Q&A: Wojciech Jagielski
The Polish long-form master and Kapuscinski heir talks about children in war and the fate of journalism
I was in Gaza and in the occupied territories of the West Bank at the height of the Palestinian suicide bombing campaign, and I was also in Gaza at different points when the civil conflict there was very intense. And when I tried to speak to Jews in America they would say, “Look at the Palestinians. First of all, they kill children with suicide bombers. Second of all, Hamas and all these groups are religious fanatics from the Middle Ages. They believe that when they blow themselves up they go to paradise. And in Israel, we have Arabs on the Supreme Court and everybody votes in national elections.” And I’d say, “Yes, that’s all true. But you should also try to imagine yourself as a Palestinian father in a village who has to live with checkpoints, with occupation, with 19-year-old soldiers who smack your son in the face and piss on your floor. And try living like that for 40 years. It’s not suicide bombers or Iran, but it’s also something terrible.”
We do not understand that one of the worst things which is happening during war and all this violence is the humiliation of the victims. Someone can be humiliated when his house is burned, when his family is destroyed, and he’s the only one who’s left living just to suffer more. But someone could be more humiliated, as you said, when some solider enters his house without any permission and pisses on the floor.
For example, I am familiar with Afghanistan. I knew from the very beginning that in our classical way of war, you have to enter houses. You have to pacify villages. Because you have to hunt for the rebels. But once you go into someone’s house with their women present, they just have nothing else to say to you. For them, it’s a sacred place, and if you do this thing, no matter what nationality you are, they feel humiliated and you are their enemy.
In the ’90s, when Afghanistan was a completely forgotten country, I was going every year. I came back to Afghanistan on my last trip before Sept. 11, it was in April or May 2001. I went there when they destroyed the Buddhist statues. But then I came back to talk with Massoud, and he told me about Osama, and I wrote a big story about Osama Bin Laden that was published in July. Massoud told me that, “You in the West, you underestimate Osama. He’s targeting you and he will hurt you very badly.” I knew it wasn’t propaganda. It was published, and then Sept. 11 happened and then my newspaper realized that I was the only journalist in Poland who was covering Afghanistan on a permanent basis, and it was important to them.
It was the same with Chechnya. At first, the Chechens were the heroes because they were beating the Russians. And then the same Chechens started to kidnap Polish journalists; and whenever I was coming to Chechnya, I was paying the guys who were arming the child soldiers. All my security guys were 14-, 15-, 16-year-old guys. I was paying the money and they were buying Kalashnikovs for children.
Is that why you wrote the Uganda book?
What you did was a very interesting psychological act, to say I’m going to have as my protagonist a child soldier who was a perpetrator of terrible violence, and I want you, the reader, to sit with this person for a while.
My first idea was to write about the child soldiers and the Lord’s Resistance Army. I knew that Lord’s Resistance Army was a strange guerrilla group, and a religious sect. I was in Uganda many times in the ’90s. Whenever I was in Eastern Africa, I always wanted to go to Uganda because of the history of Idi Amin, and because of Kapuscinski. There was something in Uganda that he wanted to understand and that I wanted to understand.
In 2006 I went to Gulu for the research for the book. But when I met these first child soldiers in Gulu, I realized that it would be impossible for me to write the book I had imagined because of the lack of communication. Because, you know, as a grown-up, it’s not very easy to communicate with children, even if they are your own children. In Uganda, it was also a language problem. I needed a translator and if you have a translator, it’s not a conversation anymore. You cannot look for some trust in the person.
But the worst thing was, when I was introduced to some children, and I knew that, for example, this small kid I am talking with also killed many people. How can I talk with this guy? I was afraid and then I was also worried because I was not a psychologist. I was afraid that this conversation could harm them.
I mean, if I ask one of those guys “Can you tell me how many people you killed and is it 100?” What does that mean, 100 people? It’s difficult, even for me, as war correspondent, to imagine that you are the guy that killed 100 people. And this child is speaking 100 like he was telling me how many points he scored during the basketball match. So, for me it’s impossible to find a real understanding, which leads to writing something very different than a normal reported article.
We don’t have a category of visual art called nonpainting. So why nonfiction? What does it mean?
I think it’s an important question because you have so many journalists who started to write books and they still pretend that they are writing journalism. I’m talking about my own experience now. I am doing things that I would never allow myself to do in the journalist’s story for my newspaper. How can you say what President Obama thought? I think in Poland the problem started with Kapuscinski. I mean, how would you say what is the journalism of Ernest Hemingway and Truman Capote—I am thinking now of In Cold Blood—and what is the literature, right?
Did Kapuscinski read your stuff?
I knew him for more than 20 years. When I was sent for my first trip to Transcaucasia, nobody told me, “You should call Kapuscinski.” But, you know, I was so proud. I was twenty-something and I’m going to Georgia and that’s my chance, so I will call Kapuscinski and I would tell him where I’m going. So, I called him and I asked him such a stupid question, “Do you have any telephone numbers?” He was there in the ’60s. I was going in the late ’80s. But still, he gave me some telephone numbers—and one actually worked.
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