A commander in the Hezbul Mujahadeen, a band of Islamic militants, Kiramat Ullah loves to fight, loves to watch videos of fighting, loves to listen to songs about fighting and would be honored to die in battle against American soldiers. When I visited his militia’s provincial headquarters outside Peshawar, a battered stereo was playing a tune that included these lines: “The way of jihad/Is the way of success/The way of jihad/Is the way of the Koran.”
Military training is not conducted at the compound; that happens at secret installations. But reminders of what these men do are quite public. Outside the militia’s office, walls are painted with a two-story list of fighters killed in action in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Inside, I sat on the floor with Kiramat in a spartan room, across from a locker with a sticker that said “Fighting is the way of Allah.”
The atmosphere seemed a bit heavy, so I asked about his hobbies. Did he enjoy cricket, a national sport in Pakistan?
“No,” he said in English. “Jihad.”
There is no shortage of Afghans or Pakistanis who say they are willing to fight American soldiers, and perhaps they all mean it, but Kiramat is the genuine jihad article. For the past 15 years, he has been a holy warrior, first in Afghanistan, against the Soviets, and then in Kashmir, against the Indians. As we sipped green tea, he was awaiting his marching orders, hoping to be dispatched to Afghanistan.
“We would be very happy if America would attack Afghanistan,” he said, “because now all Muslims are divided. If America attacked, it would unite the Muslim world.”
Kiramat is a short man with a thick beard and the physique of an oak tree: it does not matter how big or strong you are; you would not want to mess with him. The fact that he is alive and well after so many years of guerrilla warfare tells you what you need to know. The man knows his business.
Still in search of soft details, I asked what he most enjoyed doing. I thought he might mention spending time with his two children.
“I like jihad the most, when it’s at its peak,” he replied.
“When we start fighting and bullets are flying and we are firing at the enemy and they are crying out and in trouble, and when some of my men are being injured and becoming martyrs. That is the peak. We don’t enjoy sitting around.”
Swimmers love to swim, actors love to act, and as Kiramat reminded me, fighters love to fight. If his actions were not so deadly, it might be tempting to describe his devotion to jihad as childlike in its intensity. This thought occurred to me after the militia’s head of religious instruction, Inayat Ullah, gently tugged my sleeve.
“Excuse me,” he said in good English. “Can you arrange for me to meet your President Bush? Only five minutes needed.”
He was not joking. I said I was not in a position to make such arrangements. He pressed ahead. Might I have Bush’s phone number or e-mail address? He assured me his intentions were not ill. He had a dream the night before in which Allah told him to persuade Bush to embrace Islam. “That would solve the problem,” Inayat explained.
Our discussion moved to other subjects, and several young men came along who wanted to talk with the foreign visitor. Although the militia’s fighters are revved up to fight American soldiers, they are thoroughly civil with noncombatants.
When it was time to leave, Inayat returned to my side. “Excuse me,” he said. “But where does Mr. Clinton live now?”
The following day, when the photographer I am working with returned to the Hezbul Mujahadeen compound, he was told that Kiramat had departed. The reason was simple.
Nawaf Alhazmi, one of the suspected Sept. 11 hijackers, left behind a letter that outlined last-minute things he should do and think about, such as not forgetting his passport and ensuring he was not being followed. The letter, according to the FBI, also included these lines: “Keep a very open mind, keep a very open heart of what you are to face. You will be entering paradise. You will be entering the happiest life, everlasting life.”
It has become unfortunately common for suicide bombers to state, in eerie before-death videos that are released after an explosion kills dozens on an Israeli street, that they are looking forward to their fatal missions because they know they will reach paradise. That is questionable. The Quran forbids suicide and the killing of innocent people, so it’s more than likely that the 19 men who murdered more than 6,000 civilians last month will wake up in the last place they expected to be—hell.
But the question remains—why do Islamic suicide bombers believe they will go to paradise, and why are they so eager to go there? These questions are easy to explore in Peshawar, where it is hard to say a prayer without being overheard by a mullah. Peshawar, a conservative city in Muslim Pakistan, is near the Afghan border and gave birth to the Taliban’s ideas. Many Taliban leaders were trained at local madrasahs, or religious schools.
My exploration began by driving onto the manicured grounds of Peshawar University, which was built by the British during the days of the raj and still has a colonial feel. Students were playing cricket at dusk, and the campus atmosphere was more Oxford than Pakistan. I stopped at the white-washed residence of professor Qibla Ayaz, a leading Islamic scholar, and we were soon joined by professor Maraj ul Islam, whose expertise involves the interpretation of paradise.
Over tea and sweets, the Quranic discussion began. Paradise is explained quite vividly in suras (or chapters) 55 and 56 of the Quran, which note that those who enter paradise will enjoy “abundant fruits, unforbidden, never-ending.” There will be “gushing fountains” and everyone “shall recline on jeweled couches face to face, and there shall wait on them immortal youths with bowls and ewers and a cup of purest wine.”
Wine? Islam forbids alcohol, but only in the earthly life. In paradise, alcohol is no problem at all. It is available not simply for the asking, but for the mere thinking. If you think you want a glass of wine, or anything at all, you shall have it. And that is not the only item forbidden in this life yet plentiful in paradise.
“Therein are bashful virgins whom neither man nor jinnee will have touched before ... virgins as fair as corals and rubies,” states sura 55. A few lines later, we are reminded of “virgins chaste and fair ... they shall recline on green cushions and fine carpets.”
When I asked professor ul Islam, who has a doctorate from Leeds University, what the usefulness of these virgins might be for a male resident of paradise, he patted my forearm in a friendly way and said, “You will know when you get there.” His laughter was abundant; I got the joke.
But why does Allah offer luxuries in paradise that are sinful on earth? Free sex, alcohol, bejeweled furniture—paradise would seem a strangely un-Islamic place.
“You are put to the test in this world,” professor Ayaz explained. “If you pass, there are no bans in the next world. It is free.” He went on: “What is the meaning of life? Is life a big house, a good job, a comfortable bank balance? Muslims who believe in their faith are not trying to have a comfortable life here. They are trying to please Allah.” An eternally comfortable life will come in paradise, which is the payoff for the hard times required by Allah on this side of the great divide.
Professor Ayaz raised, without prompting, the question of a typical suicide bomber.
“What is the force that leads him to this act, leaving his family and friends? It is because he is convinced he is going to paradise.”
Professor Ayaz does not believe suicide bombers, such as those responsible for the attacks in New York and Washington, will wake up in a roomful of virgins. Because those men committed suicide and killed innocents, they are going to hell. Professor ul Islam agreed but downplayed paradise as a motivating factor. He noted the presence in our world of suicide attackers who aren’t paradise-besotted Muslims—the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, as well as the fanatics who shoot up post offices or fast-food restaurants in the United States. “They don’t do it for wine,” Professor ul Islam said. That’s certainly true, but the allure of paradise cannot be ignored. If it’s not important, why would bombers mention it?
In search of more answers, I drove a few miles down the road from professor Ayaz’s house, which is surrounded by a tranquil garden, to another universe, filled with tumult, smog, poverty, laughter, and anger. This is the main bazaar of Peshawar, where beggars and peddlers and cars and donkeys are in a war of noises. I visited a mosque presided over by Movlana Fazle Ahad, a mullah who is also a leader of the Sipah-e-Sahaba, a political party that strongly supports the Taliban. The mullah sat on a rug in a sparse room of the mosque, which doubles as a madrasah, and explained the most important aspect of paradise.
“Jihad”—holy war—“is the way of Allah, fighting against people who are harming Muslims,” he said. “In the Quran, Allah says that jihad is the best way for entering paradise.” There are many ways of doing a jihad, he noted, such as donating money to the cause, but the best method, he said, is to risk and lose your life in battle.
“The West is very materialistic, and people believe only in this world, with all its luxuries,” Fazle Ahad continued. “They have no faith in the next life. But my students are very aware and confident of the next life. Because they are my students, they know about the reward of paradise in a jihad. They are not afraid.”
Fazle Ahad noted the injunction against killing innocents and condemned the World Trade Center attacks as atrocities. But in his view, suicide bombing, if committed properly, is Islamic. For example, he believes the suicide bombers in Israel aim to kill soldiers and that civilian casualties are collateral damage of an unfortunate nature, but not paradise-nullifying.
“It is my hope that [the Palestinian bombers] are going to paradise because they are on a jihad, working for Allah,” he said. “They are defending Islam and Muslims, so they must go to paradise.”
Nearly 50 boys attend Fazle Ahad’s madrasah, all of them from Afghanistan, and a dozen of them were sitting outside the room where the mullah and I were meeting. They were studying the Quran, which is, typically, the only subject at madrasahs. No social studies, no foreign languages or current events, just the Quran, constantly. The mullah’s interpretation prevails.
Just as life is not easy for most people in Pakistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, life is not easy for Fazle Ahad’s students. They sleep on a hard floor in a room that is unheated in winter and without air conditioning in the summer. They have no contact with females. The food they eat is not in paradise-like proportions. There are no chubby students at the madrasah, and their clothes are a few threads from threadbare.
I sat down with the pupils. Atta Ullah, who is 19 and was born in a village near the Afghan city of Jalalabad, offered me what he believes to be the most important bit of information about paradise: “It is for those who go on a jihad, and if they are killed, they will go to paradise.” And what happens up there? “Life in paradise is whatever you want it to be—you can have all the fruit you want, all the beautiful women you want. All of these things are available in paradise.”
Looking around the sparse mosque, and noticing a pile of cast-off bread that seemed likely to compose the midday meal, I could understand the attraction of paradise, and I feared the malleability of the students’ minds. That evening, reading the Quran, I noticed, in sura 56, the following lines about Muslims who go to hell: “They shall dwell amidst scorching winds and seething water, in the shade of pitch-black smoke.”
If you happen to need ball bearings in Peshawar, Abdul Sattar Shah is your man. He runs a shop in the Khyber Bazaar that, as his business card states, “deals in all kind of Ball Bearings, Roller Bearings, Needle Roller Bearings, Bearing Blocks”—and the list goes on. Sattar Shah is particularly busy these days because he is also finishing his studies at Peshawar University, where he majors in accounting and organizes protest marches that warn that American attacks against Afghanistan will provoke a jihad.
Sattar Shah sits before me, sipping sweet tea and speaking in a soft voice that cannot compete, at moments, with the street cacophony a few feet away—horns honking, peddlers shouting, horses whinnying, beggars pleading, merchants arguing, hammers smashing. He is the general secretary of Peshawar’s branch of the Islami Jamaat Tulba, a nationwide student group that wishes to see Islamic law imposed in Pakistan and finds much to admire in the example of Afghanistan.
His position is clear: the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were acts of terrorism, but before the United States can claim the right to retaliate against Osama bin Laden or the Taliban, it must prove they were responsible. Without such proof, Sattar Shah says that his group, which is the student wing of a leading religious party, will have little choice but to embark on a holy war. “We will do it, as we did it against the Russians,” he says.
Satter Shah is joined in his cluttered shop by several friends, all of them speaking Pashtu, which is the language of the Pashtun ethnic group that lives on both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border. When I ask whether they are beginning military training for the jihad that might be in their futures, they roll their eyes like New Yorkers asked for directions to Carnegie Hall.
“Everyone is prepared,” Sattar Shah says. “We all have weapons, and we know how to use them.”
He possesses a pistol and an AK-47. I ask whether they are at home or at his shop. I have misunderstood.
“At home and in my shop,” he says.
After American retaliation, especially one in which American soldiers are based in Pakistan, it might be difficult to persuade Satter Shah to leave his weapons where they are, because he is not inclined to believe bin Laden is the guilty party. He wonders how one man, dashing from one hideout to another in the mountains of Afghanistan, could engineer such a sophisticated attack. A government must be responsible, Satter Shah says, and he knows which one.
“Israel did the attack,” he confides. “The Jews just want to create a split between the United States and Palestinians, and they want to defame the reputation of all Muslims.” His view is commonplace in impoverished Pakistan, where fundamentalism is on the rise; a widespread reluctance to regard bin Laden as a terrorist dovetails with a longstanding enmity toward Israel.
Tea is followed by Pepsi. The shop is suffused with almost as much bewilderment as dust, of which there is an ample layer on the stacks of ball bearings that entomb us. There is little sense of fear among my hosts; Afghanistan is not just a graveyard but a graveyard of imperial dreams, and they are surprised that America would start a war there. As one of them notes, “What’s left to ruin?”
America sounds like a dangerous place. I don’t know for sure, because I was in Macedonia when the World Trade Center was attacked, and I have been in Pakistan since then. But friends in New York, where I live, have e-mailed me about gas masks being scooped up like truffles and antidotes to anthrax becoming popular, too. I have heard about a guy who bought an inflatable raft so that if Manhattan is attacked he can paddle to safety across the Hudson River.
It is easy, from the great distance in miles and affluence that separates Peshawar from Manhattan, to regard this behavior as an overreaction by a pampered society. But I did not inhale burning steel on Sept. 11, I did not see people jumping to their deaths from 100 floors high, and I did not need to fear that perhaps another plane was heading toward the building in which I stood. The America I know—land of comfort and abundance and security—will not be the America I return to.
It therefore feels odd to be warned by friends and family that I am in a dangerous place and should come home. The e-mails and phone calls have been constant because, it seems, there’s a belief that if America has become a much more dangerous place, the rest of the world, and especially countries that are at the center of America’s war on terrorism, must be exponentially more dangerous.
But life has not become appreciably more perilous for Pakistanis, just harder, because business is bad for all but the translators and hotels whose services are under great demand by the army of foreign journalists that has invaded. Nobody is stocking up on whatever defenses might be available against germ or chemical warfare; there is no need to, and no money for it. Osama Bin Laden’s men are not waging a jihad against Pakistan, after all; for some of them, if news reports are correct, Pakistan is a refuge rather than a target.
When people look over their shoulder here, it’s because they’re worried about being run over by an out-of-control taxi. If I get on a Pakistan International Airline flight filled with Muslims, I feel no fear and have no cause for fear, other than the food. But I saw on CNN that passengers on a commercial flight in America refused to board unless several Arab passengers were barred from the plane. That’s fear.
Of course there are new dangers here; perhaps the Taliban will make good on its threat to attack Pakistan if it supports a U.S. offensive, or perhaps anti-government protests will get out of hand and some people will get killed in the crossfire. But these dangers are quite small compared to the everyday dangers that already exist. Even for me, the ordinary hazards of working in Pakistan feel much greater than whatever new hazards I might face as an American journalist in a Muslim nation that is none too happy with America’s campaign against the mullahs in Kabul.
Let me offer an example. As I write these words, I am in considerable peril. I am in the backseat of a Honda sedan that has a cracked windshield and no seatbelts and a driver who is tired, as the masses tend to be here, because they must work long hours to earn enough to survive. We are driving from Islamabad to Peshawar. It is a three-hour trip, and is our return journey after a 6 a.m. start in Peshawar, and we are on a frightfully imperfect road without a hard shoulder or, in most places, a soft one. We must pass overcrowded buses whose worn tires are a pebble away from bursting. There are donkey carts that take up road space, too, and motorized rickshaws and pedestrians darting across our path like hares on a plain (Pakistan is too poor for overpasses or crosswalks on most roads).
Accidents are beyond frequent. If the unfortunate event occurs, there is no emergency medical team to deliver lifesaving treatment before rushing you to a nearby hospital; you will be thrown into another car and driven to a hospital that is unlikely to be nearby, and unlikely to save your life, and perhaps the car that is taking you there will get into an accident, too. It happens.
A few minutes after I wrote the lines you have just read, my car passed one of those overcrowded buses I mentioned before, though this one had jackknifed and was lying on its side, splayed across the road like a metal carcass. I have no idea how many people were killed or injured, and I am unlikely to read about it in tomorrow’s paper, because an accident of that sort is too ordinary. It is not news; it is life.
That’s just the beginning of the everyday dangers of life in Pakistan or any country that shares its impoverished lot. Hepatitis contracted from food; tuberculosis from the infected man who coughs as you talk with him, HIV from recycled needles at clinics, cancer or other diseases caused by the immense and incredible amounts of pollution in the air and in the earth and in the water. You don’t inhale smog in Peshawar as much as you chew it, cancerous particle by cancerous particle.
So is it dangerous for an American journalist here? Yes, but not much more dangerous than three weeks ago or three years ago. It’s entirely possible that anti-American riots will break out if the United States attacks Afghanistan, but I don’t plan on getting too close to that; there is other work to do, other dangers to worry about.
The headbands were flimsy, just strips of white cloth tied across demonstrators’ foreheads with slogans written in black ink. The most popular slogan was “Long Live Osama,” though others said “Death to America” and—simplicity itself—“Jihad.”
The headgear was worn Friday at an anti-U.S. rally in Peshawar, the chaotic Pakistani city in the shadow of the Khyber Pass and within shelling reach of Afghanistan (a relevant measure of distance because the Taliban have threatened to attack Pakistan if it supports U.S. military action). The men with the headbands were followers of Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a pro-Taliban politician here, and several thousand of them marched through the city’s central bazaar, assembling at a square underneath an “Always Coca-Cola” billboard.
The jihad slogans were familiar. Much newer was the theory propounded by Fazlur Rehman: that the assaults against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were the work of Israel. Fazlur Rehman, wearing a yellow turban, told the crowd that 4,000 Jews who worked in the Trade Center did not show up on the fateful Tuesday because they were tipped off about the imminent destruction of their workplace. “Osama is an individual who doesn’t have the resources to arrange this attack,” he shouted from the roof of a red truck. “Israel is behind it.”
A few minutes later, an effigy of President Bush was torched, partly for the benefit of foreign TV crews: It’s their money shot. Despite the fiery headbands and flaming president, the crowd was well-mannered, especially with foreign journalists. Curiously, Bush’s heart was marked by a Yankees “NY” emblem; perhaps the effigy designer was a Mets fan.
Although the Israel-destroyed-the-World-Trade-Center theory is absurd, most people I speak to in Pakistan believe it. It’s not just the headband rabble who sense the hand of the Mossad at work. I even heard the conspiracy theory during a visit to the posh Islamabad home of Ijzal ul-Haq, vice president of a major political party. As it happens, Ijzal ul-Haq is also the son of Pakistan’s late military dictator Zia ul-Haq; an oil portrait of the old man hangs a few feet from the front door.
Ijzal, who was educated at Southern Illinois University and worked for Bank of America for more than a decade, believes a government had to be involved because the attacks were too sophisticated for the likes of Osama Bin Laden. I asked which governments might have been responsible.
“It is just a wild guess,” he replied. “It could be somebody who wants to take revenge on the Muslims.”
“Could be. They’re taking full advantage of it. They want to totally alienate the Palestinians from the rest of the world. ... Time will tell, but the people who are being targeted are not behind it.”
Here’s the truly curious thing: Ijzal, like many the-Mossad-may-have-done-it Pakistanis, isn’t howling about the injustice of a potential U.S. attack on innocent Afghanistan. Like everyone else, he knows Pakistan faces a stark choice—stand with the Taliban and share their fate or side with America and enjoy the benefits thereof. It’s not much of a choice, actually. Few Pakistanis will miss the Taliban regime, often viewed as an embarrassment to Islam and to Pakistan, which supported the mullahs in Kabul and Kandahar until a week ago.
As a result, Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in a 1999 coup, may survive the crisis. He has offered Pakistani airspace to U.S. military flights, as well as intelligence information and unspecified “logistical” help, which could mean hosting U.S. troops. So far, public opposition has not gotten out of hand. The demo I attended disbanded with the calm of a low-scoring game between NFL cellar teams. Tempers will be hotter if the U.S. attacks Afghanistan, but Pakistan’s police and military know how to use their batons and rifles.
The first political payoff for Gen. Musharraf came over the weekend, when the Bush administration announced it was lifting sanctions imposed on Pakistan and India when both exploded nuclear weapons. Gen. Musharraf will likely reap more rewards in the weeks and months to come; he undoubtedly hopes for a tilt in Pakistan’s favor over the perpetual crisis in Indian-ruled Kashmir. For the moment, it’s hard to hear a bad word in diplomatic circles about Pakistan’s somber military ruler. “The government is working a hell of a lot better than it was before the coup,” an approving diplomat told me the other day. “Musharraf is pretty darn good. He’s doing the right things, though it’s unfortunate that he happens to be a general and that he was put in power through a coup.”
This is the new New World Order, and the fact that our man in Islamabad wears a khaki uniform and overturned an elected government (though not a very effective one) is of little import. For now, democratization in Pakistan takes a back seat to security for America. That’s likely justified for a while, so don’t expect to hear any lectures from Washington about the need for ending military rule in Pakistan. On the other hand, if you listen closely you may hear quite a bit from Pakistan about the Mossad’s role in attacking the heart of American capitalism.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001
At the main gate to the U.S. military base outside Skopje, Army soldiers in full battle gear offer visitors a crisp salute and an even crisper shout of their squad’s motto—“Strike To Kill.”
The motto predates the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as do the abundant coils of barbed wire and cement barricades around the base, which is home to several hundred U.S. soldiers and has a basketball court, a cappuccino bar, a chapel, a gym, and a mobile Burger King. Security has been raised in other ways because Camp Able Sentry, like other U.S. military facilities, is now on Threatcon Delta, the highest level of alert. The biggest changes have little to do with security, though, and may not be apparent unless you happen to share a mess hall table with a pair of Special Forces soldiers, as I did today. Then you realize how much the world is changing.
“What needs to happen is that lives need to be put at risk,” Capt. Thomas Thliveris told me. “What I mean by that is people in uniform are in uniform for a reason, and our national leadership should not be afraid, because of public reaction, to use us in the way we are trained to be used, and can be used.”
It’s always pleasant, as a journalist, to meet soldiers who speak their minds. In other times, members of the Special Forces might say only the sorts of things their commanders might wish them to say, or they might say nothing at all. But that was in another era, when a portion of Wall Street was not a smoldering mountain of rubble and corpses.
Capt. Donald Schurr spoke up.
“The first thing is that we accepted risk when we joined, but the political leadership has not had the courage to accept that soldiers will lose their lives. That needs to end. And the second thing is—you can apply any word you want—but let’s use assassination. There is a presidential directive which prevents the U.S. government or its operatives from targeting anybody in particular. That’s because we want to be the good guys, and we are the good guys; fair play and all that stuff. But there is a time when you must target those fellas. We have the capability to do that. But we haven’t been able to do anything because we have our gloves on. That needs to change.”
The wide-screen television in the mess hall was tuned to CNN. I heard the phrase “thousands of dead are feared.” The television was filled with unnatural images that my brain has been reluctant to assimilate: planes disappearing into the glassy flanks of the World Trade towers, followed by fireballs at 100 stories. I hope I can get used to seeing these images, but I also hope I never get used to them.
The conversation had begun with Capt. Schurr—a tall, muscular soldier who doesn’t need a Special Forces patch on his sleeve for you to know that he is not to be trifled with—recalling the scenes of men and women jumping from the burning towers. He said it made him emotional. He cried. When I asked what the emotion and tears meant, he said, slowly, “It ... is ...anger.” Each word was delivered with the force of a punch.
“As the president said, this was an act of war,” Capt. Thliveris noted. He glared at me, an Ali-versus-Frazier glare. “This may not be politically correct, but I don’t want justice here.” His glare did the impossible—it became more intense. “These people do not need to be brought to justice or apprehended. They need to be killed. That’s what you do to your enemy in war—you destroy him. And this is a war.”
This was one of those interviews in which it doesn’t matter what the journalist asks. These men knew what they wanted to say and were going to say it no matter what. I noted that they are members of the Special Forces. Would they wish to be choppered into the mountains of Afghanistan?
“I want to be the first person out the door,” Capt. Schurr shot back. “I’m ready to go. I think to a man every soldier is prepared to do that, and anxious to do that.”
When I sat down at their table the men from the Special Forces told me they would need to leave after 10 minutes. The 10 minutes was up. They grabbed their assault rifles and donned their combat gear—helmets and flak jackets—and strode away, ready for war.
Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001
Night was falling as I introduced myself to four college students in Macedonia Square, in the center of Skopje. What was their reaction to the catastrophe in America?
Ivo, who is 18 years old and studying to be a doctor, was the first to respond, largely because he spoke the best English, thanks to the year he lived in England. The attacks are sad, he said, a tragedy. But then he got to the heart of the matter, not only for him but for many Macedonians who resent what they regard as American support for ethnic Albanian rebels.
“Now you have experienced what terrorism is like,” Ivo said. “Now you can understand what terrorism does, and you should do something about it, especially in Macedonia. You should condemn the Albanians. It’s clear you’re helping them. Even a child knows that.”
His friends nodded their heads in agreement. The rebels are terrorists, they believe, killing civilians and policemen, yet America coddles them, even supplying them with weapons (a popular belief). Maybe, the students added, the assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon will serve as a wake-up call. “Terrorists have never attacked America with this much devastation,” Ivo noted. “America now should see what terrorism is really about and stop it everywhere.”
The feelings of Ivo and his friends are not unusual. There is no satisfaction in Skopje about the attacks on America—none of the grotesque spectacles, seen on television, of Palestinians and Libyans celebrating the attacks. The expressions of condolence here are sincere, but there is, underneath it all, a strong belief that America has imposed its will on the Balkans in ways that are neither wise nor fair and that America should not be surprised that its actions overseas have brought deadly results to the homeland. The same belief exists in Serbia, which experienced a 78-day U.S.-led bombing campaign in 1999, and it exists among nationalists in Croatia who resent U.S. pressure to extradite war criminals to the Hague.
The sourness surfaces not just in the talk of ordinary citizens but in media commentaries, too. All you need to do is pick up today’s issue of New Macedonia, a pro-government paper. “The attempt by western countries to treat Albanian terrorists as human rights fighters gave them a clear field for seven months of terror against Macedonians,” the main commentary states. “The difference between yesterday’s attacks on the United States and the attacks of Albanian terrorists in Macedonia is just in the capacity and power of their action.” In other words, Now you know how we feel.
Anti-Americanism in the Balkans is far from murderous, as it is among Islamic extremists in the Middle East, but it is serious enough to have prompted the evacuation this summer of nonessential personnel from the U.S. Embassy here. If you want to know the consequences of America’s unpopularity, you only need to call 011 389-2 116-180, the Embassy’s number in Skopje. If you press 5 for the options in English, the first words you hear are the following: “To report the death, hospitalization, or arrest of an American citizen, press 3.”
Monday, Sept. 10, 2001
“Hi, my name is Josh.”
This was not what I expected to overhear in Brodec, a mountain village where ethnic Albanian rebels were handing in their weapons to NATO troops. The greeting came from a chubby rebel wearing combat pants and a black T-shirt with the red-and-black insignia of the rebel army, whose initials in Albanian are UCK. His greeting was directed at an American G.I. near me.
“Uh, hi,” the G.I. replied, warily. “I’m, uh, Mark.”
“I lived in the U.S. for 17 years,” Josh continued, delighted to have found someone to speak English with. “I love America.”
“Of course I am.”
Josh Balazhi, as it happens, was born in Macedonia and emigrated to Chicago in his teens, winding up in the restaurant business. He returned to Macedonia six months ago to fight with the rebels in the hills above Tetovo.
Mark, an Army intelligence officer who asked—ordered, actually—that I not disclose his full name, had a video camera that he pointed at his new friend from the UCK.
“Hello America,” Josh waved.
Strange, but not the strangest scene in rebel territory on Sunday. For the past few weeks NATO soldiers have been collecting rebel weapons, and Brodec is the latest collection site. The Macedonian government has pledged, as its part of an ultra-shaky peace deal, to expand political rights for Albanians. This is supposed to end their war.
It was a slow day in the farmhouse basement where French soldiers registered the day’s catch, sitting behind desks like warehouse clerks. Nearly half of the dozen or so rifles I saw on the dirt floor were hunting weapons with wood stocks, dusty and neglected and quite old; it was hard to imagine they posed a serious threat to even the lamest of wildlife, let alone soldiers.
A Swedish journalist looked at the sorry items on display and said, laughing, “This must be the village museum.” Krale Spancevski, a member of Macedonia’s parliament who choppered into Brodec as an observer, just shook his head. “These guns are not from this war,” he said. “Maybe from the Chinese revolution. Maybe from the first Balkan war.”
That was in 1912.
The sights and sounds of Brodec convinced me that Macedonia needs fewer war correspondents and more film critics. The weapons-collection program is, in many respects, a big-budget production that would be better appreciated, and better analyzed, by journalists accustomed to the world of make-believe. NATO has even given the 30-day program a somewhat catchy title—Operation Essential Harvest.
NATO hopes to collect 3,300 weapons, which is widely believed to represent a modest portion of what the UCK possesses. The problem, as NATO knows, is that the UCK will not surrender a meaningful portion of its arsenal. So the U.S.-led alliance is pretending disarmament is occurring and pressing the rebels and government to find a way, in the coming weeks and months, to not resume fighting. What’s being wished for is a military version of the placebo effect.
This provides for bitter amusement in the parlors of Skopje. Darko Mitrevski is a film producer who has the wry sense of humor common among unlucky intellectuals in the unlucky hotspots of the Balkans—notably Sarajevo and Belgrade, and now Skopje. Darko was dressed in trendy black at his elegant office when I visited the other day with Ed Joseph, an analyst with the International Crisis Group. The discussion turned, inevitably, to weapons collection.
“It’s Disarmament—The Movie,” Ed suggested. “But don’t blame NATO. It’s the deal they’ve got.”
“Perhaps,” Darko countered. “But the parody of disarmament shouldn’t be so obvious. I could do it much better. It’s a very badly directed production.”
In a way, Operation Essential Harvest is an upside-down version of Wag the Dog. Instead of directors and actors producing a phony war, generals and soldiers are producing a phony disarmament. It’s an odd thing for generals to do, but even odder is the prospect it may do some temporary good by keeping the guns silent for a bit longer.
At least it is inspiring better productions. The other day I attended a mock weapons collection in front of the run-down parliament in Skopje. It involved several thousand ironic Macedonians poking fun at NATO by piling their “weapons” onto the street, which was closed to traffic. The asphalt was littered with water guns, toy pistols, model planes, paper gliders, watermelons with fuses, slingshots, cardboard swords, and so on. I noticed a man holding an unrolled condom above his head; I asked a student what that was about, and I was told, “Defensive weapon.” The condom was tossed onto the pile.
Of course the situation in Macedonia is not a joke. Many people have been killed, and many more will be killed if the fighting resumes once Operation Essential Harvest finishes its run. Outside the farmhouse in Brodec, I asked Josh, the friendly rebel, whether he would return to Chicago soon. He said he hopes so but doesn’t know for sure. I then asked how to spell his last name. He gave me the Albanian spelling, Balazhi; the Americanized version, he noted, is Belushi.
“You know, I’m related to John Belushi,” he said, smiling.
I could not tell whether he was serious or pretending.
When Bob Stewart, who commanded the first regiment of British peacekeepers in Bosnia, was asked by the BBC for his reaction to the extradition of Slobodan Milosevic, he responded with one joyous word: “Hallelujah.”
Across Europe and America, similar words of thanks — and astonishment — were whispered and shouted by people who did not expect the former Serbian leader to wind up at The Hague so soon after being toppled from power. Yet there he is, behind bars at the United Nations detention center, with a coffee maker in his cell and a war-crimes trial in his future.
The time has come, in other words, to look beyond Mr. Milosevic. The trial’s usefulness will not be to determine his guilt or innocence — even a legal dream team will have a hard time getting him off the hook — but to educate Serbs about the crimes he masterminded in their name and with their support. For Serbia, extraditing Mr. Milosevic may be easier than accepting the truth.
Serbs have been notably reluctant to admit they were the authors, not the victims, of war crimes. Taking responsibility for these deeds is a condition of reconciliation between Serbs and their onetime enemies. The new Serbian government, under Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, recently began the process of deprogramming. It has publicized the discovery in Serbia of mass graves of Kosovars murdered by Mr. Milosevic’s security forces.
But that candor may have had less to do with Mr. Djindjic’s yearning for truth than with his desire to weaken opposition to Mr. Milosevic’s extradition, thus clearing the way for an infusion of Western aid.
With Mr. Milosevic at The Hague, Serbs may be tempted to think, “Out of sight, out of mind.” Most Serbs view the United Nations tribunal as biased, noting that Franjo Tudjman, the late Croatian president, was never indicted, although he was clearly guilty of war crimes in Bosnia.
As a result, Serbs have all but ignored The Hague trials so far. Western governments need to improve the tribunal’s profile and credibility in Serbia.
They need to provide the funds, and apply whatever pressure is needed, to ensure that Mr. Milosevic’s trial is broadcast on television and radio in Serbia. They also need to provide Serb journalists with the financial resources to travel to The Hague to cover the trial, which is likely to be lengthy.
To the extent it’s possible, the goal is to ensure that the verdict is accepted by Serbs. Every effort should be made to include Serb judges on the panel of international jurists who will determine Mr. Milosevic’s fate. And if security concerns can be met, part of the trial might even be held in Serbia.
There is ample reason for supporters of global justice to whisper “hallelujah” this weekend, but Slobodan Milosevic’s extradition is just a first step. Serbia is only beginning its reckoning with history; deadly and durable myths must be destroyed.
In 1993, connoisseurs of government dithering heard Warren Christopher utter a delightful phrase that reflected his befuddlement with the war in Bosnia. The conflict, the secretary of state confessed, was a “problem from hell.” What he meant, of course, was that he hadn’t a clue what to do about it.
In the Bosnian war, Muslims were the victims of genocide at the hands and knives and AK-47s of Serbs and Croats. But was it in the national interest of the United States to intervene in a morally repugnant conflict that did not appear to threaten our national security? That was the problem from hell, and until the NATO alliance began to rupture in discord, creating an unmistakeable threat to our interests, the famous consciences in the Clinton administration couldn’t make up their famous minds.
Now along comes Macedonia, where U.S. troops defused a standoff on Monday by escorting Albanian rebels out of harm’s way, at the request of the government in Skopje; even so, an anti-American riot erupted in the capital. Will the White House refuse the next time a request is made for military assistance? President Bush made a pro forma statement this week that he wouldn’t rule out the use of force, but his administration hasn’t been shy about looking down its realpolitik nose at the Clinton crew’s adventures in the Balkans—they’ve made it clear they don’t want any of their own. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted in a widely-circulated memorandum earlier this year, “It is easier to get into something than to get out of it.” (No prizes for guessing which part of the world he was referring to.)
But Messrs. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell would be misreading history—and the present—if they treat Macedonia as another moral quagmire in which the U.S. should not muddy its political or military boots. Despite outward appearances, Macedonia isn’t Bosnia or Kosovo. In fact, it’s the kind of pure geopolitical play the Bush team professes to be perfectly suited to master. They should be drooling at the opportunity to prove their expertise.
The administration has made a point of saying it plans to conduct foreign policy the old-fashioned way, based on a classic definition of national interests that banishes moral considerations to the inky pages of The Nation. But guess what—the Macedonian crisis does not involve the grand moral dilemmas (or even minor moral dilemmas) that caused so many headaches and humiliations for the Clinton team, whose ineptitude, especially in Bosnia, was matched only by its hypocrisy.
From the start of the Bosnian crisis the United States faced a threat to its national interests—the Clinton administration just failed to realize it. Without intervention of some sort, the war was going to fester so badly that Western Europe and NATO would begin to rot. Instead the U.S. focused on whether or not the moral arguments for intervening—that genocide was being committed, that the genocide was unprovoked, and that the victims of the genocide stood for Western values of tolerance and diversity—were true and cause enough to get involved. After three years of dithering and several hundred thousand deaths, the Clinton administration finally figured it out. Later, with Madeleine Albright in charge at Foggy Bottom and eager to give the supremely immoral Milosevic the comeuppance he deserved, the White House organized NATO’s bombing of Serbia, which had increased its repression in Kosovo. After 78 days Milosevic agreed to withdraw his forces from Kosovo, and almost immediately Kosovars began cleansing Serbs who remained behind. We had not, it turned out, rescued angels.
The Bush administration does not want to be a global moral cop. Given the Clinton administration’s nightmarish experience in the Balkans, that’s understandable. But it’s not a reason to ignore Macedonia, where there is no moral call to action—no genocide, no horrible dictator, no white-hatted or black-hatted factions. It’s true that the Albanians have not enjoyed their deserved share of political rights, but that hardly justifies their guerilla uprising. The Slavs, who form the majority of Macedonia’s population, have been derelict in giving the Albanians their rightful slice of power, but they have not instituted any Milosevic-style repression. By Balkan standards, the situation is uncomplicated.
There is, however, a valid geopolitical reason to become engaged, because the fighting, muted so far, could spiral into all-out civil war. That would mean another wave of refugees in the Balkans, and it could mean the involvement of troops from neighboring countries that have historical ties to Macedonia and territorial designs on it—Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia, Greece, and even Turkey. The nightmare scenario, which is unlikely but possible, is that one foreign country will get involved—say, Albania—and that others will follow, like wolves to a twitching carcass. The involvement of Greece and Turkey would be particularly disastrous because both are NATO members and longtime adversaries. “Macedonia is in real danger of destruction,” wrote Richard Holbrooke and Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former U.S. ambassadors to the United Nations, in a recent Washington Post column. “Macedonia’s descent into civil war would call into question national borders across the Balkans, reward forces of violence across the region, and even create tensions within the [NATO] alliance.” Henry Kissinger’s maid could figure out that it’s in our national interests to prevent this from happening in Europe.
So far the European Union has spearheaded mediation efforts, with the Bush Administration happily taking a back seat, professing confidence the EU can do the job, and that it is the EU’s job to do. That’s wrong. The EU failed to head off the previous wars in ex-Yugoslavia, and its current effort does not have bright prospects. It’s not time, and it may never be time, to send the 82nd Airborne to Macedonia, but it’s past time for an aggressive U.S. diplomatic push to defuse the conflict. If the smug Bush crew continues to believe that the Macedonia crisis does not threaten our national interests, they may soon be confronted with a very real problem from hell.
The headquarters of Telecom Somalia is filled with the sights and sounds of Mogadishu-style success. Customers pour through the entrance, funneling past machine-gun positions that flank the front doors. After a pat-down by security guards, who take temporary possession of any guns and knives, they enter the lobby and line up at the appropriate counters to pay their bills or order new service. Clocks on a wall display the time in New York, Paris, London, Sydney, and Karachi—reminders of an outside world that has pretty much left Somalia for dead. Computer keyboards clatter as workers punch in information. Customers chat and argue with one another in a gregarious manner that makes the lobby feel like a town square—all the more so if a goat that’s being herded down the street happens to stray inside.
Telecom Somalia is the largest company in Mogadishu. It has 700 employees, and it offers some of the best and cheapest phone service in Africa. It also provides a clue to the possible resuscitation of the world’s most famous failed state. In 1995, when the international community decided to wash its hands of Somalia and the last United Nations peacekeepers left the country, Mogadishu was a Hobbesian horror show. It remains a miserable and unstable place, a city where taxi drivers ruin their own vehicles, denting the body work and smashing the windows, so that thieves will not bother to steal them. But it is less dismal than it used to be, and better times may be on the way, owing to a new generation of businessmen who are determined to bring the lawless capital back to life.
Prime among the city’s entrepreneurial leaders is Abdulaziz Sheikh, the chief executive of Telecom Somalia. When I visited him last summer, in a small office on the fourth floor of the company’s headquarters, he was being blasted by a hurricane-force air-conditioner that nearly drowned out the constantly ringing phones on his desk. “You need to be here twenty-four hours a day,” he said, explaining that he lives as well as works on the premises. Sheikh had the running-on-fumes look of a campaign chairman in a never-ending race, but at least he appeared to be winning. Anyone can walk into the lobby of his building, plunk down a $100 deposit, and leave with a late-model Nokia that works throughout the city, in valleys as well as on hilltops, at all hours. Caller ID, call waiting, conference calling, and call forwarding are available. There are two other cellular-phone firms in town, and the three recently entered into a joint venture and created the first local Internet-service provider. Not all battles here are resolved by murder.
Mogadishu also has new radio and television stations (one night I watched the Somali equivalent of Larry King Live, in which the moderator and his guest, one of the city’s leading Islamic clerics, fielded questions from callers), along with computer schools and an airport that serves several airlines (although these fly the sorts of airplanes that Americans see only in museums). The city’s Bekara market offers everything from toilet paper, Maalox, and Colgate toothpaste to Viagra, sarongs, blank passports (stolen from the Foreign Ministry a decade ago), and assault rifles. The international delivery company DHL has an office in Mogadishu, where its methods can be unorthodox: if a client has an urgent package that cannot wait for a scheduled flight out of the country, the company will dispatch it on one of the many planes that arrive illegally from Kenya every day bearing khat, a narcotic leaf that is chewed like tobacco but has the effect of cocaine.
Mogadishu has the closest thing to an Ayn Rand-style economy that the world has ever seen—no bureaucracy or regulation at all. The city has had no government since 1991, when the much despised President Mohammed Siad Barre was overthrown; his regime was replaced not by another one but by civil war. The northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland have stabilized under autonomous governments, but southern Somalia, with Mogadishu at its core, has remained a Mad Max zone carved up by warlords for whom fighting seems as necessary as oxygen. The prospect of stability is a curious miracle, not simply because the kind of business development that is happening tends to require the presence of a government, but because the very absence of a government may have helped to nurture an African oddity—a lean and efficient business sector that does not feed at a public trough controlled by corrupt officials.
Similarly, the lack of large-scale (and often corrupting) foreign aid might have benefits as well as drawbacks. Somali investors are making things happen, not waiting for them to happen. For example, on the outskirts of town, on a plot of land the size of several football fields and surrounded by twenty-foot-high walls, workers recently completed a $2 million bottling plant. Everyone refers to it as “the Pepsi factory,” even though Pepsi is not involved. The project’s investors say the plant will become a Pepsi factory: they figure that if they begin producing soft drinks, Pepsi or some other international company will want to get in on the market.
Many of the larger companies in Mogadishu, including the bottling plant, have issued shares, although there is of course no stock exchange or financial authority of any sort in the city. Everything is based on trust, and so far it has worked, owing to Somalia’s tightly woven clan networks: everyone knows everyone else, so it’s less likely that an unknown con man will pull off a scam. In view of Somalia’s history, this ad hoc stock market is not as implausible as it may sound. Until a century ago, when Italy and Britain divided what is present-day Somalia into colonial fiefdoms, Somalis got along quite well without a state, relying on systems that still exist: informal codes of honor and a means of resolving disputes, even violent ones, through mediation by clan elders.
Of course, the lack of a government poses problems, especially with respect to the warlords. Sheikh and his fellow businessmen have kept them at bay by paying them protection money and by forming their own militias. Those manning the machine guns outside Telecom Somalia are employees of the company, and when the firm’s linemen go out to lay new cables (they used to string overhead lines, but those got shot up by stray gunfire), they, too, are protected by company gunmen.
All of this is costly, so the business leaders have taken steps to bring about a new government—one that will keep its hands out of their pockets and focus on providing security and public services. The process began two years ago, when Sheikh and other entrepreneurs got fed up with the blight of checkpoints, at which everyone was required to pay small tributes to armed teenagers affiliated with various warlords. The businessmen decided collectively to fund a militia to get rid of the checkpoints, resulting in an armed force that is overseen by the city’s Islamic clerics. Having succeeded in its main mission, the militia now serves as an informal sort of police force, patrolling the streets in an effort to stop petty crime.
With the checkpoints gone and the warlords weakened by the loss of a key source of income, the business elite is bankrolling a transitional government that was appointed at a peace conference last August. The government does not yet control much more than the heavily guarded buildings that are its temporary headquarters, but it has begun deploying its own policemen in some parts of the city. The businessmen are pooling their company security forces to bolster the government and are trying to lure the warlords’ gunmen to its side with cash incentives. In February one of the leading warlords, Mohamed Qanyareh, agreed to support the government in exchange for ministerial posts for himself and his allies.
If the business community succeeds in returning Mogadishu to something resembling normalcy, it will have shown that a failed state, or at least its capital city, can get back on its feet without much help from the outside world. This would constitute not an argument against outside intervention but, rather, a lesson that intervention doesn’t have to be of the UN-led, billion-dollar variety.
Before leaving the city I met with Hussein Abdullahi, a well-educated businessman who fled Mogadishu in 1991 and wound up in Toronto, driving a taxi. Three years ago, during a return visit, he was struck by the fact that his Somali friends were living better at home than he was in Canada, at the bottom of the immigrant ladder. He decided to move back and now manages a thriving pasta factory, a bread factory, and a medical clinic. Sipping an ice-cold Coke in his office, Abdullahi offered to share a secret that, he promised, could make me rich. A chubby man with a beatific smile, he leaned forward conspiratorially.
“Everything is possible in Mogadishu now, everything,” he said. “If you have the money and the knowledge, you can do whatever you want. It is virgin here.”
Perhaps so, but only in the way of scorched earth.
“I represent the Mitterrand name,” the former French president’s son said unhappily as we lunched not long ago at Les Comediens, a Paris restaurant near his lawyer’s office. Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, 54, who has the long cheeks and gravelly voice of his father, spends a lot of time with his lawyer these days—enduring an investigation by the government over which his father, the late Francois Mitterrand, once presided like a king.
For much of his father’s tenure, Jean-Christophe headed the “Cellule Africaine,” overseeing France’s murky relations with its former colonies in Africa. His nickname, “Father Told Me,” referred to the phrase he reportedly invoked to remind visitors of his unique access to the sphinx-like president. But his father died of cancer in 1996, and French prosecutors have become far less deferential since. So it was that, on December 1, a team of French policemen barged into Jean-Christophe’s bedroom at dawn, stood by while he dressed, and seized financial documents, appointment books, party invitations, and anything else that might relate to illegal weapons-trafficking in Africa. “There’s a lot of madness in France now,” Mitterrand muses. “There have been a lot of political affairs, you know.”
Indeed, France’s newest fashion is corruption. It’s impossible to read a newspaper or watch television without coming across news that another politician or businessman has been arrested or questioned about (select one or more of the following): bribery, fraud, perjury, theft, tax evasion, abuse of influence, and so on. Once upon a time, the French gazed at the scandals across the Atlantic and muttered about Americans’ puritanical desire to punish politicians for typical human frailties. The French were far more sophisticated; they regarded their tolerance for political mischief as a sign of maturity.
The current wave of corruption scandals, however, serves notice that the French are, once more, following the path charted by their cultural nemesis. The reporters of Le Monde appear to be taking orders from Bob Woodward, and the folks at the Palais de Justice look like Ken Starrs on the Seine. Even the terminology is Americanized: The scandal that embroils Jean-Christophe is called “Angolagate.”
The call to account might have begun two decades ago if Francois Mitterrand, elected in 1981 as the first socialist president of the Fifth Republic, had honored campaign promises to govern in a more democratic, more transparent fashion than his conservative predecessors. But he quickly adopted their imperial style. Fourteen years passed. By the time Mitterrand left office in 1995, the grand questions of past decades—the cold war, Franco-German relations—had been settled. The behind-closed-doors privileges the political elite had enjoyed, almost as emergency powers during decades of threats to French interests, real and perceived, seemed unnecessary. It was time for France to become a normal country, and that meant, among other things, that politicians would not be treated as untouchable mandarins. The current division of power—a conservative president and socialist prime minister—hastened matters by diluting any single party’s political control over prosecutors.
This turn of events has not been welcomed at the Palais de l’Elysée, where President Jacques Chirac refuses to answer prosecutors’ questions about the Boss Tweed way in which he conducted himself as mayor of Paris. (A former aide accused Chirac of being present during the handover of a suitcase filled with $700,000 in kickbacks; Chirac dismissed the charge as “an abracadabra tale.”) Chirac’s handpicked successor at City Hall, now former Mayor Jean Tiberi, is being probed for arranging kickbacks, doling out city-owned apartments to friends and family, and placing political supporters on voting rolls even though they didn’t live in the city or, in some cases, were dead.
But these scandals are stale baguettes compared with the trial of Roland Dumas, former foreign minister and former president of the Constitutional Court. The 78-year-old was tried earlier this year for allegedly accepting bribes, including handmade shoes and antique statues, from his younger mistress, Christine Deviers-Joncour, who was on the payroll of Elf, a state-owned oil company. At the heart of the case—a verdict is expected in May—is the accusation that Dumas arranged the lucrative Elf job, which included several million dollars in salary, bonuses, and expenses, even though, according to prosecutors, Deviers-Joncour didn’t do much except sleep with her minister.
Dumas has denied the charges, telling the judge, with great indignation, “You cannot buy a statesman with a pair of shoes.” He threatened unspecified measures of revenge against “certain prosecutors” and suggested one of them had been a Nazi. His petulance is understandable: In the good old days, who would have cared if a minister placed his mistress on a government payroll?
And, just when it seemed things couldn’t get any juicier, Alfred Sirven, a top Elf official who allegedly funneled the money to Dumas’s mistress, was nabbed in a Philippine villa with a Filipina girlfriend several decades his junior. When police burst in, Sirven opened his cell phone, extracted its microchip, and swallowed it. With developments like that, France’s TV news has started sounding like an outlandish soap opera in which viewers learn what suave Roland really promised to mistress Christine, who is mad at Alfred for not defending her honor. As the woman who cut my hair one day remarked, “It’s really like `Dallas,’ isn’t it?” Watergate was dull by comparison.
Jean-Christophe Mitterrand, however, has not enjoyed the show. Three weeks after police ruined his sleep, he was arrested, driven to a nineteenth-century prison, and thrown into a cell next to a Nazi-era war criminal. He remained there for three weeks, until his mother paid his $725,000 bail (“ransom,” she called it). His alleged crime was splashed across the front page of virtually every French newspaper: that he accepted $1.8 million from a shadowy arms merchant for facilitating an illegal deal in which $563 million in weaponry was sold to Angola. Mitterrand says the payments were for consultations on an oil deal.
As Mitterrand progressed from one course to another during our leisurely lunch, sipping his way through several glasses of Bordeaux, he recalled his first encounter with the prosecutor who signed his arrest warrant.
“Name of father?” the prosecutor asked.
“There are sixty million people in France who know the answer!” Mitterrand’s lawyer objected.
The prosecutor said nothing as he typed into his computer: “F-R-A-N-C-O-I-S.”
I asked Mitterrand what went through his mind as he was shipped off to jail.
“Nothing,” he replied. “You are in shock.”
If all goes as planned, at 3:37 tomorrow morning a new space age will dawn. At that moment, a Russian capsule will bear into the blue sky and beyond the strangest cosmonaut of all time—a balding, 60-year-old businessman from Los Angeles who is paying a cool $20 million for his seat. Once just another bored multimillionaire, Dennis Tito has opened his considerable checkbook and is now hours away from achieving his childhood dream of looking down on Earth from 250 miles up in the heavens.
Tito would have preferred to purchase a seat on the space shuttle—living and training in Russia has not been much fun—but NASA was not interested. Since the Challenger disaster in 1986, NASA has banned sending “ordinary” people into space. The agency decided that for safety reasons only bona fide astronauts, the anointed ones with years of specialized training and testing at Johnson Space Center, would be sent to the heavens. But the Russian space program’s dire need for cash made Tito’s personal fortune the new right stuff for space travel. Despite NASA’s best efforts, the Russians refused to let America’s space bureaucrats decide who could fly on Russian capsules, thereby clearing Dennis Tito for the ride of his life.
What NASA still doesn’t seem to understand is that Tito’s trip is the best thing that could happen to it. Assuming he doesn’t push the wrong buttons or open any hatches during his visit to the International Space Station, Tito will show that NASA’s stodgy policy is a self-defeating anachronism, as outdated as an all-male golf club.
It’s easy to bemoan the notion of space tourists (where is the nobility in hawking seats on rockets?) but government funding for space exploration is not terribly generous these days, and public support for it is rather soft. Space tourism offers the prospect of injecting much-needed funds into the American and Russian space programs, as well as generating public interest and enthusiasm. It’s true that the prospect of multimillionaires flying into space may not be all that exciting for very long, but it’s only the beginning. James Cameron, the director of Titanic, has reportedly talked with the Russians about hopping aboard a Soyuz, and Mark Burnett, the creator of “Survivor,” wants to produce a game show in which the winner will be shot into the cosmos (the winner, not the loser). Somehow I think those sorts of stunts will get a lot more people interested in space than another run-of-the-mill resupply mission. And once the cost of such trips comes down—the laws of supply and demand operate in zero G—it won’t be just the mega-millionaires who can afford such jaunts but, perhaps, the millionaire next door, too; it would only be a matter of time before Dan Rather is wrestling Tom Brokaw for the honor of doing a live shot from space.
What’s remarkable, of course, is that it’s the Russians who are leading the way in commercializing space travel. They’ve stolen the risk-taking spirit that drove NASA and inspired the American public during the race to the moon: its sense of daring, its heroic astronauts, its willingness to try the unimaginable and suffer the occasional failure. Compare NASA’s anal culture—which is, of course, a product of America’s cosseted, tamper-proof mood these days—to Russia’s improvisational one. The recently deceased Mir space station was mocked, in its final years, for its considerable malfunctions, including a near-fatal fire and collision. The station nevertheless stayed aloft for 15 years. Its longevity is a considerable triumph, one we can attribute to cosmonauts who were masters at doing repairs on the fly and didn’t mind living in a leaky spaceship (the station oozed fluids on its inside and lost air through tiny punctures).
Necessity has turned the ever-adaptable Russians into avatars of orbital capitalism. Years ago they began selling advertising space on the sides of their rockets, and cosmonauts filmed commercials on Mir for, among others, an Israeli milk company and Omega, the watch company. They also unfurled, during a spacewalk, a replica of a giant Pepsi can made of nylon. And back on Earth, their bosses considered sending two actors to Mir to make a movie about a lone cosmonaut who refuses to return to Earth and is lured home by a female cosmonaut sent to fetch him; to the eternal regret of film buffs around the world, the project fell through for lack of funding.
NASA should take note. It ought to begin sending non-astronauts into space, though not just the filthy rich. Want to rouse public interest in space exploration? Why not have a national lottery, with the winner getting a round trip ticket to space? Why not send a writer up there, somebody like Tom Clancy, or J.K. Rowling, or me? If James Cameron wants to make a movie in space, NASA would be wise to help the directorial king of the world become king of the universe.
Sure, Tito had his share of problems in getting the Russians to accept his money. Initially he was supposed to fly to Mir, but the aging station became too costly and erratic and was deorbited before he could visit it. So Tito and the Russians changed their focus to flying him on a weeklong Soyuz mission to the ISS. After much wrangling—Tito was required, last week, to sign a contract in which he pledged to pay NASA for any damage he might cause on the station—and assuming clear skies over the launch pad in Kazakhstan tonight, Tito’s dream will come true. His timing is perfect; it is, after all, 2001.
All too often the American government has, in its handling of Balkan affairs, pursued a policy of “Do as I say and not as I do.”
Last week Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was on the receiving end of this treatment during his visit to Washington. The Bush administration is threatening to cut off a $100 million aid package and block World Bank and International Monetary Fund support for Belgrade if the authorities there do not arrest Slobodan Milosevic before March 31.
The idea is that Belgrade’s new leaders must abide by the international community’s norms of behavior if they hope to reap the benefits of being in the international community, and this means arresting Milosevic, the recently deposed strongman who has been indicted for war crimes by the U.N. tribunal in The Hague.
There is nothing wrong with the U.S. threat itself—Milosevic should be arrested, and the authorities in Belgrade, particularly Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, a democratic nationalist, appear to need a kick in the pants. But so does the Bush administration. The U.S. government, in the past decade, has a spotty record of honoring its commitments and obligations in the Balkans, and this has contributed to the region’s continuing instability. Bashing Yugoslavia’s new leaders, though useful, is less important in many ways than upholding the standards of integrity that we expect them—and others—to uphold.
In 1992 the first Bush administration went through the motions of condemning the Serb-led attack on Bosnia but did nothing to counteract it. The problem was handed off to the Clinton administration, which dishonored itself, as the war raged on, by making eloquent protestations and promising vigorous action and then doing little except blaming its European allies for dithering—as, for example, when U.N.-protected safe havens were overrun by Serb forces. There was a war room in the Clinton campaign but not, for a crucial few years, in the Clinton White House.
A U.S-led bombing campaign ended the war in 1995, but the peacekeeping force, spearheaded by U.S. troops, shied away from arresting indicted war criminals, including Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader whose whereabouts were not impossible to determine. (And, lest we forget, Milosevic’s crimes were amply documented at the time, but the White House treated him as a statesman, thereby bolstering his grip on power in Belgrade.)
A modest number of arrests have taken place in Bosnia since those early days, but it’s been a halfhearted effort, and the continued divisions there stem, in part, from the influence of men and women who should have been sent to The Hague years ago.
The same reluctance to do the hard work on the ground has hobbled the U.S.-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo. Ethnic Albanian extremists have intimidated and killed Serbs, just as Serbs effectively have taken control of a northern slice of the province and divided the city of Mitrovica.
Why has this happened? As in Bosnia, aggressive policing could expose the peacekeepers to greater danger, and the United States, which calls the shots, does not want any casualties.
Of greatest urgency, ethnic Albanian extremists in Macedonia have taken up arms against the democratically elected government, and much of the rebels’ supplies and some of their manpower comes from Kosovo. Stopping the flow of men and materiel is difficult and dangerous, but when NATO took control of Kosovo, it accepted the responsibility for making sure the province would not be used as a staging ground for terrorism or insurrection.
There is a new administration in Washington and, with it, the possibility that these obligations will be met. Whether President Bush likes it or not, the U.S. government is a key player in the Balkans. Just as the Serbs need to do the right thing, the Bush administration must do its job, too. If there’s one lesson that should have been learned in the past decade, it is that pointing fingers or telling others what to do is not going to bring about a Balkan endgame.
The Daily Californian is doing it again, bless its soul.
The newspaper at the University of California at Berkeley has always had a Madonna-like ability to reinvent itself, remaining relevant and controversial long after its presumed zenith. The Daily Cal found itself in the middle of a new controversy last week after it published a full-page advertisement against reparations for slavery. The ad, written by leftist-turned-right-wing-agitator David Horowitz, was titled, “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea—and Racist Too.”
It didn’t go over well. Protesters representing minority groups showed up at the Daily Cal offices and demanded an apology; they also confiscated whatever copies of the offending issue they could find. The incident was so heated that the police showed up. The next day the paper published a front-page apology and a lengthy explanation from its editor, who said the ad should not have run.
But this political seppuku only sparked another round of objections, this time from people who said the paper shouldn’t have apologized, because the ad was an expression of free speech (albeit paid for, at a cost of $1,200). The controversy has revived the familiar debate: Should speech, whether free or paid for, be limited at a college paper because it might be inflammatory, or racist, or repulsive?
All of this takes me back to 1983, when I was on the paper’s Senior Editorial Board and we had to decide whether to run a recruiting ad from the Central Intelligence Agency. The paper had refused such ads for many years, but the political climate was changing, and the paper was in dire financial straits. We needed the money.
After much debate along familiar lines, somebody suggested a brilliant compromise—we should run the ad with a prominent disclaimer, of the sort that appears on packs of cigarettes. It would say something like, “The Central Intelligence Agency is an organization that has been involved in the assassination of foreign leaders, the overturning of democratically-elected governments, and the training of right-wing death squads in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.” This way, the CIA would get its ad, we could take their money with clear consciences, and the language majors would find out that the agency was looking for a few good spies to perform work of a potentially unsavory nature.
In the end, we refused the ad, for what I remember were unfortunate doctrinaire reasons. I may have been responsible for some of those reasons, since, as co-editor of the editorial page, I was the enforcer of the faith, whatever it happened to be. We did, however, accept ads from the National Security Agency—I suppose because we thought they hadn’t actually killed anyone. Consistency clearly wasn’t our strong point. If you wanted ponderous thinking from no-nonsense strivers, you would have done better to swallow a No-Doz and consult the pages of the Stanford Daily or Harvard Crimson.
The CIA fuss wasn’t the only controversy at the time; in fact, it was a trifle compared to the Dos Equis uproar. The beer company had paid for color inserts that featured Hooters-ish females in tight shorts and tighter shirts—hardly the picture of womanhood that many of our highly-educated readers wished to see. A petition that ended up being several feet long was gathered on Sproul Plaza and then presented to the paper’s editors; some of the petition-bearers were carrying copies of the offending insert, aflame.
We issued the sort of abject apology that today’s Daily Cal editors issued for the slavery ad. I would not equate the two ads, though. A tasteless beer insert is planets apart, in its free speech implications, from an inflammatory political statement. You can check out the ad at Horowitz’s website and decide for yourself whether it should have run; you can read the apology, at the Daily Cal website, from the paper’s editor, too.
It’s easy to understand why many people view the ad as racist—it’s certainly provocative, as it was intended to be. It is also intellectually sloppy, to an extent that discredits its author. Some of what Horowitz writes makes sense, some is utter nonsense—all of which argues in favor of running his screed.
One of the lessons I learned after I graduated from Berkeley is that unaired prejudices tend to fester and can, one day, burst in ugly ways. The war in Bosnia, which I covered, is a case in point. Much of the nationalist fury in the Balkans, especially on the Serb side, stemmed from the manipulation of grudges that were not allowed to surface during Tito’s long rule. Just as truths were suppressed—the truths about which ethnic groups were and were not victims in World War II and before—so too were lies suppressed. Nothing was proved or disproved, and as a result, terrifying wars were fought on the basis of myths.
Enforced silence is an inadequate defense against prejudice and discord. A better strategy is to let everyone say what they think in a civil way. To be sure, Horowitz’s ad wasn’t especially civil, and the paper might have requested that he tone down his incendiary language. But by letting people air controversial views you at least discover who and what you’re up against, and can begin to figure out a way to bring the truth to those who need it.
All of which makes the ongoing controversy around the Daily Cal a positive event. The ad, the protests, the apology, the protests against the apology, and who knows what will come next—it amounts to a valuable debate on issues that deserve a public hearing. I learned from the controversies during my days at the Daily Cal, and enjoyed them; I hope the same holds true for the current group of besieged editors.
Just beware of the beer ads.
In Belgrade, you don’t need to be paranoid, but it helps. It’s late October, and I’m sipping an espresso at the Window Café, along Knez Mihailova, the city’s main shopping street, with Sasha Mirkovic, the general manager of B-92, an independent radio station that had the annoying habit of exposing the lies of Slobodan Milosevic’s government. Outside the café, the city is laced with remnants of the euphoria that greeted the downfall of Milosevic’s regime just a few weeks earlier. The government was washed away by a wave of protesters, many of whom found their way to the city center on October 5 by following a bulldozer as it cleared a path through police roadblocks. A few yards from where Mirkovic and I sit, street vendors are selling postcards of the famous bulldozer—now a political icon with treads—and they are selling copies of a CD of popular protest songs with a torn campaign poster of Milosevic on the cover, under the title “He’s Finished.”
Mirkovic is telling me about B-92, checking his watch, running his hand through his dark hair (which is not far from a crew cut), and asking the waiter to turn down the music. He suddenly stops and points to his cell phone, which he has placed on the table between us. Whenever Mirkovic had face-to-face conversations with sources or friends during the Milosevic era, he tells me, he not only turned off his cell phone but removed its battery. “It’s not paranoia,” says the stocky 33-year-old in the weary, know-it-all tone of a mechanic describing what’s wrong with a car. “If you don’t take out the battery, even though the phone is turned off, your conversation can be listened to.” Detaching the battery to illustrate, he adds: “People are still doing this, even though Milosevic is gone.”
I thought this was strange—another example of the suspicion that fills the Balkans with enough conspiracy theories to keep Oliver Stone busy for years—but other Serb journalists were telling me the same thing, assuring me, usually at the outset of our conversations, that they are not being paranoid. But none of them could explain how a switched-off cell phone could transmit their conversations to government snoops.
When I return to New York, I call Jeff Schlanger, chief operating officer of the security-services group at Kroll Associates, the global investigative company. Schlanger begins the conversation by reminding me of a simple fact: “A cell phone is a listening device.” He explains that technicians can reconfigure a phone to transmit a conversation even though its owner has turned it off. The trick, he explains, is to make the phone appear as though it’s been turned off when it is actually on. When I ask Schlanger what could be done to thwart this mischief, he suggests detaching the cell phone’s battery.
For quite some time, being an independent journalist in Serbia required a range of skills that edged into the realms of spycraft and diplomacy. That’s because the struggle for power in Serbia centered on information, not politics, and Mirkovic’s station was at the center of this war. B-92—which stands for Belgrade 92, its original frequency—began operating in 1989 as a low-wattage radio station for young people, but it quickly evolved, under Mirkovic’s boss, editor in chief Veran Matic, into the Serbian capital’s most influential source of honest and live news about the wars that were tearing apart the former Yugoslavia and about the government lies that were fueling the nationalist madness.
Milosevic made sure that the state-owned media, especially Radio Television Serbia (RTS), broadcast his nationalist propaganda at all times; the station was staffed by loyalists who heaped praise upon the politicians, including Milosevic, who was later indicted for war crimes by the United Nations tribunal in The Hague. While leaders of the police and army were making deals with the opposition in the weeks before Milosevic was ousted, the ever loyal men and women of RTS pumped out increasingly strident propaganda, and they didn’t stop until a mob stormed their headquarters on October 5 and set it on fire.
Milosevic understood that if you can brainwash your people, you don’t need to arrest them. He understood a corollary lesson, too—a regime that draws its power from propaganda rather than terror faces its greatest threat from independent journalists who have the desire and the means to expose its lies. Milosevic never banned any opposition party and rarely arrested politicians who opposed him; he did, however, force the closure of radio and television stations he didn’t like, and he didn’t hesitate to throw journalists into jail. They were the enemy, and 18 months before he was removed from power, Milosevic showed how much he feared B-92, the pillar of Serbia’s independent media, by trying to shut it down.
His failure to fully silence B-92 was emblematic of the war he fought—and, ultimately, lost—to control the hearts and minds of ordinary Serbs. B-92 outmaneuvered and outlasted Milosevic because it had truth on its side and a clever, dedicated staff, but it also had another asset—financial assistance from the United States government, which realized that in today’s world, an undesirable dictator can be undermined with accurate information as well as smart bombs.
It was April 2, 1999, and Sasha Mirkovic knew it was going to be a bad day at the office when he saw the police cars parked outside the Dom Omladine building. Dom Omladine is Belgrade’s center for young people, who like to drink coffee in the ground-floor café, surf the Internet on the first floor, or shoot pool in the basement. The building is also the headquarters for B-92, and when Mirkovic, one of its founders, walked past the news kiosk outside the building on that day, he prepared himself for the worst. The NATO alliance had recently launched the first wave of air strikes in its 78-day bombing of Yugoslavia, and Milosevic was cracking down on dissent. Mirkovic had already taken the precaution of deleting sensitive e-mail messages from his computer and slipping out of B-92’s office with documents that detailed the financial assistance the station received from foreign donors. Although B-92 acknowledged having accepted assistance from nonprofit groups outside the country, it never disclosed the dollar amounts—which appear to have been in the millions—or the donors themselves. And in the hands of Milosevic’s propaganda machine, those details could easily be used to tie B-92 to the NATO governments that were preparing to turn the country into rubble.
Mirkovic took the elevator to his sixth-floor office; it was 8:30 in the morning, and he had arrived early to conduct a phone interview with a foreign television network. Before the interview could begin, a security guard told him there were visitors outside. He stepped into the corridor and faced two plainclothes law-enforcement officials who flashed their IDs and said they were taking over the station. Behind them were four uniformed policemen, and behind them were half a dozen men in black leather jackets who looked as though they had seen too many Terminator movies.
The only B-92 staff on the sixth floor apart from Mirkovic were a security guard and a cleaning woman. It was not much of a match, especially since Mirkovic’s backpack was stuffed with some of the financial documents the police probably wanted. Stalling for time, Mirkovic asked the security guard to summon the cleaning lady, because, he said, he had her bag. When she appeared a minute later, squeezing through the leather jackets, Mirkovic casually handed her his backpack, and without missing a beat, she carried it to safety.
“When I went back into my office, a guy was already sitting in my chair,” Mirkovic tells me, smiling. “The guy was asking, ‘Where are the documents? Where are the folders?’”
Mirkovic refused to tell him and was tossed out of the office. He went downstairs and met with B-92 staffers who had gathered at the café on the ground floor. They decided that if they couldn’t have the station, they wouldn’t let the government have it, either.
The station’s engineers logged on to the computer terminals in the lobby of Dom Omladine and hacked their way into the B-92 computer system. They deleted whatever they could find—not just financial information but even audio files that contained the jingles that identified the station to its listeners. When the government reopened B-92, the following Monday, most of the staff showed up ostensibly to interview for their old jobs and pledge their loyalty to a new management. But they were in fact there to cause as much havoc as possible. Disc jockeys filched as many CDs as they could lay their hands on. Technicians, asked to show their skills or just show how the systems worked, logged on to the computers and deleted files. The station’s music director managed covertly to stick a screwdriver into an electrical outlet, shorting the station’s wiring and causing everything to crash.
Regardless, the state-run B-92 went back on the air several days later, with a new staff that hadn’t a clue about the alternative music the station used to play. They thought Radiohead was a tape cleaner of some sort. More important, their news broadcasts were the usual Milosevic drivel. The station was a fake, and listeners knew it; few tuned in. That was a victory of sorts for the station’s former staff, but they still confronted a basic question: What do we do now to get the truth onto the airwaves?
Sasha Mirkovic has the crisp, let’s-not-waste-a-second demeanor of a young dotcom executive, which is unusual in Belgrade. His mind even operates in a digital way, clicking from one subject to another so quickly that I find it necessary, on occasion, to ask him to slow down and explain something before clicking to another subject. He got his start in broadcasting as a disc jockey, which seems to have trained him to dread silence. Our encounter at the Window Café is a classic illustration of Mirkovic’s manic lifestyle, as he talks on his cell phone (he quickly reattached the battery after his demonstration) and jots reminders in his leatherbound datebook, which tracks his multiple appointments with diplomats, politicians, and journalists. A natural-born organizer, Mirkovic even keeps a list of every movie he has seen (he’s a film buff; there are several thousand titles on the list). I suggest that his life seems a bit frenetic. “It would be worse if I had a normal life and didn’t do anything against this regime,” he replies. “One of the main reasons I was doing this job at B-92 was because I could not live in this country without acting against this regime. That was the meaning of my life. But I was also thinking, of the people who left the country, One of us is making a mistake, them or me.”
In the early 1990s, B-92 occupied the same cultural ground in Serbia as Rolling Stone did in America in the 1960s; one of B-92’s slogans was “Trust no one, not even us.” Under the guidance of Veran Matic, its editor in chief, B-92 soon evolved beyond the alternative realm and organized get-out-the-vote campaigns while disseminating news not only about the wars that were taking place in Croatia and Bosnia but also about Serbia’s economic free fall. As Milosevic’s grip on Serbia’s media tightened through the 1990s, B-92 became the most influential antidote to government propaganda.
In late 1996, Milosevic’s Socialist Party stumbled in municipal elections but refused to cede control of the city halls it lost; nightly demonstrations ensued, and one of the first things the government did, hoping to short-circuit the protests, was ban B-92’s broadcasts, which had spread the word about the growing agitation. But the station’s journalists began broadcasting on the Internet, and their reports were bounced back into Serbia on shortwave broadcasts of the BBC and Radio Free Europe. Milosevic, who still cared about his international reputation, relented, letting the station resume its broadcasts and eventually letting the opposition take control of the city halls it had won.
This was the beginning of the end for Milosevic because it led to a blossoming of independent media outside Belgrade, where city councils ran their own radio and television stations and controlled licensing for new ones. These city-run stations parroted the government’s line while Milosevic’s Socialist Party was in charge, but that changed once the opposition took over. Mirkovic and Matic used this opening to establish a network of independent stations outside Belgrade that broadcast reports by the team at B-92. It was called the Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM is the acronym for the Serbian name for the group).
The members of ANEM—eventually 33 radio stations and 17 television stations—were shoestring operations; many used homemade transmitters. But even shoestring outfits need money, and this posed a problem for ANEM. Businesses were reluctant to advertise on antigovernment stations, and the country’s economy was in ruins, so there was no way that even a pro-Milosevic station could survive on advertising revenue alone.
This is where the U.S. government stepped in. Since the early 1990s, the independent media in Serbia had received modest support from a handful of private donors, including the Open Society Institute, funded by financier George Soros to promote democracy in places such as Serbia. After the 1996 municipal elections, the U.S. and its European allies became aware of two facts—that Milosevic was not an unstoppable force of nature and that his control over voters could be weakened by the work of the independent media. So the White House and its allies in Europe decided to funnel financial support not only to prodemocracy forces in Serbia—including opposition parties and student groups—but also to the media. This was a new approach: In the days of the cold war, programs that were designed to bring down foreign governments tended to involve covert support for coup makers or rebel factions. Serbia, however, had opposition parties and independent media, and they could topple the regime democratically if given the means.
“Support for the independent media and the democratic forces was crucial,” notes Jim Hooper, a former U.S. State Department expert on Yugoslavia and, until recently, executive director of the Balkan Action Council, a think tank that often criticized U.S. policy. “It was one of the elements without which Milosevic wouldn’t have been overthrown.” Some of the other key factors, Hooper believes, were the bombing of Yugoslavia, which weakened popular support for Milosevic, and international sanctions, which isolated the country.
By 2000, the U.S. was budgeting more than $25 million for democracy-building programs in Serbia, and nearly half of that was devoted to civil-society development, which included media-related projects, says Don Pressley, an assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Pressley tells me that a “substantial portion” of the media funding went to ANEM, though the exact amount is not forthcoming from Washington or Belgrade. U.S. officials say the problem is that their “partners” in Serbia do not wish to have the amounts publicized even now, because this could provide fodder for Serb nationalists who want to portray the anti-Milosevic uprising as having been made in the United States. “For a country in which 50 deutsche marks [about $25] is a lot of money, people would not understand these figures,” Mirkovic tells me.
Whatever the amount, the money was not wasted on expensive consultants or salaries for American expatriates, which often happens with U.S.-government-run foreign programs. This time, the funding went directly to local journalists, providing them with the resources to continue broadcasting.
“This can be done everywhere, and should be,” says John Fox, director of the Washington office of the Open Society Institute. “This can be done in all places, in Africa, in Asia, wherever there are independent journalists who are already taking risks, who are already showing the enterprise, and who already have credibility.”
In Serbia, it was the information age’s equivalent of a guerrilla war. Journalists who exchanged e-mail with foreign donors (and one another) used PGP, an encryption program, and instructed their foreign contacts not to fax sensitive documents because faxes are easy to intercept. Even nonsensitive faxes could cause trouble. The head of the Belgrade office of Norwegian People’s Aid, a nonprofit organization that quietly provided independent journalists with money and equipment—everything from transmitters and laptops to air conditioners—tells me of his horror at receiving a faxed invitation from the State Department to speak at a seminar it was organizing. The next day, the fax was leaked to the Serbian minister of information, who used it to portray the Norwegian group as an instrument of U.S. policy.
One of the point men in Belgrade for distributing U.S. aid is Dusan Masic, a former news editor at B-92 who has worked, since April, for the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), a Washington-based nonprofit that is one of the principal channels for U.S. funding to independent media. When I meet with Masic in Belgrade, he is still operating in a quasi-fugitive manner, with no office or business cards. We get together at a café in downtown Belgrade, and he begins by asking wary questions about my background and this magazine.
His caution eases somewhat, but when I bring up the issue of U.S. financial aid, he smiles and says, “I can’t talk about that.” Still, I ask him which media outlets receive funding from IREX. He won’t say. How did he transfer the money into the country? He won’t say. He agrees, however, to disclose a trick of his unusual trade: Whenever he has a confidential, face-to-face talk with someone, he detaches the battery from his cell phone.
By the time B-92 was taken over by the Milosevic regime, in April 1999, the flow of foreign assistance was well under way, so resources were available to bring the station to life on the Internet and to allow its journalists to produce radio and television programs that could be shown on ANEM stations elsewhere in the country. B-92 was renamed B2-92 to differentiate it from the government-hijacked station on the FM dial, and it broadcast on a new website, freeb92.net.
It was not by chance that an English name was used for the site and that its content was translated into English. The site’s domestic impact was limited because few Serbs have the high-speed modems needed for real-time broadcasts, but with texts and programs in both English and Serbian, the site was a useful resource for journalists and diplomats outside Serbia, as well as an important PR tool for the station’s editorial team, which wanted to demonstrate to the outside world that they were still at work.
Security was a critical issue as the station went into its guerrilla mode; the NATO bombing in the spring of 1999 prompted Milosevic to declare martial law, giving his regime sweeping powers. Just a few days after the takeover, Slavko Curuvija, an independent publisher who was critical of Milosevic, was gunned down on a Belgrade street. The assassination was widely blamed on thugs working for the government, and independent journalists like Mirkovic took the warning to heart. Mirkovic attended Curuvija’s funeral and recalls, “Everybody was saying, ‘Take care; take care.’” Mirkovic went semiunderground, often staying with friends, and on the 50th day of the bombing, his boss Matic fled to Montenegro because of rumors he would be murdered. Mirkovic stayed behind, in sole control of the B2-92 team.
Once the bombing ended, in June 1999, the political atmosphere relaxed and the B2-92 team was able, from August, to broadcast on a Belgrade frequency controlled by a sympathetic opposition party. But in May 2000, when Milosevic initiated another media crackdown, B2-92 was yanked off the air again and returned to the Internet. It was not heard on the FM dial until Milosevic was deposed in October.
During the crackdowns in April 1999 and May 2000, B-92’s role as the principal outlet for honest and current news was assumed by a scrappy station, Radio Index, which was founded by Nenad Cekic, who had broken away from B-92 in a murky dispute in the early 1990s. Depending on whom you believe, Cekic was either fired or asked to resign for stealing equipment or cutting a deal with the government or opposing alleged corruption at the station—or for other reasons that neither he nor his detractors wish to mention. In any event, Index played second fiddle to B-92 throughout most of the 1990s until B-92 was forced off the air. Cekic kept his station on the air by, among other things, hiding one of its transmitters in an unfinished home on a hilltop above Belgrade. It seems that some of the independent media’s most bitter feuds are conducted between people who should be allies, and the Index and B-92 teams are no exception: They despise each other more than they appear to despise Milosevic.
“B-92 became popular in the West because of their self-promotion,” Cekic tells me in his smoke-filled office on the 17th floor of Belgrade’s tallest building. While we talk, he waves a pair of scissors in the air, saying, “I have a strong impression that your government wasted your money.”
Cekic notes that when Milosevic lost the first round of the presidential election on September 24, Index spread the word about the results and about Milosevic’s attempt to tilt the ballot-counting in his favor. In the subsequent ten days, which decided the future of Serbia, everyone relied on Index for up-to-date information. Cekic is acid in his assessment of B-92: “They were not around when the revolution happened. Oops.”
The two stations represent different cultural styles. B-92 was always cool and trendy, though perhaps a bit too highbrow for the working class. Index was downmarket, the New York Post of the Serbian radio world, playing top-40 hits and featuring, on its advertising posters, a woman’s scantily clad torso. Foreign donors were well aware of the differences, both cultural and political, between the two stations and brokered a truce after the local elections in 1996, persuading the B-92 team to bring Index into the ANEM network. But Cekic, arguing among other things that his station was a major player in the media world, demanded greater say within ANEM than Matic and Mirkovic wanted to give.
“We were not so happy because we knew Cekic,” Mirkovic tells me one day. “He really started to be destructive. He is telling these stories that we didn’t want to show him the books. But he is not the person who I am going to show books to. I show ANEM’s books to donors, and he can ask donors if he has questions. So we expelled him.”
Cekic’s bitterness is extreme, though it’s certainly true that his station was more influential than B-92 in the final months, perhaps even the final year or two, of Milosevic’s regime, thanks to Index’s ability to continue broadcasting. Despite this, ANEM received the bulk of foreign aid for the independent media, and little of it reached the coffers of Index, much to the dismay and rage of Cekic, who now faces the possible demise of his station due to lack of funds.
“They are not a news organization,” Cekic says of his nemesis. “They are a private group for collecting money. That must be recognized in the West. They are interested in money, not journalism.”
When I ask Mirkovic about these accusations, he initially says he doesn’t want to exchange insults—then proceeds, as we walk through town toward his office, to do precisely that. He accuses Cekic of collaborating with a fascist party that was part of Milosevic’s coalition government. “They were in a kind of deal with the Radical Party, especially with the minister of information, who protected them,” Mirkovic says. (Cekic denies it.)
We soon arrive at Mirkovic’s new office in a dull building above a pharmacy and grocery store in the center of town. There are a couple of desks and chairs, a poster for a Moby CD, several new computers, and, of course, a haze of cigarette smoke. “Do I look like a person who has a lot of money?” Mirkovic asks. “This is stupid, you know.”
It is a Monday evening three weeks after Milosevic was overthrown, and Sasha Mirkovic is heading from his office to a reception at the Turkish Embassy. This is a big part of his life now: schmoozing with diplomats and politicians and businessmen. The corridors of power are wide-open, and they are crowded with friends, not enemies. Mirkovic walks up Kneza Milosha, a boulevard that is a visual reminder of Serbia’s recent history. At its lower stretch lie the ruins of the Defense Ministry and Army Headquarters, bombed by NATO in 1999. Farther along the boulevard is a looted office of the political party controlled by Milosevic’s much-despised wife; the office was attacked and destroyed in the uprising in October, and the graffiti on its walls reads, in English, “Freedom! Revolution!”
As Mirkovic walks by, he passes the head of the U.N. office in Belgrade; they exchange warm greetings. The city remains in a celebratory mood. Inside the embassy, several waiters recognize Mirkovic—who, amid the suited diplomats and politicians, is wearing a T-shirt under a frayed sweater—and they congratulate him on regaining control of B-92 after the long blackout that began in April 1999…a lifetime ago, it seems. Mirkovic scans the room and notices two ministers of the new government; they are friends of his from the University of Belgrade.
An acquaintance approaches him and mentions that a businessman is coming to Belgrade to find a publishing partner for Serbian editions of Playboy and Cosmopolitan. Would B-92, which published several political books in recent years, be interested?
The long-range plan is to turn B-92 and ANEM into self-supporting media companies producing provocative programs that the state-controlled media, now slavishly loyal to the new president, Vojislav Kostunica, will shy away from and that most commercial stations will shun in favor of sitcoms and soap operas. In November, B-92 broadcast a 30-minute NPR documentary about war crimes committed by Serb soldiers in Kosovo—precisely the sort of program that other media outlets even now wouldn’t touch. Mirkovic hopes that B-92’s hallmark radio program, Catharsis, which delved into issues of war and guilt, will be expanded into a television program, and he’s hard at work putting together a new television studio for a nightly news broadcast.
Matic and Mirkovic do not expect foreign donors to remain generous for much longer now that Milosevic is a private citizen living in a villa surrounded by high walls in a posh suburb of Belgrade. Although their foreign donors may not realize that the removal of Milosevic does not mean the full advent of democracy and openness, Serbia is no longer as crisis-ridden as it used to be, and the kindness of strangers is unlikely to linger.
ANEM and B-92 need to stand on their own commercial feet, and already ANEM—with Mirkovic as vice-president—has acquired the rights to broadcast NBA games. ANEM is also negotiating with MTV to broadcast its music programs.
Mirkovic does not bother to detach the battery from his cell phone before replying to his acquaintance’s query.
“Playboy? Cosmopolitan?” he says. “Sure, I’ll meet with the guy.”
The main exhibition hall in Belgrade is a visual curiosity. A concrete-and-glass dome designed during the Tito era by an architect of great imagination, the hall looks like a flying saucer that somehow landed in the Balkans. It was an appropriate setting for Serbia’s annual book fair, held late last October—an event that had a decidedly out-of-body quality. The fair’s official theme, chosen before pro-democracy protesters ousted Slobodan Milosevic from power, was “2000 Years of Christianity,” but the real theme, of course, was the startling events of the previous three weeks.
For Serbian writers the lifting of political tyranny has brought a new and different tyranny: that of the marketplace. Nowhere was this more evident than at the signing booth manned by Vladimir Arsenijevic, one of the country’s most critically acclaimed writers. In 1994 Arsenijevic burst onto the literary scene with In the Hold, a novel that tells the story of a young couple in Belgrade struggling against heroin addiction as they try to find meaning, or just a reason not to give up, in a nation of madness and murder. In the Hold is the sort of small masterpiece that tends to emerge from horrible times. It won the Nin prize, Yugoslavia’s most prestigious literary award, in 1995, and has been translated into eighteen languages. The book turned Arsenijevic into Serbia’s hottest young writer—its Dave Eggers, if you will, though a darker version, and without a movie contract.
At the fair Arsenijevic was plugging his new book, Mexico: War Diaries. I had imagined that he would draw a tremendous crowd: the book, which chronicles Arsenijevic’s experiences during the nato bombing of Yugoslavia and describes his friendship with an ethnic Albanian writer from Kosovo, had gotten excellent reviews. But when I stopped by his booth on the opening day of the fair, there was no signing going on; he had sold just half a dozen books in the previous four hours. Nearby, the Serbian translation of the newest Sidney Sheldon novel was selling briskly. Arsenijevic was a good sport about it all. “If normalcy means people reading Sidney Sheldon or Jackie Collins, that’s fair enough,” he said, shrugging.
It is an odd phenomenon that literature can be a casualty of liberation, but it’s one we’ve seen before. Consider what occurred in Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union after the Berlin Wall collapsed, in 1989. Writers and artists who had sacrificed and achieved so much under communism became, almost overnight, nonpersons (unless, as in the case of Vaclav Havel, they became politicians). Profound books that had been passed from hand to hand, often at the risk of arrest, ended up in remainder bins from Prague to Moscow. Readers did not want to be reminded of the bad old days, and the advent of democracy brought people much else to entertain themselves with, including American best sellers, the Muzak of literature. In Moscow today it is much easier to find a book by Danielle Steel than one by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose books are often out of print.
Under a dictatorship—whether in Communist-era Eastern Europe or in apartheid-era South Africa or in an Argentina run by generals—the mere act of acquiring certain books becomes a form of social protest. Yugoslavia had been no exception, as I learned when I met with Mileta Prodanovic, a prominent writer and artist whose publisher had a booth not far from Arsenijevic’s. Prodanovic told me that many people had felt “humiliated in a psychological sense” by the hypernationalism and corruption that pervaded Serbian society under Milosevic. “You would enter a book shop and buy a book to prove to yourself that you were still an intellectual or still human,” he recalled. “I think this motive is going to disappear.”
As it does, the pursuit of economic success may well take its place. For prosperous members of the consumer society that Yugoslavia is destined to become, the acquisition of goods will be a priority. Among the middle-class intelligentsia, dinner conversations are much likelier to focus on the merits of vacationing in Florence or Nice than on the merits of a new play by Dusan Kovacevic, the country’s leading dramatist. For the large number of people who will have a difficult time in the economic transition under way in Yugoslavia (prices for food and other staples, kept low by Milosevic-era subsidies, have already shot up), the struggle to put bread and slivovitz on the table will no doubt become the dominant preoccupation. Understandably, few in such situations will want to read about their own hardships. Being poor is much less interesting˜even to poor people˜than being oppressed.
Oppression provides writers not only with a sympathetic, even determined, audience but also with compelling material. Normalcy represents unknown turf for authors accustomed to writing under, and about, tyranny. “You do get better inspiration when times are rough politically, and probably literature does come out with better works, because there are more questions at stake,” Arsenijevic explains. “You tend to question everything, down to very personal things. But when times are not rough, you just switch off part of your mind, in a way.”
Of course, I did not find any writer who mourned the passing of the Milosevic era. Kovacevic has spent more than a decade writing plays and screenplays—including the script for Underground, an award-winning 1995 film directed by Emir Kusturica—that chronicle his country’s agony. He’s had enough of it. He was in one of his notoriously acerbic, whiskey-drinking moods when we met at the book fair. “In the old system it was good to be a writer but horrible to be a citizen,” he remarked, pausing to enjoy the irony. “Now it’s time to have a change. A boring life—that’s my great wish.”
But does a mundane life have to mean a literature of the mundane—more Cheever than Kundera? In hindsight, the ebb of political literature in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union was somewhat predictable. Once communism fell, what more needed to be said about it? Communism was poison, and almost everyone knew it. In Serbia, though, the evil was nationalism, which is more a drug than a poison—and relapse is possible. Milosevic was ousted not because he led the country into four wars but because he lost the wars and brought economic ruin to his people. The atrocities committed in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo are infrequently mentioned in Belgrade—and for this reason Serbia’s writers, more than their counterparts in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, need to find a way to remind their compatriots of the evil in their past and the possibility that its roots live on. Selective amnesia is not unknown in the Balkans. As Prodanovic cautioned, “We are quick forgetters.”
Arsenijevic is keenly aware of this need, and of the difficulty that writers who try to address it will face. “People are not into huge ideas, like ten years ago,” he said. “They have matured: they don’t vote for demagogues and support them no matter what they do. But hardly anyone thinks of sorting out the relationships among the ethnic groups in Yugoslavia. That is a boring subject. What they want to think about is foreign goods.”
He believes that readers in Serbia will return to politically tinged literature one of these days. In the meantime, he has a backup plan. He recently decided that he didn’t like trying to earn his daily bread from writing, which is almost impossible in Serbia, even for him. So he got together with a group of friends and started a publishing house. He plans to write on the side, as he did before he became famous, when he paid his bills by being a short-order cook and a tour guide. His publishing house is called Rende, or “Grater”—a name he hopes will convey a certain edginess. Its first titles are Mexico: War Diaries and a book of poems by Arsenijevic’s Kosovar friend, Dzevdet Bajraj.
Publishing, of course, is a perilous commercial exercise in any country, let alone Serbia. Arsenijevic hopes to ensure Rende’s survival through an imprint called Org. The imprint has nothing to do with the dot-com world and everything to do with commercial smarts; a certain irony also applies. When I asked Arsenijevic what “Org” stands for, he replied, “Like orgy, orgasm.” The imprint’s first book, which Arsenijevic hopes to release soon, is a collection of pornographic poems by a violinist at the Belgrade Opera who is also a stripper. After that Arsenijevic would like to translate and publish Macho Sluts, by the California erotica writer Pat Califia. Instead of being crushed by the new market in Serbia, Arsenijevic hopes to master it. “The book is really well written and it’s, like, total porn,” he explained enthusiastically. “And the title translates really well into Serbian.”
The scent of revenge is in the air, and it smells a lot like beer.
Fans of the Red Star soccer team are pouring into a Belgrade stadium, where their squad will shortly face its archrival, Partizan. The last time these Serbian teams met, a fan was shot and killed with a flare gun.
A policeman frisks everyone at the entrance, checking for weapons, drugs, and alcohol, or any object that might be heaved at the players, such as the plastic bottle of mineral water in my pocket, which is confiscated. The ban on alcohol has, perversely, accelerated the drunkenness among the team’s hard-core fans, who are proud to be known as hooligans and wave British flags on occasion; they have consumed enough pregame beer to stay inebriated through the rest of the year.
Inside, the stadium is one part rave, one part Colosseum. Some kids light up fat joints (their marijuana comes from Albania), and the blissed-out, hyped-up behavior of others indicates that they are molecularly familiar with ecstasy and cocaine. The Red Star cheering section, where almost all the fans are male, feels like a Balkan frat party.
This let-the-good-times-roll ambience proves transitory, though. Fights break out, but of the tune-up variety, between Red Star fans who throw a few chemically laced punches before realizing they should save their best stuff for later on. The stadium begins to shake as the fans roar in unison at the Partizan cheering section at the other end of the stadium. Their shouts have a rolling, thunderous sound, like the battle cry of ancient Greeks at the gates of Troy, though with little of the Homeric dignity:
“Pussies and thieves! Pussies and thieves!”
“You’re choking/ You’re choking/ You’re choking/ On our dicks!”
The teams take to the field. Someone throws a red flare onto the pitch. It becomes clear in the coming minutes that flares are the preferred instruments for wreaking havoc at soccer games.
Alexander is a 26-year-old computer geek dressed in the team colors, red and white. He is mild-mannered for a Serbian soccer fan, and he is doing his best to explain what is going on.
“Is something like a civil war,” he says.
A yellow smoke bomb explodes among the Partizan fans, who, enraged, begin tearing up their seats and throwing them onto the track circling the field. Partizan is the visiting team, and this is no way for visitors to behave.
“We fuck your mother!” Red Star fans chant.
For most Serbs, violence is a member of the family. In the early nineties, the ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosnia was initiated by the Serbian warlord Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic-eventually indicted as a war criminal-who was also the leader of Red Star’s official (and feared) fan club; its nationalist hooligans were his fiercest soldiers. But in the past few years, instead of fighting on behalf of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, they turned against his regime, which had led the country into global isolation and economic misery. The first time most Serbs heard the opposition slogan, which roughly translates as “Slobo, kill yourself and save the nation,” was during Red Star games, when thousands of fans howled it with such in-your-face gusto that riot police tried to silence the troublemakers, wielding their batons like cleavers in an abattoir.
Nine days before this match, a popular rebellion ended Milosevic’s 13-year rule. His ouster has been cause for national celebration, but Red Star’s fans—who were among the frontline protesters storming the federal Parliament and other government strongholds—remain on the warpath because Partizan has been headed by Milosevic loyalists. Not all scores have been settled.
The game begins. Red Star controls the ball and moves toward the Partizan goal. Several flares are fired onto the field, in front of the goal, narrowly missing the players, who dribble around them as they blaze away, throwing off smoke and heat and light.
“Is something normal,” Alexander explains.
The Partizan fans are becoming frenzied. A small fire has started in their section, and now they are hurling their chairs onto the field in earnest, a hail of jagged edges. The Partizan captain, Sasa Ilic, jogs off the field and onto the track, trying to talk some sense into his fans, but they will not listen, and he retreats before he becomes the target of their fury.
The hooligans on both sides are like stallions smelling brood mares in the distance, snorting and pawing the ground. Partizan fans are the first ones to climb the fence meant to prevent them from reaching the field. They rush ahead, lobbing flares, and as they do so, Red Star fans climb over their fence and surge forward, into battle, wildly.
“You see, it starts,” Alexander says, a touch of awe in his voice.
Mayhem. Players and coaches from both teams sprint toward a tunnel that leads off the field to safety, dodging punches and kicks along the way. The tunnel is flanked by a gauntlet of Red Star hooligans, so Partizan players duck and wrap their arms around their heads to absorb the blows. The important thing is to keep moving, because if they fall, the hooligans will swarm over them, saying hello with steel-toed boots.
Alexander watches the riot from the stands. He is not a hooligan, though he has, like most members of the fan club, engaged in violence from time to time; it is unavoidable, he says, when the other side attacks. He knows that tonight’s game, just three minutes old, is over, and he doesn’t much like the spectacle now taking its place.
“This is bad, this is bad, the whole situation,” he whispers. It’s not clear whether he means the game or the state of the nation.
A new chant arises from the Red Star supporters.
“Let’s go, let’s go! Everyone attack!”
The home team does not lose riots. Red Star fans pour onto the field. Ilic, the Partizan captain, is a marked man; by the time he staggers to safety, he has several broken ribs. Ljubisa Tumbakovic, Partizan’s coach, is a few steps slower than his players, and he loses a couple of teeth in the maelstrom and flees the field with a nasty gash on his forehead. He will later tell reporters the riot was the worst moment of his career.
Once the teams have disappeared from the field, the hooligan-on-hooligan violence intensifies. Red Star supporters are beating the daylights out of injured Partizan fans who have fallen to the ground in fetal heaps. It is brutal stuff, one kick after another delivered to crumpled, sandbag bodies.
“Look, they are coming now, the blues,” Alexander says.
The police, known as the blues because of their uniforms, had been staunch defenders of Milosevic’s regime. They were staying out of the stadium because they didn’t want to incite the fans. But the fans got incited anyway, so the blues are wading into the Partizan section, which is being ripped apart. They club anyone within swinging distance-crowd control, Serbian style.
The blues, with helmets and shields, venture onto the field too, chasing Red Star fans from their wounded prey, and as the victorious hooligans return to their seats in the northern section of the stadium, they are cheered by their comrades. Some remove their shirts and raise their arms in triumph; they are young and muscled and bloodied and thrilled.
On the field, doctors and nurses in white coats treat the wounded, who are stretchered away. Dozens are hospitalized.
The field is clear. The police herd Partizan fans out of the stadium but hold back the Red Star contingent; if both sides exited at the same time, they would continue fighting outside. An announcer informs the crowd that the game has been canceled and tickets will be refunded at a later date.
After a half-hour, Red Star fans are allowed to leave. I ask Alexander and his friends whether they are going to have a drink somewhere. They are not. They are subdued, as is the rest of the departing crowd, which quietly walks past the garish house across the street from the stadium, where Arkan, the warlord who once led the fan club, used to live. Arkan was assassinated in Belgrade a year ago-a mob hit.
The thrill that everyone felt at the apex of the riot has faded. A sense of hollowness takes its place as fans realize they don’t have much to show for their efforts. In the coming days, Serbia’s soccer association will ban fans from Red Star and Partizan’s next two matches. The teams will play before empty stadiums.
The riot is like the wars Serbs fought in the past decade in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Croatia-convulsive, brutal, worthless. There are no more wars being fought now. But the culture of violence that Milosevic nourished has not been vanquished with his regime. The games go on.
By Karl Maier
Public Affairs. 327 pp. $26
Reviewed by Peter Maass
A book that begins with a taxi story usually begins colorfully. Karl Maier opens This House Has Fallen with a wild brawl that broke out when his taxi got caught in traffic in Port Harcourt, a hub of the oil industry in Nigeria. It was the sort of African gridlock in which exhaust fumes are more plentiful than oxygen, beggars wander from one car to another displaying withered limbs, and young boys hawk soft drinks. In such situations, the street becomes a mixture of suffocating market and freak show.
Maier’s driver was ordered by a policeman to move his taxi, but this was impossible because nothing was moving. So the policeman punched the driver, who then grabbed the cop by the throat, prompting the cop to swing back and reach for his revolver. The driver was not cowed. “I will kill you!” he screamed. “I will never forget your face!” The hostile parties were separated by soldiers standing nearby, the gridlock became ungridlocked, and everyone carried on with their tumultuous lives; it was just another day in Nigeria, another boiling point come and gone.
This House Has Fallen contains an exotic feast of vignettes of this sort about life in Nigeria, which is Africa’s most populous country. These lively scenes are the book’s strength but also its weakness. Maier recounts, for instance, a visit to the violent town of Wukari, where the notorious Mobile Police squads had come to be known as “Kill and Go” because of their utter brutality. He points out the curious fact that Nigeria’s air force has 10,000 men but fewer than 20 aircraft that can actually fly. And Nigeria, he notes, has earned at least $280 billion from oil exports since the discovery of oil in the 1950s, but much of this has been siphoned away by endlessly greedy officials; Nigeria has the unfortunate distinction of being known as the most corrupt country on the planet, and one of the poorest. “Almost the only time [Niger] delta people saw any impact of the oil was when it was spilled into the water in which they fished and bathed,” Maier writes after describing a journey down a polluted delta stream.
From 1986 to 1996, Maier covered Africa for the Independent, a British newspaper, and he has contributed to other publications, including The Washington Post. This is his third book on Africa, and he knows his subject well. He could not have chosen a better topic or a better time to write about it. Nigeria, like the rest of the continent, is at a crossroads. After suffering under a series of corrupt dictators, most of them generals, the country has, at last, a democratically elected leader, Olusegun Obasanjo, who can count on the support of Western governments—for whatever that’s worth these days. But as Maier notes, a collapse beckons. “The Nigerian state is like a battered and bruised elephant staggering toward an abyss with the ground crumbling under its feet,” he writes.
Nigeria is the sort of African country that Americans should care about—not only because of its enormous suffering and poverty but because of the enormous potential it possesses and the prospect, if the ground holds under its feet, that it could give a boost to the entire continent. It would be fortunate, then, if This House Has Fallen were the sort of book that could engage and educate a broad public, as for example David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb, about the fall of communism in Russia, did so well. In a sense, Nigeria, with its large population, vast natural resources and stunning corruption, is the Russia of Africa, but This House Has Fallen is hobbled by too many taxi-style tales to do it full justice. Foreign correspondents spend a lot of time in taxis, going to interviews or press conferences or lunches or whatever. Taxi drivers are colorful personalities—is there such a thing as a taxi driver without an opinion on everything?—so it can be quite easy to spice up an article or a book with them. But such stories are often a hint that the writer has been spending too much time on the move and not enough time in living rooms or in kitchens or in villages, getting to the essence of what life is like for people who don’t earn their living by the quarter-mile.
This House Has Fallen roams at top speed from one troubled town to another, from one pessimistic politician to another. This is useful in many ways, because Maier provides readers with a taste of what Nigeria offers in the way of tribalism, politics, religion and history. And he describes, quite well, the system of cronyism that has beggared the nation. Some of his profiles are scintillating; for example, he takes readers to the slums of Lagos, where a popular Pentecostal preacher, Temitope Balogun Joshua, heals writhing parishioners with shouts of “Fire all over de body!”
But what does it all mean? What keeps these people going in such miserable circumstances? Where is Nigeria heading? One wishes that Maier, who has written a good book, had spent more time sitting under a tree, thinking about what he saw or talking to Nigerians about it, rather than rushing off to the next appointment by taxi.
It is nearly lunchtime, and the phone rings.
A distant voice announces, “This is a call from His Excellency Hussein Aideed.”
I wait to be put through to His Excellency, whom I have been trying to reach for several weeks now. This has not been easy, because Hussein Aideed is a warlord in Somalia, and there have been reports of fighting around his headquarters; his phone lines have been dead and there have been rumors that he is too.
Aideed is alive, though he has apparently been reduced to placing his own phone calls; it turns out I am already talking to His Excellency. He says he would be willing to receive me in Mogadishu, but that he has a request. “Please bring me some magazines,” he asks. “Time. Also Fortune.”
He inquires about the presidential election. How is George W. Bush doing? Aideed is very interested in George W. Bush.
“I am a registered Republican,” he explains. “Did you know that?”
There are many types of warlords on the planet, but there is none like Hussein Aideed, who likes to dance the tango and the cha-cha and until four years ago was a public works clerk in West Covina, California, and a corporal in the Marine Corps Reserves. He had been sent to America in 1978, at the age of 16, by his father, General Mohammed Farah Aideed, who was then on his way to becoming the most powerful warlord in Somalia. When his father was killed, in 1996, Aideed junior returned to Somalia to take over the family business, which if it were a commercial enterprise could be described as undergoing a painful restructuring, beset by cutthroat competitors.
“Tell your friends and colleagues not to worry,” Aideed says, of a country so chaotic that Osama bin Laden is rumored to have considered moving his headquarters there, only to bail after deciding it wasn’t safe. “Tell them that you are just visiting another American in Africa.”
We talk some more about politics in America, then about politics in Africa, and this goes on for a good half hour, during which I come to the improbable conclusion that a warlord in Mogadishu may have more time on his hands than a freelance writer in New York. As the conversation nears its end he reminds me to bring him the magazines. I promise to bring many magazines. “Thank you, my brother,” says the reluctant warlord.
A week later Hussein Aideed and I are rumbling through Mogadishu in his Toyota Land Cruiser. We are traveling in traditional warlord fashion, which means the Land Cruiser is sandwiched between several “technicals”: trucks and pickups customized for urban warfare. One of them carries, in its flatbed, an anti-aircraft gun, which is handy in a city because it can shoot through walls. The technicals also carry a few dozen militiamen equipped with don’t-fuck-with-us stares and an arsenal of personal weapons to make sure you get the point. These bodyguards—I use the term loosely—are fond of chewing qat, a narcotic leaf that keeps them in a hopped-up, trigger-happy state.
It was men and boys like these, under the leadership of Aideed’s father, who humiliated the United States military in 1993 and changed the course of U.S. foreign policy. At that time Somalia was beset by anarchy and famine, so the United States spearheaded what many call the first humanitarian intervention of the post-Cold War era.
The mission began unraveling when 24 Pakistani peacekeepers were killed in an ambush that was blamed on the elder Aideed’s militia. The UN essentially declared war on him. wanted posters, dropped like confetti from UN helicopters, announced a reward for his capture. In a masterful display of chutzpah, Aideed offered a $1 million reward for the capture of the top UN official in Somalia. President Clinton sent the elite Delta Force to Mogadishu; it gave Aideed the code name Yogi the Bear.
On 3, 1993, Delta Force soldiers, along with Army Rangers, choppered to a building where Aideed’s deputies were meeting. Two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and one of the pilots was captured. By the time the trapped U.S. soldiers were rescued the next morning, 18 of them had been killed; television viewers watched, repeatedly, the horrifying videotape of an American corpse being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.
The United States military, a $280 billion-a-year outfit, had been humiliated by a mob of doped-up gunmen. The Clinton administration had learned its lesson. When genocide got under way in Rwanda a year later, the White House not only refused to send U.S. troops there, it stood in the way of the United Nations reinforcing the few peacekeepers it had on the ground. When the U.S. joined the NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999, the operational credo was quite simple: Not a single American soldier will die.
Somalia quickly fell off the map. This becomes clear as soon as I hit the streets of Mogadishu with Hussein Aideed. Beside the road are piles of garbage as large as houses. The streets are covered in sand and weeds. Most cars look like casualties from a demolition derby. Aideed, dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit and brown loafers, sits next to me in the Land Cruiser—the same one his father used—and points out noteworthy sights.
“This is the house where I grew up,” he says, gesturing at a stucco home that is only slightly ruined—in contrast to the mostly ruined houses nearby. He reminds me that in 1969 his father, then a fast-rising officer in the military, was jailed for six years on suspicion of plotting a coup against the country’s Marxist ruler, Mohammed Siad Barre, whose unpopularity was reflected in the nickname Big Mouth.
“I used to take food to him in the jail over there,” Aideed continues, pointing to a gutted building picked clean like a desert carcass—the condition of nearly every government building in town.
“This is the movie house where I used to go,” Aideed says, nodding toward a dilapidated cinema where he once watched Clint Eastwood pictures.
There are no stop signs, no police, no firemen, no public schools in Mogadishu—nothing that would hint at the existence of a controlling legal authority. The capital has been without a government for a decade, but it staggers along—there is DHL service, and cell phone coverage is quite good—under a system of regulated anarchy.
The regulators are warlords like Aideed—who doesn’t like the term. (“It is inaccurate,” he tells me.) The new millennium does not appear to promise much for his kind. Somalis are tired of fighting, and a recent peace conference has led to the creation of a new parliament and the naming of a president, Abdulkassim Salad Hassan, who is trying to gain enough support to do what no man has been able to do for the past decade: install a government amid the chaos.
A few years back the warlords could field thousands of fighters, but now their forces have dwindled to perhaps a few hundred fighters each. They are too weak to start new wars, but they can stand in the way of peace; one of President Hassan’s biggest obstacles is Aideed, who seems to be having a hard time deciding whether continued anarchy or peace would be better for his homeland. Most Somalis would prefer peace—and would like to see their warlords put on trial as war criminals.
Aideed and I are heading to a rally of his Habr Gedir clan. The rally is in an auditorium with gaping holes in its roof, and the sound system consists of a microphone and speaker hooked up to a car battery. There are several hundred people inside; when Aideed arrives the women start wailing and the men cheer. A dozen fighters form a glaring perimeter around Aideed, who sits on a plastic lawn chair at the front of the hall.
The meeting seems to have no end, as one person after another speaks, each prefacing his remarks with the salutation Allahu Akhbar: God is great. Aideed takes notes in a leather-bound planner he always carries, just as his father did. The last to speak, he keeps it brief. He talks about peace and reconciliation, which is what everyone talks about, but he derides the ongoing peace process, saying it will return to power the ministers from Big Mouth’s regime. The people listen and nod in agreement—unenthusiastically.
Aideed returns to his residence, an attractive whitewashed villa with bougainvillea blooming in the garden. A technical is parked outside, there are several guards at the gate, and doors lock behind him as he enters the living room. I mention that the clan meeting seemed rather long.
“That one was organized,” he says wearily. “If you go to the actual tribal meetings, it goes for hours and hours. If you give them half an hour and tell them, ‘Look, I have work to do,’ they will think it is an insult.
“It is not like the culture in America,” he continues. “They are not objective.”
America helped train Aideed for his current position. He had grown up in Somali military housing and as a teenager had spent a few months in the field with his father. But much of what he knows of warfare he learned as a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, which he joined in 1987.
The situation in Somalia was deteriorating at that time. After leading the bid to topple Siad Barre, Aideed senior presided over the collapse of his country into factional conflict and famine. Things got so bad that he initially accepted the U.S.-led peacekeeping force that arrived in December 1992, a force that included a gung-ho translator named Hussein Aideed.
Corporal Aideed, making his first visit to his homeland in 14 years, lived as all Marines lived, eating MREs, drinking bottled water, and struggling to stay clean. Upon his arrival he hopped into a Humvee and drove to his father’s headquarters to say hello—only to be immediately disarmed by his father’s bodyguards.
His father, he says, was delighted to see him, pistol or no pistol. “He congratulated me on my position, on working for my country, the U.S. as well as Somalia.”
Corporal Aideed was pulled out in less than a month; the U.S. military brass realized it didn’t look good to employ the son of a warlord at HQ. But the corporal, who had earned two medals as a GI, made a good impression on his superiors.
“He was simply a good Marine,” Lieutenant General Robert Johnston, now retired, told me. “The notion that he would suddenly become a political warlord—I thought it was curious.”
Aideed returned to West Covina, where he counted potholes and kept tabs on the city’s water usage. He used his CompuServe account to troll the Internet for stories about Somalia, faxing the most interesting ones to his father. He was in West Covina when the U.S. military—his military—began trying to kill his father in concert with the UN. “It was an injustice and we knew it would fail,” Aideed told me.
Aideed returned to Somalia in 1995—after the UN had pulled out—so that his father could preside over Hussein’s first marriage. His father asked him to stay a while, to use his experience in the Marines to help reorganize his clan’s militia, which was trying to subdue Baidoa, a strategic city. Hussein subsequently led the militiamen who conquered Baidoa, wearing a Marine uniform into battle.
In July 1996, while driving to a battle in Mogadishu, his father was struck in the abdomen by a 12.7 mm bullet fired from an anti-aircraft gun. Hussein rushed back to Somalia from Kenya, where he had been doing a bit of diplomatic work for his pop. Roughly a week later, when General Aideed died, Hussein was on the front lines again, leading the militia.
The elders of the Habr Gedir clan had met in a panic to choose a new leader. The notion that they would select the kid from California seemed absurd. He was only 33 years old and he had spent all but a few months of his adult life in America. If one of the late general’s sons was to be chosen, Hassan, the eldest, seemed a better choice, as he was known to have a sharper mind and a few more years under his belt. But Hassan Aideed’s Somali roots weren’t deep either; he was, at the time, an aeronautical engineer in Orange County, California. Hussein was selected.
“I wanted to do what the old man wanted,” Aideed tells me. “I was not wanting, but seeing that the old man had not accomplished his mission, and he was hit by a bullet—it was a no-choice position but to accomplish and finish what he started.”
In West Covina, Aideed’s colleagues at city hall had no idea that the quiet fellow who diligently kept track of the water supply was the son of a warlord. “He was a good employee,” recalls Thomas Mayer, Aideed’s boss. “Did whatever you asked of him, did it well, but sort of kept to himself. He certainly did not impress us as a world leader.”
Hussein Aideed does not look the part, either. He has the smooth, youthful brown skin of Cassius Clay, and an innocent look on his face like an eager kid. He dresses in preppy outfits or stylish suits and sport jackets, and his shirts are pressed with military precision. His ties are made of silk.
“I cannot dress like Somalis,” he tells me. “I am not used to it. You are supposed to be an example, a model for the younger generation. They look at how their leader is.”
I have a chance to see the leader in action one day in his living room. A couple of Italians have come to discuss a business proposition: a fish factory, they say. Aideed, a shy man before he was nudged onto center stage, takes command of the conversation, alternating between rudimentary Italian and English as he discusses the perils of Islamic fundamentalism, among a dozen other topics—leaps of language and subject matter that leave his guests dizzy.
“I’ve been getting a headache trying to understand what this guy is talking about,” one of the Italians says, as Aideed adjourns upstairs with a Somali businessman who has accompanied the visitors. Aideed soon returns; the deal, whatever it concerns, appears to have been consummated.
Afterward I ask whether the meeting went well.
“With the European Union?” Aideed says. “The president is coming. These were just the delegates, up front, to check security. The president himself will come.”
One of the endearing things about Hussein Aideed is that he is an atrociously ineffective spinner of untruths. He so wants things to be true—he would love nothing more than to be visited by the president of the European Union—that he seems to feel that by saying something it might come to pass.
Warlords can dream too.
Aideed and I are on our way to a weed-choked patch of ground on the outskirts of town. Arriving at the end of the dirt road, Aideed steps out of the Land Cruiser and walks through a small gate, entering a yard in which several donkeys are foraging. A red shack with an aluminum sheet roof stands at the side.
Aideed pauses outside the shack, his bodyguards standing silently a few steps behind as their boss bows his head in prayer at the gravesite of his father. The remains are inside, encased in a modest, knee-high tomb made of white tiles. Aideed stands next to a Somali flag at one end of the tomb, closes his eyes, and says another prayer.
Afterward, outside a mosque, he talks of his plans to build a library at the spot, like an American presidential library, in honor of his father. “I feel very close to him here,” he says. “His spirit is with me. I come here every Friday and I come here every Sunday evening. It is the best of times. I have reconciliation with my father, one to one. I can send messages to him without saying words.”
I am told a few days later that Aideed downplayed the extent of his visits to the grave. He often sleeps overnight in the mosque, to be closer to his father—and, perhaps, further away from the morass of today’s Somalia.
It is a morass that has changed in some profound ways since his father’s time. In fact, a few weeks before my visit, Villa Somalia, Aideed’s political and military headquarters, was attacked. Aideed denies the assault took place, saying it is a rumor spread by his rivals. But when the boss is out of earshot, one of his aides confirms that the attackers were Aideed’s own militiamen, who were upset they had not been paid or provided with their regular allotment of qat.
When Aideed’s father was in the saddle, payment was not an issue. Men and boys flocked to fight on behalf of their clan. Those glory days have passed, as the gunmen have come to understand that such fighting was of little benefit to anyone but the warlords, who were living in delightful villas. And the businessmen who funneled money to the warlords, or were forced to do so, have come to realize, as the militias have decreased in size, that they can decline to make their tributes.
The result is that the warlords are in an exhausted stalemate. Violence continues in Mogadishu, though to a lesser extent than before; now it is related mostly to banditry. The last big battle, which took place in 1999, was a horrendous defeat for Aideed, who lost control of Baidoa.
Aideed’s problems are not confined to the military realm; he has significant woman trouble on his hands, too.
His first wife—four are permitted in Somali culture—lives in Southern California; she did not cheer her husband’s return to Mogadishu. Wife number two, who lives in Mogadishu and is the mother of Aideed’s 18-month-old daughter, did not get along with wife number three (now ex-wife number one), who lives in Cairo and gave birth several months ago to Aideed’s second daughter.
Aideed is, apparently, an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire. The dispute, he tells me, forced him to divorce wife number three.
“Is not a marriage problem,” he says, looking at his feet. “Is a between-the-women problem.”
Why divorce a woman who just gave birth to his child?
“I am very democratic,” Aideed says. “I still love her. I take care of the kid, the baby.”
But why the divorce?
“They are very young,” he offers. “Jealousy is normal for a woman. But there is not a big problem. If she likes to continue, we can have the marriage again. But this must come naturally.”
It occurs to me that Aideed has become the Rodney Dangerfield of warlords, beset not only by his rivals and his own militia but by his wives, too. Then he mentions that his wife in America is very independent.
“I don’t have independence,” he complains. “My life is run by the system here in Somalia.”
It is July 4, as it happens, and when I point this out Aideed nostalgically recounts the summer picnics he used to have in Southern California with his buddies from the Marines.
“I am very good at doing barbecues,” he says cheerfully. “Chicken and hamburgers and steak.”
I ask if he misses it.
“A lot,” he answers.
Several weeks later I am back in New York. It is a Friday, lunchtime. I call Aideed in Mogadishu. We exchange greetings, and I ask how things are going.
“Is beautiful, is calm,” he says.
I have come to expect optimism from him, even when things are not going well. On my last night in Mogadishu, Aideed’s men tussled with two rival groups, leaving a number of gunmen dead in the streets around my hotel. A few weeks later two of the city’s foreign aid workers were kidnapped by gunmen loyal to Osman Otto, a rival warlord.
“This is creating a signal that there is a problem still in Mogadishu,” Aideed says. He is working hard to fix the signal.
It is early evening there, and he has just taken off his tie, he tells me; as soon as his neighborhood’s generator is turned on—like everyone else, he has electricity only at night—he will tune in to CNN. The Republican convention has just ended, and he wants to hear more about Dick Cheney.
“I think as a vice president he will be superb,” Aideed says. “This year we are thinking it will be a very close race. This is what CNN was saying.”
He moves on, enthusiastically, to the freshest morsel of good news from Mogadishu.
“We now have the Internet! We are hoping it will start next month. I will encourage people to sign in, for them to learn.”
He hopes his fellow countrymen—Americans, in this case—will realize that things are looking up and help him rebuild Somalia.
“There are zero taxes here,” Aideed says. “I am sure there are a lot of computer geniuses who can do a lot here.”
BELGRADE, Serbia—Several days ago a Serbian law student told me, in excellent English, that he wanted to become a judge so that he could help clean up the corrupt legal system that is one of the poisonous legacies of Slobodan Milosevic. When our conversation turned to international politics, the student recounted a popular conspiracy theory: that Mr. Milosevic, who worked in New York as a banker before rising to power in his homeland, was a C.I.A. agent of some sort, carrying out a plan hatched in Washington to bring Serbia to its knees.
“I believe it,” the student said. “I think it is true.”
He was not pulling my leg. Mr. Milosevic is gone, but Serbia, though a changed country, is not changed in all ways. Many Serbs continue to possess a view of political reality that is imaginative in disturbing ways.
For 13 years under Mr. Milosevic’s rule, Serbs were bombarded with massive doses of propaganda that portrayed Serbia as the innocent victim of an international conspiracy. There was always someone else to blame for their problems or their crimes—and as the law student reminded me, many Serbs have even found someone to blame for Mr. Milosevic himself.
Serbs are showing little interest these days in accepting guilt for the crimes in the Balkans in the 1990’s. Most of the demands in Belgrade for putting Mr. Milosevic on trial relate to the enormous internal corruption that he, his family and a group of cronies are believed to be responsible for. And one comes across very few demands to judge him—although he has already been indicted by the United Nations tribunal in The Hague—for war crimes committed by troops under his direct or indirect control.
A war-crimes trial would implicate not just Mr. Milosevic or the front-line soldiers who served in Bosnia, Kosovo and Croatia, but the ordinary people in Serbia who supported the wars. For now, most Serbs prefer to continue to believe, as Mr. Milosevic’s broadcasts told them day after day, that their wars were defensive and that most atrocities were committed by the other sides—that, for example, Sarajevo was not under siege.
Although Yugoslavia is undergoing a whirlwind of welcome changes under Vojislav Kostunica, its new president, it appears unlikely that popular attitudes about recent history will change at anything more than a snail’s pace. Mr. Kostunica has made it clear that questions of guilt and innocence need to take a back seat, for the moment, to the urgent questions of stabilizing the country’s political system and economy. It is understandable that he would not want to take any action right now, but he is timid even when he talks about assessing blame.
On Sunday, during an unexpected visit to Bosnia, he tiptoed around the issue, saying that “an examination” should be made of what had happened and that, in the interim, he didn’t want to make “empty apologies.” The problem with this is that plenty of examinations have already been made of what happened, particularly in Bosnia, and they point an incriminating finger at the Serbian side.
Of course there should be no empty apologies; at the minimum, though, a symbolic one could be offered. Maybe not today, but sometime soon, Serbs need a moral version of shock therapy: they need to be confronted with what was done on their behalf, and they need to accept their share of the blame. Mr. Kostunica is not, fortunately, the kind of politician who would lead Yugoslavia into another war, but he doesn’t appear determined to lead Serbs into a rapid assessment of previous ones.
If history is any guide, Serbia’s rendezvous with truth is years away. Nations tend to be reluctant to face their guilt. It took several decades before the French were willing to acknowledge the scale of their collaboration with their Nazi occupiers in World War II. Many Japanese (if not most) refrain to this day from owning up to the full extent of crimes committed during their country’s brutal occupation of Korea and parts of China.
Like other nations with sins to atone for, Serbia will likely take its time.
Peter Maass: There was a revolution here in Belgrade on Oct. 5. Protesters stormed the federal Parliament, stormed the main television station, stormed the main police station, and then the next day you started as mayor of the city. What was your first day on the job like?
Milan Protic: It was a nut house. No one really knew what was going on. We still had in the back of our minds that something might happen to undermine what we had done the previous day. It was a combination of hope and fear and to some extent confusion, but hope was prevailing.
Q: The night before, you put yourself between the police and the protesters at the main police station when there was the possibility of some very serious bloodshed. That couldn’t have been a very comfortable position to be in.
A: Well, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. I found myself in a situation where the individual responsibility just popped at me. Since that police station is literally 50 feet away from where I live, I felt that it was my duty to go down there and intervene.
Q: On your first day you asked that people clean up their streets. How is that campaign going?
A: I wanted people to do something to ease all those emotions that exploded on Oct. 5. So the first thing I could think of was to call on them in the morning, because the city was so dirty—I mean, we had a revolution here—just to come out in the streets and do something absolutely normal and everyday, and the response was tremendous. I believe it helped relax the atmosphere in the city.
Q: You’ve also asked the citizens of Belgrade to return items they took when they stormed the Parliament and the television station and the police headquarters. Have you gotten things back?
A: Just this morning, five youngsters brought me an old clock from the federal Parliament. They called me last night and told me, “Well, you are the only person that we really trust, and we want you to take it back.” The other day I went to Studio B, the local Belgrade TV station, for an interview, and when I got there, two guys were standing there with a machine gun. A machine gun! They told me, “Well, we took this from the local police station, but we want to return it to you.”
Q: Why was one of your first mayoral orders to forbid parking in front of city hall?
A: This is a royal palace that became city hall. It is my duty to give that image back to this building. Having all these cars parked in front was really an ugly picture.
Q: You sound like Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York. Is it fair to say that you wouldn’t mind becoming known as the Rudy Giuliani of Belgrade?
A: I believe that I’ve got a long way to go, but it would be very nice. You have to admit, Rudy Giuliani is an institution. The general public, not only the citizens of New York, but the American public in general, when you say Giuliani, there’s no other Giuliani. That’s probably the top of a public career, that you’re identified as a person, as an individual.
Q: One of your individual constituents is a guy named Slobodan Milosevic, although it’s not clear whether he is here now. If he calls up to complain about garbage collection or low water pressure, is he going to get a helpful response from city hall?
A: Well, Slobodan Milosevic is a pretty common name in Serbia. There are many Slobodan Milosevices in the city. We should help each and every one of them, including the one that you’ve been referring to. I don’t know what his destiny is, but if he remains a free citizen of this city, he’s going to be treated like everyone else.
Q: You were a student and then taught history at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Is there anything you learned there that could possibly be of use in a place like Belgrade, in the position of mayor?
A: Two major things. The first one is how to be tolerant. How to listen to another guy yet keep my own opinion. And No. 2 is to be able to take personal responsibility. Something that we, living in Communism for so long, never learned.
Q: Are you a surfer?
A: No. I was going from Stanford to L.A., trying to find a school where I could study. I took Greyhound and I stopped in Santa Barbara, and just by chance I got the best offer.
Q: Are those cowboy boots that you’re wearing?
A: Yeah, sure. I’ve worn 501’s and cowboy boots since I was 16. I don’t want to change my image. Since I’m almost 6-foot-6 and I weigh something like 240 pounds, I can’t wear designer clothes.
Since 1998, the Internet site MP3.com has served as an on-line bazaar, where any garage band in the universe can offer up its music and wait for the accolades to pour in. More than half a million songs are posted on the site, but Joseph Wecker’s “Descramble” is not one of them. On September 11th, only four days after Wecker posted his song, and just after it topped the site’s folk-music chart, he received a terse E-mail from MP3 saying that his song was being pulled, because it had “either a song title or lyrics that are offensive or otherwise inappropriate.” This may seem surprising for a work whose lyrics don’t get much racier, or more intelligible, than “Retrieve byte 1 of KEY/XOR it with byte 85 of SEC/And store the result in t2.”
In fact, the lyrics of “Descramble” are passages from a controversial software code, known as DeCSS, that enables hackers to decrypt movie DVDs, copy them onto their computers, and, if they wish, share their pirated films with anyone on the Internet. The code, which was created a year ago by a fifteen-year-old computer whiz in Norway, drew immediate reprisals from the movie industry. The Motion Picture Association of America, fearing that DeCSS would be its Napster, sued web sites that posted the code; a firm that merely printed it on T-shirts was hit with a related lawsuit. In August, a federal judge in New York took Hollywood’s side, ruling that it was against the law to disseminate DeCSS on the web.
In the midst of the court case, Wecker, a twenty-two-year-old college student and computer programmer in Salt Lake City, came up with the idea to compose, record, and upload “Descramble,” a seven-and-a-half-minute recitation of the code accompanied by a gloomily strummed acoustic guitar. (Imagine Lou Reed singing a calculus textbook.) In this way, as Wecker saw it, the code would be protected by the First Amendment. “I thought it would be funny if I wrote a song with source code as lyrics, to make the point that source code is speech,” Wecker said the other day. “It’s like explaining to your neighbors how to take apart a toaster. It shouldn’t be illegal.”
Wecker"s favorite band is Radiohead; the name of his own band (which recently recorded a grungier version of “Descramble”) is Don’t Eat Pete. “I’m just your standard starving college student,” he explained by telephone. “But I’m not starving, because I own three Internet businesses, and they’re doing wonderfully.”
Within days of posting the song on his web site, Wecker got about ten downloads. “I thought that was awesome,” he says. The judge’s ruling against DeCSS, however, transformed “Descramble” from hacker joke to geek protest anthem. Wecker got thousands of downloads, so he decided to post the song on MP3, where the big time beckoned. “Everyone kept calling it the Bob Dylan song of the wired age,” Wecker says. “But I wrote it in a half hour during a lunch break.”
“Descramble” is not particularly easy to sing along to, nor is it really very stirring. It isn’t even especially good. But it is lucky. The best thing that can happen to a protest song is for it to be banned somewhere, and now Wecker has a hit. The song has been downloaded about sixty thousand times on his site alone and has been played on alternative and college radio stations. Wecker performed it on a television show in Canada. And nobody from the movie industry has tried to stop him. “We will not be suing this songwriter,” Mark Litvack, the vice-president of the M.P.A.A.‘s anti-piracy division, said.
Still, MP3, which likes to think of itself as a supporter of free speech, has made the premptive decision to ban the song. “It is a smart business move to stay within the letter of the law,” a spokesman for MP3 said, citing the judge’s August ruling. Wecker received a fuller explanation in an E-mail from another MP3 employee. “We’re sorta being sued by enough people right now,” the employee wrote. “I guess we’d like to keep out of court for a while, if that’s O.K.”
Wecker isn’t sure where he’ll go with “Descramble,” but, because the song uses only a quarter of the forbidden code, he’s got plenty of material left to work with. He said, “I have toyed with the idea of releasing an album.”
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.
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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