As a child growing up in Switzerland, Katharina R. Vogeli spent her holidays near Lake Geneva with a grandfather who was an artist and made wine. When she told her parents that she wanted to become a potter or a goldsmith, her father protested.
First go to college, get a degree in business, he decreed. And so she did, but she hated it from the start. For eight years Vogeli worked in sales in the private sector, holding administrative and management positions, and ended up as a headhunter, an occupation she abhorred. She defected as soon as she could to the world of development, human rights work and public service.
"I did not see the point in a life dedicated to making people richer by coaxing them out of jobs they were happy with. I was looking for a way out," said Vogeli, 43, as she sat in her sunny office at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) on Massachusetts Avenue, where she is executive director of the Swiss Foundation for World Affairs.
The foundation was set up in 2001, after the tough negotiations involved in settling Holocaust survivors' claims to money held in Swiss banks. A group of Swiss intellectuals and diplomats, after seeing the acrimony and distrust in those talks, decided that informal networks and exchanges between Americans and Swiss -- academics, tourists and students -- needed strengthening.
Vogeli's career change came in 1988, when she accepted a job at a German development agency in Stuttgart as personnel coordinator, and eventually found her way to agency projects in the Far East, Africa and the Caribbean, supervising 100 volunteers worldwide.
It was love at first sight when she set foot in Kinshasa, the capital of what is now Congo, in 1989. "I got the African bug -- either you get it or you don't, and as the French saying goes: 'He who has imbibed from the Nile's waters will drink again.' "
She returned to French-speaking countries in Africa time and again -- as a volunteer for international groups in Nairobi, as a researcher on Somalia for the Brookings Institution and as country director in Burundi for Search for Common Ground, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization.
Vogeli also worked as a field officer in Rwanda for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, investigating violations, conducting workshops for vulnerable segments of society and monitoring conditions in detention centers. Her efforts to deliver blankets and fresh water to the prisoners gained her their respect and loyalty.
Military officials once locked her up with inmates for several hours, hoping to dilute her sympathies for the prisoners. But when she approached an inmate to talk, another followed with a blanket to spread under her. Prisoners gathered around her for protection, speaking loudly so the guards could not hear what she was saying.
"I look back at this having been my best experience. I came out smelling bad, but it was so meaningful and special," she said. "The simplicity of people caught up in such situations is so compelling, and you make friendships and bonds that are like no other."
In 1995, she took time off to pursue a master's degree in African studies and international economics at SAIS, where she is now a doctoral candidate in conflict management and international law with an emphasis on humanitarian interventions. "I felt I needed to learn more about these conflicts and the issues at stake," she said.
After returning to Africa and contracting a liver ailment, Vogeli went home and worked as a special consultant on Burundi for the Swiss Foreign Ministry in 1998.
Marguerite Barankiste, a humanitarian activist from Burundi who has won several international awards, met Vogeli in 1997 when Vogeli was working there and describes her as "a very special gift that was given to us." Barankiste is the founder of La Maison Shalom, an orphanage that shelters about 5,000 children along Burundi's border with Tanzania. It tries to reunite families that were separated during civil war and violent ethnic strife, and cares for167 orphans under age 2 who have the AIDS virus
"It is thanks to Katharina that I have been able to help my children," Barankiste said in a telephone interview.
Vogeli, she said, helped raise money for the orphanage and organize milk deliveries from Switzerland. Barankiste added that when she had to accompany a child, mutilated during the fighting, to Europe for surgery, Vogeli paid for the airline tickets from her own pocket.
In Washington, Vogeli's job allows her to use her many skills. "This draws on everything I have done. It allows me to do diplomatic work in an informal setting and set up a serious dialogue about issues I care about. This is not about politics, but about building bridges," she said.
Vogeli is organizing a conference for March 19 that "will look at humanitarian law in the present circumstances." She plans to invite delegates from the International Committee of the Red Cross, U.S. officials, and dovish and hawkish pundits to discuss adapting international humanitarian law to address modern warfare.
"I want dialogue. I don't want to politicize it, I don't want to pit people against one another," she emphasized. "Once the war [in Iraq] starts, whether legitimate or not, you need everyone to collaborate in reconstruction efforts and the respect of human rights."