Kathryn Hampton ’06 works for a human-rights advocacy organization in New York City, after 10 years living and working in China, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq, Turkey, and Ukraine.
I graduated from Princeton with a major in comparative literature, a basic understanding of 1980s Chinese poetry, and a wide-eyed longing both to see the world and to live out Princeton’s motto, Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of all nations. After a year teaching English in China with Princeton in Asia, I moved to Bosnia to implement projects that used creative arts to respond to a society torn by ethnic cleansing. I ended up in human-rights monitoring work in progressively more challenging contexts.
In 2014, receiving my first briefing for a position in Iraq with an international organization, I was fascinated by the discussion of risk management. We assessed risk to predict problems, to ensure that we could continue training and supporting Iraqi human-rights advocates despite the security environment. My boss had been in the military for 20 years; this was his first civilian job. To calm our nerves when a project faced challenges, he asked us what he had asked his soldiers after a mission: “Did anyone die today? And have we learned something?” I was gripped by the thought that greater physical risk meant a higher payoff — coming to the conflict zone meant preventing human-rights violations and addressing acute needs, not waiting until after the genocide to pick up the pieces. Still, a logical framework applied. Risk should be accepted only when absolutely necessary and when the benefits outweigh the costs. Risk should be minimized through anticipation and careful contingency planning.
Working in Iraq, I had been evacuated when ISIS was 19 miles away; I was on lockdown after car bombs exploded in the city center. When I moved to Ukraine in 2016 to monitor the ceasefire agreement, I thought that I had an accurate assessment of the risks involved. I knew that after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, armed conflict had broken out in the east. The enduring result is constant shelling along the front line that divides Ukraine proper from the non-government-controlled areas, with the government trying to take back the land and armed groups preventing them. But I was not prepared for the physical and psychological toll of this kind of work. I had worn light flak jackets and ridden in armored vehicles with bodyguards before, but now I was wearing Level IV ballistic body armor (the kind with heavy ceramic plates) — and now I was the driver. I had two days of predeployment tactical-driving training, and now I was driving armored vehicles hundreds of miles on bad roads.
I tackled the new risk environment and found that the physical risks could be managed as I developed new skills. Opening the heavy door of the armored vehicle, wearing my hard plates, and hopping into the high seat of the Land Cruiser made the muscles in my legs sore on the first day. It took an unexpected amount of strength to brake a several-ton vehicle on bad roads, drive for eight hours, and keep up with the convoy. I found it challenging as a woman to navigate biology and privacy, since bushes are off-limits due to possible mines. Our female ex-police-chief colleague airily declared, “Women can hydrate at night”; in other words, don’t drink water during your eight-hour patrol. I learned not to care. I hydrated as much as I wanted and asked my male colleagues to park for a “technical stop” on remote roads: men in front of the vehicles for privacy, women behind. A colleague who had served in Moldovan special forces complimented my driving on patrol.
Weaving around anti-tank mines, driving into the no man’s land between the two sides, I patrolled, observed, and reported about conditions along the international border at entry-exit checkpoints, military checkpoints, shelling craters, destroyed and occupied houses and schools. I corroborated civilian casualties. As tasks and risks that I never thought I could overcome became routine, I started to feel tough and able to take on the world. Over time I didn’t feel as scared of the physical risks; the job was just something that had to be done.
Sometimes the risks did not seem worth it. When a colleague was killed by a land mine on a routine patrol, it hit us all very hard. We had driven those same roads. Were our daily reports worth the life of a colleague? What was the value of our objective reporting about harm to the civilian population if those in power ignored their plight?
There were funny moments, too — when we accidentally set off our vehicle’s siren and couldn’t turn it off until our Norwegian colleague found the switch under the hood; or when someone dressed as “the front line” for our Halloween party. And there were fulfilling moments. I started to find a large part of my identity in being the woman from a different time zone who parachuted in for a wedding or bachelorette party back home and then jetted off again.
To calm our nerves ... my boss asked us what he had asked his soldiers after a mission: “Did anyone die today? And have we learned something?”
As I was learning to cope with a new set of risks, I noticed that this life gradually started to impact me in other ways. In one village, we were concerned about the humanitarian situation because the villagers lived in a no man’s land on the front line, and neither side would let them pass to reach the nearest pharmacies, doctors, and shops, fearing infiltration by saboteurs. We tried to check up on them regularly and to advocate for their needs. One day we went to the village with a new colleague, who was patrol leader for the day. He heard heavy machine-gun fire and stopped us. Should we continue? We laughed. Of course! It’s only heavy machine-gun fire. He looked at us and shook his head. We realized that he was right; we were so overexposed to these situations that we underestimated the level of risk. Our report: six bursts of heavy machine-gun fire, less than a mile west of our position; the patrol held a listening post for five minutes and did not proceed to the village.
A Thanksgiving dinner was the final straw. I’d been talking about making the dinner for friends for a month, and had brought back cranberry sauce, pumpkin puree, stuffing mix, and cornbread from my last R&R to the U.S. There was a military coup just a few days before the holiday, and we were on lockdown. Men in white armbands had taken over the hotel where we lived, and they refused to say who they were. Every day, management was discussing whether to evacuate us. I spent the day cooking, looking out the window into our back parking lot, where a few dozen men in black balaclavas and tactical gear were smoking and talking.
The food was steaming on the table as colleagues walked by, saying we’d be evacuated. (In the end, evacuation came one day later.) I ate with friends in the locked-down hotel, each saying what we were thankful for. We were indeed thankful, but also stressed. My colleague confided in me that she was terrified the balaclava guys would break into the hotel and rape us. As unarmed international monitors, there was little chance of the soldiers intentionally harming us (the greatest danger to us being stray bullets or land mines), but it was scary. The risks and the benefits were not adding up for me any longer. I took the measures to mitigate physical risk adequately as a professional, but humanitarian work became unsafe for me in a different way, because I was burned out, overexposed, and no longer able to make healthy choices. As time went on, the war-zone experiences started to crowd out my creative, emotionally present self. I became irritable and preoccupied with daily reports and patrol schedules.
I left the field and came home to the United States. Last year my friends from Ukraine flew to New York to visit me, and we went to the Macy’s parade and cooked Thanksgiving dinner together. It was a different kind of risk — to leave behind the new identity I had constructed for myself — but this risk has paid off. Coming home opened the door to new adventures, new thoughts, and a new perspective. In choosing to return to the United States, I have a broader vision of what risks are worth taking — like believing in yourself, being willing to fail, and trying new things — and which risks aren’t, like self-sabotage, perfectionism, and overcommitting.
A crucial risk-management principle, for the long term, is balance. I haven’t left human-rights work, but for now, I am best able to pursue that work while based in New York. What I learned since graduating from Princeton is that risks must be continually reassessed, the benefits freshly measured against the real costs, so that we can make the right choices as we invest the years of our lives.