Wolfgang Bauer is an award-winning German journalist who currently writes for Die Zeit. His passion, human rights and conflict reporting in longform, has taken him over the years on assignments around the world, from battlefields in Libya and Syria to Palestinian smugglers’ tunnels and sweatshops in China. His most recent books, both available in English, are Crossing the Sea: With Syrians on the Exodus to Europe (2016) and Stolen Girls: Survivors of Boko Haram Tell Their Story (2017); to conduct research for the former, he went undercover as an English teacher on board a makeshift vessel sailing to Greece from Egypt.

In his work, Bauer tries to capture the complexity of human rights hotspots that the mainstream media often gloss or ignore. He does this not only by crafting well-researched social and political narratives, but by capturing the whole personalities and contradictions present in his subjects - in doing so, helping contextualize what human rights really mean.

He spoke with Nosapo in March, 2019.


NOSAPO: What motivates you in discouraging times to keep on doing the work you do?

WOLFGANG BAUER: I imagine the people trying to promote democracy in the ‘30s and ‘40s internationally when fascism came into power and there was no silver line on the horizon and still, people were trying to do what they could do to stop it. I think the times we live in now are much less discouraging than during other periods in history. I think everyone should do what they can do within their own limitations to leave this world a little better than they found it. There are no alternatives in my opinion.


N: How well do you think human rights reporting has been received in a world that may appear, at least outwardly, less tolerant?

W.B: I think it depends very much on how human rights reporting is being done. Very often, human rights reporting doesn’t sound too authentic and isn’t very close to the suffering.

N: How so?

W.B: For example, it’s very abstract – that’s my perception – and I think the way the reporting is received depends very much on the clarity of it. That’s a reason why I appeal to media houses to send more reporters into crisis areas – and by crisis areas, I don’t just mean war zones, I mean countries with very critical human rights records. We need more firsthand witnesses, and we need better writing! We need language to help people understand what human rights violations really mean; what torture, for example, really means. I just spent two weeks in Baghdad in the central criminal court of Iraq. They have all these ISIS prisoners, and I witnessed 59 death penalties in these two weeks. Most of the detainees who were brought into this courtroom were heavily, severely tortured. They were barely able to walk upright because of what they endured in prison. You know, innocent people, guilty people, everyone was being tortured in the prison.

How can we find a language to describe what torture really means? We human rights reporters were a little too anxious or lazy in the past to really find the proper, authentic words for what human rights violations really mean. We use plastic words and phrases, and by those words you can’t get through to an ordinary audience. This audience will always think about how this report resembles the report before it, and the report before that one, and it always sounds the same, and people get numb. They start to not listen anymore, to not read anymore, and you have zero effect on the whole thing.

N: In your reporting on the “stolen girls” of Northern Nigeria, you spent less time talking about the wider political aspects of the situation than you did about how the subjects felt about life under Boko Haram. Is this your standard approach?

W.B: That’s my typical style. For me, it’s very important to understand the person in the crisis zone not only as a victim, a suffering being, but as a whole personality, with all the contradictions, and that makes them human. I try not to abuse people by presenting them as victims because no one is only a victim. By describing them this way, the more realistic way, I think you can give them back their dignity. Otherwise, you’re working with comics, with cartoons.

N: Are there any individuals you’ve worked with that you’ve been particularly inspired by?

W.B: I learned a lot from the Syrian protesters in 2011 who were demonstrating against the regime every night for five months. Young guys going out to the streets in small groups with drums and songs they composed themselves – every night, they were shot at by security forces, and still, the next night, they were out in the street again, every night for five consecutive months! That’s really fantastic if a generation brings this spirit and this commitment for the betterment of its own society.

N: What’s the most difficult thing about going into each new crisis zone and reporting on it?

W.B: Logistically, the most difficult thing is to find the proper network. I’m lucky to have old friends in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Kurdish part of Syria, and other countries. It’s very essential that you have a translator you really trust who’s an open-minded person, who’s not too closely related to any political party in the conflict, and who has a good understanding of the language. I mean, I not only talk about technical issues, but about people’s dreams, some very private, intimate stuff… So that’s very essential, to have a good team on the ground, and this team makes it possible to get the proper access. We foreign correspondents are only as good as our team.

N: Of all the human rights hotspots you’ve reported on, which ones don’t get enough attention from the Western public?

W.B: Most of them, I would say. That’s a long list, especially African countries, Congo, for example. South Sudan’s another one, and Chad, and the Central African Republic, and indeed Nigeria. In Nigeria, it’s not only Boko Haram. The biggest problem in Nigeria, and the bloodiest one, is the conflict between nomads and farmers for land. Thousands and thousands of people every year are being killed in this conflict about resources, the growing population, and shrinking land availability… And still, we don’t do enough reporting on Syria and on the human rights violations in Iraq and all these dictatorships. And we don’t do enough reporting on the violations in China, for example, and we are too careful in reporting what happens in Russia with regard to human rights violations.


N: I’ve noticed that the press – the American press in particular – doesn’t like to talk much about Iraq anymore. After US forces left the country, we like to think it’s a settled issue.

W.B: What I’ve noticed in the reporting by the major American outlets is that they are very much directed by the placement of American soldiers. If there are any soldiers on the ground, the attention shifts very immediately. As soon as the US deploys more soldiers in a country, attention shifts again. I think that’s the case with Iraq, where are very few American soldiers on the ground. These soldiers on the ground – correct me if I’m wrong – are mostly Special Forces?

N: That’s correct.[1]

W.B: So these are secret, shadowy operations, conducted without any press contacts, like also in Kurdish Syria. Those crazy Americans had thousands of soldiers there – I’ve seen it myself – but they never gave any interviews, they never shared information, and at the same time they were one of the major players in the war against ISIS and Raqqa.[2] Every time an American force did operations on a certain part of the frontline on Raqqa, this whole frontline was closed for the international media by the Kurdish command room, and they didn’t give any reason. You know, that’s very dangerous in the long run. If you turn away all the media from military operations – not only from special units but from whole countries – you get a shadow war, and we have no clue what happens in these shadow wars. So it’s very important that the military gets much more transparent when it comes to media reporting, and it’s also very important that the media don’t follow only their own people all the time. It’s the same with the German media – we’ve got some guys in Mali and Afghanistan, and as soon as the German military have operations in these countries, it’s a topic for the German media because we’re reporting on our own in a different country. A lot of media assume that our readers are only interested in themselves.

N: Which might not be that bad of an assumption.

W.B: You’re probably right, but that’s a mistake, because foreign reporting, for me, is a very proper system in understanding what risks are coming up for our own societies in a couple of years. That’s also one of the missions I see for us as reporters, to help politicians and society shape their opinion on what’s going on in places like the Middle East, so society can have a much more clarified, deeper debate on how we should react and what should be done.

N: You broke a German-language story back in the early 2000s about atrocities American soldiers were committing in Afghanistan. What was going on there?

W.B: I was embedded for four weeks with American units in Afghanistan, and I saw during an operation how American soldiers and officers conducted mock executions with Taliban suspects. They even allowed us to take pictures. They tied one suspect, with rope, to the back of a truck. They tied his feet and his hands, which were cuffed behind his back. They switched on the engine and they said, “now if you don’t tell us more, we will start the car.” We were really shocked about it, because that means this was only the tip of the iceberg. They were relaxed having us with them, the soldiers, so that meant that this was routine, this was normal procedure during operations, it was nothing bad. Imagine what they were doing in prisons and detention centers when they don’t have press around. It was really shocking. And then I thought, this American generation of young guys is getting enlisted and deployed by accident to Afghanistan – what is this war doing to America itself? Because the torture on the Afghan is also torture on the soul of the soldier. It changes both, and perhaps the guy who is torturing is changing more than the guy who is on the other end. So that’s what really made me think, and I hope the situation has changed by now. But who knows? We have no access to it, to go with your question from before.

N: ThIs was happening at the same time as the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, wasn’t it?

W.B: Abu Ghraib was a little bit before, but yes, it was the same period. And since then, I’ve frequently worked with translators, also in Afghanistan, who used to work as translators for years at American outposts, and they have different stories. They say it happened on a regular basis, torturing at detention centers, directly conducted by American units or by Afghan interrogators under the rudder of American supervisors. So there was a system in it, and I hope it has changed.

N: Did you discover anything while doing your reporting, particularly in the Syrian refugee crisis or the Northern Nigerian situation, that challenged any preconceived notions you had?

W.B: When we did our research in Northern Nigeria we came to understand that it wasn’t only about the 276 Chibok girls from this boarding school who were abducted and caused this massive international uproar. Indeed, there are thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands of women and girls who were abducted from hundreds of little hamlets and villages, and nobody was reporting about them because nobody was there. Reporters to this point were embedded within the Nigerian military, and the military allowed them to go with them to major cities in this region for one or two days and then they were guided back to safety, and what you could learn in these few hours in the military convoy isn’t very much. That’s a major problem, that we don’t have enough stringers and people supplying us with information from the ground and from rural areas, and Nigeria is all about rural areas. As soon as you’re on the ground and you work with local journalists, as I have done, you understand that it’s not one story on one boarding school, it’s a phenomenon of a whole generation. A whole generation is being chased and kidnapped, a whole generation of women in this region, and all these stories aren’t being properly reported. I still get reports from my people on the ground. Every week, women still get kidnapped, not in such large numbers anymore – three here, four here – still it’s going on, and you won’t find anything on the media about it.

N: And that’s what you’re out to change?

W.B: That’s what I try to change. That’s one of the reasons I do my job.


[1] CORRECTION: U.S. forces in Iraq, which are estimated to number 5,200, primarily comprise infantry units and advisors embedded within the Iraqi military, not Special Forces.

[2] Capital of the Islamic State until 2017.