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Robert Gersony (left) in Dominica in 1979. Courtesy Robert Gersony

Fame is not always won under the pale lights. Writer Graham Greene wrote that "true fame is a private and discreet virtue, and only in solitude is fully realized". Likewise, the golden age of US diplomacy was not just a question of celebrated victories, such as Henry Kissinger's secret trip to China in 1971 or James Baker's negotiations for the reunification of Germany in 1990. It was also about the many small and lonely successes that to the far corners of the world in the midst of a talented and dedicated overseas service.

T.The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government's Greatest HumanitarianRobert D. Kaplan, Random House, 544 pp., $ 30, January 2021

During and after the Cold War, Robert Gersony, a son of Jewish Holocaust refugees, a school dropout, and a Vietnam veteran, worked for nearly 40 years as an advisor to the State Department in virtually every war and disaster area on earth. Living alone out of a sleeping bag, he conducted dozens to hundreds of interviews with refugees in each location. He wrote reports that made foreign policy smarter and more humane, often dramatic. His reports from the bush and the deserts of developing countries reached the highest levels of bureaucracy. Never looking for promotion, he was a loner who fought against the vast, impersonal forces of conflict and bureaucratic inertia – and often succeeded.

Gersony retired from contract work for the State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2013. However, with Americans grappling with a pandemic, economic catastrophe, and technological and social upheaval today, Gersony has a lot to teach about how progress doesn't require fame, notoriety, or testimony – or even worldly success. Gersony never wanted a promotion to travel the world and interview refugees. He was like a foreign correspondent who stayed in the field into old age and made the world a better place for it. His life was about truth. Maybe that's why it was so successful.

The vast, civil war-ravaged Mozambique in 1988 was typical. Gersony conducted 196 interviews with refugees there, each lasting several hours, in locations that were separated by hundreds of kilometers. In the course of his fieldwork, Gersony meticulously discovered that the anti-communist, white South African-backed uprising by RENAMO, which sought massive military aid under the Reagan Doctrine, actually had no government program at all and was involved in large-scale government activities. Scale murder, rape and mutilation. On his return from Mozambique in March 1988, Gersony briefed Secretary of State George Shultz and Maureen Reagan, the president's daughter.

Days later, Shultz handed the President a memo from his breast pocket outside the system describing the contents of Gersony's report. RENAMO, the Portuguese acronym for Mozambican National Resistance, was immediately deleted as a candidate for aid to the Reagan Doctrine. This set the stage for an end to the Civil War, saved perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives, and preserved the reputation of the Reagan Doctrine. "I would like to thank you very much for your extensive work … under difficult and often dangerous conditions," wrote Shultz to Gersony.

Gersony always traveled alone or with a translator, rarely as part of a team. “I felt that these people's stories are really important. All of these refugees and displaced persons were experts on what they knew. We depend on them to learn about the world, ”he told me. For Gersony, refugees were the true chroniclers of history, that is, if you took the effort to hear their individual stories, since refugees were at the end of the chain of events that started with decision makers at the beginning of the chain. He never asked people for their names so that they would not be punished by the authorities – whether government troops or guerrilla bands. But he identified each person he interviewed by a differentiator – a way of gesturing, a piece of cloth he or she wore – in order to remember them all and maintain their humanity as individuals. "Poverty equals invisibility," wrote the writer William Vollmann. Gersony made the poor and war victims conspicuously visible in his reports.

A few years earlier, in 1984, in Uganda, Gersony discovered the killing and starvation of more than 100,000 civilians, mostly women and children, in a civil war-ravaged area known as the Luwero Triangle, which he was one of the few foreigners to venture into . Filing cable by cable, he briefed group after group at the State Department and the human rights community in Washington and Geneva to draw official attention to what was going on. However, no action was taken. This was long before the internet and social media could spread information and apply pressure. In the end, he passed his findings on to the Washington Post. The world media then broke out and the murder slowed dramatically. The exposure was important in the process of replacing a murderous regime in Uganda with a far better one. (Unfortunately, the better regime that came to power under Yoweri Museveni in 1986 has shifted into its own form of destructive authoritarianism over the decades.)

Elliott Abrams, then Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, had attended a talk given by Gersony on the Luwero Triangle and recalled: “It was the first time I heard or saw Bob Gersony. I remember thinking: this is new. This is not a USAID order. It is not an embassy letter. … it's firsthand. It's rare, shocking. You are Deputy State Secretary. You get daily reports from the embassies, from USAID, from the CIA, from employees of the National Security Council. But none of them can often tell ordinary people what is really going on in a country. "He went on," That was the amazing thing about Gersony's work for many years. He could always tell you what none of the agencies could do. Bob would get extraordinary access to high officials in his career, even though he was only ever a contractor … because what he had to say to people was really new. "

Mozambican refugees walk through smoke and haze along a street in a refugee camp in Malawi in 1988. Peter Turnley / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images

Metal racks hold the bones of thousands of genocide victims in one of the crypts at the Nyamata Catholic Church memorial prior to the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Nyamata, Rwanda. The memorial's crypts contain the remains of more than 45,000 genocide victims, most of them Tutsi, including those who were massacred in the church itself. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

In 1985 Gersony solved the piracy problem against Vietnamese boatmen. A decade after the communist takeover of South Vietnam, people had fled by boat. Pirates, often Thai fishermen, stole small amounts of gold, jewelry and cash from the refugees and raped the young women before throwing them overboard. Then they rammed the rickety schooners to pieces, and most of the occupants drowned. The U.S. Congress had given the Thai Navy enough money to buy a Coast Guard cutter a year to patrol an area 14 times the size of the Great Lakes. "Are we crazy?" Exclaimed Gersony. After many days of interviewing surviving Vietnamese refugees in southern Thailand, Gersony devised a plan to gather information from the harbor bars where the fishermen hung out to tell stories of their exploits. Arrests and convictions increased. In three years, piracy incidents were 7 percent higher than before, and shortly after the attacks virtually stopped.

Gersony was an ascetic who lived on a meal a day with no alcohol or caffeine: a neurotic character straight out of a Saul Bellow novel, but who lived his life in Joseph Conrad-like environments of tropical danger. “People imagined Bob as a strapped Cary Grant character in a field jacket. But when they met him, they found someone touchingly vulnerable and serious, always shy and nervous before any action, ”said Carol Chan and James Fleming of USAID.

Gersony lived alone in refugee camps on both sides of the Sudan-Chadian border for many weeks, also in 1985, and stumbled upon the ethnic cleansing of the Zaghawa and other people by Goran tribesmen who brutally forced the victims across the border into their Chadian homeland. The pro-American and pro-French Chadian dictator Hissène Habré was an ally against Muammar al-Qaddafi's Libya. But Habré was also an ethnic Goran who saw the Zaghawas and others as enemies. Gersony was the first to document this particular destruction in connection with the Chadian leader. In 2016, Habré would be found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment by a Senegalese court.

While the world media focused on the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Gersony crossed the border from Ethiopia to Somalia alone to expose what would later become known as the Isaaq genocide, the systematic slaughter of many, and bring to the attention of the world tens of thousands of ethnic groups Isaac, led by the armed forces of the pro-American Somali dictator Siad Barre against an ethnic group whose fighters were involved in attacks on his chaotic and despotic regime. Since much of what Gersony discovered in the course of his life's work was obscure and happened to the barely educated or illiterate, there was often very little historical record: academics went to Gersony more than to them. The Isaac genocide, like others, was a story he had to piece together through hundreds of interviews with refugees. He had the feeling that all of these crises were of great importance because they had happened to real people and were therefore crucial to our self-image.

In 1997, Gersony traveled for weeks with a driver to the anarchic northern Uganda, where even the Kampala regime of Museveni, as despotic as it was a quarter of a century ago, was not entirely sure what was happening. It was there that Gersony exposed the atrocities committed by Joseph Kony and a bizarre and frightening Acholi ethnic group that Kony led and called the Lord's Resistance Army. It often consisted of child soldiers who pulled people from vehicles at the roadside and gutted them or beat them to death. "I was curious about him," said Ben Bamulumbye, Gersy's driver in northern Uganda. “I have never met anyone from far away who objectively said that they had to go to this very dangerous region, which even government soldiers were afraid of. And I've never met anyone like him again. “Gersony's six-week trip with Bamulumbye resulted in a 107-page report entitled" Fear of Northern Uganda, "which made it to Museveni's desk and the National Security Council in Washington. This was 14 years before social media found out about the Lord & # 39; s Resistance Army and demanded Kony's capture, leading to an inconclusive manhunt by the U.S. Army Special Forces.

In any case, the US embassies and the State Department in Washington gave their full support to this withdrawn school dropout who never finished his education – even if he didn't make her job any easier. “Bob was a fortune teller, not a favor,” said Brunson McKinley, a longtime refugee expert who worked with Gersony in Bosnia.

When Gersony was traveling through Rwanda on behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1994, he uncovered a mass murder of Hutus committed by the new Tutsi-dominated regime of Paul Kagame and which took place immediately after the Hutu-orchestrated genocide to bis to a million Tutsis. It was a complicating and inconvenient truth in an otherwise good versus bad situation – of Hutu villains and Tutsi victims – that nobody in the international aid community wanted to hear at the time. Gersony suffered reputational attacks from members of the human rights community and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who were initially unwilling to accept the fact that the new Rwandan government they supported had committed human rights crimes themselves. Gersony, who always wore people down with his meticulous research, was eventually confirmed. The resulting diplomatic pressure from both the United Nations and the US government from Gersony's fieldwork tamed Kagame's behavior, improved the nature of the Rwandan regime, and saved countless lives.

Robert Gersony when he first arrived in Vietnam. Courtesy Robert Gersony

At the beginning of his career, Gersony André Schwarz-Bart's classic The Last of the Just from 1959 was about the Lamed Vav, the 36 “just” men of Jewish tradition who, according to legend, appear in every generation. Your personal merit will save the world from utter destruction. They accomplish this task by experiencing and internalizing all the pain in the world. The novel begins with a medieval pogrom and ends with one of the Lamed Vav inmates comforting in their final moments in a Nazi death camp. By the time Gersony finished the last page of the book, he was determined to live up to the Lamed Vav standard. “The book highlighted how I would define integrity. It reinforced how I wanted to act all my life. I told myself I was taking risks, especially bureaucratic risks, as it would later find out by not following the policy of keeping my mouth shut and shirking responsibility, ”he told me.

Shortly after Rwanda, in 1995 and 1996, Gersony was in Bosnia and interviewed hundreds of refugees and aid workers about how best to implement the Dayton Accords. "Dayton," said Tim Knight, head of USAID's disaster relief team in Bosnia, "was a very, very fragile peace deal." And it wouldn't have cost much to restart the fire. “One of the reasons Bosnia remained peaceful was Gersony and Knight's successful endeavor to build more than 2,500 new homes in 48 villages for returning refugee families, 80 percent of whom were Muslim, creating around 4,000 jobs.

Gersony and Knight's program was not without controversy. The houses they had built were designed for restoring ethnic majorities in each village, as Gersy's interviews had shown there was no way to protect returning ethnic and religious minorities from local retribution while the embers were still hot from one vicious civil war was. In some ways, their project helped solidify the creation of mono-ethnic cantons, which went against the spirit of Dayton. Gersy's answer is simple: don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. While the project did not contribute to reconciliation, it did alleviate the refugee situation and stabilize the local economy, which helped to keep the peace in Bosnia.

“Nobody in the intelligence community has gathered human intelligence like Gersony. He gave voice to the voiceless, ”said Patrick Cronin, USAID's effective No. 2 in 2002, shortly after Gersony returned from 10 weeks on the dangerous North Korean border in Manchuria, China. While Washington was still in shock on September 11 and preparing for the Iraq war, Gersony meticulously described daily life in North Korea using 86 lengthy refugee reports, the first American to ever do so. “It was absolutely exciting. Every sentence (from Gersony's assignment) was an effective slap in the face, ”said Cronin. "Like a living documentation of an entire topic that is unknown to the world." (Barbara Demick's seminal book "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Life in North Korea" won't appear until 2009.)

Gersony never received any official identification, except for a bronze star for service awarded in Vietnam. But he was working at a time when the bureaucracy was going to forfeit a chance on someone like him, whose life's work honored the American brand's quiet idealism. In addition, he was someone whose in-depth coverage always made it possible for the complex low-level situation of dark places to influence high politics.

Throughout his career, Gersony repeatedly revealed the illusion of knowledge where in fact there was none. He demonstrated how, despite the internet and social media, what happens locally in remote parts of the world can still be mysterious. “What you learn from refugees and displaced persons can often not be learned from satellite photos and cable segments. You will learn the nuances and structures of situations and how each place is unique and different. And so what you learn in this area should be an integral part of policy formulation, ”he said. Of course, we get less and less of it these days as the bare, often unwanted opinion increasingly invades the media, influencing government decisions and drowning out old-fashioned reporting behind the capitals.

For example, immediately after September 11th, Gersony traveled alone for several weeks through the Putumayo region in southern Colombia, which was infested by guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by the Spanish acronym FARC). The United States was in the process of spending billions of dollars on Plan Colombia, a huge nation-building project that, among other things, aimed to eradicate the cocaine production necessary for cocaine. But for all the money and bureaucrats faced with the problem, no one in Washington was really sure that the coca eradication program, which sprayed crops from low-flying planes, was effective. Gersony just wandered through the cities of the jungle lowlands in his fluent Spanish and asked people if they still grow coca in their fields. And it turned out that it was them. When he returned to Bogotá he had news.

"I had doubts about the spraying beforehand, but the main thing in Gersony's briefing was his knowledge of agriculture and how crop substitution was broke," said Anne Patterson, the then hard-hitting US ambassador to Colombia to become ambassador to Egypt and Pakistan. “Gersony was not an ideology-driven purist like others in the relief and humanitarian communities. There is immense risk aversion within the bureaucracy these days. … Bob Gersony comes from another time. "

Indeed he is. Today, much of this type of research is done by Beltway bandits and other large consulting firms, as well as large human rights organizations, who in some cases have institutional and bureaucratic biases built in and therefore do not always produce something original, according to Gregory Gottlieb, longtime former senior official at USAID and now professor at Tufts University.

Gersony at his home in Great Falls, Virginia in 2020.Elizabeth Gersony

Gersony's genius is that he has worked alone throughout his career and has never been leaning towards groupthink. In this sense he can be compared to his late friend and colleague Fred Cuny, a legendary unskilled worker who disappeared in 1995 under mysterious circumstances in war-torn Chechnya. But while Cuny was a towering, larger-than-life Texan character and racing driver, Gersony, who made him popular with many journalists, is an introvert whose only job prior to entering the human rights field was trading in goods – one reason he made people familiar with facts and figures He wore down numbers that were always based on individual reports, and that's how he constructed his great narratives.

"You always have to believe what refugees tell you when they roam the borders of conflict zones," Gersony told me. "There is a big assumption that a lack of education means you are not smart. That is not true. Uneducated people can still be very good observers with very good memories. Refugees' stories about what just happened to them have a literal truth that's hard to repeat. ”And that's the stuff of history.

Regarding the world the United States is facing today, Gersony understands the complexities and danger for the Biden administration of making decisions based on partial information and great plans and ideas. He knows that all isms can be dangerous, whether realism, idealism, or neoconservatism, as each place requires its own approach. The solution, therefore, lies in the embassy reporting, by moving diplomats from their desks and into the field so that they can better inform senior officials in Washington about what is happening. For Gersony, the golden age of reporting should never end. Gersy's life's work provides the ultimate lesson on why we need to rebuild the State Department and USAID.

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