, an anti-American riot erupted in the capital. Will the White House refuse the next time a request is made for military assistance? President Bush made a pro forma statement this week that he wouldn’t rule out the use of force, but his administration hasn’t been shy about looking down its realpolitik nose at the Clinton crew’s adventures in the Balkans—they’ve made it clear they don’t want any of their own. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted in a widely-circulated memorandum earlier this year, “It is easier to get into something than to get out of it.” (No prizes for guessing which part of the world he was referring to.)
But Messrs. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell would be misreading history—and the present—if they treat Macedonia as another moral quagmire in which the U.S. should not muddy its political or military boots. Despite outward appearances, Macedonia isn’t Bosnia or Kosovo. In fact, it’s the kind of pure geopolitical play the Bush team professes to be perfectly suited to master. They should be drooling at the opportunity to prove their expertise.
The administration has made a point of saying it plans to conduct foreign policy the old-fashioned way, based on a classic definition of national interests that banishes moral considerations to the inky pages of The Nation. But guess what—the Macedonian crisis does not involve the grand moral dilemmas (or even minor moral dilemmas) that caused so many headaches and humiliations for the Clinton team, whose ineptitude, especially in Bosnia, was matched only by its hypocrisy.
From the start of the Bosnian crisis the United States faced a threat to its national interests—the Clinton administration just failed to realize it. Without intervention of some sort, the war was going to fester so badly that Western Europe and NATO would begin to rot. Instead the U.S. focused on whether or not the moral arguments for intervening—that genocide was being committed, that the genocide was unprovoked, and that the victims of the genocide stood for Western values of tolerance and diversity—were true and cause enough to get involved. After three years of dithering and several hundred thousand deaths, the Clinton administration finally figured it out. Later, with Madeleine Albright in charge at Foggy Bottom and eager to give the supremely immoral Milosevic the comeuppance he deserved, the White House organized NATO’s bombing of Serbia, which had increased its repression in Kosovo. After 78 days Milosevic agreed to withdraw his forces from Kosovo, and almost immediately Kosovars began cleansing Serbs who remained behind. We had not, it turned out, rescued angels.
The Bush administration does not want to be a global moral cop. Given the Clinton administration’s nightmarish experience in the Balkans, that’s understandable. But it’s not a reason to ignore Macedonia, where there is no moral call to action—no genocide, no horrible dictator, no white-hatted or black-hatted factions. It’s true that the Albanians have not enjoyed their deserved share of political rights, but that hardly justifies their guerilla uprising. The Slavs, who form the majority of Macedonia’s population, have been derelict in giving the Albanians their rightful slice of power, but they have not instituted any Milosevic-style repression. By Balkan standards, the situation is uncomplicated.
There is, however, a valid geopolitical reason to become engaged, because the fighting, muted so far, could spiral into all-out civil war. That would mean another wave of refugees in the Balkans, and it could mean the involvement of troops from neighboring countries that have historical ties to Macedonia and territorial designs on it—Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia, Greece, and even Turkey. The nightmare scenario, which is unlikely but possible, is that one foreign country will get involved—say, Albania—and that others will follow, like wolves to a twitching carcass. The involvement of Greece and Turkey would be particularly disastrous because both are NATO members and longtime adversaries. “Macedonia is in real danger of destruction,” wrote Richard Holbrooke and Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations, in a recent Washington Post column. “Macedonia’s descent into civil war would call into question national borders across the Balkans, reward forces of violence across the region, and even create tensions within the [NATO] alliance.” Henry Kissinger’s maid could figure out that it’s in our national interests to prevent this from happening in Europe.
So far the European Union has spearheaded mediation efforts, with the Bush Administration happily taking a back seat, professing confidence the EU can do the job, and that it is the EU’s job to do. That’s wrong. The EU failed to head off the previous wars in ex-Yugoslavia, and its current effort does not have bright prospects. It’s not time, and it may never be time, to send the 82nd Airborne to Macedonia, but it’s past time for an aggressive U.S. diplomatic push to defuse the conflict. If the smug Bush crew continues to believe that the Macedonia crisis does not threaten our national interests, they may soon be confronted with a very real problem from hell.
The headquarters of Telecom Somalia is filled with the sights and sounds of Mogadishu-style success. Customers pour through the entrance, funneling past machine-gun positions that flank the front doors. After a pat-down by security guards, who take temporary possession of any guns and knives, they enter the lobby and line up at the appropriate counters to pay their bills or order new service. Clocks on a wall display the time in New York, Paris, London, Sydney, and Karachi—reminders of an outside world that has pretty much left Somalia for dead. Computer keyboards clatter as workers punch in information. Customers chat and argue with one another in a gregarious manner that makes the lobby feel like a town square—all the more so if a goat that’s being herded down the street happens to stray inside.
Telecom Somalia is the largest company in Mogadishu. It has 700 employees, and it offers some of the best and cheapest phone service in Africa. It also provides a clue to the possible resuscitation of the world’s most famous failed state. In 1995, when the international community decided to wash its hands of Somalia and the last United Nations peacekeepers left the country, Mogadishu was a Hobbesian horror show. It remains a miserable and unstable place, a city where taxi drivers ruin their own vehicles, denting the body work and smashing the windows, so that thieves will not bother to steal them. But it is less dismal than it used to be, and better times may be on the way, owing to a new generation of businessmen who are determined to bring the lawless capital back to life.
Prime among the city’s entrepreneurial leaders is Abdulaziz Sheikh, the chief executive of Telecom Somalia. When I visited him last summer, in a small office on the fourth floor of the company’s headquarters, he was being blasted by a hurricane-force air-conditioner that nearly drowned out the constantly ringing phones on his desk. “You need to be here twenty-four hours a day,” he said, explaining that he lives as well as works on the premises. Sheikh had the running-on-fumes look of a campaign chairman in a never-ending race, but at least he appeared to be winning. Anyone can walk into the lobby of his building, plunk down a $100 deposit, and leave with a late-model Nokia that works throughout the city, in valleys as well as on hilltops, at all hours. Caller ID, call waiting, conference calling, and call forwarding are available. There are two other cellular-phone firms in town, and the three recently entered into a joint venture and created the first local Internet-service provider. Not all battles here are resolved by murder.
Mogadishu also has new radio and television stations (one night I watched the Somali equivalent of Larry King Live, in which the moderator and his guest, one of the city’s leading Islamic clerics, fielded questions from callers), along with computer schools and an airport that serves several airlines (although these fly the sorts of airplanes that Americans see only in museums). The city’s Bekara market offers everything from toilet paper, Maalox, and Colgate toothpaste to Viagra, sarongs, blank passports (stolen from the Foreign Ministry a decade ago), and assault rifles. The international delivery company DHL has an office in Mogadishu, where its methods can be unorthodox: if a client has an urgent package that cannot wait for a scheduled flight out of the country, the company will dispatch it on one of the many planes that arrive illegally from Kenya every day bearing khat, a narcotic leaf that is chewed like tobacco but has the effect of cocaine.
Mogadishu has the closest thing to an Ayn Rand-style economy that the world has ever seen—no bureaucracy or regulation at all. The city has had no government since 1991, when the much despised President Mohammed Siad Barre was overthrown; his regime was replaced not by another one but by civil war. The northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland have stabilized under autonomous governments, but southern Somalia, with Mogadishu at its core, has remained a Mad Max zone carved up by warlords for whom fighting seems as necessary as oxygen. The prospect of stability is a curious miracle, not simply because the kind of business development that is happening tends to require the presence of a government, but because the very absence of a government may have helped to nurture an African oddity—a lean and efficient business sector that does not feed at a public trough controlled by corrupt officials.
Similarly, the lack of large-scale (and often corrupting) foreign aid might have benefits as well as drawbacks. Somali investors are making things happen, not waiting for them to happen. For example, on the outskirts of town, on a plot of land the size of several football fields and surrounded by twenty-foot-high walls, workers recently completed a $2 million bottling plant. Everyone refers to it as “the Pepsi factory,” even though Pepsi is not involved. The project’s investors say the plant will become a Pepsi factory: they figure that if they begin producing soft drinks, Pepsi or some other international company will want to get in on the market.
Many of the larger companies in Mogadishu, including the bottling plant, have issued shares, although there is of course no stock exchange or financial authority of any sort in the city. Everything is based on trust, and so far it has worked, owing to Somalia’s tightly woven clan networks: everyone knows everyone else, so it’s less likely that an unknown con man will pull off a scam. In view of Somalia’s history, this ad hoc stock market is not as implausible as it may sound. Until a century ago, when Italy and Britain divided what is present-day Somalia into colonial fiefdoms, Somalis got along quite well without a state, relying on systems that still exist: informal codes of honor and a means of resolving disputes, even violent ones, through mediation by clan elders.
Of course, the lack of a government poses problems, especially with respect to the warlords. Sheikh and his fellow businessmen have kept them at bay by paying them protection money and by forming their own militias. Those manning the machine guns outside Telecom Somalia are employees of the company, and when the firm’s linemen go out to lay new cables (they used to string overhead lines, but those got shot up by stray gunfire), they, too, are protected by company gunmen.
All of this is costly, so the business leaders have taken steps to bring about a new government—one that will keep its hands out of their pockets and focus on providing security and public services. The process began two years ago, when Sheikh and other entrepreneurs got fed up with the blight of checkpoints, at which everyone was required to pay small tributes to armed teenagers affiliated with various warlords. The businessmen decided collectively to fund a militia to get rid of the checkpoints, resulting in an armed force that is overseen by the city’s Islamic clerics. Having succeeded in its main mission, the militia now serves as an informal sort of police force, patrolling the streets in an effort to stop petty crime.
With the checkpoints gone and the warlords weakened by the loss of a key source of income, the business elite is bankrolling a transitional government that was appointed at a peace conference last August. The government does not yet control much more than the heavily guarded buildings that are its temporary headquarters, but it has begun deploying its own policemen in some parts of the city. The businessmen are pooling their company security forces to bolster the government and are trying to lure the warlords’ gunmen to its side with cash incentives. In February one of the leading warlords, Mohamed Qanyareh, agreed to support the government in exchange for ministerial posts for himself and his allies.
If the business community succeeds in returning Mogadishu to something resembling normalcy, it will have shown that a failed state, or at least its capital city, can get back on its feet without much help from the outside world. This would constitute not an argument against outside intervention but, rather, a lesson that intervention doesn’t have to be of the UN-led, billion-dollar variety.
Before leaving the city I met with Hussein Abdullahi, a well-educated businessman who fled Mogadishu in 1991 and wound up in Toronto, driving a taxi. Three years ago, during a return visit, he was struck by the fact that his Somali friends were living better at home than he was in Canada, at the bottom of the immigrant ladder. He decided to move back and now manages a thriving pasta factory, a bread factory, and a medical clinic. Sipping an ice-cold Coke in his office, Abdullahi offered to share a secret that, he promised, could make me rich. A chubby man with a beatific smile, he leaned forward conspiratorially.
“Everything is possible in Mogadishu now, everything,” he said. “If you have the money and the knowledge, you can do whatever you want. It is virgin here.”
Perhaps so, but only in the way of scorched earth.
“I represent the Mitterrand name,” the former French president’s son said unhappily as we lunched not long ago at Les Comediens, a Paris restaurant near his lawyer’s office. Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, 54, who has the long cheeks and gravelly voice of his father, spends a lot of time with his lawyer these days—enduring an investigation by the government over which his father, the late Francois Mitterrand, once presided like a king.
For much of his father’s tenure, Jean-Christophe headed the “Cellule Africaine,” overseeing France’s murky relations with its former colonies in Africa. His nickname, “Father Told Me,” referred to the phrase he reportedly invoked to remind visitors of his unique access to the sphinx-like president. But his father died of cancer in 1996, and French prosecutors have become far less deferential since. So it was that, on December 1, a team of French policemen barged into Jean-Christophe’s bedroom at dawn, stood by while he dressed, and seized financial documents, appointment books, party invitations, and anything else that might relate to illegal weapons-trafficking in Africa. “There’s a lot of madness in France now,” Mitterrand muses. “There have been a lot of political affairs, you know.”
Indeed, France’s newest fashion is corruption. It’s impossible to read a newspaper or watch television without coming across news that another politician or businessman has been arrested or questioned about (select one or more of the following): bribery, fraud, perjury, theft, tax evasion, abuse of influence, and so on. Once upon a time, the French gazed at the scandals across the Atlantic and muttered about Americans’ puritanical desire to punish politicians for typical human frailties. The French were far more sophisticated; they regarded their tolerance for political mischief as a sign of maturity.
The current wave of corruption scandals, however, serves notice that the French are, once more, following the path charted by their cultural nemesis. The reporters of Le Monde appear to be taking orders from Bob Woodward, and the folks at the Palais de Justice look like Ken Starrs on the Seine. Even the terminology is Americanized: The scandal that embroils Jean-Christophe is called “Angolagate.”
The call to account might have begun two decades ago if Francois Mitterrand, elected in 1981 as the first socialist president of the Fifth Republic, had honored campaign promises to govern in a more democratic, more transparent fashion than his conservative predecessors. But he quickly adopted their imperial style. Fourteen years passed. By the time Mitterrand left office in 1995, the grand questions of past decades—the cold war, Franco-German relations—had been settled. The behind-closed-doors privileges the political elite had enjoyed, almost as emergency powers during decades of threats to French interests, real and perceived, seemed unnecessary. It was time for France to become a normal country, and that meant, among other things, that politicians would not be treated as untouchable mandarins. The current division of power—a conservative president and socialist prime minister—hastened matters by diluting any single party’s political control over prosecutors.
This turn of events has not been welcomed at the Palais de l’Elysée, where President Jacques Chirac refuses to answer prosecutors’ questions about the Boss Tweed way in which he conducted himself as mayor of Paris. (A former aide accused Chirac of being present during the handover of a suitcase filled with $700,000 in kickbacks; Chirac dismissed the charge as “an abracadabra tale.”) Chirac’s handpicked successor at City Hall, now former Mayor Jean Tiberi, is being probed for arranging kickbacks, doling out city-owned apartments to friends and family, and placing political supporters on voting rolls even though they didn’t live in the city or, in some cases, were dead.
But these scandals are stale baguettes compared with the trial of Roland Dumas, former foreign minister and former president of the Constitutional Court. The 78-year-old was tried earlier this year for allegedly accepting bribes, including handmade shoes and antique statues, from his younger mistress, Christine Deviers-Joncour, who was on the payroll of Elf, a state-owned oil company. At the heart of the case—a verdict is expected in May—is the accusation that Dumas arranged the lucrative Elf job, which included several million dollars in salary, bonuses, and expenses, even though, according to prosecutors, Deviers-Joncour didn’t do much except sleep with her minister.
Dumas has denied the charges, telling the judge, with great indignation, “You cannot buy a statesman with a pair of shoes.” He threatened unspecified measures of revenge against “certain prosecutors” and suggested one of them had been a Nazi. His petulance is understandable: In the good old days, who would have cared if a minister placed his mistress on a government payroll?
And, just when it seemed things couldn’t get any juicier, Alfred Sirven, a top Elf official who allegedly funneled the money to Dumas’s mistress, was nabbed in a Philippine villa with a Filipina girlfriend several decades his junior. When police burst in, Sirven opened his cell phone, extracted its microchip, and swallowed it. With developments like that, France’s TV news has started sounding like an outlandish soap opera in which viewers learn what suave Roland really promised to mistress Christine, who is mad at Alfred for not defending her honor. As the woman who cut my hair one day remarked, “It’s really like `Dallas,’ isn’t it?” Watergate was dull by comparison.
Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, however, has not enjoyed the show. Three weeks after police ruined his sleep, he was arrested, driven to a nineteenth-century prison, and thrown into a cell next to a Nazi-era war criminal. He remained there for three weeks, until his mother paid his $725,000 bail (“ransom,” she called it). His alleged crime was splashed across the front page of virtually every French newspaper: that he accepted $1.8 million from a shadowy arms merchant for facilitating an illegal deal in which $563 million in weaponry was sold to Angola. Mitterrand says the payments were for consultations on an oil deal.
As Mitterrand progressed from one course to another during our leisurely lunch, sipping his way through several glasses of Bordeaux, he recalled his first encounter with the prosecutor who signed his arrest warrant.
“Name of father?” the prosecutor asked.
“There are sixty million people in France who know the answer!” Mitterrand’s lawyer objected.
The prosecutor said nothing as he typed into his computer: “F-R-A-N-C-O-I-S.”
I asked Mitterrand what went through his mind as he was shipped off to jail.
“Nothing,” he replied. “You are in shock.”
If all goes as planned, at 3:37 tomorrow morning a new space age will dawn. At that moment, a Russian capsule will bear into the blue sky and beyond the strangest cosmonaut of all time—a balding, 60-year-old businessman from Los Angeles who is paying a cool $20 million for his seat. Once just another bored multimillionaire, Dennis Tito has opened his considerable checkbook and is now hours away from achieving his childhood dream of looking down on Earth from 250 miles up in the heavens.
Tito would have preferred to purchase a seat on the space shuttle—living and training in Russia has not been much fun—but NASA was not interested. Since the Challenger disaster in 1986, NASA has banned sending “ordinary” people into space. The agency decided that for safety reasons only bona fide astronauts, the anointed ones with years of specialized training and testing at Johnson Space Center, would be sent to the heavens. But the Russian space program’s dire need for cash made Tito’s personal fortune the new right stuff for space travel. Despite NASA’s best efforts, the Russians refused to let America’s space bureaucrats decide who could fly on Russian capsules, thereby clearing Dennis Tito for the ride of his life.
What NASA still doesn’t seem to understand is that Tito’s trip is the best thing that could happen to it. Assuming he doesn’t push the wrong buttons or open any hatches during his visit to the International Space Station, Tito will show that NASA’s stodgy policy is a self-defeating anachronism, as outdated as an all-male golf club.
It’s easy to bemoan the notion of space tourists (where is the nobility in hawking seats on rockets?) but government funding for space exploration is not terribly generous these days, and public support for it is rather soft. Space tourism offers the prospect of injecting much-needed funds into the American and Russian space programs, as well as generating public interest and enthusiasm. It’s true that the prospect of multimillionaires flying into space may not be all that exciting for very long, but it’s only the beginning. James Cameron, the director of Titanic, has reportedly talked with the Russians about hopping aboard a Soyuz, and Mark Burnett, the creator of “Survivor,” wants to produce a game show in which the winner will be shot into the cosmos (the winner, not the loser). Somehow I think those sorts of stunts will get a lot more people interested in space than another run-of-the-mill resupply mission. And once the cost of such trips comes down—the laws of supply and demand operate in zero G—it won’t be just the mega-millionaires who can afford such jaunts but, perhaps, the millionaire next door, too; it would only be a matter of time before Dan Rather is wrestling Tom Brokaw for the honor of doing a live shot from space.
What’s remarkable, of course, is that it’s the Russians who are leading the way in commercializing space travel. They’ve stolen the risk-taking spirit that drove NASA and inspired the American public during the race to the moon: its sense of daring, its heroic astronauts, its willingness to try the unimaginable and suffer the occasional failure. Compare NASA’s anal culture—which is, of course, a product of America’s cosseted, tamper-proof mood these days—to Russia’s improvisational one. The recently deceased Mir space station was mocked, in its final years, for its considerable malfunctions, including a near-fatal fire and collision. The station nevertheless stayed aloft for 15 years. Its longevity is a considerable triumph, one we can attribute to cosmonauts who were masters at doing repairs on the fly and didn’t mind living in a leaky spaceship (the station oozed fluids on its inside and lost air through tiny punctures).
Necessity has turned the ever-adaptable Russians into avatars of orbital capitalism. Years ago they began selling advertising space on the sides of their rockets, and cosmonauts filmed commercials on Mir for, among others, an Israeli milk company and Omega, the watch company. They also unfurled, during a spacewalk, a replica of a giant Pepsi can made of nylon. And back on Earth, their bosses considered sending two actors to Mir to make a movie about a lone cosmonaut who refuses to return to Earth and is lured home by a female cosmonaut sent to fetch him; to the eternal regret of film buffs around the world, the project fell through for lack of funding.
NASA should take note. It ought to begin sending non-astronauts into space, though not just the filthy rich. Want to rouse public interest in space exploration? Why not have a national lottery, with the winner getting a round trip ticket to space? Why not send a writer up there, somebody like Tom Clancy, or J.K. Rowling, or me? If James Cameron wants to make a movie in space, NASA would be wise to help the directorial king of the world become king of the universe.
Sure, Tito had his share of problems in getting the Russians to accept his money. Initially he was supposed to fly to Mir, but the aging station became too costly and erratic and was deorbited before he could visit it. So Tito and the Russians changed their focus to flying him on a weeklong Soyuz mission to the ISS. After much wrangling—Tito was required, last week, to sign a contract in which he pledged to pay NASA for any damage he might cause on the station—and assuming clear skies over the launch pad in Kazakhstan tonight, Tito’s dream will come true. His timing is perfect; it is, after all, 2001.
All too often the American government has, in its handling of Balkan affairs, pursued a policy of “Do as I say and not as I do.”
Last week Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was on the receiving end of this treatment during his visit to Washington. The Bush administration is threatening to cut off a $100 million aid package and block World Bank and International Monetary Fund support for Belgrade if the authorities there do not arrest Slobodan Milosevic before March 31.
The idea is that Belgrade’s new leaders must abide by the international community’s norms of behavior if they hope to reap the benefits of being in the international community, and this means arresting Milosevic, the recently deposed strongman who has been indicted for war crimes by the U.N. tribunal in The Hague.
There is nothing wrong with the U.S. threat itself—Milosevic should be arrested, and the authorities in Belgrade, particularly Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, a democratic nationalist, appear to need a kick in the pants. But so does the Bush administration. The U.S. government, in the past decade, has a spotty record of honoring its commitments and obligations in the Balkans, and this has contributed to the region’s continuing instability. Bashing Yugoslavia’s new leaders, though useful, is less important in many ways than upholding the standards of integrity that we expect them—and others—to uphold.
In 1992 the first Bush administration went through the motions of condemning the Serb-led attack on Bosnia but did nothing to counteract it. The problem was handed off to the Clinton administration, which dishonored itself, as the war raged on, by making eloquent protestations and promising vigorous action and then doing little except blaming its European allies for dithering—as, for example, when U.N.-protected safe havens were overrun by Serb forces. There was a war room in the Clinton campaign but not, for a crucial few years, in the Clinton White House.
A U.S-led bombing campaign ended the war in 1995, but the peacekeeping force, spearheaded by U.S. troops, shied away from arresting indicted war criminals, including Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader whose whereabouts were not impossible to determine. (And, lest we forget, Milosevic’s crimes were amply documented at the time, but the White House treated him as a statesman, thereby bolstering his grip on power in Belgrade.)
A modest number of arrests have taken place in Bosnia since those early days, but it’s been a halfhearted effort, and the continued divisions there stem, in part, from the influence of men and women who should have been sent to The Hague years ago.
The same reluctance to do the hard work on the ground has hobbled the U.S.-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo. Ethnic Albanian extremists have intimidated and killed Serbs, just as Serbs effectively have taken control of a northern slice of the province and divided the city of Mitrovica.
Why has this happened? As in Bosnia, aggressive policing could expose the peacekeepers to greater danger, and the United States, which calls the shots, does not want any casualties.
Of greatest urgency, ethnic Albanian extremists in Macedonia have taken up arms against the democratically elected government, and much of the rebels’ supplies and some of their manpower comes from Kosovo. Stopping the flow of men and materiel is difficult and dangerous, but when NATO took control of Kosovo, it accepted the responsibility for making sure the province would not be used as a staging ground for terrorism or insurrection.
There is a new administration in Washington and, with it, the possibility that these obligations will be met. Whether President Bush likes it or not, the U.S. government is a key player in the Balkans. Just as the Serbs need to do the right thing, the Bush administration must do its job, too. If there’s one lesson that should have been learned in the past decade, it is that pointing fingers or telling others what to do is not going to bring about a Balkan endgame.
The Daily Californian is doing it again, bless its soul.
The newspaper at the University of California at Berkeley has always had a Madonna-like ability to reinvent itself, remaining relevant and controversial long after its presumed zenith. The Daily Cal found itself in the middle of a new controversy last week after it published a full-page advertisement against reparations for slavery. The ad, written by leftist-turned-right-wing-agitator David Horowitz, was titled, “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea—and Racist Too.”
It didn’t go over well. Protesters representing minority groups showed up at the Daily Cal offices and demanded an apology; they also confiscated whatever copies of the offending issue they could find. The incident was so heated that the police showed up. The next day the paper published a front-page apology and a lengthy explanation from its editor, who said the ad should not have run.
But this political seppuku only sparked another round of objections, this time from people who said the paper shouldn’t have apologized, because the ad was an expression of free speech (albeit paid for, at a cost of $1,200). The controversy has revived the familiar debate: Should speech, whether free or paid for, be limited at a college paper because it might be inflammatory, or racist, or repulsive?
All of this takes me back to 1983, when I was on the paper’s Senior Editorial Board and we had to decide whether to run a recruiting ad from the Central Intelligence Agency. The paper had refused such ads for many years, but the political climate was changing, and the paper was in dire financial straits. We needed the money.
After much debate along familiar lines, somebody suggested a brilliant compromise—we should run the ad with a prominent disclaimer, of the sort that appears on packs of cigarettes. It would say something like, “The Central Intelligence Agency is an organization that has been involved in the assassination of foreign leaders, the overturning of democratically-elected governments, and the training of right-wing death squads in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.” This way, the CIA would get its ad, we could take their money with clear consciences, and the language majors would find out that the agency was looking for a few good spies to perform work of a potentially unsavory nature.
In the end, we refused the ad, for what I remember were unfortunate doctrinaire reasons. I may have been responsible for some of those reasons, since, as co-editor of the editorial page, I was the enforcer of the faith, whatever it happened to be. We did, however, accept ads from the National Security Agency—I suppose because we thought they hadn’t actually killed anyone. Consistency clearly wasn’t our strong point. If you wanted ponderous thinking from no-nonsense strivers, you would have done better to swallow a No-Doz and consult the pages of the Stanford Daily or Harvard Crimson.
The CIA fuss wasn’t the only controversy at the time; in fact, it was a trifle compared to the Dos Equis uproar. The beer company had paid for color inserts that featured Hooters-ish females in tight shorts and tighter shirts—hardly the picture of womanhood that many of our highly-educated readers wished to see. A petition that ended up being several feet long was gathered on Sproul Plaza and then presented to the paper’s editors; some of the petition-bearers were carrying copies of the offending insert, aflame.
We issued the sort of abject apology that today’s Daily Cal editors issued for the slavery ad. I would not equate the two ads, though. A tasteless beer insert is planets apart, in its free speech implications, from an inflammatory political statement. You can check out the ad at Horowitz’s website and decide for yourself whether it should have run; you can read the apology, at the Daily Cal website, from the paper’s editor, too.
It’s easy to understand why many people view the ad as racist—it’s certainly provocative, as it was intended to be. It is also intellectually sloppy, to an extent that discredits its author. Some of what Horowitz writes makes sense, some is utter nonsense—all of which argues in favor of running his screed.
One of the lessons I learned after I graduated from Berkeley is that unaired prejudices tend to fester and can, one day, burst in ugly ways. The war in Bosnia, which I covered, is a case in point. Much of the nationalist fury in the Balkans, especially on the Serb side, stemmed from the manipulation of grudges that were not allowed to surface during Tito’s long rule. Just as truths were suppressed—the truths about which ethnic groups were and were not victims in World War II and before—so too were lies suppressed. Nothing was proved or disproved, and as a result, terrifying wars were fought on the basis of myths.
Enforced silence is an inadequate defense against prejudice and discord. A better strategy is to let everyone say what they think in a civil way. To be sure, Horowitz’s ad wasn’t especially civil, and the paper might have requested that he tone down his incendiary language. But by letting people air controversial views you at least discover who and what you’re up against, and can begin to figure out a way to bring the truth to those who need it.
All of which makes the ongoing controversy around the Daily Cal a positive event. The ad, the protests, the apology, the protests against the apology, and who knows what will come next—it amounts to a valuable debate on issues that deserve a public hearing. I learned from the controversies during my days at the Daily Cal, and enjoyed them; I hope the same holds true for the current group of besieged editors.
Just beware of the beer ads.
In Belgrade, you don’t need to be paranoid, but it helps. It’s late October, and I’m sipping an espresso at the Window Café, along Knez Mihailova, the city’s main shopping street, with Sasha Mirkovic, the general manager of B-92, an independent radio station that had the annoying habit of exposing the lies of Slobodan Milosevic’s government. Outside the café, the city is laced with remnants of the euphoria that greeted the downfall of Milosevic’s regime just a few weeks earlier. The government was washed away by a wave of protesters, many of whom found their way to the city center on October 5 by following a bulldozer as it cleared a path through police roadblocks. A few yards from where Mirkovic and I sit, street vendors are selling postcards of the famous bulldozer—now a political icon with treads—and they are selling copies of a CD of popular protest songs with a torn campaign poster of Milosevic on the cover, under the title “He’s Finished.”
Mirkovic is telling me about B-92, checking his watch, running his hand through his dark hair (which is not far from a crew cut), and asking the waiter to turn down the music. He suddenly stops and points to his cell phone, which he has placed on the table between us. Whenever Mirkovic had face-to-face conversations with sources or friends during the Milosevic era, he tells me, he not only turned off his cell phone but removed its battery. “It’s not paranoia,” says the stocky 33-year-old in the weary, know-it-all tone of a mechanic describing what’s wrong with a car. “If you don’t take out the battery, even though the phone is turned off, your conversation can be listened to.” Detaching the battery to illustrate, he adds: “People are still doing this, even though Milosevic is gone.”
I thought this was strange—another example of the suspicion that fills the Balkans with enough conspiracy theories to keep Oliver Stone busy for years—but other Serb journalists were telling me the same thing, assuring me, usually at the outset of our conversations, that they are not being paranoid. But none of them could explain how a switched-off cell phone could transmit their conversations to government snoops.
When I return to New York, I call Jeff Schlanger, chief operating officer of the security-services group at Kroll Associates, the global investigative company. Schlanger begins the conversation by reminding me of a simple fact: “A cell phone is a listening device.” He explains that technicians can reconfigure a phone to transmit a conversation even though its owner has turned it off. The trick, he explains, is to make the phone appear as though it’s been turned off when it is actually on. When I ask Schlanger what could be done to thwart this mischief, he suggests detaching the cell phone’s battery.
For quite some time, being an independent journalist in Serbia required a range of skills that edged into the realms of spycraft and diplomacy. That’s because the struggle for power in Serbia centered on information, not politics, and Mirkovic’s station was at the center of this war. B-92—which stands for Belgrade 92, its original frequency—began operating in 1989 as a low-wattage radio station for young people, but it quickly evolved, under Mirkovic’s boss, editor in chief Veran Matic, into the Serbian capital’s most influential source of honest and live news about the wars that were tearing apart the former Yugoslavia and about the government lies that were fueling the nationalist madness.
Milosevic made sure that the state-owned media, especially Radio Television Serbia (RTS), broadcast his nationalist propaganda at all times; the station was staffed by loyalists who heaped praise upon the politicians, including Milosevic, who was later indicted for war crimes by the United Nations tribunal in The Hague. While leaders of the police and army were making deals with the opposition in the weeks before Milosevic was ousted, the ever loyal men and women of RTS pumped out increasingly strident propaganda, and they didn’t stop until a mob stormed their headquarters on October 5 and set it on fire.
Milosevic understood that if you can brainwash your people, you don’t need to arrest them. He understood a corollary lesson, too—a regime that draws its power from propaganda rather than terror faces its greatest threat from independent journalists who have the desire and the means to expose its lies. Milosevic never banned any opposition party and rarely arrested politicians who opposed him; he did, however, force the closure of radio and television stations he didn’t like, and he didn’t hesitate to throw journalists into jail. They were the enemy, and 18 months before he was removed from power, Milosevic showed how much he feared B-92, the pillar of Serbia’s independent media, by trying to shut it down.
His failure to fully silence B-92 was emblematic of the war he fought—and, ultimately, lost—to control the hearts and minds of ordinary Serbs. B-92 outmaneuvered and outlasted Milosevic because it had truth on its side and a clever, dedicated staff, but it also had another asset—financial assistance from the United States government, which realized that in today’s world, an undesirable dictator can be undermined with accurate information as well as smart bombs.
It was April 2, 1999, and Sasha Mirkovic knew it was going to be a bad day at the office when he saw the police cars parked outside the Dom Omladine building. Dom Omladine is Belgrade’s center for young people, who like to drink coffee in the ground-floor café, surf the Internet on the first floor, or shoot pool in the basement. The building is also the headquarters for B-92, and when Mirkovic, one of its founders, walked past the news kiosk outside the building on that day, he prepared himself for the worst. The NATO alliance had recently launched the first wave of air strikes in its 78-day bombing of Yugoslavia, and Milosevic was cracking down on dissent. Mirkovic had already taken the precaution of deleting sensitive e-mail messages from his computer and slipping out of B-92’s office with documents that detailed the financial assistance the station received from foreign donors. Although B-92 acknowledged having accepted assistance from nonprofit groups outside the country, it never disclosed the dollar amounts—which appear to have been in the millions—or the donors themselves. And in the hands of Milosevic’s propaganda machine, those details could easily be used to tie B-92 to the NATO governments that were preparing to turn the country into rubble.
Mirkovic took the elevator to his sixth-floor office; it was 8:30 in the morning, and he had arrived early to conduct a phone interview with a foreign television network. Before the interview could begin, a security guard told him there were visitors outside. He stepped into the corridor and faced two plainclothes law-enforcement officials who flashed their IDs and said they were taking over the station. Behind them were four uniformed policemen, and behind them were half a dozen men in black leather jackets who looked as though they had seen too many Terminator movies.
The only B-92 staff on the sixth floor apart from Mirkovic were a security guard and a cleaning woman. It was not much of a match, especially since Mirkovic’s backpack was stuffed with some of the financial documents the police probably wanted. Stalling for time, Mirkovic asked the security guard to summon the cleaning lady, because, he said, he had her bag. When she appeared a minute later, squeezing through the leather jackets, Mirkovic casually handed her his backpack, and without missing a beat, she carried it to safety.
“When I went back into my office, a guy was already sitting in my chair,” Mirkovic tells me, smiling. “The guy was asking, ‘Where are the documents? Where are the folders?’”
Mirkovic refused to tell him and was tossed out of the office. He went downstairs and met with B-92 staffers who had gathered at the café on the ground floor. They decided that if they couldn’t have the station, they wouldn’t let the government have it, either.
The station’s engineers logged on to the computer terminals in the lobby of Dom Omladine and hacked their way into the B-92 computer system. They deleted whatever they could find—not just financial information but even audio files that contained the jingles that identified the station to its listeners. When the government reopened B-92, the following Monday, most of the staff showed up ostensibly to interview for their old jobs and pledge their loyalty to a new management. But they were in fact there to cause as much havoc as possible. Disc jockeys filched as many CDs as they could lay their hands on. Technicians, asked to show their skills or just show how the systems worked, logged on to the computers and deleted files. The station’s music director managed covertly to stick a screwdriver into an electrical outlet, shorting the station’s wiring and causing everything to crash.
Regardless, the state-run B-92 went back on the air several days later, with a new staff that hadn’t a clue about the alternative music the station used to play. They thought Radiohead was a tape cleaner of some sort. More important, their news broadcasts were the usual Milosevic drivel. The station was a fake, and listeners knew it; few tuned in. That was a victory of sorts for the station’s former staff, but they still confronted a basic question: What do we do now to get the truth onto the airwaves?
Sasha Mirkovic has the crisp, let’s-not-waste-a-second demeanor of a young dotcom executive, which is unusual in Belgrade. His mind even operates in a digital way, clicking from one subject to another so quickly that I find it necessary, on occasion, to ask him to slow down and explain something before clicking to another subject. He got his start in broadcasting as a disc jockey, which seems to have trained him to dread silence. Our encounter at the Window Café is a classic illustration of Mirkovic’s manic lifestyle, as he talks on his cell phone (he quickly reattached the battery after his demonstration) and jots reminders in his leatherbound datebook, which tracks his multiple appointments with diplomats, politicians, and journalists. A natural-born organizer, Mirkovic even keeps a list of every movie he has seen (he’s a film buff; there are several thousand titles on the list). I suggest that his life seems a bit frenetic. “It would be worse if I had a normal life and didn’t do anything against this regime,” he replies. “One of the main reasons I was doing this job at B-92 was because I could not live in this country without acting against this regime. That was the meaning of my life. But I was also thinking, of the people who left the country, One of us is making a mistake, them or me.”
In the early 1990s, B-92 occupied the same cultural ground in Serbia as Rolling Stone did in America in the 1960s; one of B-92’s slogans was “Trust no one, not even us.” Under the guidance of Veran Matic, its editor in chief, B-92 soon evolved beyond the alternative realm and organized get-out-the-vote campaigns while disseminating news not only about the wars that were taking place in Croatia and Bosnia but also about Serbia’s economic free fall. As Milosevic’s grip on Serbia’s media tightened through the 1990s, B-92 became the most influential antidote to government propaganda.
In late 1996, Milosevic’s Socialist Party stumbled in municipal elections but refused to cede control of the city halls it lost; nightly demonstrations ensued, and one of the first things the government did, hoping to short-circuit the protests, was ban B-92’s broadcasts, which had spread the word about the growing agitation. But the station’s journalists began broadcasting on the Internet, and their reports were bounced back into Serbia on shortwave broadcasts of the BBC and Radio Free Europe. Milosevic, who still cared about his international reputation, relented, letting the station resume its broadcasts and eventually letting the opposition take control of the city halls it had won.
This was the beginning of the end for Milosevic because it led to a blossoming of independent media outside Belgrade, where city councils ran their own radio and television stations and controlled licensing for new ones. These city-run stations parroted the government’s line while Milosevic’s Socialist Party was in charge, but that changed once the opposition took over. Mirkovic and Matic used this opening to establish a network of independent stations outside Belgrade that broadcast reports by the team at B-92. It was called the Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM is the acronym for the Serbian name for the group).
The members of ANEM—eventually 33 radio stations and 17 television stations—were shoestring operations; many used homemade transmitters. But even shoestring outfits need money, and this posed a problem for ANEM. Businesses were reluctant to advertise on antigovernment stations, and the country’s economy was in ruins, so there was no way that even a pro-Milosevic station could survive on advertising revenue alone.
This is where the U.S. government stepped in. Since the early 1990s, the independent media in Serbia had received modest support from a handful of private donors, including the Open Society Institute, funded by financier George Soros to promote democracy in places such as Serbia. After the 1996 municipal elections, the U.S. and its European allies became aware of two facts—that Milosevic was not an unstoppable force of nature and that his control over voters could be weakened by the work of the independent media. So the White House and its allies in Europe decided to funnel financial support not only to prodemocracy forces in Serbia—including opposition parties and student groups—but also to the media. This was a new approach: In the days of the cold war, programs that were designed to bring down foreign governments tended to involve covert support for coup makers or rebel factions. Serbia, however, had opposition parties and independent media, and they could topple the regime democratically if given the means.
“Support for the independent media and the democratic forces was crucial,” notes Jim Hooper, a former U.S. State Department expert on Yugoslavia and, until recently, executive director of the Balkan Action Council, a think tank that often criticized U.S. policy. “It was one of the elements without which Milosevic wouldn’t have been overthrown.” Some of the other key factors, Hooper believes, were the bombing of Yugoslavia, which weakened popular support for Milosevic, and international sanctions, which isolated the country.
By 2000, the U.S. was budgeting more than $25 million for democracy-building programs in Serbia, and nearly half of that was devoted to civil-society development, which included media-related projects, says Don Pressley, an assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Pressley tells me that a “substantial portion” of the media funding went to ANEM, though the exact amount is not forthcoming from Washington or Belgrade. U.S. officials say the problem is that their “partners” in Serbia do not wish to have the amounts publicized even now, because this could provide fodder for Serb nationalists who want to portray the anti-Milosevic uprising as having been made in the United States. “For a country in which 50 deutsche marks [about $25] is a lot of money, people would not understand these figures,” Mirkovic tells me.
Whatever the amount, the money was not wasted on expensive consultants or salaries for American expatriates, which often happens with U.S.-government-run foreign programs. This time, the funding went directly to local journalists, providing them with the resources to continue broadcasting.
“This can be done everywhere, and should be,” says John Fox, director of the Washington office of the Open Society Institute. “This can be done in all places, in Africa, in Asia, wherever there are independent journalists who are already taking risks, who are already showing the enterprise, and who already have credibility.”
In Serbia, it was the information age’s equivalent of a guerrilla war. Journalists who exchanged e-mail with foreign donors (and one another) used PGP, an encryption program, and instructed their foreign contacts not to fax sensitive documents because faxes are easy to intercept. Even nonsensitive faxes could cause trouble. The head of the Belgrade office of Norwegian People’s Aid, a nonprofit organization that quietly provided independent journalists with money and equipment—everything from transmitters and laptops to air conditioners—tells me of his horror at receiving a faxed invitation from the State Department to speak at a seminar it was organizing. The next day, the fax was leaked to the Serbian minister of information, who used it to portray the Norwegian group as an instrument of U.S. policy.
One of the point men in Belgrade for distributing U.S. aid is Dusan Masic, a former news editor at B-92 who has worked, since April, for the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), a Washington-based nonprofit that is one of the principal channels for U.S. funding to independent media. When I meet with Masic in Belgrade, he is still operating in a quasi-fugitive manner, with no office or business cards. We get together at a café in downtown Belgrade, and he begins by asking wary questions about my background and this magazine.
His caution eases somewhat, but when I bring up the issue of U.S. financial aid, he smiles and says, “I can’t talk about that.” Still, I ask him which media outlets receive funding from IREX. He won’t say. How did he transfer the money into the country? He won’t say. He agrees, however, to disclose a trick of his unusual trade: Whenever he has a confidential, face-to-face talk with someone, he detaches the battery from his cell phone.
By the time B-92 was taken over by the Milosevic regime, in April 1999, the flow of foreign assistance was well under way, so resources were available to bring the station to life on the Internet and to allow its journalists to produce radio and television programs that could be shown on ANEM stations elsewhere in the country. B-92 was renamed B2-92 to differentiate it from the government-hijacked station on the FM dial, and it broadcast on a new website, freeb92.net.
It was not by chance that an English name was used for the site and that its content was translated into English. The site’s domestic impact was limited because few Serbs have the high-speed modems needed for real-time broadcasts, but with texts and programs in both English and Serbian, the site was a useful resource for journalists and diplomats outside Serbia, as well as an important PR tool for the station’s editorial team, which wanted to demonstrate to the outside world that they were still at work.
Security was a critical issue as the station went into its guerrilla mode; the NATO bombing in the spring of 1999 prompted Milosevic to declare martial law, giving his regime sweeping powers. Just a few days after the takeover, Slavko Curuvija, an independent publisher who was critical of Milosevic, was gunned down on a Belgrade street. The assassination was widely blamed on thugs working for the government, and independent journalists like Mirkovic took the warning to heart. Mirkovic attended Curuvija’s funeral and recalls, “Everybody was saying, ‘Take care; take care.’” Mirkovic went semiunderground, often staying with friends, and on the 50th day of the bombing, his boss Matic fled to Montenegro because of rumors he would be murdered. Mirkovic stayed behind, in sole control of the B2-92 team.
Once the bombing ended, in June 1999, the political atmosphere relaxed and the B2-92 team was able, from August, to broadcast on a Belgrade frequency controlled by a sympathetic opposition party. But in May 2000, when Milosevic initiated another media crackdown, B2-92 was yanked off the air again and returned to the Internet. It was not heard on the FM dial until Milosevic was deposed in October.
During the crackdowns in April 1999 and May 2000, B-92’s role as the principal outlet for honest and current news was assumed by a scrappy station, Radio Index, which was founded by Nenad Cekic, who had broken away from B-92 in a murky dispute in the early 1990s. Depending on whom you believe, Cekic was either fired or asked to resign for stealing equipment or cutting a deal with the government or opposing alleged corruption at the station—or for other reasons that neither he nor his detractors wish to mention. In any event, Index played second fiddle to B-92 throughout most of the 1990s until B-92 was forced off the air. Cekic kept his station on the air by, among other things, hiding one of its transmitters in an unfinished home on a hilltop above Belgrade. It seems that some of the independent media’s most bitter feuds are conducted between people who should be allies, and the Index and B-92 teams are no exception: They despise each other more than they appear to despise Milosevic.
“B-92 became popular in the West because of their self-promotion,” Cekic tells me in his smoke-filled office on the 17th floor of Belgrade’s tallest building. While we talk, he waves a pair of scissors in the air, saying, “I have a strong impression that your government wasted your money.”
Cekic notes that when Milosevic lost the first round of the presidential election on September 24, Index spread the word about the results and about Milosevic’s attempt to tilt the ballot-counting in his favor. In the subsequent ten days, which decided the future of Serbia, everyone relied on Index for up-to-date information. Cekic is acid in his assessment of B-92: “They were not around when the revolution happened. Oops.”
The two stations represent different cultural styles. B-92 was always cool and trendy, though perhaps a bit too highbrow for the working class. Index was downmarket, the New York Post of the Serbian radio world, playing top-40 hits and featuring, on its advertising posters, a woman’s scantily clad torso. Foreign donors were well aware of the differences, both cultural and political, between the two stations and brokered a truce after the local elections in 1996, persuading the B-92 team to bring Index into the ANEM network. But Cekic, arguing among other things that his station was a major player in the media world, demanded greater say within ANEM than Matic and Mirkovic wanted to give.
“We were not so happy because we knew Cekic,” Mirkovic tells me one day. “He really started to be destructive. He is telling these stories that we didn’t want to show him the books. But he is not the person who I am going to show books to. I show ANEM’s books to donors, and he can ask donors if he has questions. So we expelled him.”
Cekic’s bitterness is extreme, though it’s certainly true that his station was more influential than B-92 in the final months, perhaps even the final year or two, of Milosevic’s regime, thanks to Index’s ability to continue broadcasting. Despite this, ANEM received the bulk of foreign aid for the independent media, and little of it reached the coffers of Index, much to the dismay and rage of Cekic, who now faces the possible demise of his station due to lack of funds.
“They are not a news organization,” Cekic says of his nemesis. “They are a private group for collecting money. That must be recognized in the West. They are interested in money, not journalism.”
When I ask Mirkovic about these accusations, he initially says he doesn’t want to exchange insults—then proceeds, as we walk through town toward his office, to do precisely that. He accuses Cekic of collaborating with a fascist party that was part of Milosevic’s coalition government. “They were in a kind of deal with the Radical Party, especially with the minister of information, who protected them,” Mirkovic says. (Cekic denies it.)
We soon arrive at Mirkovic’s new office in a dull building above a pharmacy and grocery store in the center of town. There are a couple of desks and chairs, a poster for a Moby CD, several new computers, and, of course, a haze of cigarette smoke. “Do I look like a person who has a lot of money?” Mirkovic asks. “This is stupid, you know.”
It is a Monday evening three weeks after Milosevic was overthrown, and Sasha Mirkovic is heading from his office to a reception at the Turkish Embassy. This is a big part of his life now: schmoozing with diplomats and politicians and businessmen. The corridors of power are wide-open, and they are crowded with friends, not enemies. Mirkovic walks up Kneza Milosha, a boulevard that is a visual reminder of Serbia’s recent history. At its lower stretch lie the ruins of the Defense Ministry and Army Headquarters, bombed by NATO in 1999. Farther along the boulevard is a looted office of the political party controlled by Milosevic’s much-despised wife; the office was attacked and destroyed in the uprising in October, and the graffiti on its walls reads, in English, “Freedom! Revolution!”
As Mirkovic walks by, he passes the head of the U.N. office in Belgrade; they exchange warm greetings. The city remains in a celebratory mood. Inside the embassy, several waiters recognize Mirkovic—who, amid the suited diplomats and politicians, is wearing a T-shirt under a frayed sweater—and they congratulate him on regaining control of B-92 after the long blackout that began in April 1999…a lifetime ago, it seems. Mirkovic scans the room and notices two ministers of the new government; they are friends of his from the University of Belgrade.
An acquaintance approaches him and mentions that a businessman is coming to Belgrade to find a publishing partner for Serbian editions of Playboy and Cosmopolitan. Would B-92, which published several political books in recent years, be interested?
The long-range plan is to turn B-92 and ANEM into self-supporting media companies producing provocative programs that the state-controlled media, now slavishly loyal to the new president, Vojislav Kostunica, will shy away from and that most commercial stations will shun in favor of sitcoms and soap operas. In November, B-92 broadcast a 30-minute NPR documentary about war crimes committed by Serb soldiers in Kosovo—precisely the sort of program that other media outlets even now wouldn’t touch. Mirkovic hopes that B-92’s hallmark radio program, Catharsis, which delved into issues of war and guilt, will be expanded into a television program, and he’s hard at work putting together a new television studio for a nightly news broadcast.
Matic and Mirkovic do not expect foreign donors to remain generous for much longer now that Milosevic is a private citizen living in a villa surrounded by high walls in a posh suburb of Belgrade. Although their foreign donors may not realize that the removal of Milosevic does not mean the full advent of democracy and openness, Serbia is no longer as crisis-ridden as it used to be, and the kindness of strangers is unlikely to linger.
ANEM and B-92 need to stand on their own commercial feet, and already ANEM—with Mirkovic as vice-president—has acquired the rights to broadcast NBA games. ANEM is also negotiating with MTV to broadcast its music programs.
Mirkovic does not bother to detach the battery from his cell phone before replying to his acquaintance’s query.
“Playboy? Cosmopolitan?” he says. “Sure, I’ll meet with the guy.”
The main exhibition hall in Belgrade is a visual curiosity. A concrete-and-glass dome designed during the Tito era by an architect of great imagination, the hall looks like a flying saucer that somehow landed in the Balkans. It was an appropriate setting for Serbia’s annual book fair, held late last October—an event that had a decidedly out-of-body quality. The fair’s official theme, chosen before pro-democracy protesters ousted Slobodan Milosevic from power, was “2000 Years of Christianity,” but the real theme, of course, was the startling events of the previous three weeks.
For Serbian writers the lifting of political tyranny has brought a new and different tyranny: that of the marketplace. Nowhere was this more evident than at the signing booth manned by Vladimir Arsenijevic, one of the country’s most critically acclaimed writers. In 1994 Arsenijevic burst onto the literary scene with In the Hold, a novel that tells the story of a young couple in Belgrade struggling against heroin addiction as they try to find meaning, or just a reason not to give up, in a nation of madness and murder. In the Hold is the sort of small masterpiece that tends to emerge from horrible times. It won the Nin prize, Yugoslavia’s most prestigious literary award, in 1995, and has been translated into eighteen languages. The book turned Arsenijevic into Serbia’s hottest young writer—its Dave Eggers, if you will, though a darker version, and without a movie contract.
At the fair Arsenijevic was plugging his new book, Mexico: War Diaries. I had imagined that he would draw a tremendous crowd: the book, which chronicles Arsenijevic’s experiences during the nato bombing of Yugoslavia and describes his friendship with an ethnic Albanian writer from Kosovo, had gotten excellent reviews. But when I stopped by his booth on the opening day of the fair, there was no signing going on; he had sold just half a dozen books in the previous four hours. Nearby, the Serbian translation of the newest Sidney Sheldon novel was selling briskly. Arsenijevic was a good sport about it all. “If normalcy means people reading Sidney Sheldon or Jackie Collins, that’s fair enough,” he said, shrugging.
It is an odd phenomenon that literature can be a casualty of liberation, but it’s one we’ve seen before. Consider what occurred in Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union after the Berlin Wall collapsed, in 1989. Writers and artists who had sacrificed and achieved so much under communism became, almost overnight, nonpersons (unless, as in the case of Vaclav Havel, they became politicians). Profound books that had been passed from hand to hand, often at the risk of arrest, ended up in remainder bins from Prague to Moscow. Readers did not want to be reminded of the bad old days, and the advent of democracy brought people much else to entertain themselves with, including American best sellers, the Muzak of literature. In Moscow today it is much easier to find a book by Danielle Steel than one by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose books are often out of print.
Under a dictatorship—whether in Communist-era Eastern Europe or in apartheid-era South Africa or in an Argentina run by generals—the mere act of acquiring certain books becomes a form of social protest. Yugoslavia had been no exception, as I learned when I met with Mileta Prodanovic, a prominent writer and artist whose publisher had a booth not far from Arsenijevic’s. Prodanovic told me that many people had felt “humiliated in a psychological sense” by the hypernationalism and corruption that pervaded Serbian society under Milosevic. “You would enter a book shop and buy a book to prove to yourself that you were still an intellectual or still human,” he recalled. “I think this motive is going to disappear.”
As it does, the pursuit of economic success may well take its place. For prosperous members of the consumer society that Yugoslavia is destined to become, the acquisition of goods will be a priority. Among the middle-class intelligentsia, dinner conversations are much likelier to focus on the merits of vacationing in Florence or Nice than on the merits of a new play by Dusan Kovacevic, the country’s leading dramatist. For the large number of people who will have a difficult time in the economic transition under way in Yugoslavia (prices for food and other staples, kept low by Milosevic-era subsidies, have already shot up), the struggle to put bread and slivovitz on the table will no doubt become the dominant preoccupation. Understandably, few in such situations will want to read about their own hardships. Being poor is much less interesting˜even to poor people˜than being oppressed.
Oppression provides writers not only with a sympathetic, even determined, audience but also with compelling material. Normalcy represents unknown turf for authors accustomed to writing under, and about, tyranny. “You do get better inspiration when times are rough politically, and probably literature does come out with better works, because there are more questions at stake,” Arsenijevic explains. “You tend to question everything, down to very personal things. But when times are not rough, you just switch off part of your mind, in a way.”
Of course, I did not find any writer who mourned the passing of the Milosevic era. Kovacevic has spent more than a decade writing plays and screenplays—including the script for Underground, an award-winning 1995 film directed by Emir Kusturica—that chronicle his country’s agony. He’s had enough of it. He was in one of his notoriously acerbic, whiskey-drinking moods when we met at the book fair. “In the old system it was good to be a writer but horrible to be a citizen,” he remarked, pausing to enjoy the irony. “Now it’s time to have a change. A boring life—that’s my great wish.”
But does a mundane life have to mean a literature of the mundane—more Cheever than Kundera? In hindsight, the ebb of political literature in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union was somewhat predictable. Once communism fell, what more needed to be said about it? Communism was poison, and almost everyone knew it. In Serbia, though, the evil was nationalism, which is more a drug than a poison—and relapse is possible. Milosevic was ousted not because he led the country into four wars but because he lost the wars and brought economic ruin to his people. The atrocities committed in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo are infrequently mentioned in Belgrade—and for this reason Serbia’s writers, more than their counterparts in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, need to find a way to remind their compatriots of the evil in their past and the possibility that its roots live on. Selective amnesia is not unknown in the Balkans. As Prodanovic cautioned, “We are quick forgetters.”
Arsenijevic is keenly aware of this need, and of the difficulty that writers who try to address it will face. “People are not into huge ideas, like ten years ago,” he said. “They have matured: they don’t vote for demagogues and support them no matter what they do. But hardly anyone thinks of sorting out the relationships among the ethnic groups in Yugoslavia. That is a boring subject. What they want to think about is foreign goods.”
He believes that readers in Serbia will return to politically tinged literature one of these days. In the meantime, he has a backup plan. He recently decided that he didn’t like trying to earn his daily bread from writing, which is almost impossible in Serbia, even for him. So he got together with a group of friends and started a publishing house. He plans to write on the side, as he did before he became famous, when he paid his bills by being a short-order cook and a tour guide. His publishing house is called Rende, or “Grater”—a name he hopes will convey a certain edginess. Its first titles are Mexico: War Diaries and a book of poems by Arsenijevic’s Kosovar friend, Dzevdet Bajraj.
Publishing, of course, is a perilous commercial exercise in any country, let alone Serbia. Arsenijevic hopes to ensure Rende’s survival through an imprint called Org. The imprint has nothing to do with the dot-com world and everything to do with commercial smarts; a certain irony also applies. When I asked Arsenijevic what “Org” stands for, he replied, “Like orgy, orgasm.” The imprint’s first book, which Arsenijevic hopes to release soon, is a collection of pornographic poems by a violinist at the Belgrade Opera who is also a stripper. After that Arsenijevic would like to translate and publish Macho Sluts, by the California erotica writer Pat Califia. Instead of being crushed by the new market in Serbia, Arsenijevic hopes to master it. “The book is really well written and it’s, like, total porn,” he explained enthusiastically. “And the title translates really well into Serbian.”
The scent of revenge is in the air, and it smells a lot like beer.
Fans of the Red Star soccer team are pouring into a Belgrade stadium, where their squad will shortly face its archrival, Partizan. The last time these Serbian teams met, a fan was shot and killed with a flare gun.
A policeman frisks everyone at the entrance, checking for weapons, drugs, and alcohol, or any object that might be heaved at the players, such as the plastic bottle of mineral water in my pocket, which is confiscated. The ban on alcohol has, perversely, accelerated the drunkenness among the team’s hard-core fans, who are proud to be known as hooligans and wave British flags on occasion; they have consumed enough pregame beer to stay inebriated through the rest of the year.
Inside, the stadium is one part rave, one part Colosseum. Some kids light up fat joints (their marijuana comes from Albania), and the blissed-out, hyped-up behavior of others indicates that they are molecularly familiar with ecstasy and cocaine. The Red Star cheering section, where almost all the fans are male, feels like a Balkan frat party.
This let-the-good-times-roll ambience proves transitory, though. Fights break out, but of the tune-up variety, between Red Star fans who throw a few chemically laced punches before realizing they should save their best stuff for later on. The stadium begins to shake as the fans roar in unison at the Partizan cheering section at the other end of the stadium. Their shouts have a rolling, thunderous sound, like the battle cry of ancient Greeks at the gates of Troy, though with little of the Homeric dignity:
“Pussies and thieves! Pussies and thieves!”
“You’re choking/ You’re choking/ You’re choking/ On our dicks!”
The teams take to the field. Someone throws a red flare onto the pitch. It becomes clear in the coming minutes that flares are the preferred instruments for wreaking havoc at soccer games.
Alexander is a 26-year-old computer geek dressed in the team colors, red and white. He is mild-mannered for a Serbian soccer fan, and he is doing his best to explain what is going on.
“Is something like a civil war,” he says.
A yellow smoke bomb explodes among the Partizan fans, who, enraged, begin tearing up their seats and throwing them onto the track circling the field. Partizan is the visiting team, and this is no way for visitors to behave.
“We fuck your mother!” Red Star fans chant.
For most Serbs, violence is a member of the family. In the early nineties, the ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosnia was initiated by the Serbian warlord Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic-eventually indicted as a war criminal-who was also the leader of Red Star’s official (and feared) fan club; its nationalist hooligans were his fiercest soldiers. But in the past few years, instead of fighting on behalf of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, they turned against his regime, which had led the country into global isolation and economic misery. The first time most Serbs heard the opposition slogan, which roughly translates as “Slobo, kill yourself and save the nation,” was during Red Star games, when thousands of fans howled it with such in-your-face gusto that riot police tried to silence the troublemakers, wielding their batons like cleavers in an abattoir.
Nine days before this match, a popular rebellion ended Milosevic’s 13-year rule. His ouster has been cause for national celebration, but Red Star’s fans—who were among the frontline protesters storming the federal Parliament and other government strongholds—remain on the warpath because Partizan has been headed by Milosevic loyalists. Not all scores have been settled.
The game begins. Red Star controls the ball and moves toward the Partizan goal. Several flares are fired onto the field, in front of the goal, narrowly missing the players, who dribble around them as they blaze away, throwing off smoke and heat and light.
“Is something normal,” Alexander explains.
The Partizan fans are becoming frenzied. A small fire has started in their section, and now they are hurling their chairs onto the field in earnest, a hail of jagged edges. The Partizan captain, Sasa Ilic, jogs off the field and onto the track, trying to talk some sense into his fans, but they will not listen, and he retreats before he becomes the target of their fury.
The hooligans on both sides are like stallions smelling brood mares in the distance, snorting and pawing the ground. Partizan fans are the first ones to climb the fence meant to prevent them from reaching the field. They rush ahead, lobbing flares, and as they do so, Red Star fans climb over their fence and surge forward, into battle, wildly.
“You see, it starts,” Alexander says, a touch of awe in his voice.
Mayhem. Players and coaches from both teams sprint toward a tunnel that leads off the field to safety, dodging punches and kicks along the way. The tunnel is flanked by a gauntlet of Red Star hooligans, so Partizan players duck and wrap their arms around their heads to absorb the blows. The important thing is to keep moving, because if they fall, the hooligans will swarm over them, saying hello with steel-toed boots.
Alexander watches the riot from the stands. He is not a hooligan, though he has, like most members of the fan club, engaged in violence from time to time; it is unavoidable, he says, when the other side attacks. He knows that tonight’s game, just three minutes old, is over, and he doesn’t much like the spectacle now taking its place.
“This is bad, this is bad, the whole situation,” he whispers. It’s not clear whether he means the game or the state of the nation.
A new chant arises from the Red Star supporters.
“Let’s go, let’s go! Everyone attack!”
The home team does not lose riots. Red Star fans pour onto the field. Ilic, the Partizan captain, is a marked man; by the time he staggers to safety, he has several broken ribs. Ljubisa Tumbakovic, Partizan’s coach, is a few steps slower than his players, and he loses a couple of teeth in the maelstrom and flees the field with a nasty gash on his forehead. He will later tell reporters the riot was the worst moment of his career.
Once the teams have disappeared from the field, the hooligan-on-hooligan violence intensifies. Red Star supporters are beating the daylights out of injured Partizan fans who have fallen to the ground in fetal heaps. It is brutal stuff, one kick after another delivered to crumpled, sandbag bodies.
“Look, they are coming now, the blues,” Alexander says.
The police, known as the blues because of their uniforms, had been staunch defenders of Milosevic’s regime. They were staying out of the stadium because they didn’t want to incite the fans. But the fans got incited anyway, so the blues are wading into the Partizan section, which is being ripped apart. They club anyone within swinging distance-crowd control, Serbian style.
The blues, with helmets and shields, venture onto the field too, chasing Red Star fans from their wounded prey, and as the victorious hooligans return to their seats in the northern section of the stadium, they are cheered by their comrades. Some remove their shirts and raise their arms in triumph; they are young and muscled and bloodied and thrilled.
On the field, doctors and nurses in white coats treat the wounded, who are stretchered away. Dozens are hospitalized.
The field is clear. The police herd Partizan fans out of the stadium but hold back the Red Star contingent; if both sides exited at the same time, they would continue fighting outside. An announcer informs the crowd that the game has been canceled and tickets will be refunded at a later date.
After a half-hour, Red Star fans are allowed to leave. I ask Alexander and his friends whether they are going to have a drink somewhere. They are not. They are subdued, as is the rest of the departing crowd, which quietly walks past the garish house across the street from the stadium, where Arkan, the warlord who once led the fan club, used to live. Arkan was assassinated in Belgrade a year ago-a mob hit.
The thrill that everyone felt at the apex of the riot has faded. A sense of hollowness takes its place as fans realize they don’t have much to show for their efforts. In the coming days, Serbia’s soccer association will ban fans from Red Star and Partizan’s next two matches. The teams will play before empty stadiums.
The riot is like the wars Serbs fought in the past decade in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Croatia-convulsive, brutal, worthless. There are no more wars being fought now. But the culture of violence that Milosevic nourished has not been vanquished with his regime. The games go on.
By Karl Maier
Public Affairs. 327 pp. $26
Reviewed by Peter Maass
A book that begins with a taxi story usually begins colorfully. Karl Maier opens This House Has Fallen with a wild brawl that broke out when his taxi got caught in traffic in Port Harcourt, a hub of the oil industry in Nigeria. It was the sort of African gridlock in which exhaust fumes are more plentiful than oxygen, beggars wander from one car to another displaying withered limbs, and young boys hawk soft drinks. In such situations, the street becomes a mixture of suffocating market and freak show.
Maier’s driver was ordered by a policeman to move his taxi, but this was impossible because nothing was moving. So the policeman punched the driver, who then grabbed the cop by the throat, prompting the cop to swing back and reach for his revolver. The driver was not cowed. “I will kill you!” he screamed. “I will never forget your face!” The hostile parties were separated by soldiers standing nearby, the gridlock became ungridlocked, and everyone carried on with their tumultuous lives; it was just another day in Nigeria, another boiling point come and gone.
This House Has Fallen contains an exotic feast of vignettes of this sort about life in Nigeria, which is Africa’s most populous country. These lively scenes are the book’s strength but also its weakness. Maier recounts, for instance, a visit to the violent town of Wukari, where the notorious Mobile Police squads had come to be known as “Kill and Go” because of their utter brutality. He points out the curious fact that Nigeria’s air force has 10,000 men but fewer than 20 aircraft that can actually fly. And Nigeria, he notes, has earned at least $280 billion from oil exports since the discovery of oil in the 1950s, but much of this has been siphoned away by endlessly greedy officials; Nigeria has the unfortunate distinction of being known as the most corrupt country on the planet, and one of the poorest. “Almost the only time [Niger] delta people saw any impact of the oil was when it was spilled into the water in which they fished and bathed,” Maier writes after describing a journey down a polluted delta stream.
From 1986 to 1996, Maier covered Africa for the Independent, a British newspaper, and he has contributed to other publications, including The Washington Post. This is his third book on Africa, and he knows his subject well. He could not have chosen a better topic or a better time to write about it. Nigeria, like the rest of the continent, is at a crossroads. After suffering under a series of corrupt dictators, most of them generals, the country has, at last, a democratically elected leader, Olusegun Obasanjo, who can count on the support of Western governments—for whatever that’s worth these days. But as Maier notes, a collapse beckons. “The Nigerian state is like a battered and bruised elephant staggering toward an abyss with the ground crumbling under its feet,” he writes.
Nigeria is the sort of African country that Americans should care about—not only because of its enormous suffering and poverty but because of the enormous potential it possesses and the prospect, if the ground holds under its feet, that it could give a boost to the entire continent. It would be fortunate, then, if This House Has Fallen were the sort of book that could engage and educate a broad public, as for example David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb, about the fall of communism in Russia, did so well. In a sense, Nigeria, with its large population, vast natural resources and stunning corruption, is the Russia of Africa, but This House Has Fallen is hobbled by too many taxi-style tales to do it full justice. Foreign correspondents spend a lot of time in taxis, going to interviews or press conferences or lunches or whatever. Taxi drivers are colorful personalities—is there such a thing as a taxi driver without an opinion on everything?—so it can be quite easy to spice up an article or a book with them. But such stories are often a hint that the writer has been spending too much time on the move and not enough time in living rooms or in kitchens or in villages, getting to the essence of what life is like for people who don’t earn their living by the quarter-mile.
This House Has Fallen roams at top speed from one troubled town to another, from one pessimistic politician to another. This is useful in many ways, because Maier provides readers with a taste of what Nigeria offers in the way of tribalism, politics, religion and history. And he describes, quite well, the system of cronyism that has beggared the nation. Some of his profiles are scintillating; for example, he takes readers to the slums of Lagos, where a popular Pentecostal preacher, Temitope Balogun Joshua, heals writhing parishioners with shouts of “Fire all over de body!”
But what does it all mean? What keeps these people going in such miserable circumstances? Where is Nigeria heading? One wishes that Maier, who has written a good book, had spent more time sitting under a tree, thinking about what he saw or talking to Nigerians about it, rather than rushing off to the next appointment by taxi.
A look at oil’s indelible impact on the countries that produce it and the people who possess it.
Dispatches from the war in Bosnia, published in 1996 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
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