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Welcome to the Premiere Corporation. A presentation of the audio podcast. This is actually happening. Episode 93, what if you witnessed the limits of human suffering? Today's episode of This is actually Happening is brought to you by Madison Reid.
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With code happening. That's code happening.
I grew up in Dubai for much of my childhood until I was 10 years old and Dubai back then was just desert. It was a sheik's guest house and this huge concrete apartment block in a sea of sand.
Dubai so hot most of the year that you can't go out until unless your parents take you out. So it was much of life was indoors. And that's still true now. And as a child, you just have less agency. So I spent a lot of time by myself reading, writing, playing, inventing games. And I think that has translated into a lot of what I do now, which is writing. It's almost necessary to be able to to write, to be able to spend those long periods of time alone.
At the age of 10, I went to boarding school in India, my formative years, 10 to 18 were in India, and so that was in this secluded boarding school in the middle of nowhere. Founded by a philosopher, an Indian philosopher, Judah Krishnamoorthi, who's sort of philosophy and non-competition. And so we didn't have exams, we didn't have uniforms. It was very sort of free thinking school. We spent four months in science class in sixth grade trying to figure out how to calculate the circumference of the Earth.
And we weren't allowed to look in the textbooks or see how the Greeks did it or how the Egyptians did it. And that was the assignment. And, of course, people cheated. Of course, people looked of course some of us didn't. And of course, most of us didn't figure out how to how to get it done. But it taught us to stay with a problem for four months. And that itself is a little gift.
My parents are Indian. They moved to Dubai before I was born. They were financial or economic migrants. They were seeking a better life. And I think for most of my life, they trained me in the same way. They wanted me to seek out a better life for myself so they would always point to Europe and America as places I should want to live in, but to better my life and the way they better their. I did a year of university in India, an engineering school, hopelessly oppressive, and I had a friend who went to Caltech in California and he he kept writing to me and saying, man, this is amazing, you should come out here.
And so I applied. I didn't know what I was doing. I just applied to sort of top 10 US news rankings, top ten colleges. And I got into Yale. So that's where I went.
Indian education often tries to put you in buckets, and the American liberal arts system is really amazing. You don't even have to choose your major till you're in your third year. Sometimes for me, it was like manna from heaven or something. I just totally, totally lucked out when I remember getting the accepted acceptance letter and thinking, wow, I thought only people from a certain class of the world or some class of society got to go to these places.
And I was like, wow, this happening to me. I tried courses in photography and cognitive science and philosophy and history of science, anthropology and anything that I could find that was different from the engineering pigeonhole that I had been put into in India. And eventually I fell back to mathematics, to pure mathematics. I studied algebra, abstract algebra. It's an incredibly beautiful world, mathematics. And it's perfect. It's deductive world. Everything is true. But one course that I took in creative writing, a creative writing seminar totally changed my life.
I think I think there was I remember walking down the street with my best friend and saying I found what I want to do. I don't know how I'm going to do it. I want to write. I'm studying math. I have no idea how I'm going to make that leap. But I will. Senior year in college, I was in the dining hall at Yale and I remember opening up New York Times newspaper and I was just flipping through was lunchtime and probably late for class or something.
And and this little article at the bottom of the middle page of the newspaper caught my eye. And it was a tiny, tiny article that said four million people have died in Congo. And it didn't make any sense to me because the piece was so small with just a couple of hundred words. And the events it was talking about were so huge war, conflict, millions of people dead. I thought a couple of people died on the front page.
And here millions of people are fed into this tiny piece. And from there I began to research and realize that there are these places in the world where immense events are happening, affecting the lives of millions of people in tumultuous, tragic ways. History is happening in these places, human history unfolding on massive scales, and very few people are reporting on them. There was a professor, a math professor who was really important to me, sort of kind of a legend in mathematics.
His name is Serge Langue. I remember walking into his office with all these math textbooks that he'd given me for free on math textbooks that he had written. He understood from the moment I walked in that this was it for me, I was not going to do math and he said, what happened? And I said, I'm going, I'm leaving. I'm going to travel. I'm going to be a journalist. And he was like going, well, I said to Congo and he said, I like to play the fool.
And he was supportive. And I didn't understand what I was going out setting out to do. But I think he understood more than I did at that point where that journey might lead me.
Another person at Yale who was important to me was the cashier, and I went to pay my final bill, final tuition fee, and the cashier was African. So I was like, Oh, where are you from? And she said, Zaire, which is the old name for Congo.
And I said, Oh, I might go there.
And she said, Oh, you can't just go there, you stupid. Your kids, you think you can do anything you want, you get robbed, raped or killed. And I was like, will you help me? And she said, No way, no way in hell this is wrong for you. Don't do it. And I found out that she worked a second job at a New Haven parking lot. And so every night I would go and hang out with her and I'd buy her Dunkin Donuts shakes and we talk.
And she told me her family pictures and she'd come with a new hairdo and say, How do I look? And so we began to become friends. And finally she said, OK, I will introduce you to my in-laws in Kinshasa and you can stay with them. And that was my break.
Shortly afterwards, I ended up buying a one way ticket to Kinshasa in Congo as a fresh graduate, 22 years old, no journalistic training, only a math degree, never written for publication in my life. But with this idea that whatever I would find in this place should be news and that there were stories here that I needed to find, and that's how I sort of launched myself into this whole life and this whole career. The family whom I had never met before, the in-laws of the cashier were at the airport to meet me and I remember they asked me, how long are you going to be here?
And I didn't know. So first, my phone was stolen by a street boy and I tried to recover the phone that led me to this abandoned cemetery that's been turned into a garbage dump and were abandoned. Children, live children. These children are abandoned by their families, often because they can't afford to raise them. And so what happens? In many cases, the child is taken to a church, a fake church, an evangelist, evangelical church, where they are somehow told that they're being possessed by the devil.
And there's a very tormented ritual of breaking the child away from the family psychologically. And then the child is abandoned on the streets and they know they shouldn't come back. So I went searching for the street boy in the cemetery and I hung out with them for a night. It was that was one of my first experiences of the city with these kids who try to walk around at night during the day to sleep in Kinshasa alone. They're like 40000 kids like this.
And in that cemetery, I don't know, they're all hiding these caucuses of abandoned cars. Often they're described in very tragic terms, NGOs trying to help them, church groups trying to help them all doing good work. But they're described as sort of these tragedies in society. And my night with them was one of childish pleasure. I felt this was what all of us would be doing if we didn't have parents to force us to go to school. These kids were drinking alcohol, having sex, smoking up and exploring the city on stolen motorcycles, feeling reckless, free.
And we went and we ended up going to a stadium and calling out into the darkness, playing silly games, childish games. I didn't get my phone back. I think it was God, but I got this priceless experience with these kids. Shortly after that, I was picking up a taxi somewhere in the city, shared taxi and Kinshasa's, I couldn't afford these four taxis and I got into one of these shared taxis I ended up in in the back seat in the middle.
The taxi went further down, picked someone else. So I had people on either side of me in the back seat. There was someone in the front seat and there was a driver. They would take me down the city and they were just talking to me and drawing me out. At one point I said, all those people in the Ministry of Immigration, which we passed, I was like, oh, they're all thieves. And the guy turned to me and said, you know, who you calling thieves?
And I sense something and I said, it's OK, I'll get off here, and they were like, No, no, it's OK, we're just a little further down. And I was like, I think I want to get down here. And then they pushed me back. The two guys in front held my legs and the guys behind me pinned me down by the shoulder. The guy next to me pulled out a gun, ejected the magazine, showed me shiny new bullets, put it back, cocked the gun and put it to my head and said, Give me everything you got.
I happen to be carrying all my cash because I trusted no one, I didn't even trust that the house I was staying and which was in a slum in Kinshasa, was safe. People were coming in and out of the house all the time. So I had all my money with me like two thousand five hundred dollars or something. And so they got all of that. And I begged them to keep giving back my phone, which I didn't want to lose for a second time as I told them, listen, I'm a journalist, that this is my means of livelihood.
All those contacts in that phone are the way I earn my living. So don't take that for me. Take the money. They took the money and let me keep my phone.
After that, I didn't know if I could stay and I was getting desperate. I had no way of making a living. So I was in this desperate position and the relationship with my family was also getting kind of tense. And I met this journalist who told me the A.P. guy had just quit. The Associated Press correspondent had just quit and the AP had cut the position. And so he said, hey, maybe he's looking for someone. So I wrote to the AP editor on a Sunday afternoon from an Internet cafe, from a cyber cafe in Kinshasa.
And 20 minutes later, the AP editor called me and said, who the hell are you and what the hell are you doing in Kinshasa? Like, who comes here? And so we got talking and he said, listen, I don't I don't have any reason to disbelieve that you're this kid who's going to Yale who studied math, has come here like I don't believe anything in your CV, but I this has never happened. I mean, I can't trust you just like that.
So we're going to put you on probation. I need to you need to work with us for a while before I can trust you. And so I began to file stories for the Associated Press for ten cents a word. Ten cents a word that they publish, not a ten cents a word that I wrote. No insurance, no back up. All expenses were mine, phone calls, transport, everything was my own expense. But here I was.
This is my chance. And I began hustling.
There was a spate of plane crashes in the jungle, which I heard on the radio, and so those became my first news stories and those plane crashes were kind of my early lifeline. It was always a struggle in Kinshasa and became clear to me that I would have to get out and start exploring the country and start finding stories elsewhere. And I went on these mad adventures. I went up the Congo River with an Indian businessman who told me there was a story on this piece of land.
We never made it to the land bridge that we were on broke down and we got stuck somewhere in the middle of the jungle. I was taken to a pygmy tribe that had given away huge swaths of forest of rainforest to logging companies in exchange for sacks of salt and a couple of chickens there. There were pygmy tribe that used to work on rubber plantations, and they had forgotten how to extract salt from the trees, from the forest. And so salt had become this incredibly precious commodity to them.
They didn't know that was worth a couple of cents in the world outside. And they had very little sense of how easily a man can now destroy a forest or rainforest. And when I talk to the pygmy chief, he said, oh, no, the rainforest, of course, never ends. There's no way they could cut down all these trees. And, of course, the logging companies, that's exactly what they were doing. And so that story about this pygmy tribe became one of the first stories that kind of got me in and the editors really liked it and it won an award later.
That was the first story for me. It was totally in a position of desperation. I had gone out, spent a lot of money to go out with this Indian businessman. We hadn't found the story and I was stuck in the middle of the jungle. The AP editor was calling me and saying, hey, we you know, you're missing. All these stories are in Kinshasa. What are you doing when you coming back? And I was really desperate and I found this pygmy tribe and they became my story.
After that, they kind of began to finance some of my expenses and allow me to travel. And that's kind of how I grew out. Fanned out into the country, began to report on the war there, which is 600 miles away from Kinshasa in the east. Go to these places where there were hundreds of thousands of people displaced, where there were mass graves, massacres, warlords who had been operating for a decade.
Congo's war has now by now killed more than six million people, apparently. And it is the worst war in the world since World War Two. Despite this, there isn't that much that is said about it. We don't hear that much about it in the news, like the wound on our earth. We just sort of let this war continue. It's almost like we don't want to look at it because we know how intertwined this war is with modern society.
Congo is a place that has been pillaged again and again. When automobiles were invented and mass produced, they needed rubber for car tires and they went to Congo to get Robert the Belgians killed, I think half Congolese population. They would cut off people's hands if they didn't produce enough rubber. Then there was the electrical electric revolution and the world needed copper. And Congo has copper, one of the largest copper deposits in the world. Again, the wars for the Western powers would try to have one of the copper rich provinces secede from the rest of the country led to civil war.
Congo's independence hero, Patrice Lumumba, was killed to produce copper wires for the world. Then the digital revolution and we need electric circuits. The metal in those circuits is made of tin and Congo has tin. And so again, the world went to Congo supporting militiamen and warlords. Congo also has diamonds and gold, which are perennially valuable. And now with the cellular phone revolution, the world needs tantalum. And Congo has tantalum, one of the largest deposits in the world.
Some people say like half of the world's known deposits are sitting in Congo. So, again, these kids are going to mines. And these are stories I began to report on, watching kids carry 50 kilos of tantalum. Coltan is the ore and they would carry 50 kilos on their back. And I would I was walking through the forest and I see graves of these children who just died from exhaustion. So these are the sorts of connections between the world and Congo.
And I think maybe partly because of that, it's too painful to look at this wound, this conflict that we are in part responsible for creating whose war we feed through our consumption. It became really hard for me when I came back from Congo, I was in San Francisco for a bit and became really hard for me to just sit in San Francisco and look at everything around me in a benign way. I every every time that I saw, I wondered where the metal was coming from.
Every week that I saw, I wonder where the rubber was coming from, who would work to get it. It's very tiring, exhausting way to live. Even in Kinshasa, watching people struggle for basic life, basic necessities, and kind of had to build a wall around myself to kind of keep experiencing all these things, once they came out of Congo, that wall sort of fell away. And I felt the enormity of all the things that I'd seen that seemed so distant and so remote, and yet they weren't there were still connected to our world.
So after coming to San Francisco, worked as a consultant for a bit by that point, I wanted to write a book about everything that happened in Congo, everything that I'd seen, everything that I had experienced. I was offered this little gig in Rwanda to teach some journalists. So I went to Rwanda to write this book about Congo, and I was offered this little gig to teach Rwandan journalists at an NGO.
As I was teaching them very quickly, it became apparent that these journalists were working in incredibly repressive conditions. One of them had been beaten into a coma for bringing up the harassment of the press in front of the president at a press conference. Another girl was sick with HIV and she'd been imprisoned after criticizing the government did not let her sleep. They would drag her from room to room. And suddenly I was thinking, oh, my God, what is going on here?
Like Rwanda, everything I'd heard about Rwanda was telling me was saying that Rwanda was a country making great progress, improving by every measure, and was safe, was calm. The economy was growing. And here suddenly these students opened up this other side of society for me in which people were living in a great deal of fear.
So I went to Rwanda to write a book. I want to write some novels. I want to do other stuff. I'm writing this book on Congo and I want to move to other things. So I wasn't there to uncover anything. I happened to be around these students who were incredibly brave to stand up to power, to try to expose what the government was doing. I went to Rwanda in 2009, so it was 15 years after the genocide in Rwanda in which nearly a million people were killed in just 100 days.
So it was a rate of killing even faster than the Holocaust. The genocide killed nearly a million people, mostly Tutsis, the minority in Rwanda and the Hutu had been ruling until then for about 30, 40 years. Rwanda was a Belgian colony. And when colonialism ended, it was a Hutus who took power, which was what happened in 1990 was that there were a group of Tutsis who were living in exile who wanted to come back. But the Hutu government at the time said, no, Rwanda's full.
And so these Tutsis who had been raised and brought up in exile, yearning for their country, yearning to be able to live in their country, have been taught that their purpose in life was to get back their country. They invaded Rwanda from Uganda, and that started off this four year conflict that culminated in a genocide in which the Hutus felt or their narrative at least, was that if we don't exterminate the Tutsis, then they're going to oppress us again.
And there were a whole set of narratives to justify what they were doing at the end of the genocide. The Tutsi group that had invaded, headed by General Paul Kagame, took power.
So in the middle of the genocide, Paul Kagame, the Tutsi forces attacked a weakened government. The government in many ways was weakened by this attempt to exterminate the Tutsi group. They were spread thin. The Tutsi group that invaded were militarily very capable, and they won the war. So polygamy, the Tutsi leader who had invaded the country, took over the country once he gained power, he promised an inclusive country democracy, equality, progress.
Initially, I think the world was willing to give him leeway. And because of what had happened, the enormity of the genocide, who knows how to rebuild a country after genocide? How do you how do you even begin the world? Just wanted to help. And he got a lot of help. But in hindsight, he got a lot of aid, military support, foreign expertise, whatever he wanted money. And also the world overlooked some of his crimes.
Kagame essentially saw that he could get away with mass murder. He's this evidence that he's killed maybe tens or hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Hutu. So it's a very complicated period.
It's hard even to investigate it now because independent research is not allowed about that period, because it's so important to the to Paul Kagame narrative that he ended the genocide, that he saved the Tutsis and that this is he's the legitimate leader of this new Rwanda, so focused on winning the war, became president, took over the country and has been ruling ever since. And I understand the world wanted to see some ray of hope in that time, some figure of goodness and all this evil, but over time it is authoritarian, dictatorial tendencies have become more and more apparent.
The press destroyed institutions like the judiciary, the parliament, to concentrate power in his office, in his person. And he is the all powerful figure in Rwanda today. And when I arrived in Rwanda in 2009, that was when the free press, the journalists were on their last legs. Somehow the people in my class were the last journalists who dared to be independent, who dared to stand up to the government talking about some of these massacres that nobody dared speak about, talking about government corruption, that nobody dared speak about.
And I sort of inherited this classroom full of these brave Rwandans who saw that their country was heading in a very dangerous direction. One of my Rwandan journalism students began to be pursued by the government. I fled. He was tracked down. There was nowhere else to go. So I told him to come to my house. He was hiding in my house. And then eventually I helped him flee the country. And I was so moved by what had happened to him and I wanted to write about it.
So I began to take notes for a story about a magazine piece or something, and the notes ran to 17 pages. Then I realized that this was something greater than a story. It was a book. And so I needed to understand the country more completely. I needed to research what was going on. And that's when I began to actively investigate the one country how the controllers achieved.
I began to explore and understand and investigate what was happening in the country, but the book was always focusing on this, on the students in my class group of about a dozen journalists whom I trained, none of whom were practicing.
One colleague of mine was shot dead on the day he criticized the president. Two women were sent to prison for many years for insulting the president to others, fled the country, fearing for their lives. Others joined the presidential propaganda team. So through the story of the destruction of this class of journalists, how journalists, when they began to be silenced, began to scream because they felt that there was no one listening to them. They said, if I can't speak, I will scream.
And that only worsen. The repression heightened until everyone was silenced. And now in the country, there's harmony and you go and ask people questions and you will get remarkably consistent and coherent responses from them. To many people, that might sound like the truth, but in a dictatorship, when everyone is saying the same thing, speaks to something that has been lost to something that has been eradicated and all of that turned into this examination of 21st century dictatorship.
I had to come to a point where I asked myself, why am I writing this book? I'm writing it because I care for these students. I really admire them. I care for these journalists. They are remarkable individuals. And I want to make sure that their work is not forgotten. But as soon as a journalist disappears or is killed, they're seen as enemies of the state. Nobody talks about them. And so the book in some way puts on the record who they are, what they did and what they stood for.
All dictatorships there, they have shiny buildings, skyscrapers, nice roads, hospitals at work, but of course, if you criticize the president, you lose everything over time. These leaders destroy institutions, democratic institutions that would assure stability. But that also means that these leaders have to share power with those institutions. And that's something dictators don't want to do. And so afterwards, after they're gone, very often it is great violence breaks out. And this is the situation, unfortunately, that one is living in today and that these journalists whom I was training were aware of and were trying to counter speak up against.
And they were remarkable, remarkable individuals, such a privilege to watch them at work. I don't know if I would have been brave, as brave as them to challenge such power, knowing that my life, my family's lives could be a danger. The free press was destroyed in the 2010 presidential elections when the elections happened by then around, then basically the press was silenced and everyone was speaking up in favor of polygamy. Journalist told me that there were people there were thousands of homeless people out in the countryside.
And I went out with him because he said he'd show me. We found villages with huts that were ruthless and the thatch from the roof was just lying on the ground. And it didn't make any sense. There didn't seem to have been any violence there. There were no bullet holes, no sign of the military, no tank treads, nothing. And people were all sitting on the ground outside their homes and they didn't put the roof back up. We found a cement house where two families were living there.
The families were stuffed into rooms with goats and pigs for lack of space. They were just sort of squeezed into rooms. Children were sick with pneumonia. It was rainy season. So many elderly ones were going cold, living outside in the rain, contracted pneumonia and were dying. And so I went up to them and asked them who did this? Like, did the army do this to you? Who did this to you? The army, the police like who destroyed your homes?
Like, tell me who did this to you. And the answer was something I never would have expected. They said we did. Paul Kagame had said he had felt the statutes were primitive and local leaders were so desperate to please, please the president that they went out to the villages and said, take down your roofs. The president said they're primitive. We need to get rid of them. Who was going to speak out for them? Who were they going to tell?
What were they going to do? There was no press, no civil society, no one to speak out for them. So they went up and climbed on their own roofs and destroyed their own homes. And many of these homes they built with their own hands. And when I came back to the capital after seeing this and I told people, you know, this is what's happening in the countryside, nobody would believe me because they were like, no, the president is a good man.
Look at the papers. There's only good stuff happening. So if you came to Rwanda and you read the papers, you listen to the news, you would think that the place is a paradise, that it is what Kagame is saying, a miracle that has risen from the ashes of the genocide. This is a narrative, the official narrative, and this is what you would believe.
And so people who have lived in dictatorship, they know that there's something wrong when they just see good news, good news, good news. So that's why I called the book bad news, because my book Bad News because. But the bad news is what is so important to society and that we're not hearing. And now in America, many journalists, I feel, are sort of feeling that they're in a similar kind of repressive situation are kind of confused about how to confront this new presidency that disdains the press, doesn't care for the press, and the press seems to almost be losing its ability and capacity to hold power accountable.
I think Americans would do well now to learn from people like the Rwandan students who taught whom I worked alongside, who know what this feels like, who know how it might be countered, who've tried to counter it, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but who had that experience. And now I think the world we are in a place where the world has a lot to share with America now and to help American civil society.
And I say sometimes that a society that can't speak is like a body that doesn't feel pain. So someone can cut off your leg and you won't know what. You can cut off your own leg and you won't know it because you don't feel pain free speech or the press. Is that feedback that society gives to power and gives to itself saying, you know, something wrong is happening here. We need to change. We need to address the situation. And I think with the press in America, sort of there's a sense that the press might lose some of its ability to counter what the White House does.
I think in some ways it's exciting. America looking outward now for solutions. 21ST century dictatorship and authoritarianism is now coming to many places that we thought were bastions of liberty and democracy and free speech that we we looked up to. And now we're seeing that even those under threat. So where do we go from here? It's a very fragile and dangerous moment, I think, in in the world. It's also exciting in a way, because it brings us all together.
It's not us and them or us and you. We are all confronting these universal questions of freedom, of free speech, of living lives that are unencumbered by government abuse. We all are facing the same questions and we're all in it together. So there's a certain potential. Journalism for me, going to Congo and Rwanda was a way to educate myself about the limits of humanity in our world and going to some of these places where extreme things are happening to understand what they look like.
What does it look like to see 100000 people being displaced? What what is a warlord look like? How does how does he or she behave? What does it feel like to be in a city that is about to be attacked, where everything that you have built, all the things we take for granted, our homes, our savings, our identities, our careers, all of that will come to naught when the cities razed. What does it feel like to be among people who are facing that possibility, trying to understand the full spectrum?
And it's in these places that you begin to see the limits of human capacity, how resilient we are, how inventive we are, how we will find a way in the deepest, darkest circumstances. We will find a way, a ray of hope to cling on to that will keep us going.
Even though from the outside we see it as a place of conflict, of war, tragedy and sadness in Congo. There's a great deal of joy in Kinshasa, Kinshasa, the vibrant city in the place I was living in that slum. I would walk down the streets and there would be saxophonist's on the rooftops playing original music, creating ambience. Congolese call themselves on Beyonce's creators of ambience, and they're creating this ambience, creating this joy and excitement in part to forget the pain, the sorrow.
And so you see that the mind has this ability to create happiness, create joy. We have this innate desire to be free. In Congo, I would see when I saw how people were behaving in the war, a lot of it came down, I felt, to questions of identity. I didn't understand why a militia fighter, for example, would not just go and take over a village and maybe kill some people in order to take over their village.
But in Congo, they would there were stories all the time of extraordinarily horrific acts of violence, people being maimed and forced into certain positions and killed very slowly. That didn't make any military sense. One of the explanations I came to was that the people committing these acts are trying to somehow make a mark on their world, assert themselves on the world and say, you know, I exist. This is my work.
You find a lot of artists in Congo, many, many artists, and in some way, even these militia fighters were killing in really creative ways to say, this is my way of killing. I'm not just going to kill someone, I'm going to kill them in my way. It's counterintuitive and seems horribly perverse, but there militarily it doesn't make any sense. So you feel like everyone in Congo, in these places yearning for a sense of identity, a sense that they belong, that they exist, and the fundamentality of this urge.
I hadn't realized before going to this place how important it is for us to be something and to feel like we are someone. It was really important to me that someone should witness what is going on, and I remember when I was going through the Central African Republic, we arrived at a village that had just been attacked and burnt down and it was empty. All the people had fled to the jungle. And so we were calling out, we're friends, OK?
And one of the first people to come out was this woman. She came running towards us and behind her, a whole bunch of a group of men also in the rest of the village came out when they saw that nothing was happening to her. She wasn't being killed. They had no food, they had no water. They had no medicine. But when they came out, they didn't ask for food. They didn't ask for water. They didn't ask for medicine.
They didn't ask for help. The first thing they said to me was, do people know do people know what's happening to us or is this happening to us? And nobody knows that is so important to people to know that someone out there knows it's the source of so much hope. And so that's something else I took away. How powerful, how fundamental to know that someone, anyone doesn't matter. Black, white, the race doesn't matter. Religion does matter to someone.
No. And if no one knows, then we're really we're really, really in trouble. Like, then there's really there may be sort of no way out. And I met brave, brave people. There was a Polish priest in the middle of the Central African Republic who was driving into these war zones where even the French peacekeepers, armed to their teeth would not dare enter because it was so dangerous. And so he was driving in and his white pickup and I asked if I could go along.
And so he took me along and we were driving in through these deserted war zones as the front line and empty villages. And he'd stop at each version, he'd honk and from the forest, someone would run out, sprint out with a piece of paper and hand handed to the priest. And the priest was stuffed in his glove compartment. And on that paper would be neatly written with the names of all the people who died, the names of all the people who were still alive, what they needed, who was sick.
There was no phone. There was no way to communicate. So he would go village by village and get these pieces of paper and then drive back to the city and then hold a meeting with the NGOs, with the French peacekeepers, with everyone else, and say, this village needs water, this village needs medicine. It's humbling to find people like that who still need to do that, but who are doing that, who are taking such great personal risk.
I hadn't until that point fully understood just how powerful the journalists were, can be the simple act of documenting something and then putting it out there, it's easy to go in with preconceived ideas of what people in tough situations need and want. And I think that's happened a lot throughout history. We decide for other people or, you know, a dictatorship is OK for them because they just had war. So they're happy this is enough for them and this is all they need in a place of conflict.
It's just bullets flying everywhere. And there aren't the parties. There isn't the joy. No, but joy is a fundamental human need. We were created even in the most abject places. And you can imagine that people who are who whose homes and villages have been destroyed, all they care about is food and water and medicine. But there are other things that are as fundamental in some ways that that that they're seeking. That they want they want recognition.
And it feels just wrong, like why does it have to be engine driving in this dinky little car through this village to discover that there had been a massacre of hundred people? This is wrong. We're in the 21st century with the age of information. We're supposed to know about these things. OK, maybe we can fix everything we're supposed to know. And that's the lie we tell ourselves. But there are huge, huge portions of the earth where people act with impunity.
Great homes done and nobody knows. Yeah, it's humbling. When I first went out to Congo, I guess something was drawing me there and ever since I've been trying to understand that act and I think sometimes we do things that take us a lifetime to understand and maybe we do. Maybe we never really do. People come up to me and say, you did a crazy thing, you know, going out to Congo. And when I think about myself in that time, I don't even know if I would do such a thing again, sort of the innocence and naivete of youth.
But I'm really, really glad I listened to that little voice in my head that said, you know, maybe you want to do something that is more immediately socially impactful, more relevant. In some ways it's strange. In some ways it seems almost inevitable in others. How could life have gone happened otherwise? I can't imagine who I might be if I had not paid attention to that little voice. I think someone said epiphanies don't come as Eureka as a flash.
They come as a little whisper and you need to listen to it.