A life reporting on and writing about the world
“Polish journalist-author Ryszard Kapuscinski was recently in Greece for the launch of the Greek translation of his book «The Soccer War.» Kapuscinski’s life is reminiscent of the legendary age of the front-line journalism of figures such as Hemingway and Orwell, a time when the dividing line between literature and journalism was not quite so distinct. Kapuscinski talked to Kathimerini about his experiences as a foreign correspondent for the Polish Press Agency on several war fronts, and about the human situation as the world enters the 21st century. You were Poland’s first foreign correspondent. Can you tell us something about how you got started? I studied history at university but I wanted to see history in the making. The mid-20th century was a fascinating time for an historian. For me personally, the most exciting was the end of colonialism. Just imagine: entire continents, Asia and Africa, becoming independent under very unusual, dramatic circumstances – civil wars, coups d’etat. Half of humanity; societies with no historical experience in state-building, organization or the parliamentary process. I started working at a newspaper and was sent to Asia, to India in the early 1950s, then to Africa, at first to Ghana. The most dramatic event was the Congo. Many newspapers around the world were writing about the likelihood of a third world war. When (Patrice) Lumumba was taken prisoner, Russian planes were landing in the Congo. The Western world then thought that the Congo would fall into the hands of the communists. They sent UN forces. I remember well the Greek air force… It was a very dramatic time. Eastern bloc reporter Was it difficult for you to convince the Communist regime to send you abroad as a foreign correspondent? Not at all. During the Cold War the Eastern bloc was very interested in protecting its interests in Africa, as was the West. Of course there was censorship and only with the fall of Communism was there absolute freedom. Unfortunately, after the end of the Cold War, there was little to interest foreign correspondents there. It was one thing to move from one camp to the other and another for us all to be more or less in the same camp, to have all the same «commander.» There was no longer the tension, the hope for the unattainable. Interest in Africa is gone. For example, at the first Pan-African Congress in Addis Ababa in 1963, there were about 400 foreign correspondents. Today you won’t find more than 10 in the whole of Africa. One of the developed world’s greatest problems today in its indifference to Third World countries. We might listen to «ethnic» music and travel to exotic places, but we really aren’t interested in what is happening in those places. Yet in Africa, amazing things are still happening. Was there suspicion between you as a correspondent from the Eastern bloc and your Western colleagues? Quite the contrary, there was great cooperation. It was an extreme situation; the problem was to survive. During a left-wing coup d’etat I was helping them, and during a right-wing coup, they helped me. We shared information, there was no Internet, fax or telephone, nothing. Sometimes we shared our food. Press vs literature You have written that reporting is like bread: good while it is fresh but it goes stale after two days. How different are the reports you published then from what we read in your books now? Each of my books now, like «The Soccer War,» is the «second volume» of another book which was never published; all the news items. The books are my background to the information. After years of working in such conditions I realized that the small press items are nothing. They don’t transmit what is behind the news. I have written 20 books because whenever I ended a mission and reread my reports, I realized that the atmosphere, the smell of the place and time had been lost. After years of hard work I saw that the most essential part of it had been left out. I had to go further in order to transmit the essence of what I had experienced. So I started from a sense of dissatisfaction. And we are talking about situations that the mind of the average European cannot imagine. Cultural anthropology has had a big impact on me. Joseph Conrad was also a great influence. Yet you say that every time you begin a book you take a deep breath and cross yourself. Yes, because to start to write a book is a very big risk! I never know what I am going to write in the next sentence. You have to be humble and conscious. There is always the struggle to control material that transcends you, to manage to transmit accurately everything you have thought and felt. That is even more difficult and what in the end leaves you with a sense of dissatisfaction. Practically speaking, in one way, every book you write is a sort of defeat, because you never get the ideal that you originally had in mind. People say that journalism kills literature. For me good journalism helps literature. My good friend Gabriel Garcia Marques believes the same thing; journalism is not only bad television. All his novels began as articles in the press. You write about real people and events using techniques and tools from literature in the structure and the narration. When you come to describe something more complicated, journalism is not enough. You have to look into the treasury of fictional territory, to describe real events. Journalism is inspiring because it gives you the opportunity to be close to the people. I have had the opportunity to walk about and listen to people, their language, the way they see the world and interpret it. Their opinion forms you. You get out of yourself, your own small world. You have traveled nearly everywhere. Do you believe in a «global village»? This term is nonsense. It was an invention of Marshall McLuhan, who was a strict Roman Catholic with a strong feeling of the missionary. Forty years ago, he believed that television would bring people together, unite the whole world under a common culture. Today we know that all that is nonsense. The essence of the village is that of a close family. The contemporary world is just the opposite. There is no sense of community but a «lonely crowd.» Do you believe that colonization has taken on another form today? Historically, colonization is over. In reality, however, there is still economic and political dependence; between strong and weak, rich and poor; this will not change. What has changed, however, is that those societies that were colonial societies now have their own opinions and are proud of their own culture. They have acquired a national identity, a feeling for their history and culture. They have discovered their own importance. Europe and the West are no longer the center of the world. The big communities of Europeans are disappearing in Africa, Asia. This is a very important psychological change. Europeans are treated like anyone else. The white man no longer rules the world. Western barbarism You have seen many executions and massacres. Do you believe that these barbarities are what make the difference between the Third World and the West? Or that the West’s barbarity is better concealed? The Holocaust, one of the biggest crimes in history, did not happen in the Third World but in Western civilization; the Europe of Bach, Beethoven and Goethe. Only a few years ago in the Balkans, mass slaughter was unbelievable. Let us not forget what Europe did there. Every society can at any moment begin to behave like a wild animal. Naturally, terrible things happen in the Third World. In a way, we can justify, if not accept them; we say that they have a low living standard and so on. The West counters these excesses with its higher culture. But when excesses occur in the West, what justification is there? At the moment you are gathering material for a book on Herodotus. Yes, Herodotus was first of all a great reporter, the first foreign correspondent in history. He traveled, went to places where events were happening, talked to the people, compared their stories and recorded history. Herodotus created reportage. He was also the first globalist; the first person who gave us a real sense of a world civilization as it was known at that time. He gave us a comparative study of the life of different peoples and nations. Despite writing about war, there is no hate. He wrote about the Greeks’ enemies, the Persians, with respect for the other. There is a great humanistic message in this book. So I am writing about Herodotus as the first foreign correspondent. He created the genre. A new type of combat What made you want to go to the front line? My whole life has been marked by war. My childhood was spent in a war and I very early on had a personal relationship with it. You know, Spielman, Polanski’s «Pianist,» was a friend of mine. Now I live on the same street where he hid from the Nazis. But war in Europe is one thing and in Africa another. In Europe the war was between regular armies. There was a front, a rear guard and so on. In Africa or Latin America, everywhere was the front. There was no front line. Opposing sides didn’t wear different uniforms, there was nothing to distinguish them. Some of them went from one side to another from one day to the next. There were no real allies. At first glance, the enemy could be anyone. What has changed in the work of a foreign correspondent since you first began? We now have a different type of war. Since the Gulf War, the Pentagon has invented the new doctrine of a «no-victim war.» You bombard a country and announce a victory. You don’t allow your troops to invade it and sustain losses. At the same time, you don’t allow foreign correspondents in, you put them in luxury hotels and the reporting is restricted to press releases or briefings by the US press officer. I refuse to go to these wars. Only in Chechnya were journalists present in battles. Now, after the Russian losses, however, the American practice was adopted and no one knows what is happening in Chechnya, only what the army tells you. How do soldiers at the front line treat you? They are generally friendly. They understand that you are supporting their cause and doing a difficult job by covering their struggle. But there are exceptions. Especially in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where they recruit children, and give them a lot of drugs before every battle. So they have no sense of danger, the value of life, of death or another’s pain, no sense of guilt or even self-preservation. If you drug them, then you have a death machine, dangerous for everyone. These children are killed believing they are «playing» at war with other children. Ryszard Kapuscinski Born in Pinsk, Poland, in 1932, Ryszard Kapuscinski was his country’s first foreign correspondent. He has covered the upheavals in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and has published 20 books that have been translated into 30 languages. Both «The Soccer War» and «Ebony» have been published in Greek by Metaichmio Press, and were translated by Zoyia Mavroeidi.