Journalism Beyond Journalists
Robert Young Pelton Gets in There
Nov 30 2005
This is Pelton having just been released by Colombian kidnappers—completely unfazed. Photo by AP
Robert Young Pelton used to run a major marketing firm and occasionally take a couple weeks off to go on little travel expeditions. Then one day he realized he was bored out of his mind and began sneaking his way into war-zones and other no-man’s-lands to see what they were all about. Today that’s more or less all he does, writing about what it’s actually like in utter hellholes like Chechnya and Colombia while the rest of the world is reading regurgitated press releases. We asked him what he felt was up with media these days, and he talked our ear off, and man are we glad he did.
Vice: You don’t like to be called a journalist. What’s that about?
Robert Young Pelton: I think hiding behind the mask of a journalist separates a person from the experience. It’s like the difference between being in a car crash and writing about a car crash. And I usually am in the car crash. So if I write about it I guess that makes me a writer, but not necessarily a journalist.
“Writer” seems like a major understatement. I mean, when you’re out doing all these things, it’s like you’re somewhere between a journalist and a freelance operative.
Nah, I’m just a guy interested in what’s going on. And that seems to be a criminal activity these days, to want to actually bypass government information sources and go directly to the insurgence and listen to what they have to say. I don’t necessarily believe what they say, but at least I would like to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. I think when I wrote The World’s Most Dangerous Places back in 1995, that’s when I became a sort of full time—for lack of a better word—adventurer. Where I would want to go to a certain place, find out more about it, and then if I wrote about it that’s great, only because I felt that it was important to write about ‘em.
And it wasn’t a source of income for you, you had a career already.
No, it was, I think that you should make money from it. There is nothing wrong with going to a magazine or whatever and saying, “Hey I’m going to Chechnya, will you pay for it?” But what I find is that the most important stories, nobody wants to pay for. As a matter of fact, I was fired by ABC when I was with the insurgents on the border of Syria during the war because they didn’t understand why I would do that when everybody wanted me to be embedded with the Special Forces.
What, were they worried about collaborating?
No, they’re just boring. They are so mercenary in their needs because they wanted an imbed. ABC for example, or Disney, hired me because I had been with the Special Forces team in Afghanistan. And I said, well, I got an invite with these guys to hang out again, and so they hired me. And then when I met up with the guys, it was like, well, we’re not really doing anything, it’s just kind of fucked up actually. So I jumped in a red Bentley with a bunch of Arabs, and I drove around the country hanging out with the insurgents in the different areas, and I felt like that was the story, which of course it did turn out to be. But at that time, they were like who cares about a bunch of guys driving across the country to get killed? And I’m saying, that’s this war, you know?
So, what skill or quality exactly sets you apart from regular journalists?
It’s a lifestyle, not a job. There is a big difference between doing something because you are really passionately interested in the information, and waiting for somebody to pay you to do it. When I went into Grozny during the siege, it was not like any corporation would sponsor me or admit that they would send me in there, so I just went and ended up writing a book about it. But at the time I didn’t really care, it was just important to get there.
Do you speak like ten languages?
Sometimes I don’t speak a word of their language and sometimes I do and sometimes I have a translator. I just go with local people and I build a level of trust with them. To me, it’s just important to get there and then try to figure things out. And typically it’s funny, because English is such a predominant language, that you will typically find somebody who is educated and who speaks English and is from the tribe or the group that you want to talk to.
What do you think about the state of American journalism?
Well it is entertainment now. If you look at the basic ownership of large groups, they are all owned by entertainment groups that rely on advertising and ratings. But there is this whole new world of democratization of information, so you can look at the blogsphere, or even emails if you wanted to. And if you are very selective, you can even generate your own news coverage.
What are some of your favorite alternative news sources?
Well, they aren’t even news sources.
Would information sources be better? Can you explain what you think the difference is between the two?
Well news is “Plane Crashes, 50 dead.” Information is “10 alive, here are their phone numbers.” You know? That is the difference between sensational headlines, and information you can use. I mean, the whole Katrina thing is very fascinating to me because they keep ratcheting up the numbers and the emotion so you get the impression that it is like the end of the world down there. And then it takes them a week to say, “Let’s do some good new stuff, some non-chicken-little stuff.”
In your own reporting, what were some of the hardest times you had immersing yourself in your story? Who all did you have the hardest time getting to?
Well of the two I can think of, one is Bougainville with Francis Ona. That took me almost two years. The other would be getting in with the rebels in Grozny during the siege. It didn’t take very long, but I went through a lot of hoops and I had to meet with a lot of different people before they allowed me in.
How did all of that come about?
In 1998 I was with a cameraman named Peter Juvenil in Afghanistan. We were chatting about his time in Chechnya in the first war, and he’s talking about how hospitable and how friendly and helpful the Chechens were and I say that I thought they were a bunch of thieving murdering bastards. And he says, “No, no, no. The Chechens are literally amongst the most hospitable and brave people I have ever met.” And it suddenly dawned on me that I had been convinced by what I had read that the Chechens were evil bastards, you know? This was during the time when the kidnapping started, and I started doing some research, and I said, “Holy shit. This is a massive disinformation campaign by the Russian government,” including kidnapping a journalist and the staging of all types of events, blaming the rebels. Then I was contacted by Aqil, a guy who fought in the first war and lost his leg in an ambush. He was concerned about his wife and wanted to get back in there and had tried through his normal sources, you know, FBI and CIA. The CIA guy had given him my book the first time he went into Grozny, and at first he thought it was a joke, but then he realized that I might actually be the only guy that can get into these places. So within the space of about a month I had to get permission. Normally I don’t get permission, but because of the kidnappings and the sliding scale of who could you trust and who wanted to kidnap you I went through a number of channels. So the first thing I did was meet with Bin Laden’s people at a Pizza Hut in London.
But how do you know Bin Laden’s people? Like, how do you ever get to the point where you make a phone call or send an email?
Well, you send emails, you don’t make phone calls. There is a network of people who are jihadis, and its been tightened up since September 11, but keep in mind this was 1999. There were a number of websites of people who espoused the ideas of Bin Laden and who had fought in Bosnia and been trained in the camps. And I had been tracking this one group who had been fighting in Chechnya, so I developed a relationship and this one guy was a Pakistani and told him, “Look, I need to get in and maybe meet with Besia or Ketab,” who are the two major mujahadeen commanders there. So I met with them in London, and they basically gave me the lowdown and embedded me and said that the only reason why they were talking to me was because about 95 percent of what I said in my book was true.
Are they still there, do you think?
Oh, fuck yeah, what are you talking about?! There are probably more jihadis in London than there are in Afghanistan. I mean, people don’t realize that there are literally tens of thousands of people who don’t necessarily worship or believe in Bin Laden, but support what he is talking about and have been to the camps and live in America, and London, and Australia. They don’t live in caves on the border of Afghanistan. And it’s no different from veterans of any war who maintain a sort of aloof old boys’ network. It just depends on how far you piss some of them off before they start doing things, as you saw in London. I mean there are people who are entrenched in that society who just at some point just say, “Fuck it. This is bullshit,” and decide to go off and do something.
Do you think that American intelligence has any kind of information collected in your style? Basically do you think they’ve got their own Pelton on the payroll?
No, they’re using informants. This is a sad thing about American Intelligence. It is an arm of the government, and the government has to operate under certain restrictions. If you have read the recent books that have come out about the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, yeah they can go in and they can talk to people. But if a guy says, “Yeah, I’m just going to go undercover with the Syrian insurgents and I’ll let you know what happens,” it’s like, that just doesn’t happen, it’s like the movie world. American Intelligence has people who fly in and blow shit up and kill people.
Everyone has a vested interest in battling this mythic creature called Al Qaeda, so when you are sent into Afghanistan to defeat Al Qaeda and you say to them: there is no Al Qaeda—there is this guy named Hec Nacham, there is this guy named Akani, but there is no Al Qaeda … you are looked at as an idiot. Because your job is to go find Al Qaeda.
How exactly do you mean that? Like it’s a really splashy kind of headline—there is no Al Qaeda—but come on.
It’s a construct, like the mafia. When we went after organized crime in America, we created the term “mafia” even though they never called themselves the mafia—just as Bin Laden’s people never called themselves Al Qaeda. We want to create a very linear scenario in which if you are a militant Muslim, if you are anti-Israel and opposed to globalization and whatever, and that lumps you into this huge global conspiracy that we now call Al Qaeda. But if you actually get down into what we call Al Qaeda, they tend to be very regional and sometimes even tribal squabbles. For example, the CIA base in Shkin was hit more times that Joe Lewis. Not because Al Qaeda hated America, but because they had rented this building from a guy who had a blood feud with the dominant tribe in the area. Bin Laden is a guy who some people support and some people don’t. What we call Al Qaeda is not called Al Qaeda by them. It’s sort of a laughable concept that was created so we could use the RICO Act.
The RICO act is used against organized crime. In other words if bin Laden isn’t caught holding a smoking pistol, but he met with certain people and those people plotted a crime we can use the RICO act to convict Bin Laden for being a gangster, because he met with other people who organized crimes.
So you met with these people in London and how does that lead you to Grozny?
What they did was they basically told people in Chechnya, “This guy’s coming and this is who he is. Don’t kill him.” And when you do bump into people, they know exactly who you are before you get there. So I met with the Chechens in Istanbul and then I met with the Chechen mafia and then I flew to Georgia and I met with the Georgian mafia and I met with the Chechens again and then I was taken across the border and then taken directly to Maskadov’s people.
So what did you find when you finally got to Grozny?
First thing I saw when I came through the gorge was a Russian scud missile hit ground. It was just this big, dirty column with reddish and yellowish flames coming up and when you felt the boom it was like the deepest sort of sub-sonic boom you could imagine. And the funny thing is, at Christmas, there was this ridiculous press release saying that the American-Russian program of monitoring ballistic missiles was a great success, and that it monitored two ballistic missiles being fired successfully. It was like, they didn’t mention that they were firing dozens of scuds into Grozny on a daily basis, but they just happened to catch two of them and didn’t even mention that is was the Russians killing their own people. There’re just thousands and thousands of impacts every hour and the buildings are just sort of bent in the middle and full of holes, and they’re all full of people. And they’re not Chechens, they’re old Russian people. Then you meet the rebels and they’re in these 1950s anti-nuclear bunkers that the Russians built and they’re doing fine. They don’t get hammered at all.
I don’t remember hearing about any of this in the press at the time.
When I called some news media to say, “Hey, I’m in Grozny,” I was blown away by the fact that no one was interested. I think NPR said, “Well how did you get in there?” and I said “the Chechens” and they said, “how do we know what you’re saying is correct?” and I’m like, “What? Did you want me to come in with the Russians and that would make whatever I say correct?” Then AP wanted me to fax in my story: “There’s really nobody here right now, just fax it in and we’ll call you in the morning.” And I’m like, “Dude, every time I use a satellite phone I get hammered,” you know? This was literally the worst place on earth at the time and nobody gave a shit. And this is probably the most damning indictment of the media because they were all, I wouldn’t say that they were scared because that’s rude, but they needed insurance and they had to get permission and because it wasn’t really a big story. There was a war in Europe and nobody gave a shit.
There was a lot of hand wringing afterwards and manipulation by the Russians and today Putin is our best friend in the war on terror and the Chechens are evil bastards, you know? Basically, you can’t trust anybody.
For example, my driver in Chechnya was the guy that drove the rebels inside the theater in Moscow, and he died mysteriously in a car crash last October. Well it was found out he was turned. In other words, they had taken a guy who was a staunch Chechen rebel, kidnapped his family and turned him into a double agent and then killed him so the story wouldn’t get out. Talk about conspiracy theory. All the people I interviewed for my book and all the people I filmed are all dead and it’s got nothing to do with me.
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