War Correspondent, Author Ryszard Kapuscinski

Autor:Adam Bernstein
Źródło:The Washington Post

Ryszard Kapuscinski, 74, a danger-courting Polish journalist and widely
translated author who covered 27 revolutions and was among the most
celebrated war correspondents of his generation, died Jan. 23 at Banacha
Hospital in Warsaw after a heart attack. He also had cancer.

With prose that was punchy and lyrical, and in which he was often a
central figure amid the action, he became a foremost chronicler of the
developing world in his books. Likened to a modern-day nomad, he carried
only a camera, a clean shirt and money. „The less you have the better
for you,” he said, „because to have is to be killed.”

He met the guerrilla fighter Che Guevara in Cuba, political leaders
such as Salvador Allende of Chile and prime minister Patrice Lumumba of
the Democratic Republic of Congo, and strongmen such as Idi Amin of

Famously, he interviewed a former employee of the deposed Ethiopian
emperor Haile Selassie, a man whose sole duty for 10 years was to use a
satin cloth and wipe the shoes of dignitaries soiled by the urine of the
emperor’s Japanese dog, Lulu.

Mr. Kapuscinski admitted he could embellish scenes for effect and use
composites. His many fans, including John Updike, tended to classify him
with Truman Capote as a master of literary nonfiction. One of Mr.
Kapuscinski’s book editors linked his atmospheric writing to a tradition
of „magical realism” found in Latin American novels that were
subjective and blended absurdities with blunt truths.

„Everything is a metaphor,” Mr. Kapuscinski once said. „My ambition is to find the universal.”

During his extensive travels, he could be daring to the point of
reckless. This characteristic prompted Salman Rushdie to praise his
writing — „an astonishing blend of reportage and artistry” — and to
question his friend’s sanity. At the outbreak of the 1967 Biafran
secessionist war in Nigeria, Mr. Kapuscinski heard of a road that was
blocked by burning roadblocks and from which „no white man can come back

Testing the rumor, he passed the first roadblock but was assaulted at a
second by machete-wielding thugs who supported the United Progressive
Grand Alliance political party. They took his money and doused him with
the flammable liquid benzene.

„The boss of the operation stuffed my money into his pocket and shouted
at me, blasted me with his beery breath: 'Power! UPGA must get power!
We want power! UPGA is power!'” Mr. Kapuscinski later wrote. „His face
was flooding sweat, the veins on his forehead were bulging and his eyes
were shot with blood and madness. He was happy and he began to laugh in
joy. They all started laughing. That laughter saved me. „They ordered me
to drive on.”

For years, he was little known outside Poland, but his increasing
prestige brought him freelance work for the New Yorker, the New York
Times Magazine, Granta and other English-language publications. He began
writing books in his off-hours, „second versions” of the brief, dreary
and highly official dispatches he filed for his day jobs writing for the
Polish press.

His books included „The Emperor,” about Selassie’s last days; „The
Soccer Wars,” covering military tensions in Latin America and some of
his years in Africa; „Another Day of Life,” about Angolan independence
from Portugal; „The Shah of Shahs,” about the Iranian revolution; and
„Imperium,” about the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He told the Scotsman newspaper after the 1994 publication of
„Imperium”: „More philosophically speaking, it’s a book about the
uselessness of human sacrifice, in which I’m saying that during the
communist time almost 100 million people have been slaughtered and to me
this situation, these sufferings and deprivation turn out to be for

„Nobody is seen to be responsible . . . that human suffering turns out to be useless.”

Mr. Kapuscinski was born March 4, 1932, in Pinsk, an industrial city
then in eastern Poland and now in southwestern Belarus. Pinsk was a
polyglot of ethnicities, all living side by side and most in desperate
poverty. He said life in Pinsk helped him assimilate easily when abroad.

After the Soviet invasion of 1939, the Kapuscinski family moved to a
neighborhood near the Warsaw ghetto. He often saw mass executions of
Jews. Meanwhile, his father, a schoolteacher, served in the Polish

Ryszard Kapuscinski received a history degree from the University of
Warsaw in 1955 and found a reporting job at a Communist journal. He
wrote a highly critical article about a steel factory near Cracow that
was officially viewed as a beacon of the Communist ideal. He was fired
but then reinstated and decorated by the state when a federal task force
exonerated his findings.

Now a star, he persuaded his editors to send him abroad, and for years,
he was Poland’s only foreign correspondent. He went to India, then to
Ghana to cover its independence from the United Kingdom, then to the
Democratic Republic of Congo in time for the coup against Lumumba. He
also spent time in Latin America and the Middle East.

Of the Iranian revolution in 1979 that deposed the repressive shah, he
wrote: „Revolutions precisely begin when the man has stopped being
afraid. He gets rid of his fear and feels free, without that there would
be no revolution.” His affiliation with the Solidarity anti-Communist
trade union movement in Poland led his government to revoke his press
credentials in 1981. Yet he worked regularly from abroad and published
many more books, including a praised collection of his African reportage
called „The Shadow of the Sun.”

Survivors include his wife of more than 50 years, Alicja Mielczarek, a pediatrician; and a daughter.

For a man of adventure, he was reputed to be surprisingly humble. He
shunned bluster when discussing his career. „Empathy is perhaps the most
important quality for a foreign correspondent,” he told the New York
Times in 1987. „If you have it, other deficiencies are forgivable. If
you don’t, nothing much can help.”