Q&A: Wojciech Jagielski
The Polish long-form master and Kapuscinski heir talks about children in war and the fate of journalism
A balding, middle-aged man with a wart on his nose, Wojciech Jagielski is one of the greatest of the rapidly shrinking category of reporters who combine narrative gifts with human insight and a tolerance for physical discomfort and danger. Unlike his better-known peers, like John Burns and C.J. Chivers of the New York Times, or Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker, Jagielski writes in Polish, a fact that has sadly limited the access of English-speaking readers to his work. If Jagielski wrote in English, more readers might be acquainted with his raw and heartbreaking reporting from the Caucasus during the break-up of the Soviet Union, his insanely good reporting from South Africa during Mandela’s revolution, his prescient reporting from Afghanistan, or his reporting from Chechnya. They also might have read his interview in the summer of 2001 with Ahmad Shah Massoud, in which the Afghan leader warned that Osama Bin Laden was preparing a major strike against the United States.
Over the last decade, the species of foreign reporting in which Jagielski was mentored by his hero, the legendary Polish reporter and writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, has largely been replaced by cheap, high-speed opinion-mongering on the Internet. One of the few welcome results of this development is that Towers of Stone, Jagielski’s stunning account of the Chechen wars, and The Night Wanderers, his book about the child soldiers of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, are now available in English translations from Seven Stories Press. Hopefully, Jagielski’s account of the Afghan wars, based on his 11 trips to Afghanistan between 1992 and 2001, will also soon be translated into English.
I recently had the privilege of talking with Jagielski in a conference room on the 46th floor of the Empire State Building in New York, where we discussed the hazards of our trade and people we knew in common, and the fact that he is deathly afraid of heights. What follows are some excerpts from our conversation.
What was your first war? Was it the Caucasus?
First was Transcaucasia. It was 1989, and I was lucky because it was a gradual approach to the war. First I was sent to cover Georgia and Armenia, and there were the anti-Soviet demonstrations already, and the people were demanding autonomy or language rights. Or they didn’t want some monuments. I was reporting year after year, and in 1990, 1991, there were the first riots on the street, first fights, first shots. Then I came back to Georgia one day, I remember, and they told me no, there is no one in town, because now there is a war. So, I went to see my people, and it was a very small war. Two, three shots. That’s all. In 1992, it was another war. It went step by step, so I got used to the violence.
I excused myself also because at the time I was observing the collapse of the Soviet Union. I was in the Duma when Yeltsin made the comment that the Communist Party should be illegal. There were two guys on the scene, Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Gorbachev was explaining that socialism is not that bad, we have to reform and the Communist party is not guilty for all these things. Yeltsin, who was a populist leader, answered, “No, the Communist party is bad and I will make it illegal immediately as the President of Russia.” And Gorbachev says, “No, no, no. You cannot do this like this.” Yeltsin said, “No. I will show you.” And he starts looking for a pen, but he didn’t have a pen and someone from the audience, some journalist, gave him this pen, and he signed the order that made the Communist party illegal. So, how can you even write about such things?
Talk to me about the psychological effects of the violence you witnessed on the societies you wrote about. Because the injury doesn’t stop with the person who got shot. There is the person that did the shooting, the victim’s family, the shooter’s family, a child who saw it, the neighbors. An entire community is infected by violence. How do you talk to these people?
You are never prepared for the effects of violence, for some violent acts committed against you or your family. It is better if you are wounded than to have to observe when your son is killed, your wife is raped, your house is destroyed and then to figure out how to survive.
The most difficult thing for me was to talk with the refugees, the people who suffered. In the former Soviet Union, they looked at me as someone sent from a high power, and if they tell me their story, maybe someone will come and help them. And nothing would happen. And then, the next time I came there, they’re still in the refugee camp and they look at me like, “What? I gave you everything. I give you my last thing, my story, and nothing happened and you made money on my misfortune.”
I understand that for the soldiers and the rebels who are shooting, the violence must have some influence on their psychology also. But the people who suffer the most are the ones who observe this violence. You feel that you are so helpless. I think this is the worst thing that can happen to a human being. When your life is destroyed before your eyes, when they are burning your house without any particular reason, just because they want to burn your house. It’s a big thing, but it’s an also small thing.
I was stopped once by a soldier in Kenya, in 2000, when they had the civil war. They stopped me and they asked me for my passport, for some papers. I have everything clear and it was Kenya, not Somalia, not Congo. So, I was not that nervous. But he was starting to search me. And I knew that if he finds something in my pockets he just can take it. So, he took my cigarettes. I had almost a whole packet. He took 15 of them, left me 3 or 4 and he looked me in the eyes. He wanted to tell me, “I can do whatever I want. And you can do nothing.”
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