Walking on Evil

I became a foreign correspondent because I wanted to find out how the world works. When I was growing up, I liked to write and I wanted to travel. I was interested in politics, too, like any other teenager in the 1960s in America when so much was happening.

I became a foreign correspondent because I wanted to find out how the world works. When I was growing up, I liked to write and I wanted to travel. I was interested in politics, too, like any other teenager in the 1960s in America when so much was happening.

But it wasn’t until I had to register for the draft at 18 that it really hit me. There were big events and big issues out there – the war in Vietnam, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Nixon in the White House, anti-war protests on college campuses – and I was going to get caught up in the army’s net and end up in the wrong place if I didn’t watch out. And the only way to know what to do was to find out first what was going on.

So I began to read whatever I could find about world politics. Pretty soon, I was a news junkie. I especially liked this one radio station in New York, WBAI, where they used to have a nightly war report and they broadcast everything they could find about Vietnam.

A lot of their material came from non-American sources. They used to read out translations of long reports from Hanoi in Le Monde or Svenska Dagbladet, anything they could find to get around the Washington spin in the American media. It fascinated me to think there were people out there who got paid to go to strange places and explain what was happening. They were showing me how the world worked.

I wanted to do that, too, both to find out things for myself and to explain them to others. Luckily, in the end, I didn’t have to go to Vietnam. But my direction was set. I started going around the world.

I didn’t set out to cover wars or hot spots. In fact, I was pretty allergic to anything military at first, because I associated it with all that I had rejected in Vietnam-era America. But the assignments came to me.

I was posted to Pakistan and the Afghan war was part of my beat. I had to learn about warfare and weapons, I had to talk to military attaches and spooks and, most of all, I had to talk to the Afghan guerrillas themselves.

These were men whose lives were torn apart by the war, their families had to flee to Pakistan and they had to devote the best years of their lives to fighting a steep uphill battle against the Soviet superpower. It seemed gruesome and futile, and yet they did it with a commitment I certainly would not have had if I’d gone to Vietnam. It made war far more complex than I had thought.

Of course, they were motivated by politics and nationalism and anger and all those testosterone-laden things that make men stand up and fight. But they were also motivated by their faith.

One of the things that impressed me most during my time covering the Afghan war was a comment a political officer of one of the Mujahideen parties made when he explained why the Afghans fought against such daunting odds. It was their destiny to defend their customs and their religion, they believed. He looked me in the eye and said: “You westerners think you’re free – we Muslims know we are not.”

I got to Kabul twice during that war and saw it from the other side. The city was encircled by the Mujahideen and on some nights you stayed awake counting all the rockets coming in or going out. There was a different swoosh depending on which direction they were going in, and you got to recognize them pretty quickly.

Life seemed fairly normal during daylight hours, but things would get tense as night fell. People lived on edge. They didn’t know when a rocket would hit their house, or whether the mountain men out there would finally come in and overrun their city.

The Mujahideen did win in the end, in 1992, and they proceeded to destroy large parts of Kabul in their power struggles after their victory. I only got to see the result 10 years later, after the fall of the Taliban, but the result was still terrifying. These were supposed to be the good guys, and look what they did to their own people.

While I was in Pakistan, I was also sent at short notice to Sri Lanka one time to help cover the unrest up in the north there. I could only roughly say where Sri Lanka was on the map at the time, but I hopped on a plane and flew out there. Two days later, I was up in Jaffna interviewing wounded Tamils in an overcrowded hospital and visiting the 24-hour funeral parlours whose storefronts were all shot up during some gun battle.

The atmosphere was hair-raising. We never knew when the trigger-happy Singhalese soldiers there were going to start shooting at anybody in the street. When we walked home in the dark one night, people opened their doors and begged us to come in and stay the night with them because it wasn’t safe to be out. You said to yourself, “Hey, I’ve got a wife and kid at home, what am I doing here?”

One day, we were visiting a village and some boys insisted we go with them to see something in the jungle nearby. We followed them down a path and all of a sudden came upon this well with a man strung up over it. He was just hanging there dead, with his eyes bulging out and flies all over his head. It was grisly. We got conflicting explanations of why he was killed – some said he was a police informer, others that he was a rebel. It didn’t matter.

What struck me most was that this was evil. We journalists don’t like the word evil, it sounds moralizing and subjective. I don't use it in my reporting. But my personal opinion is that it fits cases like this.

Here was a man who probably had a wife and children, and now he was hanging over a well rotting. Whatever human dignity he’d had was gone. His life was snuffed out and the village kids were standing around giggling as if he’d never existed. I took a long slow look at him. I’d seen wounded and dying Afghans before but he was the first dead war victim I’d ever seen. I kept thinking how senseless it all was.

Talk about senseless – two or three years later, I was visiting the Red Cross hospital in Aranyaprathet, on the Thai-Cambodian border, and I saw the section for young boys mutilated by landmines.

The Khmer Rouge used to round up the boys who were too young to fight and force them at gunpoint to walk across minefields, like human mine sweepers. They’d get their feet and legs blown off, and then they’d be brought over the border to the bamboo hospital in Aranyaprathet.

These kids were only 12 years old and already they were in wheelchairs. When I was 12 years old, I was riding bikes and playing baseball and going to school. Why was I born where I was and these boys born where they were? Why is there so much evil and so much injustice?

Somewhere in those years in Asia, it struck me that I’d come an awfully long way from the peaceful suburb where I’d grown up.

I was brought up in the American Dream, in a nice, orderly, prosperous society where we couldn’t imagine horrors like this. We lived in privilege. These people were living on the edge of life and death. The Afghans and Sri Lankans and Cambodians I interviewed for my job lived in societies being torn apart by forces larger than themselves. It was the opposite of what I had grown up with, and I have to admit I found it fascinating to see how bad things could get when societies fell apart.

The more I thought about this contrast, though, the more I realized that war was also somehow a negative part of my picture-book 1950s American suburb. We babyboomers grew up deep in the shadow of World War Two. A lot of the men on the block had fought in the war. My father went through terrible things as a front-line doctor with the Marines in the Pacific. Those men came back home from that horror and never wanted to see it again.

When I was an arrogant teenager, I thought these men had fled reality for a suburban life of conformism and shallowness. I now appreciate how much, in their own way, they wanted to stress the good after seeing so much bad.

For the next 10 years or so, I lived in very comfortable places and basically wrote about the problems of the rich. There were some great stories there – especially the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was the only really joyously happy extended story that I’ve ever covered. But none of them had that life-and-death living-on-the-edge quality I’d found in the Third World.

Then in 1999, almost by chance, I got sent to northern Albania to write about the Kosovar refugees there. The NATO bombing of Serbia was still going on when I got there, but it soon stopped and we journalists followed the German army into Kosovo, to the city of Prizren.

The first two or three days were heady stuff, with the Kosovar Albanians celebrating their liberation and the Serbs leaving and the KLA taking over, so I mostly stayed in town doing that. But the story that we had to go out and get was the mass graves story.

There had been lots of talk of Serbian massacres of Albanians during the bombing. The justification for NATO’s intervention was humanitarian, to stop these killings. So we journalists had to go find the grisly evidence. Two German journalists for Stern magazine rushed out the first day to find mass graves – they were trying to meet a tight deadline – and they got killed by Serbian snipers hiding in the countryside.

There were also a lot of landmines out there too, we were told, and frankly I was scared of them. So I was pretty wary of just driving out into the countryside and looking for evidence of atrocities to file for the next news cycle. But that was my job there and I was ready to do it as best I could.

In the first few days, I cautiously went outside Prizren with German and Dutch soldiers to see some massacre sites they’d found. We saw parts of skeletons lying in the rubble of burned houses, even dogs that had been shot dead. I took my notes and wrote about them. It was all straightforward reporting.

One day, though, I thought I really had to go out and find my own massacre site rather than just depend on what the soldiers or U.N. people found. That sounds terrible, but that was the job – there were a lot of journalists there so there was pressure to do something original, not just follow the crowd.

So we drove through the countryside for a few hours, poked around in a few destroyed villages and, sure enough, we came upon a little cemetery that had a big section of dark freshly turned earth. It was the size of a basketball court and it looked suspicious, so we got out of the car and walked over to it.

There was a man standing nearby. He told us there were 100 to 150 bodies buried there. When I quizzed him about how he knew how many there were there, he just said, "Walk over and see." Well, I walked onto this fresh dirt and pretty soon saw a dismembered knee sticking out. Then there was the top of a woman’s head with her hair sticking out. The stench of death came wafting up as the soft ground sank under your feet. It was disgusting.

As you walked along, you were obviously stepping right over decomposing bodies. There was no way I could prove there were a hundred people buried here, but I walked all around that field and the same smell kept coming up out of the ground. There was clearly evidence of a mass killing right beneath my feet.

It was like walking on evil.

When I got back to the man and my interpreter, she told me that he came from the nearby village. His relatives had been burned in the house and he was leaving the corpses unburied until the United Nations could come and register it as a war crime. He said there were five bodies, including two of his uncles who had worked in Germany and built the house with their savings.

I said to my interpreter, "We have to go and see this one." I couldn't prove there were one hundred people in this mass grave, but I could write the personal stories of these five dead people. I knew it would be powerful stuff.

The man was very reluctant but he finally took us to the house. It was a beautiful new two-family house, but everything was burnt on the inside. There were only piles of ash and charred wood where the furniture used to be. As we went up the stairs, he kept on saying "Up there, top floor."

On the top floor, there was a room where the roof had collapsed in a fire and there were five burnt corpses lying in the rubble. You could see the skulls, the ribs, the pelvises. The skin and most of the muscles were burned away, but some muscles were still there, roasted like twists of burnt hemp rope.

Very patiently, the man pointed from one corpse to the next and said: "That's my uncle so-and-so. That's my uncle so-and-so. That's my cousin." I wrote their stories down, filling page after page of notes. I did it in a cold professional way – just give me the facts, please. He made me take pictures of each corpse to run them on our photo service. I did it, even though I knew Reuters would never run such grisly stuff. It was grim, but they weren't the first corpses I'd ever seen.

When he finally finished the story, we walked down the stairs, out of the house and across the yard. The man and my interpreter were talking in Albanian and I was behind them.

As I was walking across the yard, I tried to wrap up in my head what I had just seen. It's a typical thing you do at the end of a story. The lead paragraph popped into my head right away. This had been those people's dream house, and now it was their grave.

And I just started to cry.

I never imagined I'd be so upset. I’d seen corpses all that week. But it was the personal aspect that really hit me. I’d lived a long time in Germany and I’d seen these poor Yugoslav workers sweeping the streets to make money to send home. They did it for a dream of a better life. And here were two men who had worked so hard to build their dream house and what did they get for it. I tried to write the story that night, but I was too upset to do it justice.

So I got up at 5 o’clock the next morning and wrote it with all the anger and bitterness I felt. I wanted to do some good for this man, even if it was only telling his story so the world would know how these people had suffered. By 8 o’clock, I was finished and I sent it off to my editors. It was one of the most powerful pieces I’ve ever written.

A few days later, I was back home in Western Europe. I couldn’t sleep properly for the first two weeks, I kept on waking up thinking about Kosovo. Even after that, it was about a month before I stopped thinking about it and started to settle back into my normal life.

It wasn’t the shock of the burned bodies that haunted me – I’d seen that hanged man back in Sri Lanka or the wounded and maimed Afghans and Cambodians and didn’t lose any sleep over them. No, it was the confrontation with unimaginable evil that upset me so much.

I’m a Catholic. I learned about good and evil from the nuns when I was a child … and I understand a lot more about it now. I’d never had the evidence of evil piled up in front of my face like that. It accumulated all during the week and culminated in the dream house.

I was profoundly shaken and I wrestled in my mind with the concepts of good and evil for months after that. I read about evil and I talked about it with my closest friends. And for the first time since I set out to see how the world worked, I said to myself that I had now seen enough.

I didn’t set out to see just how evil humans could be, but I had now seen it up close and I didn’t have to see it again. I continued to go to hot spots now and then because I’m still the curious journalist I’ve always been. But it has a different quality for me personally now.

Kosovo made me realize that my response to war was not simply a psychological shock set off by horrible things I saw. It was a moral challenge to understand it and fit it into my view of the world.

In a situation like that, my response is framed by my faith as a Christian. Some people might want to talk to a therapist who will help them get over the horrors they saw. I’d rather talk to a priest who can help me understand them more completely and reflect on the nature of good and evil. I want to know what this means and what I can do about it.

This is a religious response that probably goes against what most journalists think. Journalism has a culture of scepticism and cynicism and an assumption that everything can be explained. It goes against the ethos of a journalist to say there are mysteries in life that can't be explained. We assume there must be a reason somewhere and we’ll find it if we look hard enough.

We also think that we’re just observers and we can leave our stories behind us after we’ve filed them. But there are mysteries in life like the evil we see in war and they’re not just like the news that wraps tomorrow’s fish. And when they come back to challenge us again and again, the best response we can give is to do good however we can.

Of course, there isn’t a lot that I as an individual can do about evil on the level I saw in Kosovo. There may not be a great deal that I can do directly as a journalist either, because my reports have to be balanced and I can’t just rattle on with my opinion and get it through. That’s fine, I agree with that.

But there all kinds of good I can do in my private life to reaffirm the positive things in life. And even in my job, just reporting the facts can help. I don’t have to give a sermon about evil (or, for that matter, about good). I can just show the evidence I find and leave the reader to judge.

Some people think being a news agency correspondent must be limiting, because you “can’t say what you think.” But I can go to places in turmoil where other people aren’t allowed and I can describe the situation to readers far away who want to know what’s going on. It’s an enormous privilege and a humbling one as well. In this small way, I can show them how the world works.