The tennis courts at Casa d’Italia, a country club in Mogadishu, have nourished several generations of players. First, there were the Italians who built the club and who controlled Somalia in the days of Mussolini; apparently, you had to develop a good backhand to be a good fascist. After Somalia gained independence in 1960 and took an ill-advised turn toward Marxism, Russian advisers arrived to offer pointers in building a socialist state, and they, too, found time to work on their ground strokes. Back then, Somalis rarely appeared on the courts except as ball boys. But today the regulars at Casa d’Italia are Somalis. After all, only a handful of foreigners remain in lawless Mogadishu, mostly Libyan and Egyptian diplomats, and they behave like hostages, rarely venturing outdoors.
At first glance, the tennis scene in Mogadishu appears another casualty of the decade-long civil war. Casa d’Italia’s two courts represent 66 percent of the functional playing surface left in town, and their condition is not what it could be. The unpainted cement courts are marred by cracks that spider from the walls to the nets, and players must take care to avoid the gouges left by direct mortar hits. The streets of Newark, New Jersey, are smoother. Casa d’Italia’s restaurant, which in its heyday boasted splendid penne and Chianti, served its last meal long ago. It is now a looted hulk of concrete and metal, its once immaculate grounds a refuge for goats. The surrounding neighborhood is an end-of-days panorama of war blight, filled with buildings that resemble construction skeletons picked clean by the ravages of battle and thievery. It evokes comparisons to Grozny or Sarajevo or Dresden, and, if one’s mind doesn’t make the connection, the occasional round of gunfire jogs the memory.
Even so, a miracle is taking place at Casa d’Italia: Tennis is on the upswing. At almost any time of day, a visitor will hear the sound of balls being swatted back and forth. The swatting is being done by a squad of youths under the tutelage of Mogadishu’s Pied Piper of tennis, Abdul Rahman Warsame, the 37-year-old deputy president of the Somali Tennis Federation. Thanks to the several thousand dollars in equipment that the International Tennis Federation sends to Mogadishu every year, Warsame oversees the instruction of about 40 youths, many of whom might otherwise occupy their hands with assault rifles. “I encourage young boys and young girls to learn tennis instead of wasting their time in the streets,” he told me. “It contributes to our people and our country.”
During the early and worst years of the fighting, play was impossible. When Mohammed Siad Barre, the dictator nicknamed “Big Mouth,” was overthrown in 1991, the coalition of clan warlords who defeated him decided that instead of setting up a new government, they would fight among themselves—which they did, quite tenaciously, causing mass starvation. In 1992, an American-led U.N. force hit the beaches. But after 18 U.S. soldiers were killed the following year in a botched raid on a warlord’s presumed lair—which led to the famous and humiliating spectacle of a GI’s corpse being dragged through the streets—the United States withdrew its contingent. Soon afterward, the remaining U.N. troops packed their bags, too, and the warlords were free to feast upon their suffering nation.
The fighting has tapered off in recent years, largely because of exhaustion, and this has allowed tennis enthusiasts to retake what’s left of Casa d’Italia. Soccer remains Somalia’s most popular sport by far, but Warsame is making sure tennis is not forgotten as Mogadishu tries to reassemble itself. The tennis federation pays “rent” to the local thugs so they won’t attack the players. There’s still occasional fighting in the neighborhood, which means the kids risk substantially more than pulled muscles when they take to the courts. But they still play—in an atmosphere several universes removed from the elite tennis camps that create the likes of Andre Agassi and Anna Kournikova. The afternoon I visited, a burst of gunfire interrupted my chat with Warsame. None of the kids so much as flinched. “It’s our daily life,” Warsame explained. “It’s normal.”
The star of Somali tennis is 18-year-old Abdisamad Hussein Jumale. He started playing six years ago but occasionally had to flee the courts under fire. When there was too much fighting around Casa d’Italia-which sits alongside the oft-disputed “green line” that separates north and south Mogadishu-Jumale practiced in a gym. When the fighting prevented him from leaving home, as it frequently did, he watched the same tennis video over and over. When I asked how many times he had seen it, he was speechless for a moment, then concluded, “Uncountable.” And when asked why he risked venturing onto the courts-his uncle, also a tennis fanatic, was killed while practicing-he shrugged and said, “I loved tennis too much.” Jumale does not own a racket; few players can afford one. Some actually practice without shoes. So he plays with a racket borrowed from the Somali Tennis Federation and shares it with anyone who needs it. As we talked courtside, one of his friends lifted it from his hands to hit a few shots. If someone needs his sneakers, he loans them, too. That’s the way things work.
When I visited, Jumale was practicing six hours a day, six days a week, training for this year’s Olympics. According to Warsame, Jumale had played in only one international tournament, in Nairobi, and lost his first-round match. Even so, the Somali Olympic Committee-the only national organization that has survived the fracturing of the country-was applying on his behalf for a wild-card invitation to Sydney. I couldn’t resist the temptation to rally with a potential Olympian, so I asked Jumale if he wouldn’t mind hitting a few balls with me, which he was glad to do. It quickly became apparent that Pete Sampras doesn’t have much to fear. But, then again, Sampras has never had to hit the ground, racket in hand, because somebody was shooting at him. Surely that should count for something.
Several weeks after my visit to Mogadishu, I learned that the International Tennis Federation had decided against granting Jumale one of its coveted wild cards. I felt sorry for him, but I suspect he won’t jump into the warm Indian Ocean and let the sharks devour him. After all, things are going a lot better in Mogadishu. The business sector is growing at a surprising clip-there’s even a DHL office in town-and a peace conference in Djibouti agreed in early August on a transitional parliament that will, if all goes according to plan, guide Somalia out of the abyss; the parliament has already chosen a new president.
Jumale could see it coming—in the survival, and renaissance, of Somali tennis. “People watch us and are surprised,” he told me. “They say it is a sign of the beginning of peace.”
Posted: Monday, Oct. 9, 2000, at 10:30 a.m. PT
It may not have been the polite thing to do, but I just gate-crashed a revolution. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was not in the mood to provide journalists with invitations, in the form of visas, as his judgment day neared, so I boarded a Swissair flight from Zurich to Belgrade and hoped for the best. The options included a) being arrested at the airport; b) being allowed into the country; or c) joining a Balkan version of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. If you guessed c), you would be correct.
I was among more than 60 foreign journalists who arrived at the airport on Friday, and the police had no idea what to do. A day earlier several hundred thousand demonstrators had marched through the streets and stormed the federal parliament building and the national TV station. Now the protesters were back in the streets again, the government was collapsing, and the airport cops didn’t know whether to imprison us or serve champagne.
So, they told us to wait in the lounge. An hour passed, then two. The police were waiting for instructions from the government, but it wasn’t clear whether Yugoslavia still had a government, or if it did, who was in charge of it. Most of us had cell phones, so frantic calls were made to people who might be able to liberate us. A colleague reached Zarko Korac, an ever-helpful opposition politician, and Korac promised to do what he could but explained, speaking on his cell phone, that at that moment he was leading a march of 100,000 people, so he really had his hands full.
Few foreign journalists were in the city, so nearly everyone at the airport was receiving calls from desperate editors. It didn’t seem to matter that our main source of information was listening to hourly bulletins on the BBC World Service. A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter was called by an editor at a TV network in New York. Could she interview him about the events in Belgrade? The reporter explained our out-of-touch predicament, but that posed no problem for the editor, who read him the latest wire reports and told him she would call back in a few minutes to hear him tell her what she had just told him. Elsewhere, a British correspondent was phoning in a convincing account of the events occurring in the city, a ramparts dispatch that could at any moment have been interrupted by an announcement about an arriving or departing flight.
After eight hours, we were released into the city, and when I arrived at my hotel and called a Serbian friend, the first thing he said was, “Did you hear the news? Milosevic resigned tonight.” It was well past midnight, and I headed for the city center, where the partying was still underway. There was dancing in the streets—I mean this literally—as strangers high-fived each other and friends embraced in group hugs, whirling around like tops. Everyone was happy and drunk, which seemed appropriate after a decade of four disastrous wars and international isolation.
The last act was played out on Saturday, when the newly elected federal parliament presided over the inauguration of Yugoslavia’s new president, Vojislav Kostunica. It was a peculiarly Serbian affair in which there were nearly as many bodyguards in attendance as politicians and journalists. The nastiest ones surrounded Vojislav Seselj, a 6 foot 5 inch redwood of a man who leads a party for which the gentlest description might be “fascist,” and who has been indicted for war crimes in the Hague. There were several indicted war criminals at the session and, likely, a sprinkling of unindicted ones. If you spend much time covering Serbia, you have to find some sort of equanimity in the company of these sorts of men. I have a soft spot for them, in the way, perhaps, that an infectious-disease specialist would be fascinated with samples of the smallpox virus.
Seselj’s bodyguards have the appearance of Sing Sing parolees on steroids. As he strode past with his posse forming a tight wedge around him, I didn’t stand a chance of getting more than a question in; I was, suddenly, the Sam Donaldson of the Balkans, shouting above the roar of the metaphysical rotors. I asked for his reaction to the overthrow of Milosevic, and he looked at me as though examining a piece of gum on the sole of his shoe.
“From which country?” he said.
“From America,” I replied.
“No,” he said.
I jumped out of the path of the wedge.
I had better luck with Zoran Djindjic, who is the head of the largest party in the opposition bloc that ousted Milosevic. Djindjic has nearly as many bodyguards as Seselj, but Djindjic’s boys, like their boss, are snappy dressers; they are Armani thugs. Like almost every other anti-Milosevic politician, he no longer cares about the former president. “He was my problem during the time he was president, and he was dangerous for our security, but now he is a pensioner and a private person and I am not interested,” Djindjic said.
It is a curious position, and I wanted to discuss it in greater depth, but after a few minutes, the boss gave his boys the signal, and I was politely but firmly nudged out of the way. Later, a friend who works in the opposition told me the following story about Djindjic’s bodyguards: On Thursday, when Belgrade erupted into revolution, my friend was with Djindjic at City Hall. Suddenly, four or five of his bodyguards came into the room with several canvas bags. They closed the door and unzipped the bags, which contained an arsenal of pistols, assault rifles, grenades, flak jackets, and enough ammunition to fight a war. They stuffed the weapons into their clothes, slinging the AK-47s around their backs, under their jackets, and strode out, like Serbian terminators. Not a word was exchanged. “I thought I was watching a movie,” my friend said.
Serbia, Serbia, Serbia. It’s good to be back. I feel sorry for colleagues of mine who, having just arrived here, are suddenly packing up. The lobby of the Hyatt Hotel was filled this morning with television gear being loaded onto airport vans. Much of the pack is rushing off to Israel and Lebanon, where there is talk of war.
I hope they have visas.
Posted: Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2000, at 12:30 p.m. PT
Isadora Sekulic is pissed off.
“These people are the worst sort of garbage,” she tells me.
We are sitting in her temporary office at Radio-Television Serbia, where she is running the newsroom of what was, for the past decade, the country’s principal outlet of nationalist and racist propaganda. Along with several other independent journalists, she has been sent to RTS by the country’s new government to ensure good behavior by the former mouthpiece of former President Slobodan Milosevic. So Sekulic, who was fired from RTS in a political purge during the early years of Milosevic’s rule, is surrounded by men and women she has despised for years, and now she despises them all the more, because instead of quitting or apologizing or attempting to continue their noxious programs—this would at least be consistent—they are sidling up to her and suggesting they always supported the opposition, and they are providing her with the names of colleagues who, they insist, were Milosevic’s real enforcers at the station.
“They were all working under the regime,” she scoffs. “They were liars, they were war mongers, they were dirty journalists—until four days ago. Now they are trying to tell me they are honest professionals.”
She glances outside her office, at the RTS journalists scurrying about, putting together an evening news program that they hope will please their new masters. I get the impression, from Sekulic’s grimace, that if she had a grenade she might roll it into the newsroom.
It was with a sense of curiosity that I visited RTS. I wanted to talk with the men and women who incited the hatred that caused four wars in the former Yugoslavia; first in Slovenia, then Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. They weren’t killers in the normal sense of the word, but they were responsible, at least in a moral way, for the killing that occurred. The questions that surround these people—what they did, why they did it, and how they explain it now—illuminate the murky intersection between human nature and state power. Why do people compromise themselves for the sake of an evil regime? These are questions that interest me, so I’m afraid today’s “Diary” is going to focus on them.
I began my sojourn at RTS with Marija Mitrovic, a leading journalist at the station.
“I am finished,” she said. “I am the face of the politics of Milosevic, and that is a problem now. People hate us, and I understand that.”
Mitrovic, a villanous yet frank lady, spent years reading news reports that glorified Milosevic and slandered the opposition. She has fared relatively well since Thursday, when anti-Milosevic protesters stormed RTS headquarters. She hasn’t, for example, been beaten by an angry mob, as happened to Milorad Komrakov, the editor in chief of RTS, nor has she been spat upon by protesters, as happened to anchor Staka Novkovic. Mitrovic continues to draw her paycheck, although she is too unpopular to appear on the airwaves any longer.
“Let me tell you, I think the Milosevic politics were wrong, and I wish that in the last few years I had said ‘No, I am leaving,’ ” Mitrovic continued. “Why I didn’t do that, I don’t know.”
Actually, I know one of the reasons why, as does everyone else in the country—the living was good. You could acquire a nice apartment if you worked at RTS, you had a reliable salary, and all you had to do in exchange was tell lies, day after day, that would lead to the deaths of several hundred thousand people. Mirkovic, who has the imperfectly dyed blond hair that is a hallmark of East European hairdressers, possesses a second home in Chicago and has pretty much kissed off her chances of continuing at RTS, so she says what many of her scurrying comrades refuse to say.
“My work here was a mistake, but more than that, it was damaging,” she said as a friend passed by and gripped her shoulder in a have-courage-we’ll-get-through-this way. “If I and my colleagues had worked the right way, Milosevic would have fallen a long time ago.”
But they didn’t, and he didn’t.
Natasha Mihailovich, who is in her 30s and, with her black clothes and leather jacket, would look at home in SoHo, is a bit less forthright. For the past five years, she has worked as a news editor at RTS, and when I met up with her, she was chain-smoking her way through the day after being told by one of her bosses that her services would not be needed for now. Mihailovich was furious because the editor who nudged her aside—trying, it seems, to please the station’s new managers by fingering her as a Milosevic diehard—was more compromised than she was. It was an odd defense, and it began with a phrase that I heard many times—“I was only doing my job.”
“In my heart I never agreed with the editorial policy, though every person at RTS was an exponent of Milosevic’s regime,” she said. “Every one of us could have quit at anytime.” She did not, and she says it was because she is a single mother with a son to provide for. I suggested that there were many ways a single mother could care for her child in Belgrade. Mihailovich replied that she did what she could to tone down her news dispatches. “I never used the worst phrases, like Clinton being a narco-terrorist. Never, never.”
I asked whether RTS was evil. There was a moment of silence.
“On Thursday, my mother called and asked me what happened in Belgrade,” she began. “I told her that RTS was attacked by protesters, and my mother said, ‘Yes, that’s good. Your company is evil.’ I told her that Milorad Komrakov had been beaten up. She asked me whether he was beaten to death. I told her no. My mother said he should have been beaten to death, because he is evil.”
“I think our company was doing evil things.”
“Does that mean you were doing evil things?” I asked.
“In that relation, yes. But we were only workers. I am not somebody who decided about news.”
Isadora Sekulic has been hearing much of this in recent days.
“It’s the old story,” she said, in a voice as thick as the cigarette smoke that hung in her chaotic office (and hangs throughout the Balkans). “That’s the story of the Second World War, of fascism, of Nazism. Nobody was in charge. How is that possible? No, it is not true. It is only their alibi. I think all of them should be punished.”
I suppose that’s why I am lingering in Serbia after the fall of Milosevic. Crime and punishment—an old story, endlessly fascinating.
Posted: Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2000, at 10:00 a.m. PT
I love the black market.
When I arrived in Belgrade I didn’t have a chip for my cell phone, and I needed one in a hurry. Normally, getting a chip for your cell phone can be quite a hassle in Serbia—you go to an office, you stand in line for several hours, and when you get to the front you are told that chips are not available until the next day or next week. If you arrive in the city on a Friday evening, as I did, you can pretty much forget about getting a chip until Monday at the earliest.
Unless, that is, you venture into the realm of the black market. I called a friend who I know to be capable of arranging such things. She made a call or two and soon phoned me back to let me know that she had located the required merchandise. It was in the possession of a woman who worked at a cell phone company. It is normal here for insiders to take advantage of the shortage of chips by acquiring a stock of their own and selling them for twice or three times as much as they would cost if you, the buyer/victim, went through the normal, slow-moving channels.
And so, late on Saturday night, after finishing my work, I got into a taxi with my interpreter and headed down a row of unremarkable apartment buildings. On an ill-lit corner ahead of us, an attractive blond woman in tight, dark clothes was waiting. We stopped in front of her, rolled down the window, and a brief conversation ensued in whispers, at the end of which, 100 German marks was handed, discreetly, to the lady in black, and she handed me a chip, discreetly. I snapped it into my cell phone—and presto, I am wired up. Mission accomplished.
The existence of a black market reflects a dysfunctional economy, and a dysfunctional economy is usually one in which many people are poor. In Belgrade, it’s not Third World poverty of the traditional sort but a strange version of genteel, Balkan poverty. Before Slobodan Milosevic came to power more than a decade ago, Yugoslavia was a relatively prosperous country, and Belgrade was a sophisticated, lively place. Four wars and international sanctions have ruined the economy, creating the inefficiencies and imbalances that have given life to a thriving black market.
All of which means that if you are a rich foreigner (at least in the eyes of Serbs), you can get whatever you want for a price that is a fortune to the locals but a bargain to you. And that’s how I ended up moving out of the Hyatt Hotel yesterday and into a delightful though quirky apartment in the center of town. It was, of course, a black-market transaction.
The Hyatt is nice but located across the Sava River from the center of Belgrade, so I told a friend, Ivan, that I wanted to find an apartment on the convenient side of the Sava. I know Ivan because a year ago, when he was in a financial pinch (a condition he shared with most of his countrymen), I stayed in his downtown apartment; he moved into a rented apartment that cost half as much as I was paying for his, and he pocketed the difference. (He also set off a fire in his rented accommodations after falling asleep smoking a cigarette, but that’s another story.) Ivan, who no longer smokes in bed and is in better financial condition at the moment, partly because I am employing him as my interpreter, made a few calls and announced, “I have found you a flat.”
The apartment is on Kneza Milosha, a major boulevard on which are located the defense ministry and army headquarters, which were flattened in the NATO bombing last year, and the foreign ministry, which my tax dollars helped destroy, too. It is an Ivan-style arrangement: The twentysomething woman who lives in the apartment has moved out and is staying with her parents. One of the nontraditional aspects of our rental agreement is that there is none—aside from a handshake and an exchange of 450 marks for a two-week stay, nothing else has been required. No contract, no security deposit, and I’m not sure the woman knows my last name.
It is a pity that one can do this only in places like Belgrade. Imagine, for a moment, that you could visit a wonderfully located apartment in Manhattan—let’s say a loft in Tribeca—and pay the owner less than $250 to get lost for two weeks. Alas, unless Milosevic figures out a way to ruin our economy as he has Serbia’s, it is unlikely to occur.
My new home is somewhat odd. It has no drapes at all, so everyone in the neighborhood can see what I’m up to, no matter where I am in the apartment, including the bathroom. At times I think I am participating in a Serbian version of “Big Brother,” though I have done my best to foil the game by stringing up a towel across the bathroom window. So far, no one has complained about me breaking the rules.
Another curious thing is that after opening the front door you have to walk under a low arch in the entrance hallway; the arch is narrow and has an odd overhang on its left side that can take your head off, so as a precaution I tend to duck when I walk into my new home. It’s a bit like the movie Being John Malkovich, in which John Cusack worked in an office that had ceilings no more than 5 feet high. The “Malkovich” metaphor is not entirely inappropriate for Belgrade, because I occasionally feel, especially after ducking under the arch, as though I am going through a crazy man’s portal.
I have wanted to ask the apartment owner about the drapes—why, dear Lord, are there none?—but I am hesitant to do so. I have spent a number of years living in this part of the world and learned that sometimes the explanations for strange things are stranger than the things themselves; you’re better off in the dark. At the moment, I quite like the apartment, although half of the illumination comes from bare light bulbs hanging from wires that descend from the ceiling in ways that would drive OSHA inspectors mad, and the dozen or so jugs of water under the sink indicate that I should prepare for hard times in the realm of running water. But instead of constant knocks on my door from hotel staff asking whether they can check the minibar/clean the room/turn down the bed, I am left in tranquility, listening, as I write this, to a rather accomplished pianist downstairs play a wonderful sonata.
So, the black market is treating me rather well, but I realize it exists only because the legal market is inefficient and corrupt, and for the sake of Serbia, I wish it were different. The ideal, though, would be an economic system in which you had a legal market that functioned well, as it does in America, and a black market alongside it. OK, I know that’s not possible, but getting phone chips late on Saturday nights, scoring a downtown apartment in a matter of minutes—I don’t think Kozmo.com can do that for me.
Posted: Thursday, Oct. 12, 2000, at 12:30 p.m. PT
Forget, for a moment, where you are and who you are. For a moment, you are a policeman in Belgrade who earns a modest salary, and although you may not be an opponent of the president you serve, whose name is Slobodan Milosevic, you are not an enthusiatic supporter, either. And at this moment, you are standing alongside a nervous group of fellow policemen on the steps of parliament, facing a crowd of several hundred thousand anti-Milosevic protesters who intend to storm the building, with or without your consent. One of those protesters, a burly gentleman from the notoriously anti-Milosevic city of Cacak, is just a few feet away and, fixing his eyes on you, he says, “This morning I kissed my family farewell. I hope you kissed your family farewell, too.”
He is willing to die for his cause. Are you?
This standoff was described in a local newspaper the other day; it was just one of many confrontations that occurred as Milosevic was swept from power last week, but it sticks in my mind because within it lies, I think, a key to understanding what it takes to bring down a dictator like Milosevic. The cop on the parliament steps—this is you, remember—must decide whether the crowd can be repulsed without much trouble, and if it can’t be repulsed so easily, he must decide whether he is willing to risk his life to defend the regime that signs his paycheck. The guy from Cacak, after all, is willing to go all the way. What do you do?
The police on the steps of parliament fired tear gas but gave up when it became clear, quite rapidly, that the tear gas only enraged the protesters, who regrouped for another assault. The sound that was heard on the steps of parliament, after the tear gas failed to settle things, was the clatter of riot shields and batons falling to the ground as the police ran away, some of them tearing off their uniforms so that they would not be beaten by the protesters. You would have been wise, were you a cop on those steps on Oct. 5 (rather than a reader of Slate on Oct. 12) to do the same.
There were, at last, enough protesters in Belgrade who were willing to go all the way, and after 10 years of Milosevic, neither the police nor the psychopaths who did the regime’s bloody work in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo were willing to put their lives on the line. Perhaps it has been several years since Slobo’s enforcers possessed this minimum level of fatal enthusiasm for him, but until last week they had not faced all-or-nothing protesters who, a few hours earlier, had kissed their families farewell. For the first time in Belgrade, the enforcers were up against Serbian kamikazes.
Who were these people? They were not the students and middle-class professionals who had marched against Milosevic, fruitlessly, for much of the past 10 years. Those protesters were out on the streets again last Thursday, of course, blowing their whistles and shaking their baby rattles and wearing their irreverent stickers (“Suck my dick, Slobo”). In the last decade, they had been the most well-behaved of protesters, so Gandhi-like in their nonviolent opposition that they might as well have worn sarongs. I do not want to suggest that they should have been violent or threatened violence; I just think it is interesting to note that they are a breed apart from the angry men of Cacak, who entered Belgrade as though entering the Colosseum in Rome. They even brought a bulldozer to crash through police roadblocks (which it did) and barrel into barricaded buildings (such as the headquarters of Radio-Television Serbia). The opposition movement had found its vanguard.
“I couldn’t go back to Cacak without winning,” said Velimir Ilic, the mayor of Cacak, in an interview published by Vreme, a longtime opposition magazine here. “It was a battle of all or nothing.”
They weren’t only from Cacak, though. There were several thousand Belgrade soccer fans in the vanguard, two of whom I met the other day. I’ll use their nicknames, Joca and Tima. They are supporters of a local team (“Please don’t call us hooligans,” Joca said), and they are known, with their buddies, for brawling not only with opposing fans, but with the police. As Joca explained, modestly, “We are always in favor of action. And last week, we were going to win or we would die.”
He told me they had come with Molotov cocktails and firearms. They used some of the former (parliament and RTS were set on fire) but none of the latter, which came as a surprise to them. “We now realize that some policemen abandoned their posts,” Joca said, and I sensed a bit of wistfulness in his voice. “We expected Romania, but we got Czechoslovakia.” In 1989, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown in a bloody uprising, whereas the regime in Czechoslovakia wilted away in the “Velvet Revolution” led by playwright Vaclav Havel. The Serbian uprising fits between the two—it was almost as peaceful as the Czech example, but the protesters in Serbia were prepared to shed blood, as occurred in Romania.
The key difference between Romania 1989 and Serbia 2000 is that the police in Belgrade—regular and secret—were not willing to kill their own people. Though some shots were fired, apparently by police, when demonstrators attacked RTS, nobody was killed by that gunfire. But the resolve of the police needed to be tested. The success of the pro-democracy forces last week depended on many things—hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, a withering of support within the regime itself—but it was also necessary to have a few thousand men who had kissed their families farewell in the morning.
And a bulldozer.
Posted: Friday, Oct. 13, 2000, at 9:30 a.m. PT
The waiter poured champagne, but we had no idea what to say as we raised our glasses in celebration of the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic. “Congratulations?” offered the advertising man across from me. “Happy New Year?” suggested the psychologist on my left. We were stumped—what is the appropriate toast for a successful revolution?
Everyone at the table laughed and said whatever seemed best—Congratulations, Happy New Year, Merry Christmas, too. We were at Verdi, a popular Italian restaurant, which had been reserved for a private party by a group of longtime friends—professors, artists, entrepreneurs, actors—who were resuming a custom of assembling en masse at a restaurant. The custom came to a gradual halt in the past decade as Milosevic turned Serbia into a depressing and oppressive place. “We used to do this all the time,” said the woman who invited me. “But then people started leaving the country, and the people who stayed had less money, and if you had a big assembly like this the police would become interested. So, we pretty much stopped.”
The diners floated from one table to the next, laughing and chatting as though this were a party after the Academy Awards and there were Oscars at every table. Many of the men kissed each other hello on the cheek, two times, a charmingly Balkan custom. After a few rounds of champagne, the waiters began serving red wine from Montenegro, and after that, somewhere around 11 p.m., the first course was served; I think my main course, pesto alla genovese, arrived on the table around midnight. It seemed, in its Old World way, a very Rebecca West evening. I realized that the social atomization that is a consequence of living under dictatorship was disappearing before my eyes.
The restaurant was filled with designer jackets and dresses, mostly from Italy, I believe. I was the worst-dressed. True, anyone who is reading this and knows me will say it was no surprise I was outdressed, but when I have dinner with friends in Manhattan, they infrequently wear ties, and if they are wearing jackets, it is because they have come directly from work. This gathering, on Tuesday evening, had begun at 9:30, so everyone had changed into proper dinner attire; the jacket I should have been wearing, from Barneys, was hanging in a closet 4,000 miles away.
The advertising man had just returned from Slovenia, where he had collected an award for a political ad that recently ran in Serbia. It was a spoof on laundry detergent commercials: A woman held up a T-shirt with a picture of Milosevic and complained that it was difficult to remove the ugly stain from the garment. The miracle product that would get rid of the stain was, of course, a vote for the opposition alliance trying to unseat Milosevic. On the night my dinner companion collected his award in Slovenia, which was the first Yugoslav republic to break away, Milosevic resigned. “There were a couple of Serbs at the ceremony, and we celebrated by crashing a party given by the Croats,” he said. In 1990 and 1991, Croatia fought a nasty war to extricate itself from Serb-led Yugoslavia. “They loved us,” he continued. “Fantastic evening.”
Zoran Djindjic, leader of the largest pro-democracy party, showed up halfway into the evening, said hello to a few friends, and then disappeared upstairs into a private dining room. There was laughter at the table when we noticed the policemen loitering outside and realized they were protecting Djindjic (who also had his personal retinue of bodyguards) rather than harassing him. I asked my companions how it felt to no longer be in the opposition, and they just laughed some more. “I have only one wish,” one of them said. “I want this country to become boring. Boring, boring, boring. We have had more than enough drama in the last 13 years.”
Of course these are the sorts of people who had been needled, on the day that Milosevic fell last week, by their hardier compatriots from the provinces. When a crowd from Cacak, a deeply anti-Milosevic city that regards Belgrade as filled with sissies, marched on the federal parliament, one of the slogans they shouted out was, roughly translated, “Greetings, Belgrade cunts! We’re going to show you how to make a revolution!”
Coarse language is an inherent feature of political and social discourse in Serbia, and it is shared by intellectuals and coal miners alike. The looted shop in the middle of Belgrade that belongs to Marko Milosevic, the dictator’s son, has a veritable dictionary of profane graffiti on display that includes, front and center, the ever-popular, “Suck your father’s dick.” Mothers do not shield their children’s eyes as they walk past.
The shuttered American embassy that is down the road from my apartment has provided a perfect tabula for the Chaucers of Serbia. “I fucked your auntie, Uncle Sam,” goes one—and the genius is that it rhymes in Serbian. When I called up my interpreter this morning to double-check that graffiti, he laughed and said it wasn’t even the best one at the embassy. Another one, which also rhymes in Serbian, goes, “Give me fellatio, American nation.”
I hope that nobody of Serbian heritage takes offense at my recitation of these oaths. I have learned, in writing about the Balkans for a decade, that Serbs can be touchy when they think they are being portrayed as an uncivilized people, and that is understandable. But I think the Serbian genius for imaginative oaths is a positive attribute. In America, you don’t hear much swearing in mainstream culture, and when you do, it’s usually run of the mill stuff—the F word, etc. Very dull. Is this restraint a hallmark of a civilized culture or an anal one? After all, Serbia is the kind of place where, at dinner, a university professor will admit that one of her favorite curses is “Fuck your grandmother on a rotten board,” but in Serbia you can also see a gentleman kiss a lady’s hand. And, as readers will hopefully recall, the sartorial barbarian at Verdi on Tuesday night was the American guest.
The dictator is reeling. After mesmerizing and manipulating his country for more than a decade, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is suddenly a wounded tyrant who could be toppled by one more blow from an opposition that is, for once, united and strong.
The beginning of the end for Milosevic—if that’s what it turns out to be—got under way last Sunday, when he was trounced in elections he was sure he would win. Even by his own count, he came up short. According to the official tally—a fabrication, most likely—Milosevic won 38 percent of the vote, while the main opposition candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, gained 48 percent. Those numbers, if true, would force a second round of voting Oct. 8 because neither candidate won an absolute majority.
The opposition will have none of that. According to its count—an accurate one, most likely—Kostunica won 52 percent of the vote, which gives him an outright victory. He is calling for Milosevic to step down. And that is why hundreds of thousands of Serbs are hollering “He’s finished!” in the streets of Belgrade, exulting in what they hope will be the political demise of a dictator whose stoking of nationalist passions sparked four wars in the past 10 years—in Slovenia (1991), Croatia (1991-1992), Bosnia (1992-1995) and Kosovo (1999).
Even so, if Milosevic, who caused the greatest wave of bloodshed in Europe since World War II, is heading for a long-awaited fall, the opposition will almost surely need to strike at him again.
Slobo (his nickname) is unlikely to forfeit office voluntarily, and his cronies and generals are unlikely to oust him until they are sure his cause is a lost one. But delivering a final blow is a task the opposition has failed to accomplish at several turning points in the last decade. And although its prospects have never been better, little is guaranteed when you are dealing with Milosevic, whose dark personal history includes the deaths, by suicide, of his mother and father.
He is ruthless. The wars he started killed several hundred thousand people, many of them civilians murdered in campaigns of terror that refreshed the Western world’s acquaintance with the old and miserable phrase “ethnic cleansing.” And he is brilliant.
In the past, Milosevic has gotten the better of the opposition by capitalizing on its disarray and his cleverness. The former is gone now, but not the latter. Although the Clinton administration prefers to equate Milosevic with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who uses terror as much as wiliness to stay in power, the truth is that Milosevic is the Machiavelli of the Balkans.He uses the minimum amount of domestic force necessary to stay in power; outsmarting his opponents, rather than killing them, is his preferred modus operandi. You can count on your two hands the number of opposition activists who have been killed by Milosevic’s regime in the past decade.
When faced with surges in opposition activity, Milosevic often bides his time, letting protesters march—every night, if they wish, even for months—until they are too cold or tired or dispirited to continue. Occasionally he uses force—not enough to outrage the majority of citizens who prefer to stay on the sidelines, but enough to prevent the accumulation of a critical mass in the streets. At times he even gives in a little, offering a few crumbs of compromise that sate his opponents but leave him in power. It has been part of his genius that he knew the opposition’s needs and limits better than its own leaders did.
He has survived much of the world’s condemnation. He has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague for atrocities committed by his military forces in Kosovo, but remains free. And he survived the devastation of last year’s NATO bombing campaign, although it forced him to withdraw his armed forces from Kosovo and effectively cede control of the province to the United Nations. Yugoslavia, which consisted of six republics before its breakup began a decade ago, consists of only two republics now, Serbia and Montenegro—and Montenegro is pushing for independence too.
The underlying goal of the NATO campaign was to unseat Milosevic, whom the Clinton administration and its European allies view as the prime destabilizing force in the Balkans, which has seen little but war since he came to power. The United States and its European allies remain committed to that goal; in the past year, the U.S. government alone channeled $25 million to Yugoslavia’s independent media and opposition groups. And several European leaders last week spoke in support of the opposition, while Clinton urged Milosevic to accept the will of the people and step down.
Still, at the moment, there is little the outside world can do but hope the opposition plays its strong hand well.
Certainly the opposition is better led than before. One of the reasons the opposition failed to gather much more than 100,000 people into the streets on any given occasion in the past was because its leadership had been divided between two men, Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic, who hated each other more than they hated Milosevic. They crossed and double-crossed each other so much that they became, in essence, an asset to Milosevic.
Draskovic, an erratic firebrand and occasional nationalist, even cooperated with Milosevic at times, briefly becoming a minister in his government last year. He accused Djindjic of being a coward for fleeing to Montenegro during the NATO bombing campaign (Djindjic claimed Milosevic’s goons were plotting to kill him), but now Draskovic has retreated to Montenegro after two apparent assassination attempts against him. Djindjic is back in Belgrade, and was the campaign manager for Kostunica’s campaign.
Kostunica is a former law professor and minor politician who was virtually unknown until a few months ago. His lack of high-profile experience is regarded as a plus because he has not sullied himself with the sort of backstage intrigues that have hobbled other opposition leaders.
For once, the anti-Milosevic forces are united behind a man who puts his country’s interests ahead of his party’s. That is one reason why more than 200,000 people took to the streets on Wednesday night in the first major post-election gathering; that was nearly twice as many people as Draskovic or Djindjic ever managed to attract.
But what do those people and their strong new leader do next?
In 1996, when Milosevic’s ruling Socialist Party lost control of key cities in municipal elections but refused to honor the results, demonstrators took to the streets and stayed there for months, marching peacefully every night. Milosevic eventually gave in, partly, but he did everything he could to reduce the power and funding of the municipal councils, and he waited for the shaky opposition alliance to fall apart, which it did. He played his weak hand well, and as a result, his hold on the country was hardly affected.
And last year, after NATO’s bombing campaign shredded much of Serbia’s infrastructure, the opposition tried to mount a popular campaign against Milosevic. The protest marches, which demanded early elections and occurred nightly for several months, had a negligible impact. They drew fewer and fewer people, finally coming to a rather whimpering halt.
So it is not assured that marches, even when they’re 200,000-people strong, or the general strike the opposition has called for, will be sufficient to dislodge Milosevic. One of the strange ironies of Serbian politics is that although Serbs have been involved in four wars since 1990, they have been reluctant to shed any blood to dislodge the man who led them into these disastrous campaigns. Not all Serbs think the wars were ill-advised, but most realize Milosevic has led them into political and economic oblivion.
Wednesday night, Kostunica and other opposition figures reiterated their commendable intention to lead a peaceful movement to oust Milosevic. This is not just for the sake of principle. It’s practical, as well; too much provocation could unleash a rather nasty campaign of violence by Milosevic’s desperate regime. Too little, of course, could leave him in power.
And that’s the conundrum the opposition faces today, the same one it did a decade ago: Can a man of violence be defeated without violence?
Unlike the wild weeks that preceded it, May 24 seemed destined to be a slow and easy day for Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora. The world’s attention was fixed on the sudden Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, so there was little demand for news footage from Sierra Leone, even though more than 500 United Nations peacekeepers had been taken hostage in a resurgence of the country’s brutal civil war. Gil Moreno, an award-winning cameraman for Associated Press Television News (APTN), could have stayed in Freetown but decided to drive outside the capital to Rogberi Junction, where the U.N. was trying to figure out whether some of its peacekeepers had been executed.
Rogberi Junction was quiet, but soon the competition showed up—a vehicle carrying the Reuters “dream team,” which consisted of Kurt Schork, a renowned war correspondent; Yannis Behrakis, a veteran photographer; and Mark Chisholm, a top-notch cameraman. The three men were Reuters’s best war-zone journalists; although Gil Moreno knew and liked all three, he would not have been glad to see them on this day. A week earlier, one of Gil Moreno’s supervisors had told the APTN team that editors at the agency were unhappy with their coverage of the capture of rebel leader Foday Sankoh. Reuters had badly beaten APTN on the story, and a major news organization, which was a client, had complained about it, according to four APTN journalists. Since the call, Gil Moreno had been pushing himself harder. He didn’t want to get beaten by the competition again.
There was the sound of gunfire in the distance. The soldiers at Rogberi Junction said the rebels—from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which had brutally maimed thousands of civilians—were being pushed back. The soldiers said they would escort the journalists if they wanted to get closer to the fighting. Although the road ahead was surrounded by jungle and often infiltrated by the rebels, the soldiers said it was safe, so Gil Moreno and the Reuters team pushed onward. They were heading into the sort of no-man’s-land that Gil Moreno, a Spaniard, had been warning other colleagues to avoid. “He said, ‘Someone will get killed, because this is not a safari,’” recalls a journalist who worked closely with Gil Moreno in Freetown.
Did Gil Moreno choose to run the risks simply because his competitors had? Kurt Schork covered mostly wars—Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo, East Timor—for Reuters during the past decade and had the wisdom of experience. He was a risk taker, but he seemed invincible. A Rhodes scholar who studied at Oxford University with Bill Clinton, Schork had successful careers in real estate and in New York politics—becoming executive director of the city’s transit system—before turning to combat journalism at the age of 40. Schork was at the center of the world’s close-knit community of war correspondents, and Gil Moreno, though a highly respected veteran, looked up to him.
Schork drove the lead vehicle, Gil Moreno the second; soldiers were squeezed inside the cars and splayed on the hoods (a common sight in Sierra Leone). They didn’t get far. After a few miles the group ran into an RUF ambush. Schork and Gil Moreno were killed in the fusillade, as were four soldiers. Behrakis and Chisholm, who was hit in the arm, scrambled out of the cars and escaped into the jungle. Behrakis smeared himself with mud and leaves to blend into the terrain as the rebels looked for survivors; they came within 15 feet of him. After the rebels disappeared back into the bush, Behrakis and Chisholm walked to Rogberi Junction and sent out the news that two of the best war correspondents of the post-Cold War era had been killed on a dirt road in a country few people could find on a map—if they could even be bothered to look for it.
Wars kill journalists. But the deaths of Kurt Schork and Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora, in the same ambush, devastated their colleagues and should give pause to the rest of us who take for granted the stories and pictures we see on the news. War zones are chaotic and dangerous places where bad things happen. But bad things don’t happen all the time, and when they do, you can usually find reasons, or contributing reasons. One of the most alarming factors I learned as I talked with dozens of journalists about Gil Moreno was that he sensed that things were getting out of hand in Sierra Leone but felt obliged to take risks that he sensed might be unwise. No one knows exactly what Gil Moreno was thinking when he headed down that road with his friends from Reuters, but many journalists, particularly at The Associated Press, fear that it was the pressure of competition that led to his death.
The nexus between risks and competition among journalists is most acute for television cameramen like Gil Moreno. Writers can do much of their work based on the accounts of refugees and soldiers, and many of their stories have less to do with frontline action than with narrative and political analysis. Photographers need to spend more time on the front lines, but the commercial pressures are not as intense as they are for video cameramen trying to feed the monster that never sleeps—the television networks, which pay huge sums for images of war. This appetite for blood-splattered film is fed largely by two companies locked in their own fierce battle for dominance—APTN and Reuters, which are both based in London and sell footage to all the major networks in the United States.
Gil Moreno, a Barcelona native who practiced law before switching to journalism, was APTN’s star cameraman. He was one of the few Western correspondents to enter Grozny when Russian forces flattened the Chechen capital last winter. His journey into and out of the city was stunning. Not only was kidnapping a threat, but thousands of Russian artillery shells were landing in Grozny every day. For journalists, the war in Chechnya has been the most dangerous of any of the past decade, yet Gil Moreno emerged intact.
This wasn’t the first time he did what seemed undoable. When nearly every other Western journalist fled Kosovo or was kicked out before the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing in June 1999, Gil Moreno stayed behind. It took cleverness and courage to pull it off without being arrested or killed. Few journalists were surprised when Gil Moreno was awarded the prestigious Rory Peck Prize for television journalism in 1998.
Gil Moreno knew the danger that awaited him in Sierra Leone: His friend and APTN colleague Myles Tierney had been killed in Freetown a year earlier. The country had been tortured for years by a civil war in which the main rebel group, the RUF, funded its operations by gaining control of lucrative diamond-mining regions. The diamonds made their way to consumers in the developed world—primarily in America, Western Europe, and Japan—underwriting the purchase of guns and machetes that terrorized civilians in such countries as Sierra Leone, Angola, and Congo.
The rebels in Sierra Leone are led by Sankoh, whose fighters remain active in the bush even though he was captured on May 17 by pro-government troops. The rebels are, however, little more than plunderers with Ray-Bans and Kalashnikovs. In recent years a Nigerian-led intervention force prevented the RUF from taking control of the country, but last year, with the Nigerians wearying of the expense and bloodshed, the U.N. brokered a peace accord under which the RUF was given a share of power and an amnesty for crimes it committed during its reign of terror.
The Nigerian force was replaced by thousands of U.N. soldiers, who turned out to be the Keystone Cops of peacekeeping. Most of the U.N. soldiers arrived in Sierra Leone with little weaponry, unreliable communications gear, and scant awareness of the nastiness that awaited them. When they tried to take control of the RUF’s diamond-mining areas, the RUF attacked, seizing hundreds of U.N. hostages. With the battle-hardened Nigerians gone, the RUF sensed an opportunity to commandeer the entire country. It was May, and the war was on again.
Because the prestige of the United Nations was at stake, the war was on the front pages of newspapers and at the top of television broadcasts worldwide. Hundreds of journalists flocked to Freetown. There were two wars going on—one fought by soldiers, the other by journalists to get the best stories or pictures or television footage.
In recent years, Reuters and AP decided to supplement their print and photo businesses with full-fledged video operations. Most of the world’s broadcasters—especially those in America—were reducing their overseas staff, creating a lucrative void that Reuters and AP rushed to fill. Major broadcasters usually pay in excess of $1 million a year for footage from Reuters or APTN, each of which has hundreds of clients. Their battle has evolved into television journalism’s equivalent of Coke vs. Pepsi.
According to three journalists who worked in Freetown with Gil Moreno, he seemed anxious shortly after he arrived in early May. He would drive down a road and pass a government checkpoint, then pass through jungle where rebels might be hiding, then another government checkpoint—and he couldn’t trust any of the fighters, government soldiers and rebels alike. Many of the rebels were kids, many were on drugs, and Gil Moreno knew they might do anything to him—lie, steal, kill. The situation in Sierra Leone was more unpredictable, and therefore more dangerous, than anything he had come across before. Gil Moreno found himself stopping at checkpoints because it didn’t seem wise to go further—and then watched as other journalists ventured deeper into the jungle. The risks he took were calculated; he knew better than to roar down a jungle road without the faintest idea of whether an ambush might await him. He wasn’t being cowardly, just smart.
Gil Moreno’s attitude changed abruptly in mid-May. APTN was beaten by Reuters when Sankoh, the rebel leader who had been hiding in Freetown, was seized and taken into detention. Reuters quickly uploaded footage of crowds celebrating his capture. APTN had nothing. For several hours APTN editors outside Sierra Leone were unable to reach their team. According to four journalists I spoke with, the British Broadcasting Corporation, a major APTN client, complained about the lack of footage.
Editors at APTN in London were livid. While their team in Sierra Leone had performed splendidly since the war had re-ignited, the fact remained: Reuters had beaten them. A senior producer in Africa finally got through to the office in Freetown and let the team there know that they had been beaten and that their bosses were not pleased.
Gil Moreno and his APTN colleagues in Freetown were shocked and angry. They were risking their lives in a country where, a year earlier, an APTN cameraman had been killed. Gil Moreno expressed his displeasure to colleagues including Laurent van der Stockt, a photographer for the Gamma photo agency. “He told me there was a phone call from AP to tell them a client was complaining about the coverage in Sierra Leone, that it was not good enough,” van der Stockt says. “I said to Miguel, ‘Tell me you won’t care about that kind of s—t.’” Van der Stockt knew how the complaint would be interpreted: “It means ‘Go a bit more to the front line.’”
The management of APTN denies knowing of any complaint from a client about the coverage from Sierra Leone, or of any call to Sierra Leone to convey such a complaint. “Whether there was any feedback from a more junior member of staff I know not, but the staff members I’ve talked to say there is no knowledge of any complaint being passed on,” says Nigel Baker, the head of news for APTN. “I can’t say categorically that it didn’t happen, but I am not aware of it happening.”
BBC news media relations manager Jon Steel said in an e-mail, “There is no evidence of, and no one can recall, any complaint from BBC to APTN around that time, indeed we are not aware of any lapse in their coverage.”
Even if a news agency’s client complains about coverage, editors who sit behind desks thousands of miles from a war zone usually don’t criticize or second-guess their people in the field. If the story is a political story, a “rocket” (complaint) will be sent without hesitation, but in a war zone, a bit of criticism from an editor can nudge a journalist to take more risks, even if that’s not what the editor intends. Generally, print and photo editors refrain from those sorts of calls, but such prodding is more common in television, because the commercial pressure to provide fresh footage is intense, as are the rewards and the penalties.
I talked with someone who was among a group of journalists who traveled to Lungi Lo, a small village outside Freetown, with Gil Moreno the day after the call. A detachment of British soldiers stationed there told them that they should not go any further because RUF rebels might be in the jungle ahead. They stayed put and interviewed a group of refugees living in the village under British protection. Soon, however, a vehicle carrying a Reuters cameraman arrived at the base and headed up the road, toward the area the British soldiers had warned about.
The person I talked with explained what happened next: “Miguel was like, ‘I have to go. You think I want to do this? Reuters is going. After yesterday, I have to go.’”
A few miles up the road, by this person’s account, Gil Moreno met up with the Reuters vehicle, which had turned around and was heading back toward Freetown. The Reuters crew said they had just talked with villagers who warned them the RUF was indeed in the area. Gil Moreno, with great relief, turned his vehicle around and returned with them to Freetown.
Gil Moreno faced other pressures in Sierra Leone. On occasion, APTN and Reuters would purchase film in a war zone from freelance journalists and pseudo-journalists who show up in their offices with good footage—perhaps images of a massacre or of soldiers involved in a firefight. The footage often comes from high-risk areas that experienced journalists consider off-limits. Sometimes the film isn’t authentic—pictures of an old massacre passed off as new—but if the footage is strong and is judged to be authentic, Reuters or APTN or any number of broadcasters will pay good money for it.
That happened several days before Gil Moreno was killed. A freelancer offered combat film to the APTN staff in Freetown, but they turned it down, largely because the guy who offered it seemed unreliable. He was rumored to go into combat armed, more of a mercenary than a journalist. He took his video to the Reuters staff in Freetown, and they bought it for several thousand dollars. According to Rodney Pinder, editor of Reuters video news services, decisions relating to purchasing footage from freelancers are made “eight times out of ten” by the Reuters team on the ground; superiors in London are contacted only if the price is unusually high or if the authenticity of the film is questioned. In the following days, Reuters bought another batch of film from the same man.
Some of the footage was important and received widespread global attention. It included some of the first glimpses of corpses found in the bush dressed in what appeared to be U.N. military uniforms. The images seemed to confirm what the U.N. and its member states had most feared: that peacekeepers had been killed by the rebels.
Buying such footage is a murky business. How do you know that film shot by independent operators, or that they say they shot, is authentic? If you refuse the film, will a competitor buy it, thereby making your clients wonder why you don’t have it? Or will the film wind up on the Internet, where your clients will see it and wonder why they are paying you a million dollars a year when better stuff is available on the Web for free?
According to two journalists I spoke with, Gil Moreno and his colleagues at APTN, and even some journalists at Reuters, were upset that the combat footage, coming from an apparently dubious source, had been bought by Reuters. Although the film appears to have been authentic, the purchase of it legitimized a freelancer whose methods and means were thought by some to be below journalistic standards. After the purchases, the Reuters staff in Sierra Leone agreed with their APTN counterparts to refuse further offers from this freelancer. But the transaction increased the pressure on Gil Moreno and every other responsible cameraman because a precedent seemed to have been set; offers from pseudo-freelancers would be considered.
The pressures must have been weighing on Gil Moreno the day he was killed. I talked on the phone with Behrakis, a member of the Reuters dream team. Behrakis, based in Athens, told me that Gil Moreno did not seem troubled by the decision to go past the Rogberi Junction checkpoint. “We knew what we wanted to do and we decided to do it,” Behrakis says. “We knew it was risky but we didn’t think it was terribly risky. We took risks in other places that we thought were much more dangerous….We were in no-man’s-land, in a place that one day was controlled by the government, the next day controlled by the rebels. It was a very fluid situation. But this was a part of our job. We didn’t think it was crazy. We were just being professionals, doing what we do, reporting the story.” Even so, the risks involved in driving past Rogberi Junction were eerily similar to the risks that Gil Moreno had not wanted to take a week earlier when he saw a Reuters vehicle drive past the British camp in Lungi Lo, outside Freetown.
Many of the journalists I spoke with believe that in the wake of the tragedy in Sierra Leone, television pools—in which news organizations agree to share material they gather—should be used more frequently. Such arrangements were used by most television organizations in Sarajevo during much of the Bosnian war, largely because the fear of getting beat on a hot yet dangerous story was causing cameramen to take ill-considered risks. In Fiji, for example, Reuters and APTN agreed to create a pool after a cameraman was shot during a recent coup there. But according to APTN and Reuters news executives, a pool wasn’t even considered when the fighting erupted in Sierra Leone. It was, from the start, a battle for the best footage that has created, in its wake, a small army of embittered journalists.
“I don’t think it’s cool in a competitive, breaking situation for bosses to send rockets saying we got our asses kicked,” says one such journalist. “I think that should be criminal.”
The message has gotten through to top Reuters editors. According to Geert Linnebank, editor in chief of Reuters, staff there have made a point of not providing negative feedback to war correspondents. But now, he says, the policy will be formalized on paper and distributed throughout the London headquarters and to all bureaus. The same is not true at APTN. Baker says no such policy is being considered and he expressed surprise that a competitor would do so. “The majority of journalists I’ve known want feedback on how their material is being received,” he says. “It is standard of any news organization to give feedback on their performance.”
Reuters is also moving more quickly than The Associated Press to provide war-survival training to its combat journalists. The most popular course, “Hostile Environments and Emergency First Aid Training,” is offered by Centurion Risk Assessment Services, which is run by former members of the special forces unit of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines. It includes instruction on recognizing and avoiding mines and booby traps, how to protect yourself in a firefight, and combat first aid. At the beginning of the course, students are subjected to an exercise in which they are confronted with a simulated attack or hostage-taking.
The Centurion course is not cheap—about $2,000 for five days—but Reuters began, in late 1997, enrolling its combat journalists in it. More than 100 have taken part to date. According to Linnebank, Reuters will now require participation in the course before sending a journalist to a conflict zone; until now, the company encouraged participation but did not require it. The AP has sent only about 50 and has no plans to require participation in the course for journalists heading to war zones. “Obviously [the course] can sharpen people’s skills, but it is not the only way of learning how to conduct yourself safely,” claims Baker of APTN. Journalists can learn survival skills in the field, he says, and some journalists, by virtue of mandatory or voluntary military service, come into the profession with combat knowledge.
Behrakis credits his two years of military training and the Centurion course with helping him survive the ambush in Sierra Leone. He told me that as he was making his way through the jungle after the attack, he chose a path through the toughest terrain, because the easier path, where people would be expected to walk, would also be the most likely place to contain booby traps and mines. This was one of the tips he learned in the Centurion course. Schork was one of the first Reuters journalists to take the course. Gil Moreno, who was 32 years old when he died, had not taken it.
Of course, no amount of training could have saved them from the jungle ambush. Many dangerous situations come down to a matter of luck; in this case, two journalists survived the fusillade outside Rogberi Junction; two did not. But the pressure of competition, which can affect the risks journalists take, is a factor that, unlike luck, can be controlled, if decision-makers choose to do so. It might not have made a difference for Gil Moreno, but his colleagues don’t want to find themselves wondering about these issues ever again. As an APTN journalist put it, “We have to change the rules of engagement.”
At War in Somalia, Sudan, and Rwanda
By Scott Peterson
357 pp. $26
Reviewed by Peter Maass
Africa is an expression of vastness. It is a matter not just of size but of drama and emotion; so much occurs in Africa, and at so many extremes. This is a blessing and a curse for anyone writing a book about even a sliver of the continent’s experience. The blessing is obvious because good material is the foundation of good writing. But if the subject is war in Africa, how can a book say what needs to be said without reaching a Tolstoyan length?
Scott Peterson encountered this dilemma in Me Against My Brother: At War in Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda. Based on his experiences as a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph of London (he is now a writer for the Christian Science Monitor), the book concerns not just one but three of Africa’s most horrific conflicts in recent memory. In Somalia, a country disintegrated into sand and bloodshed. In Sudan, two million people have died since 1984. In Rwanda, nearly a million people were murdered in 100 days. Peterson was blessed, or cursed, with the vastness of his experiences in those wars. He came close to being killed by gunfire on many occasions and nearly succumbed to cerebral malaria. He met mass murderers and petty murderers, and he saw and smelled the noxious result of their efforts—corpses drying in the equatorial sun or oozing into the jungle floor. He was one of the few journalists to visit Africa’s worst killing zones when they were at their deadliest.
“This book is about the extremes, as they can and do exist in Africa,” Peterson warns in the introduction. He aims to explain the politics and history behind the wars, and he aims to give a first-person account of what the wars looked like from the inside. These tasks are difficult to accomplish in a 357-page book. It might be possible to provide context and color for only one war, as Philip Gourevitch does so admirably in his book on Rwanda, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. It also might be possible to write a literary book about several wars, eschewing the minutiae of politics, if you have the elegant touch of a master like Ryszard Kapuscinski. Sadly, Peterson’s book, though compelling in places, skips too quickly and lightly over events and ideas that, if explored in greater depth, would tell us much more.
This is unfortunate because Peterson has much to offer. He was one of the relatively few (and very brave) journalists who entered Kigali, the Rwandan capital, as the genocide was getting under way. “The terrible assumption was that anyone still alive must have been one of the killers,” he notes. He ventured around with French troops evacuating expatriates. “A crowd of killers lined a dirt road in silence as we passed, stopping momentarily from their bloody work like children caught stealing from a cookie jar,” he writes. “Armed with cudgels and machetes and long knives, their handiwork was nearby—three corpses bleeding into the wet sand. An hour later we returned with a group of Belgian evacuees, and the number killed by the silent crowd had risen to 11.”
Kigali soon became too dangerous for anyone but the killers, so Peterson left within days; his editors ordered him to take the last evacuation flight. He devotes just a few pages to his experiences in Kigali in those days, and this is a pity. His passing encounter with the killers who stood silently at the roadside, amid the corpses, certainly warrants more than the lone paragraph he devotes to it.
The book’s longest section focuses on Somalia, where United Nations troops intervened in 1992 to staunch a famine. After a honeymoon, Somalia’s people turned agains the U.S.-led forces, and 18 U.S. Rangers were killed in a bungled raid; the United States withdrew, leaving the country to devour itself. Peterson gives a good sense of what Mogadishu was like in those days, and he explains how close he came to being killed by a mob that, later in the day, killed photographers Dan Eldon and Hansi Kraus. “I was being clubbed and a boy brandished an 18-inch blade toward my face and as I fended that off a machete smashed into my head,” he writes.
The mob that attacked him was reacting to a brutal and unnecessary U.S. raid that killed numerous Somalis, and Peterson is harsh on our conduct. But at times there is more anger than eloquence in his words. To state, as Peterson does, that U.N. officials, peddling their blue-sky assessments, were “trying to cover up their failure with a thick layer of [expletive],” is entirely accurate but not particularly incisive. In the epilogue, Peterson admits that “one of my frustrations about this book is that it cannot portray the whole experience. I’ve had to be selective, lopping off entire battlefronts and nations at war, and with them, some of the human lessons worth learning.” An honest and courageous man, he is hardly the first writer to feel inadequate before the task of describing Africa’s vastness.
Peter Maass is the author of “Love Thy Neighbor,” a memoir of covering the war in Bosnia for The Post.
The call to prayer came at 4:30 a.m.
“Pray! Pray! It’s better to pray than to sleep!”
I was staying in a house across the street from one of Baidoa’s mosques, so there was no chance of dozing. As the echoes from the loudspeaker faded into the darkness, I could hear the neighborhood stirring as people rose to wash their hands and feet and kneel in prayer toward Mecca. There was a knock at the bedroom door. “You awake?” John Miskell called out.
Miskell and I were leaving Baidoa before dawn on a journey to a town named Tieglo, deep in the Somali hinterland a few miles south of nowhere. Miskell, who oversees CARE International’s relief programs in southern Somalia, was planning to rendezvous there with a convoy of 12 trucks bringing 254 tons of food from Mogadishu. Between Baidoa and Tieglo lay 13 hours of Somali bush, dirt-and-boulder roads offering little more than lungfuls of dust and lobe-deadening headaches and the bleak scenery of a country pounded by civil war and famine. It was Miskell’s job to make sure the food got to Tieglo safely.
It’s been nearly a decade since jeering mobs dragged the body of U.S. Army Ranger Bill Cleveland through the streets of Mogadishu, and in that time little has improved. When the United Nations armed forces departed in 1995, the implicit message was simple: You people want to kill? Go ahead, kill yourselves. Call us when you get tired of it. Since then, northern Somalia has stabilized somewhat, but southern Somalia, with Mogadishu at its heart, remains a nightmarish, Hobbesian realm that once again hovers on the cusp of famine.
Our Toyota Land Cruiser was parked in the house’s courtyard behind a steel gate topped with barbed wire and guarded by a couple of teenagers toting AK-47s. Loaded in the rear were 80 liters of gas in plastic containers. We would be traveling in a four-wheel drive, all-terrain bomb. Miskell would have liked to put the gas on the rooftop luggage rack, but that space was reserved for two other militiamen bearing AK-47s, who were to keep an eye out for trouble–of which, unlike food or water or peace or schools or law and order, there is plenty in Somalia.
“Where’s the driver?” I asked when we got to the courtyard.
Miskell nodded at a prostrate form on the ground.
“Apparently our driver is praying,” he said.
The prayers seemed unusually devout. When he finished, we drove into the center of town and met up with several more Somalis who worked for CARE. They would travel with us in two other Land Cruisers–one in front of our vehicle, the other behind– equipped with the requisite duos of rooftop gunslingers. As dawn broke, our convoy headed into the bush, only to stop after a few miles. We were surrounded by stunted trees covered in dust. Camels plodded past, herders in tow. Finally Cobra, one of the Somalis–everybody has a nickname in Somalia, and his was Cobra–walked back from the lead vehicle to tell us what was happening.
“There is an ambush ahead,” he said.
MANGAR ANGUI, SUDAN
“IT’S COMING,” Sienna Loftus whispered.
The roar grew louder, more insistent. We were standing outside Mangar Angui, a Dinka village in southern Sudan whose name means “den of hyenas.” We had not heard mechanical sounds for days. There was no electricity in the village or anywhere nearby, nothing larger than the mud-and-grass huts, nothing with more moving parts than a one-speed bicycle. Even the fighting is primitive here. A civil war between the Muslim government in Khartoum and the largely Christian Sudan People’s Liberation Army has been torturing Sudan almost nonstop for decades. In the area around Mangar Angui, which the SPLA controls, a much-feared pro-government militia ransacks villages on horseback. And when the government decides to bomb the rebels, it sends aloft a clunky Soviet-era Antonov transport plane and a soldier rolls artillery shells out of the cargo bay.
The bombing today would be different.
“I don’t want those guys under the trees!” Loftus shouted in English, waving at a group of men. “All those guys should move out! There are people under the tree! Move!” A local relief worker hustled the men away.
By now you could look at the sky and see why she was causing a commotion: A C-130 Hercules transport plane lumbered perhaps 700 feet above ground, heading straight for us.
“This is the most nerve-racking part of our job,” said Loftus, a field-worker for the UN World Food Program. “Look at those women as they walk behind the drop zone and don’t think it’s a problem. Someone could die right now.” She shouted for them to move away and then pushed the talk button on her radio.
“Fox-one-four, you’re clear to drop, you’re clear to drop.”
“One minute to drop zone,” the pilot replied.
“Right now is the crucial time,” Loftus said. “When he says, ‘One minute to drop,’ and you give the OK, you cross your fingers and just hope nothing happens. A little kid can start running into the zone. You’re always looking. We’re not supposed to kill people while bringing food in.”
The WFP plane was overhead now, scaring birds from their nests and prompting villagers to look up openmouthed. Suddenly, hundreds of white 50-kilo bags–325 in all, 16 tons of corn and grain–began tumbling from the Herc’s cargo bay. At first they seemed to float like the world’s largest bits of confetti, but after a few seconds they began hitting the ground, one after the other, sounding and feeling like a salvo of artillery shells–boom boom boom boom–and you realized these things could indeed kill.
But not today. Loftus smiled. “To be in a place where food arrives from the sky,” she said, “it’s almost magical. It’s always exciting, always.”
EXCITING BUT NOT EASY. After less than a year as an aid worker, Loftus, 32, who grew up in Montana, has had typhoid once, malaria twice, and a slew of mysterious boils. She’s waded through swamps befouled with human waste and disease and endured the sort of bureaucratic nullity in which the UN specializes–like the time a bush plane dropped her off without the trunk of food that was supposed to keep her alive. (It arrived nine days later.) For his part, John Miskell, 53, a native of upstate New York, is a petri dish of tropical ills–he’s had dengue fever several times, bacterial and amebic dysentery, giardia, blood poisoning, and most recently cholera, which almost killed him. He’s been shot at and cursed. And yet neither he nor Loftus (whom he has never met) would do anything else.
Thanks to the end of the Cold War, aid work has undergone a geometric leap in visibility, controversy, and danger. Aid workers are the first to arrive and the last to leave the world’s most chaotic and violent war zones–“complex emergencies,” in relief jargon–places routinely filled with hunger and disease and, instead of government soldiers who follow (more or less) the Geneva Conventions on war, gunmen (and gunboys) who don’t think twice about kidnapping or killing a Western aid worker. In 1998, for the first time, more UN aid workers were killed than UN peacekeepers, although tinder boxes like Sierra Leone can blow up in peacekeepers’ faces at any time. When I was in Sudan with Loftus, ten aid workers were killed. First, two CARE employees were killed outside Khartoum; the government blamed the rebels. A week later, eight aid workers affiliated with African churches were gunned down near the Ugandan border by Ugandan guerrillas from the Lord’s Resistance Army. The gunmen simply opened fire on their vehicle. But the victims were Africans, and the tragedy of their execution was compounded by a sad irony: While local aid workers compose the bulk of the aid world’s ranks and, at least in Africa, are often at greater risk than white expatriates, the violent deaths of almost a dozen of them didn’t (and don’t) make the evening news in Europe or America.
Still, First World or Third World, black or white, aid workers often laugh when you ask why they do what they do. It’s an ambiguous chuckle, knowing and nervous, that means the answer is either obvious or a mystery, even to them. They’ll repeat the line about their profession being composed of missionaries, mercenaries, or maniacs, but that doesn’t get you very far, nor them: Missionaries would be crestfallen by the corruption, mercenaries could find easier ways to get their hands on a few pieces of silver, and maniacs could not cope with the discipline the job demands.
So why do they do it? For aid workers from the Third World, the jobs pay quite well, and if they are working in their native countries, they are helping their own people. For First Worlders, there is the thrill of exotic altruism. None of them rejoices in the mines or the kidnappings or the cholera or the misery of starving villagers, but these things catapult them out of the drudgery of nine-to-five life in their tamperproof homelands. They have a front-row seat to history in motion, which is big and terrifying and amazing, like the thrashings of a wounded elephant. Aid workers are bearers of good will and targets for warlords. They are vultures and angels.
OUTSIDE BAIDOA, SOMALIA
IN SOMALIA, there is usually an explanation for violence that appears mindless, and in fact an explanation existed for the ambush that awaited us a few hundred yards up the road. CARE, like other humanitarian groups, does not own any of the vehicles it uses in southern Somalia. It is unwise to own a car there unless you also own a private militia that can prevent another private militia from stealing it. CARE rents its vehicles from people connected to various militias, and its written contract requires owners to provide, with each car, “two security guards with necessary hardware.” Meaning assault rifles. Pistols will not do.
The gentlemen manning a roadblock a half-mile up the road were representing, in the Somali fashion, the interests of someone in Baidoa who did not win the contract to supply vehicles to CARE. The gunmen didn’t want to shoot us; they just wanted us to use different vehicles (theirs) at the going rate of $60 per vehicle per day, a small fortune in Somalia. If we refused their offer, they might, reluctantly, find it necessary to open fire. Cobra, who is in his thirties and used to work for the U.S. embassy in Mogadishu back when there was a U.S. embassy in Mogadishu, calmly explained this to Miskell.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Miskell said.
“No,” Cobra replied. “I’ll go back to town and bring the district commissioner here to straighten this out.”
Cobra returned with the commissioner, and after 15 minutes of arguing with the guys at the roadblock we all drove back to Baidoa’s police station. You could tell it was the police station by the traditional Somali crime-fighting vehicles outside: bullet-pocked pickups with heavy machine guns mounted in back, and a truck with a large antiaircraft gun on its flatbed. These Mad Max—style vehicles are known as “technicals.” Next to them sat a battered pickup bearing a corpse wrapped in a blanket with a woman wailing beside it.
There’s really no difference between the police and the fighters in southern Somalia; policemen just happen to be charged by their warlords with keeping civil order instead of battling other clans. They have no training and no uniforms because there are no government officials to provide them. Public schools no longer exist in southern Somalia, just scattered Islamic schools that teach Arabic and the Koran; nor is there a public health system or anything else that would suggest the presence of a controlling legal authority. In the U.S. State Department’s official briefing paper on Somalia, under the heading “Government,” there is simply the word “None.” The country’s legislative system is “Not Functioning.” The judiciary is also “Not Functioning.” The entry for national holidays reads, “None presently celebrated.”
There was certainly no celebrating going on at the Baidoa police station. After another half-hour, the commissioner got fed up and tossed several of the gunmen into jail and sent us on our way.
As we drove off a few of the men who’d gathered to observe the proceedings began jeering–as far as they were concerned, the wrong guys were being locked up. One pointed a finger at Miskell, who’d come to Baidoa to give away food, and said, “Fuck you.”
We were journeying into one of Somalia’s larger fiefdoms, an area controlled by the Rahenweyn Resistance Army, which is led by a thin, reportedly diabetic warlord known as Red Shirt. He was wearing a white shirt when Miskell visited him a day before, seeking his blessing to distribute food without being attacked. RRA territory is relatively safe, but that only means no aid workers have been killed there recently. Of course, aid convoys had been attacked, including, a few months earlier, one of Miskell’s; he escaped injury because the bandits were shooting at a different vehicle. On another occasion one of Miskell’s Somali staffers had not been so lucky. Militiamen ambushed him as he drove through an area north of Mogadishu that had been considered relatively safe–until he was murdered.
The problem is that anyplace in Somalia can turn into a killing ground. On the outskirts of Wajit, halfway on our journey to Tieglo, a child several years away from his first shave presided over yet another roadblock. As our Land Cruisers approached a twisted metal pole cast across the road, the kid told our guards to surrender their guns because, he said, visitors were not allowed to carry weapons into town. When our guards protested, the kid pointed his AK-47 at us. One of our guards–a veteran of such standoffs, though only in his late teens–hopped off the roof and marched toward the boy, pointing his rifle at the youngster.
“What’s he doing?” Miskell said under his breath. “Let’s not start a war.”
The kid retreated into a nearby hut. As we drove past, he came back out, looking as though he were about to cry. He was just a boy, but boys like him have shot adults like us many times. “Don’t worry,” Miskell had told me, “your chance of being shot to death is greater than being robbed.” Then he’d smiled. “And your chance of being shot accidentally is greater than being shot intentionally.”
MANGAR ANGUI, SUDAN
THE MEN WERE whipping the women with branches torn from nearby trees. You could hear the lashes cutting through the air. Hundreds of women had lined up on the airstrip to receive the food dropped by the Herc the day before, and here and there pushing and shoving had broken out, as well as tugs-of-war over sacks of grain. That’s why the men had whips–to restore order.
There was a festival air, despite the whipping, because food was being given away. The community was gathering en masse, an unusual event for people who spend their days tending meager crops of sorghum and thin herds of cattle or goats. At the moment, there is no wholesale starvation in Mangar Angui, though there was in 1998. The villagers’ storehouses, which Loftus had inspected in the past few days, were almost bare; the WFP is not solving the hunger problem, just keeping it at bay. After the distribution, women and children would sift through the dust, looking for stray kernels of corn.
Loftus moved with the quickness of a hummingbird, as did John Kamemia, a Kenyan and veteran aid worker who was partnered with her in Mangar Angui (WFP field-workers travel in pairs for safety). Hundreds of sacks of maize and lentils, as well as tins of vegetable oil, were being handed out at several points spread over an area as large as a few football fields. Loftus and Kamemia wanted, above all, to make sure the food was divided fairly. WFP food is supposed to go to the vulnerable–refugees, nursing mothers, children, and the disabled. Lists had been drawn up with the names of villages, village chiefs, and the number of people to receive food in each village. Local relief workers from the Sudanese Relief and Rehabilitation Association, the humanitarian arm of the SPLA, were attempting to sort it out as Loftus flitted here and there, calling out instructions. “Dhuok cen! Dhuok cen!” she shouted, in Dinka, to several men lounging around a stack of food bags. “Everyone around these bags needs to go. Dhuok cen! Dhuok cen!” Like most foreign aid workers in southern Sudan, Loftus knows only a few words of Dinka, and the one she uses most frequently means “step back.”
She was dressed in her usual bush outfit: a pair of shorts and a white WFP T-shirt. On her feet she wore Ralph Lauren Polo flip-flops; on her head, a Patagonia hat with sun visors in front and back; and on her back, a 3.5-liter CamelBak. In a country where 100 degrees is regarded as cool weather, a water-filled backpack is the sort of thing that makes eminent sense. But when you are a healthy American moving among Africans who are a meal or two away from starvation, you look more like a visitor from another planet.
After a while Loftus took a break under a tree. She looked exhausted; her dark hair was pasted down by sweat and she was covered in dirt. Women with 50-kilo bags on their heads were walking away into the bush, which was problematic. Unless you see food actually given to the people it’s intended for, you have no idea whether the village chief will keep much of it for himself and his multiple wives, or whether soldiers may grab it instead.
“We want them to stay here and share the food,” Loftus remarked. “We don’t want them to go off and share the food under a chief. We want to monitor it.”
AID WORK IS AN addiction. Something happens, and your life–which was going to be normal, with a family and a good job that you perform with decreasing enthusiasm over the years–becomes exceptional, forever. And you can’t imagine it otherwise.
In 1969 John Miskell, having just graduated from Syracuse University’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, joined the Peace Corps, figuring on a year or two of adventure before settling down. He was sent to Kenya, where his sojourn coincided with a famine. Incompetence and corruption hindered efforts to feed the hungry, so they died, sometimes right in front of Miskell, who was teaching high school in Wajir, a village in the north (and trapping poisonous snakes and selling them to a zoo in his spare time).
“I thought when I joined the Peace Corps that I would do my two years and go home and look for a job as a forester or entomologist,” he told me. “My first year in Wajir changed that.” He met Zahra Hussein Awale, an enchanting Somali secretary traveling through Kenya, and they got married. When his hitch in the Peace Corps ended, he took a job in the entomology department at the National Museum in Nairobi, where he spent most of his time in a cavernous room with 250,000 beetle specimens. When funds for that job ran out, he decamped with his wife and two young children (two more would come later) to Mogadishu, well before the city devolved into a synonym for anarchy, to conduct a bird survey for the UN.
Eventually funding for that project ran dry too, so he took a job with CARE. There are thousands of nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, across the globe, but CARE ranks among the elite, in terms of reliability and efficiency, along with Médecins Sans Frontières, Save the Children, World Vision, the International Rescue Committee, and several others. Founded in 1945 as a vehicle to send aid packages to survivors of World War II, CARE then stood for Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe. The group, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, has since changed its name to Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere; it operates in more than 60 countries with more than 10,000 employees, the vast majority of them Third World citizens working in the Third World.
Most NGOs tend to see the UN, their ubiquitous counterpart in relief operations, as a 900-pound gorilla. And while UN personnel usually get along quite well with NGO workers in the field, their bureaucratic cultures are polar opposites. In Nairobi, an NGO like CARE is based in a rented house filled with a few dozen staffers. The UN agencies occupy a sprawling campus with landscaped grounds and more than a thousand well-paid employees. NGO staffers will tell you that the UN wastes almost as much money as it spends; UN officials sniff that the NGOs are nickel-and-dime amateurs.
Miskell is a pro. He spent four years in Somalia with CARE before shifting to eastern Sudan in 1985 for three years; then, in 1988, to Uganda; then to a remote corner of Bangladesh in 1993, because, as he says, “No one wanted to go there.” He stayed for a year and a half, at which point he was asked to take charge of a CARE project in a remote part of Sudan, another place no one wanted to go. Later he was sent to Tanzania for a spell, then back to Sudan in 1998; finally, last year, his pinball trajectory deposited him back in Somalia. His family could not quite keep up: In 1991 they moved to Geneseo, New York, so that his children could attend high school and college in America. One of his sons is now in the U.S. Army, just back from Bosnia; another recently moved to Washington, D.C.; and a third is finishing high school in Geneseo. His ten-year-old daughter, born in Mogadishu, is starting sixth grade this fall. Miskell sees them twice a year, during vacations. Two months with his family, ten in Africa.
Miskell is based on the outskirts of Merca, 60 miles south of Mogadishu; it is too dangerous for him to live in the capital. In many respects, CARE’s Merca villa is splendid. If you stand on the balcony you have a view of the turquoise Indian Ocean a few hundred yards in front of you; if you look to the left, Merca’s colonial precincts unfold, a whitewashed mix of African and Arabic and Italian architecture, like an apparition from a Paul Bowles novel. A strong, warm wind blows off the ocean. One hears the regular calls to prayer, occasional ruptures of gunfire, and, when kids in the street catch a glimpse of you, excited shouts of “Gal! Gal!”–Somali for “infidel.”
It’s comfortable, as prisons go. The villa’s steel gate is locked at all times. Miskell does not leave without at least three armed bodyguards, and he rarely walks anywhere. There is a handful of foreign aid workers in Merca, mostly Italians rebuilding local schools, and they follow the same rules. One Italian aid worker was assassinated a few years back–the killer slipped into her villa, shot her in the head, and ran out. Last year more than a dozen aid workers were kidnapped in southern Somalia: Ten staffers for the International Committee of the Red Cross were seized in April, threatened with death, and then released after two weeks. (The ICRC says no ransom was paid, but a news report claimed that $150,000 changed hands.) That same month another Italian was abducted and held for three weeks, and a top WFP official traveling in Mogadishu was kidnapped for a few days at the end of 1999. It was his second abduction.
MANGAR ANGUI, SUDAN
JUST AS SUDAN has the unfortunate distinction of possessing Africa’s longest-running civil war, the food drops Loftus helps oversee are part of Africa’s longest-running, and most controversial, aid project. The war itself began in 1956, when Sudan gained independence from British rule; went into remission in 1972; and returned worse than ever in 1983, after the Muslim government in Khartoum imposed Islamic law on the country, including the largely Christian and animist southern half. (The U.S. government supports the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army.)In the last 17 years the war has cost some two million lives–many from war-induced famines–and turned several million more people into refugees.
Loftus’s work is part of Operation Lifeline Sudan, an 11-year-old joint project of the United Nations and some 40 NGOs, including CARE. The operation has run up an estimated $2 billion tab so far through its food and medicine drops, and critics have charged that such projects allow bloody conflicts to continue indefinitely since aid groups strike devil’s bargains with warring factions, which inevitably get a cut of the food in exchange for safe passage of their convoys. Refugees get fed, but so do murderers.
Out in the field, Loftus has more important things to worry about than lofty policy debates–things like not dying. Born the year John Miskell joined the Peace Corps, she is relatively new to the game. She came to Sudan via Great Falls, Montana, a place, she says in a mock serious voice, “where a handshake is still the law.” Always athletic, she became an expert rock climber in her teens, and after high school moved to Boston and worked as a nanny, an emergency medical technician, a vegetarian chef, and an orderly in a mental institution before getting an anthropology degree from the University of Massachusetts. After college she drifted to Kenya and worked as a guide for luxury safaris, but there was an emptiness to the work–baby-sitting rich white people in Africa is not terribly meaningful. So two years ago she applied for a job with the World Food Program in Sudan and, thanks to some persistence, got it.
Every six weeks Loftus boards a bush plane at the UN base in Lokichokio, Kenya, and is dropped off several hours later in rebel-held territory in southern Sudan. This is assuming the UN plane does not nose-dive into the landing strip and flip over (as one did while I was in Sudan) or that its passengers are not taken hostage by gunmen (as happened to another UN plane shortly after I left). If all goes well Loftus and a partner stay at each drop-off point for a few days to a week. Then another plane takes them to another site. Loftus sleeps in a Kelty tent, cooks over a kerosene burner, and does her best to avoid snakes, scorpions, hyenas, soldiers, and wild dogs. The WFP requires its field-workers to keep a survival bag handy with food, water, first-aid supplies, flashlight, and compass in case they have to flee. In Mangar Angui, I asked Loftus’s field partner, John Kamemia, where he keeps his “fast-run kit.” He laughed and pointed to his ample belly. “This is my fast-run kit,” he said.
If Loftus needs to investigate food conditions in a village ten miles from her camp, she must walk. Paved roads do not, for the most part, exist in southern Sudan, nor do vehicles to drive on them–just the occasional NGO Land Rover or military truck being pounded to death by the baked earth in the dry season or swallowed up by that same earth in the rainy season. Some monitors are sent out with bicycles (one-speed bikes made in China have proven more durable here than American-made mountain bikes), but the terrain tends to be too rutted or too swampy for travel on anything but your own two feet, which will be cracked or infected, depending on the season.
Mosquitoes can be so dense that you inhale them. Sudan also boasts 80 percent of the world’s cases of infestation by guinea worm, whose larva enters the human body via unclean drinking water and grows in the bloodstream into a three-foot-long white worm before chewing its way through the skin, usually at the foot, and emerging in its entirety in an agonizing and horribly disgusting process that takes weeks at a minimum, and usually months.
“Sudan,” said one WFP field worker, a woman who’d endured cerebral malaria and a mysterious grapefruit-size growth on her neck, “tries to destroy people.”
DESPITE WHITE HAIR and a white beard, John Miskell looks absurdly vigorous for a man who has spent his adult life in the punishing bush. The mystery of his youthful appearance deepened as we drove to Tieglo. In places the road wasn’t even dirt, just rocks, and the Land Cruiser jolted up and down as though perched atop a giant jackhammer. Red dust invaded the cabin in clumps; the 100-degree air tasted of gasoline. I placed a bandanna over my mouth; our driver jammed the end of his scarf into his mouth and gnawed on it. Occasionally we passed small towns nearly wiped out in the last decade of war, a Dresden-like vista of ruin. Small groups of underfed people sat in what shade they could find beside mud huts. They stared as we passed, our Land Cruisers strange apparitions from the land of plenty.
Miskell sat up front, seemingly unfazed. Nothing covered his nose or mouth. He patiently scanned the bush for birds; when he saw one, he would jot its name in his notebook. I tried to stump him, asking the names of birds that flew past in a millisecond, but he was miles ahead of me. “Red-billed hornbill,” he said as one zoomed by, and then he delivered an ornithological trump card: “Female.” On occasion he would tell the driver to stop, and he would leave the car, binoculars in hand, and shuffle toward a creature perched in a tree. The rooftop guards seemed baffled by this white guy chasing after birds.
Long-term exposure to other people’s suffering can harm aid workers in a process known euphemistically as “vicarious traumatization.” The mind and body have ways of coping: alcohol abuse, withdrawal. This has not happened to Miskell. His defense mechanism is unique–he retreats into an alternative universe of wildlife. For him, the bush isn’t full of misery, but of mysteries unsolved. He has coauthored a book on Somali birds and is updating it for a second edition. He has discovered three new species of beetles, and two admiring colleagues named beetles they discovered after him. “Every time a botanist comes to this country, they find a new species of plant,” he enthused. “It’s just amazing.”
Miskell has become a man of Africa rather than a visitor to Africa. He drinks camel milk by the gallon, and almost everywhere he goes, he carries a six-by-eight-inch picture of his family, a posed studio shot where he stands proudly with his Somali wife and his half-Somali, half-American children. It is, in a way, a passport that tells everyone Miskell is African, that he is not just another white guy with the power to provide free food, that he is more at home in the chaos of Somalia than in the comfort of America.
Well after sunset, and nearly 14 hours after leaving Baidoa, we pulled into Tieglo reeking of gasoline and sweat and dust. The food trucks, which had set out from Mogadishu, were scheduled to arrive the next day. But as we were to find out, things had not gone according to plan. Miskell was about to get another dose of chaos.
MANGAR ANGUI, SUDAN
AT SIX IN THE evening, Loftus fired up her WFP solar-powered radio and shouted out, “Lima Two, Mike Golf India!” No response. She shouted again, and this time summoned a voice from the ether.
“Yes!” she yelled back. “John? How are you doing?”
John Burns, another WFP field-worker, is Loftus’s boyfriend. Like lovers meeting on the same bench in a park, they talk on the radio at the same time every evening.
“Great,” Burns replied.
“Are you still smoking?” Loftus asked.
“No, but I really crave it.”
“That’s a good copy. When will you get to the field?“Burns, who was at the UN base in northern Kenya, was waiting to be sent into southern Sudan.
“I don’t know. There’s nothing for me to do there yet.”
“OK,” Loftus yelled. “Well, keep on not smoking.”
“Right, talk to you tomorrow.”
Loftus turned to me. “Now everyone in the SPLA, SRAA, and WFP knows John is trying to quit smoking,” she said, laughing. “You’d like to say, ‘I love you, I love you, I miss you, I miss you,’ but you can’t.”
Two-way radios are the Internet of the aid world. Virtually every aid worker in southern Sudanthere are hundreds in the field at any timeuses a shortwave radio to stay in touch with headquarters and, if the need arises, as it frequently does, to arrange emergency evacuations for medical or security reasons. At night the airwaves become a vast chat room in which people swap gossip like teenagers burning the phone lines after lights-out. If you flip between channelsand aside from talking with your colleagues, the best form of entertainment is eavesdropping on themyou will hear WFP staffers talking about sports, bitching about the weather, trying to sell each other used cars.
The foreigners work alongside Sudanese whose grasp of English seems to derive, in part, from radio chatter. In Mangar Angui, one of Loftus’s colleagues was a 26-year-old local named John Garang (not to be confused with the head of the SPLA, who has the same name). If Garang wanted to know whether Loftus understood something, he would ask, with a hint of BBC in his accent, “Do you copy?” If he wanted to indicate that things were fine, he might say “Oscar Kilo,” radio-ese for “OK.”
One day, after a grueling six-hour walkabout to check food conditions, Garang hung around our tents, which we had set up inside mud huts, and leafed through a copy of Yachting that Loftus had brought into the field along with a recent copy of Newsweek and one of Shape, its cover advertising “8 New Moves for a Knockout Tush.” Putting his finger on a color picture of a 45-foot sloop, Garanga man who had likely never seen open water in his life, nor a vessel larger than a canoeannounced enthusiastically, “I want this boat.”
Loftus and I were slumped in the shade of a tree, swallowing oral-rehydration salts.
“Aren’t you tired?” I asked.
“Negative,” Garang said. “Small walk.”
The Dinka are known for being exceptionally tall and long-legged. The most famous Dinka in the world is seven-foot, seven-inch retired NBA center Manute Bol.
“How long can you walk?”
“Twenty-four hours,” Garang said.
“Twenty-four hours?” “Affirmative.”
THE TOWN HAS several hundred mud huts, but no hotels, so Miskell and I stayed in a local merchant’s home that had a roof made of tin rather than plastic sheeting, making it deluxe accommodations. In the morning, the CARE team gathered for a breakfast of sweet tea, camel milk, goat meat, and anjera, the local bread. Miskell didn’t bother saying good morning.
“You haven’t heard yet,” he told me. “The convoy was attacked.”
The news had come over the two-way radio. No one was sure where the convoy was or whether anyone had been injured. After breakfast Miskell visited the local radio operator, in a lean-to crammed with Somalis waiting in line to talk with friends in other towns, and got through to someone in CARE’s office in Merca.
“When do you expect him to reach this location?” Miskell shouted.
“I don’t know,” came the reply. “There was fighting. Over.” The connection broke off abruptly.
“Can you use channel 8044?” Miskell shouted. “Channel 8044! Over.” They briefly re-established contact. Miskell left the hut in disgust. Four guards had been killed, three wounded, and a technical destroyed in the ambush, at a checkpoint about 100 miles from Tieglo. “Why are they doing it?” Miskell fumed. “It’s insane.”
The rest of the day consisted of quick updates with CARE employees in Merca and Mogadishu. On one occasion, Ahmed Abdulle, the CARE convoy leader, was patched through. Because anyone could listen to the shortwave conversation, including the gunmen who attacked the convoy, little was said about where the convoy was holed up or how it was going to get here intact.
“Are you safe where you are?”
“Yes,” Ahmed replied. “I am safe. The convoy is intact and safe.”
“Will you be able to leave?”
Before dinner we listened to the BBC World Service, which reported that the office of a British aid group, ACCORD, had been attacked in a town near Merca. Two people were dead. A militia tracked the gunmen down and killed their leader, but two bystanders were wounded in that shootout. There was silence in the compound.
The next morning, when I wandered into the courtyard for breakfast, Miskell again skipped the pleasantries. “You haven’t heard?” he asked.
“What now?” I said.
“A civilian truck that was on the road the convoy was on hit a land mine. We don’t know how many were killed.” The mine, he explained, was meant for our food convoy.
The ambush appeared to be a business dispute. The trucking firm that CARE hired to transport the food was being attacked by a rival company that wanted CARE’s business, we learned. Allies of the victimized firm had already struck back by kidnapping one of the owners of the firm that launched the ambush.
There was more. We soon heard that the CARE convoy had been attacked a second time the previous evening, as many as ten more guards killed and another technical destroyed by rocket-propelled grenades. On top of that, militias linked to the warring trucking firms had begun fighting in Beledweyn, a town near the ambush sites; shops in the town had been looted.
“Food is dangerous,” Miskell remarked. “If we’re not careful, this convoy is going to start a war, a big war.”
There was nothing he could do except return to Merca the next day and instruct Ahmed to give the food to local charities and go back to Mogadishu. When he returned from the radio shack, Miskell sat in the courtyard, ignoring dozens of children who stared at him through the wooden fence, and began reading a novel by Tony Hillerman. I drew his attention to a beetle climbing a wall behind him.
“Longhorned wood bore,” he said.
MANGAR ANGUI, SUDAN
BEFORE THE SUN had risen much above the horizon, Loftus and I put on running shoes and headed for the dirt airstrip. We jogged back and forth for a half-hour, past women lugging jugs of water on their heads, past thin hunters with spears, past naked, giggling children.
“They think it’s the most bizarre thing,” Loftus said. And it is. But in Sudan, where serious illness is a scratch or a sneeze or a dirty fork away, staying fit (or at least unsick) is important. Loftus travels with an arsenal of health- and sanity-preserving weapons. She eschews the beans-and-rice strategy of bush survival, opting instead for jars of garlic and olives, packets of cumin and coriander, powdered coconut milk, cans of tikka marsala, and bags of bulgar and lentils. She carries $60 tubes of Lancme skin cleanser, toenail polish, and a solar-powered cassette player. “I have one week off for every six weeks in the field,” she explains. “If I didn’t feel at home, I couldn’t work here.”
Sadly, these self-protective strategies can widen the gulf between aid workers and the people they help. It’s not a white-versus-black issue; Kamemia was almost as much of an alien in Mangar Angui as Loftus, although his knowledge of Arabic, which some educated southern Sudanese speak, brought him closer to a few. Aid workers learn to be insular: The hands extended toward youand everyone wants to shake your handcan transmit any number of gastrointestinal diseases. Loftus has already perfected a method of waving in such a friendly way that people don’t realize she hasn’t shaken their hands.
As we packed to leave Mangar Angui for another village, we were watched closely by two women who had been employed, during our visit, to wash our dishes and bring water from a well a half-mile away, carrying the 20-liter containers on their heads. They had been paid with a sack of maize, which would fulfill perhaps a quarter of a family’s needs for a month, after the women pounded it into powder and cooked it into a sludgy porridge. But they wanted more, and they held out their hands to Loftus as she stowed her food in her trunk. The women wore torn, soiled bits of clothing and, like all but the luckiest of local villagers, had no shoes.
“Don’t beg,” Loftus said sharply to one, in English. “It doesn’t make you look good.”
It sounded harsh, and it was. But her words reflected the sort of hard-heartedness aid workers must adopt to keep from being driven into utter depression by the insurmountable misery around them. It also reflected an effort to stay sane by following the rules even when doing so seems callous or futile. You can’t save everyone, nor can you protect them from vultures in their midst. Sometimes you have little choice but to walk away. During the food distribution, as women left with entire 50-kilo bags, Loftus spoke with local officials who told her the food would be kept nearby and redistributed the next day. By that time, as they well knew, she would be gone. And the chiefs would divide the food however they wished.
THE ELDERS OF Tieglo gathered in the village’s television hut, where you pay the equivalent of five cents for an evening of satellite TV, and listened to Miskell explain that the convoy had been attacked twice and dozens killed. Their peoplea scattered 10,000 in allwould not be getting any food, not now. The quartet of elders, carrying finely carved wooden staffs and wearing elegant sarongs, sat in plastic lawn chairs and stroked their beards.
“Hunger is increasing,” one of them said, as a Somali translated for me. “We didn’t get any food in December or January. People are selling their livestock for food.” This is true. The WFP was about to appeal for a massive infusion of food aid for countries in the Horn of Africa: According to the UN, roughly eight million people are at risk of starvation in Ethiopia alone, as well as in parts of Kenya and Sudan. Pockets of malnutrition were already developing around Tiegloindicators of big trouble ahead.
“We have to go,” Miskell replied. “We’ll come back as soon as we can.”
The elder shrugged in the resigned manner of men who have come to expect the worst in a country that has experienced the worst. “It is Allah’s will,” he said.
It was hard to keep track of all the thievery and corruption. There was the provincial official seeking free food for his orphanage, an empty house filled with kids only when aid workers visited. There was the Baidoa warehouse set on fire to cover up the pilfering of UN supplies by its managers. There was the 370-ton food convoy stolen by a provincial governor’s gunmen and used, the rumor goes, to acquire new Land Cruisers. And the WFP official who was so corrupt that, according to a joke making the rounds, WFP stood for “Warlord Food Program.”
When the meeting ended, everyone filed away quietly, as though leaving a funeral. Miskell returned to our tin-roofed room, which was stiflingly hot. Outside, a stiff breeze stirred up clouds of dust.
“Most people in this country would like to see the warlords evaporate,” he told me. “If you cut the food out, who is going to starve? Not the gunmen. They have guns and they will find ways to get food. The other people will starve. If we pulled out there might be some sort of conclusion reached faster than otherwise, but the number of people who would die would be pretty incredible.”
This dilemma is at the heart of the debate over food aid. Perhaps pulling out would be, in the long run, the right thing to do, but doing so would take the ruthlessness of a Machiavellian and the heartlessness of a Malthusian. “Sometimes you feel like packing it in,” Miskell admitted. “Some people would tell you I’m crazy, and maybe they’re right.” But he stays. “My family keeps telling me to come back to America, that I can find a job, I don’t need to do this,” he said. “But every time I go to the States I go for about four weeks, and after about a month I know it’s time to leave again. Maybe it’s because everything is too perfect. I find it boring.” Miskell is no adrenaline junkie. He may be an unpredictability junkie, howevera guy who wants to be surprised by what unfolds in front of him or what flies over his head. And he wants to feel that he is really doing something. As I discovered, he is pathetically out of touch with the rest of the media-saturated First World, out of touch with IPO fever and the latest box-office sensation. He still cares about starvation, the poor bastard, even after 30 years in the field.
We returned to Baidoa the next day and then flew to Merca. After a 30-minute stopover to load some fuel, the plane headed to Nairobi, with me on it. I watched as Miskell climbed into his Land Cruiser and started home with his quartet of bodyguards. His first order of business was to find a trucking company that could get a convoy of food to Tieglo. He will likely be doing that sort of thing for the rest of his working life. He does not plan to return to live in America, ever. When he retires, he wants to build a house on a plot of land that he owns with his wife. The land is in Mogadishu.
IT HAPPENED QUICKLY, the switch from blighted war zone to bush-camp luxury. Loftus, Kamemia, and I waited at Mangar Angui’s airstrip with our gear for the single-engine plane that would take us to the next village. The nine-seater landed with a bump, and the pilot stepped out and told us we wouldn’t be going to the other village after all, because the dirt airstrip there, which the villagers had just scratched out of the bush, and over which he had just flown, was too short. We radioed Lokichokio for instructions and were told to return to Kenya.
Loki is a cross between a military camp and a summer camp. The roar of cargo planes is constant, and an army of four-wheel-drive vehicles shuttles between the airstrip and the aid workers’ residential compounds a few miles away. The jeeps pass through town, a parched collection of dilapidated storefronts and dome-shaped huts of branches and plastic sheeting inhabited mostly by members of the Turkana tribe.
The main compound has some incongruous Club Med touches: Attractive thatch roofs cover outdoor picnic tables; a disco ball hangs in an open-air bar offering everything from Russian vodka to American cigarettes. There is a volleyball court a few paces away. At night, aid workers unwind over beers kept ice-cold in a refrigerator hooked up to a generator. Later still they might head off in pairs to each others’ tents and huts.
Early one evening, Loftus and I sat down for a quiet beer. The bar was crowded with Afrikaner UN pilots bossing around the Kenyan bartender. Friends of Loftus’s said hello. A few yards away a swimming pool was surrounded by bougainvilleas in bloom. Outside the perimeter, delineated by a barbed-wire fence patrolled by men with rifles, sat the baked red desolation of northern Kenya.
I asked Loftus to tell me what she was learning, living this life. “When you see war,” she told me, “when you see a culture that has changed into a war culture, you become grateful. People in the States do not know what it’s like to not be free. They have no clue. All the issues that I would scream and march and yell about in collegeI didn’t know shit. You don’t know what loss of freedom is until you see people who have no freedom, until you see people whose children are stolen into slavery.”
On my last day at Loki, the security guards went on strike and held a protest outside the main gate. The local police were called in, and they fired at the crowd, and after the crowd dove for cover, shots were fired at the police and into the compound. Loftus and her colleagues hardly flinched. They finally retreated into a courtyard after several volleys were fired and after the head of security began yelling, “I suggest you get somewhere safe! Anything can happen!” As sporadic gunfire continued for an hour or two, the aid workers slouched on the ground, so casual they could have fallen asleep.
Earlier, when we talked at the bar, Loftus said, “You know you can be shot, you know it, but you really feel like you’re not gonna. Somehow, because you’re here trying to help, somehow you’ve got this protective armor. Which is bullshit. You almost have to feel that way to go into it, because if you’re constantly thinking, ‘Oh, God, I could get shot,’ then it doesn’t work.” She laughed. “I think it’s not going to happen to me, which is crap.”
Loftus has already been evacuated from the field twiceonce for malaria, once because her village was about to be attacked by militiamen. One night in Mangar Angui, when the BBC World Service reported the deaths of the eight aid workers near the Ugandan border only about two hundred miles from us, I went to Loftus’s hut and told her; she was less interested than I expected. She didn’t know them. I told Kamemia. “Oh, yeah?” he said, and returned to his book.
Loftus did know Richard Powell, a WFP worker from Australia who died last year in a plane crash. Powell’s ashes were buried in January at a Sudanese village where he had worked, and Loftus cried at his funeral. The African ceremony involved the slaughter of a half-dozen cows, the burial of a live sheep, and at the end of it all, the playing, on a portable stereo, of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”
It is a form of cognitive dissonance: I could be killed; I can’t be killed. John Miskell has this capacity, too. He doesn’t scare easily, and he doesn’t have a death wish, but he has paid for extra insurance that will provide his family, in the event of his death in the field, with a year of his salary in addition to the three years’ salary CARE would chip in. Like Loftus, he knows the risks, and he carries on. There is a difference between risking your life and thinking you will lose it. All aid workers do the former; few do the latter.
Loftus’s insurance is a four-leaf clover worn on a pendant around her neck. She doesn’t know how much longer she will last in Sudan. A year, maybe two. After that, she’s not sure. She wants to sail around the world with her boyfriend and return to aid work, somewhere, somehow. Perhaps not in a war zone, but in a country with development work, the sunnier side of the humanitarian world. I asked whether she might return to America and live a life that would fit within the parameters of “normalcy.” If she wanted to help people, she could work in a soup kitchen; for thrills, she could go climbing, the sort of thing she used to do before heading to Africa. But Loftus told me that when she visits home and sees her old climbing buddies, her attention fades as they talk about mountains they have summited; theirs fades as she talks about Sudan.
My question lingered in the air. Finally, Loftus shook her head from side to side.
“You cant go back,” she said.
In early 1995, Tony Namkung received a phone call from a diplomat at the North Korean mission to the United Nations. Would it be possible, the diplomat asked, to arrange for the magician David Copperfield to perform in Pyongyang? Namkung, a resident scholar at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C., think tank, was one of the few people in America who could be sure such a call was not a prank. He was on good terms with the North Koreans at the mission, often going out with them to dinner or movies and frequently serving as a conduit for messages between them and U.S. officials and politicians. He made a few calls and learned that Copperfield was performing his magic in Las Vegas, so he arranged for a few complimentary passes, booked several rooms at the MGM Grand, and flew to Vegas with two North Korean diplomats.
The North Koreans, bedazzled on their first visit to America’s gambling capital, were delighted with the show and went backstage afterward to meet Copperfield (along the way, they bumped into Neil Sedaka). The man of secrets and the men from a country of secrets got along well; Copperfield said he would be glad to perform in Pyongyang. A few months later, Jonathan Hochwald, one of Copperfield’s producers, went to North Korea to scope out the facilities. The North Koreans were so excited they talked about erecting a statue of Copperfield. “They really wanted to make it happen,” Hochwald told me.
North Korea, in its bizarre way, was trying to open to the world. And it’s still trying. Although the Copperfield deal eventually foundered over finances, now, after a flurry of unexpected diplomatic moves, the curtain is being raised in Pyongyang on an even more surprising act. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, is scheduled to play host from June 12 to June 14 to South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, in the first inter-Korean summit. Both sides have much to gain. The North, its moribund economy devastated by floods and famine, desperately wants aid and investment from its onetime enemies. The prosperous South, many years distant from the rule of military hard-liners, hopes to overcome the tense division of the peninsula. All of which begs the question: Is North Korea serious about joining the community of peaceful nations? Or does the country simply want more aid to perpetuate its Stalinist, bomb-making ways?
American hawks say it’s the latter. As proof, they cite recent history. In 1994, under then-President Kim Il Sung, North Korea nearly provoked a regional war by appearing to extract weapons-grade plutonium from its nuclear reactor, in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It pulled back from the brink only after the United States, Japan, and South Korea bought it off with the promise of two new nuclear reactors and 500,000 tons of heating oil per year until the new plants came online. In 1995, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans began starving to death in a protracted famine. Kim Il Sung’s successor, his son Kim Jong Il, who until then was known chiefly as a reclusive playboy, refused to allow foreign aid workers free access to the countryside and diverted some of the food aid to the army. In 1998, North Korea rocked the world again when it launched a three-stage missile, thus proving its ability to strike far beyond its shores. Last year Pyongyang officially agreed to refrain from further missile tests, but it’s anyone’s guess what’s happening in its (literally) underground laboratories. Rather than breathe life into a dying rogue regime, the hawks want to tighten the noose.
Here’s where supporters of engagement—including the U.S. State Department—have a strong counterargument. Backing North Korea’s government into a corner might undermine it in the long run, but that could take many years, since the regime, which is so repressive that it lacks a dissident movement, has proved far more resilient than expected. Meanwhile, without economic carrots from the United States and its allies, Kim Jong Il’s government will have every incentive to continue developing and selling to other countries and rogue groups its missile technology—the only thing it has that anyone would want to buy.
More importantly, note the engagement boosters, there is good reason to believe that Kim Jong Il has changed his tune—in other words, that there is a real chance for a more peaceful relationship with his government. In the early years of his rule, this argument goes, Kim Jong Il had only a weak grip on power, with few of his own people occupying key posts in the government and the military. Most Korea experts gave the younger Kim a year in office before his regime collapsed, perhaps in the manner of Ceausescu’s Romania. The famine made Kim’s position more precarious, virtually ensuring he would not risk rocking the boat with a new policy of opening to the West.
But Kim has emerged from the famine firmly in charge and has begun taking some of the very steps the West has long called for. About 150 representatives of international governmental organizations have recently been allowed to set up camp in North Korea. In the past few months, Pyongyang has agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations with Italy and Australia. North Korea also wants to join ASEAN’s Regional Forum and is involved in slow-moving talks with the United States and Japan on a range of issues, including missile proliferation, that stand in the way of diplomatic relations. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has been carrying on a back-channel exchange of letters with Kim Jong Il. “They seem to have seen the light and are ready to get serious about trying to find a way of working with the South, with Japan and the U.S.,” a senior U.S. official told me.
The North Koreans are likely motivated more by selfinterest than by goodwill. Since taking office in 1998, South Korea’s Kim Dae Jung has pursued a “sunshine policy” of increasing economic and cultural exchanges with North Korea in hopes of convincing the government that it has more to gain from engaging the West than from spurning it. For example, the North earns $1 billion a year in tourism revenue from Hyundai, which sends boatloads of South Koreans on closely supervised visits to North Korea’s scenic Mount Kumgang. The best sign that Kim Jong Il has gotten the message is his agreement to meet with Kim Dae Jung at the summit. While no one is yet calling Kim Jong Il another Deng Xiaoping, he no longer appears to be a combination of Hugh Hefner and Dr. Evil.
This puts the United States in a delicate position. Although the Clinton administration has provided more than $200 million in annual aid to North Korea in recent years, until now it has steered clear of dramatic political moves, partly because it will win no political points for making nice with a regime understandably despised on Capitol Hill. But, if the summit goes well, the ball might soon be in the administration’s court. The sort of economic aid North Korea desires can only come from international institutions like the Asian Development Bank or the World Bank. Of course, North Korea will need to agree to the financial transparency demanded by these lenders—which, if you buy the logic of those who support permanent normal trading relations with China, may promote political change. The administration, on the other hand, will need to decide whether to bite the political bullet at home and remove North Korea from its list of countries that sponsor terrorism—after all, the United States isn’t in the practice of approving loans for states on that list—thus paving the way for full diplomatic relations.
Of course, rapprochement with North Korea is morally distasteful at best. But if the South Koreans—who have fewer illusions about the North than anyone in Washington—believe it is worth a try, America shouldn’t stand in the way. Détente with Pyongyang is undoubtedly a risky policy, but the truth is, when you’re dealing with a government like North Korea’s, any policy is.
The woman is enmeshed in the wondrous gadgetry of modern medicine. A rotating X-ray machine swings around her on a C-shaped arm. Video monitors show images of her heart as well as her vital signs. Doctors and nurses, clad in lead-lined vests, look like clinical RoboCops. The room is filled with beeps and flashes and growls from assorted high-tech instruments.
Mitchell Krucoff, a cardiologist at Duke University Medical Center, and Suzanne Crater, a nurse practitioner, are in a control room overlooking the scene. Very soon Dr. Krucoff will insert a wire into the woman’s heart and guide it to a clogged artery, where he will inflate a small balloon to clear the blockage. The procedure, known as an angioplasty, has become routine in recent years, but no heart surgery is free of risk.
Before they begin the procedure, Krucoff and Crater do something that few medical textbooks advise: They pray. As they do before every operation they perform. They typically try to do it in a quiet place, in an office or a lounge. But the elderly woman is ready for her angioplasty, so they’ve got no choice but to hold forth in the control room-amid the clutter and hubbub of 21st-century medicine, which includes, in a corner, a computer clicked onto Yahoo!‘s personal finance page (someone had been checking a stock portfolio).
“Now?” Krucoff says, glancing at Crater.
“Yes,” she nods.
Krucoff looks at me.
“This is an 80-year-old woman who just had a heart attack, so we need all the help we can get.”
Crater looks at a monitor that shows an X-ray image of the woman’s heart-a dark splotch of muscle and arteries. She stares intensely at the heart, as though in dialogue with it.
Krucoff leans back in his chair and closes his eyes. A smile appears on his face-the kind of smile you see when someone is imagining a sunny beach, waves lapping at his toes, everything tranquil and good. Krucoff is far away.
Within a minute he opens his eyes and rises from his chair. Crater ends her communion with the woman’s heart. Their prayer session, or whatever you wish to call this interlude, is over. They are ready to take control of another person’s destiny.
Krucoff and Crater believe in the power of prayer. They are inclined to believe it works even if the person being prayed for is half a world away, unaware that prayers are being said. In the medical and scientific worlds, this is known as intercessory prayer.
Its efficacy is an article of faith in religious communities, but doctors and scientists, bearers of sobering news from the ramparts of medical research, tend to note that concrete proof is hard to find.
“Most people believe prayer works,” Krucoff says. “It’s just that where, when, how, whom-there’s simply no data to test that belief, prove that belief, or even characterize the implications of that belief.”
Krucoff and Crater would like to change that. They are conducting a remarkable study in which 14 groups are praying for angioplasty patients at five hospitals across the country. (Six more hospitals are expected to join the study in the next few months.) When the study, which is to involve 1,500 patients, is finished next year, the health of patients who received prayer will be compared to that of a control group that did not. If the patients who received prayer are in significantly better shape, the explanation will be startling: The prayers did it.
“How wild is it?” muses Krucoff, who looks like Al Gore with a mustache. “It’s wild. But there was a time when if you suggested that taking two aspirin would prevent heart attacks, people would think you were nuts. Can intercessory prayer do anything for a person 200 miles away having a heart attack? I don’t think that’s inconceivable.”
The prayer groups represent a rainbow coalition of religions across the globe. One group consists of about 150 monks at a Buddhist monastery on a hilltop outside Kathmandu. The monks, who are from Nepal, India, Tibet, and other Himalayan countries, face each other in rows at the Kopan Monastery and listen, during morning prayers, as their chantmaster calls out the names of the heart patients. Clad in traditional maroon robes, the monks silently pray for the patients’ good health. A similar scene takes place at a Buddhist monastery near Toulouse, France.
On the outskirts of Baltimore a group of 18 nuns at a Carmelite convent files into their chapel during vespers, adding the heart patients to those they beseech God to watch over. In Jerusalem the patients’ names are printed on slips of paper and placed in the Western Wall, following a Jewish tradition for bringing prayers to the attention of God; this is done by e-mailing the prayers to a popular website, VirtualJerusalem.com, which prints out and places in the wall missives sent from anyone, anywhere. In North Carolina, where Duke University is located, a number of groups-Pentecostal, Baptist, Moravian, Sufi Muslim, even an assemblage of Christian soccer moms-pray for the patients.
The door to Dr. Krucoff’s office bears a one-word notice: “Breathe.” Take a breath, relax; okay, come in. The office has a split personality. One wall is covered with medical diplomas and certificates, and the bookshelves groan with tomes that do not bother with cute, please-read-me titles. Interventional Cardiovascular Medicine, says one. Heart Disease, says another. But alongside them are books about prayer and health, and scattered about are religious and spiritual totems: Buddhas, an obelisk, an Orthodox icon, a figurine of a man doing tai chi, a plastic Disney dwarf. The office reflects the stress of a surgeon’s life and, at the same time, is a refuge from it.
Krucoff’s life is similarly divided. He has performed thousands of angioplasties and conducts cutting-edge research. But he prefaces his working day with a spell of meditation, and he is editor-in-chief of the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. (Crater is an associate editor.) He will go almost anywhere, and speak to anyone, about noetic medicine-a catchphrase for spiritual and mind/body therapies. He even appeared at a meeting of construction contractors, taking the podium after a guy who lectured about new types of asphalt surfaces.
The prayer study that Krucoff and Crater are overseeing is known formally as the MANTRA Study Project, which is shorthand for Monitoring and Actualization of Noetic Trainings.
When the study is completed next year, they plan to assemble the data and learn whether patients who were prayed for had fewer complications-such as heart attacks, angina, or the need for additional surgery, like angioplasty or coronary bypass. They are also tracking the length of a patient’s hospital stay and incidents of stroke, shock, or death.
The study is double blind, which means neither the patients nor the medical personnel treating them know who is being prayed for and who isn’t. Once a patient agrees to join the study, he (or she) is randomly assigned by a computer at Duke to receive prayer or be in the control group. Off-site administrators e-mail leaders of the prayer groups or call them on the phone, providing them with the name of the patient who is to be prayed for, the patient’s age, the type of operation, and the location of the hospital where the patient is being operated on.
In typical medical trials the control group does not receive the drug or treatment that is being tested. But the control group in a prayer study is harder to control; family and friends might pray, as well as laypeople and religious leaders. “Prayer is already there,” Krucoff notes. “We are measuring whether or not a systematic addition of more prayer has a measurable effect.”
The study is being funded by several benefactors and philanthropic organizations. Krucoff and Crater intended to seek funding from the government but backed off after being told by an official at the National Institutes of Health that the agency would have nothing to do with prayer. (A spokesperson for the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine told me there is no policy against funding prayer studies, but only one study involving prayer has so far been funded, several years ago, and it didn’t involve much money.) Krucoff describes his own project as “sorely underfunded,” but that does not disappoint some members of his profession.
“Intercessory prayer is magic,” says Dr. Barrie Cassileth, chief of integrative medicine at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. Cassileth oversees a variety of treatments that used to be considered off-limits at mainstream hospitals, including acupuncture, hypnosis, and biofeedback. But she draws the line at intercessory prayer. “It suggests that people at long distance can influence the health outcome of someone they don’t know and are praying for. People have done this for millennia, but there really is no convincing evidence to suggest it is beneficial…. I would never put any intellectual or financial resources into a study of this kind. It is like studying whether the earth is round or flat.”
The Rev. Jerry Falwell also sounds a bit skeptical, in a here-we-go-again way. “I am not sure that God responds to so many of these surveys,” he says. “God wants us to believe and to trust based upon the promises in the Bible, not upon scientific surveys.” He noted that prayers do not tend to function in the manner of a popularity contest, in which the person who is prayed for the most lives the longest-which, if it were the case, would mean Mother Teresa would still be alive, as would Joe DiMaggio. Falwell pronounced himself “ambivalent” about prayer studies, although he said with a chuckle that if he were one of Krucoff’s patients, “I would want to be in that segment of guinea pigs who were being prayed for.”
The question of prayer’s impact has been pondered for some time. In a widely noted 1872 study titled “Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer,” Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, posed a direct question: “Are prayers answered, or are they not?” Galton, a brilliant scientist in his own right who became known, for better or worse, as the father of eugenics, compared morbidity rates of eminent lawyers, doctors, and priests. He found that the priests, who presumably prayed more than others and were prayed for by their congregations, lived shorter lives. He found no difference between the rate of stillbirths among churchgoers and nonchurchgoers, nor did he find a difference between the health of financial institutions led by devout bankers and those led by nondevout bankers.
For a century the issue was left for theologians and atheists to debate, not for respected doctors and scientists to test. But now treatments once deemed beyond the realm of serious inquiry are being investigated by the medical establishment. There is a boom in alternative and complementary medicine, from hypnosis and herbal supplements to aromatherapy and tai chi. The NIH is even paying for a study into the value of shark cartilage as a cure for cancer. These things reflect a widespread belief that modern medicine, as wonderful as it might be, does not have all the answers.
The modern era of credible prayer studies began in 1988, when Dr. Randolph C. Byrd, a cardiologist at San Francisco General Medical Center, published the results of an experiment in which he divided 393 patients in his hospital’s coronary care unit into two sections. One section received prayer from a Christian group, while the other section received no prayer at all. Byrd tracked 29 different indicators of health and found that on six of them those patients who had received prayers had better results, including fewer cases of newly diagnosed heart failure, fewer cases of pneumonia, and lower levels of prescribed antibiotics.
That study is not viewed as conclusive, however. Richard P. Sloan, director of the behavioral medicine program at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, noted in a recent article in The Lancet, the British medical journal, that “the groups did not differ in days in the coronary care unit, length of stay in hospital, and number of discharge medications.” In other words, even if prayer works it doesn’t work particularly well-to which prayer advocates respond that a slight improvement is better than none at all.
The torch was picked up by a team of researchers led by Dr. William S. Harris, a cardiologist at the Mid-America Heart Institute at Saint Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City. Harris tracked 990 patients in Saint Luke’s coronary care unit. Half were prayed for every day over 28 days by a five-person prayer group, and half were not prayed for at all. The patients who received prayer had 10 percent fewer complications, such as cardiac arrest and chest pain. But, as in the Byrd study, there was no difference in the length of time in the coronary care unit or in the hospital.
“We have not proven that God answers prayer or that God even exists,” Harris wrote in the Archives of Internal Medicine, a respected, peer-reviewed journal that published his findings last year. “It was intercessory prayer, not the existence of God, that was tested here. All we have observed is that when individuals outside of the hospital speak (or think) the first names of hospitalized patients with an attitude of prayer, the latter appear to have a ‘better’ CCU experience…. Chance still remains a possible explanation of our results.”
The journal received a cascade of responses, according to its editor, Dr. Richard Liebowitz, who is also director of education at the University of Arizona’s Program in Integrative Medicine-which is run by Dr. Andrew Weil. Liebowitz describes the reaction as “very polarized…. It goes from people criticizing the article without having read it, saying there couldn’t be any effect, it’s hogwash, to people accepting it without reading it, saying they always knew it would work, it’s just common sense. So there’s extremism on both ends.”
Sloan, the critic from Columbia Presbyterian, believes that even if the results are reliable-and he doesn’t think they are-some doctors might push religion on their patients; some patients, in response, might blame themselves for their illness, attributing it to insufficient piety. “Scientists can do all sorts of things that aren’t necessarily good ideas,” he told me. “Where’s this research going to go? Would you be tempted to contrast the capacity of Muslim prayers to Jewish prayers to Catholic prayers? Would you want to do that? It seems to me it’s very dangerous.”
All the researchers I interviewed stressed that they do not plan to test the efficacy of one faith against another. But-as the debate over cloning indicates-science can, on occasion, trot a few paces ahead of society. “I have had it proposed to me by a physician who was devout that we have an experimental contest between different religions,” recalls Dr. Larry Dossey, who wrote Healing Words, a 1993 best-seller that became a bible on the subject of spirituality and health. “You would have a Super Bowl of prayer. He had no doubt that his religion would beat the others hands down. I think it is a fairly dreadful proposal…. Leave it to human beings to figure out a way to screw this up.”
Much will be determined this year. In addition to the study at Duke, Dr. Herbert Benson, a well-known professor at Harvard Medical School and president of the Harvard-affiliated Mind/Body Medical Institute, is overseeing a study that involves at least 1,200 patients undergoing bypass surgery at several medical centers across the country. Results of the study are to be published in 2002.
Krucoff, who is 45 years old, was destined to cause a ruckus in the medical world. The son of a doctor, he grew up in Washington, D.C., and was in high school during the waning days of the Vietnam War, when the police were teargassing protesters. He remembers making impromptu gas masks out of women’s sanitary napkins soaked in water. “Excellent protection,” he told me.
The political climate had quieted by the time he entered Yale University, where he studied religion and philosophy, letting his mind wander a bit before medical school. Even then he sensed there was more to treating patients than science might know.
Krucoff didn’t begin focusing on the intersection between prayer and health until he began performing trial angioplasties on seriously ill patients at Duke in the early 1990s. Patients were required to sign consent forms that made it crystal clear that there was a one-in-three chance they might die during surgery. To Krucoff’s surprise, the mortality rate plummeted from 33 percent to three percent. Krucoff says he would have liked to attribute all of this to his own skills and the development of better techniques. But looking back now, he realizes there must have been something more at work. He has concluded that by warning his patients of the high risk of death, he inadvertently encouraged them to pray like they had never prayed before.
“It was not unusual-we’re right in the middle of the Bible Belt-to find the family, when we came to the room, saying a prayer together, just as the patient went into the cath lab,” Krucoff recalls. “We had focused, not by design but by the way we connected with the families, on a spiritual dimension…. We certainly believe that (prayer) was as much a part as the high tech in giving us a tenfold lower rate of mortality than we expected.”
In the middle of this, Krucoff and Crater were invited to visit an unusual hospital in Puttaparthi, India. The modern hospital, built with funding from a foundation controlled by Hard Rock Cafe cofounder Isaac Tigrett, was unofficially presided over by an Indian guru, Sai Baba, whose followers believe he has special spiritual powers. Sai Baba often visited the hospital. Krucoff and Crater were surprised to find an atmosphere in which staff and patients were remarkably calm and confident; there was no fear. “What was clear to us,” Krucoff recalled, “was that everybody did believe that God was making the rounds.”
On the plane back to Durham, Krucoff and Crater worked out, on a laptop, a proposal to conduct a study to track the Puttaparthi patients’ long-term health. The idea was to figure out whether the boost of being around Sai Baba had more than a short-term effect. Once they returned to Duke they decided to test the waters by conducting an informal and slightly wacky survey of dozens of colleagues: If Jesus accompanied cardiologists on their rounds, would patients recover faster? Almost everyone responded in the affirmative.
Krucoff and Crater were marching into one of the hottest areas of medical research-the nexus between spirituality and health. Duke, which is home to the Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health and has a special branch devoted to integrative medicine, has embraced these notions. Then again, the school played host decades ago to J.B. Rhine’s trailblazing and controversial research on extrasensory perception (ESP), so Duke is accustomed to shaking things up.
The proposal that Krucoff and Crater created in the jet stream between Puttaparthi and Durham had taken on a different shape by the time they presented it to their colleagues. Instead of studying the Puttaparthi patients, Krucoff and Crater decided to focus on the effects, if any, of prayer and other noetic therapies, such as healing touch. They completed a pilot study in 1998, but because the number of patients receiving prayer was small-just 30-the results, which suggested that intercessory prayer worked, were statistically insignificant. A full-blown study was needed, one that would involve 1,500 patients at hospitals across the country. That’s what Krucoff and Crater are overseeing right now.
The heart monitor next to the bed shows a regular beat. That is good news for Donald, a frequent visitor to the coronary care unit at Durham’s Veterans Affairs Hospital. Donald, who asked that his last name not be used, is a MANTRA patient. He doesn’t know whether he was prayed for before his angioplasty, but he hopes so. “I’m 100 percent for that,” he tells me. “Jesus is 100 percent in my life. I believe in the power of prayer.”
But Donald, a self-described “country boy” with the twang to prove it, does not believe in all types of prayer, and his view points up one of the incongruities of the study. “Not all prayers are answered,” he says. “If you don’t believe in Jesus, your prayers aren’t heard.” He shakes his head from side to side when I ask whether the Buddhists in Nepal could do him any good: No, they cannot. I don’t bother asking about the bits of paper in the Western Wall.
If the point of scientific inquiry is to answer unresolved questions, there is much to be answered in the realm of prayer. It’s not just a matter of figuring out, if you are tempted to do so, whether one faith’s prayer is more effective than another’s, or whether 10 minutes of prayer from a priest is more effective than 10 minutes from a nun or an hour from a divinity student-in medical parlance, these are questions of “dosage control”-or whether it’s possible to hurt people by praying for them to meet with ill fortune (a real possibility, some enthusiasts fear).
Researchers have tried for decades to establish whether prayer is a “distant healing”-a phenomenon in which one person transfers therapeutic energy to another. An oft-cited study on this was performed in the 1960s by Bernard Grad, a biologist at McGill University in Montreal. He made small skin wounds on the backs of 300 mice and divided them into three groups of 100 each. The cage of one group was held, twice daily, by a faith healer, Oscar Estebany, who was told to focus healing energy on the wounds. Another cage was held, twice daily, by medical students; the third cage wasn’t held by anyone. After two weeks, Estebany’s mice had healed faster than the other mice, according to Grad’s report, which was published in the decidedly nonmainstream Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research.
That was more than 30 years ago. Follow-up studies have been fragmentary and carried out on the margins of the medical establishment, though that could change as the stigma lifts on once-taboo areas of research. Though the NIH remains reluctant to dabble in prayer, it is backing a range of studies on alternative therapies that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. Private funding sources are more available too. The prayer study at Harvard is being financed by the well-endowed John Templeton Foundation.
One of the ironies of this new activity is that the coalition of religious and spiritual activists who have pushed things forward could end up-if prayer is proved to have an effect-dividing along stark lines between those who believe prayer works through God and those who believe it works through innate human powers.
“It’s an argument that doesn’t have to happen but probably will,” Dossey told me. “There are people who are claiming this is a ‘mind over matter’ sort of thing and nothing more, and other people who say that God did it, or Allah.”
Krucoff professes neutrality when I inquire about the mechanism through which he believes prayer works. “I think it’s a great conversation piece, and I guess it’s silly to say we’ll never know,” he explains in his office, as John Coltrane pours forth from the stereo. “Speculating, experimenting, pretending that you know the mechanisms is fun and it can make academic careers. But the important part of healing, to the patient, is the outcome.”
Over the past decade Somalia has earned a reputation as the world capital of senseless violence. It scores almost as high in the poverty department. The coastal city of Merca, then, is that strangest of phenomena—a Somali boomtown. Merca’s marketplace is loaded with everything from mangos to jewelry to stereos. The town boasts two computer schools, a cellular phone network, and, coming soon, an Internet service provider. For the first time in years, people can travel to Mogadishu, 65 miles away, without fear of being robbed or killed at any of the dozens of checkpoints that used to dot the road.
The man responsible for much of this is Sheik Hassan Ainte, a top leader of Mogadishu’s Islamic Courts. The Courts have existed for many years but didn’t possess a well-organized militia to enforce their edicts until last year. That’s when businessmen in south Mogadishu got fed up with their feckless warlord, Hussein Aideed, who inherited the job when his father, Mohamed Farah Aideed, was killed. Hoping to establish a semblance of order, the businessmen bankrolled a new militia run by local clerics, including Ainte.
Ainte soon pushed the militia’s influence beyond Mogadishu. In a matter of months it seized Merca and the strategic road that links it to Mogadishu. Now the Islamic Courts (as everyone refers to the militia) are pushing even further south, deep into Somalia’s fertile Lower Shabelle region. The group eventually hopes to sweep through the country, much as the Taliban did in Afghanistan, and unify it under Islam. And, for better or for worse, it just might.
For U.S. policymakers worried about Islamic fundamentalism, an African Taliban is not an ideal solution to Somalia’s troubles. But even they must admit how serious these troubles are. Since the failed U.N. intervention in the early ‘90s, the country’s northern regions, known as Somaliland and Puntland, have achieved a surprising measure of stability. But southern Somalia is still plagued by v-chip levels of violence and anarchy. Kidnapping is a serious problem. Americans who visit Mogadishu tend to stay for only a few days and usually surround themselves with a jeepload of Kalashnikovtoting bodyguards. Merca is far safer, but even there I was flanked by several nononsense youths who possessed Columbine levels of personal firepower.
And for good reason. one day, as my Landcruiser bounced across the sand dunes outside town, the three guards with me spotted an Islamic Courts pickup truck with an anti-aircraft gun in its flatbed approaching from the opposite direction. With a flick of his thumb, the guard sitting next to me undid the safety catch on his AK-47. We waited tensely. The pickup passed us without incident.
If anyone can make such events a thing of the past, it is Ainte, whom I tracked down at his headquarters in Merca’s Hotel Fatxi. The entrance is usually guarded by several dozen Islamic militiamen draped in bandoliers and leaning against a bullet-pocked truck. The hotel, a star or two below seedy, reflects the no-frills seriousness of the sheik.
When I visited a month ago, a half-dozen men were crammed into an ill-lit room, some wearing sarongs, others in vaguely militaristic outfits. Most had the sort of hard stare you see from Mike Tyson just before the first bell. A cell phone rang, prompting several of the men to reach into their pockets to check their Nokias. But the ringing came from the sheik’s phone, and, after checking the incoming number—the sheik has Caller I.D.—he handed the phone to a bearded assistant.
Asked how many fighters he commands, Ainte was coy. He also preferred not to discuss the United States. But he was more forthcoming about the Taliban—whose lightning-quick ascension to power the Islamic Courts wish to emulate. “There are similarities and differences, but very big differences,” Ainte said. “We are all Muslim. They came to power by shedding blood, but we don’t want to do that. They killed a lot of people. We don’t want that. We came here at the request of the people. Everyone is happy with us.”
Well, not quite everyone. Merca’s business community is indeed pleased with the open road to Mogadishu and the stability in town, but it is worried about what will come next. The militia has rounded up lawbreakers and handed out mild punishments, at least by the Taliban’s limb-reducing standards. But nobody seems altogether confident that the Courts’ current moderation will last. “There are two ways this can go,” says Isse Haji Ismail, a leading businessman in Merca. “One way is evolution. We tell them how grateful we are that they have brought us security ... and that it is time for them to go home. The other way is that, at the same time, we get our own [armed] groups ready, and, if they will not leave when we ask them, we will fight them.”
If the militia’s leaders try to turn it into a force capable of militarily and politically dominating the country, that fight will almost certainly occur—since the businessmen who fund the Courts think Islamic law, or sharia, is bad for business. But by that time the militia may be more powerful than the moneymen who gave birth to it. After all, although the sheik denies it, most observers assume that his militia gets money from abroad as well.
Powerful factions oppose the Islamic Courts, including the Rahanwein Resistance Army—based in central Somalia and backed by the Ethiopian army, which has fought inside Somalia off and on for some time and is no friend to fundamentalist movements. Also, it’s unclear whether Islam is a unifier strong enough to overcome Somalia’s legendary clan allegiances. Although Islamic law is often used to adjudicate disputes or criminal acts, Somalis also have a deep-seated tradition of meting out justice through gatherings of clan or village elders. They would balk at transferring all judicial power to the clerics. But Ainte is in no mood for compromise. “There will be nobody against Islamic Courts or sharia,” he said, shaking his head vigorously. And he stood firm in his commitment to spread sharia to all Somalia: “We are not here for anything else.”
As if to underscore the point, one of the sheik’s younger advisers sidled up to me as the interview drew to a close and asked whether I was interested in becoming a Muslim and joining the militia. After several seconds of horrified silence, I blurted out a reply I hoped would get me off the hook: “I think my mother would be very disappointed if I did that.” They laughed, fortunately, and bade me farewell.
When you drove into wartime Sarajevo along Sniper Alley, you passed a wall that bore the slogan “Welcome to Hell.” This dark greeting would be appropriate for each of the bloodied nations that photojournalist James Nachtwey visited in the last decade of the twentieth century. Romania, Somalia, Sudan, Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya: These are just a few of the hells he came to know and photograph in his intimate and haunting way. As you turn from one page to another of this chilling book, you are repelled and captivated at the same time. The starving of Sudan, the corpses of Bosnia, the mutilated of Rwanda, the orphans of Romania—you want to avert your gaze from them, but you cannot. Look, the photos demand, Keep looking. Do not turn away. Horror takes hold, deeper than you expect. After all you have seen on the evening news, how can another set of dead or dying eyes have such a strong effect? It is simple, really. The awfulness and awesomeness of Nachtwey’s photos implicate not just the governments or warlords or thugs who are directly responsible, but anyone who could have done something and did not. Anyone is everyone. You. These hells are not of another world or another time. They are here, they are now. Viewing his photographs is as necessary as it was, in 1945, for German civilians to see the concentration camps they had lived next to. The purpose today is to provoke action, not guilt; the pictures are catalysts, not reminders. Nachtwey’s book could have no title other than the one he has chosen, Inferno
“Say out loud that you feel repelled looking into the eyes of a murderer,” Zoran whispered. “I saw the expression in your eyes when I first told you what happened.”
Tijana Mandic hesitated. After 25 years as a psychologist, Mandic thought she had heard it all, knew it all, and then Zoran-this is not his real name-walked into her office. He was a sniper who had killed many times, none of which he professed any guilt about, not until he killed when he knew he shouldn’t have killed, and now he felt a gnawing kind of guilt that was tormenting him to the edge of madness. For several months he had been lying on Mandic’s couch, three days a week, confessing and accusing and asking forgiveness. Mandic could take no more.
“I don’t think I’m qualified enough to help you,” she said.
“You’re not very good at lying,” Zoran replied. “When you look at me you only see a murderer, and you judge me. You are a hypocrite, a liar, and a coward. I don’t see why you should be spared all of this. You must listen to my nightmare and suffer the way I suffer. You can’t escape your job, your part of the responsibility. You are just as guilty as I am for what happened over there.”
Over there. The front line. Sarajevo. Pristina. Vukovar. The places where young men who used to be friends came to fight each other for reasons of patriotism or revenge or bloodlust or money or because they had the miserably bad luck to get drafted into a war they did not care for but could not avoid. And that’s where it happened. Mortars fired without regard to striking any particular target. Houses torched because “they” had torched yours. Women raped. Civilians shot because your civilians had been shot, or one of your buddies had been shot, and what were you to do but take an eye for an eye, a life for a life, or perhaps many lives for a single one? This is the way war tends to be practiced at the end of the 20th century, much as it was at the beginning of the century, with gut instincts and dumb bullets rather than Intel chips and smart bombs.
“I’m a pacifist by conviction,” Mandic said.
“Bullshit,” Zoran countered. “You have to help me. You owe me. I can’t tell my sister or my parents or my wife. No one would understand. They would be horrified, just the way you are horrified now. I’m trying to put the whole picture together for you. I have to explain to you what happened.”
War is a strange thing. You can live not far from it yet pretend it’s not there; the sound of a howitzer doesn’t travel an immense distance. When Yugoslavia imploded into warfare, Tijana Mandic was living a placid life in Belgrade, not much more than a hundred miles from what turned into the killing fields of Croatia and Bosnia. She opposed those wars and opposed Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, but there were other things in her life that were more important. The author of a best-selling book about the psychology of communication, she was the therapist of choice for journalists and actors. She appeared on television panels and in the pages of the best newspapers, and her students at the University of Belgrade, where she is a tenured professor, adored her. Life was good, or as good as it could be in a country whose soldiers were committing the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II.
Another strange thing about war is that no matter how far away you might be, you cannot, in the end, escape it. As surely as war creates violence, it creates soldiers who need to vent about what happened, and if you are a therapist in Belgrade, a soldier will wind up on your couch one day, drawing you into his tortured world. Whether it is a good war or a not-so-good war, things have been done and things have been seen that the human mind has difficulty processing. The clinical term is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Flashbacks, insomnia, nightmares, anger, substance abuse-these are the symptoms of a war’s psychological toll.
Mandic’s sessions with Zoran exposed her to a perilous unburdening of rage that she had not been trained to deal with. The anger of a traumatized veteran can wound as surely as a weapon, and Zoran, ever the sniper, hit his target with pinpoint accuracy. Why didn’t Mandic do more to stop a war in which innocents were slaughtered? It’s an accusation most civilians who mind their own business in wartime are fortunate enough to avoid confronting. But there’s more, terribly more. Unlike the delusions of a psychotic, the horrors recounted by veterans are not hallucinatory. They are real and gruesome and they force the listener to face unsettling questions about human nature. If you prefer to believe that men and women are innately pacific creatures, you should avoid sitting down with a combat-scarred veteran.
“When people talk about the most atrocious things that one person can do to another, in detail and up close and repeatedly, it’s psychologically toxic to listen to,” says Dr. Judith Herman, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Trauma and Recovery. “People who treat traumatized patients need to take care of their health. They can get vicarious traumatization, as a contagion.”
Serbia has been involved in four wars in the past decade-in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo-so the caseload for the country’s therapists is rather high and rather bleak. They face a particularly heavy psychological burden, because their exposure to trauma is not confined to the hours of nine to five. The society in which they live is falling to pieces, politically and economically and morally. The best escape is emigration, the road many therapists have taken, but that has only worsened the plight for those who remain behind. Their support networks, which are vital for coping with the trauma of treating trauma, are thinning out as colleagues and friends flee to countries that are less insane than Yugoslavia. Several therapists I spoke with in Belgrade believe the rate of burnout and suicide in their field is going off the charts. These are the secondary casualties of war, and Mandic almost became one of them.
“I have to finish this with you,” Zoran said at one point, referring to an issue-forgiveness-that he frequently raised. “Do you understand me at all?”
“No, I don’t,” Mandic replied. “What do you mean by saying ‘to finish’ with me?”
“Don’t be afraid. You don’t think I’m going to murder you?”
And then he laughed.
Tijana Mandic is on the phone, but the connection is poor and she is speaking fast, in staccato bursts. I can barely understand her. “There was an explosion,” she says. “My car is a mess…. I don’t know how…. We can’t meet today.” On the following day, when we meet for lunch in calmer circumstances, I learn that a can of soda she had left on the dashboard, in the sun, had managed to self-detonate; her car smells like a soft drink. This, I am learning, is her kinetic world. It revolves at warp speed and has a soundtrack-the ringing of her cell phone. One day, when we happened to meet a student of hers in the street, she hugged him and introduced me but neglected to tell me his name. When I later asked, she blushed and said she had forgotten it. “I see 500 people a week,” she explained.
Mandic was born into her country’s cultural elite. Her father was a diplomat stationed, when she was a child, in Geneva, and she attended a boarding school in France. She speaks English fluently, with just a slight accent, and she has been a frequent visitor to America for conferences and seminars. She did most of her doctoral work in London, focusing on group therapy for psychotics.
Mandic, who is 48 but looks younger, is divorced and has a teenage son, with whom she lives in the fashionable Belgrade suburb of Dedinje, home to diplomats, businessmen-and Slobodan Milosevic, recently indicted for war crimes. She is a stylish woman, in a low-key, tasteful way. Her defining features are her eyes: large and curious and childlike in their intensity and openness. Everything else is small-the rest of her face, her thin physique, her light hair, even her voice, which is hesitant, girlish. Her persona is the opposite of authoritative, and this is the key to her success. She is understanding itself; she doesn’t sit in judgment, she listens and confides, and this is why even her students call her Tijana. Everyone responds to her: psychotics, journalists, politicians, children, soldiers.
“If you’re in the presence of this lady, something changes in the room,” said Jonathan Rider, director of the International High School of Belgrade, which Mandic helped create several years ago. “She carries around her own little cosmos. It’s a profound thing to work with her.”
In 1991 Mandic went to New Jersey on sabbatical to finish a book on treating psychotics; the working title was Connoisseurs of Chaos. Although the world of psychotics was just about as far from reality as one can get or seek to get, the war in the Balkans, thousands of miles away, nipped at her heels. Mandic began receiving phone calls from refugees who wanted her help. She was only mildly aware of the psychological impact of war, so she went to a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Manhattan and purchased a few volumes on the subject.
Soon after she returned from America, the war seized her by the throat. A man whose sister she had once treated said he was having trouble sleeping. She agreed to help him. The man fit the profile of her typical patient: well-educated, articulate, connected, moneyed. Perhaps, like other patients, he was having marital problems, or maybe he fiddled with his taxes and felt guilty about it. He loved classical music, opera, theater. She had no idea a sniper had just walked into her life, though that became clear, brutally, rather quickly.
“In the beginning his whole image was very frightening,” Mandic recalled as we talked one day at a youth center where she spends part of her time. “He is a tall person, a strong person, athletic. At one point he said, ‘Are you afraid I am going to hit you?’ I was. Before that I worked with [psychotic] people who believed in devils and had paranoid delusions. But the threats before always had something irrational-that I was the devil, you know. There was something frightening about him that was not irrational. He is a warrior.”
The therapy would last for four months in 1992. They met three times a week, but there were many phone calls, too, especially when he turned suicidal. Mandic’s knack for listening and empathizing became her curse, because she absorbed the toxins of Zoran’s trauma. Her descent into his hell of guilt is documented in transcripts of the sessions, which Zoran agreed to have taped and, if Mandic chose, published at a later date, so long as his identity was not disclosed. She gave me a transcript of their final session, which touched on every key issue in their therapeutic relationship.
At the outset, he insisted on telling and retelling the nightmare that was jolting him from his sleep every night. It revolved around a killing that had occurred while he was stationed in Vukovar, a once-lovely Croatian town that in 1991 was shelled into submission by the Yugoslav National Army and cleansed of its Croatian inhabitants. Zoran was a sniper who also led a platoon in house-to-house fighting. One day two of his men were killed. He saw this too many times-raw recruits sent to the front and chewed up like so much hamburger meat. The squad quickly stormed an enemy house and cleaned it out, one soldier checking upstairs, another the ground floor.
Zoran had the job of checking the basement. He tiptoed into the dark cellar, soft step by soft step. He could hardly see a thing, but he could hear, and that was the sense he followed most closely. Left, right, straight ahead, he listened, looked, smelled; he had done this before, often. He heard a movement in the back of the basement. The enemy was there, now, waiting in ambush, probably pulling the trigger at that instant. He didn’t need to think; he fired his AK-47. The rustling stopped. He found, in a corner, a baby he had just shot dead.
That’s what he relived in his unremitting nightmares. Sometimes he was killing the baby, sometimes he was an observer watching it happen, but the result was the same: him waking up screaming, his wife holding on to him, telling him it was okay, be calm, be calm, you’re home now.
“Am I, in your opinion, a psychopath?” he asked Mandic. “Yes, I was killing. They would have killed me if they could. I told you, it’s the reality of war. Do you want me to spell it out for you? In war people kill each other. I only feel sorry about the baby. It happened in a split second, and those blue eyes haunt me.”
Just as Zoran learned new rules of engagement on the front line, Mandic was learning new rules of engagement in her office, a quiet, softly lit corner of her living room lined with family pictures and leather-bound editions of Freud and Jung. It is not unusual for veterans with severe PTSD to attempt to intimidate therapists. Much of their postwar anger is directed at civilians who sat on the sidelines, uninvolved, unknowing, uncaring. The threats, according to experts in the field, are designed to test the therapist, to figure out whether the therapist is just another pathetic civilian or, perhaps, is understanding enough and tough enough to deal with the truth and ugliness of what happened in combat.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Mandic said.
“That I am a murderer and you are a phony,” Zoran shot back from the couch, his voice a whisper that belied his athletic frame, his expertise in martial arts, and his threats to harm Mandic, who sat a few feet away in an armchair.
His offensives were successful. Mandic occasionally broke into tears. She does not pretend to be an all-knowing observer of her patients’ lives; she is willing to bare her emotions because she believes a therapist is nearly as much of a participant in the therapy as the patient. If the patient will benefit from displays of her feelings, whether they be fear, sadness, or anger, she will let it all hang out. The book she is now completing, which consists largely of extracts from sessions with patients, including Zoran, is called The Human Mirror. It catalogs her words and thoughts as much as her patients’; it is a look into the mind of a Balkan therapist.
“Therapists usually are, in a way, mirrors,” she told me. “But I am a very active mirror.”
In general, that approach can work well with veterans, but it’s perilous for the therapist. Dr. Jonathan Shay, author of Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, described PTSD therapy to me as “a creative act of two people struggling with each other…. You have to go naked.” The worst approach, he believes, is to maintain a neutral or aloof attitude.
“The veteran most of all wants to know that you are actually hearing him and feeling something,” Shay told me. “To retreat behind professional neutrality gets them to redouble their effort to penetrate this armor, and the attacks escalate. They saw people die or come close to death because someone in authority was following the book rather than their own personal vision or integrity. For many of the veterans I’ve worked with, that sort of behavior-from a therapist-is a traumatic trigger. It triggers a sense of, ‘Oh my God, I’m back in that same situation.’”
But going naked can let the toxins seep in. Mandic began having trouble sleeping; she took Valium. She lost weight, and friends at the time said she looked miserable. She began having nightmares-Zoran’s nightmares, the ones of the baby being killed. She saw the basement, she saw herself in the basement, she saw the baby being shot dead. It was getting to be too much. One of her longtime friends recalls that during those months Mandic was nervous and jittery, and during visits to the friend’s home, Mandic would disappear into a spare room to talk to Zoran on the phone; sometimes she would emerge from the room in tears. At one point Mandic asked the friend, “Is it only me who is crazy? What the hell is happening?”
Mandic was flirting with psychological disaster. Showing your emotions to a PTSD patient can be useful, if only to establish that you are listening and feeling, but it is something else to be overcome by those emotions or let them get in the way of making a hardheaded analysis of the patient’s needs. Just as the human mind can have trouble processing trauma, it can have trouble processing tales of trauma. Reaching out is the only answer, and this is what Mandic did, seeking advice from colleagues and friends. In Belgrade groups of therapists who treat refugees and soldiers assemble at regular intervals-weekly or monthly-to vent to each other. One of the therapists who leads these gatherings described them to me as deeply emotional. “We scream,” she said with a smile.
One of Mandic’s longtime colleagues flatly advised her to stop treating Zoran-partly, the colleague believed, because he was evil. Vesna (not her real name), who is a psychologist, nearly became physically ill as she listened to Mandic, suspecting that Zoran had committed many worse acts than he was admitting; she thought he fit the description of a psychopath or sociopath.
“He doesn’t deserve to work with any psychologist in the world, and I wouldn’t work with him in a million years,” Vesna recalls saying as they drove home one night from a seminar outside Belgrade.
“But he wants to commit suicide,” Mandic replied.
“So what?” Vesna said. “He killed people. He killed a baby.”
Mandic still wasn’t convinced.
“Okay,” she finally said. “But maybe it’s punishment for him to live.”
Should a therapist help a soldier who might be a war criminal? Though most veterans, whether in America or Serbia, did not commit or abet atrocities, some did. They were perpetrators of evil, not just victims of it. To help or not to help? Therapists have been wrestling with that question for as long as war and therapy have existed; the answer, though not an easy one for the righteous, is fairly clear. “That’s one of the dilemmas you have to manage when you deal with war-related PTSD,” said Dr. Terence Keane of the Veteran Administration’s National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. “Would we work with someone who was at My Lai? I think it’s my responsibility and duty to help people who may have made a mistake.”
Mandic came to the same conclusion. She stuck with Zoran. He wasn’t just threatening to kill himself, he was threatening others, too.
“I’ve been thinking about two possibilities for making up for the mistake,” Zoran said. “First is to kill my wife, my children, and myself during the night. That would make up for the baby. The other one is to go to war again and get killed, although I have tried it already. I ran toward danger wherever I could, but there wasn’t a bullet with my name on it. My buddies thought I had gone crazy. I used to take off my helmet and run to save every wounded soldier, especially to protect the youngest boys. They thought I was courageous and they loved me, those young boys, but all I wanted was to get killed. It just didn’t happen.”
“Excuse me,” Mandic interrupted. “I can hardly hear you now. You’re speaking softly.”
“And you think murderers shout?”
“I’m trying to hear your solutions,” she responded. “Where’s the repentance? Where is the mending?”
“What would you like me to do?” Zoran asked. “Build a church or an orphanage? Then everything would be forgiven?”
“Do you feel guilty?”
“Yes, but only for the baby,” he replied. “It wasn’t guilty. It wasn’t a fighter. I made a mistake. The rest of it was war. War is war. People kill each other. Either you kill them or they kill you.”
The one thing Zoran explicitly asked for-forgiveness-she refused to provide. Should the unintentional killing of a baby be forgiven? Perhaps. But what about the other people he killed? What really happened on the battlefield? Was he telling her the entire truth? Even if he deserved forgiveness, should a therapist dispense it? Zoran had little patience for Mandic’s hesitations, and when she began crying at one point, he lashed out at her.
“Why are you whining now?” he snapped. “Just listen to me. You have to forgive me.”
“I’m neither a priest nor a judge nor a court witness,” she replied. “I’m only a confused woman. I can’t forgive you. I don’t have that power. Go to church. Go…”
Mandic repeated to me many times that she is a pacifist. She is religious, too, and wears a pendant of her family saint, Saint Nicholas, around her neck. She had once more run into one of the dilemmas of treating PTSD: guilt. These issues surface in other trauma cases-for example, a truck driver who accidentally kills someone in a road mishap, or a husband who kills his wife in a fit of rage. Should they be forgiven by a therapist? The answer most therapists give is that they are not the appropriate ones to offer forgiveness, and even if they did offer it the effect wouldn’t be lasting. Guilt is not washed away by a few words from a shrink. Restoration comes, if ever, from some sort of deeper resolution, such as seeking forgiveness from the victims or relatives of the victim.
Zoran did not receive the absolution he was seeking. Abruptly he brought the therapy to a close. At the conclusion of what turned out to be the final session he said, in a voice that Mandic recalls as soft and threatening, “Your time is up, doctor. This conversation is finished. Goodbye and have a bit more soul.” He got up and left.
Ultimately Zoran played a key role in altering Mandic’s life, and he did it by making what seemed an outlandish suggestion: that she was responsible for his sins. He may have been intending to wound her or shake off his own guilt, but his accusation is a common one among veterans, not just in Serbia or Croatia or Bosnia but in America and any country that sends soldiers into unclean wars that defy polite behavior.
“It’s your turn for once to face reality and not simply escape from it,” Zoran said. “Your escapism is worse of a sin than mine. Once upon a time I also used to be like you-ordinary. I have a university degree; I also like to read, go to the theater. I also have a family and children that I adore. And then I found myself in a war, and I no longer have my life-I am scarred. I am not the same anymore. You destroyed me-you and the neutral people who didn’t take sides, who didn’t get dirty. The pure and righteous ones who pretended as though the war did not exist at all.”
At the time Mandic had no response and changed the subject. Later she decided there was much in what Zoran had said that made sense. Weren’t soldiers like Zoran victims of a society that let madmen take control and fill the airwaves with hatred and, ultimately, send ordinary men into battles in which atrocities were nearly inevitable? Did people like Mandic, who confined their objections to the voting booth or, on occasion, polite demonstrations, bear some responsibility for not doing more in the face of evil?
Most therapists involved with war-related PTSD confront these issues, and that’s what sets their line of work apart from other fields of therapy. The root problems are not immutable matters of human biology but problems of power and the abuse of power. War is not a disease but a political outcome. There’s not much a society can do to prevent schizophrenia, but wars can be prevented, or, once they start, steps can be taken to ensure they are fought in ethical ways.
Shortly after she stopped treating Zoran, Mandic agreed to become the director of an alternative education program (underwritten by George Soros’s Open Society Institute) that sponsors debate clubs in which youths learn how to discuss and resolve disagreements peacefully and rationally. The aim is to help them see through the sort of incendiary rhetoric that has fueled warfare in the Balkans for the past decade. She has many fewer private patients than before-she doesn’t have enough time.
Mandic heard that Zoran later divorced his wife and married a widow whose husband was killed in the war in Bosnia. He adopted the widow’s children. Mandic suspects this was his form of repentance, to make whole a life shattered by war. She has wondered, though, whether he has sought or found redemption through good works, or whether he returned to fight in Bosnia or Kosovo. She also wonders whether he was a victim or, as Vesna suspects, a psychopath. Mandic has contacted him again and hopes to meet him face-to-face one day soon.
For now, she is left with the strange memory of the last time she saw him. She was at the theater in Belgrade a few years ago and spotted him in the crowd. He likes the theater, so she was not altogether surprised. He noticed her, too. He glared at her for a moment but then moved on without saying a word, disappearing into the crowd, which covered his retreat.
Dale Reis and Jerry Lockard lead the way into a land of secrets. Reis punches in a code and a locked door clicks open with the metallic sound of a bullet clip sliding into place. They enter an arena of cubicles that would resemble any office in Dilbert’s America were it not for some of the filing cabinets; secured with the type of combination locks affixed to safes, the cabinets are encased in metal bars and fastened with heavy-duty padlocks.
This is a missile factory, one of the largest in the country, a high-security complex of 80 buildings on 1,400 acres of land with 8,500 men and women who work for Raytheon Missiles Systems to design and produce armaments whose names hint at the nonpassive nature of their business — Tomahawk, Stinger, Javelin, RAM, Maverick, HARM.
The factory, on the outskirts of Tucson, Ariz., has the tidy feel of a manufacturing facility anywhere in the country. A placard at its entrance keeps count of the number of days that have gone by without an employee missing work because of an injury or accident — 52 the day I visit — and its sprawling parking lots are filled with minivans and family sedans with baby seats.
Reis and Lockard are the top executives at this complex and have worked in the defense business their entire professional lives. Now they spend much of their time on the road, in Washington or selling their wares in foreign countries. Their uniform this day is casual — sports shirts and jackets, no ties. Keeping a brisk pace, we leave the office building, cross a tarmac under a blazing Arizona sun and enter another nondescript building where the double-time march leaves little opportunity to observe anything but the signs on the doors: “Special Access,” “Top Secret” and “Wargaming Lab — Secure Facility.” After we enter a final set of double doors, a red light flashes on the wall, and as a security official slides to my side, a loudspeaker informs everyone that an unclassified visitor is present.
The reason for the fuss is simple: within this laboratory, Raytheon’s top ballistic technicians are putting the final touches on a weapon that is supposed to protect America from Armageddon. The Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle is supposed to fly through space at 4,500 miles an hour and smash into an incoming warhead. The closing velocity of missile and missile-killer would be an amazing four miles per second, and somehow, despite the velocity, despite the vacuum of space, despite the subzero temperatures, despite decoys and evasive maneuvers, the E.K.V. will, if all goes as planned, hit its target’s warhead and obliterate it. This task is akin to hitting the tip of a bullet with another bullet, except that the cost of missing the target by even a fraction of an inch is the loss of a U.S. city under a mushroom cloud, or a cloud of anthrax spores or the smallpox virus.
An E.K.V. costs $20 million to $25 million and, at 120 pounds, is pound for pound among the most expensive weapons ever built. It is also the crown jewel of National Missile Defense, a program that is Topic A for defense hawks in Washington who worry America is unnecessarily vulnerable to missiles tipped with weapons of mass destruction. National Missile Defense is also Topic A for Pentagon critics, as an example of another out-of-control program that has soaked up more than $50 billion in nearly two decades. Most antimissile tests have failed to score intercepts. While that dismal trend is beginning to turn, it makes the E.K.V.‘s tryout, scheduled for Sept. 30, when it will soar into space to attempt to destroy a test warhead flying somewhere above the Pacific Ocean, all the more urgent, for both Raytheon and the Pentagon. Because depending on whom you believe right now, the E.K.V. is either a magic bullet for national security or just another pricey misfire from the defense industry.
America is preparing for nuclear war again. In 1983, the goal of defending the country from intercontinental-ballistic-missile attack rose to the top of the political agenda when President Reagan outlined his vision of building a system of space-based lasers to shoot down missiles fired by the Soviet Union. The system became known as Star Wars and was derided by critics who said — accurately, as it turned out — there was no way the Government could build a missile shield that would work. Star Wars drained more than $50 billion before the tap was turned off at the end of the cold war.
Despite the Star Wars distraction, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) — meaning, if you nuke us, we will nuke you — was the backbone of America’s nuclear defense throughout the cold war and remains so today. There is no defensive system that can shoot down an ICBM; there’s only MAD.
In the past year, America’s political and military leadership has concluded that the country can no longer rely on deterrence alone. A limited version of President Reagan’s shield, a Star Wars Lite relying on ground-based interceptors rather than space-based lasers, has moved to the forefront of Pentagon priorities. The National Missile Defense’s budget nearly doubled earlier this year to $10.5 billion until 2005, and President Clinton has agreed to decide next year whether the system will be deployed over strenuous objections from the Russians and Chinese, who also oppose a related program, called Theater Missile Defense, which would be deployed overseas to protect United States troops in battle and, potentially, foreign allies. The Russians and Chinese view the programs as politically destabilizing; China is particularly worried about a U.S. antimissile umbrella covering Taiwan. Domestic critics, meanwhile, insist National Missile Defense will be no different from Star Wars. “The names have been changed to protect the guilty,” says John Pike, a senior analyst with the liberal research group the Federation of American Scientists.
The notion of a renewed nuclear menace may seem odd, with the cold war long over and America able to turn almost any hostile country into a smart-bomb target range. What’s to worry about? Though the Kremlin insists it cannot happen, the chaos in Russia has raised fears of an accidental launch of nuclear missiles. Also, Pakistan and India have enhanced their capabilities in the past year and tested nuclear weapons. But of even greater concern is the development of long-range missiles by rogue states like Stalinist North Korea, with its connections to terrorists and drug smugglers. Other rogue states that worry policy makers in Washington — like Syria, Iran, Iraq and Libya — are improving their ballistic arsenals. But Pyongyang is the only member of the group that has, or may soon have, a missile that can reach America, a point emphasized last year when North Korea test-fired a three-stage rocket over Japan that could reach parts of Hawaii or Alaska. It was the ballistic shot heard around the world, resonating especially in Washington, where it took the C.I.A. by surprise. The C.I.A. also believes North Korea has created a more powerful rocket that could hit the western half of the American mainland with a sizable warhead, though earlier this month North Korea agreed to a testing freeze in exchange for economic assistance from the United States and Japan.
Whether North Korea honors the freeze or not, the underlying technology presumably could still be offered for sale in “rogue to rogue” commerce. This is not what President Bush had in mind when he hailed, as the Soviet Union collapsed, a “new world order.”
“I would argue that with Russia being the basket case that it is today, we have more threats than we had when we had the cold war going on between us and the Soviet Union, and they are much more divergent threats,” says Representative Curt Weldon, Republican of Pennsylvania, a longtime advocate of missile defense whose office is decorated with models of rockets and fighter planes. “They are threats that come not just from Russia but from North Korea, from Iran, Iraq, perhaps from China and from terrorist activities, and much of it is because of proliferation.”
His view, which used to be considered extremist, has entered the mainstream of strategic thinking. A few days before North Korea promised to freeze its missile testing, the C.I.A. warned that by the year 2015 Pyongyang and Iran could possess long-range missiles that could “kill tens of thousands or even millions, of Americans.” Iraq was categorized as slightly less likely to do so in the same time span. Last year, a Congressionally appointed panel headed by former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned that the threat of attack from missiles tipped with nuclear, chemical or biological warheads is “evolving more rapidly than has been reported in estimates and reports by the intelligence community.” In July, another blue-ribbon panel, headed by former C.I.A. Director John Deutch, warned that the United States is “not effectively organized to combat proliferation” of weapons of mass destruction. And so on.
These are what the Pentagon calls “homeland threats,” a phrase echoing from the 1950’s and 1960’s, when fallout shelters and duck-and-cover drills were the rage. The millennial makeover of homeland defense does not mean arming the citizens of Santa Monica with revolvers to repel Communist frogmen. The Pentagon, along with the F.B.I. and C.I.A. and Justice Department, among other agencies, is increasing its focus on combating terrorism, cyber attacks, germ warfare, biological warfare, suitcase nuclear bombs, ICBM’s—the works. Constructing a defensive shield against incoming missiles is the most expensive component of homeland defense and, perhaps, the ultimate reflection of fortress America; critics refer to National Missile Defense as a modern-day Maginot line. Critics say the Reagan-era vision remains far beyond our technological reach, and even if it were possible, a hostile nation or terrorist group would likely use the less-expensive methods of putting a weapon of mass destruction on a ship and exploding it in an American harbor or putting it into a van and detonating it in an American city, much as terrorists exploded a conventional bomb under the World Trade Center in 1993.
The Clinton Administration, which was cool to the missile-defense program, has changed its view. “I think your obligation is to try to counter all threats,” says Robert Bell, until recently senior director for arms control and defense policy at the National Security Council. “When you leave your house each day for work, you lock your door even though you’re 100 percent aware that a burglar can break a window.”
Largely in reaction to the North Korean launch and in an effort to deprive Republicans of a soft-on-defense issue in the 2000 election, the Administration and Democrats in Congress have abandoned much of their cautionary stance toward National Missile Defense and now join Republicans in emphasizing how the program is different from Star Wars. Instead of using space-based lasers, for example, it would use a battery of approximately 100 ground-based interceptors to destroy incoming missiles, and the system would be able to destroy only a handful of missiles rather than a cold-war barrage of thousands. These changes are supposed to make National Missile Defense not just cheaper than Star Wars but actually technologically feasible.
The viability of the system depends on Raytheon’s Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, which has not had a full flight test. The Sept. 30 test was originally scheduled for June, but pushed back to August and then pushed back again until now. When it happens, the E.K.V. will be launched into space from the Kwajalein Missile Range, in the Marshall Islands, a few minutes after a missile is launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base, in California, in a “hit to kill” mission. Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, the E.K.V. will separate from its booster, home in on the Vandenberg missile and, if all goes well, smash it to pieces. If the kill occurs, President Clinton will be more likely to give a green light to deploy the system. The Pentagon has already examined potential sites in North Dakota and Alaska. Should the E.K.V. miss its target, a chorus of critics will be ready.
The executive conference room at the Raytheon factory has a ground-floor view of National Guard F-16’s taking off from an adjacent airstrip, but the fighter jets are less striking than a poster in a corner of the room. At first, it appears to plug a Hollywood action film. An image of Earth fills the background, and in the foreground, an odd-looking contraption, half-satellite and half-missile, streaks through space. A hot-blooded slogan stretches across the bottom: “Discriminate and Destroy.”
The poster promotes the E.K.V., not a Schwarzenegger flick. And a model of the E.K.V. rests atop the conference-room table, where Reis and Lockard sit anxiously on either side of it, like parents of a precocious and unpredictable child. Place mats laid out on the table for sandwiches sport diagrams of the E.K.V. Wherever you look, there seems to be an image of the weapon that discriminates and destroys.
Reis, who is Lockard’s superior but less talkative, has the bearing of a grim leader for whom defeat is not an option; he has a weary look on his face. If the E.K.V. works, his company stands to win a huge sum in contracts. If it fails, the company may still win large contracts — the wonderful thing about working for the Pentagon is that failure to deliver a product can mean more money is channeled your way until you get it right — but the incoming fire from politicians and journalists will not be insubstantial. “I have a high degree of confidence that we’re going to hit it the first time,” he says. “Barring a reliability problem, if it flies, we’ll hit it. No question about it.”
These sorts of bullish statements have been uttered for decades by military contractors. However, there have been far more failures than successes in antimissile programs — and at least one falsified success. Back in 1984, the Pentagon trumpeted a direct hit on a missile by a heat-seeking interceptor. It was only later, years later, that the Pentagon admitted the warhead on the missile had been warmed before launch, making a direct hit a near certainty.
More recently, the Pentagon has poured $3.9 billion into an antimissile program known as Theater High Altitude Area Defense, designed to destroy missiles aimed at troops or cities outside the United States. In its first six flights, Thaad registered zero intercepts; reliability problems were blamed, meaning mechanical parts or computer codes failed to perform their tasks. After the sixth consecutive failure, in March, the Pentagon tried to spin its way out of trouble by claiming the test was successful because 16 of 17 objectives were met. But hitting the target happened to be the 17th objective. This summer, Thaad’s fortunes improved considerably as two test flights scored hits. Although critics say the tests were conducted under conditions unlikely to prevail in a war (the timing and trajectory of the missile were known), the Pentagon was so enthused that suggestions were floated that Thaad could be deployed earlier than expected and a $15 million fine levied against Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor blamed for the delays and six botched tests, was lifted.
I mention to Lockard and Reis that the sort of gung-ho predictions they make were made by Lockheed Martin when it began its test flights of Thaad. “We just believe very strongly in the process we’ve put in place,” Lockard replies. “And I really quite frankly don’t know the Lockheed Martin process, so I can’t comment on it.”
When I ask whether Raytheon will be able to deliver a functioning E.K.V. at the promised price, Reis says: “We have an excellent base line for this vehicle. You’ll see it; it exists; it’s gone through a lot of tests. And we’ve got an outfit here in Tucson that knows how to build missiles to cost. That’s been their legacy. We don’t have 15 missile programs out here because we overran a lot of programs.”
They may not have overrun a lot of programs, but at least a current one — a program to equip Navy vessels with antimissile interceptors — is costing far more than promised. In April, the Pentagon announced the program would cost nearly 50 percent more than planned, rising, overnight, from $913 million to more than $1.3 billion. When I mention this, Reis laughs a bit nervously and says Raytheon is only one of the contractors and only partly responsible for the escalating price tag. “Our portion of that overrun was 20 percent of that 50 percent,” he says.
At the factory, when we enter the E.K.V. laboratory, several dozen engineers and technicians are at work, dressed in the unofficial uniform of short-sleeved shirts, Dockers and ID tags. The laboratory is a modest place, not much larger than a tennis court or two, stuffed with computers, vacuum chambers, a “clean room” for assembling sensitive parts, computer simulation terminals and, of course, the E.K.V. itself, which does not look like a slayer of missiles. In fact, it looks nothing like a missile at all. It has an ungainly appearance that suggests a homemade jetpack, and from head to toe it measures just 52 inches; it could fit into the trunk of a compact car. Attached to the E.K.V. on the day I visit is a yellow tag, of the sort attached to airline baggage, that says, “Very Fragile.”
Fuel tanks, thrusters and piping are anchored around a cylinder that is attached to a telescopelike device that lets the sensors “see” the incoming missile and measure its speed, dimensions and density. That information will whiz through the E.K.V.‘s processors and help it home in on the missile’s warhead. Raytheon says the E.K.V. will be able to hit within centimeters of the desired point of impact on the warhead.
The E.K.V. does not carry any explosives. Because it will be traveling at 75 miles a minute, the kinetic force of its collision with the incoming warhead will destroy both devices. But hitting the warhead is even tricker than the bullet-hitting-a-bullet metaphor would suggest because of the possible decoy measures that might be deployed. A mylar balloon that inflates in space around a warhead is one such decoy. There is also the potential for fake warheads inside the balloon and the use of metal chaff to travel alongside the warhead as an alternate target. Much of the debate about the usefulness of National Missile Defense revolves around the E.K.V.‘s ability to outsmart these decoys, and the debate devolves into a ballistic form of he said, she said, with some critics saying the decoy-foiling technology does not exist and will not exist anytime soon and Raytheon engineers insisting just as strongly that it does, though the evidence is, unfortunately, classified.
For Raytheon, the best-case scenario may be the least-likely scenario — that the E.K.V. will work on its first flight test, that President Clinton will give a green light to building the system and that it will be deployed by 2005, on time and on budget. What comes next? That’s a vexing question, because it is entirely possible the system, even if it is built and actually works, would be obsolete soon after its completion.
In a 1996 report, the Congressional Budget Office said the “thin” defense offered by N.M.D. may need to be thickened in the years ahead as rogue nations expand and enhance their arsenals. An effective defense against the ballistic threats of tomorrow would require space-based interceptors and space-based lasers, the budget office reported, because precious minutes are wasted by ground-based weapons that must be boosted into space after a hostile missile is already on its way to America. According to the report, the cost of building such an enhanced system could “greatly exceed $60 billion by 2010.”
The budget office’s view is supported by Representative Weldon, who readily admits NMD will need to be expanded if the threat from rogue nations advances. “That’s something this Administration doesn’t want to talk about,” he said in a thunderous voice during an interview in his Washington office. “Space is going to become a more critical part. Space-based sensing, space-based queuing and space-based assets. It is a fact that we are going to have to deal with. We might as well be honest about that. In the end, the most capable response will come from outer space.”
If so, the $10.5 billion now budgeted for National Missile Defense may turn out to be little more than a down payment on a far grander system that has already been discussed, years before. Back then it was called Star Wars.
When you walk into Isaac Tigrett’s house in Sherman Oaks, California, you feel you are entering a church whose pastor has a spiritual version of multiple-personality disorder. Tibetan prayer flags hang from the rafters of the living room, not far from a trio of Buddhas, placid and golden, that stand like sentries beside a large oil painting of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Across the room is a bronze plaque from Myanmar inscribed with gold-lettered Sanskrit prayers. If you look outside, through the windows, you will notice an ancient Egyptian statue of Sekhmet, the lion-headed warrior goddess, presiding over Tigrett’s swimming pool.
Tigrett amassed a vast collection of religious and folk art with the $65 million bonanza he made when he sold his share of the Hard Rock Cafe, which he cofounded in 1971, bringing into existence an entirely new entertainment category, the theme restaurant. More remarkable, he has spent most of the money. His fortune has been greatly diminished by the artwork, a hospital he built for the poor in India, and his 1992 founding of the House of Blues, a chain of innovative music clubs from which he was ousted in a boardroom coup. Tigrett, who is 50, now wants to move beyond that, into new terrain.
“I’ve sold every single thing you see here, this entire house,” he told me in June, waving his arm across his living room. “Tomorrow they come and start taking away everything.” As we spoke, his maids were packing up smaller items, the dishes and silverware and so forth; some of his belongings would be given away.
“I got a message from my master,” Tigrett explained. “He said, ‘Live very simply, very humbly, in a small place, no decorations, no fancy bits and pieces.’ It’s time for me to leave this past and the energy that was with it behind. So goodbye 20th century, hello 21st century.” This made him laugh, nervous and excited, the sound of a flamboyant gambler pushing his remaining chips into the pot.
Tigrett’s master is Sri Sathya Sai Baba, a guru who lives in India and counsels followers to “love all, serve all,” a credo Tigrett reprinted on countless T-shirts and caps sold at Hard Rock Cafes around the globe. Tigrett’s skill at turning the worthy into the marketable drives his newest, biggest gamble: the Spirit Channel, a web network intended as a Hard Rock Cafe in cyberspace for people seeking not burgers or music but spiritual and physical tranquillity. If all goes as planned, it will make Tigrett known as the man who branded spirituality on the Internet.
The Spirit Channel is to include a variety of sites. Holy Lands Live will feature nonstop webcasts from places like the Vatican, the Western Wall, Mecca, the Pyramids, Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal, even the Eiffel Tower. The Word Foundation will be an online library for, as Tigrett puts it, “the word of God in all its forms.” The commercial heart of the network will be New Atlantis, a cybercity for practitioners and consumers of holistic therapies. The Fifth Dimension will provide forums for paranormal endeavors like tarot card reading, channeling, and palmistry. The Spirit Network will provide a dating service for spiritually inclined singles. In the Golden Circle, Chinese herbal doctors will offer online consultations, and online marketplaces will sell all things organic and holistic.
The Spirit Channel will have real-world outlets, too; the first one is slated to open in London early next year, followed by branches in New York and Los Angeles. They will be of the Hard Rock Cafe-meets-Indian ashram-meets-Canyon Ranch variety, with vegetarian restaurants, bookshops, lecture halls, and rooms for yoga, acupuncture, massage, and the like.
Tigrett is not your typical businessman betting his house, almost literally, on the fin-de-siècle roulette wheel called the Internet. He casts himself as a Citizen Kane of spirituality-charismatic, fearless, and brash, quite certain he knows what the people need and what they will buy. He is over six feet tall, with an ample physique he wouldn’t mind trimming, and his eyes are so blue and so fierce they seem wired into a power source of their own. He even has a distinctive uniform-white tunic, dark jacket, dark fedora-that he wears every day, like a hip monk from an order with only one member.
“I believe a new renaissance is going to occur through science and spirituality combining,” Tigrett says. “People are on spiritual searches for themselves…. The goal of the Spirit Channel is to be their guide.”
It sounds vaguely messianic, as does Tigrett’s decision to give up his belongings in Los Angeles and move to a modest flat in London, where he opened the first Hard Rock Cafe. “I have to live the expression I am trying to teach others,” he told me. But Tigrett isn’t abandoning everything. He has just acquired a fully loaded Cadillac SUV equipped with a global positioning system and built-in video screens for backseat passengers, and he is shipping it to London, where he wants to have a left-hand-drive vehicle. When I noted one day that although he eschews meat, meditates 27 minutes a day, and burns incense in his hotel rooms, he nonetheless sneaks out of Spirit Channel strategy meetings to smoke cigarettes, he flashed a smile of weary indulgence. “I’m not a priest,” he says. “I’m an old rock & roll guy.”
On a pleasant day in April, Tigrett emerges from a black limousine, enters a building on a downtown stretch of Fifth Avenue, takes an elevator to the 14th floor, and strides into the New York office of iXL Enterprises Inc., a three-year-old Internet consulting firm. The company is going public in a week, and there is a buzz in the air, a feeling of creation itself. (iXL’s stock will jump 49 percent on its first day of trading, valuing the firm at approximately $1.14 billion.)
Tigrett is led into a meeting room that contains a translucent, batwing-shaped conference table. Seated at the table are Kevin Wall, iXL’s vice chairman, and Mark Swanson, who heads the New York office. Something like $30 billion is spent every year on alternative medicines and treatments, Tigrett tells them, and the sector is growing all the time-vitamins, nutritional supplements, deep massage. Who controls the market? There is no dominant brand. Who regulates the market? Nobody. The government oversees drugs, not ginseng.
“It’s a free-for-all,” Tigrett says. “The only brands that are out there are GNC and Celestial Seasonings and all that bullshit.”
Tigrett has raised $2 million in seed capital, largely from a Malaysian tycoon he met at Sai Baba’s ashram, but he’d like to raise about $40 million to launch the Spirit Channel, and at the moment he is looking for an Internet firm that can develop a business plan and demonstration site that will woo investors. In the loopy, upside-down Internet economy, clients like him must pitch their accounts to best-of-breed firms like iXL, which have more business than they can handle.
Tigrett is winning converts. When he heads to the elevator after the meeting, Swanson takes a call in the reception area, and as the elevator doors close I hear him say with the enthusiasm of a teenager, “I just had a great meeting about a business we’re going to do. It’s with the guy who did the Hard Rock Cafe!”
In June I visited Tigrett in Los Angeles, shortly after the death of his father, who made a fortune from novelty items like the Glub-Glub Drinking Duck and advised such financiers as Sir James Goldsmith and Armand Hammer. I rode shotgun in Tigrett’s SUV as we headed to a restaurant on Ventura Boulevard, and I heard again Tigrett’s soft Tennessee accent, which he shares with his famous childhood friend, Al Gore Jr. (The vice president still bears a small scar on his forehead from the time Tigrett whacked him, accidentally, with a baseball bat.) I asked Tigrett how his father’s death affected him.
“I died in a hotel room in 1976 in Colorado and came back from what I consider to be a death state,” Tigrett says. “I know that death is a celebratory transition that everybody is going to dig a whole lot, but of course you grieve the personal loss of the physical form of your relative or loved one.”
He lowers the volume of a blues song playing on the stereo. “I had an epileptic fit and swallowed my tongue and died on the floor of this hotel room and missed my flight connections. Suddenly this guru, who I had been following for two years, named Sri Sathya Sai Baba, appeared in the room. My spirit came out of the top of my head and I was in some sort of form of giddy electricity, conscious of myself and of my separateness from my dead body, which was lying 10 feet below me. Sai Baba picked me up, put me on a bed, pulled my tongue out, pressed on my chest-and my spirit went back inside my body. I looked up-there he was smiling at me.
“That’s an experience that makes you dive deeper into understanding that there is more going on than what one thinks. This whole age is about getting closer to these answers. People are not satisfied with just religious ceremonies. They want to actually know who they are, where they’re going, why they’re here. When they’re on that journey, the Spirit Channel is there to assist.”
We make a left turn.
“All right,” Tigrett says. “Here we are at Il Tiramisu.”
Alan Aldridge waits at the bar. A fiftysomething Briton, Aldridge worked with the Beatles on the design of their White Album, and he created the Hard Rock logo. Aldridge serves as Tigrett’s artistic consigliere, and tonight the two men have an appointment to unwind over a bottle of Dom Perignon and a plate of calamari.
The Spirit Channel has come a long way since the meeting in New York. A contract has been signed with iXL, whose vice chairman, Kevin Wall, has made an investment in the venture and joined the board. Tigrett wants the Spirit Channel to look unlike any other website, and for that reason has drafted Aldridge into the project.
Aldridge is equipped with a felt pen and a pad of blank paper. After the calamari are gone and the first bottle of champagne is nearly consumed, he turns to Tigrett and coaxes out of him the sequence of the Spirit Channel’s opening screens. He is channeling Tigrett, and in a mad 30 minutes, his pen squeaking across page after page, Aldridge creates one storyboard after another. The Spirit Channel is taking shape, and there isn’t a computer in sight.
When Tigrett leaves to make a phone call, Aldridge leans back from the bar, winks, and says with a smile that makes him look young, “This is how us old hippies work.”
Elena Klimovich is tying me down. She tightens the straps around my hips, fastens the cords that pin my shoulders in place, and then uses a small winch to eliminate the few millimeters of slack that escaped her attention. I try to stay calm, but this is difficult under the circumstances.
In her stern Slavic accent, Elena tells me what I may touch, what I may not touch. The red handle labeled Canopy Jettison—I cannot touch that. The throttle that controls the 360-horsepower radial engine a few feet from my knees—I must not move it. The rip cord for the parachute slung on my back…I am not that dim.
Next up, instructions for bailing out. Elena points out two buckles at my waist that can release the confection of straps around my body. I then must push open the canopy and pull myself from the cockpit, but this may be complicated if the plane is spinning or corkscrewing or if the engine is throwing off flames and hot oil. I will have to contend with a large blast of air as I emerge from the cockpit, if I get that far.
“Do you have any questions?”
I have many questions, but little time to ask them before Elena straps herself into the seat behind me. I have been instructed to empty my pockets of my wallet, spare change, and car keys, but I ask her if I can use a pen to take in-flight notes. She looks cross.
“You will not need a pen on this flight,” she says firmly.
It is later, after the inverted rolls, the zero-gravity parabolas, the screaming dives and pullouts at seven g’s, that I realize a pen would be more than useless, it would be dangerous—a sharp object that could slip from my hand and dart around the spinning cockpit like a deadly shank, striking Elena in the eye as she attempts to pull our Sukhoi-29 out of a vertical dive and sending us plunging into the Arizona desert, into the sort of quarter-million-dollar smoking black crater that is at the center of every aerobatics pilot’s nightmare.
A pen. I am a fool.
Elena Klimovich is Russian and our plane is Russian, but we are thousands of miles from the land of Pushkin and Yeltsin. We are at a small airport 20 miles north of Tucson, and she has come here, along with Viktor Smolin, a coach of Russia’s national aerobatics team, to tutor a handful of pilots in the finer points of acrobatic flight. Beginning with the first World Aerobatics Championships, held in Slovakia in 1960, Soviets dominated competitive aerobatics by virtue of the same machine that pumped out their Olympic athletes, building the most powerful planes, performing the most precise aerial maneuvers, and flying circles around their closest rivals, the French and the Americans. In a discipline in which pilots must combine the steel of fighter jocks, the loopy bravado of trapeze artists, and the mental focus of chess grand masters, the Russians have remained a formidable post–Cold War force; Viktor and Elena are among the very best. For the already accomplished aerobatics pilots who have come to the little Avra Valley airport for a ten-day training camp, this is a chance to rub elbows with greatness.
The Russians have landed in the Arizona desert, as they have done almost every year since 1994, at the request of Pete Shepley, who keeps two Sukhois, an Antonov, and two Cessnas here. (He’s also got a modest herd of quarter horses, longhorn cattle, and Harley-Davidsons at his nearby ranch.) Shepley is the kind of guy who does things like breaking the American record for killing the largest buffalo with a bow and arrow. A pilot since 1989, he took up aerobatic flying six years ago and last year placed 16th in the U.S. nationals. In some ways he’s a typical aerobatics pilot: He competes in the spare time his archery business and ranching duties afford him, and he flies because he’s hooked on the discipline of it.
Viktor and Elena, friends who have a rapport like older brother and younger sister, stay at Shepley and his wife’s ranch house, drive his trucks, fly his planes, play with his cat, and at dinnertime, gather around the table and exchange hair-raising stories with the pilots they coach. There is Paul Boschung, a Swiss businessman with shoulder-length hair and a radio beacon embedded in his watch in case he has to bail out over the Alps. There is Briggs Wood, a retired San Francisco oilman who underwent heart-bypass surgery two years ago and was flying rolls three months after being sliced from neck to navel. There is Laura Heinonen, a 27-year-old Finnish pilot for American Airlines, and her fiancé, Vic Yerevanian, also a commercial pilot. Only the Russians are pros. The rest, like Shepley, compete as a hobby, albeit an expensive one in a sport with virtually no prize money.
“I had tried pretty much everything else,” says Heinonen. “I raced motorcycles, I paraglided, skied, snowboarded, pretty much whatever you could do. They were great things, a lot of excitement, cool for a while, but not a long-term interest. In aerobatics you never run out of challenges.”
You also never run out of ways to wind up dead. If you’re pulling out of a 90-degree dive at an altitude of 500 feet and your engine coughs or you flick the stick the wrong way or you get dizzy or your concentration slips or you misread a dial, you have a second or two to correct things before smacking into the ground. Crashes don’t happen very often, but since 1994 two aerobatics pilots have been killed at Avra alone. (They were not training with the Russians.) One was a friend of Shepley’s, an airline pilot practicing maneuvers in one of Shepley’s planes. The mangled wreckage offered no clues to the crash. The other casualty was an ace A-10 military pilot inexperienced in aerobatics. Again, the cause of the crash is unknown. No one saw him go down, and nearly a week passed before the wreck’s charred remains were found in a remote patch of desert; the impact was so violent that plane and pilot were reduced to ash and shrapnel.
If you are a good aerobatics pilot you tell yourself that you will not make mistakes, that you will not get into an unsafe plane, and you mean it, but you know, in the back of your mind, that mistakes can happen, engines can fail, wings can break on the best of planes. It is easy to forget this, however, and to feel like a superman as you strap into an aerobatics cockpit. You want to make the plane soar and tumble so fast and so low to the ground that even the coyotes will look up in wonder.
“It’s fantastic,” says Boschung. “I take off and I feel like I am the plane and I can do anything I want.” This is one of the allures of aerobatics, the pilots tell you: the feeling that the plane’s wings are your arms, that you control it 100 percent.
This is the Icarus syndrome, and it can kill you.
The Avra field is a four-runway affair, where the Skyrider diner serves food and coffee that have been kept warm in the kitchen for at least 20 years. There are no commercial flights here, just hangar after hangar of private planes, including a vintage World War II bomber with a naked woman painted on its nose and a handful of open-cockpit biplanes that perform at air shows for the benefit of a frozen pizza company whose name is plastered on their fuselages. A parachute school is based at the airport, so between takeoffs of bombers and biplanes and aerobatic Sukhois, teams of parachutists float down from the sky like colorful confetti.
A day at Camp Avra begins at seven or eight in the morning. Viktor and Elena diagram the flight routines the students will practice several times a day in a shorthand that resembles Chinese. The pilots do a walk-through in front of the hangar–an odd bit of choreography that looks like a demonstration of tai chi, with each pilot moving in slow motion, twisting and turning in the way his or her plane will soon be twisting and turning, their faces tight with concentration. Every turn, every bank, every nuance of every roll must be committed to memory, down to the muscular level; it must be second nature in the air, like breathing.
As the pilots prepare to take to the skies, Viktor and Elena set off in a pickup, heading for a dirt road that bounces them through dried-up arroyos and across dried-out creeks. Their destination is a rugged square of desert a few miles away–a literal square, outlined in white on the ground, each side measuring 1,000 meters. It is called the Box, and the airspace above it is the stage upon which the pilots perform. Below, surrounded by cacti and jackrabbits and rattlesnakes, the Russians peer up at the blue Arizona sky, walkie-talkies in hand, and issue commands to the pilots overhead:
“Wait…now…faster…more rudder…push…go…less ailerons…slow…throttle…negative…level off…power…” If one of them flies too low he’ll hear a bit of the gulag, as Viktor or Elena barks out a single word: “Altitude!”
If you happened to be driving along an adjacent road during an exercise and glanced up at the sky, you’d notice a small plane somersaulting through the air as though possessed by the devil. If you watched long enough, you’d see the plane point its nose to the ground in a kamikaze spiral, and you’d probably slow down or pull over, because you’d be convinced that the plane was about to crash. You’d be too distracted to see Viktor and Elena, dressed in T-shirts and shorts and tennis shoes, orchestrating the show from the desert floor.
OK, so I won’t be bringing my pen along.
“Do not touch the pedals while we are taking off and landing,” Elena says as we roll onto the runway. “They are the airplane’s brakes.”
“Roger,” I reply, speaking into my flight headset.
A few seconds pass. The engine shakes the plane like an earthquake and enshrouds us in a deafening, throaty roar. The plane wants to move–fast, up, now.
“Here we go,” Elena says.
The displays on the instrument panel–labeled “Altitude” and “RPM” and “Airspeed” and nearly a dozen other things in Russian and English–slap from left to right, jolting to life. Sooner than seems possible, we are airborne.
“The Box is on our left,” Elena says, dipping the plane to the side.
From overhead the Box is easier to make out: I can see the square outlined a few thousand feet below. Its dimensions offer little room for the tricky maneuvers required in aerobatics, and in “unlimited” competitions–the highest skill level–pilots must stay within its invisible bounds at altitudes between 100 and 1,000 meters. Pilots perform three routines in every contest–a freestyle program each designs himself, a “known” program that is the same at every event, and an “unknown” program sprung on the pilots the day before it must be executed. Much like gymnasts or high divers, competitors are graded by a panel of judges on the ground. Each move, or “figure,” is scored on a scale of zero to ten, and the judges watch with their necks craned, scribbling notes. A 45-degree angle must be flown at exactly 45 degrees; a spin must rotate around a perfectly centered axis. One incorrect maneuver in a pilot’s competition sequence means major deductions or a complete zero–as does, of course, flying out of the Box. Add wind speed to this equation, and you have routines requiring dozens of split-second calculations and adjustments while, say, diving to the ground at 250 miles per hour.
Pilots compete locally and regionally, and the U.S. national team is chosen based on the International Aerobatics Club championship and the U.S. National Aerobatics Championship each year. In America, women and men compete together: same moves, same planes, same judges. (From 1991 to 1993, the top American pilot was a woman, Patty Wagstaff. Diane Hakala won it all in 1997.) At the worlds, however, held every two years, men and women are judged separately: While a woman could in theory win the whole thing if her score were highest, the men’s champion goes by the unqualified moniker “world champion.” Last year’s was a Frenchman named Patrick Paris. The women’s winner was a Russian, a two-time champion named Svetlana Kapanina. Elena was the top woman in 1992.
From where I’m sitting, the idea of performing incredibly dangerous maneuvers within the virtual outlines of the Box seems impossible. Elena tips the plane so that the left wing points at the ground beneath us, the right wing pointing to the sky.
“Do you see it?” she asks.
The wings of the Sukhoi are perpendicular to the ground now. Were it not for the canopy and multipoint straps that bind me to my seat, I would be tumbling out of the plane.
“Yes,” I finally reply. “Yes, I see the Box.”
“Good,” she says. “We’ll start with parabolas. I want to show you zero g.”
One afternoon I ask Elena about her first days flying aerobatics. We are alone, rumbling through the desert in a four-wheel-drive truck, heading back to the airport from the Box.
She was 19 years old, over Moscow. She began rolling the plane and suddenly the ground was not below her but beside her, rushing past at high speed, and as she turned the plane another 90 degrees, the Earth swiveled above her head.
“I remember this so well,” she says. “The ground leaped up at me. I cannot describe the feeling. It was amazing. I didn’t feel it the second time. I have never felt anything like it again.”
When Elena was a girl in Moscow, the only ways to fly were to become a pilot for Aeroflot or the military or to join a civilian flying club; every major Soviet city had such a club, not for recreation but for serious competition. When she turned 18, in 1976, she made the Moscow air club’s parachute team; having reached what was then the minimum age, she also learned to fly, and for the next few years competed in local aerobatics contests while she earned an engineering degree. After graduation she snared a prize job at the rocket firm Energia; Elena could probably assemble and disassemble an engine with her eyes closed.
In 1983 she was given a slot on the elite national team.
Treating aerobatics as an Olympic discipline, the Soviet government plucked the best young pilots from regional clubs for the national squad, which had its own airfield, planes, and coaches. The pilots flew full-time and were expected to win, to demonstrate to the capitalist world that communism was superior in all domains, including aerobatics. When the world championships rolled along every other year, most of the amateur American and Western European pilots were no match for the men and women from Moscow.
The government even went so far as to order the Sukhoi and Yakovlev design bureaus, which made fighter jets, to create top-of-the-line aerobatics planes. With their distinctive red star on the tail, Sukhois are still the alpha males of the aerobatics world, the planes that roar rather than whine when their nine-cylinder radial engines turn over, the ones that look and feel like warplanes. A Sukhoi weighs about 1,600 pounds and is equipped with a 360-horsepower engine; its closest rival, the German-made Extra, weighs in at 1,450 pounds, with a 300-horsepower engine. Both the Sukhoi and the Extra are endowed with far more juice and strength than you need for level flight. A typical Cessna, for example, is designed to withstand three and a half positive g’s and one negative g; a typical Sukhoi can withstand 23 positive g’s and 23 negative g’s. Aerobatic wings are not bolted onto the fuselage separately, as in a Cessna, but are a single beam that goes through the fuselage. The skin on Sukhoi wings is superstrong and superlight Kevlar rather than aluminum, which is heavier, or fabric, which is weaker.
Your basic one-seater Sukhoi-31 retails for $233,000; figure on spending $25,000 more for the SU-31M, the same plane but with the added luxury of a “pilot extraction system”–an ejection seat, to the rest of us.
Even if you can afford one, Sukhois are hard to acquire; with the Russian economy in a shambles, Advanced Sukhoi Technologies, the free-enterprise offshoot of the Sukhoi Design Bureau that invented the planes, can crank out just a couple of planes a month. But production is expected to climb, because the increasing collaboration between Russian and Western pilots has created a strong demand for the planes. The more time I spend in Arizona, in fact, the more I realize that I am in the midst of a cult, the cult of the Sukhoi.
It’s a good thing the planes are tough. They have to be. Although the Soviets poured plenty of rubles into their aerobatics system, pilots on the national team were forced to share planes, and this meant that the craft had to be able to withstand nearly constant use. They still do. When one pilot is done, another hops aboard. But times have changed in other ways.
“Every year, different problems,” Viktor tells me in a voice more cheerful than seems warranted. “One year the problem is aircraft. One year is fuel, one year is weather.” The team needs 200 tons of fuel for a season, and so far he has only lined up 40 tons. He has no idea where the rest will come from. Viktor’s problems go deeper than that, though. He is leading a group of pilots, including Elena, in a classic power struggle with the old-line head of the Russian aerobatics federation; at last year’s world championships, Viktor’s pilots ended up leaving the competition without flying.
The struggle is very Russian, abounding in murkiness. Viktor’s status as a former world and European champion and his renown as a coach are key strengths. So too are his contacts and friendships with pilots outside Russia, such as those in Arizona. The liaison began in 1994, when Pete Shepley struck up a conversation with Elena at a Florida competition and asked whether she would be interested in training pilots at Avra. She suggested that Viktor, who was sitting with her at the lunch table but spoke no English at the time, come along.
Now Viktor visits America several times a year, as does Elena and as do several other current and former members of the Russian national team. It gives the Americans a chance to learn from the pros and the Russians an opportunity to supplement their uncertain incomes back home. Six years ago, however, when Shepley first met the Russians, this degree of cooperation was a relatively new concept: It was weeks after the initial invitation that his phone finally rang. The man on the other end of the line spoke in a heavy accent: “Here is Viktor in Petersburg. I come to Arizona.”
The moment of the zero-g parabola arrives. Elena steers the Sukhoi into a sharp climb to gain altitude and then dips the plane down and pulls it up and dips it down again. The climb flattens me against my seat, but within seconds that pressure eases away as we hit the top of the parabola; I feel nothing. The weight on my chest is gone. There is only lightness, absolute weightlessness. This is what NASA does with its astronauts, taking them up in specially outfitted planes that perform steep parabolas so the astronauts can float around the cargo bay and experience zero g.
Elena asks how I feel. Just fine, I tell her.
“OK,” she says. “Let’s get going.”
The plane swivels 90 degrees.
“Look left,” Elena snaps.
I do. My God. It’s the ground, on the left. The sky is on my right.
The plane swivels again. My body presses against the straps.
“Look straight ahead, at the horizon,” Elena orders.
The horizon is in front of us, but the ground is on top of the sky. We are flying upside down. My head is pointing at the Earth.
“Keep looking at the horizon,” Elena repeats.
Following her directions is key to avoiding motion sickness; keeping an eye on the horizon line helps you retain a sense of orientation. If your mind loses sight of the ground and thinks the ground is spinning around, which it is, you will turn woozy and perhaps vomit.
Another swivel. We are flying level again. We have rolled. Magnificent.
“OK, we’ll do a vertical climb and a hammerhead.
Tighten your stomach.” Elena warned me about this earlier. In aerobatics, your body experiences bursts of 10 to 12 positive g’s; the equivalent would be a boulder weighing 10 to 12 times more than your body pressing on your chest. We are not near that level now, but we are heading into high-g territory.
Before going into a high-positive-g maneuver, it is advisable to clench your abdominal muscles, making it more difficult for blood to flow out of your brain. Some pilots take the additional precaution of screaming. These things help prevent light-headedness and the feeling that your stomach is shooting up into your throat. Fighter pilots wear special g-suits that contract around their thighs and stomach during high-g maneuvers, but these would be too bulky in tight aerobatic cockpits. In Arizona, shorts and T-shirts are the preferred flight suits.
For the most part, the ability to withstand extreme g-forces is something that comes with practice. The body, and particularly the inner ear, need time to get “g’ed up,” as the pilots call it. Even if you are an experienced aviator like Elena, you cannot lay off for a month and then expect to breeze through a routine; you need to work your way back up the ladder.
High g’s can ruin your day. At the worst, you experience g-lock. Your vision is the first to go, as gravity forces blood downward. Your color acuity fades, and then your peripheral vision, until finally you suffer black-and-white tunnel vision and then, if you don’t pull out of the maneuver, everything goes black. That’s graying out; you are conscious but blind. The next step is blacking out; you are out cold.
I tighten my stomach. The Sukhoi climbs again, to about 4,000 feet. We dive to gain speed, at a 45-degree angle, and then the Sukhoi begins to rear back on its tail, shooting up again. The ground disappears. We are pulling away from Earth like a rocket heading for the Moon. The g’s pound me into my seat.
A word of advice if you happen to meet Shepley or Smolin or Klimovich: Do not call them stunt pilots. Pilots of their caliber think the “s” word implies a lunatic flying through a wall or buzzing the heads of spectators at an air show, or a clown walking on the wing of a plane. Stunt pilots fly under bridges, through barns, and mostly work in Hollywood. Many aerobatics pilots do perform at air shows to make extra money, and they enjoy it, but there are no judges at air shows and no penalties for an imprecise roll; it’s not serious flying. They seek perfection, not thrills. Most of the American pilots at the Avra airport have never even parachuted, and when I ask why over lunch one day, there is silence at the table until Briggs Wood shrugs his shoulders and says, “Well, it’s scary.”
Good aerobatics pilots do not whoop it up in the air. They are almost anal in their mindfulness of small things; Shepley’s hangar is so immaculate that your mother could sleep on the floor. And with all due respect to fighter jocks, aerobatics pilots are better fliers. A fighter pilot can push Mach 2 and destroy a Baghdad munitions plant with the push of a trigger, and he can pull his aircraft into a loop that will take your breath away, but in the time it takes him to complete that maneuver, an aerobatics pilot can execute several loops while rolling his plane, and throw in a down humpty (a vertical dive with a half-loop at the bottom) for good measure. An aerobatics pilot can fly inverted in a Sukhoi for almost five minutes. Try that in an F-16 and your jet will hit the ground like a dart.
“Some fighter pilots and test pilots look down on this type of aviation,” Elena tells me. “This is not a good idea. They would probably have their share of humiliation after they fly in our airplanes.” What she means when she speaks of “humiliation” is that it takes little effort to make a passenger, even a military pilot, suffer mightily in her plane. If an arrogant guest needs to be taken down a notch, she can maneuver them into blacking out or graying out fairly easily. Flying upside down and pulling into a steep ascent can do the job, as can an outside loop, both of which bring on the high negative g’s that tear you from your seat and send blood rushing to your head and can actually rupture the blood vessels in your ears and your eyes. That’s redding out.
Because there is no military need for maneuvers that bring on high negative g’s, fighter jets are not built to fly them; their fuel and lubrication systems can malfunction if the force of gravity is reversed. “I’m pushing minus six and minus eight in my routines, and it’s something you never see in fighters,” says Mike Mangold, who spent 11 years cracking the speed of sound in an Air Force F-4 fighter jet before turning to Sukhois.
That’s not to say that aerobatics planes, or their pilots, are invincible. In Florida in 1996, top American pilot Rick Massegee was killed when a wing collapsed on his Sukhoi-31. According to a National Transportation Safety Board report, he had “initiated a pull toward the vertical with about 360 km/hr and 7 g’s” when the right wing “separated” and the plane “collided with the ground.” The subsequent investigation by the NTSB and Russian authorities determined that the wing was defective.
Most of the in-flight mishaps at Avra are not nearly so dire. Rolling the wrong way, pulling out of a dive too soon: These things won’t kill you. But the pilots–Viktor especially–do know something about risk and its consequences. At 50 he no longer flies in competitions, but he remains a superb pilot. A few years ago he was flying in formation with two members of the Russian national team above their airfield at Borki, outside Moscow, when the formation leader abruptly dodged in front of him.
“I collide with him, like this,” Viktor says, one hand sliding in front of the one on the steering wheel. We’re driving back from the Box at the end of the day, and to our left the desert sun is setting red and pink. “My propeller is broken, oil tank broken, oil covers the canopy, and I land in field.”
“The other pilot?”
“Unfortunately, dead,” Viktor replies, slowly. “Many years we not make mistake with this maneuver. Never. We trained, we prepared many times. Everyone knows what to do.”
Yet it happened. One mistake, pulling right instead of left, turned into a fatal accident.
“He was very good pilot,” Viktor continues. “Also my student. Was the leader of our team.”
“Did you think about quitting?”
By now we have arrived back at the airport and pulled up to Shepley’s hangar. Several multicolored Sukhois sit in front of us, throwing long shadows at day’s end.
Viktor shakes his head.
“Why stop? Sometimes it happens.”
Boom. the Sukhoi swivels 90 degrees.
We are rolling as we climb.
Boom. Swivel again.
Boom. Another swivel.
Behind me, Elena moves the stick precisely, with just the right touch, so that the plane doesn’t over-rotate. She looks to the left wing tip to make sure it is pointing directly at the ground below us, 90 degrees sharp. She glances occasionally at the airspeed and altitude dials, but she is piloting the plane by her sixth sense, too, an ability that Viktor calls “feeling the volume” of the plane, which means knowing, intuitively, what angle you are at, how far you have rolled, how much you can lay off the throttle before stalling, how much throttle you can open up before speeding out of control.
We near the top of the vertical and slow down; the noise of the engine falls away. We are at the top of the climb, stationary, frozen in air. The Sukhoi begins to arch around slowly, following the trajectory of the head of a hammer. We begin falling, slowly at first but then faster and faster. We are plunging, straight down, 250 miles an hour, the airspeed indicator flinging itself toward its red line, the wind screeching around us.
Then Elena spins the Sukhoi, so that we are falling and spinning at once, but instead of the plane moving around, it seems that the Earth below us and charging toward us is spinning in the opposite direction. The sensation isn’t so much one of plummeting to the ground as of the swirling ground rushing toward us at warp speed. It is madness, science fiction, and I feel like Slim Pickens astride his bomb in Dr. Strangelove, hooting and hollering as I fall and fall and fall to Earth.
1. Slobodan Milosevic. In 1987, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic made a promise to a crowd of Serbs in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo: “No one will be allowed to beat the Serbs again! No one!” He then returned to Belgrade and began steering Yugoslavia toward its doomsday. Milosevic is the mastermind of the wars in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Croatia. The Serbian leader has backed paramilitary squads and manipulated news broadcasts to convince Serbs that they faced genocide unless they attacked preemptively. A brilliant tactician and, in the words of a former American ambassador to Yugoslavia, “the slickest con man in the Balkans,” Milosevic is not concerned with the welfare of Serbs—their nation is in far worse shape now than it was before his rise—but with staying in power by exploiting nationalist paranoia. If family history is any guide, however, he will come to an unhappy end. His mother and father both committed suicide. Current status: Still in power.
2. Vojislav Seselj. In 1984, Serbian politician Vojislav Seselj was sentenced to prison by communist authorities for writing a nationalist tract. His two-year confinement included beatings and, reportedly, rape. Seselj emerged a different man, enraged and bitter. In 1991, he formed a paramilitary squad, the Chetniks, patterned on the World War II group of the same name, and joined the ethnic-cleansing frenzy in the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Bosnia. He also formed the far-right Serbian Radical Party and became a deputy prime minister. “I am proud to have been proclaimed a war criminal by the U.S,” he has announced. Current status: Minister in Belgrade.
3. Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovoic. Serbian warlord Zeljko Raznatovic began his life of crime as a purse snatcher in Belgrade, graduated to bank robbery in Sweden, then served a stint as a gun-for-hire for the Yugoslav secret services, which earned him an arrest warrant from Interpol. He opened an ice cream parlor in Belgrade and took charge of the hooligan-filled fan club for the Red Star soccer team. When violence erupted in Croatia in 1991 Raznatovic recruited his soccer buddies into a paramilitary squad, the Tigers, which plundered, raped, and killed its way through the war. When fighting in Bosnia broke out in 1992, Arkan (Raznatovic’s nom de guerre) and his Tigers returned to action, bloodily. In Kosovo, they are apparently at it again. When Raznatovic campaigned for a seat in the Serbian parliament a few years ago, he told Serbs in Kosovo, “I won’t promise you new highways. But I pledge to defend you with the same fanaticism that I have used to save Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia.” Current status: Indicted for war crimes; at large.
4. Mirjana Markovic. As a young woman, Mirjana Markovic did what many women her age dream of doing: She married her childhood sweetheart. But Markovic was not like other women; nor was her lover, Slobodan Milosevic, like other men. Her mother, a communist militant, was arrested by pro-Nazi police officers during World War II and died under mysterious circumstances. Markovic, who is now known as the Red Witch, became a professor of Marxism and established a small political party, but she made her real impact as the guiding force behind her husband. It is widely believed that without her cunning and ruthlessness, Milosevic could not have maintained his hold on power. Current status: Living in Belgrade.
5. Frenki Simatovic. Frenki Simatovic is the rising star of Serbian war criminals. A senior official in the Interior Ministry, (and believed to be chief of its special forces), Simatovic heads a death squad known as the Frenkis, or Red Berets, most of whose members are ex-convicts and veteran participants of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The Frenkis are now unleashing chaos in Kosovo, where their main accomplishment is the emptying and looting of Pec, Kosovo’s second-largest city. Their modus operandi is simple: Murder ethnic Albanian men and order everyone else to leave. Current status: Active in Kosovo.
6. Radovan Karadzic. It sounds like a bad joke: What do you get when you combine a failed poet with a mediocre psychiatrist and a convicted felon? The answer, unfortunately, is Radovan Karadzic, onetime bard, shrink (his clients included Sarajevo’s soccer team), and embezzler. Karadzic was the political leader of Bosnia’s Serbs and portrayed their sieges and sniper attacks as defensive measures against Islamic terrorists. A devoted gambler—during off-hours at Geneva peace talks, he could be found at local casinos—Karadzic turned warfare into a mob racket and skimmed money from black-market shipments of food, fuel, and ammunition. Current status: Indicted for war crimes; at large.
7. Ratko Mladic. “Burn it all!” Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb military, said of Sarajevo. “Beat them senseless!” Other orders, issued by radio and intercepted by journalists, included “clobber them” and “torch them.” An avid chess player, Mladic directed the storming of the Srebrenica enclave and, it is believed, oversaw the execution of some 6,000 men there. For him, the war was partly a matter of settling old scores: His father was killed by Croatian troops in World War II. Current status: Indicted for war crimes; at large.
8. Simo Drljaca. When the war began in Bosnia, in 1992, Simo Drljaca had a big problem on his hands—what to do with all the Muslims he was taking prisoner. His answer? Torture or kill them. Drljaca, a powerful Serb security official in northern Bosnia, oversaw, along with anesthesiologist Milan Kovacevic, the notorious killing centers of Omarska and Keraterm. In 1997, NATO troops tried to arrest Drljaca but instead shot him dead when he opened fire with a machine gun. Current status: Buried.
9. Franjo Tudjman. At a campaign rally in 1990, Franjo Tudjman said, “Thank God, my wife is neither a Serb nor a Jew.” Nationalist bigotry of that sort got him elected president of Croatia. Though Serbian nationalism was the dominant factor in Yugoslavia’s slide into bloodshed, Croatian nationalism under Tudjman also played a key role. After Croatia gained its independence, Tudjman and his defense minister, the late Gojko Susak, a former pizza parlor owner, threw their support behind the HVO, a right-wing Croat militia in Bosnia. The HVO committed widespread atrocities in a largely successful effort to extend Croatian control over a quarter of Bosnia. Because the U.S. and German governments view Croatia as a bulwark against Serbia, Tudjman has avoided the isolation and punishment that many human rights activists say he deserves. Current status: Still in power.
10. Ante Pavelic. During World War II an Italian journalist visited Ante Pavelic, the brutal leader of Croatia’s pro-Nazi puppet state, and was surprised when Pavelic showed off a basket of what appeared to be oysters. “It’s a present from my loyal Ustashe,” Pavelic said with a smile, referring to the Croatian troops who had murdered several hundred thousand Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies. “Forty pounds of human eyes.” The long-ago killings under Pavelic played a key role in Yugoslavia’s disintegration in the 1990s. Milosevic relentlessly warned Serbs in Croatia that if Croatia gained independence, they faced a wave of pogroms like those orchestrated by Pavelic. The Serbs chose to fight, commencing the bloodshed that continues today. Status: Died in Madrid in 1959.
What about Tudjman?
This question comes to mind after the long overdue indictment of Slobodan Milosevic, the President of Yugoslavia and the prime villain behind the carnage that has engulfed the Balkans for the past decade. But President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia is hardly an innocent lamb, and if the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague hopes to be seen as an impartial arbiter of justice, it should match its indictment of Mr. Milosevic with a move against Mr. Tudjman.
For this to happen, the Clinton Administration, which belatedly offered the tribunal crucial intelligence about Mr. Milosevic, should let the tribunal know what it knows about Mr. Tudjman’s links to Croat forces that committed atrocities in Bosnia. Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether the Administration can summon the moral wherewithal to help the tribunal pursue a dictator who has become a useful ally. Croatia’s ports and airports are staging grounds for the NATO-led peacekeeping operation in Bosnia.
Mr. Milosevic is far more responsible than Mr. Tudjman for the bloodshed in the Balkans, and of course Mr. Tudjman is not involved in the cleansing of Kosovo. But ground zero for Balkan war crimes remains in Bosnia, not Kosovo. The tragedy in Kosovo is horrendous and should not be understated, but the known death toll there does not approach the several hundred thousand deaths in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995. Serbian forces are responsible for the bulk of those killings (and rapes and cleansings).
Even so, Croatian forces linked to Mr. Tudjman used similar tactics. The ethnic Croatian militia in Bosnia, the H.V.O., which received crucial support from Croatia proper, conducted vicious cleansing operations in central Bosnia, among other areas. If justice is blind, why should Mr. Milosevic be indicted and not Mr. Tudjman?
The initial answer is that Mr. Milosevic, along with four associates, hasn’t been indicted for crimes in Bosnia. But the reality is that Kosovo is for Mr. Milosevic what income-tax evasion was for Al Capone—an offense that prosecutors can nail him on.
Again, that’s not to underplay the outrageousness of what has happened in Kosovo. But had there been no war in Bosnia, it is unlikely that Mr. Milosevic would have been indicted last week. For the most part, he’s being made to pay for crimes committed by his forces in Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Zvornik, Foca and many other Bosnian towns. Mr. Tudjman should face the same music. Some may say this is cruel, or at least moot, because the Croatian leader has cancer and may not have long to live. This excuse has been used for several years.
But if someone is suspected of war crimes, should he be granted more mercies than the innocent men, women and children who have perished?
Mr. Milosevic and Mr. Tudjman kept their distance from the scenes of war crimes and refrained from issuing public orders for the cleansing of Bosnia. The best evidence against them is believed to be found in electronic intercepts gathered by American and other Western spy agencies—phone or radio conversations and telexes or cables that link both men to cleansing campaigns in Bosnia. Until recently, virtually none of it was shared with the tribunal.
The tribunal’s hard-working investigators have labored under a number of handocaps as they have pursued indictments. The local authorities have been reluctant to cooperate, often refusing outright. At the outset, the tribunal received thin financial support from Western nations that didn’t want their diplomatic apple cart upset by a powerful prosecutor. NATO forces in Bosnia have so far arrested only a handful of indicted war criminals.
These handicaps have made it difficult for the tribunal to accumulate concrete evidence linking Mr. Milosevic and Mr. Tudjman to the military forces in Bosnia that they controlled from behind the scenes. Kosovo changed the equation for Mr. Milosevic because unlike Bosnia, Kosovo is part of Yugoslavia, and the forces at work there are under his direct control; the chain of command is as unmistakable as a tank on high ground.
What also changed was the Administration’s willingness to provide incriminating intelligence. Once the White House went to war against Mr. Milosevic, it began releasing satellite imagery of mass graves—for the most part, this wasn’t done in the Bosnian war—and providing classified intercepts to the tribunal. Louise Arbour, the chief prosecutor, has not hesitated to issue indictments once she accumulates enough evidence.
This sort of cooperation was long overdue but raises the specter of retribution rather than justice. By turning on and off the flow of intelligence to the tribunal, the Administration can influence indictments. If this means that Mr. Tudjman escapes judgment for lack of evidence, even if the evidence exists in the vaults of the C.I.A. or the National Security Agency, the Serbs will have reason to accuse the tribunal of prosecutorial bias.
In the realm of war crimes, there’s a name for regrettable outcomes of this sort—victor’s justice.
If you are looking for an example of the genius of Slobodan Milosevic, the picture that appeared in newspapers over the weekend, showing him deep in prayer and hand in hand with Jesse Jackson, suffices quite well.
Milosevic is not known for participating in prayer sessions. Nor is the Serbian leader known for holding hands with visitors to his Belgrade office. Instead, he is known as a master of manipulation and improvisation. By releasing three captured American soldiers and engaging in a strange communion with Jackson, Milosevic cast himself as an agent of goodwill and won over to his stop-the-bombing campaign a close friend of President Clinton’s.
This is another demonstration of Milosevic’s dark brilliance. He possesses the utter disregard for human life that is requisite for a dictator yet few of the usual defects. He has remained in power for more than a decade while everything and everyone around him has become engulfed in bombs and flames that he precipitated. He is the perfect dictator.
In the spring of 1993, when the Bosnian war was at full throttle, I interviewed Milosevic at his office in downtown Belgrade. As I stepped inside, he was standing by a bank of windows on the other side of the chamber. He moved toward me and tossed out an unusual greeting: “Why are you writing lies about my country?”
His words were sharp but spoken in a suffering tone that seemed intended to make me feel sorry for him and his maligned nation. We shook hands, lightly, and he motioned for me to sit in an armchair at a coffee table. He sat next to me, close enough to tap my forearm when he wanted to emphasize a point. He offered me a Dutch cigarillo from a box on the table.
He was dressed in an unremarkable blue suit and looked like the anonymous, baby-faced banker he used to be. He was curt in only a few instances. He didn’t appreciate my questions about why people called him a war criminal, and when we discussed Kosovo he sternly reminded me several times in his occasionally imperfect English that “Kosovo is heart of Serbia.”
If you did not know better, you would not think a man as urbane as Milosevic could possibly do the evil deeds he was accused of. In the early years of his rule, he made such a winning impression on foreign visitors that one Congressman even invited him to a prayer breakfast at the White House. He never made it to Washington, but he just clocked a minute of prayer with Jackson.
Nor does he suffer the imperfections of the Mobutu species of dictators, who are vain and corrupt to illogical proportions and eventually are brought down because of it. Before he was chased out of Congo in 1997, Mobutu had his likeness plastered onto everything imaginable, including the clothing worn by millions of his unfortunate subjects. His full name was Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku wa za Banga, translated by his Government as, “The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake.”
Milosevic’s title is less grand: president. He wears nothing more flashy than a double-breasted suit. During the interview, I asked why he infrequently appeared on television. “I think there is enough of me in the media,” he smiled. “I don’t want to, how to say, to torture with my presence every day.”
Nor is Milosevic in the Pol Pot mold of dictator. The Cambodian despot pursued a hyper-Maoist ideology of re-engineering his nation, and to this end his Khmer Rouge soldiers murdered more than a million people, mostly educated city dwellers. He was a dictator possessed of an insane vision that eventually roused sufficient outrage to stop him.
Milosevic, whose parents committed suicide in his younger years, has no vision, no ideology, just an agile yet dark intellect and a mission to hold on to power at any cost, even war. At the moment, he has embraced nationalism; he may discard it, as he did in 1995 when he let Croatia drive out several hundred thousand Serbs. He is not defending Kosovo because he cherishes it; he reasons, correctly, that he could tumble from power if he surrenders it without a fight.
There is also the Saddam Hussein species of dictator, whose hold on power is maintained by little more than fierce brutality. Hussein is infamous for, among other things, convening a meeting of his Baath Party shortly after seizing power and, one by one, accusing officials of disloyalty; they were led out of the hall and never seen again. But a dictatorship based on terror alone is brittle; if a coup occurred in Baghdad tomorrow, few people would be surprised.
Milosevic does not execute rivals or would-be rivals. For example, take a look at Vuk Draskovic, a lucky fellow who was fired last week from his job as a minister in Milosevic’s Government. In most dictatorships, the fate of an insufficiently loyal minister can be quite ghastly. Weeks of torture, decades in jail, a bullet in the head—these are the ways most despots deal with people who step out of line or are suspected of stepping out of line. The brand-name dictators of our century did not bother with pink slips.
Draskovic, an erratic opposition leader who at one time was hospitalized after a police beating, joined Milosevic’s Government just a few months ago and was ousted after suggesting that Milosevic and his powerful wife, Mira Markovic, were prolonging the war for political purposes. In Serbia, that’s a firing offense, not a capital crime.
This is why, I suppose, security was so light when I interviewed Milosevic. Although there was talk, even then, that NATO might bomb Belgrade, the guards at the entrance to his presidential palace gave me a cursory once-over. As a secretary led me through the building’s gloomy corridors, I noticed no aides shuttling about, no generals with maps under their arms, no security guards. The palace was deserted.
Milosevic’s office was strangely empty, too. A waiter entered once with Turkish coffee and orange juice, but otherwise we were alone for 90 minutes; there was no assistant taking notes, no bodyguard. Just me and Slobodan Milosevic, confident and unafraid and all-powerful, a survivor of the highest order.
“Il Duce!” called out a portly gentleman in an orange t-shirt, trying to attract the attention of Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor of New York City. “Il Duce!”
Giuliani was marching at the head of a parade honoring the city’s West Indian community, and thousands of people lined Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway, waving Caribbean flags, sitting on the curbs or leaning against blue police barricades. It was a late summer day, the weather was humid, the beer iced, the music reggae and the atmosphere tranquil until the mayor and his entourage marched up the street like conquistadors from City Hall.
“Il Duce!” the guy bellowed from the sidewalk. His arm stabbed the air in a straight-armed salute that would have delighted the long-deceased dictator who made the trains run on time in Italy. But the mayor who makes the subways run on time in New York and cleaned up Times Square pretended not to notice this unscripted outbreak of street theater. “Il Duce!” the guy shouted again, straight-arming the sky. “Il Duce! Il Duce!”
Giuliani strode onward, passing a woman who was broadcasting a fog-horn “Booooo” from her supertanker lungs. “Get outta here!” yelled another onlooker, and someone else, less genteel but more grammatical, shouted, “Get the fuck out of here!” Giuliani walked on, plowed ahead, really, waving and giving a thumbs-up to those spectators who were not giving him the middle finger, such as one plump woman who cooed, “Hey, baby, I got a t-shirt for you.” I was a few feet away as Giuliani veered toward the woman; a mayoral aide beside me, not liking the way things looked, whispered to me in that clenched-jaw way so common among stressed-out underlings, “This is a mistake.”
Giuliani grabbed the T-shirt, held it against his chest, and smiled. He shook a few hands, kissed a baby, and, before the hissers and catcallers could process this display of Italian cojones, veered back into the street, his aides and bodyguards trailing him like the tail of a zany comet.
The craziness continued for nearly an hour, the jeers and the cheers, the forays into the arms of admirers. Giuliani steamed on, defiant and exultant, loved and hated, master of the great and impossible domain that is New York.
When it was over, after ducking indoors and changing into a sport shirt, Giuliani made himself available for communion with reporters. Someone asked what he thought of the catcalls. “Everything is relative,” the mayor said. “The amount of booing last year was greater.”
Boos are of academic interest to Giuliani these days, a curious noise that he occasionally hears and generally ignores. For the most part, the mayor is lauded as a political terminator who slashed New York’s murder rate by 70 percent, who sliced welfare rolls to levels last seen in the 1960s, and who presides over the renaissance of a metropolis that had been written off as ungovernable. Giuliani has been more than a mayor; he has been a performer. He dressed in drag for a skit on Saturday Night Live and has appeared on the “Late Show With David Letterman,” once announcing a mock tourism slogan for New York: “We Can Kick Your City"s Ass.”
Giuliani knows that governing in the 1990s is not just about policy-making; it is about entertaining, reaching over the nattering nabobs of negativism—also known as the liberal media—to communicate directly with the people, even if it’s simply to tell them to clean up after their dogs. He kills most audiences with his act. But he is not going for laughs alone; he is positioning himself for employment after 2001, when term limits will force him to leave City Hall. He does not, however, lack for options: They are arrayed before him like scripts on a hot actor’s coffee table. There’s one called “Rudy Goes to the Senate.” Another is entitled “Run for Governor,” and a third reads, “Don’t Rule Out the White House.”
The Giuliani persona has created such possibilities. Tired of pander-addicted candidates spraying America with soporific promises, with political air freshener? Giuliani wants to feel your pain about as much as Patton wanted to hear complaints about C-rations. He is the anti-Clinton, the Latrell Sprewell of politics. He is not a wonk. He is not a healer. He doesn’t parse his words: Jerk and idiot are among his favorites; is means is. He can be rude, even contemptuous. At a year-end meeting with local reporters a few months back, Giuliani replied to a question about the city’s being “leaner and meaner” by shooting back, “That’s an insulting question…It’s something that you keep writing, and I really don"t give a darn. I’m doing my job…If people like my personality, thank you. If you don’t, I really don’t care.”
Many New Yorkers agree that they don’t need to like Giuliani as long as he is effective. “This fella is getting things done,” says Gary Muhrcke, who owns a shoe store opposite Bryant Park, which was once a drug haven behind the New York Public Library but is now a pleasant quadrangle where office workers relax during the day. “He’s not afraid to step on some toes,” Muhrcke adds. “Sometimes you agree with him, sometimes you disagree with him, but at least you know his position.”
After rarely leaving New York in his first term, Giuliani began barreling around the nation before last November"s elections. The ostensible purpose of his travels was to boost Republican candidates, but Giuliani’s penchant for visiting key presidential states—namely Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and California—ignited speculation that he wanted to run for president. He did not discourage the talk. In Waterloo, Iowa, I saw him deliver a keynote speech at a GOP fundraiser. He led a hand-over-breast recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance as everyone stood up and faced the flags flanking the auditorium stage. After several paeans hailing the New Yorker, in the words of one cliche-ridden speaker, for “putting the shine back on the Big Apple,” Giuliani launched into a proto-stump speech about fighting crime, ending welfare, battling drugs and getting government off the backs of honest Americans. He started by surveying the room and shooting off a favorite one-liner: “This is a lot more Republicans than I ever get to see in Manhattan!”
The laughter was immediate: He killed ‘em. Even so, the implausibilities of a presidential run seem to have caught up with Giuliani. New York mayors have rarely made successful bids for higher office, let alone the White House, and Giuliani’s positions don’t sit well with his party’s more conservative element: He is pro-choice and pro-gun control, and he committed the cardinal Republican sin of endorsing a Democrat, Mario Cuomo, in the 1994 New York gubernatorial race. GOP conservatives have one word of advice for Giuliani on his presidential hopes: fuhgeddaboudit. The veep scenario is dubious, too. If the party’s presidential nominee is looking for someone who can help carry New York, the proven statewide vote-getter is Governor George Pataki. Plus, Giuliani would be the Doberman of vice presidents. Who would want to be tethered to that for four years?
More likely is a run for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 2000. Before Moynihan announced his retirement late last year, most New York political observers thought that Giuliani wasn’t interested in being a senator and would not fare well if elected: Abrasiveness is not appreciated in the coziness of the Senate. But polls show Giuliani would have little trouble winning his party"s nomination, and the mayor has strongly hinted that a Senate campaign is the way he’ll go. If Hillary Rodham Clinton tries for the Democratic nomination, as state Democrats are hoping she will, New York might be the setting for the liveliest race of 2000, if not the decade. Rudy vs. Hillary—it doesn’t get any better than that.
The story of Rudolph Giuliani is a political classic. The grandson of Italian immigrants, he was raised in working-class neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Long Island and graduated magna cum laude from New York University Law School. During the Reagan Administration he became associate attorney general, the third-highest position in the Justice Department. In 1983 he was appointed U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, where he led crackdowns on the mob, government corruption, white-collar crime and drug dealers. Although he lost his first mayoral campaign in 1989, four years later he edged out incumbent David Dinkins, who was seen as an affable but ineffectual leader of a city plagued by unemployment, poverty and crime. Giuliani’s hard-charging administration included fellow prosecutors who shared both his round-the-clock work ethic and his notion that the only way to take care of business was to attack and, if that failed, attack again.
“We were Republicans and reformers coming into City Hall, so it wasn"t going to be easy,” says Peter Powers, a longtime friend of Giuliani’s and deputy mayor in his first term. “We had to be tough. Everyone was against us.”
Inheriting a steep budget shortfall, Giuliani made cuts in almost every department With the conpicuous exception of the Police Department, insisting, against a chorus of criticism from the city’s liberal establishment, that the war against crime required the resources he was giving it. Giuliani also embraced a crime-fighting initiative developed by then-Police Commissioner William Bratton. The program boiled down to a minute examination, on a daily basis, of the incidence of crime in each precinct; any upward spike would get immediate attention from not only from the commissioner"s office, but also from the mayor’s office. Giuliani and Bratton embraced the “Broken Windows” theory of sociologist James Q. Wilson—the idea that a single broken window in a building, left unattended, will give the impression of civil apathy and invite more vandalism. The solution? Repair the broken window, and stop a cycle of decay and crime before it starts. That approach led to a crackdown on petty crimes that the police had been tolerating. Suddenly, there was a police sweep on the squeegee men who wiped windshields with a dirty rag and demanded payment from the drivers—or else they “keyed” the sides of the car. The police also went after youths hopping subway turnstiles and men urinating in public. The regimen worked: Not only did robbery and murder and rape decline, but the emphasis on curbing everyday harassments brought real improvement to New Yorkers’ quality of life.
Giuliani has always had little patience for minor offenses, as Sal Scarpato can tell you. Scarpato and Giuliani were both members of Phi Rho Pi fraternity at Manhattan College in the early 1960s, before Vietnam penetrated the national psyche. The men at Manhattan, an all-male institution, wore jackets and ties to school and bowed their heads in prayer before class. Scarpato was the fraternity mischief-maker. Giuliani, a fraternity officer who ran the meetings, didn’t tolerate speaking out of turn, which was Scarpato’s favorite indulgence. The two clashed often, and one day Scarpato threw a soda bottle at Giuliani—it missed—which, naturally, led to the young men leaving the room and scuffling outside. “Rudy and I represented opposite points of view,” recalls Scarpato, now a businessman in Los Angeles. “If he were running a meeting, he expected it to run according to Robert"s Rules [of meeting protocol]...I was a young kid from the Bronx. What did I know about Robert’s Rules?”
Giuliani knew what he wanted, and he didn’t appreciate people getting in his way. In 1963 he ran for class president, but his opponent, Jim Farrell, beat him soundly. “The night of the election there was a school dance in one of the hotels,” Farrell recalls now. “He looked at me like he would kill me…I had taken something from him that he not only wanted but believed he was entitled to.”
Farrell, who became a lawyer in New York, ran into Giuliani several times in later years. He remembers their last encounter vividly. They were at a banquet, and Giuliani was seated at the dais. Farrell approached his old classmate to say hello. “I said, ‘Rudy, how are you? Nice to see you.’ I tried to reach my hand up to the dais. He looked at me like, Who the hell are you?” The mayor recognized him, Farrell is sure; he just didn’t want to admit it.
That stubbornness dates back to Giuliani’s earliest years. He was an only child of hard-working parents who doted on him and taught him to stand his ground in the world. Giuliani likes to tell the story of how, when he was a young kid in Brooklyn, his father dressed him in a Yankees uniform and told him to go for a walk outside. Wearing Yankee pinstripes was a provocative act in a borough beholden to the Brooklyn Dodgers, but Rudy’s father wanted to toughen up his son. Rudy was taunted by neighborhood kids but refused to cut short the walk, and today he still boasts of his Yankee loyalties.
Giuliani’s extended family was steeped in New York civic life; his father was a tavern-keeper, his uncles were cops or firemen. The Giulianis had boisterous dinners at which the main topics of discussion were politics, politics and more politics. Everyone was a Democrat, including Rudy, who was an ardent supporter of John F. Kennedy until he grew disenchanted with the disorder of the 1960s and migrated to the Republican side. Peter Powers, one of Giuliani"s best friends in those days, recalls the Giuliani men arguing passionately about issues of the day. “You had to be strong and tough to last in that debate,” Powers recalls. “If you were weak, you wouldn"t make it.”
Giuliani attended parochial schools, but he is hardly a dogmatic Catholic: He supports gay rights, married his second cousin and, in 1982, had that 14-year union annulled in order to have a church wedding with Donna Hanover, his current wife. He does, however, retain a Catholic certainty in his beliefs that makes him unafraid of picking fights. The list of those whom Giuliani has singled out for mayoral punishment includes taxi drivers (Giuliani thwarted their attempts to stage a traffic-jamming protest), hot dog vendors (Giuliani has tried to oust them from many streets), pedestrians (the mayor has closed crosswalks at some intersections), civil libertarians (Giuliani has floated the idea of a DNA database for all newborns) and owners of topless clubs (many of which have been padlocked under Giuliani’s publicity-grabbing crackdown on sex shops). And, of course, there is Bratton, the police commissioner who was forced from his job in 1996 because, City Hall observers believe, Giuliani didn’t want anyone else taking bows for the successful war on crime.
In 1997 the mayor’s reluctance to concede that New York’s renaissance might have been helped by other people, such as Bratton, or other factors, such as the boom on Wall Street and the decline of the crack cocaine trade, prompted New York magazine to run ads on city buses hailing the publication as “possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn’t taken credit for.” Giuliani was not amused, and the city’s Metropolitan Transit Authority yanked the ads. In response, the magazine sued, arguing that its First Amendment rights were violated. Two courts ruled in the magazine’s favor, but Giuliani appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The magazine’s lawyers argued the appeal should be dismissed because the litigation was caused “by the whim of a mercurial mayor.” The Supreme Court, in refusing to hear the appeal, apparently agreed.
“My simple line to America is ‘Beware of Rudy Giuliani,’” says Norman Siegel, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Since 1994, the NYCLU has filed 16 First Amendment cases against Giuliani"s administration, prevailing on 14, losing on two. Another challenge looms over Giulian’s decision to limit public access to City Hall, which used to be relatively open and now, thanks to the mayor, resembles a fortress, ringed by concrete to fend off urban barbarians. The Police Department cites its terrorism; the mayor"s critics suggest that he is a control freak.
“He thinks that freedom is about respect for authority,” says Siegel, who attended law school with Giuliani. “There are people in New York who have called him a dictator, Hitler, Mussolini. All of those things are outrageously not accurate, and whenever anybody says that I correct them. But you don"t have to be that far out in order to be a threat to civil rights.”
African-American New Yorkers in particular have not taken well to Giuliani. That’s partly because he defeated a black incumbent, Dinkins, and rarely passes up an opportunity to belittle his predecessor. Dinkins, who is slow to anger, has had enough of Giuliani’s abuse. “He is a bully,” Dinkins says. “He uses fear and intimidation to accomplish things.” Most black leaders in New York believe that Giuliani’s take-no-prisoners mentality has implictly encouraged police brutality. Complaints against officers have risen since he took office, though police officials say this is because more cops are on the streets, and whenever contact with civilians increases, so do the number of complaints. The debate grew heated in 1997 after police officers arrested a Haitian immigrant, Abner Louima, and allegedly sodomized him with a toilet plunger at a local precinct. During the beating, the officers reportedly jeered, “It"s Giuliani time,” meaning, This is what cops can do when Rudy is mayor. Though it later emerged that the phrase had not been used, “Giuliani time” struck a chord.
The issue of Giuliani and race took center stage again last September, when Khallid Muhammed, a former minister of the Nation of Islam, held his controversial Million Youth March in Harlem. The mayor tried to prevent the rally, calling it a “hate march.” Muhammed, known for his anti-Semitic and anti-white vitriol, won a court order granting permission for a four-hour event. Giuliani responded by closing off subway exits and deploying more than 3,000 cops to guard a march that wound up attracting a peaceful crowd of perhaps 6,000 people—roughly one cop for every two marchers. Just as the four-hour time limit expired, with Muhammed winding up a bigotry-laden tirade, a police helicopter swooped low over the crowd and officers pulled the plug on the sound system. Chaos erupted, and more than a dozen police officers and civilians were injured. When it was over, black leaders accused Giuliani of treating Harlem as if it were an occupied territory. Giuliani conceded nothing, although his problems worsened in February when four cops killed African immigrant Amadou Diallo in a fusillade of 41 shots. Diallo was unarmed.
“He wants to play to an Archie Bunker crowd,” Reverend Al Sharpton says. “Some of my friends call him a racist, but that’s giving him an out. I think he"s worse than that. I can deal with a racist, but I can’t deal with someone who is duplicitous and uses racism to manipulate people.”
Giuliani disputes that charge. City Hall officials note that blacks are more frequently victims of crime than any other demographic group. Consequently, the drop in murders, from 2,000 a year when he took office to about 600 last year, means that more blacks are alive today than would be if he were not mayor.
Like presidents, mayors usually take their greatest strides in their first term, and Giuliani will have a hard time matching his first. Crime may continue to decline, but the days of head-turning plunges are gone. The Wall Street boom can’t go on forever. Some New Yorkers are even starting to grumble about the “Disneyfication” of the city. Meanwhile, most of Giuliani’s second-term initiatives have an almost petty flavor to them, such as when he urged neighborhood residents who opposed topless clubs to photograph patrons entering them and publish the pictures in local papers.
Ed Koch, the voluble former mayor of New York and presiding judge on TV’s People’s Court, believes Giuliani’s Doberman demeanor is now alienating New Yorkers. “He is on the cusp of being held in very low regard,” Koch says. “He’s his own worst enemy. There’s no reservoir of goodwill. When he starts going down the incline, which is happening, there will be nobody there to support him, because they’ll all be kicking him.” I asked Koch why Giuliani hasn’t turned kinder and gentler in his second term. Koch cackled, his version of a political purr. “Why does the scorpion sting? It’s the nature of a scorpion.”
One holdover from Giuliani’s first term is his war against the media. The mayor usually holds a brief press conference every day, sometimes two or three. As a former prosecutor, he seems to enjoy arguing his case with reporters. But he grants interviews infrequently—he canceled a long-scheduled one with me, claiming he hadn’t known about it—and he rarely shmoozes with reporters. The reason is simple: While the national media fawn over Giuliani in much the same way they exaggerated Michael Dukakis’s Massachusetts Miracle in 1988, the local press has a tendency to note that the parks may not be as clean as the mayor says or that the police may not be as color-blind as they should be. To Giuliani, that makes the press the enemy.
Take, for instance, the press conference before the West Indian parade. Two days earlier, police had broken up the rally in Harlem, and Giuliani was asked what he thought of the brutality accusations. “That’s really an outrageous displacement of responsibility and the typical knee-jerk anti-police reaction that happens in some of the media…” he began. “The press fails to report the rhetoric and the language [of rally speakers], so it gives a false picture of the numerous people that got up there and called for the murder of Jews, the numerous people that got up there and called for the killing of police officers, the numerous people that got up there and called for the killing of white people.” Though Giuliani himself was painting an exaggerated picture of the march, he was just hitting his stride, throwing out words like “outrageous,” “perverted” and, again, “knee-jerk,” to describe the reporting of the event.
Such antagonism seems counter-productive for someone seeking higher office or public support for his policies. It is particularly ironic given that Giuliani began his second term by initiating a campaign for “civility” in New York. The mayor, however, begs to disagree. “To me civility and niceness are not the same thing,” he told the Washington Post. “Civility is the basic respect you have to have for the law. I actually think I am a very polite person.”
In the end, the mayor has chosen to deal with reporters in much the same way he deals with political rivals—by trying to intimidate and marginalize them. Yet journalists continue to land reportorial jabs, and the political cut from one of those blows has yet to heal.
Rumors have long circulated in New York political circles that Giuliani"s marriage to Donna Hanover is far from blissful. The couple, who have two children, rarely appear together; Hanover even skipped her husband"s re-election bash and refused to say whether she voted for her husband. According to her spokeswoman, Hanover, a features reporter for a local Fox morning show, just “wants to be known for being her own person. But in 1997 the state of their marriage became a public issue when Vanity Fair reported that Giuliani had become “intimate” with another woman. Named in the story, the woman in question was Cristyne Lategano, his director of communications and closest confidante, occasionally referred to as “co-mayor.”
Giuliani denied the story, and his office pointed out that the article was flawed. Key details, such as the overnight trips on which the alleged relationship began, were incorrect. On one trip, Lategano was not present; on another, the overnight trip was not, in fact, overnight. The story predicted that Giuliani and his wife would separate after the 1997 election; they have not. Vanity Fair stands by its article but has acknowledged Lategano was absent from one of the trips it suggested she was on. Lategano and Giuliani do not deny that they have a close professional relationship, but both charge their accusers with sexism—the assumption that a close relationship between a male politician and a female adviser must be more than professional.
City Hall reporters don’t ask Giuliani about Lategano. They know the mayor won’t give them answers; he responds to queries he doesn’t appreciate with remarks such as, “That"s not a serious question” or “I expect more intelligence than that.” And the beat reporters know that any journalist who asks personal questions will get frozen out.
But with the national political culture immersed in sagas of marital infidelities, Giuliani cannot avoid the issue, and he was asked about it while on a trip to South Carolina last September. At a press conference at state GOP headquarters, a local reporter, who wasn’t aware of the Lategano rumor, asked Giuliani about stories that congressman Dan Burton had fathered a child out of wedlock: “What are your thoughts on the scrutiny that we"re finding in the political world of elected officials and if, down the road, you were to seek a higher office, how might that affect you?”
The silence in the room, as Giuliani hesitated before replying, was absolute. “The fact is there is a lot more scrutiny of people’s private lives than was the case ten, fifteen twenty years ago,” he said. “If it connects, in honesty and good faith, to the performance of their job; if you can find some connection between a problem they have in their private life or an issue they have in their private life, and the way they are doing their job; then it’s a legitimate [issue]. If it doesn’t, then it really is just to satisfy someone"s prurient interest, and that"s kind of a sad way for our society to go, and a sad way for journalism or politics to go.”
The reporter asked again, “How might that scrutiny affect you down the road?”
“I have no idea,” Giuliani replied, his face unreadable. “I don’t speculate on it, I don"t think about it. I think that you only have a certain amount that you can control of what you"d like to see in politics and journalism. A lot of times it doesn’t turn out that way.”
They lined up around the block and waited, in the darkness of the borough of Queens, to pass single-file through a metal detector. From there, they walked into an auditorium and took a seat, and when all the seats were taken, they stood against the walls, nearly a thousand people in all. There was a buzz in the place, the sort you feel at a religious revival or rock concert, a premonition that something memorable and great might occur on this evening. The heavy security—bodyguards hovered around the entrances, eyeing everyone with that one-wrong-move-and-you’re-history look—lent the place an aura of gravitas. Yes, something big was going to happen.
Promptly at eight o’clock, Giuliani strode into the hall, and the first members of the audience to see him shouted out “Rudy! Rudy!” Applause rippled around the auditorium, passing from front to back. The first rows were occupied by approximately a hundred city officials—commissioners of this, directors of that—and they rose to their feet, as did everyone else, a standing ovation before the mayor had even said hello. What followed in the next hour was a town meeting that mixed the confessional tone of a talk show with the political theater of a sultan hearing the pleadings of his subjects. All manner of problems were raised by the mostly white, mostly middle-class audience—divorce problems, noise problems, trash problems, tree problems, traffic problems, dirigible problems: One man wanted the city to open an airport for blimps.
Giuliani promised action on matters in the city’s purview and instructed petitioners to talk, on the spot, with the relevant officials who sat before him. If the city couldn’t help, citizens were advised to take matters into their own hands. “Go business to business and tell ‘em they’re slobs,” Giuliani advised one petitioner who lamented shops which let their garbage pile up. “And also see if you can organize boycotts of the worst offenders.”
More applause. Whether the audience members were Republicans or Democrats—and the odds, in New York City, are that most were Democrats—they seemed to leave in a state of rapture, typified by a small woman who gave her name as Rosie. She asked the mayor to tell the parks department to clean a neglected park near her home. Her humorous soliloquy, in a thick accent that oozed Queens, prompted amiable laughter in the hall, and Giuliani played along, cracking a few jokes and promising to take care of the matter. Rosie was irresistible, Rudy was irresistible, and they ended up in a bear hug as the place crested into hollers and cheers. “God bless you and thanks a million,” Rosie crooned. “You"re the greatest president…”—the laughter was immediate—”...uh, the greatest mayor.”
It was a good show. Not for the first time, Giuliani killed ’em.
By Jan Philipp Reemtsma
Knopf. 240 pp. $24
Reviewed by Peter Maass
What can be said about a book in which the author vows to avoid a vivid narrative style and vivid metaphors? In which, writing of a traumatic experience he endured, he retreats into the third person, presenting his thoughts and fears as those of another man, “him”? And what can be said about a book written in the stilted manner of a German intellectual, which Jan Philipp Reemtsma, author of In the Cellar, happens to be?
The prospects for such a book are not good, but In the Cellar is saved by two unusual features. First, the trauma under examination is the sensational 1996 kidnapping of Reemtsma, the wealthy director of the Hamburg Institute for Social Research. Second, the book offers a stark look into the psyche of a man who begins to sympathize with his captors, falling into the psychological trap known as the Stockholm Syndrome.
This syndrome is a mystifying feature of the human mind, like the phantom pain an amputee feels in a limb that is no longer there. Those who have not experienced it cannot understand it, yet many of those who have experienced it cannot explain it, at least not in ways that make sense to the rest of us. In this short book Reemtsma seeks to exorcise his kidnapping by explaining the psychological twists and turns of the 33 days of captivity that changed his soul. This is an uneasy and arresting book to read, told in a brittle way by a man who is still trying to find a sense of equilibrium.
Reemtsma exposes the intimate and excruciating liaison that can develop between kidnapper and kidnappee. Both want the abduction to succeed: The kidnapper gains a ransom while the kidnappee gains freedom. Of course a kidnappee can gain freedom by escape or a police raid, but escape is virtually impossible for Reemtsma, who is chained to a radiator in a guarded cellar and for whom a police raid is a dangerous prospect. The safest route from captivity is for the ransom demands to be met—in Reemtsma’s case, 30 million German marks, payable in small bills with non-consecutive serial numbers. He becomes angry at the police, his lawyer and even his wife when payoffs are botched, though eventually the handoff succeeds and he is released.
Reemtsma’s kidnappers were not sadists beyond the basic fact that they abducted him from the doorstep of his Hamburg home one night, breaking his nose, handcuffing him, wrapping his head in adhesive tape and marching him off at gunpoint to a waiting van, which sped away to the cellar. Reemtsma recalls that in the solitary isolation of the cellar he felt a craving for human contact so severe that he desired on his shoulder the comforting hand of his principal kidnapper, whom he calls “the Englishman” because he spoke English during his occasional visits. Reemtsma recalls breaking into sobs of gratitude when the Englishman, responding to a request for reading material, provides a trove of books by Bruce Chatwin, Karl Jaspers, Simone de Beauvoir, Tom Wolfe and Doris Lessing, among others.
“This feeling [of gratitude] contradicted his hate, and frequently his self-respect,” Reemtsma writes, unable to place the pronoun “my” alongside emotions too painful to be acknowledged as his own. “It was something to be kept at a distance and analyzed. It was important to recognize what caused it, to know that it was not insane, that it simply corresponded to the insanity of a situation in which one person was omnipotent and the other helpless ... This perfectly comprehensible and objectively reasonable feeling of sympathy with the criminals is not the least of what they have done to me. It is like a rape, and the loss of the capacity to be able to hate on one’s own behalf amounts to a deformation of the psyche.”
Reemtsma is blunt about the deformation of his psyche, although his ordeal was brief and soft by most measures. He did not spend years in captivity at the hands of men who brutalized him (think of the American hostages in Lebanon); he did not lack for food, and newspapers were regularly provided. Yet he was terrorized as fully as any kidnapping victim. Powerless over his fate, he was separated from the outside world, most painfully from his wife and young son, and he believed he might be killed at any moment or left to die of thirst. He lost his balance.
For example, he composed an odd letter to his kidnappers, asking that if they planned to cut off a finger, would they please make sure to do so at the beginning of the week, so that the digit, sent to his wife by mail, would arrive as quickly as possible? He feared gangrene and did not want to remain in the cellar with such a wound for a day longer than necessary. And would they please make sure to provide him with bandages and painkillers? He stuffed the letter up his sleeve, in the event that he might need it, and wrote on both sides, “If you want to cut my finger off—read this first!!”
This is darkly humorous, but the letter, and the book, are the work of a man terrorized to the end of his wits.
Peter Maass, author of ‘Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War,’ is a freelance writer based in New York City.
Jesse Morris walks past a Civil War memorial that casts a long shadow in front of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. He enters the bunker-like building and passes into a quiet, book-lined library on the ground floor, and he sits down in front of a Hewlett Packard computer. It is one of two PCs with hard drives containing scanned copies of the files of the State Sovereignty Commission. Morris, a civil rights activist in the 1960s, is trying to figure out who betrayed him.
The twelve members of the Sovereignty Commission, created by the state legislature in 1956, included the governor, lieutenant governor, and several legislators. The commission was intended to prevent outsiders from changing Mississippi’s Southern—segregationist—way of life. It was supposed to do this by publicizing how well segregation worked and by secretly keeping watch over those who wished to overturn the system. By the time it closed in 1973, the commission’s investigators had amassed confidential files on 87,000 people, making it the largest state-level spying effort in U.S. history. This past March, after a court struggle lasting longer than the civil rights movement itself, more than 124,000 pages of the commission’s work were released to the public.
I peer over Jesse Morris’s shoulder as he clicks through the archives. His file contains more than 100 documents. By the standards of the Sovereignty Commission, it is a modestly sized dossier. Investigators’ reports are in the form of memos, often on commission letterhead; but reports from informants are usually on plain paper, and the only indication of the author’s identity is a code name scribbled at the top. Most reports filed on Morris were from ” Agent X,” who was secretly paid as much as $500 per month by the commission—big money in Mississippi in those days. “The writer was in conversation with Jessie sic Morris,” a February 5, 1965, memo from Agent X begins. “He plans to go to Holmes County over this weekend and will return Monday. He left Jackson with two white girls, driving a 1964 white Pontiac bearing 1965 Georgia license 1-J10783. He stated that they were having some sort of difficulty with a Community Center in Holmes County and he was going to work with them over the weekend.”
Morris thinks he can identify those who informed on him and his friends. It’s a matter of pinpointing meetings attended by the informers or conversations they were involved in, and then figuring out who was present and who among those present might have been the spy. Even before the formal release of the files in March, many documents were leaked to the press. Because of this, the identity of Agent X has been suspected for some time. Reading his own file, Morris has no doubt that the rumors are true—Agent X was his best friend, a fellow black Mississippian named R.L. Bolden.
Morris is hardly the only person in Mississippi to have found a disquieting revelation in the commission’s files. The release of the documents has held up a mirror to Mississippi, and the mirror shows an ugly reflection from more than 30 years ago. It is the ugliness of informers, of friends ratting on friends, the ugliness of blackmail and a secret spy agency that did as it pleased. Although it is no secret that the Mississippi of three or four decades ago could be a dangerous place for anyone who deviated from the segregationist norm, the opening of the files illustrates the quasi- totalitarian nature of the state government. Thus, it highlights an often- overlooked fact: the struggle for integration in Mississippi was not just a struggle against racism or a struggle for the rights of one oppressed race. It was a struggle for democracy.
Consider this description of a dictatorial state: ” A never-ceasing propagation of the ‘true faith’ must go on relentlessly, with a constantly reiterated demand for loyalty to the united front, requiring that non- conformists and dissenters from the code be silenced, or, in a crisis, driven from the community. Violence and the threat of violence have confirmed and enforced the image of unanimity.” This is not an essay by George Orwell or Vaclav Havel but a passage from Mississippi: The Closed Society, by University of Mississippi history professor James W. Silver. Published in 1963, the book was widely read, particularly at the Sovereignty Commission, which had Silver under surveillance. Indeed, Silver was one of many whites—not all of whom were necessarily liberals—who were spied upon along with blacks. It’s no accident that Mississippi’s leaders called their spy agency the “State Sovereignty Commission” rather than the “State Segregation Commission.” For them, political repression and state sovereignty were inseparable.
If you think that overstates the case, just listen to Horace Harned Jr. recall the good old days, when schools were segregated and blacks could not vote. I met Harned and his wife, Nellie, over a friendly lunch of corn bread, chicken pot pie, and banana pudding in the kitchen of their Starkville farmhouse. “We were riding a high tide until the Supreme Court came along,” he said, his face creased with the wistful smile of a still-proud segregationist. “I was on what you would call the gold team. About a dozen members of the legislature pretty much ran the state.” As one of them, Harned held a seat on the State Sovereignty Commission.
Like a veteran retelling a battle, Harned defends the commission’s work. The government in Washington wanted a direct hand in running things, he says. Civil rights workers were infiltrating the state, stirring up trouble. Mississippi faced a threat to its sovereignty. “All that bunch, Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King and the whole crowd, they got their orders and their money from the Communist Party,” Harned explains. “The Communists made war down here on us…. They chose Mississippi because they figured if they could break Mississippi everything else would come easily.” Resistance was necessary: “We were fighting to preserve the rights of states, and we were trying to preserve a stable political system.”
But even Harned was surprised when the commission’s files were thrown open. It turns out he had a file, too. There’s nothing too embarrassing in it, aside from correspondence about his request for a probe of efforts to integrate a Baptist church in Starkville. The thought of the commission keeping track of one of its own members makes him laugh so hard his eyes brim with tears of mirth. “I was one of the eighty-eight thousand! We were right serious about it, weren’t we?”
Indeed they were. And so, like the nations of the former Soviet bloc, like South Africa and Argentina and Chile, and unlike any other state in the United States, Mississippi—for all the enormous progress it has made—still bears certain hallmarks of a post-authoritarian society, caught between the urge to remember, the desire for justice, and the need to move on. So far, retrospective justice has been slow in coming. It wasn’t until this year that Klan leader Sam Bowers, now 73, was convicted, in his fifth trial, for the 1966 firebomb murder of civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer. And the state Senate recently voted down a proposed $1.5 million fund to compensate the families of victims of lynching and other racially motivated crimes going back to the 1930s. Outside the legislature, there is talk, but only talk, of setting up a South Africa-style truth commission.
Meanwhile, the commission files have touched off a new discussion eerily parallel to those that have taken place in post-Communist Eastern Europe. Who are the paid state snitches in these files—Agent X, Agent Y, Agent Z, Agent Zero? What should be done about them? What should be done about people who were not informers but had ambiguous, give-and-take relationships with commission investigators? And can the accuracy of these files even be assured? Might the commission be reaching out from its grave and smearing civil rights activists once more? In truth, should the files have been released at all?
The fact that the commission felt it necessary to track one of its own suggests that, as spy agencies go, Mississippi’s was cut from the same paranoid cloth as its counterparts in the former Soviet bloc. But it’s important not to overstate the comparison. By 1989, its final year of operation, East Germany’s Stasi possessed 110,000 regular informers, and its staff exceeded 90,000. Most of the time, the Sovereignty Commission had three full-time investigators and farmed out the rest of its work to private eyes. The number of informers, though hard to pin down because documents are believed to have been destroyed, probably didn’t exceed a few hundred over the life of the commission.
The commission was also amateurish. One report, often cited in the media because it leaked out several years ago and is so wonderfully absurd, describes how an investigator descended upon a white woman who had just given birth to an out-of-wedlock baby. His assignment: to find out whether the rumors were true that the father was black. His strategy: examine the baby’s skin color and finger shape. His conclusion (reached with the local sheriff who accompanied him to the baby’s crib): “We both agreed we were not qualified to say it was a part Negro child, but we could say it was not 100 percent Caucasian.”
According to its files, the commission also made only very limited use of hidden microphones—in contrast to, for instance, the FBI’s extensive surveillance of Martin Luther King. And its agents did not murder or assault; this was left to the Klan and local police forces. It did not use wiretaps. It did not, apparently, open mail. It did not, like East Germany’s obsessive Stasi, collect samples of individual scents and seal them in jars in the event a dissident’s odor would be needed by bloodhounds for tracking purposes.
Much of what the commission amassed is trivial, absurd. It kept files on Elvis Presley (an investigator reporting about a concert where Presley was expected to perform wrote that, though Presley failed to show, “hippies ... were observed laying sic around in the grass and doing everything imaginable”); Groucho Marx (because his name appeared on a right-wing group’s list of the “most rabid reds and Fellow-Travelers”); Muhammad Ali (an investigator noted Ali told a crowd in Jackson to support George Wallace for president “because Wallace came out and told everybody that he was the Devil”) ; and even former White House operative Harold Ickes Jr. (the commission filched a copy of his application for civil rights work in Mississippi; under the heading of job history, Ickes, then a senior at Stanford University, wrote, “1957-1959—working on California, Nevada cattle ranches; 1960—jackhammer operator for road-construction company”).
The State Sovereignty Commission thus illustrates the principle that, by trying to know everything, spy agencies often end up learning nothing. Czech President Vaclav Havel has suggested that dissidents should ignore surveillance by secret police—that way, spy agencies accumulate warehouses of often trivial and even erroneous information and, at some point, choke on it all. Take one of the memos on Jesse Morris written by Agent X. I have deleted the name of a civil rights activist mentioned in the memo because the information about him is of a personal nature and, whether true or not, does not merit publication. “Jessie sic Morris has gotten orders from Jim Foreman to proceed to Canton to straighten out another activist ,” wrote Agent X. “It appears that the activist has been drinking a lot lately and playing around with the girls up there in Canton. The activist has not been paying any attention to his duties. Morris is to take care of this problem.” Morris just shook his head and smiled when he read that. The notion that he had been tasked to “straighten out” the activist in question is absurd, he says, because Morris, a senior official in the Council of Federated Organizations, did not work with the activist who had the alleged alcohol and womanizing problems; Morris had no authority over him. Another error—the commission misspells Morris’s first name.
The errors in the commission’s files are about more than mere details, says Rims Barber, a white lawyer who was active in the civil rights movement: “The files reveal ... the mindset of the keepers of the files…. Their prism was that anyone white who was involved must be a leader, and therefore we must watch them.” As a result, he says, “they didn’t know what was going on. They missed it. They didn’t know who the leaders were because there are more mentions of me than there are of black activist Henry Kirksey, and that’s just plain wrong. They were looking in the wrong places.”
This is not to say that the commission didn’t manage to do plenty of damage. Quite the contrary. In addition to gathering information, the commission liked to play its own game of naming names. “Our investigations indicate that three of your employees are very active in the naacp and another employee is suspected of similar work,” states a June 22, 1964, letter from the commission director to the personnel manager of the Jackson Tile Company. “It is our policy to advise employers of such activities on the part of their personnel and then leave it to the employers as to whether they will take any steps to have such activity curtailed.” The letter names the employees, who probably did not remain employees much longer. I also came across a letter in the files from the director of the commission to the president of Mississippi Southern University, advising him to blackmail a black youth who wished to break the university’s color barrier—by threatening to brand the student as a homosexual.
And there is information in the files that links the commission to some of the most notorious crimes committed in the civil rights era. In 1964, Agent X provided the commission with the license plate number of a Ford station wagon that belonged to the Congress of Racial Equality (core); the commission routinely forwarded such information to local police officials, who either passed it to members of the Klan or were Klan members themselves. Months later, police pulled over civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman in that core station wagon. The trio were killed that night by members of the Klan. (A federal jury later convicted Bowers, Cecil Price, and five other defendants of depriving Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman of their civil rights; to this day, there have been no murder convictions in the case.) There has been more success in getting a murder conviction in the 1963 slaying of Medgar Evers, shot in the driveway of his home. In 1994, after leaked commission files showed that the commission had screened jurors in an earlier trial, Byron De La Beckwith, a Klan member, was convicted of the Evers murder.
But perhaps the commission’s most painful, and enduring, legacy is the extent to which it has divided the civil rights community against itself—sowing the seeds of suspicion and betrayal.
Morris can still remember the day in 1964 when Bolden was brought into the heart of the movement. There was a meeting at the Masonic Temple, and Bolden, relatively unknown, got into an argument with Charles Evers, who had taken the helm of Mississippi’s naacp chapter after his brother, Medgar, was slain. Charles Evers was not nearly as respected as his late brother, and people at the meeting were impressed that Bolden stood up to him. Bolden was brought back to the office that housed the Council of Federated Organizations, where Morris met him for the first time. Bolden, who had a brown Cadillac, became Morris’s driver, ferrying him across town and across state and sharing the sort of camaraderie of soldiers in the same foxhole. Eventually Bolden became vice president of the Mississippi naacp.
Since coming to believe that Bolden had been informing on him all that time, Morris hasn’t bothered to confront him. “What can I say to him?” Morris asks. “I just feel betrayed…. We were so close that I’m surprised people don’t think I’m a spy. People ask me, ‘Jesse, how couldn’t you know?’” Morris mentions that Bolden is retired now. Jackson is not a big city, so Morris has seen Bolden on occasion but hasn’t said more than hello. “There are some people who would like to take a gun to his head, but nobody is going to do that,” Morris says. “Nobody wants to go to jail for killing the skunk. So, in that sense, he’s home free.”
Bolden doesn’t bother to mount much of a defense. Because few informers have been unmasked, and because there do not appear to be many informers as close to the heart of the movement as Bolden was, his name has become a synonym for betrayal. “I don’t want to discuss this thing because everyone I’ve talked to has distorted what I said,” he told me during a brief phone interview. “People can say what they want; but they’re wrong, and they can go to hell. I don’t want to deal with it.”
Charles Evers nearly exploded when I mentioned Bolden. “He’s a low-down, no- good son of a bitch,” Evers said. “He sucked up to us, and he was deceiving us; he’s nothing but a traitor. I have no respect for him whatsoever. If he dropped dead today it wouldn’t be too soon for me.” Ironically, some people say the same about Evers. Despite his high-profile work during the civil rights era, and despite his slain brother’s martyr status, Evers faces accusations of having been in league with the Sovereignty Commission.
Evers has a long file, more than 1,000 pages. It attests to a double relationship. The commission’s investigators were keeping a close watch on him, listening to his speeches, tracking his movements, and collecting gossip about his girlfriends and his controversial reputation in the black community. The files also contain reports from investigators who met with Evers and made deals with him to defuse boycotts or marches. Was he a collaborator or a negotiator?
A damaging memorandum was sent on March 31, 1967, from Earle Johnston Jr., director of the commission, to Lee Cole, a commission investigator. “It has been reported to this office that on one or two occasions you mentioned to people in your territory, ‘We have Charles Evers in the palm of our hand,’” the memo says. “Whether the report is true or not, I would much prefer that you never make any such statement because it might jeopardize some of our troubleshooting procedures. You may say at any time that we have a communication with Evers, but I would not go any further than that.”
I asked Evers about this. We were in his office at a radio station he manages, and the walls were covered with an unusual assemblage of political photographs from the 1960s and ‘70s. There were several pictures of him with Bobby Kennedy—Evers was with Kennedy on the day he was assassinated. Just a few inches away from the Kennedy pictures there’s an autographed shot of Richard Nixon.
Evers holds anti-welfare and anti-abortion views that isolate him from many former allies in the civil rights movement. He thinks his liberal detractors are trying to use the Sovereignty Commission records to smear him. “I was cooperating with the Sovereignty Commission from the point of negotiation,” Evers said. “It wasn’t that I was going to tell on somebody. It was, ‘We’re going to march at eleven o’clock tomorrow, governor, and I want someone there to protect my people.’” He added, “I guess they’re trying to say that I was playing both sides. Well, I’ll play three sides if necessary…. Whatever it took, I would do that. I had enough of my people lynched; I had enough of the mistreatment; I had enough of ‘em beaten and denied the right just to go and vote or get a damn drink of water. Whatever I could do on my part, if it meant kissin’ ass, I’d kiss ass.”
“You have to understand race relations, if not from a viewpoint of Welty or Faulkner in fiction, then from sociology,” says the Reverend Edwin King, a leading white civil rights activist in the ‘60s who is now a professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “We had an evil system, but it was a functioning society so that people had to have lots of very complex roles and blacks and whites had to have a great deal of communication. Thank God we overthrew that system, but somebody who doesn’t understand it, looking back on it, might misinterpret it.”
King and I were talking about principals of black schools who, as the files reveal, met with commission investigators. Were they self-interested informers, or did they have to deal with the white power structure in order to get books for their segregated schools? And what about Evers? While it’s clear he was no angel—in his autobiography, he admitted to running numbers and being involved in prostitution in his younger years—Evers says he didn’t know the white men he met with were from the commission. He says they introduced themselves as being “from the government.” The lacerating criticism he now faces is reminiscent of the ease with which Eastern Europeans were scarred, belatedly, by contact they had with intelligence agencies. Genuine acts of treachery were abundant. But some cases were murkier. For example, onetime Czech dissident Jan Kavan unwittingly met a secret police operative in the 1970s, and the operative opened a file on him. Once police archives were opened, Kavan faced accusations of being a collaborator. He had to go to court to clear his name; he is now the foreign minister of the Czech Republic.
It is because of problems of this sort that King has opposed releasing the files without privacy guarantees. “We cannot let people be damned because this agency says, ‘Information was received,’” King says. “Their definition of ‘informant’ is anybody who gave information…. These people are always name-dropping, the agents, to get more appropriations from the legislature, to impress the governor. If they can drop the name of a chancellor, a dean, or somebody prominent, it looks like they have contacts. Later, when it says, ‘Information was received from so and so,’ it looks like an informant.”
If privacy rights were trampled 30 years ago by a spy agency’s surveillance, would not those privacy rights be violated a second time by letting anyone walk in off the street and peruse the files? As the case of Charles Evers shows, contacts with a spy agency can be interpreted in a number of ways. And in the emotionally charged atmosphere created by the opening of secret files people are less likely to err on the side of forgiveness.
As if to prove this point, some civil rights veterans have begun to turn their suspicions on Ed King. This is particularly striking since King is a near-legend of the civil rights movement in Mississippi and has broken teeth (from beatings) and a nasty scar on his face (from a car accident he believes was designed to kill him) to attest to his resistance. He is portrayed as a hero in Taylor Branch’s authoritative two-volume history of the civil rights movement. Nonetheless, because of his outspoken opposition to the indiscriminate release of the files and his request to keep his own file sealed, King has come under suspicion. Why, after all, would anyone oppose the release of his own file unless he wanted to prevent the world from finding out he was a snitch?
“Ed doesn’t have a clean record, so that’s why he doesn’t want the records released,” says Henry Kirksey, a prominent civil rights activist in the ‘60s. “Ed was one of my favorite people for years and years until I learned a part of what he was doing, but I know enough of what he was doing to know that he was not clean.”
Kirksey admits he has no proof, and he does not insist that King’s file, once opened, would reveal incriminating information. But Kirksey, along with other opponents of King, points out that some files, perhaps a large number, are thought to have been destroyed in the final years of the commission’s life. King’s file may be spotless today, Kirksey suggests, but it may not have been spotless at an earlier time. This sort of suspicion is one of the phantom-like symptoms of post-authoritarian whiplash; mistrust thrives even in the absence of evidence. Once you are convinced someone like R.L. Bolden may have been a traitor, how can you be sure about anyone else?
Of course, not everyone who favors opening up the files is a conspiracy theorist. David Ingebretsen is executive director of the Mississippi aclu and a key proponent of releasing the files. His involvement in privacy litigation over those documents that are still under seal means he has been able to review them. I asked Ingebretsen whether he thinks King is trying to hide something. “There’s nothing for him to cover up,” Ingebretsen answered. “Ed is a true civil rights hero. I have to accept his argument that he’s concerned about people’s privacy rights. I just think he’s wrong.”
The argument from Ingebretsen and others is that the public has a right to know what the Sovereignty Commission was doing, and that, although some privacy rights may be invaded by opening the files, the invasion is rather mild and trumped by the greater good of exposing the commission’s workings. Many of the people who were under surveillance are dead. Much of the information is innocuous: who attended which meetings; who said what. There are only a small number of cases containing deeply personal information (which may or may not be accurate), and, hopefully, the press will be responsible enough to not publicize unproven or irrelevant gossip.
Ultimately, Ingebretsen’s argument won the day—all but 7,700 pages of files have been released, and a federal court is expected to rule soon on whether the final batch should be opened. Before the release last March, the court ordered the state to invite people who thought there might be files on them to request access before the release, and, if they wished, to request that either the files not be released or the names be deleted (informers were excluded from this offer). But, with 87,000 names in the files, it was virtually impossible to notify all the people, or even a substantial number, because their addresses were unknown. The state ran a few ads in local and national papers, but hardly anyone saw them, and only 42 people asked for their files to be protected. Those requests are now under review by a federal judge, William Barbour Jr.
Ingebretsen admits that many people whose files are now in the public domain received no warning. I mentioned to him that no country in the former Soviet bloc has undergone such a full release—in Germany, which has gone furthest down the road of openness, a person can view only his or her own Stasi file. Ingebretsen nodded and recalled that a Czech official who was visiting Mississippi stopped by his office recently and heard about the plan for opening the secret files to all comers. As Ingebretsen recalls, “He was surprised.”
The end came quietly for the Sovereignty Commission. By the early ‘70s, with the battle against integration long lost, and the newer battle against radicalism on college campuses stirring little interest in the legislature, the financial tap was turned off. According to the minutes of the commission’s final meeting on June 22, 1973, “Expressions of appreciation were made by members of the Commission to Director W. Webb Burke and the staff personnel for their faithful and efficient service of inestimable value rendered to the State Sovereignty Commission and to the State of Mississippi. ”
By Bryan Burrough
HarperCollins. 528 pp. $26.95
Reviewed by Peter Maass
Space flight is in vogue again. The journey of John Glenn has refocused attention on the fascinating spectacle of humans soaring into the heavens on rockets that make the ground tremble. Glenn’s voyage may have seemed a bit stage-managed, but you would need to be heartless not to draw some satisfaction from the show. NASA has launched itself into a public relations orbit, getting high-fives from the public and politicians.
It is easy to forget that just a year ago NASA was mired in controversy, facing withering criticism for flying Americans on Russia’s space station, Mir, which careened from one near-disaster to another. First there was a fire onboard, and that was followed by a collision, and that was followed by computer failures, power failures, oxygen-generating failures and pretty much every sort of failure that might afflict a space station. Those events, which played out like a cosmic tragicomedy, were front-page news for a while, but Mir eventually steadied itself and fell off the journalistic radar screen once its last American passenger returned to Earth earlier this year.
Mir seems like ancient and irrelevant history now, but Bryan Burrough brings it to life in his remarkable book “Dragonfly: NASA and the Crisis Aboard Mir.” He reveals a space agency so riddled with infighting that, for instance, two astronauts training for the same flight on Mir stopped speaking to each other. Tales of intrigue at NASA are not new, but Burrough, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair and coauthor of the best-selling “Barbarians at the Gate,” has come up with much that was unknown, based partly on NASA documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. His book probably will become required reading, and entertaining reading, for anyone who wants to understand the dysfunction of our space agency.
Burrough interviewed key officials, astronauts and cosmonauts in the Mir saga, and he has come up with some reportorial gems. We learn, for instance, that shortly after the collision that nearly destroyed Mir, the NASA astronaut on board, Michael Foale, tried to bolster the sagging spirits of his Russian crew mates by showing, on a computer monitor, the movie “Apollo 13.” Foale gave a running translation into Russian, and his ploy worked. “That film is the best of the best,” Vasily Tsibliyev, Mir’s beleaguered commander, later told Burrough.
The outlines of the drama on Mir are already known—the decay of the craft’s mechanical systems after 11 years in orbit, the psychological erosion of commander Tsibliyev, the almost universal dislike of astronaut Jerry Linenger, the heroism of his successor, Foale, the mistrust between NASA and the Russians, the horrendous planning at mission control that made a collision all but inevitable. Yet Burrough ties the story together with illuminating details gleaned, in part, from previously unpublished recordings of conversations between Mir and mission control. We read, for example, that a few minutes after the collision on June 25, 1997, Tsibliyev told ground control, “Oh, hell. We don’t know where the [air] leak is.” Asked to seal off the module from which air is leaking, he said, “We can’t close anything. Here everything is so screwed up that we can’t close anything.”
“Dragonfly” is not just a post-mortem, it is a prescription for the future. On Saturday NASA and the Russian Space Agency launched the first module of the International Space Station, a successor to Mir. The book’s greatest value lies in the way it exposes rivalries in Houston and Moscow that make space flight a miracle not because of the technical challenges that must be overcome, but because of the bureaucratic ineptitudes that hamstring many missions.
Most appallingly, Burrough examines the culture of fear among astronauts afraid of saying or doing anything that might displease Johnson Space Center Director George Abbey, who can determine who flies and who doesn’t. Burrough compares Abbey to, among others, Rasputin and J. Edgar Hoover. Although fear of powerful bureaucrats exists in every federal agency, the consequences are alarming at NASA because astronauts, according to Burrough, are afraid to voice concerns about safety problems or ill-designed missions.
Burrough also shows that scientific research, trumpeted by NASA as a key justification for space flight, is window dressing. Just as the Apollo program was driven by the need to get to the moon before the Russians, today’s space program is driven primarily by political motives, in this case propping up the Russian Space Agency and bolstering U.S.-Russian relations. Burrough comes up with a delightful example. When Norm Thagard, the first American on Mir, returned to Earth after more than three months in space, NASA doctors wanted to administer a battery of immediate tests before his body began readjusting to gravity. But they were told to cut short the tests because NASA Administrator Dan Goldin wanted to hold a news conference at which he intended to serve an ice cream sundae to Thagard.
This book has minor problems. It jumps too rapidly from one setting to another, from Houston to Moscow to Mir to Washington, and the revolving cast of characters is so large that readers unfamiliar with the American or Russian space programs may get confused. The extracts of official documents and conversations are useful, but Burrough occasionally seems to paste one extract and quote after another. The quickness with which this book has been brought out, just a year after the headlines it grew from, makes it timely, but the haste shows. It has none of the literary dazzle of Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff.”
These are small complaints. Burrough has done a splendid job of examining an agency that is entrusted with our dreams of exploring space. If the right people take notice of this book, as they should, our dreams of going to Mars and beyond stand a greater chance of being turned into a reality.
By Peter Maass, a freelance writer who covers space issues, among other subjects. He is the author of “Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War.”
A flashback: I heard the sniper’s shot before I saw Haris Bahtanovic fall to the ground. He was walking through a park-turned-shooting-gallery behind Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn. A few men rushed into the open and dragged Bahtanovic into a car that tore away. I wrote a story about this, about the odd way you can cover a war by sitting in your hotel room, out of the line of fire, and watch someone get shot. The next day, I found Bahtanovic in a hospital. The bullet had smashed through his left arm and grazed his ribs. I wrote another story and described the hospital’s recovery ward: “It’s an ugly place. One man lost both legs, another lost his foot, another has metal rods holding together what remains of his lower leg….”
With that, the parallel tracks that my life and Bahtanovic’s ran along for 24 hours forked into different directions. This is what happens in a war: You are thrown from one place to another, from one state of mind to another, as though a tornado has lifted you off the ground and carried you away. The distance need not be great; from one town to another, one house to another, one room to another, one hospital bed to another, and in each there is a different world of agony or loss or hatred, a different story. You move in this way until you become sick of it and leave or become addicted to it and cannot leave or until the war breathes its last. Years go by, and you may wonder what happened to the people whose lives you dropped into, but you hesitate to make inquiries. It is like entering a deserted house; you waver because you might find unpleasant things inside.
My last trip to Bosnia had occurred in the middle of 1993, and by then I had seen enough slaughter. Over the next five years, I never returned, never tracked down the people I had written about—the Serb teacher running an ethnic-cleansing office, the warlord swearing that Muslims were not forced to leave his fiefdom, the Muslim doctor who had no anesthesia to soothe the pain of his scalpel as he operated in Srebrenica. I didn’t lose interest in these people, or the many others I came to know and write about, but the moment had passed when our lives ran parallel; I thought there was little more to say about them that anyone wanted to hear, little more to be learned from them.
Then, last July, I found myself somewhat obliged to visit Bosnia, so I tracked down these ghosts. As always, Bosnia had an ace up her sleeve. I became attuned to the notion, hard to grasp back when the bombs were still falling and men were being shot under my window, that, while people can be murdered rather easily and towns can be flattened with the right artillery pieces and cities can be conquered in due course, countries are rather hard to kill. The apparent victory in elections this month of hard-line nationalist Nikola Poplasen, who defeated President Biljana Plavsic, a moderate by the unique standards of politics in Republika Srpska, is a major setback for the U.S.-backed process of reconciliation, but it need not be a death knell. The task of bringing Bosnia back to life will now be longer and harder, but the forces that wish to destroy Bosnia are not as omnipotent as they would like us to believe (this was also the case during the war); and it is useful to keep in mind that there is a historical pattern, in the Balkans as elsewhere, of war-torn nations collapsing, dead or nearly dead, and rising again, perhaps weaker than before, but resurrected nonetheless.
There should be no misunderstanding: Bosnia’s troubles are as striking as the mortar imprints on Marshall Tito Street in Sarajevo. With few exceptions, refugees who want to return to territory controlled by a different group—Muslims wishing to return to Banja Luka or west Mostar, Serbs wishing to return to Sarajevo, or Croats wishing to return to Brcko—are unable to do so despite pledges all sides made in the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord. Just a few war criminals have been arrested by SFOR, the U.S.-led international peacekeeping force. Bosnia’s economy, such as it is, depends on foreign aid. Government corruption is endemic. Mistrust prevails.
But the news could be worse. The news could be that nobody wants to reknit ties severed during the war, that armed checkpoints remain in place, that you cannot drive or make a phone call from Sarajevo to Banja Luka, that the international community is going to leave any day now, that the people of Bosnia are aching to fight another war, that the politicians who led them into battle are immortal and will remain in power forever. These are the disaster scenarios, and they are not unfolding.
Take a look, for example, at Visegrad. Throughout the ages, this town has been a nerve center of conflict because it is near the border with Serbia and the majority of its inhabitants were Muslim. As soon as war broke out in 1992, the Muslims were “cleansed” from Visegrad, some of them taken to a lovely sixteenth-century bridge over the Drina River, where their throats were cut and their bodies thrown into the cold, green water. I visited Visegrad in the summer of 1992 and walked through its deserted streets and its looted homes. I met Momcilo Mirkovic, who called himself “executive mayor” and wore a pistol at his waist. There had been no cleansing, he insisted, no killings; the Muslims left voluntarily.
I returned to Visegrad in July. Mirkovic was easy to locate; an operator provided his home number. He reluctantly agreed to meet at a cafe patronized by beefy men with flashy rings, expensive watches, and sauntering demeanors that indicated it had been some time since they were engaged in honest work. I tried to act like an old friend, but Mirkovic was jittery, on guard. He is no longer executive mayor; now he is a businessman, though he didn’t want to say what line of business. His eyes shifted from one place to another, like those of a fugitive. His hair had gone gray since I saw him five years before, and he was thinner. He put a pack of Marlboros on the table and smoked one, then another and another, and, when he raised his lighter to his cigarette, his hand shook. He asked how my drive from Belgrade had been, and, when I answered that I had come from Sarajevo, unfriendly territory, his comfort level nosedived.
“I don’t want to talk about politics,” he said. “Only refugees.” I asked a few softball questions about refugees and returned to politics. “I don’t like politics,” he stammered. “I left politics two years ago, after Dayton.” He cited “health reasons,” refusing to elaborate further. I asked how he became “executive mayor”—I assume he was installed after the town’s Muslim leadership had been killed or driven out—but once more he refused to talk about that era. “I don’t like to speak about politics…. I’m tired now. Perhaps our talk can continue tomorrow.” He looked at his watch and said he had a meeting in a few minutes. I mentioned that SFOR had arrested a handful of men accused of doing “bad things” in the war, and I asked whether people were upset about this. I didn’t use the touchy words “war criminals” or “war crimes,” but he knew I was asking whether he was afraid of being arrested and sent to The Hague for trial. He began to rise from his chair. “I am sorry,” he said. “I have a meeting at four. I must go. I must go.”
Mirkovic was frightened, not defiant, and this was encouraging. His role in Visegrad’s cleansing was, most likely, only on a political level, letting the death squads do the dirty work. But, if his behavior is any guide, brand-name warlords like Radovan Karadzic are not the only ones running scared in Republika Srpska; even the small fry hear a clock ticking when they go to sleep at night. It would be wrong, in the wake of Poplasen’s apparent victory, to refrain from trying to arrest more alleged war criminals. More than ever, purveyors of hatred who have committed war crimes must be brought to justice, though the risk of doing so, in SFOR casualties, may now be greater than before. This is the price of our dithering.
Hoping to take the pulse of more ordinary Bosnian Serbs, I arranged for a reunion with another figure from the past, Vladimir Radjen. When our paths first crossed in 1992, Radjen was cleaning up his street, which had been ransacked during the cleansing of Visegrad. Windows were broken, doors were ajar, even floorboards were ripped up. “We all lived in Visegrad like a big family, the Muslims and Serbs,” he said at the time. Five years later, he does not doubt that he and his fellow Serbs have been led down a dead end. Radjen, 42, now works in a grocery store that is so run-down it not only has no name, there is not even a sign in front indicating it is a grocery store. Across the street is a reminder of what had been and what happened during the war—a patch of ground, covered with weeds, where the town’s mosque was located before it was dynamited into rubble.
We walked to a restaurant alongside the river and the bridge; a more historic and charming spot would be hard to imagine, though there was a surreal twist because the restaurant’s stereo was tuned to the SFOR station. A deejay with a British accent played songs designed to appeal to the musical common denominator of fighting men and women from around the world—so Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and the Spice Girls alternately sang in the background as Radjen unfurled his woes. We sat 50 yards from a statue of Ivo Andric, the Yugoslav writer whose majestic novel about Visegrad, “The Bridge Over the Drina,” earned him the Nobel Prize for literature.
“Andric ... said there are times when clever men are silent and stupid men talk and robbers become rich,” Radjen began. “Everything he wrote has happened in this war.” Who was Radjen mad at? The nationalists, he said, citing, first of all, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, and Alija Izetbegovic, leader of Bosnia’s Muslims. Then Radjen said he was mad at himself, too. I asked why. “Because I was born and must live now,” he explained. “I wish I had been born later. I don’t know what to do. But I have to be with my people.” He pointed to a row of stores across the street. Before the war, most storekeepers were Muslim. “Now,” he said, “everyone is a Serb, but I don’t know who they are.”
There were only two months left before the September national elections, but Radjen’s apathy was so great he not only had no idea for whom he would vote, he didn’t even know elections were to be held—expressing surprise when I told him about it. Radjen said he would back whoever offered the hope of prosperity to his down-and-out corner of Republika Srpska. He probably ended up voting, as many Bosnian Serbs did, for the hard-line nationalists who conned or frightened people into supporting them. This is sad, but policymakers who may now wish to reconsider our engagement in Bosnia should remember that, just as America played a major role in deciding the course of the war, which was ended after President Clinton belatedly agreed to bomb the Serbs, America can play a major role in deciding the course of the peace. We are not at history’s mercy; we can be the shapers of it.
It was in Banja Luka that I found an oddly hopeful sign about the direction of things. I was looking for a teacher, Milos Bojinovic, who headed the city’s wartime Bureau for the Removal of Populations and Exchange of Material Goods, which was in charge of the administrative side of ethnic cleansing. I found him at home at two-thirty on a weekday afternoon, drunk. For two hours, he spoke in slurred words about how he had been a humanitarian helping Muslims and Croats get out of town. It was alcoholic rubbish. I learned much more when I visited his school. A bulletin board at the entrance listed after-hours activities, like the photo club, acting club, and so forth. Someone had improvised a few new offerings. One was titled “Chetnikism,” a euphemism for Serbian nationalism. The instructor was listed as “Dr. Seselj,” the most notorious warlord. The time, “Nonstop.” The place, “Greater Serbia.” Another improvised activity, “Butchery.”
These jottings had been on the board for some time; nobody cared enough to erase them. I mentioned this to a friend in Sarajevo, Igor Baros, and he responded as though I had announced that Karadzic had been captured by SFOR. “That’s a great sign,” he said. “It’s better than anything the politicians agree on. It shows they think these things are jokes. Their people died for nothing.” True enough, but, as Baros knows, the Serbs remain a long distance from accepting the full truth. They still view themselves as victims and don’t want their old neighbors to return. It would be hopelessly naive to suggest that their view will change in a few years, but it would be needlessly pessimistic to suggest that refugees will never be able to return to their homes. It is between those poles—a few years and never—that changes will occur.
Nedret Mujkanovic is a human metaphor for healing the wounds of war. When the conflict began, Mujkanovic was finishing his work as a surgical intern in Tuzla, and the Bosnian army decided to send him, through Serb lines, into the besieged enclave of Srebrenica, which had just a few doctors, and none with surgery experience. In Srebrenica, Mujkanovic often operated by candlelight, under fire, with no anesthesia. He lost precise count but thinks he performed 1,400 operations in nine months. He amputated legs and arms, pulled shrapnel out of stomachs and heads, and so on. I first ran into him at the Tuzla airport in 1993, when he was evacuated from Srebrenica by U.N. peacekeepers. A day later, I spent three hours listening to his horrifying tales of battlefield surgery in a medieval operating theater. He embodied much of what I admired about Bosnia: in addition to Muslims, he operated on captured Serb soldiers and protected them from the retribution that many people in Srebrenica desired.
Five years later, I walked into Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn, which has been restored and now looks just as ugly as it did before the war, and met Mujkanovic in the lobby. I had remembered it as a cold and grubby place filled with weary journalists. But now the guests are aid officials, businessmen, politicians, and—amazingly—some tourists. Mujkanovic looked ten years younger than the last time we had met, and once more he had a surprising tale to tell.
As the war wound down, he decided to become a plastic surgeon, but plastic surgeons in Bosnia were unfamiliar with state-of-the-art practices or anything close to them. So Mujkanovic got in his car and drove the tortuous route to Zagreb, where, without the benefit of any introduction, he presented himself to a plastic surgeon in the Croatian capital and asked to be trained. The surgeon agreed. After a few months, Mujkanovic went to Slovenia, where, once again, he presented himself to a renowned specialist in the field and, once more, asked to be trained. Over the next two years he visited Austria, Italy, and Britain to further his expertise before finally returning to Tuzla
“I knew the war would finish sometime but that medical problems would continue,” Mujkanovic told me, speaking the good English he had learned in the last five years. “For the young population, during the war a scar on the face ... made them feel more important, but now it’s a problem. They are coming everyday into my department, and they want to have corrections. During the war, they were very proud to have the scars, but now they want to remove them.”
For the past two years, he also has been a member of the parliament—this is why we met in Sarajevo, where the parliament was in session—but he does not plan to serve another term. “I don’t want to be in politics,” he said. “I have my job, and my job is beautiful.” Mujkanovic is thoughtful, knows his country well, and knows what will be needed for recovery. I asked whether Bosnia will survive. He was silent far longer than I expected. “I think it will be okay because America wants it to be okay,” he said slowly. “It’s very important that America is here. I believe in America. I don’t believe in the English or French.”
Of course, not even America’s best efforts can enable Bosnia to return to life as it was before or even come close to it. Too many historic buildings have been destroyed, too much of the country’s multi-religious fabric has been torn beyond repair. And there are too many roads in Bosnia like the narrow lane I followed one morning. The road, heading out of town, tracked alongside a lovely creek that nourished an oasis of trees and grass and birds. It led to a building Sarajevans know by the name of Jagomir. Inside the renovated building, behind a locked door, under the watch of a white-cloaked orderly, I found the young man who had been shot under my window at the Holiday Inn. Haris Bahtanovic, whose trembling hands are as soft as an infant’s, thinks aliens have implanted a device in his head, and he thinks Sylvester Stallone is his father. He has been institutionalized since he was felled by that sniper. A doctor who cares for him at Jagomir Psychiatric Hospital shook her head from side to side when I asked for a prognosis. Bosnia may recover in some way, but Haris, it seems, shall not.
A little before dawn one day last April, a chauffeur-driven Mercedes sedan entered the grounds of an estate in Tarrytown, New York, and stopped in front of a brick carriage house that had been converted into a meeting room. An elderly passenger in a business suit got out of the car and, with his wife a few steps behind him, walked inside, where some hundred and fifty people were singing hymns. The singing stopped when the couple entered and made their way through the room. The worshippers shuffled aside, bowing their heads. Once the man and his wife were seated, everyone bowed again, this time dropping to their knees and touching their foreheads to the floor.
The Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the Unification Church, had come to deliver a sermon at Belvedere, as the church’s Hudson Valley estate is called, and on this Sunday, April 19th, his topics included love, God, Satan, money, Christianity, Adam and Eve, sin, the afterlife, kissing, adultery, America, redemption, and numerology. Moon, who has the leathery complexion of a fisherman, occasionally spoke English, but his accent is heavy and his grammar imperfect. Most of the time, he spoke Korean, and his remarks were translated.
As he moved lightly around the small stage, followed by an interpreter, Moon drew abstract diagrams on a chalkboard—circles and swirls and crosses and graphs, which had the appearance of mathematical formulas intertwined with football plays; occasionally he drew Chinese characters. Several times, he held up someone’s hair, to make the point that even the thinnest strands can contain both good and evil. His sermon was punctuated with comic touches, including an interlude in which he chalked a line down his interpreter’s forehead, nose, and lips, down his chin and neck, and down his shirt as far as his waist. I heard giggles.
By that time, everyone was sitting cross-legged on the floor—women on the left, men on the right. They had left their shoes in a pile at the door. Because of the early hour and the length of the sermon, there was some fidgeting, some nodding off. Moon noticed this, but the sermon continued. At one point, Moon complained about financial mismanagement by senior aides, and thereafter he harangued them intermittently and threw a glass of cold tea at one of them. He then picked up another glass of tea and looked at his slightly stunned followers. “Anyone want a cold shower?” he asked, winding up as if to throw it. There was a ripple of nervous laughter. “No one understands Father,” he concluded, referring to himself by the name his followers use. “Not even Mother and his children.”
Many people have had trouble understanding Sun Myung Moon, who came to America in 1971 with a handful of followers, most of them from South Korea and Japan. He soon had greater financial resources than seemed possible for the leader of a small group from a poor Asian nation. Moon’s message was clear enough: he warned that if the world became dominated by an atheistic political system, Communism, there would be no hope for religion. Some skeptics, though, came to view him as a puppet for the anti-Communist interests of South Korea’s government and Japan’s far-right nationalists.
Yet Moon’s breakaway theology, which mixes Christianity with anti-Communism and Confucianism, attracted thousands of disciples. It also brought with it considerable controversy. His critics, including some former church members, said that new recruits were discouraged from having contact with the outside world—and especially with family members. The church denied this, as well as charges that Moon was brainwashing followers; many parents hired professional"deprogrammers” to return their wayward sons and daughters from the control of what became known as the Moonies.
Moon also established businesses that make everything from machine tools to ginseng extract, although it has never been clear how these ventures produced the amounts that were needed to nourish his movement’s cultural and political projects. A conspicuous beneficiary of his largesse is the Washington Times, the newspaper that he founded in 1982 to promote a conservative agenda in the nation’s capital; the paper has received more than a billion dollars from the Unification movement. (Moon has also started papers in New York, Seoul, Tokyo, and, in 1996, Buenos Aires.) Although a number of editors and staffers left the Washington Times amid controversy over church meddling, the paper became, and has remained, an important source of information for the American right.
With the end of the Cold War, Moon’s message began to change in substantial ways. Church-linked firms have been investing in Communist nations rather than combatting them. A church firm runs a hotel in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea; Panda Motors was a costly (and unsuccessful) venture to manufacture cars in southern China. Moon still believes that Satan is battling God for control of the world and must be defeated, but he declares that the main threat no longer comes from Communism but from moral decay.
Today, much of Moon’s energy and money is being channelled into the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, inaugurated by Moon and his wife in 1996, which promotes family values and faith in God. The business cards now handed out by church leaders usually bear the name and logo of the Family Federation, and it was under the auspices of the federation, not the Unification Church, that a mass wedding was staged in June in Madison Square Garden. Moon has strengthened his alliances with a number of conservative religious figures, including Jerry Falwell. (Falwell’s Liberty University was saved from bankruptcy after an organization founded by Moon turned over three and a half million dollars to it in 1995.) Moon has also reached out to the Nation of Islam, and its members attend his events; last year, Louis Farrakhan spoke at a mass wedding in Washington, D.C.
This shift toward the federation comes at a time of difficulty for the Unification Church. The church claims that at its peak, in the nineteen-eighties, it had an active membership in America that exceeded thirty thousand, and that the number remains at roughly that level today. Critics say membership never reached ten thousand and has fallen to just a few thousand. Former church insiders have spoken of financial excesses at the heart of the “true family,” as Moon’s family is called. At least two of the thirteen children Moon had with his current wife (he has a son from an earlier marriage that ended in divorce) reportedly rebelled against him.
The most damaging scandal involves Hyo Jin, Moon’s eldest son by his current wife and onetime heir apparent. In 1995, Hyo Jin’s wife, Nansook Hong, fled the family compound in Irvington, New York, taking her five children, and subsequently filed for divorce and for a restraining order against Hyo Jin. In affidavits, she outlined a tale of drug use and spousal abuse by Hyo Jin, accusing him of “secreting himself in the master bedroom, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days, drinking alcohol, using cocaine and watching pornographic films.” She said he beat her repeatedly, even when she was pregnant. Hyo Jin, through his lawyer, denies Nansook’s accusations. Hyo Jin was jailed for a few months after failing to obey a court order to pay sixty-five thousand dollars toward Hong’s legal fees.
At the end of 1997, Hyo Jin and Nansook reached a divorce agreement, in which she was granted full custody of their children. Nansook Hong has written a tell-all memoir, “In the Shadow of the Moons,” which is being published this month byLittle, Brown, and she is scheduled to appear this Sunday on “60 Minutes.” Yet despite such problems, Moon, who is seventy-eight, is beginning what may be his most ambitious campaign to eliminate evil from the world.
Moon often travels in his private jet between estates in New York, Alaska, Seoul, and Punta del Este, Uruguay, but his latest venture is unfolding in an expanse of jungle and grassland near Brazil’s border with Paraguay. There Moon is building a utopian community called New Hope, which is heralded as the beginning of a modern-day Garden of Eden.
Moon envisions a total of thirty-three communities within a hundred-and-twenty-mile radius of New Hope, and he wants these to inspire similar communities elsewhere in Brazil, throughout South America, and beyond. According to the official Web site (www.new-hope-farm.com.br), “Project New Hope has the ambition of becoming, within 7 or 8 years, an example of progress, beauty and happiness for the whole world.” So far, Moon’s movement has invested about twenty-five million dollars, according to the project manager, Cesar Zaduski, and has acquired more than eighty-six thousand acres of land.
New Hope is situated outside the town of Jardim, in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, and last spring I went there to see what progress had been made. I arrived by bus from the state capital, Campo Grande, and on a warm evening in May my taxi-driver headed out of town on a two-lane road with no painted lines and no shoulder. There were no houses and no road signs on either side—just the Brazilian hinterland and a succession of cattle eyes in our headlights. Then a sign said “New Hope Farm” and an arrow pointed left, into more darkness. We soon came upon a bridge, and as we reached its crest a row of lights appeared a short distance away.
When I was at New Hope, more than a hundred construction workers were on the job, and a dozen bulldozers and tractors were parked in front of several nearly finished buildings, which had the look of a California community college. The complex is dominated by two buildings nearly the size of football fields, with roofs of red tile and walls of white stucco. One of them, crowned with oversized insignias of the Unification Church and the Family Federation, is a meeting hall. The other is the dining hall, but it, too, contains a number of meeting rooms. Not far away is a small lake, and a few hundred yards from that are six structures, in various stages of completion, that are to be classrooms for the some three thousand students who will eventually study there. The first group of students—most of them to be recruited from the area, with only a modest number of church members among them—are supposed to arrive in February.
If all goes as planned, students and researchers at New Hope will be linked via satellite to classrooms across the globe, but particularly to the University of Bridgeport, in Connecticut, which a church-linked organization took effective control of in 1992, in exchange for a loan of sixty million dollars (much to the dismay of some members of the university community, who felt that their impoverished campus had been taken over by a cult). One aim of New Hope, according to Zaduski, a former church pastor, is to focus on ways to encourage environmentally responsible development in the Third World. “What Moon says is that the era of big cities, like São Paulo and Rio, is over,” Zaduski told me. Zaduski, who speaks fluent English, conducts himself much like the harried manager of any construction job; he complains about the quality of workers and the need to alter things if the boss-Moon-doesn’t approve. “Sometimes we do something and he comes here and…we have to change it,” he said with a shrug.
During our talk, the door to Zaduski’s office was shut to keep out the construction noise. Technicians were fiddling with the compound’s phone system, which will have high-speed data links. A Japanese architect was soldering together a model for a three-hundred-foot-tall geodesic dome that he hopes to build. The office had a Samsung computer in one corner and several new phones behind a modular desk. A blueprint of New Hope was propped against a wall, showing university buildings, a soccer field, a convention center, a spacious home for Moon, and much more.
Moon has frequently cited the significance of the number thirty-three, the age Jesus was when He was crucified. Zaduski pointed out that there were thirty-three signers of a Korean declaration of independence in 1919, there were thirty-three “immortals” who led the fight for Uruguayan independence, and there are thirty-three countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Hence, the thirty-three communities planned for the area centered on New Hope. The project’s Web site states, “Each city…should choose one type of tree, one kind of fish, one kind of bird or animal, one kind of fruit, foodstuff, or flower to produce in a massive concentrated way with coöperation from surrounding farmers, in order to make possible prosperity and development in their area.” The region around New Hope is supposed to become a “Micro-World” in which the culture of every member of the United Nations will be displayed in their own areas. Or, as the Web site puts it, “Micro-Germany, micro-Hungary, micro-Italy, etc.”
I suggested to Zaduski that the project seems at times like a fusion of “Heart of Darkness” and “Through the Looking-Glass.” He smiled. “What he (Moon) said is ‘If people help me, it will go faster. If they don’t help me, it will take longer, but I won’t stop.’ I believe him, because that’s what Reverend Moon is like. If Brazil doesn’t like it, we will go to Uruguay. If Uruguay doesn’t like it, we will go to Paraguay. If South America doesn’t like it, we will go to Africa.”
About two dozen church members—from Asia, the Americas, and Eastern Europe—were living at New Hope when I visited, and they were busying themselves with odd jobs related to the construction, accompanied by a menagerie that included parrots and emus. The dorms seemed Spartan—beds were narrow and walls were bare—but there was electricity and running water.
On my first day, a Sunday, a bell pealed at four-thirty in the morning. Church members gathered for a service in the dining hall, which was furnished with a few plastic patio chairs. They faced a photograph of Moon and his wife, and the service began with everyone bowing before the photo. Two talks were given in Portuguese by ranking church members, and then, after another prayer, the service ended. It was six o’clock: the sun was rising over the tree line, and the jungle’s million and one creatures began screeching and singing and cawing.
Sun Myung Moon was born in a farming village in northwestern Korea, and at the age of fifteen, he says, while he was praying alone on a hillside near his home Jesus appeared before him and asked him to fulfill His mission. Moon says Refused-twice—but after Jesus asked a third time he consented. According to a sympathetic biograpy by Michael Breen, a journalist and lapsed church member Moon studied electrical engineering in Seoul and later in Tokyo. When he returned to Seoul, he joined a group called the Israel Jesus Church, which taught that Korea would be the new Israel, where the Second Coming of Christ would occur. In 1946, Moon travelled to Pyongyang to spread the word, but he was arrested and imprisoned by the Communist authorities there for disturbing the social order. Released after a few months, he was arrested again in 1948, and this time he was sentenced to five years of hard labor. He and his fellow-prisoners were apparently freed by their guards in 1950, the first year of the Korean War, after bombing destroyed the labor camp.. He thereupon made his way south, and in 1954 he established the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, which eventually became known as the Unification Church.
The core of Moon’s beliefs, expressed in “Divine Principle,” a four-hundred-and-eleven-page book, is that Eve was seduced by Satan in the Garden of Eden and had illicit sexual relations with Adam.. This violated God’s desire that Adam and Eve await His blessing of their union before becoming intimate and having children. Their offspring were thus tainted by Satan’s influence; evil invaded the human spirit. God later sent Jesus to establish a pure family on earth, free of evil, but Jesus was crucified before He could marry and have children. Moon sees the essence of his own mission as completing the one given to Jesus—establishing a “true family” untouched by Satan while teaching all people to lead a God-centered life under his spiritual leadership.
Moon rarely allows outsiders an intimate glimpse of his private life and, apart from a meeting with a group of Soviet journalists in 1989, hasn’t granted an interview in two decades. Church members are not supposed to tape-record or take photographs during his sermons, and journalists are generally prohibited from attending. Although I was refused an interview with Moon, earlier this year his aides allowed me to attend his sermons at Belvedere, and also to visit his residential estate, in nearby Irvington. There were many reasons for this, the most important of which seemed to be that I had once lived in South Korea, as a correspondent for the Washington Post, and had become acquainted with some church members.
The sermons begin at 5:30 a.m., but church members, dressed in their Sunday finest, arrive earlier, forming a stop-and-go caravan at Belvedere. A guard recognizes members and waves them through, but shines a flashlight on people he doesn’t recognize and inspects their I.D.s. At a basement entrance to the carriage house, there is a metal detector, and a guard lightly inspects handbags and briefcases. A narrow, rickety staircase leads to the meeting room, a former garage. It has a piano in a corner and a collection of pictures on the walls: there is a picture of one of the mass weddings (known as “blessings” in church parlance), and another of a 1976 rally at the Washington Monument. The majority of the church members at the sermons are of Asian origin—mostly Korean and Japanese. The garage door at the back of the room is kept open, and latecomers sit outdoors, on folding chairs, and if it happens to rain they stay in place and open umbrellas.
Moon speaks at great length. During one sermon I attended, Moon sensed restlessness and said to his flock, smiling, “Are you enjoying this? Father’s record for giving sermons is sixteen hours and forty minutes.” Frederick Sontag, a professor of philosophy at Pomona College who interviewed Moon in 1977, had expected something like a half-hour session but ended up talking with Moon for nine hours. “I ran out of questions and he was still sitting there,” Sontag told me.
Moon uses people in the front rows as props. He often talks about the unity of all races, and on occasion he will nudge together the heads of followers who have taken the sought-after front-row places. If he wants to dramatize a point, he may slap the top of someone’s head with his hand or with the back of his eraser. This is made of hard plastic, and the sound of it hitting a head is like that of a bat hitting a baseball.
Moon will on occasion slap the brow of his interpreter, Peter Kim, and this makes a lively sound. Moon may grab Kim’s tie and tug him one way or another, playfully kick his behind, or paw the front of Kim’s jacket, imitating, on one occasion, a baby looking for its mother’s breast. Kim has been Moon’s interpreter for many years, so they are like a team—in their happier moments, a spiritual Abbott and Costello.
There are darker moments, of course, because Moon has a relatively dark view of the state of things. Although Moon moved to America because he saw it as the leading Christian nation of the world, now he sees it as a nation of moral rot.
“Don’t you think Father has loved America?” he said on April 19th.
“Yes,” his followers responded, together.
“More than anyone else?” Moon asked.
“Yes,” the crowd said.
“More than even George Washington?”
“Who was the first one to love this country?”
“Between George Washington and True Parents, who is in a higher position?”
Little seems to shock Moon’s followers—not even his unorthodox discourses about sex and anatomy. One of the unusual aspects of his sermons is that, although he talks relentlessly about the evils of “free sex”—that is, premarital sex, adultery, and homosexuality—he engages in intimate discussions of sexual activity, and he makes it clear that a fulfilling sex life within marriage makes God happy.
“Can we say that the waste of a holy man is holy waste?” he asked during a sermon on May 1st. “Can we say that the anus of a holy man is a holy anus?”
Nobody in the audience was quite sure what to say, so Moon continued: “On the human body we have many orifices, but which orifice does the baby come through, the most special one?”
“Sexual organ,” a few people replied, tentatively.
“But doesn’t urine also come out of there? Why? It’s like that with a seed. You bury it under smelly topsoil. You understand?”
Moon noted that a man’s penis-“love organ” was the term used by Peter Kim, looking a bit uneasy—goes into the same “hole” that urine flows through.
“Think about it,” Moon said. “Do you think that hole is a dirty hole or holy hole?”
“Holy hole,” someone ventured.
“Holy hole!” Moon bubbled in English. “Holy hole! Holy hole! Make sound!”
“Holy hole!” the crowd repeated.
To some extent, they are humoring the old man—or, at least, responding as they think he wants them to respond. At his Easter sermon, Moon talked about his hopes for converting krill, which whales feed on, into food for human beings. He heard a few giggles in the room.
“This all looks impractical, but it is practical,” he said. “As a religious leader, Father was expected to behave in a certain way, but Father never behaved in that way. He became active in politics and economics. Father had to do it.Now Father is thinking of space. Father is thinking of Olympics not only on land but in space.”
There were more giggles, but when the crowd noticed Moon’s less than pleased expression, applause broke out.
“Do you think this is a dream, or will it be achieved?” he asked.
“Achieved!” the crowd roared.
“Whatever Father says, do you believe and want?”
After the April 19th sermon, Tyler Hendricks, who is the president of the American branch of the Unification Church, suggested that he and I go up the road to Irvington and visit Moon’s residential estate, East Garden. The compound, which has a splendid view of the Hudson River, is gated, monitored by security cameras, and patrolled by a private security force. At the front gate, there is a brick guardhouse; from there, a steep, winding driveway, about a quarter mile long, leads to three houses. One is an old mansion with twelve bedrooms. Moon’s children and grandchildren live there and in a recently built Tudor-style house. Moon lives in a three-story house that looks like an immense, attractively designed bunker. A church insider acknowledged that it cost more than ten million dollars to build.
Hendricks and I took off our shoes and went inside. The ground floor includes a banquet hall, a restaurant-size kitchen, and a dining room with a wall-to-wall skylight. The dining table is bordered on two sides by a pond filled with carp. A rock garden, watered by an overhead sprinkler system, slopes down toward the pond, which is fed by a waterfall. It is like dining in a rain forest.
Moon was upstairs in his living room, but his advisers were in the dining room, having a lunch of bibimbap, a Korean dish of rice, vegetables, and meat. Bowls of kimchi, a spicy cabbage appetizer, were placed on the table. Hendricks and I sat down and joined the others, using silver chopsticks that had been laid out for us. There was intermittent conversation; it had been a long morning for Moon’s brain trust. Peter Kim rubbed his lower back and grimaced, making it clear that interpreting for five hours is a hard job, especially when the person you are translating for tends to slap your forehead and draw on your face.
The path to Moon himself leads through an inner circle of perhaps half a dozen Koreans, including Bo Hi Pak, a former colonel in South Korea’s Army, and Dong Moon Joo, the president of the Washington Times. This circle is joined, in part, by a network of arranged marriages. For example, Bo Hi Pak’s son Jin Sung is married to one of Moon’s daughters, and Bo Hi Pak’s daughter Julia was engaged to Heung Jin, a son of Moon’s, who died in a car crash. A marriage ceremony was held after Heung Jin’s death, and Julia, considered one of Moon’s daughters-in-law, adopted a child born to one of Moon’s other sons. She is the leading ballerina in the Seoul-based Universal Ballet, which is sponsored by Moon.
Bo Hi Pak came to America as an attaché in the South Korean Embassy, and later became Moon’s point man in America. In 1978, while the church was under investigation as part of a congressional probe into the influence-peddling scandal known as Koreagate, Pak used the occasion of a Capitol Hill hearing to accuse the subcommittee chairman, Representative Donald Fraser, of being “an instrument of the Devil.” The committee’s report, released late that year, accused Moon of trying to establish “a worldwide government in which the separation of church and state would be abolished and which would be governed by Moon and his followers.” In 1981, Moon was indicted by a federal grand jury for tax evasion; he was convicted in 1982 and later incarcerated at the federal penitentiary in Danbury, Connecticut, for just under a year.
Late last year, over lunch in Washington, Pak told me about a visit to Moscow in 1990, and how Moon had declared that they would meet the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. “I was astounded,” Pak said. “I was the man trying to make arrangements!” But the meeting took place, helped, no doubt, by the prospect of investments from firms under Moon’s control. Pak was at Moon’s side as they drove away from the Kremlin, and he recalled, “He said to me, ‘I’m going to meet Kim Il Sung.’ I said ‘Who?’” A year later, Moon did meet the North Korean leader. I asked Pak what he thought of Moon. “He’s an enigma,” Pak said. “Even after forty years, I can’t pinpoint who he is.”
Moon gets harder to pinpoint because his mission keeps changing—right now it’s acampaign, under the aegis of the Family Federation, to “bless” millions of couples. Moon’s followers around the world have been collecting signatures on an innocuous pro-family pledge in which couples affirm their fidelity to each other and their faith in God. Church officials say that a hundred and twenty million couples have already received their blessing, although that figure seems unlikely.
The campaign has dismayed some church members, because a blessing from Moon used to be a hard-won privilege, typically attained only after a person had joined the church, worked in it for several years, and agreed to marry someone—usually a stranger—selected by Moon. But grumblings about the blessing campaign are just the beginning of Moon’s current troubles. Instead of being damaged by various traditional foes—Communists, Catholics, deprogrammers, the I.R.S.—Moon is being hurt, perhaps fatally, by problems in his own family.
The affidavits by Moon’s former daughter-in-law, Nansook Hong, brought into view another damaging claim that had never been made by a family member: that corrupting amounts of cash accumulated around the upper echelons of the Moon family. “On one occasion, I saw Hyo Jin bring home a box about 24 inches wide, twelve inches tall and six inches deep,” she said in one affidavit. “He stated that he had received it from his father. He opened it and showed me its contents. It was filled with $100 bills stacked in bunches of $10,000 each for a total of $1,000,000 in cash!” She added that he had given six hundred thousand dollars to the Manhattan Center Studios, a recording facility he ran for the church, and had kept four hundred thousand dollars right in their room—petty cash for his own use. A church spokesman has said that her allegations about the misuse of church funds are untrue.
What draws people to a man who seems distinctly uncharismatic and speaks language that most of his American followers don’t understand? David Bromley, a professor of sociology and religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, who has co-written a book about the Unification Church, believes that the bulk of Moon’s remaining followers were recruited in the seventies, when both the establishment and the counterculture were falling apart. Bromley says that the sense of joining a close, purposeful community was crucial, and that it is no coincidence that church members refer to each other as “brother” and “sister” or that Moon is called Father.
One evening in late spring, I was driving from Manhattan to Moon’s East Garden estate with several church members. I asked Betty Lancaster, one of the first Americans to join the Unification Church, how she had managed to stay with Moon for so long, given that he seemed to have achieved so little and was so isolated, with only a handful of followers. She mentioned the story of Noah, and said that Noah was mocked while building his ark and probably felt a bit lonely.
But what of Moon’s peculiarities—his bizarre ideas, such as building a highway around the world? (He has had brochures drawn up and routes outlined.) His loyalists say he tests their faith, just as God tested that of the Israelites in the Old Testament. Why, they ask, cannot the messiah be as temperamental and unpredictable as God? “Often, he says his life style doesn’t follow human logic or human thinking,” said Christian Lepelletier, a longtime church member, who is from France. “He is connected to God.”
There are, certainly, differing degrees of devotion among Moon’s followers; the fact that they bow at the right moment or shout “Mansei!” in unison doesn’t mean they believe everything Moon says, or do precisely what he commands. Even on important issues, like Moon’s claiming to be the messiah, there are church members whom I met, including a close aide to Moon, who demur. A religious leader whom they respect and whose theology they believe, yes; the messiah, perhaps not.
Although some critics view Moon’s movement as a continuing menace, a mellowing of sorts is under way, according to Larry Moffitt, a prominent American member. Moffit joined the church in 1974 and later married a Japanese woman chosen for him by Moon. The couple have five children and live in Buenos Aires, where Moffitt is an associate publisher of Tiempos del Mundo, a church-linked newspaper based in Buenos Aires and available in sixteen countries. Although Moon often predicts in his sermons that a breakthrough is near, Moffitt realizes that Moon may not come to be seen as the messiah in his lifetime. “You can’t look at it in a ten-year frame,” he said. “A new religion is a six-hundred-year start-up. Look at all the major faiths. It required four hundred years for Christianity to take over Rome.” That wasn’t the attitude two decades ago, or even a decade ago, when there was a greater sense of urgency in the church—a sense that victory was just around the corner.
On a windy day in April, with the accord of Moon’s advisers, I went to a marina near his estate and waited there with a dozen of his followers. At eight-thirty in the morning, he pulled up in a chauffeured sports utility vehicle. He was dressed casually, in green slacks and a baseball cap. He walked to the dock, and, after receiving quick bows from his followers, he boarded his fishing boat. His gear was already laid out on the craft, including a tackle box with the words “True Father’s” imprinted on it.
Three boats headed out with Moon’s, and I was on one of them, along with Tyler Hendricks and Takeru Kamiyama, who had been imprisoned with Moon at Danbury in the eighties. The weather was miserable: a strong wind kicked up choppy waves, and water splashed over the gunwales. Moon sat at the stern, watching his rods, which were held in place by brackets. He rarely spoke, and when he reeled in a line, an aide quickly handed him another rod, with fresh bait on its hook. Moon then cast the line into the Hudson, stuck the pole into a bracket, and waited.
The striped bass were not biting; the waters were too turbulent. But Moon stayed on the Hudson. At irregular intervals an order would come over the ship-to-ship radio, and suddenly we would speed off in a new direction, chasing after Moon’s boat. “We go! We go!” the Japanese pilot of my boat yelled, half in exultation, half in fear that we might lose Moon. The pilot had no idea where we were headed; we just followed Moon’s boat for miles up and down the Hudson. This went on for nine chilly hours. Moon has told followers that he meditates while he is fishing, and that his goal is not to catch fish but to get closer to God and, on days like this, pay “indemnity” for the sins of humankind. If the weather is foul and the fish aren’t biting, it’s because God wants it that way.
(The following was published in “The Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know,” a handbook about war crimes.)
The mosque was on death row. An execution date had not been pronounced, of course, but the Ferhad Pasha mosque was living on borrowed time when I walked through its front gate in the summer of 1992. Nationalist Serbs controlled Banja Luka and were well on their way to destroying all symbols of Muslim culture, and none was as historic or as important as Ferhad Pasha, built in 1583 during the Ottoman empire.
It was one of the oldest mosques in Bosnia, and it was beautiful, and because of that, it was in greater peril than the handful of frightened Muslims who had just ended an afternoon prayer session. “Yes, I will talk to you,” one of them told me. “But please, we must leave this place now.” The mosque had survived four centuries of Balkan tumult, but it would be best not to linger in its doomed shadow.
A few months later, on May 7, 1993, people who lived near the mosque were woken from their sleep by an explosion that made the earth tremble under their homes. Antitank mines were detonated under the ancient building’s foundations, turning it to rubble, which was carted away to a secret dump. All that was left behind was a blackened patch of ground. The “ethnic cleansers” hoped that destroying the spiritual heart of their community would ensure Muslims would leave their homes and never return. Across Bosnia this was done, as one mosque after another turned to pebbles and dust. With each explosion, a war crime was committed.
International guidelines protecting cultural property against damage and theft date back to the American Civil War. The carnage of that war led to the 1863 Lieber Code, which gave protected status to libraries, scientific collections and art works. The code applied only to American troops but influenced a series of international accords leading to the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property. The convention’s definition of cultural property is broad, including significant architectural monuments, art works, books or manuscripts of artistic or historical significance, museums, large libraries, archives, archaeological sites, and historic buildings. The convention was strengthened by the Additional Protocols of 1977, of which Article 53 prohibits “any acts of hostility directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples.” It’s important to note that the protocols established protections against the destruction of other types of civilian property not linked to military actions or uses.
Article 53 also prohibits the use of cultural property “in support of the military effort”—for example, using a national historical building as a command center. In such cases, destruction or damage of cultural property is not necessarily a war crime. The 1954 convention states that the obligation to not harm cultural property “may be waived only in cases where military necessity imperatively requires such a waiver.” The phrase “military necessity” is not defined in the convention, though it would likely apply, for example, to a church damaged during a bombing raid on an adjacent weapons factory, or a museum destroyed because it was being used as an arms depot.
The Nuremberg Trials after World War II marked the first time that individuals were held accountable for cultural war crimes. Several Nazi officials were sentenced to death for a panoply of violations that included the destruction of cultural property. Following that precedent, the Yugoslavia War Crimes Tribunal was empowered to prosecute individuals deemed responsible for the “seizure of, destruction or willful damage done to institutions dedicated to religion, charity and education, the arts and sciences, historic monuments and works of art and science.” However, the conventions related to cultural war crimes do not spell out the penalties that should be handed down for violations.
The destruction of the Ferhad Pasha mosque easily qualifies as a war crime. At the time, Banja Luka was under the firm political and military control of Serbs, and there was no fighting in the city or in the area immediately around it. The historic mosque could not be regarded as a military target; the few Muslims who remained in Banja Luka were using it only as a house of worship. Nonetheless, it was destroyed.
(The following was published in “The Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know,” a handbook about war crimes.)
Slobodan was being a gracious host. Whenever we entered an exposed stretch of territory, he would stop, listen like a terrier for signs of trouble, and then sprint ahead, waving me on when he felt it was safe. It was the winter of 1993, the Bosnian war was in full throttle, and Slobodan was taking me to his place of work, a ransacked apartment in a bombed-out building on the frontline around Sarajevo.
Slobodan was a Bosnian Serb sniper. Because he was off duty when he showed me around, he was armed only with a pistol. Once we reached his perch, though, he cheerfully pointed it at the Sarajevans running across exposed ground a few hundred yards away. “I can shoot!” he said in excited English. “Look, look people, pistol, pop-pop!” Then he calmed down and smiled. “No problem, no problem. No shoot people. No, no shoot.”
What he actually was saying was that he didn’t shoot civilians, only soldiers. This was improbable. I had been in Sarajevo long enough to know that civilians were pretty much the only targets of snipers like Slobodan. I had talked to people who were shot by snipers, I saw a youth get shot near the Holiday Inn near the frontline, and I knew, as everyone did, that the cold weather and lack of food in Bosnia’s besieged capital were not the worst killers. It was the snipers you worried about the most, because they were the ones firing all those bullets that found their way into so many arms and legs and heads and hearts.
There is no prohibition on sniping at combatants during wartime, but the intentional killing of civilians is a war crime. And it was likely that Slobodan and his sniping pals were guilty of willful killing-the legal term for that crime-many, many times over.
The 1977 Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions makes it clear that civilian deaths that are incidentally, even if foreseeably, caused by justifiable military operations are legal, subject to the principle of proportionality. But if the killing of a civilian, a noncombatant, is intentional or is not justified by military necessity, a war crime has been committed. For example, the execution of hostages or prisoners would be such a crime. In an international conflict, the violation could be prosecuted as willful killing under the grave breaches provisions of the Geneva Conventions; in an internal conflict, the crime could be prosecuted as murder under domestic law or under Article 3 Common to the Four Geneva Conventions of 1949.
The sorts of people covered under the willful killing and murder rubrics included, among others, not just civilians in the ordinary sense of the word, but prisoners of war, sick or wounded or surrendering soldiers, and medical and religious personnel.
The crime of willful killing is an active component of international law. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia is empowered to prosecute acts of willful killing, and several defendants have been charged with the crime. However, in a controversial decision in the case of Dusko Tadic, a Serb prison guard, the tribunal ruled that Tadic could not have committed acts of willful killing because the Bosnian war was not international in character. As a result, Tadic was declared not guilty of the willful killing charges, although the ruling is under appeal.
With the Tadic case in mind, what penalties might a sniper like Slobodan face? If the Bosnian war is ultimately determined to have been an international conflict, he could be charged with willful killing for each protected person he shot. If it is determined to be an internal conflict, he could be charged with murder. But whatever the charge, he would be subject to multiple counts. On the day he served so politely as my tour guide, I asked whether he had shot anyone. “Today, no,” he replied. “Yesterday, yes. Pop, pop!”
The steel door swings shut on the chamber, sealing off the outside world. They feel no fear or regret, the four of them, just eagerness to get on with their new lives. After a stretch of hard work, Nigel Packham showers in filtered urine. Vickie Kloeris downs shots of distilled sweat. Laura Supra swallows a heat-sensing pill that relays her core body temperature to a transmitter strapped around her shoulder like a purse. She later fetches the pill from her feces. So does John Lewis. Not that their waste is going to waste. Quite the opposite: It is keeping them alive.
Outside the chamber, a team of scientists and engineers scrutinizes this gang of four. The observers are just a few feet away from the chamber around the clock, kibitzing, observing, learning, analyzing urine, blood, and saliva samples. Inside, the crew—that’s what they call themselves, a “crew”—is kept on a strict exercise regimen to ward off bone disintegration and muscle loss. The support team can be spoken to (over the audio system) and seen (via video link) and corresponded with (through email), but neither they—nor the crew’s loved ones—can be touched. Not for 91 days. There is one ground rule for this endeavor, as clear and inescapable as the law of gravity: Nobody is to enter or leave the chamber. The chamber gives life. The chamber is life.
Consider it the new Biosphere—but a Biosphere with meaning. There are no designer jumpsuits, no zoolike tours for the paying public. It is sponsored not by a reclusive New Age renegade, but by the United States government. The airtight chamber sits in Building 7 of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, near Houston. This is hard science, and if it works, Homo sapiens will be a step closer to visiting Mars. If it fails, our species will likely experience Mars only vicariously, through robotic probes.
Nigel Packham and his colleagues refuse to give up on humanity’s right to interplanetary exploration. I first meet Nigel, commander of the chamber crew, two weeks before the door swings shut on September 19. He gives me a quick tour of his home-to-be and says he cannot wait for the “mission” to begin.
Nigel is a slight man, thin and intense and thoughtful, in the manner of a master safecracker. He has a PhD in chemistry and devoted some of his doctoral research to cold fusion. He helped design the chamber’s life-support system, and he got involved in the project because he wants to put human beings—including himself—on the Red Planet. Along with almost everyone else around, he is wearing a pin that reads “Mars or Bust.”
The Mars Underground is surfacing. Encouraged by public enthusiasm over Pathfinder and our resurgent curiosity about life on the fourth planet from the Sun, renegades at NASA are developing everything from interplanetary propulsion systems to flexible spacesuits for Martian extra-vehicular activity. Their funding is very modest, but these rebels are laying the groundwork for a human mission to Mars. The 91-day chamber experiment is a milestone in a series of NASA tests known as the Lunar-Mars Life Support Test Project. It is a key component of what its backers believe will end up being a manned mission to Mars in a decade or two. “I have no doubt,” says Nigel Packham, “that in my working lifetime we will get there.”
In 1989, the White House asked NASA to draw up a long-range plan for space exploration. This was one of those moments when opportunity and funding are akin to ripe pieces of low-hanging fruit. NASA devised a program for a human mission to Mars that included building a huge station in space, another on the Moon, and, finally, a massive spaceship. The probable cost: US$450 billion.
The program was DOA. NASA had blown it.
The problem was simple. Nourished by Reagan-era “Star Wars” fantasies, NASA had become a bureaucratic gargoyle, light-years removed from the gung-ho days of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Critics had long complained about the billions spent on a bloated, scientifically questionable space shuttle program. By 1989, no one was willing to trust the agency with another megabudget project.
The rebuff reflected the end of NASA’s big-project era. The small-is-beautiful approach came into vogue. If the ‘80s were a decade of mainframe projects, the ‘90s would be a decade of laptop undertakings. No waste, no frills—just innovation and efficacy. The great leaps forward in space exploration would be taken not by the government, but by the people—people like Robert Zubrin.
As NASA sank under its own weight in the late ‘80s, Zubrin, then a space engineer at Martin Marietta, promoted Mars Direct, the Macintosh of space-exploration ideas: If you want to reach Mars, he said, you don’t need a lunar base, a space station, or a big spaceship. You can fly to Mars in two easy steps for $20 billion or so.
The nut of Zubrin’s idea is known as In Situ Resource Utilization. Instead of bringing a massive fuel payload to Mars, his scheme calls for producing fuel on Mars by converting carbon dioxide from the planet’s atmosphere into methane and oxygen, which can be used to fuel not only rovers, but the return trip. The conversion process also produces oxygen and water for backup life-support supplies.
Zubrin (who now heads his own aeronautics firm near Denver) had found the holy grail of interplanetary travel—and NASA’s “reference mission” for flying to Mars now embraces his ideas.
The space agency is developing a three-launch mission manned by six astronauts that could cost only $30 billion, if unofficial estimates hold—$12 billion less than the fleet of B-2 bombers Congress has authorized. “The notion of living off the land is key to putting people on Mars in a cost-effective way,” says John Connolly, an engineer in NASA’s Exploration Office. “You have to break this bond with Earth.”
NASA’s mission to Mars begins with the launch of an unmanned cargo craft, which will land with equipment for converting carbon dioxide to methane and oxygen and will contain a small ascent module. Second to go will be another automated flight, a return craft that will settle into orbit around Mars. The third launch, the transit craft, will carry the astronauts and serve as their living quarters on the ground, expanded with resources from the cargo vehicle. Their journey will take about six months; they will then live on Mars for 18 months or so, investigating whether life there exists or once existed. When the time comes to leave, the astronauts will board the ascent vehicle and blast off to a rendezvous with the orbiting return craft, and they will be home in another six months.
It’s a good plan, but it has problems. NASA administrator Daniel Goldin is having a hard enough time raising funds to underwrite the shuttle and the agency’s $20 billion contribution to the International Space Station program, whose costs have steadily grown. Pushing a high-profile Mars program is impolitic, so the idea has been shuffled off to a bureaucratic attic like an unruly child whose presence might upset sensitive visitors. Until better times come along, NASA is keeping the manned Mars mission alive with a few million dollars of research funds every year, a sliver of the agency’s annual budget of $13.5 billion.
With their funding, the renegades at NASA are trying to provide small-is-beautiful answers to every technological question, so that when the White House becomes interested in flying humans to our planetary neighbor, a ready-to-execute program is available. NASA scientists and engineers—especially at the Johnson Space Center, the Ames Research Center, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory—have cooked up a gumbo of research projects. Among them is a life-support experiment. How do you supply astronauts with air and water and food for three years if you’re financially unable to build a spaceship big enough to carry all the provisions? What’s needed is both simple to outline and devilishly difficult to accomplish: the ability to recycle every drop of water, every bit of organic and inorganic waste, and every breath of air with a system that doesn’t need a continuous supply of stockpiled chemical purifiers and filters.
This is why NASA started the Lunar-Mars Life Support Test Project, which operates under the umbrella of the Advanced Life Support program at the Johnson Space Center. It is evolving into an ambitious program known as BIO-Plex, which will place four humans inside interconnected, self-supporting chambers at a construction cost of $6 million to $8 million. The “chambernauts” will live in their compartments for periods ranging from 120 days in 2001 to 425 days starting in 2005. Each successive test will draw the life-support loop closer to completion: During the first test, half of their food will be grown in the chambers and 25 percent of the human and plant waste will be recycled; five years later 95 percent of the food will be grown “locally,” as the jargon goes, and all but 5 percent of the waste will be recycled.
But a great leap, as a certain astronaut once said, starts with a small step. Which is why Nigel Packham (who in an earlier test spent two weeks in an airtight chamber with 22,000 oxygen-producing wheat plants) and three colleagues volunteered to spend 91 days in an airtight chamber, drinking their own urine, probing their own feces, and washing their garden lettuce with recycled sweat.
I am at the Johnson Space Center, and the door to Building 7 swings open, revealing a superclean, brightly lit warehouse that contains the 20-Foot Chamber, named unimaginatively after its diameter. The crew calls it the Can. It’s three stories tall, a cream-colored barrel of steel that would seem an appropriate place to house petroleum, not people. I approach the chamber through a side airlock, which is used during the test as an exercise room. A step ahead, I enter the first level of the chamber, which serves as the crew’s work and rest area. Each floor is bedroom sized, though each is filled with far more than a bedroom’s worth of stuff.
The first level contains a conference table and chairs, a refrigerator, two microwave ovens, a hot plate, a small kitchen sink, and a washing machine. A TV is in one corner, and a pair of computer screens are mounted on the wall. The room has the confined feel of a racing sloop’s galley, except that there are no views, no sea breeze, just circular walls hugging you like a parka and artificial light that never dims. Two posters hang over the conference table—a panoramic view of the Martian landscape around Pathfinder and a photograph of an astronaut on the Moon. Nigel nods at the pictures and says, “They give us an idea of where we’re heading.”
Up a steel ladder, like something out of a submarine movie, the second floor is crammed full of life-support machinery, the heart and lungs of this beast. The third level holds a tiny bathroom and closet-sized sleeping cabins, each of which contains a narrow bed, a desk, and a stack of drawers for personal belongings. Sliding doors can be shut for privacy, but the doors and walls are thin, and privacy is an illusion: Unless you are speaking in a whisper, your neighbor can hear you on the phone and in your sleep. This is your universe. No sun, no fresh air, no privacy. Three months now—three years later.
What kind of people do you put into this environment? Until three years ago, when US astronauts began flying long-duration missions on Mir, NASA—which had always been concerned about astronauts’ ability to handle stress, danger, and emergencies—had paid little attention to a different psychological issue: adaptation to long missions. The advent of the International Space Station and the prospect of flying to Mars have forced NASA to focus on this psychological realm, and that means figuring out which sorts of people do well in confinement and which combinations of personalities make the best crews.
Those are the considerations Albert Holland, a NASA chief psychologist, brought to bear when he helped select the four residents of the Can from among the engineers and scientists, most involved with the ALS program, who applied. The right stuff that NASA looked for in the chambernauts—and looks for in astronauts—is broader than the right stuff of the ‘60s. Astronauts then were drawn from the ranks of hotshot pilots, who lived for the thrill of blasting into the cosmos atop an aeronautic roman candle and returning home a hero. Those aren’t the people who would do well on long-duration missions, where not much happens beyond tending to zero-gravity gardens and the like. The people Holland sought for the chamber crew were the kind who gain quiet satisfaction from doing a job well, no matter how routine that job might be or how long it might take.
Written exams posed a panoply of innocent-sounding questions, jigsaw-puzzle pieces that, put together, depicted a person’s psychology. Applicants were asked to grade, on a five-point scale, various statements, including: “I’m pretty good about pacing myself so as to get things done on time”; “I like to have a lot of people around me”; “I sometimes fail to assert myself as much as I should”; “I’m pretty set in my ways”; “Without strong emotions, life would be uninteresting to me.”
Kent Joosten, the chief engineer of NASA’s Exploration Office, was selected to command the chamber crew, but a medical hiccup knocked him out at the last minute, and he was replaced by Supra. When Holland offered to tell him what the psych tests showed about his personality, Joosten jumped at the chance, thinking it would be amusing to know how ludicrously off-base the results were. Joosten, who has a rather healthy disrespect for authority, was surprised to hear Holland say that the tests showed he has a rather healthy disrespect for authority. “That was a real wake-up call,” Joosten laughs.
The applicants also had several hours of face-to-face interviews with Holland. These weren’t interrogations, but lengthy discussions in which Holland tried to tweeze as much as possible about the candidates’ psychological wiring. Some areas of exploration were obvious. To discover how an applicant would hold up in times of stress, Holland asked questions about difficult times the candidate had gone through in his or her life and how the applicant dealt with those difficulties—and then analyzed the respondent’s solution: Was it calm? Impulsive? Creative? But NASA also probed for other, less-obvious character traits. Holland looked closely for a sense of humor—not just any sense of humor, but a self-deprecating one. During a long mission, the ability to laugh at oneself is a crucial way of relaxing and warding off stress. The wrong sort of humor—particularly, needling or sarcasm—can destroy a crew. (Would you want to spend three months in a chamber with David Letterman? Think about it.)
A sense of modesty was also vital, because the psychologists see it as a crucial indication of a candidate’s willingness to team. The last thing you want, in a space station crew or a ground chamber team, is a blowhard who thinks he’s the best thing since Neil Armstrong—the type most likely to create friction with crewmates and resist advice from Ground Control. To identify such people, Holland studied small things. If the candidate seized an opportunity to mention he’d finished first in his class at the Naval Academy, Holland was on guard; if the applicant shied away from self-promotion even when offered the chance, Holland was impressed.
Working with a committee composed largely of managers and engineers from the ALS program, Holland helped narrow the initial batch of 45 applicants to eight. They were put through two days of team-building exercises, including rock climbing, in which the finalists were linked in pairs and told to climb a wall. The link broke if they moved too far apart; every step had to be planned and taken in unison.
A final crew was chosen—Packham, Lewis, Kloeris, and Supra—and another round of team-building exercises was held, including a three-day stay in an underwater chamber in Florida. The goal was to see how the crew functioned in confinement; if serious problems cropped up, changes could still be made.
“I have done 80 percent of my work before the doors close,” Holland said. “Once you close the door, you should have people inside who are ready, able, and willing.”
They are of temperate mood, strong intelligence, and high reliability. They are the kind of people who, if you left them in your home during the day, would take excellent care of the children, repair the car’s busted gasket, delete the virus about to fry your hard drive, mop the kitchen floor, and then tell you they had a really good time—and mean it.
But they are not clones. Some are out-of-the-box thinkers; others are methodical problem solvers. And their backgrounds are so different, one can imagine a sitcom developed around them.
Nigel Packham, the commander, is 37 years old and divorced. He hails from the United Kingdom, which he left more than a decade ago in his quest to become an astronaut. He retains a light accent from his homeland—as does John Lewis, 31, though his homeland is Houston. Physically, these guys couldn’t be more different; John seems almost twice as tall as the wiry Nigel. John is also a life-of-the-party fellow, while Nigel is quiet, internal. They are best friends.
Vickie Kloeris, at 42 the elder of the group, is married and the only crew member not directly tied to the Advanced Life Support division. Rather, she comes from the NASA division that prepares astronauts’ meals, a job that sounds deceptively lowly. (If you want an unhappy and ill-performing crew, just serve them bad food for three months.) At the agency, food prep is an important science, and Vickie has coauthored papers with titles like “Folic Acid Content in Thermostabilized and Freeze-Dried Space Shuttle Foods.”
Laura Supra, 29, is the crew’s youngster, a Californian and University of Colorado grad who lived in France while studying for a master’s degree in aerospace engineering. She plies that trade at NASA contractor AlliedSignal, where, her résumé says, her work included developing an “advanced regenerable extravehicular-activity carbon-dioxide removal system for portable life-support systems that utilizes metal-oxide adsorbent to revitalize the astronaut’s air.”
They share a passion for their work. Nigel, who has 17 plaques and letters of commendation on the wall behind his desk, reads electrochemistry textbooks in his spare time. For him, 60-hour workweeks are the norm. “The thought of the test slipping because of something I haven’t done or that I had the ability to change is the worst nightmare I could possibly ever have,” he tells me.
But he and his project colleagues also know how to relax—a crucial trait for any astronaut on a three-month mission. I join several of them at Molly’s, a beer-stained Houston dive and favorite watering hole for the Mars crowd.
Amid the loud music and the shouts of patrons, they share the latest gossip about David Wolf, an astronaut freshly returned from a sojourn on Mir. I start chatting with a woman, who introduces herself as Beth Caplan from the Exploration Office. She sees the look on my face and anticipates the question in my mind. “You’re wondering,” she laughs, “what’s a nice Jewish girl from New York doing in a place like this?” Her answer, over the blast of an old Madonna tune, is succinct: “Space.”
It begins on September 19. The crew settles into a busy routine. Dress is casual; T-shirts and shorts are the norm in the chamber, where the temperature stays between 68 and 72 degrees. Each morning begins with a 7:30 conference call with managers, engineers, and coordinators, though crew members wake whenever they wish. (Nigel and Vickie are habitual early risers.) During the call everyone, inside and outside the Can, is updated on how things are going and on the plans for the day. Then crew members set about their chores. They must exercise for approximately 90 minutes a day, 13 days out of every 14. A computer keeps track of the time and energy they expend exercising.
The most time-consuming chore is the care of the life-support system—actually three systems: one for recycling oxygen, another for processing water, and a third for treating solid waste. In conventional life-support systems, oxygen and water are replenished from stockpiles on hand (think of a submarine), or they are cleansed and recycled with chemicals and filters. The cutting-edge aspect of the 20-Foot Chamber’s life-support system—indeed, the reason for the 91-day test—is that NASA is using biological material, notably microbes and plants, for much of the recycling.
The life-support system’s most revolutionary feature is the Biological Water Processor, or BWP. The BWP has the look of conjoined mainframes and has two biological subsystems through which waste water flows. The first and most innovative subsystem is a cylinder the size of a water heater called the Immobilized Cell Bioreactor, which contains row after row of microbe-inoculated foam pads. Waste water, which includes urine, condensed sweat, and kitchen and bathroom runoff, is pumped through the pads, and the microbes consume the organic pollutants—mostly urea and soap. Filled with a nauseating brown slime, this bioreactor is, to put it mildly, loathsome. But Nigel uses the word “beautiful” to describe it. “To an engineer, it’s like, ‘What the hell is it? That’s the stuff that gums up my pumps,’” he says. “But it cleans your water perfectly.”
After passing through the ICB, water is fed through another cylinder, the Trickling Filter Bioreactor, filled with microbes that convert ammonium into nitrite and nitrate compounds. The water’s journey then comes to a purifying end after flowing through the Reverse Osmosis System, which eliminates inorganic pollutants, such as chloride, sodium, potassium, sulfate, and phosphate.
Every day the Biological Water Processor cleanses 30 gallons of liquid—enough to fulfill the crew’s drinking, cooking, laundry, and washing needs—which has fewer impurities than the water in Houston’s municipal system. In a blind taste test, the chamber’s water would win out over the stuff that flows from the tap in most US cities, according to the crew.
The Can’s air-recycling system is looped into the solid-waste system. Crew members put their fecal matter into 14-ounce plastic bottles, store the bottles in a refrigerator until the end of the day, and then transfer them to the outside world through a parcel-sized airlock at the back of the chamber’s first level. NASA engineers then mix the contents of the bottles with water transpired from 22,000 wheat plants growing in a nearby chamber and pour the slurry into a small incinerator that is fired up to 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit. The carbon dioxide and water vapor emitted from the incinerator are fed to the wheat plants, and the oxygen produced by the plants—accounting for 25 percent of the crew’s recycled oxygen, is piped back into the Can.
Although the incinerator breaks down and is offline for seven weeks, the test is far from a failure. The principle—that carbon dioxide can be isolated from fecal matter and used in a spaceship’s life-support system—holds up. Even when the life-support machines are working smoothly, the crew fiddles with them to figure out their weaknesses. What would happen if the flow of water at a certain valve declined? What if the purity of carbon dioxide increased at another gauge? This process is a bit like taking the first nuclear submarine on a shakedown voyage: There is no end to the checking and tightening of screws that must be done.
The chamber’s coziness precludes storing enough food for the entire mission, so edibles are passed inside through the small airlock. The fare is simple—microwave meals, processed cheese, Sara Lee pies. Fresh fruit and vegetables are occasional treats, but in general the goal is to approximate an astronaut’s bland diet. The chamber has a small greenhouse for growing lettuce—about four heads harvested every 10 days for salads. The “garden” provides mental relief, too: Space psychologists have learned that astronauts enjoy experimenting with plants because the greenery provides a bit of color and life in the unchanging routine of spaceflight.
But the days are not long enough. Aside from monitoring the valves and pumps and tubes and microbes that keep them alive, the crew members carry out an array of experiments on themselves, including an elaborate series of sleeping tests for about two days every two weeks. Sleep is a big deal at NASA because astronauts have trouble sleeping well; the agency wants to know why and what to do about it. The problems relate to microgravity, but constant confinement, unvarying diet, and repetitive work may also be factors. By putting the chamber crew through a rigorous test, NASA is trying to hone its methodology for measuring sleep patterns.
For the test, the chambernauts wear an Actilume, a device the size of a microcassette recorder that is worn on each crew member’s nondominant wrist and records movement (mass acceleration, in NASA-speak) and light levels. During the test period, the Can’s inhabitants take hourly saliva samples, which scientists analyze for melatonin levels. Logs are kept on sleep duration and the number, if any, of sleep interruptions. The most inconvenient part of the test is disposing of an ingestible pill that measures core body temperature. The pill winds its way through each crew member’s bowels, and each person has to fish it from their feces because NASA does not want the pills vaporized in the incinerator.
The Can’s residents also engage in something ingrained at the new NASA—public relations—participating in outreach programs with visiting tourists, speaking with schoolchildren linked to them via classroom computers, and even communicating with astronauts aboard an orbiting shuttle. Occasionally, VIPs and celebrities like Alan Alda stop by and chat them up through the video link. The crew members also reply to a stream of queries to their Web site. A frequent question: “Do you really drink your urine?” They also do their best to stay in touch with family and friends through phone calls and email.
Vickie Kloeris sends a diary to friends every week or so, keeping them updated on life in the Can, including bathing etiquette. “Showers are limited to 14 pounds of water per day,” she wrote. “You can do two 7-pound showers or one 14-pound shower. The 14-pound shower is 1.7 gallons of water and lasts less than one minute, so showering is an art form.”
Although quarters are tight, crew members, so busy attending to their own experiments, do not bump into each other around every corner, but they try to gather each day for lunch and dinner, the few times when all are likely to be in the same place at once. During these periods, they engage in the easy banter of close friends. The television is used sparingly, though the crew watches The X-Files and The Simpsons. In general, they do their best to maintain a sense of normalcy in this abnormal environment. They even hold a surprise baby shower for John Lewis and his wife, who is entering the final trimester of her pregnancy when the test begins. (She gives birth a few weeks after it ends.) While John’s wife opens gifts in the control room, relayed to the chamber via video, he unwraps presents the control-room gang has secreted inside the chamber via the parcel airlock.
By the end of each day, the crew is more than ready for bed. Nigel doesn’t have time to finish the Tom Clancy novel he brought into the chamber. John brought nearly a dozen books, including a collection of J. D. Salinger short stories and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, but he gets through only one or two. Vickie is out cold the moment her head hits her pillow.
It is December 18—the last night in the Can. The crew is 12 hours away from freedom, 12 hours away from returning to the delights of fresh food and fresh air and long baths and loved ones and the simple pleasure of doing as they please and going where they want. I call Nigel Packham, expecting to hear excitement or impatience in his voice, perhaps a story or two about the times he wanted to strangle his crewmates. But Nigel has enjoyed himself, thank you very much.
“We know so much about each other,” he says about his fellow chambernauts. “We know way too much about each other in some areas. We know how much each other urinates. We know how frequently we go to the bathroom. We know what each other likes to eat. There are things we learned about each other that will never be shared with anyone else. These are not bad things, but absolutely amazing things, things that you’d never expect when we first closed the door.”
They haven’t merely bonded with each other. They have bonded, physically and emotionally, with their environment. Their chamber. Their Can. “It’s almost like the chamber is a living, breathing entity,” Nigel says. “It’s providing oxygen for us and it’s providing drinking water, and when you turn the systems off, it’s like it stops breathing for you.”
The power of this feeling is apparent even a month after he leaves the chamber to cheers from the scores of scientists and engineers who worked on the $1.5 million project. Nigel leads me to the Can’s third level and shows me his cabin, which is much as he’d left it in December. The books he hadn’t read are still there; so are some of his clothes. He finds a poem he’d written during the test and shows it to me. “A View of Life from Within,” it is called, and it begins with these lines: “So long, just so long, to arrive / This day goes like the wind / With another to follow / The high of the past.”
Nigel tells me he fell into a funk basically the first morning he woke up in his own bed at home, a free man again. This is not much different from a syndrome noted among astronauts, who occasionally have a hard time adjusting to life on Earth after the rush of living in space.
“I was just in the blues,” Nigel says. “I didn’t enjoy life very much for about a week or two weeks, and I’m not really enjoying it right now. It’s not as much fun. You may say to yourself, ‘This is stupid. This was a ground test. You were not looking down on Earth from however many miles up.’ But you have been on a journey—you really have—and it’s one that you really can’t describe to anyone else, not in words.”
I don’t quite understand how the crew members could think they were on a “journey” when all they had to do was look through the porthole in the chamber door to realize they hadn’t budged an inch. But then I remember that the porthole had been covered up. Just a few hours after the door swung shut, the crew placed a mission patch over their window to the outside world.
After egress, Nigel continued to visit his cabin almost every workday, sometimes during weekends, puttering around on the computer and taking care of email. There was no need for him to do this—he shares office space with other life-support scientists in a nearby building—but he became attached to the chamber. Being inside it takes him back to the test, the grand and wonderful test. “It was a high,” he says. “It was higher than the highest kite you’d ever want to fly.”
But not as high as the one he hopes—no, expects—to feel in a decade or two. For as he told his cheering colleagues after the steel door opened on December 19 and he emerged from the Can after 91 days, “You’ve changed the question. The question was, Can we keep people alive on the surface of Mars for long durations with biological life-support systems? It’s not the question anymore. The question is: When?”
The Clinton Administration does not hesitate to express its moral outrage when a crisis unfolds in a place like Kosovo, a province of Serbia where 90 percent of the residents are ethnic Albanians.
“We are not going to stand by and watch the Serbian authorities do in Kosovo what they can no longer get away with doing in Bosnia,” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned after the Serbian police and paramilitary units killed scores of men, women and children in what Serbia portrays as a war on terrorism. Ms. Albright’s warning sounds stern, but how serious is she? It is far easier to be the world’s conscience than to be the world’s policeman.
The United States and several allies agreed yesterday to impose mild economic sanctions on Yugoslavia. But if the violence continues, will the Clinton Administration rightly insist on stiffer sanctions? Will it resort to military measures? What does Ms. Albright mean when she says the United States is “not going to stand by”? Does the Administration plan to litter Belgrade once more with Security Council resolutions?
Most likely, Ms. Albright hopes Kosovo will quiet down, averting the need for hard decisions, but she may not be so lucky. She should keep in mind a lesson from Bosnia: at the outset of a crisis, it may be better to tell the truth than say the right thing. The strong expression of moral outrage—without an accompanying will to do anything of substance—can be worse than useless; it can be harmful.
The expression of outrage has many effects. It reassures the American public, which wants to hear the White House say the right thing (though not necessarily do the right thing if that means risking American lives). Outrage also puts the perpetrator—in this case, President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia—on notice that he will be punished unless he changes his ways. Lastly, the expression of outrage gives hope to victims by letting them know that the world’s superpower may come to their rescue. This is what can be harmful.
When the former Yugoslavia was falling apart in 1991 and 1992, the Bush Administration made it clear, in the memorable words of James Baker, then Secretary of State, that it had “no dog in that fight.” Mr. Baker was wrong about that—the stability of Europe and NATO was at stake—but at least he was honest. The independence-minded Governments in Croatia and Bosnia knew they would not get much help from the Bush crowd.
But Bill Clinton, running for President at the time, called for strong action against the Serbs. Once he took office, the moral posturing became fiercer, though action was not forthcoming until 1995, when the Dayton accord was imposed and troops were dispatched to Bosnia. In the interim, Bosnians died by the thousands.
Throughout the war, Bosnia’s desperate Government hoped for military support from the United States, or at least the lifting of a crippling arms embargo. Salvation seemed possible because the Clinton Administration never ceased expressing its outrage and never ruled out military intervention, notably air strikes. The prospect of American rescue was not the sole or main reason Bosnians fought and died—but it played a role.
Needless to say, the expression of outrage in Washington no longer carries much weight in the Balkans. Mr. Milosevic knows not to take the Clinton Administration’s warnings seriously. Kosovo’s Albanians are well aware of their geopolitical quandary. They reside within the internationally recognized borders of Yugoslavia. They know better than to expect the Administration’s actions to be consistent with its oratory.
But hope springs eternal, even when we wish it would not. If the Administration has no intention of truly standing up to Mr. Milosevic, its moral posturing should be accompanied by an honest assessment of the actions it will not take. Ms. Albright, who knows the lessons of Bosnia better than anyone else in the Administration, should not begin another process of conscientious hypocrisy.
By Michael Ignatieff
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt
210 pp. $24.95
Unwinnable Wars: American Power and Ethnic Conflict.
By David Callahan
Hill & Wang
240 pp. $23
Reviewed by Peter Maass
One of the nice things about the Cold War was the fact that most questions had answers. The borders of the Soviet empire were known, its arsenal was known, its goals were known, its fissures were known. Perhaps some of the answers were wrong, but at least we thought we had the answers, and this made us feel a bit more secure. If you know what lurks in the darkness ahead, the darkness loses much of its fearsomeness.
But what is one to make of today’s world? The Soviet Union is long gone, and instead we are faced with pinprick threats from an array of ethnic conflicts that defy comprehension. In Rwanda, about 1 million Tutsis were felled by Hutus using machetes to carry out their slaughter. Somalia was brought to its knees by clan fighters who barreled around Mogadishu in trucks with antiaircraft guns bolted to the flatbeds. Liberia presented the specter of child soldiers no bigger than the assault rifles they wielded at lethal roadblocks. In Bosnia, Serb forces adopted the strategy of siege warfare and choked cities into submission. In Chechnya, ill-prepared Russian troops were beaten off by a few thousand Muslim fighters.
Many questions, few answers. It seems as if Winston Churchill’s description of Stalinist Russia—“a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”—could be applied to dozens of hot spots around the globe, and each of these riddles is crying out for our attention, courtesy of CNN. But when we try to do something, calamity ensues. In 1993, U.S. troops were sent to sort out the mess in Somalia, and they soon returned home in failure. After several years of dawdling, American troops were sent to Bosnia in 1995, not so much to rescue Bosnia but to save NATO from collapsing and Clinton’s presidency from ridicule, and the troops are likely to remain in the Balkans for years to come. The lesson that’s been drawn from these less-than-satisfying engagements is that we should do the best we can to steer clear of engagements anywhere. As Michael Ignatieff notes in his elegiac “The Warrior’s Honor,” the colonial era’s battle cry of “exterminate all the brutes” has been turned on its head and is being replaced with a weary, fin de siecle sigh of “let the brutes exterminate themselves.”
The usefulness of Ignatieff’s book as well as of David Callahan’s “Unwinnable Wars” is that they illustrate, in vastly different ways, how nationalistic disputes are not as mysterious or unfathomable as they appear. Both books peel away the political rhetoric that has prevented a well-informed debate, and they note that the biggest riddle of our times may not be the origins of conflict in country X or Y but America’s muddled state of mind when it comes to dealing with these troubles. In addition, both books are quite honest about an underappreciated fact of our times: Ethnic conflict is not breaking out all over the globe. “The list of post-Cold War ethnic conflicts is tragically long, but it is not nearly as long as it might be,” Callahan writes. “For every ethnic rivalry that has exploded into violence, others have been resolved or have at least remained nonviolent.” Ukraine is at peace with Russia, South Africa is at peace with itself, Hungary is not fighting Romania over long-disputed Transylvania, Macedonia remains free of war and so on. We need not feel that the world is overwhelmed by ethnic conflicts, Callahan notes.
If you are trying to understand the role of ethnic conflicts in our world today, Ignatieff is one of the best guides. His previous book, “Blood and Belonging,” was a well-received reportage of his journeys into the nationalistic battlefields of the 1990s, including the Balkans, Kurdistan and Northern Ireland. Ignatieff is a member of the political intelligentsia who, instead of reclining in an armchair and perusing the day’s headlines, goes into the field and meets the foot soldiers and warlords and aid workers whose motivations are intriguing, and he writes about them with the elegance of a novelist, which, by the way, he also happens to be. “The Warrior’s Honor” is not a policy book; it is a moody exploration of the reasons why men rise against their neighbors, and it delves into the Western world’s curiously ambivalent reaction to carnage in distant and not-so-distant lands. Ignatieff’s insights are acute and profound. The only complaint one could level at “The Warrior’s Honor” is that, because it is primarily a collection of previously published essays, including pieces in the New Yorker, there is a familiarity to what it contains, and it has a slightly disconnected feel. One wishes he had fused his ideas and experiences into a fresher work rather than snapping them into place like Lego pieces.
Ignatieff takes a long look at the role television news has played in informing the American public of tragedies in foreign lands and in persuading us against involvement. This is one of the riddles of our times: We know more than ever about the horrors that unfold when war occurs, but this awareness doesn’t make us more willing to stop the suffering. Ignatieff is not the first to notice this dilemma, but he unpacks it in a precise way. “Television has unfortunate strengths as a medium of moral disgust,” he writes. “As a moral mediator between violent men and the audiences whose attention they crave, television images are more effective at presenting consequences than in exploring intentions; more adept at pointing to the corpses than in explaining why violence may, in certain places, pay so well. As a result, television news bears some responsibility for that generalized misanthropy, that irritable resignation toward the criminal folly of fanatics and assassins, that legitimizes one of the dangerous cultural moods of our time—the feeling that the world has become too crazy to deserve serious reflection.”
The world has not gone crazy, it has merely lost the Cold War narrative that we knew so well. The new narrative has a name: nationalism. And Ignatieff understands it well. He dismisses the “ancient hatreds” babble that politicians favor. “Disintegration of the state comes first, nationalist paranoia comes next,” he writes. “Nationalist sentiment on the ground, among common people, is a secondary consequence of political disintegration, a response to the collapse of state order and the inter-ethnic accommodation that it made possible. Nationalism creates communities of fear.”
One of the ironies for well-intentioned Westerners is that successful intervention may require the sort of “imperial ruthlessness”—Ignatieff’s phrase—that we condemn in our political ancestors. Nation-building is not for the timid of heart. As a result, Ignatieff is cautious about the role outsiders will play in ending faraway spirals of violence. Ultimately, reconciliation requires a realization among victims and perpetrators that more killing is senseless, that another round of death does no honor to the dead. A simple fact, but nationalism sustains itself upon myths of greatness or injustice, and myths, as Ignatieff notes, are resistant to facts. Sadly, we will have to learn how to live with the detritus of ethnic warfare.
Callahan, a fellow at the Twentieth Century Fund and author of two previous books on foreign policy, picks up where Ignatieff leaves off. His “Unwinnable Wars” amounts to a rationale and a road map for greater American activism to contain ethnic conflicts. His reasoning is steeped in common sense (for instance, early involvement pays off by lessening the scope for full-scale warfare down the road), and he does an admirable job of explaining why this is so and how it should be done. Isolationism is not a cure but a disease. Callahan notes that before genocide occurred there, Rwanda was known in America (if at all) as the place where Dian Fossey studied gorillas; hardly anyone was prepared for the hurricane of violence that swept through the country.
Callahan is perceptive enough to realize that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for dealing with the Rwandas of our world; policymakers must use a range of strategies—political, economic and, if appropriate, military—to deal with nascent conflicts, and they must not expect to succeed every time they go to bat. “The central lesson of past preventive efforts is that when the United States harnesses its national power it can often stabilize a tense situation,” he writes. Of course, the flip side is also true; preventive efforts can be disastrous, but in cases such as Lebanon and Somalia, Callahan notes that glaring errors of judgment were made by policymakers in Washington. For example, Callahan points out that the U.S. was generally viewed as a neutral player when it deployed Marines to Lebanon in 1982. But its evenhanded standing was undermined once it adopted political stances and military actions that supported the Christian side, and this directly led to the complete and humiliating unraveling of the U.S. intervention effort.
Every age seeks its doctrine. Many generations ago, we had the Monroe Doctrine, and the Cold War brought forth the doctrine of containment. In the wake of the Gulf War, the Powell doctrine has emerged as a favored strategy of the Pentagon: the notion that force should be used in overwhelming doses only when there is a virtual guarantee of success. The credibility of the Powell doctrine owes much to its key proponent, Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Callahan rightly points out that the Powell doctrine is, in many ways, boneheaded. As war broke out in Croatia and Bosnia, Powell opposed limited intervention; he saw another Vietnam or Lebanon. His thinking was simple: Air power leads to ground troops leads to quagmire. As most everyone associated with the Bosnian morass now realizes, the use of limited force early in the conflict might have succeeded and lessened the need for a long-term deployment of peacekeeping troops. “A central lesson from the Yugoslav episode is that the clear-cut standards of the Powell doctrine are incompatible with the demands of preventive action, at least as applied to ethnic conflicts,” Callahan writes.
Callahan does not call for a military response to every ethnic flare-up; far from it. Better intelligence gathering, more diplomatic engagement—these offer the greatest hope to head off wars or lessen their impact. “There is little glamour or excitement in much of this work, just the potential for steady progress toward a world with less killing,” he explains. It may not be the cure-all answer we’d like to hear, but it’s a realistic one. Curiously, the best approach for coping with ethnic conflict in the future may have something in common with our approach to the Soviet threat: to realize that it can’t be eliminated but it can be contained.
It was ten at night, the day had been a long one, and before going to sleep Vasily Tsibliyev wanted to call Tamara Globa. She was turning forty, and there was a small party at her Moscow apartment. True to the nature of Russia’s phone system, the connection was rather poor. “Hello, dear!” Tsibliyev shouted. “Do you hear me O.K.?” His voice sounded as distant as the stars, but that was understandable, because Tsibliyev was calling from the Mir space station, which orbits Earth at seventeen thousand miles an hour.
Globa had been told by Mission Control to expect the call, so she made sure that nobody was using her phone at the appointed hour, on March 16th. She rushed to the kitchen on the first ring, and, after everyone had gathered around, the voice of Tsibliyev, Mir’s commander, drifted down from the heavens. For Mission Control, situated outside Moscow, this bit of magic was everyday stuff. Because the morale of cosmonauts can slip if they feel isolated, phone calls and video conferences between orbiting cosmonauts and their non-orbiting friends and family are arranged regularly. Almost anything goes. If a cosmonaut wants to chat with a politician or an actor, that can be arranged, and if a cosmonaut wants to talk with an astrologer that, too, can be arranged, as happened when Tsibliyev was patched through to Globa, one of Russia’s foremost psychics.
Early in the evening, several months later, I was sitting across from Globa in a Moscow restaurant. She was wearing white, from jeans to a long-sleeved shirt, and the outfit served as a perfect contrast to her dark eyes, which have a gravitational pull of their own. In Russia, a land of the superstitious and the mystical, she is a true celebrity: her predictions can become front-page news, and her column in the Russian edition of Cosmopolitan is enormously popular. Technology’s advance has not nudged astrologers aside; it has, rather, seemed to push them ahead. As I sipped coffee with one of Russia’s most celebrated, she reviewed the events that led to her birthday greeting from space.
Globa met Tsibliyev in 1992, during an environmental conference in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. “It was a great time,” she says. They saw each other a few times afterward, and occasionally talked on the phone. There was no shortage of things to talk about. Just before Tsibliyev took off for Mir, Globa had dinner with him and several other cosmonauts at their training center, and she warned that his upcoming flight would be difficult. By the time Tsibliyev called from Mir in mid-March, a fire had nearly forced the cosmonauts to abandon ship. “Listen, Tamara, what you told us then is precisely what happened,” he said, according to a tape of the call. Globa gently cautioned that “another complicated nuance” would strike Mir, but it would not be as bad as the fire. Tsibliyev’s response was a heartfelt “Thank God.”
It may seem odd that the highly educated commander of a hundred-and-fifty-ton space station would phone a psychic who trundles around Moscow with dog-eared astrological charts under her arm. (Imagine the commander of Apollo 13 taking a break to chat with Jeane Dixon.) But both Russian and American psychologists who study the “human factor” in long-duration space travel have learned that few astronauts are invincible; most become all the more human, all the more quirky, as their days in space slip into weeks and months. Space is a hostile environment with no parallel on Earth, and in its pressureless embrace even the iron-willed can turn to mush. Consider the confinement of a prison, the claustrophobia of a submarine, and the tedium of an Arctic research post and you begin to sense the physical and psychological rigors of living in a space station. And if the station happens to be eleven years old and falling apart, with a fire breaking out, and noxious liquids leaking into the air, and the cabin temperature soaring, and garbage piling up, and an errant cargo ship puncturing the hull, and the main computer crashing, and the oxygen system shutting down—all of which happened on Tsibliyev’s watch, which began in early February—it becomes unimaginably worse.
“These are very talented and capable people but they’re subject to the same kind of foibles as an ordinary person,” Patricia Santy, a former NASA flight surgeon and the author of a book about the psychological aspects of selecting astronauts, told me. “They have emotional strengths and they have emotional weaknesses, and they bring that with them to spaceflight. On short missions, it’s not as common for those to be manifested. Motivation and determination can overcome a lot. But there is a break-off point, probably around three to four weeks, where no amount of motivation or determination is going to get you through it.”
Astronauts are performing missions different from the ones they performed in earlier times, and they need more patience and less bravado. They are not rocketing into the cosmos inside relatively primitive vessels that either blow up or don’t. Mir (the word means both “peace” and “world” in Russian) has been inhabited almost continually since 1986, with crew members usually staying aloft for six months at a time and filling their weightless days with scientific and medical experiments, maintenance and repairs, physical exercise, cooking, reading, kvetching—whatever. Of course, the routine can vary. Michael Foale returned to America on October 6th, after a four-month sojourn that included a nearly catastrophic collision between Mir and an unmanned cargo vessel. Foale was replaced by David Wolf, the sixth American on the station since 1995, and if Foale’s experience is any guide Wolf is also heading for interesting times. But the tragicomedy of recent months has obscured this truth: that Mir, dilapidated as it is, is a glimpse of the future.
Russia and America, a cosmic odd couple, plan to continue their space alliance in the years ahead. Next year, the first components of the International Space Station, also known as Alpha, will be sent into orbit in a project that will cost at least forty billion dollars; the first crew is to arrive in January of 1999. If all goes well, a manned mission to Mars could be launched before 2010. In these next phases of space exploration, the incidents that are perceived as Mir-only events—human errors and mechanical glitches in space, political squabbles and mixed signals on the ground—are more than likely to be repeated. And it is probable that the actors who participate in whatever comes next will be grateful that these dress rehearsals, however embarrassing, took place.
Russia’s cosmonauts are trained a few miles outside Moscow, in Star City—Zvyozdny Gorodok—a gated enclave off a two-lane highway. Built in secrecy decades ago, Star City is open for business these days; it even has its own Web site, and if you are American you will be likely to be waved inside, thanks to the approximately four hundred and seventy-three million dollars that NASA is paying the Russian Space Agency for flying American astronauts and their research equipment aboard Mir. The joint program, spawned in 1993 at a summit meeting between President Bill Clinton and President Boris Yeltsin, was intended as a triumph of post-Cold War amity. It was a useful way to bolster the Russian economy (and insure that Russia’s imperilled rocket scientists would not turn to Libya or North Korea for a paycheck) while giving America a chance to learn something about long-duration space travel. Before Mir, America had operated just one short-lived space station—Skylab—which was launched in 1973 and played host to only three crews, the last of which stayed aloft eighty-four days. By Russian standards, eighty-four days in space is hardly worth mentioning, for in 1995 cosmonaut Valery Polyakov set a new record by spending four hundred and thirty-nine days in space.
Star City is not quite a city. It’s more like a small town, since about five thousand people call it home. There are apartment buildings and food stores and schools, and even a post office and a movie theatre. It has the look and feel of a suburban community college designed in the sixties—the architectural equivalent of a face in the crowd. Past the entrance, a brief stretch of forest yields to a statue of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space—in 1961—and one of the few Soviet-era heroes to have lost no lustre in the Russian era. Ahead, beside a murky lake, is a three-story building in which a small contingent from NASA lives and works. Its members occupy the second floor, and they have created a technological and cultural oasis, with a step machine in the corridor, brownie mix in the kitchen, and high-speed computers in their offices. They use E-mail, and the Russians have rotary telephones. It’s as if the two outfits were spaceships orbiting at different altitudes. “We’re accustomed to sitting down at our computers and getting things done,” Brent Jett, a shuttle pilot who heads the NASA office, told me when I visited Star City in August. “But it’s different here. If General Glaskov”—who runs Star City—“is not in his office, his phone will ring and no one will answer it.”
There is a full-scale Mir simulator in the training facilities at Star City, and in a visitors’ gallery the principal item on display is a duplicate of Mir’s toilet. It’s not pretty to look at, and cooler space gizmos exist, but almost every visitor asks how cosmonauts go to the bathroom in weightless conditions, so the goods have been put on display. It’s an angular tube with a funnel at one end for collecting urine and a container at the other end for collecting solid matter; a pump suctions away the waste. Life is gritty on Mir. There’s no shower, so cosmonauts use moist towelettes to keep themselves clean, or relatively clean. There are no special sleeping quarters; at bedtime, crew members hook their sleeping bags to a wall in whichever module they prefer (Mir, a hundred and seven feet long and ninety feet wide, consists of six modules linked to the core module), and they try to give their sleeping nook a sense of home, putting family photos and other earthly mementos wherever they can. Foale slept in the Spektr science module before it was punctured in the collision. Wolf is sleeping in the air lock of the Kvant-2 biological-research module. It’s not luxurious, but the view—of Earth—can’t be topped.
I walked into the simulator hall, took off my shoes, and stepped inside the core module, which contains, among other things, the main control panels, a small table for meals, and a treadmill and a cycle, both fitted into the floor. Although the module’s external shape is tubular, the inside is rectangular; it’s roughly the size of a school bus, though cluttered. A step or two in any direction leads to a wall or a hatch or an oxygen cannister. The air is stuffy and hot, and the ventilators make a loud droning noise similar to the racket inside a prop plane. There are switches and buttons and handles everywhere, to the left and the right and above. It has the feel of a room lined with out-of-date mainframe computers, the feel of being inside a machine. After six minutes, I am ready to leave. It is hard to imagine staying in such a place for six months, as Tsibliyev did, and when I got my first glimpse of him, a day later, I was surprised at how good he looked.
On August 14th, Tsibliyev and his crewmate, Alexander Lazutkin, returned to Earth. Their Soyuz capsule landed hard on the steppes of Kazakhstan, the braking rockets having malfunctioned, but the descent was slowed to an easily survivable speed by a huge parachute. Within a few hours of landing, the two men were heading home on a special Aeroflot jet, feasting on caviar and cucumbers. As evening fell, I joined a flock of generals and colonels waiting for them at a military air-port near Star City. Tsibliyev walked from the plane without assistance and was hugged by his wife as his daughter broke into happy tears. There were some cheers, and the military brass executed the smiles and handshakes appropriate for such homecomings, but the event had an odd undertone. Even the weather was strangely off: on a mid-August evening, I could see my breath in the cold air. As the cosmonauts were being driven from the tarmac in an old yellow bus, a soldier banged on its windows and pumped his fist in the air. It was a way of saying, “Don’t let the bastards get you!” Everyone knew what it meant, and why it was necessary.
Two days later, at Star City’s House of Cosmonauts, Tsibliyev held a press conference. He entered the conference hall wearing a snappy Reebok tracksuit, and smiling. The event had a slightly surreal soundtrack, because there was an unrelated celebration going on outside, and a military band was playing a medley of Broadway show tunes, including “Hello, Dolly!” and “New York, New York.” Tsibliyev quickly made it clear that he didn’t intend to submit to his critics. Being agitated, he rambled in his answers, but he got his message across: Mir is falling apart because Russia doesn’t have enough money to run it properly. “The cause lies with problems on earth,” he said. “It’s connected with the economy, with our affairs in general. Even the equipment needed to live aboard the station and that we requested to be sent—and we’re not talking about coffee, tea, and milk—they just don’t exist. The factories don’t work, or have insufficient supplies, or they ask for, excuse me, crazy prices.”
Russian officials were soon forced to admit that they do not replace equipment when its life expectancy is reached; they wait for equipment to break down, and then they replace it. Tsibliyev sidestepped a question about the collision, for which he has been blamed, saying that he, too, had questions about it. His mood turned dark at times. “I don’t know, maybe someone wanted us to return here as corpses,” he mused at one point.
Tsibliyev is no novice. In 1993, he had his first sojourn on Mir—a mission that lasted a hundred and ninety-seven days. It went smoothly except for one incident, when a Soyuz capsule he was piloting bumped into Mir during a reconnaissance foray. I talked with a number of Tsi-bliyev’s colleagues—fellow-cosmonauts, officials at Mission Control, and psychologists who monitored his two missions—and they described him in the same way: diligent, skilled, steady. “He is a person of high responsibility,” Alexander Serebrov, who had been the flight engineer on Tsibliyev’s first mission, told me. “If he says he’ll do something, he does it. He would not sleep until we finished our jobs.” But in Russia, as in America, all astronauts are not created equal. A golden few always stand apart, and Tsibliyev was not among them. His go-by-the-book diligence may have been his undoing. When problems began piling up, he tried to solve them all, cutting back on his sleep and taking the blame for breakdowns beyond his control. According to Alexander Sled, a psychologist who monitors cosmonauts while they are on Mir, Tsibliyev blamed himself for everything. “This is good in a normal space mission, because there are a lot of things going on that must be taken care of,” Sled told me. “But if there are too many problems happening it’s a bad thing.” The human psyche, like an electrical circuit, can take only so much before it shorts out. That is one of Mir’s messages for the future.
The Russians have flown long-duration missions since the seventies, when the first Salyut stations were put into orbit, and they’ve experienced a startling range of human-factor problems, including bitter arguments between crew members and conflicts between crew members and Mission Control. At least two missions were cut short for what are believed to have been stress-related problems with the crew. Two years ago, a highly regarded cosmonaut nearing the end of a long mission refused to perform a space walk; he said that it was unnecessary. Such conflicts are not a purely Russian phenomenon; the last crew on Skylab got so annoyed at the rapid pace set by Mission Control in Houston that its members unilaterally took a day off. Of the five Americans who have completed their missions on Mir, one became depressed while on board (he cited fatigue and isolation) and another angered NASA officials by skipping or else cutting short his daily radio sessions with them (he said the sessions got in the way of his work).
The Russian Space Agency uses a variety of diversions to keep everyone as healthy as possible. Sports programs are beamed to Mir, sometimes live, as was the case with highlights of the Atlanta Olympic Games. Resupply ships are packed with books, magazines, letters, movies, and even birthday presents. Whenever a resupply ship arrives—every few months—the atmosphere turns Christmas-like, with the cosmonauts opening their packages and laughing and staying up past their bedtime. There’s also a ham radio on Mir, and in spare moments crew members flip through the dial and chat with strangers on Earth about the weather, politics, sports—anything to get a break from their fishbowl life. John Blaha, a four-time shuttle astronaut whose four-month sojourn on Mir ended in January, spent as much as half an hour a day on the radio. Mir uses frequencies that are widely known in the ham-radio community and are posted on the Web, so there is never a shortage of strangers wanting to talk shop. “You’d turn the volume up and people all over the world are, like, ringing this telephone,” Blaha told me. “They’re all just stepping on each other just trying to talk to me.” A sports fan, Blaha would squeeze baseball and football scores from them (preferably Yankee and Cowboy results), and in return he’d talk about life on Mir: “I’d tell them what we’re doing. I’d tell them, ‘Hey, we’re in the middle of lunch right now, we’re all cooking. Valery’s a little busy, but he’s listening. Sasha’s listening, too. Sasha’s making himself some rice, making himself some soup.’ “
The laptop computer has also been of considerable help. A NASA team created an ingenious program, Crew On-orbit Support System, which is loaded onto an I.B.M. Thinkpad. coss, as it’s known, is updated for each American aboard Mir, and includes training simulators as well as a digital selection of family snapshots and surprise video clips. For example, an astronaut wakes up on Father’s Day and a message on the computer tells him to access a particular file; a click of the mouse, and the screen is filled with a video of his children wishing him a happy Father’s Day. coss also includes a football game (which Blaha played) and Myst (which none of the astronauts have played). For the Russians, NASA provided an English-tutorial program.
If you have the ill fortune to be the commander of Mir when it suffers a plague of mishaps, however, there’s little that can lift your spirits—not even a viewing of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” which Foale brought to the station. Such was the unlucky predicament of Vasily Tsibliyev. Soon after he arrived on Mir, a defective oxygen-generating cannister caught fire, creating one of the most serious crises in the station’s history. The crew began preparing for an emergency escape, but they were able to extinguish the fire after approximately ten minutes. They wore surgical masks for several days to protect themselves from lingering fumes.
Shortly afterward, the station experienced a serious leak in its cooling system, and the temperature rose above ninety-five degrees in the core module. The crew worried about health risks from inhaling the leaked antifreeze. Jerry Linenger, the American on Mir at the time, told me that Tsibliyev did not trust reassurances from Russia’s Mission Control, and so he asked Linenger to find out what NASA thought of the hazards. Tsibliyev was concerned that, because a crewless Mir would eventually fall out of orbit, Mission Control might sacrifice the crew’s health in order to keep the station aloft. According to a candid report by NASA’s inspector general, “The ... commander repeatedly argued with ground control and showed considerable irritation. The commander also indicated that he believed that ground control did not take his concerns seriously or misinterpreted his statements.”
Tsibliyev was sleeping less and worrying more, and this led to more stress, which led to less sleep and more worries. Communication glitches were reducing the amount of time available for chats with family and friends, and, while this may seem like a minor point, family meetings provide an enormous lift to cosmonaut morale. Tsibliyev continued to function well enough, but after three or four months in space skills that are honed to perfection on Earth begin to deteriorate for all astronauts, even the invincible ones, and Tsibliyev was entering the danger zone in less than ideal shape. This was noticed at the Institute for Biomedical Problems, which closely monitors cosmonauts in space, looking for signs of trouble even in their talks with Mission Control. “His vocabulary became less rich, and ungrammatical,” the psychologist Nina Zaprissa said.
On June 25th, Tsibliyev was trying to perform a difficult practice docking of an unmanned cargo vessel when it crashed into Spektr, puncturing its skin. A life-threatening depressurization began, an alarm sounded, and the crew heard the hiss of air leaking from the station. They had perhaps half an hour to fix the problem before abandoning ship. They moved fast, sealing the hatch that separated Spektr from the rest of Mir. But be-fore shutting the hatch they had to disconnect cables that transferred power from Spektr’s solar panels to the other parts of the station; the result was that Mir lost nearly half its power. Mir was not quite lost in space, but it was certainly crippled. So was its commander. A few weeks later, Tsibliyev informed Mission Control that he was suffering heart palpitations. He was put on medication and was declared medically unfit for a planned space walk. Humiliation does not come in heavier doses.
The situation worsened on July 17th, when his crewmate, Alexander Lazutkin, unplugged the main computer by mistake, thereby sending Mir into free drift and depleting its battery power. This seemed to be the crew that couldn’t shoot straight on a station that couldn’t stay in orbit. A month later, after a new crew replaced Tsibliyev and Lazutkin, the power cables from Spektr were reattached through a new hatch, so Mir regained most of its normal power. Spektr, though, remained sealed off, punctured and airless. Between August 18th and September 22nd, the main computer crashed four times and the main oxygen system broke down repeatedly, a reminder that the eleven-year-old station was built to be used for just five years. Not only was Mir old but it seemed jinxed: a stray satellite nearly rammed it in mid-September. But somehow, amazingly, Mir, like the country that built it, survives.
Back on Earth, Tsibliyev’s reputation seemed to undergo a minor recovery. He had been fingered as the main culprit behind the June collision with the cargo vessel, but an increasing body of evidence began to point to crucial errors by Mission Control. The docking had been ill planned and would have been difficult for any cosmonaut to pull off, especially if he were as fatigued as Tsibliyev. That was only partial solace for Tsibliyev, who probably won’t fly again, as I learned from Victor Afanasiev, one of Russia’s top guns. Afanasiev is broad-shouldered and blunt in an old-fashioned way, and when we met he gave me a business card that said, in English, “Pilot-Cosmonaut of the U.S.S.R., Hero of the Soviet Union.” He reminded me that the commander of Mir is responsible for whatever happens on his watch, including mistakes by others. After citing a cosmonaut whose mission was filled with problems, Afanasiev declared that after coming home “that man found himself another job.”
An hour north of Moscow—past venders selling vegetables and motor oil, and a new McDonald’s, bright and fluorescent, an alien presence in the gritty terrain outside Russia’s capital—is a building with no gate or guard, just an unruly patch of grass in front and a small plaque next to the entrance. The plaque says, in Russian and English, “Mission Control Centre.”
Inside the threadbare building, there’s not much in the way of urgent activity; secretaries sit at their desks watching television or watering plants. A larger-than-life bust of Lenin, with a pair of red plastic flowers at its base, presides over a reception area near the control room. But a few yards away a dozen or so men and women from NASA are at work. Their crowded office has few luxuries or extras except for a Texas flag (most are from Houston) and a coffee machine. A cartoon taped on a wall shows Mir shaped like a broken-down car with its hood up, and an astronaut fiddling with the en-gine is saying, “Try it again.” The delegation from Texas is young, mostly in their thirties, dressed casually in a Dockers way. They are intense, these men and women. They are working for a federal agency that hopes, in the relatively near future, to send astronauts to Mars and beyond.
Their Russian counterparts tend to be a decade or two older, and their horizons are more limited. They are a low-key bunch, who instead of laptops have pens and paper. The future is not so heady for them: Russia’s space program is contracting. It is more appealing to go into business, for there one can earn much more than a few hundred dollars a month, which is what most of the workers at Mission Control are paid. Those workers have been in their jobs for quite some time; many of them were here during the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz docking, a high point of the détente era, and, unlike their colleagues from NASA, they don’t get particularly anxious when something goes wrong in space. Mir has had approximately fifteen hundred malfunctions in its lifetime.
The control room has the dimensions of a very large movie theatre, but instead of a screen up front there is a projected wall-to-wall map of the world, on which a slow-moving dot shows Mir’s position as it loops around the planet. A pair of advertising banners are slung under the map—one for a Russian chocolate company, the other for Hewlett-Packard. Russia’s space program is so short of money that commercial plugs have become the norm. Cosmonauts have filmed television commercials aboard Mir, and the most recent one, for an Israeli company, featured Vasily Tsibliyev playing with a weightless blob of milk. In post-communist Russia, the entrepreneurial zeal of the Russian Space Agency makes NASA seem like a stuffy socialist outfit: everything has a price tag—even space walks and manual dockings, for which cosmonauts receive thousand-dollar bonuses.
The atmosphere at Mission Control is grim. Along with Mir’s regular breakdowns, human and mechanical, the Russians must deal with the inquisitive media, something they’ve never had to do before. The job often falls to Vladimir Solovyov, the flight director. Solovyov often wears a snappy sports jacket, so he easily trumps the fashion-challenged hacks, and he has the superior bearing of a hot-shot cosmonaut (which he once was), a bearing that says, I have done things you cannot dream of doing, I have seen things you will never see—which, by the way, is true. Yet for all that, Solovyov seems to be in a permanent state of exhaustion and pique. The domestic media, although they don’t cover Mir very closely, tend to be uncharitable and less than perfectly accurate. The foreign media are aggressive, lunging to attention whenever anything goes wrong; as a news spectacle, Mir is an irresistible hybrid of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Three Stooges.”
Solovyov has a hard time smiling even when things are going his way. After the new crew reconnected the power cables from Spektr, in August, restoring most of Mir’s lost power, he slumped into a chair in the briefing room and declared that “nothing can throw us out of the saddle.” He could not leave well enough alone, though, and went on, “Everything that’s printed in the papers, I’m sorry, but we don’t pay any attention to it. It doesn’t matter to me what the world thinks.” As he got up to leave, he gave the knife a bitter twist: “I assume you’ll print what I said.” Later, when NASA erroneously announced that Mir’s oxygen system was nonfunctional again, prompting the media to lunge to attention once more, Solovyov was in good form. “To our greatest joy, and I think, to your deep disappointment, nothing extraordinary has happened aboard the station,” he told reporters.
Relations with NASA are more complex. Russians are the masters of long-duration space travel, they put the first satellite and the first human being into space, and they took the first pictures of the dark side of the moon. Despite the uncertain conditions on Mir, no one has died or been seriously injured on the station. Malfunctions tend not to disturb the Russian psyche, in space or on Earth; this is a nation of mechanical improvisation, a nation in which grandmothers perform road repairs on busted Ladas. If Mir’s computer or oxygen system breaks, the attitude at Mission Control is: Relax, we’ll fix it. That’s usually correct, but it can be a terrifying wait, and one feels that it will be only a matter of time before something truly disastrous occurs. When I asked Viktor Blagov, the deputy flight controller, whether NASA worries too much, he chuckled and said that NASA is obsessive about documents. “We don’t have these documents. We take a problem directly and have a meeting of the main specialists ... and we discuss it without documents. After that we have only one document. This document is named ‘decision.’ ” Blagov, who is sixty-one, joined the Soviet space program in 1959. At the end of our talk, he tapped his forehead and said, “It’s intuitive.”
The contrast was explained to me by Sergei Krikalev, who has flown twice on Mir and once on the shuttle, and has been selected as a member of the first crew for the International Space Station. He also happens to be a champion aerobatic pilot, and he has the lean look of an astronaut straight from central casting, so there’s little one can feel in his presence except deep inferiority. When he flew on Discovery, in 1994, he was in charge of maintenance, and a minor air-duct problem occurred. He notified Houston and was told to stand by for instructions. Hours later, Houston gave him a set of instructions, and they worsened the problem. So Krikalev discussed the problem with the commander, Charles Bolden, and they figured out a solution. They told Mission Control about it, and were instructed to stand by. Houston wasn’t being lazy in its response; most probably, technicians were checking blueprints and running simulations. Bolden got tired of waiting and asked Krikalev how the problem would be handled on Mir. It was simple, Krikalev told Bolden. First, he would fix the problem on his own and then tell ground control. If he couldn’t do it quickly, he’d still tell the ground, but he wouldn’t wait around for instructions. Rather, he would keep fiddling. Bolden nodded, and the two men got to work without telling Houston. “In five minutes,” Krikalev told me, smiling, “we fixed the problem and just told the ground controllers that we’d already fixed it.”
At the Johnson Space Center, which sprawls over sixteen hundred acres of what was cattle pasture outside Houston, life is good. There is no sign of scrimping or decay—just an all-is-well tableau of lawns and gift shops and NASA scientists wearing buttons that say “Mars or Bust.” A Disney-style trolley roams around the center with its cargo of tourists, and a few miles away, in neigh-borhoods where the technicians and contractors and astronauts live in split-levels, there are streets with names like Gemini Avenue and Saturn Lane. It all seems pleasant and unruffled, but for the men and women who labor in a program called Phase 1 the calmness is an illusion, which is to say that they labor in the shadow of Mir.
Phase 1, the joint Mir program, began its life as a lesser child at NASA, thrust upon the agency by a White House eager to guarantee its partnership with Rus-sia. Thirty-two years earlier, the Apollo program had begun because America wanted to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon; now the rationale was reversed. Phase 2, a deeper and more ambitious blending of the American and Russian space programs than Phase 1, consists of NASA and the Russian Space Agency leading a global consortium in the building of the International Space Station. In this phase, Russian participa-tion is supposed to save money for NASA, because the Russians are contributing equipment and funding, and the station’s first component, a two-hundred-and-twenty-million-dollar Russian-built module, is scheduled to be launched late next year.
At the outset, Mir was viewed as something of a transition mission until assembly of the International Space Station began. Then the fire occurred and the collision and the computer breakdowns, whereupon, quite suddenly, Mir was no longer an interlude, but the center of attention. All at once, NASA’s reputation was at stake, along with its future. After all, NASA’s thirteen-and-a-half-billion-dollar budget is not untouchable. It is an item that politicians can look at and say, Why bother? If the goal is to send astronauts to Mars, it can be argued—and has been—that NASA and the International Space Station are only impediments. In his book “The Case for Mars” Robert Zubrin, a former senior engineer at Lockheed Martin, has proposed giving twenty billion dollars—a “Mars Prize”—to the first group that lands humans on the red planet, much in the spirit of nineteenth-century explorations. And if the goal is to collect data about our solar system, why not focus exclusively on those efficient, relatively cheap robot probes that don’t suffer the inconvenience of heart palpitations? It has not escaped notice that while Mir was lurching about only two hundred and fifty miles above Earth, the Pathfinder was executing a perfect bounce-landing on Mars and sending back pictures and data.
This is not the sort of argument that appeals to Jim Van Laak, the deputy director of Phase 1. Van Laak, an ex-fighter jock, doesn’t dance around criticism of his program so much as stamp on it. He’s not glad that the fire and the collision occurred, but those near-disasters forced the Russians to work more closely with NASA than either side anticipated. The result, Van Laak maintains, is priceless information. “When you leave Earth orbit on your way to Mars, nobody is going to Fed Ex you a spare part that you forgot, so this is an incredibly valuable and critical element of our learning experience,” he said to me. “I assure you that we have learned more in the last six months from flying on Mir than we had learned in the last twenty-five years from thinking about flying our own space station.”
NASA is usually criticized as a slow, unimaginative bureaucracy; the Challenger explosion seemed to squeeze out whatever traces remained of the hang-your-hide-over-the-edge attitude that permeated the agency in its early, pioneering days. Daniel Goldin, NASA’s administrator, is trying to make the agency “faster, better, cheaper,” and is apparently succeeding, though NASA’s involvement with Mir has led to a new bandwidth of criticism from Capitol Hill—that the agency is taking wild risks for the sake of post-Cold War relations with Russia. “What will it take for Russia to decide that Mir has passed its prime or the United States to determine that it’s not safe?” the Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner, Jr., the chairman of the House Science Committee, asked as NASA officials were questioned. “Does someone have to get killed?” Roberta Gross, the NASA inspector general, provided cause for concern in an August 29th report to Sensenbrenner. “Ongoing problems on the Mir are occurring at a time when the Russian government may not be in a position to provide adequate financial and technical support to enable the aging space station to operate safely,” her report stated. “Moreover, these problems are exacerbated by the Russians’ failure to timely or fully communicate with NASA. Without knowledge of the problems on Mir or its operating systems, NASA cannot fully prepare our astronauts for their mission.”
When I met with Van Laak, it was early September, and he was tapping a conference table, noting that in a few hours Michael Foale would perform a risky space walk for which he had not been specifically trained. “There is a great deal of hypocrisy in the public world,” Van Laak began. “If there’s an incident, we’re going to get crucified, and, if it’s successful, we’re heroes. I can think of no other word but hypocrisy to describe that.” (The space walk went off without a hitch.) Van Laak was just warming up: “There is risk here, there is absolutely no doubt about it. To be perfectly honest, there are plenty of people within the political system and within NASA who are pushing us to go, go, go, go, go, while at the same time they are distancing themselves from any blame.”
The fear of failure helps explain why NASA demands so many documents and reassurances from the Russian Space Agency. The Russian agency does not need to worry about being zeroed out if something goes wrong, so it doesn’t run as tight a ship as NASA does. In fact, the Russian Space Agency is under pressure to keep Mir in operation through 1999, rather than nudge it out of orbit and let it be consumed by fire as it reënters the atmosphere. This is partly a matter of national pride but also a matter of money. Mir helps keep Russia’s space industry alive: in addition to the cash from NASA, the European Space Agency and individual European nations pay considerable sums to fly their astronauts and experiments on the station. A few years ago, a Japanese television network paid ten million dollars so that one of its reporters could ride on Mir for a few days. In some ways, the Russian attitude is similar to the American attitude in the sixties, when we knew that our new rockets could explode under our astronauts, but instead of slowing down we pushed ahead and hoped for the best. These days, we live in a tamper-proof culture, and Van Laak can only dream of taking risks of the sort taken in the days of Mercury and Gemini and Apollo. “We are in a pioneering business,” he said. “Unless we want to crawl under the bed and forget about spaceflight, we’re going to have to take some risks.”
That is especially so with a mission to Mars, which involves challenges far greater than anything Mir—or Apollo, for that matter—has thrown at its creators. Consider the mission: when a crew heads to Mars, they will be on their own for at least eighteen months (assuming a year of travelling and six months on the surface of Mars). As Van Laak suggests, they won’t have any resupply ships bringing fresh food and magazines; they’ll be so far from Earth that real-time communication will be impossible for much of the mission, and they will not even be able to see the Earth, except as a pale-blue dot. If something goes wrong they won’t be able to climb into an escape capsule and return home in a matter of hours, as Mir’s crew can. Their isolation will be as complete as any group of human beings has faced.
I asked Albert Holland, NASA’s chief of psychology, whether the human-factor problems were surmountable, and his answer was intriguing: “We’re not the first people to do this. We’re the first people to go to Mars, but we’re not the first people to take a trip like this.” He mentioned the earliest sea voyages, in which humans lost sight of land for the first time, and the journey across the Atlantic by Columbus. “The human fac-tors are severe, but it would be presumptuous of us to think that people haven’t done this before,” Holland went on. “We’re not the first explorers, we’re not the first risk-takers, we’re not the first adventurers.”
Mir, in that respect, not only offers a glimpse of the future, it has restarted a debate about the United States’ commitment to space—about the things that America should and should not attempt to do, about the risks that America should and should not take, about the rationale for Mir and Alpha and Mars. As the countdown proceeded to the September 25th launch of the space shuttle Atlantis, people were actually waiting to hear what NASA’s administrator would say—whether another American would be sent aloft to Mir, and, if so, why. It was an unusual opportunity to reach a large audience, and when Goldin finally gave his last-minute go-ahead, he didn’t hesitate to speak his mind. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “Americans press forward. We overcome the unexpected. We discover the unknown. That has been our history. That’s America’s destiny.”
The plane lands without incident at Chicago’s teeming O’Hare International Airport, where everyone’s on a mission, going somewhere, doing something. The industrially correct word for such an airport is hub, but it’s a turnstile more than anything else, flinging us to our diverse destinations: this one goes to Los Angeles, that one to Paris, another to Caracas. Me? I’m going to Iowa. I board a half-empty connecting flight, and an hour later the plane lands in Cedar Rapids. It’s the only passenger jet in sight, and it will not stay for long—this plane has places to go.
I get in my rental car and head away from Cedar Rapids—far away. I drive a few miles on Interstate 380 and peel off at Route 1, which has one lane going each way—and if I make the mistake of swerving just a tiny bit, I will end up flattened like a bug against the grill of an oncoming 18-wheeler. This is rural territory. There are cornfields all around, an occasional farmhouse with a Ford pickup in front, and modest crossroads sporting the likes of a Dairy Queen and a gas station where the attendant knows most everyone. Traffic congestion is caused not by a scrum of horn-blowing lunatics, but by lone tractors putt-putting along the road, the farmers waving at you as you pass. I drive for an hour, until I reach a marquee-style sign:
A Cast of 10,000 as Themselves
A Story About Excellence
in Community Living
I have reached my destination, but this is all a bit strange. I am working on a high tech story, yet I am not in Silicon Valley, nor in Manhattan’s Silicon Alley, nor in Seattle or Boston or any city associated with high tech. I am not even in a city, not even close to one, and my hotel is on a dirt road. The companies I seek are located on patches of earth that until recently were cornfields, and that ground—upon which the future of global telecommunications is being sculpted—is surrounded by cornfield upon cornfield upon cornfield.
I have come to Fairfield to interview the high tech entrepreneurs behind Telegroup and USA Global Link, telecommunications firms whose wily use of callback technology helped break the spine of the world’s telephone monopolies. The upshot may be as earthshaking in the US$600 billion global telecom market as the breakup of Ma Bell was in the US market. Consider this: The average cost of an international phone call is poised to drop as much as 80 percent over the next few years. To anyone who has made an international call and cursed its exorbitant cost, these guys are heroes. Their reward has been considerable so far, leading to annual salaries in excess of half a million dollars for some—and the prospect of greater riches ahead.
It started quite modestly a few years back, when callback companies arrived on the scene using a high tech trick to capitalize on the fact that foreign telephone monopolies charge many times more for international calls than American companies such as AT&T and MCI. The trick consisted of setting up phone switches in the States that customers would call from abroad. Callers would hang up after the first ring, avoiding any charge, and a phone switch would call them back instantly, connecting them to a stateside phone line. The customers then dialed their calls on the American line, incurring reasonable US rates rather than exorbitant rates charged by the foreign monopolies.
Telegroup, which grew from practically nothing a few years ago into a firm that raked in $213 million in revenues last year, just went public, is valued at about $300 million, and aims to evolve into a global phone company offering a full range of services. A few cornfields away, Global Link aims for a similar transition and has unveiled grandiose plans to build an Internet-based phone system. If Telegroup or Global Link stumble during their transitions, they’re telecom roadkill. Splat. If they stay on their feet, they’re players in an explosion of riches in the warp-speed world of global telephony.
Yes, Fairfield is hot these days. The locals call it Silicorn Valley.
Just prior to my visit, Telegroup had opened a new headquarters building, an attractive structure that stands out amid the area’s grain silos because it’s topped with Buddhist-style spires. Yes, it looks a bit odd, and it makes you wonder. Staff is still feeling its way around the place when I visit, and workers rumble down the corridors girded with tool belts and wielding power drills, providing low tech solutions for a high tech company. The company has that unmistakable Silicon Valley feel—the casual dress, the sea of young faces, the absence of corporate rigidity, the we-are-building-a-new-world atmosphere.
I head toward the office of Fred Gratzon, the wizard of this Oz. As chair of Telegroup, he pulled down $850,000 in salary and bonuses last year and owns a big chunk of the firm. His clothes are Eddie Bauer-ish, he wears leather slippers, and he has the endearing manner of an ice-cream vendor—which he used to be. Sales tags still hang from underneath his office chairs, and a picture of a familiar-looking Indian guru is propped against a wall. There’s something rather special about this office, but a first-time visitor might need some time to piece it together. Because Telegroup’s growth has been so fast and hectic, Gratzon hasn’t had time to arrange the stuff in his new office, and I jokingly ask how long it will be before he needs to move into a bigger one.“No more than a year,” he replies, and he is not fooling around. “We play seriously, we play to win, and we’ll be successful. But one of the secrets of our success is to not take it so seriously.” There’s a Zen-like contradiction in him and in his company, an unusual calmness/earnestness. It has something to do with those spires atop the roof and the picture of the guru on his wall, but that’s getting ahead of the story.
Gratzon has had the sort of business career that would be defined in a résumé as “wide ranging.” More than a decade ago he set up the Great Midwestern Ice Cream Company, which did quite well for a while, earning a couple of culinary prizes—and Nancy Reagan even invited him to cater a White House picnic after she tasted his product. Gratzon took on new investors, but they booted him from the firm in 1988, leaving him to collect unemployment checks and worry about how to support his family in Fairfield.
This guy is no farmer, so he began fiddling around in the phone industry, buying blocks of discounted long distance time from AT&T and reselling bits and pieces to friends. Working out of a spare room of his house, he teamed up with fellow Fairfield resident Cliff Rees, a successful oil trader with an arbitrageur’s acute, go-for-the-kill mind-set. Thus was Telegroup born.
Gratzon and Rees stumbled into callback in 1992 after reading a magazine article about the infant technology.“Callback is an arbitrage play,” Rees says calmly, as though remarking on the weather. His office boasts a number of unusual artifacts, including two samurai swords and his grandfather’s cavalry blade on a display case, a wall-sized world map, and a statuette of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth. Rees, president and CEO of Telegroup, explains arbitrage as finding price imbalances and exploiting them with whatever weapons you have—callback technology, for instance.
In the early 1990s, callback’s commercial potential was vast. The new callback firms in Iowa and other states aggressively marketed it and underpriced the big guys by margins that were tempting for individuals and small companies—the sort of customers who feel the pain of high phone rates more acutely than large firms (although the US State Department, the United Nations, and the World Bank reportedly used callback). This ignited a somewhat amusing yet momentous war in which foreign telephone monopolies tried to crush the callback upstarts. They failed, and the world will never be the same again.
Estimates of the magnitude of today’s callback market vary, but most guesses converge at about $1.5 billion in 1996, and the market is believed to have doubled annually since 1992. It didn’t take long for foreign, government-run telcos—known in the industry by the initials PTT (Post, Telephone, and Telegraph)—to realize that they were losing valuable business and that the hemorrhaging would worsen unless something was done.
Basically, international calls have been a glorious cash cow for the PTTs since the dawn of telecom time; until recently, the PTTs faced no competitive pressures and could charge whatever infernal rate they wanted. It was like harvesting cash. A call from Buenos Aires to Miami, for example, would cost $5-$6 per minute for a minimum of three minutes. Ditto for most other countries; rates varied but almost always bore little relation to the PTT’s cost of completing the call. They charged as much as they could get away with. It was a racket.
Things began changing in 1992 and 1993, when callback hit its stride. At the start, some PTTs were confused—they knew that callback firms were stealing their business but they didn’t quite understand how. One day, a Global Link salesperson in Spain got a visit from several officials of the Spanish PTT who—expecting a switching system of some sort—were surprised to find nothing more than a telephone and a fax machine. In fact, the switches were located in the US, and the salesperson was merely signing up customers for Global Link’s service, giving them the callback numbers in the US, and faxing their account information to headquarters in Iowa.
The PTTs—and the governments that operated them—got wise to the system and decided to crush it. A number of countries took legislative action—the Bahamian Parliament passed a law authorizing a $10,000 fine for anyone they caught using callback services ($20,000 and a two-year jail term for a second conviction), and 26 other countries have prohibited callback, according to a US government tally. The European Union, a bit more subtle, imposed a punitive value-added tax on callback firms. Most crucially, PTTs blocked telephone numbers used by callback firms; if you tried to dial a callback firm’s number in the US from, say, Paris or Jakarta, you’d get a busy signal.
Like clever mice outwitting fat cats, the callback firms prevailed by changing their numbers as soon as they were blocked. The PTTs were not amused. Instead of using a flyswatter, they took out a hammer and blocked three-digit exchanges within an area code—for example, every number in the 212 area code beginning with 864. The callback firms just laughed, changed their numbers to different exchanges, notified customers of the new numbers, and carried on. So then the PTTs blocked those exchanges, and, of course, the callback firms just hopped to other ones, and so on. In one case, a callback firm, hounded by Uruguay’s PTT, acquired the same three-digit exchange as Uruguay’s embassy in Washington, DC. The PTT was trumped: if it blocked the exchange, the country’s embassy would be cut off from the motherland.
Some PTTs—mostly in the Third World—abandoned the hammer and used the shotgun, blocking calls to entire area codes. This had two results: callback firms changed numbers to different area codes, and the PTTs were inundated with complaints from customers who couldn’t call their friends in, say, Seattle. The game became increasingly sophisticated. Realizing call blocking wasn’t working too well, some of the PTTs blocked tone dialing after calls from the US were connected, thus making it impossible for callback customers to use their touch-tone phones to communicate with the callback computer switches (or for traveling businesspeople to access their voicemail back home). The callback firms got around this barrier by using voice-recognition software to complete the calls: instead of dialing numbers, customers pronounced them aloud. Some firms used a particularly nifty device to turn the trick—a human operator. The cat-and-mouse permutations took on myriad forms, but in each case the mice came out on top.
“Some of the callback operators proved rather ingenious,” admits Jonathan Nadler, an attorney for Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, which represents a consortium of Central and South American telcos. He acknowledges that the economic incentive for callback firms is quite strong.“It’s classic arbitrage,” he said.“It doesn’t cost anything to be in the business. You buy a cheap switch, you make no contribution to the infrastructure, you don’t pay taxes in the country where you’re providing the service. It’s a great party as long as it lasts, with the one problem being that the party is not necessarily a legal one in a lot of countries.”
To make matters worse for the PTTs, late last year AT&T rolled out its own callback service, which was like a trusted ally defecting to the other side. For a variety of reasons, AT&T had long resisted callback technology and had even asked the FCC to crack down on callback firms operating in the US. (The agency refused.) For one, when a PTT transmits a call to America, it can channel the call through any US carrier line. It is supposed to do this proportionally—if AT&T transmits 60 percent of calls from the US, then it should get 60 percent of calls to the States. But if a PTT got miffed at AT&T for some reason—say, because AT&T was operating a callback service or failing to stand in the way of callback services—the PTT could reduce or threaten to reduce the calls channeled through AT&T lines, thus diminishing AT&T’s revenue. Even so, AT&T realized last year that in some markets callback’s pros outweigh the cons, and it switched sides. Despite the high tech wizardry of global telecommunications, sometimes business decisions boil down to a very old motto: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
With the sky falling in, the foreign telcos began reacting in strange ways. Indosat, the international arm of Indonesia’s government-controlled PTT, invested Rp4.68 billion ($20 million) in Global Link last year, even though an Indonesian government decree bans the use of callback. Others emulated this schizophrenic strategy.“I remember going to trade conferences, and PTTs would ask, ‘What is call reorigination?’” says Joel Eisenberg, chair of Seattle-based International Telcom, one of the first callback firms.“Then, they asked how they stop it, and now they want to get on the gravy train.”
The PTTs weren’t just swatting at the callback firms—they had other forces to contend with. They were being pinched by international calling-card services, such as the one AT&T operates. The company’s service allows cardholders in foreign countries to get international AT&T lines by dialing local access numbers. The service is similar to callback, but the calls can be made only in countries where AT&T (or any company offering the service) has local access numbers, and the rates are generally more expensive than callback.
Then there was the growing practice of reselling international line time, which enabled competitors of the PTTs to purchase international line time from foreign carriers and offer international service at lower rates. Most powerfully, a trend toward privatization was creeping across the globe, which meant that foreign governments faced new pressure to open their markets to competition, especially in the hyperprotected realm of telecommunications.
The end of the ancien régime came on February 15 of this year, when 68 countries agreed in Geneva to open their telecommunications markets in 1998. The agreement, under the auspices of the World Trade Organization, marks a new era in telecommunications, according to industry and government officials. US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky predicts that the $600 billion global telecommunications market will double or treble in the next decade, and few experts dispute her estimate. The accord was reached under heavy pressure from the US government, which believes that liberalization will benefit lean-and-mean American firms because they know how to operate in a competitive environment.
US officials hammered away at their counterparts from Europe, Japan, and the Third World, warning them that if they didn’t agree to orderly deregulation, American telephone companies would begin their own disorderly deregulation like piranhas going for the kill.“The callback phenomenon is tremendously important in terms of where we got,” a US trade official told me.“It’s proof that technological improvements will defeat regulatory structure. It provided us with leverage.”
Nobody knows what’s going to happen next, except that tectonic shifts will occur as phone companies try to best each other with improved services. The cost of international calls is likely to drop like a rock in a dry well—Barshefsky predicts an 80 percent slide, from an average of $1 per minute to 20 cents within a few years. Rates would plummet even more dramatically if the telcos put the Net to commercial use, which seems inevitable though not imminent (the bandwidth isn’t there yet). If you doubt these predictions, just look at Sprint, which in April slashed weekend rates on calls to Great Britain to 10 cents a minute.
Services are likely to get not only cheaper, but better, as telcos offer integrated packages of voice, voicemail, conferencing, paging, cellular phones, fax, email, and Internet access. The idea is that you could access a sophisticated range of personalized phone services from anywhere in the world at the touch of a few buttons. For example, pick up a phone in Budapest or Buenos Aires, and you’ll be able to dial a local or toll free number and pick up your voicemail, get voice translations of email, faxes, or pager messages, and be able to respond to all of them on the spot—and, after that, call wherever you want at low prices and on flawless lines. No echoes, delays, or static. That’s the idea, at least.
But where does that leave our friends from Fairfield? You would think the game is over for callback firms, and in a sense it is. With phone rates dropping and a range of new services on the horizon, the incentive for customers to use a clunky callback service is fading fast. After all, why bother with the hassle of callback if, instead of saving $2 a minute, you’re just saving a few pennies? Telegroup, like Global Link and other callback firms, sees the handwriting on the wall.“Nothing lasts forever,” says Rees, Telegroup’s nonplussed president and CEO.“Any arbitrage situation always collapses sooner or later, whether it’s in the telecommunications market or the stock market or the gold market.” Telegroup’s new strategy is to try to accomplish globally what MCI achieved in the US market when deregulation got under way here—take advantage of a newly competitive environment to outhustle the 800-pound gorillas and do what they’re doing, only better and cheaper. The global telecom market is up for grabs, and Telegroup wants a piece of it.
The big players realize that they need to expand beyond national borders to prosper. Alliances and takeovers are being made at breakneck speed—the British Telecom/MCI merger is just the largest example. It’s no longer enough for Deutsche Telekom to have a stranglehold over the German market. In order to fulfill the needs of its corporate clients—the meat and potatoes of any major telecom’s revenue—it must provide worldwide services, so that a German company’s subsidiary in Japan or Australia has the same quality of service as the home office. The upshot is that the PTTs, some of which have been loosely allied with each other for years, are expected to broaden and deepen those alliances in the next few years while setting up their own switching facilities in foreign lands. Some will prosper; some certainly will wither.
Enter the small guys, the Telegroups and the Global Links. Telegroup has issued about $40 million in stock, and Global Link executives are traipsing across the globe touting their plans for an Internet-based phone system—a Holy Grail in the telecommunications world that many industry officials think is beyond Global Link’s reach. Telegroup and Global Link contend that they have the nimbleness to become"virtual” phone carriers offering a full range of global services without owning all the clunky hardware typically associated with industry behemoths—everything from ditchdiggers to transcontinental cables and geosynchronous satellites.
“There’s a lot of room for mixed players in the future,” says Eli Noam, a professor of economics at Columbia University and head of the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information. Noam defines mixed players as system integrators:“I’ve been arguing for years that they will become the telecom companies of the future. They will be doing a lot of bundling together of other people’s elements rather than providing their own. But of course everyone’s jumping on that, and whether it’s the small companies that will be able to play the global role is questionable to me.”
It’s not questionable to the small companies. Global Link executives say that their know-how is more important than their infrastructure and that the firm could be valued at $3 billion to $6 billion in the proposed share offering. Gratzon, Telegroup’s chairman, believes that the now-dominant PTTs are as dim-witted as IBM was in the early 1980s, when Apple emerged from nowhere with a better idea and the ability to move quickly.
“We have salespeople in more countries than just about any phone company in the world,” Gratzon says.“We have customers in more countries than just about any phone company in the world. It’s a good springboard.” But what about the, um, other guys?“The competition out there is inept when it comes to marketing, even locally, because they’re monopolies,” he says.“Their customer-service track record is abysmal. They clearly have zero competence in marketing over the border. Does France Telecom have any experience in Japan? I would say close to zero. Does Deutsche Telekom know the first thing about Brazil? No. All the phone companies in the world, with the exception of some Yanks, are very geocentric. Their networks are highly localized, they have no marketing infrastructure, they have no cultural experience, they have nothing. So the opportunity is huge.”
A word of caution is in order here, and the word is Viatel. This small phone company began with callback services and migrated to conventional international service, primarily in Europe. It went public late last year, promising to dance around the big guys and set up a global phone network similar in scope and strategy to the systems Telegroup, Global Link, and others in their class are planning. One of Viatel’s early shareholders was investor George Soros, a man known for having a golden touch. But Viatel has failed to live up to its projections, posting a $29 million loss in 1996 on revenue of $51 million. Its share price, $12 when it went public in October, has tumbled by nearly half. The truth is that although Telegroup would not mind growing into a global MCI, it doesn’t need to become that big to become big. Confused? Look at the numbers again. The global phone market is worth more than half a trillion dollars now and could be worth a few trillion dollars in 10 or 20 years.“Not a month or a week goes by that I don’t have an experience that stretches my perception as to realizing just how big the telecom market is,” says Ronald Stakland, Telegroup’s vice president for international marketing and operations (and a former oil broker).“The market is so big, it may as well be infinite in terms of market potential. In that sense, any company is going to have the opportunity to be very, very big.”
The interesting catch is that in order to be very, very big, a company will need to control only a small piece of the market. In a filing with the SEC, Telegroup reports that it is the second largest carrier of international calls in France, The Netherlands, and Switzerland, though it has no more than a small share of each market. Big deal, you say? Well, the French, Dutch, and Swiss together spend more than $35 billion on both domestic and international phone calls annually, so if Telegroup gains just a decent slice of those markets as they liberalize in the next few years—let’s say 3 percent—it will have locked up more than $1 billion in revenue.
Not bad for a couple of guys who started their firm in a spare bedroom in Fairfield, Iowa. But why Fairfield? What’s special about these guys, or about Fairfield? The answer may surprise you. Remember those Buddhist spires atop the Telegroup headquarters? (The Global Link headquarters has a similar set.) And remember the picture of the Indian guru propped against the wall in Gratzon’s office? And the fact that Gratzon wears slippers in his office?
It’s simple: Fairfield is ground zero of the transcendental meditation movement in the US. More than one-third of the town’s residents are devout meditators, including the senior executives at Telegroup and Global Link and most of their employees. The Indian gentleman whose picture is in Gratzon’s office is Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, leader of the TM movement. Gratzon, a longtime TM instructor, ran for the US Senate last year as a candidate from the Natural Law Party, a spinoff of the TM movement. In fact, Telegroup got its commercial liftoff from TM. Guess who constituted the bulk of Telegroup’s international sales force at the outset? Meditators who Gratzon and Rees had gotten to know through their years in the TM movement.
“All my success is due to the practice of transcendental meditation,” Gratzon says.“I see TM as an enormous competitive edge. People here are enormously focused. It’s breathtaking how dedicated and focused everyone is, and at the same time there is a lightness in the air, an easiness. As far as I’m concerned, corporate America is missing out by not considering a TM program for their management.” Over at Global Link, where visitors to the corporate headquarters building are expected to remove their shoes before walking on the pristine carpets, the attitude is the same. Global Link founder Christopher Hartnett describes TM as a"mental technology” that has given his company a competitive edge.“I don’t think we could have had our growth without it,” he says.“It has provided me with a tremendous amount of clarity of mind.”
It’s a simple thing, TM. For 20 minutes in the morning, preferably before breakfast, and for 20 minutes in the evening, preferably before dinner, you sit in a quiet place, close your eyes and silently repeat a sound, your mantra. You repeat it over and over again, and if you do it right, your mind wanders into a zone that is neither sleep nor wakefulness—it is between the two and beyond the two. When the session is over you open your eyes, and, if things have gone right and TM does what it is supposed to do, you feel relaxed, refreshed, clearer, as though you have gone for a swim in a mountain lake. For Telegroup’s Type A personalities, it means that they can be Type As without the usual hang-ups of Type As—the ulcers, the outbursts, and all the rest. TM calms them down and allows them to work harder; Rees, for example, often slips back into his office at ten at night—after his evening meditation session—and stays until two or three in the morning, working on problems or sending email. And he’s up the next morning, ready for more work, ready to conquer the world.
TM can be more than just a matter of meditation: it can include a holistic régime of eating and health care known as Ayurveda and even a form of architecture known as Sthapatya veda, which is said to generate success. Telegroup and Global Link embrace both principles: the spires atop their headquarters, their east-facing entrances, and each building’s bramistan—its quiet reception area—are derived from Sthapatya veda. Telegroup goes a step further and offers its employees a health-care package that includes free Ayurveda treatments at The Raj, a local health spa and hotel that offers, among other amenities, herbal massages and"elimination therapy” (known to the rest of us as enemas).
So why Iowa? The followers of the Maharishi (“great seer” in Sanskrit) founded the Maharishi International University in Santa Barbara, California, in 1971. The institution’s students soon overcrowded the small apartment complex the university was renting. When a small college in Fairfield went bankrupt and offered its campus for a song ($2.5 million) in 1974, the Maharishi’s followers decamped to the heartland. The campus, a smattering of classroom buildings and podlike living quarters, suited them well, though they had to build the meditation domes, one for men, one for women. More than two decades later, the meditators have deep roots here. The town features a couple of vegetarian restaurants, a few New Age bookstores, and a natural-vitamin store, and there’s a Maharishi High School, too, for the next generation of meditators. It all lends Fairfield the tie-dyed feel of Berkeley, though of course Fairfield is not Berkeley and Iowa is not California (for which the residents of both states are no doubt equally grateful). No hills surround Fairfield, no bays or bridges or tall buildings, just one movie theater—and if you wander around asking where you can get a double-decaf skim latte, well, you’ll find out what Iowa laughter sounds like.
In other words, after a few days it was time to leave Fairfield. I got back in my car, drove back up the dirt road, passed a barn with “Pride-o-Prairie” painted on its side, pulled onto Route 1, waved at the farmers on their tractors, and kept on cruising until I reached the Cedar Rapids Municipal Airport. I arrived home soon enough, turnstiling through O’Hare, but from time to time my mind floats back to where I was on that journey, and what I saw—things I would not have expected to see—and a gee-whiz question rustles around my head like a cornstalk in a breeze. It’s a whisper of a question, just one word long, and it is this: Iowa?
Peter Maass, a writer based in New York, is the author of Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War, a memoir of his experiences covering the Bosnian war.
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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