With Sebastian Junger
Author, Journalist and War Correspondent
Monday, Feb. 4, 2002; 2 p.m. EST
Author and journalist Sebastian Junger has traveled in Aghanistan with members of the Afghan opposition and covered guerrilla warfare. He's expolored the diamond trade in Sierra Leone and genocide in Kosovo as well as other dangerous assignments. His latest book, "Fire," is a collection of works detailing his experiences around the world.
"I feel it is the responsibility of all good journalists to elicit compassion for the poor and the suffering in the world, to explain in clear terms why wars happen, and to examine the role played by the West in these tragedies," said Sebastian Junger in an interview.
Sebastian Junger was online Monday, Feb. 4, at 2 p.m. EST, to discuss his most recent experiences on the front lines of Afghanistan and the dangers facing international journalists including kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Junger is also the author of "The Perfect Storm," a New York Times bestseller for more than three and a half years and later the basis for a hit movie starring George Clooney.
A transcript follows.
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What do you think has become of Daniel Pearl? Do you think he's still alive? Do you think we'll ever hear from him again?
Sebastian Junger: It's one of those tragic questions. I have no basis for really making a guess one way or the other but what I should point out is that the name of the kidnappers and their demands are very very nationalistic sounding. Their demands are for fighter planes from the U.S., better treatment of the prisoners, many of them Pakistani, at Guantanamo and those are not the concerns of a global terror network and others have pointed out, and I agree, that the nature of their demands suggests maybe a rogue element in the Pakistani intelligence or military services. If that's the case, I think they are much less likely to kill him because even those people are aware of their standing with other nations. Terrorists really don't care how the world sees them. I think they're also smart enough to kidnap more than one person, so you can kill one and still have one left over for bargaining power. These guys did not think of that. It does not suggest a professional terrorist operation.
Unfortunately, I have no way of knowing if we'll ever hear from him again. I think we will but that's possibly just because I can't bear the thought of them killing him.
I enjoyed your presentation at the National Geographic last fall and have enjoyed reading your transcripts from the 'front line' in the war against the Taliban.
Do you think the U.S. will ever find Osama Bin Laden and if so, will they find him alive?
Sebastian Junger: I think if bin Laden were dead, it would be impossible for the location of his grave to be kept secret. I think it would become a pilgrimage site almost immediately despite the best efforts of anyone around him who wanted to keep it secret. So either he's dead because of U.S. bombing and even his closet associates don't know that for sure or, which is my guess, he's alive and in Pakistan. I don't think we'll ever capture him. I think we may one day, a long time from now, succeed in killing him. But that's just a guess.
You mentioned that sitting next to Ahmad
Shah MAssoud was like sitting next to
"Abraham Lincoln." What specific
qualities of his made you feel that
way? Thank you very much! You are a
brave and good person!
Sebastian Junger: I feel that both men believed absolutely in the path that they were following as leaders and that they were willing to jeopardize not only, in the case of Lincoln, his political standing, but even their lives for what they believed in. Martin Luther Kind, Sadat ... there have been many leaders in history who have given their lives for what they believe is right. Someone who's not willing to do that is not a leader; they're merely a politician.
I saw an episode of you in Afghanistan where a 16-year-old boy had his legs blown off by a land mine. You seemed moved by the incident. How can I contact him? Can you please use your fame to do something for these kids having their legs and hands blown off by starting a charity?
Sebastian Junger: I've no idea how to contact that kid. There are many people in Afghanistan in his situation. I feel I can best serve Afghanistan by continuing my work as a journalist, particularly in light of the fact that there are many excellent relief organizations who are addressing Afghanistan's needs.
Are you planning to go back to Afghanistan as a journalist or perhaps maybe working on a new film about Afghanistan/her future?
Sebastian Junger: I am planning on going back to Afghanistan. I am involved in an organization that encourages freedom of the press in Afgahanistan and is devoted to establishing different media in Afghanistan that are free and independent of both the U.S. and the coalition government. I hope to go back, perhaps not as a journalist, but as a visitor and someone who is very fond of the Afghan people and the land.
Have you had any contact with the people you'd met in the anti-Taliban forces since September? How much of a difference do you think the death of Massoud made in the ability of these groups to stay united? Do you think the new government will be stable enough, and supported by enough Afghans, to succeed? You must have been saddened to hear of Massoud's death.
Sebastian Junger: I returned to Afghanistan in October and November, 2001 to work as a correspondent for ABC News. The Afghans were very aware of Sept. 11 and very aware that there was a connection between that tragedy and their own tragedy two days earlier of the assassination of Massoud by al Queda agents. Their hearts went out to us for Sept. 11 but they also made it clear that we had now joined the rest of the world in experiencing the horrors of war at home.
I think the government has a very good chance of succeeding. I was wisely chosen and the vast majority of Afghans want peace. But I fear it will not work unless the West commits billions of dollars in reconstructive aid and tens of thousands of peacekeepers. This commitment may well go on for years.
Do you think that our reliance on local forces, etc. made it more likely that Bin Laden, Omar, et al would escape? Was it ever likely that they would be turned over by local forces; is it likely that they will be?
Sebastian Junger: We could not have toppled the Taliban without local forces. They did the fighting and they did the dying for us. Had we gone after al Queda at Tora Bora, I believe we would've risked taking many casualties. On the one hand, bin Laden is not an obsession of most Afghans. On the other hand, a 25 million dollar reward is a lot of money. Either way, if bin Laden got out, it almost certainly had to have been with the aid of sympathizers in the Pakistani military. Given their power, I'm not sure Afghan or U.S. special forces could have done much about it.
Please talk about any connections you think lie in the future between the rebels of Sierra Leone and Al Qaeda.
P.S. Thanks for the great stories.
Sebastian Junger: As far as I know, there's no connection between the two groups.
As a journalist who travels to dangerous parts of the world, what precautions to you take to avoid the fate of Daniel Pearl?
Sebastian Junger: I'm not sure that it's possible to guarantee your own safety in a country like Pakistan. As people in Colombia know, it is almost impossible to avoid being kidnapped if someone really wants to get you. There are ways to minimize the risk, for example, don't go anywhere alone, but there are no guarantees.
San Francisco, Calif.:
With the fate of Daniel Pearl still in question, I was curious if this is a concern that you've had during your overseas assignments. Does it give you pause now?
Sebastian Junger: I've had slight concern about being kidnapped and I would say that the rapidly changing environment over there I certainly would take greater precautions. I did not go to Chechnya because I was worried about the risk of being kidnapped.
What do you look for when interviewing a person? What translates to you the character of your interviewee, even if you do not speak his/her language? What draws you to people around the world?
Sebastian Junger: I'm just eternally curious about other cultures. I'm fascinated by their political problems. I'm riveted by the drama of a country in crisis and I feel that as a journalist, I may be able to do some good for them by raising awareness of their suffering.
How would you compare the Afghanistan that you saw in the early '90s to the one that you most recently saw?
Sebastian Junger: I was in Afghanistan first in '96 to report on the terrorist training camps. The Afghanistan now finally has the attention and even support of the western world. Consequently, there's a great optimism among many Afghans that this finally is their chance for peace. That's the biggest change I have seen.
North Carolina :
As you travel the globe, do you really feel that the common Islamic person outside the United states has a reason to feel so much hatred to our nation? Don't we represent a particular sense of hope, optimism and freedom and why isn't that at all an attractive paradigm to those that hate us and rather see Americans dead?
Sebastian Junger: I've traveled and worked all over the Islamic world and never once been treated with anything less than the utmost respect and courtesy. In other words, the average person in the Islamic world does not hate us, does not want us dead. However, extremists in the Islamic world ignore the generosity of America and focus on our overwhelming military and economic superiority and with considerable justification, point to very flawed U.S. policies in the Middles East and elsewhere and pronounce us the enemies of Islam. We're not but we must understand why it is so easy for people to see us that way.
Falls Church, Va.:
What advice do you have for a young aspiring journalist who wants to be a foreign correspondent or travel and write? How do you get your foot in the door and how did you start making documentaries?
Sebastian Junger: What I did was simply go overseas to a war zone and started filing stories. Some got published and I came home with the start of my credentials as a journalist. You have to make the first move and commit your time, your money, before anyone else does.
Enid Halifax Nova Scotia:
Do you think it is possible for a central Afghan government to succeed in a society still living in a tribal culture?
Will the various tribes in the outlying areas concede political power to Kabul?
Sebastian Junger: With the help of peacekeepers and western aid, people in the outlying provinces will see very good reasons for joining in the central government. So yes, I think they can overcome the tribal structure of Afghan society and the trauma of twenty-three years of war.
Do you think the average Afghan understands why the United States suddenly has such a large presence in their country and how has our presence most affected them?
Sebastian Junger: Compared to the Russians, it's a tiny presence and yes, they do understand that without American involvement the Afghans would still be suffering under the Taliban regime.
In President Bush's state of the union speech he called for an increased presence of the Peace Corps around the world and mentioned Afghanstan in particular.
In your travels, have you seen the work of the Peace Corps and if so, how does it represent the best of America? In particular, would you be in favor of an intensive and long term presence of the Corps in Afghanistan?
Sebastian Junger: I have seen the work of the Peace Corps and the volunteers I have met are very admirable and hard working people. I think they would be welcome in Afghanistan, along with the scores of other organizations that are helping to heal that country's wounds.
I'm interested in your choice of stories as a journalist. You're one of the only ones to have seen Afghanistan as a story even before September 11th - even though it was one for so long. How do journalists raise consciousness while still mainaining good relations with media empires who wish them to cover Gary Condit and the like? What are the ways in which you convince people to publish your story against the mainstreams?
Sebastian Junger: There's room for both kinds of stories and I think for the most part journalists are asked by their employers to cover the kinds of stories they're best at. I'm better at foreign reporting so that's what they send me to do. Nevertheless, there is an element of sensationalism, even voyeurism, in the mainstream American media. But I write for very particular publications and so fortunately those issues do not come up.
New York, N.Y.:
1. How did you get the idea to do a report on Massoud (did someone suggest it?)
2. Prior to 9/11, what were your qualifications as an expert on Afghanistan?
Thanks and by the way I loved PERFECT STORM and thought your report on Massoud was great.
Sebastian Junger: You don't have to be an expert in order to go to a country and report on the situation. I had followed Massoud's story for years and had always wanted to profile him, so when a call came from a magazine to go to Afghanistan, I jumped on it.
The question I want to ask you is:
Although Pakistan has been included in the fight against terrorism, isn't the ruling government there the true perpetrator of many a heinous crime and terrorist attacks regionally. Also the so- called repressive Taliban had their ideological support from Pakistan which is a well known fact. Isn't it time the world takes notice of it and take Pakistan to task for all the damage it has caused?
I hold you in the highest of esteem and revere you as one of the best among the journalist fraternity.I have read about your experiences and really appreciate your quest and endeavour in enlightening the world about the true facts right from the crisis scene.
Sebastian Junger: You are absolutely right about Pakistan's role in creating the Taliban and encouraging Islamic extremism and terrorism both against India and the West. I hope America seriously reevaluates its relationship to Pakistan. It was our decision to ignore the activities of the ISI (Pakistani Intelligence Service) while they were inflicting war on Afghanistan and encouraging formation of terrorist cells there.
Lynchburg , Va:
Do you feel that Massoud's assasination should have been given more attention and been taken as a sign by the American government of trouble to come (e.g. Sept 11th)?
Sebastian Junger: Massoud was a very great man, in my opinion and not only his assassination but his life and his decade long fight against terrorism should have been given much more attention but I don't think we could've known that his assassination on Sept. 9 was the precursor to their attacks on us two days later.
I heard there are approximately 1,000 journalists in Afghanistan, representing various countries. In what way are they give access, or prevented access? Articles from, say, "The New Yorker,' NPR programs and books such as Peter Bergen's "Holy War: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden" provide much more specific coverage than the tv networks...BBC programs provide another perspective.
Sebastian Junger: When I was there I had no problem with access. Books and print in general provide much more information than television, so in some ways it's an unfair comparison.
Isn't amazing that bin-Laden and Mullah Omar together with their several wives and dozens of children as well as Taliban ministers with their multiple wives and children seem to have disappeared? We can't even locate the womenfolk and children?
Sebastian Junger: No, obviously they got outside help. I read an article in last week's New Yorker by Sy Hirsch about the Pakistani airlift of top Taliban commanders from the northern Afghan city of Kunduz where they were completely surrounded by Northern Alliance and American Special Forces. The U.S. allowed Pakistan to rescue these Taliban commanders because many were in fact Pakistani generals and it would have proven too embarrassing to our "allies" in Islamabad. If those allegations are true other Taliban and al Queda could easily escape as well.
Washington, D.C. :
Tell us about Fire.
Sebastian Junger: The title piece in Fire is about the crews that battle wildfire out West. The rest is a collection of my foreign reporting for magazines, mostly in war zones and culminating in the month I spent with Massoud and the Northern Alliance last year.
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