You can make friends in a hurry by just going around and playing Santa Claus, and in a war zone, that's far better protection than simply being great at stabbing dudes with a pen. If they like you, they'll look out for you.
"I'm just a guy some people want to hang with. I enjoy what I do, I share everything. I did five weeks doing secret missions with U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan, but I made sure everyone got a full copy of my pictures when I left. ... No one ever takes your picture when you're dropping out of helicopters and stuff; it's a nice gift. I still keep in touch with those guys.
"I have a genuine interest in people. I don't play games. I share my food. I share their risks and hardships. People tell stories; I tell mine. I am not a hit-and-run journalist; I stick with these people. Once they see what you're willing to endure, they're proud of you. They want you to survive. They want you to tell their story."
And in case you're wondering ...
Yes, That Means Befriending the Bad Guys
Robert Young Pelton
If you're working in, say, Afghanistan, you might think "people who are friendly with the Taliban" would be a group to avoid. According to Pelton, they can be valuable allies:
"You need to be with someone who knows the higher-ups. When I was in Afghanistan looking for bin Laden, I went through Taliban checkpoints because my driver was Taliban. [He was] someone selected by the man I was supposed to stay with. The man that I was staying with was a friend of Mullah Omar's, the Taliban commander. But yet he was also a friend of an Afghan who recommended me. You gotta remember everyone is connected by family and can have multiple affiliations."
with Muj in Afghanistan 1996
(Robert Young Pelton)
Kinda like the "Six Degrees" game, but with ideological regimes instead of Kevin Bacon.
It sounds crazy, but when you think about it, the only real way to guarantee your safety in a situation like that is to make sure it's in the Taliban's best interest to see you return home alive. "Even though he knew I was looking for his former boss (he had worked with bin Laden in the '80s), he was happy to host me to explain that the Americans were bombing innocent civilians. So his self-interest won out."
And yes, having that sort of cordial interaction with the bogeymen on the news gives you a different perspective.
"I first met the Taliban in the mid-90s, when they were attacking Kabul. And the Taliban were fairly normal people then. Rural Pashtuns who lived as refugees in Pakistan. They wanted the warlords out of Afghanistan and respected America. There was even a female Taliban surgeon who refused to wear the burka. A lot of what you read about the Taliban comes from the perspective of journalists embedded with their enemies. You can count the number of journalists who've spent a significant amount of time with the Taliban on one hand. So perspective can be skewed.
Robert Young Pelton
There's more than a little cognitive dissonance when the guys you were half expecting to kill you just want to gab about sports.
"Today the Taliban are far more violent extremists, because the old Taliban are basically gone. The people who followed Omar wanted to get out of Pakistan, but there are splinter groups that are very violent -- more like ISIS and groups like that. The point is though, the Taliban, like all jihadi and insurgent groups, aren't monolithic. There are the crazies, and there are the people you can work with."
And until you figure out who's who, we guess you just have to keep that pen handy.
You can read Robert Young Pelton's latest work "Finding Bergdahl" here, and you can watch his documentary Saving South Sudan right here. You can also check out his online magazine and gear shop.
Austin 'Austin' Bodetti, the last Austin in the world, is the handsomest student at Boston College according to his 2.5 stalkers. Email him at email@example.com to join his email list about Islamic warzones, Lost with Austin (LAUSTIN).
For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Things I Learned About Humanity Living Through a Genocide and 5 Nightmares You Live Working for America's Worst Company.
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