Jan Rybář: warriors, terrorists and lunatics

Jan Rybář

Jan Rybář has spent the best part of the last two decades at the sharp end of news reporting. As a correspondent he has travelled the world, witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Union, followed by momentous political changes worldwide and a series of tragic and brutal conflicts in Europe and Asia. Still only 37, Jan has now brought together some of his experiences in a richly illustrated book. It translates as “Warriors, Terrorists and Other Lunatics”, a not entirely ironic title which reflects some of the extraordinary characters Jan has met over the years.

Jan Rybář
To talk about the book I went to meet Jan Rybář in the Prague offices of the newspaper Mladá fronta Dnes, for which he has worked since 1997. He began by telling me about the rather dramatic start to his career, when he earned himself a place in the history books as one of eight people injured during the thwarted hard line coup in Moscow in August 1991. Jan has an unnervingly matter-of-fact way of telling the story:

“I was simply shot. That’s the story and why I got into history! Just to clarify it, I was just taking a photo of a dead man lying half out of a personnel carrier, and the gentleman sitting inside didn’t like me taking the picture – he didn’t like the flash on my camera – and shot at me from inside. The question I’ll never be able to answer is whether it was just chance that I was hit only by a blank, because the Russian soldiers were actually mixing real bullets with blanks. So I don’t know. It must have been Russian roulette.”

Here is a short extract, in my own rough translation, from your description in the book of the moment just after you’d been shot, when suddenly everything went black:

Death did not come. After two or three seconds I discovered to my great surprise that I was in one piece and that my body seemed to be doing what I told it. I felt blood flooding down my cheeks. I turned away from the transporter, someone handed me a bandage and I wiped the blood from my face.

My film ran out. I tried to put a new one in, it wouldn’t work. The camera and the film had become clogged with blood and stopped working.

Two women pulled me out of the crowd and offered to take a look at me in a flat nearby. I didn’t want an ambulance. With an ambulance, you never quite know, especially at the moment of a military coup…

And I should add that this description of what happened to you is illustrated in the book by an extremely dramatic photograph of you standing there on the square in Moscow covered in blood. I remember from the time that this photograph went round the world, didn’t it…

“That’s true. An American photographer just took the picture, without knowing that I’m not a Russian. So that picture got circulated by Associated Press and got published, I think, all over the world, because it was one of the most dramatic pictures from a night which changed history. But, to add to that, when I was finishing that book, I decided to try to find the guy who took the picture, and I really managed to get him. He’s from California, his name is Michael Rondou and he’s from San Jose Mercury News, which is really a long way from Moscow and the Czech Republic. He sent me some more pictures which actually helped me to clarify some mysteries of that night, because I was able to see at least the faces of two women who helped me that night. After 17 years I was able to look at their faces, which was quite a touching moment.”

You were a very young man at that time – you were only 20. In terms of your career as a journalist it was quite a baptism of fire, but you seem to have acquired quite a taste for going into harm’s way. So many of the descriptions and the stories that you tell in your book are from war zones, from places where people are really tested to the extreme. What is it that appeals to you in going to such places as Guantánamo Bay, Iraq, Afghanistan or Beslan?

“In a way I’m not so much attracted by war zones as such. What fascinate me are simply situations and moments when history is being made. And that doesn’t necessarily have to be the moment when somebody’s shooting at somebody. It could be a crisis in Russia, it could be just about any situation where the people’s stories are so interesting that it would be a shame not to work with them.”

And there are some very harrowing stories. I found the chapter about the families of the children who were killed in Beslan in the Russian Caucasus back in 2004 incredibly moving. Here is a brief extract from your account:

A man lifted a child’s coat out of the wet grass. For a while he turned it around in his hands and then looked through the pockets. He found nothing. Quietly I asked him: “Are you looking for your son’s clothes?”

He shook his head: “No, I’m looking for my son. A fragment of bone or jaw might have got caught in one of the pockets. Then at last we’d be able to identify him,” he said in a quiet, colourless voice, by now without emotion, but just pain. He gave a nod as he left and headed back to the ruins of the Beslan sports hall; the courtyard, ripped up by explosions, was still littered with little children’s coats.

How do you cope with situations like that?

“Typically I’m trying to be detached and separated from those tragedies, because there are two choices. Either you get involved emotionally and go crazy sooner or later, or you just try somehow not to share the pain of the people. In Beslan, of course, it was impossible not to become emotionally involved because it was so terrible. It was really very tough.”

I think the two extracts from your book that I have quoted so far give some insight into your style. I really like its narrative power and simplicity. In one of the essays you talk about bullfighting. For me that immediately brought to mind Ernest Hemingway, whose prose is famous for its clarity and apparent simplicity. Is he a writer who inspired you?

“I wouldn’t say he inspired me, but I would say I like him and read him. The thing is, I’ve been in the business of writing for 15 years and the longer you do it, the more clearly you know that you are writing a piece which has to have ambition to be written with some narrative styles of literature.”

I notice again and again in your writing that you seek out subjects which break stereotype – like the Taliban fighters who have never heard of Osama bin Laden or your delightful account of going foxhunting in Britain – and this is another characteristic of your writing, that not only did you go to watch a foxhunt, but you actually got up on a horse and joined in.

“Yes, it was too tempting – when I was offered that I could do it, I was happy that I could try the atmosphere of foxhunting.”

So here is an extract from your description of joining a foxhunt in the English county of Wiltshire:

Hunting is a ritual, in which everything has its place: you have to be decently dressed, your behaviour has to be even more decent. For a start, just try this: not to overtake the master and the master of foxhounds, not to kick another horse, not to let another horse kick you, not to tread on one of the hounds, not to break off the wing mirror of a farmer’s car with your knee, not to go flying backwards into a ditch, not to barge into one of the surly lady riders, and to show enthusiasm about every possible subject that comes up. (For example the situation of Czechoslovak miners in the 1980s, which was a subject of great fascination for one of the riders, dressed up in his hunting pink).

The reason why you took part in that hunt was because of the impassioned debate in Britain at the time about whether or not foxhunting should be banned, and in the course of joining the hunt you interviewed one of the more controversial and colourful characters on the British philosophical and political scene, the right-wing thinker, Roger Scruton. You are very drawn, aren’t you, to people who do not conform to the mainstream?

“Yes, I am, because anything that is mainstream is generally boring, so why should I do a story about something which is just normal or ordinary. I always like to interview people who are interesting. And Roger Scruton obviously says many things which some people don’t like – or should I say, they hate – but there were some moments when he was proven right after years. I think he’s an extremely interesting guy.”

And of course, in your career as a reporter you have also come to meet many powerful and influential politicians, including Tony Blair or even Vladimir Putin. Putin is such an enigmatic figure – what were your impressions?

“Well, my impressions were very much in line with what has been written and said about him, that he’s just a Tsar. Mortal, ordinary people would never dare to know much about him So yes, I’ve seen him a couple of times from a distance of two metres, but obviously I never got closer to answering the question as to who the hell he is.”

Covering so much of the violent side of what’s going on in the world, is there not a danger as a journalist of succumbing to a kind of machismo?

“Yes, when you do that and you are 25 years old, you suddenly find out it’s really charming to be telling your friends - and girls perhaps – how brave you were. Anybody and everybody who does that has a period when he just enjoys feeling that he’s somebody and he’s macho, as you said. But sooner rather than later you realise that it’s basically pointless and what remains is your attraction not so much to violence, because violence is certainly not a nice topic, but to the power of stories.”

And I should add that you tell stories not just in words but also in pictures. You are also a photo reporter.

“That’s true. I always say that I am a photo reporter by default because when you travel to incredibly interesting places it would be a shame not to take pictures.”

And your book, “Warriors, Terrorists and Other Lunatics”, is richly illustrated with your photographs. What is your next project?

“Well, my next project is also my current project, which is that my first little child was born two-and-a-half months ago, so that’s the project I’m trying to work on, and I think it will change my perception of the world quite dramatically. It’s not to say that I’ll stop travelling, but I’ll certainly be paying much more attention to other things.”

You can see some more of Jan Rybář’s photographs and read more about him (in Czech) on his website: www.janrybar.cz.