Current Issue

Apr.28, 2010

Vol. 110, No. 12


Choosing danger:

Why do some people willingly work in conflict zones, when they have so many other options?

By Phil Zabriskie ’94
Published in the April28, 2010, issue

Kira Gnesdiloff ’98: Afghanistan, 2005
Courtesy Kira Gnesdiloff ’98
Kira Gnesdiloff ’98: Afghanistan, 2005

“What have I gotten myself into?”

That’s what Kira Gnesdiloff ’98 found herself thinking in 2004, after she landed in Kabul to start a yearlong assignment for a French nongovernmental organization. This was after Gnesdiloff, a politics major, had spent two years with the Peace Corps in Ghana. It was after she’d lived for a time in Monterrey, Mexico, when her Foreign Service-officer husband, Rob McInturff ’98, was stationed there. She had traveled frequently while growing up, she says, and loved learning about new places and cultures. But Afghanistan “looked like no place I’d ever seen before,” Gnesdiloff thought. There were rusted, bombed-out tanks and husks of old planes lining the runway at the dilapidated shell of an airport. Crumbling, battle-scarred buildings remained all over town, vestiges of the vicious civil war Afghan warlords waged against one another in the 1990s. Military vehicles from numerous NATO countries prowled the streets, as did pickup trucks with gun-toting Afghan militiamen of unknown allegiance. And outside the capital, the Taliban were regrouping, soon to render large swaths of the country’s east and south a no-go zone for foreigners.

This was, quite clearly, a war zone, making her question — “What have I gotten myself into?” — understandable. In eras gone by, it was hardly unusual for Princeton students to go into the military, during or after their studies. But now, with the draft long since dissolved, fewer graduates have direct experiences of war (though a small number volunteer each year). And Gnesdiloff didn’t have to go to Afghanistan, which made her choice to sign up with ACTED, which focuses on community development and emergency humanitarian response in developing countries, seem all the more unusual. Her husband’s colleagues wondered if something was wrong with their marriage (quite the contrary, she says). Her grandmother, who had grown up in Berlin after World War II, was even more perplexed. “I don’t understand why anyone would voluntarily choose to go to a place where there is a war,” Gnesdiloff recounts her grandmother saying.

Not many of her classmates had chosen similar paths, Gnesdiloff says, but she is hardly the only Princetonian who willingly went to work in a conflict zone when it would have been just as easy to do something else. It seems fair to ask, as Gnesdiloff’s grandmother did, what would motivate someone to go toward a situation so many are trying to escape. It’s a question I’ve often asked myself, during and after numerous reporting trips to conflict and post-conflict areas. In early 2001, I moved to Hong Kong to work for Time magazine in Asia and soon found myself in the Indonesian province of Aceh, where separatist rebels and the military were in the midst of a nasty fight, and then in East Timor, which was trying to compose itself after a vicious round of violence during its push for self-determination. Later, after Sept. 11, came repeated trips to Afghanistan, Mindanao in the southern Philippines, Pakistan, Iraq, Burma, Sri Lanka, and Gaza during the 2006 war there. I hadn’t planned on going to such places, but when the opportunity arose, going seemed like the natural thing to do. It was fascinating work. There was much to learn and to enjoy. There was much to endure as well, and over the years, there certainly were times when I asked myself what I was doing there.

I decided to answer some of my own questions by asking them of others. The people interviewed for this article — alumni who have worked in conflict areas as journalists, development and aid workers, engineers, and diplomats — told of different perspectives, different continents, and different experiences. One went to his first war zone decades into a Foreign Service career; one went just months after graduation. Some fulfilled a long-harbored ambition, while others — like me — were buffeted by the tides of current events. Some found it hard to be away; others found it hard to come home. Yet their stories are united by the shared sense that going to a war zone, as unnatural and daunting as it may have been, was worthwhile. For a time, at least, it made sense. It was a privilege. And it had a profound impact on them.

Going: Gnesdiloff doesn’t remember exactly how she answered her grandmother. She thinks she said that going to Afghanistan was “an amazing opportunity to be part of something,” a chance to “effect change at a critical time.” In truth, she was as surprised as anyone. Knowing she wanted to work in development, she’d applied for posts at several nongovernmental organizations and at USAID, but “I certainly had no specific intentions of going into a war zone,” she says. When a job in Afghanistan first came up, she thought “it was crazy and random, and there was no way I was going to do that.” Yet she didn’t say no, and the notion lingered in her mind. Slowly, she realized she actually was considering it.

Why? There was her German mother, who’d long ago instilled in her, Gnesdiloff says, “the idea that the world is bigger than the U.S.” There was her interest in international development work and her willingness to consider working and living in another country. There was her sense of adventure and the kind of curiosity that has compelled people to journey far from home since the dawn of history. Over time, Gnesdiloff came to believe that the job was worth doing; later, McInturff requested and received an assignment in Afghanistan, too.

Similar traits predisposed other alumni to consider this kind of work — to want to go out and look for something, or serve a specific role, in less-than-stable environments. Gregoire Landel ’98, for instance, is the son of French parents and has lived over the years in France, the Ivory Coast, Uganda, and Libya, in addition to the United States. His family, he says, has been “full of explorers, soldiers, and business people and traders” who have been traveling since the 19th century; with his engineering degree in hand, Landel went to work designing water systems in developing countries, a job that has taken him from his Paris home to Liberia, Algeria, and Pakistan. Duncan Fitz ’08 was raised in Pennsylvania and then Tennessee, in a household in which he imbibed a belief in serving one’s country and aiding the less fortunate. After studying in the Woodrow Wilson School, Fitz took a job with a development organization called the Peace Dividend Trust and left for Afghanistan weeks after getting his diploma.

Timing plays a role. Fitz says that Afghanistan was “the place” to do the kind of work he wanted to do when he graduated. In years past, the opportunities were elsewhere. In the early 1990s, for example, Daniel Serwer *77 was nearing the end of a 21-year run in the Foreign Service during which he’d served as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, among other posts, when he was asked to help monitor the shaky peace accord that had been worked out for Bosnia. It was quite unlike his other assignments, and though there was still fighting in the area, he agreed.

In the past decade, Sept. 11 shaped careers in the same manner. James Glanz *91, who had earned a Ph.D. in astrophysics, was a science writer at The New York Times when he was assigned to write about the structure of the World Trade Center towers and why they fell. Two years later, after talking to colleagues who had returned from the site of the biggest story going at the time — Iraq — and deciding that he wanted to be a part of it, he convinced his editors to send him to Baghdad to cover the reconstruction of the country. What he thought would be an engineering and development story instead turned out to be “a story of failure after failure,” he says, interwoven with the politics and the violence of the place. But he returned repeatedly over the next five years, at times serving as the Times’ bureau chief. In a similar fashion, Brian Bennett ’00 moved to Hong Kong through the auspices of Princeton-in-Asia to join the home office of Time’s Asia edition. After Sept. 11, he grew increasingly curious about militant radical Islam. In 2002, he covered the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack in Bali that killed more than 200 people and later went on reporting trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan. On the eve of the Iraq war, he went to a U.S. base in Kuwait to report on one of the American staging grounds, talked his way onto a C-130 headed to Nassariya — informing the editors only after he’d arrived — and went from there to Baghdad, where he spent most of the next four years.

Neither Glanz nor Bennett nor I set out to cover wars. But wars happened. And going to see them firsthand felt like the only way to understand what war actually was, and what was at work in these particular conflicts. All the considerations — professional and personal, conscious and unconscious, a sense of what is worthwhile and what is desirable — resulted in the determination that nothing could match actually being on the ground.

Duncan Fitz ’08, right: Bamiyan Province, Afghanistan, 2008
Courtesy Duncan Fitz ’08
Duncan Fitz ’08, right: Bamiyan Province, Afghanistan, 2008
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