This week, World Fixer‘s co-founder William Lloyd-George spoke with Peter Bouckaert about his many experiences working with fixers and views on the state of the industry. Peter has worked in and reported on most major wars and conflicts over the last two decades, as one of the most respected human rights investigators in his field. He is currently the Emergency Director for Human Rights Watch and has spent the majority of this year focusing on the refugee crisis in Europe. Peter is also the found of many online logistics groups for journalists, fixers and humanitarians and owing to his dedication to exposing rights abuse, his twitter feed was in TIME’s top 140 in 2014 ; @bouckap
Where have you just come back from? What was the mission?
For most of 2015, my work has been focused on the EU refugee crisis, with frequent trips to Greece, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, and Turkey. The aim of my work is to document the reasons why people are fleeing their homes in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and other countries, and the difficulties they face on the journey. In addition to writing press releases and field dispatches for Human Rights Watch, I also report on our findings on social media like Twitter and Facebook, and write longer-format articles for outlets like Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs. The aim of our work is to give a name and a face to this crisis: it is important to understand why people are fleeing their homes and risking their lives and the lives of their children to make it to Europe, and what they hope for in making this journey.
How did the fixer help you on this most recent trip?
The fixers and translators I use are often untraditional fixers and translators. They are not necessarily full-time media professionals, and often this is the first time they do this type of work. But that is the reality of the world of conflict reporting: whether we are journalists or human rights investigators, we often have to find and train individuals to serve as translators and fixers. My fixer in Hungary is a former Syrian refugee who now works in business in Hungary. My fixer in Syria is a wonderful young woman who fled from Syria and has herself tried to make the boat journey several times—she now runs an emergency hotline for boats in trouble, working together with the rescuers and volunteers on the Greek islands that she never managed to reach herself. On the Greek islands, I work with an Iraqi-British woman who has a doctorate in early Islamic thought and speaks fluent Arabic and Farsi—she is also a volunteer for an NGO, ‘I AM YOU’, which assists the refugees. I like working with people who bring the same passion and interest to the work that I do, and who deeply care about their people. We often work very long days and the work can be very emotionally exhausting as we are documenting tremendous suffering, so it doesn’t really work when someone is used to working a 9 to 5 and doesn’t care much about the work we are doing.
What you really need to understand is that my fixers and translators are a core part of a team—their role is of the utmost importance. They are not just there to translate. Much more importantly, they help ensure my security, and are a guide through an often very confusing situation. War is by its very nature chaotic, but a talented fixer helps you sort through the chaos and find the people you need to talk to, and then helps convince them to talk to you. Behind every amazing piece of journalism or human rights investigation is an amazing fixer. Many of my fixers remain life-long friends, and I often return to a place like Iraq years down the line and start working again with the same fixer that I was working with years before. They are very often the unspoken heroes of the story
Of course, things don’t always work out that well. I’ve worked with my share of dishonest and lazy fixers, and have fired quite a few along the road. It’s not surprising that conflict attracts both the good and the bad. That is why it is important to take the time to find the right person for the job, and to prepare them for the work you’ll be doing together. When you start working with a fixer, explain to them exactly what you are hoping to achieve, who you want to talk to, and the role you want them to play during the process. Sitting down with a notebook is very different from interviewing with a video camera, and your fixer needs to understand what role they need to play. It’s important to empower your fixer: tell them not to hesitate to raise the alarm when they feel there are security risks, to offer suggestions for how to do the work, or to tell you when they think a witness is not being truthful. They often have much subtler insights into the situation than you will have as a foreigner, and you should try to leverage that advantage.
Fixers are often associated with the media industry but are invaluable to various sectors. In general, how do you feel that fixers help the work that you do as the Emergency Director for Human Rights Watch and your mission to protect the rights o of civilians during armed conflict?
The role of fixers and translators is just as important—if not more important—to the world of human rights investigations as it is to the world of journalism. Our work is often very sensitive, and we need to gain the trust of people who have suffered brutal abuses and are often still very traumatized—plus we need to make sure that we honour the trust they place in us by looking after their security and well-being. In many conflict situations, we are dealing with situations where our actions can have very severe consequences, even life and death consequences: if people are identified by an abusive government for sharing information with a human rights organization about war crimes or crimes against humanity, they can be killed or imprisoned. So we need local partners that we can trust absolutely, and who are trusted by the communities we work with.
Very often, our ‘fixers’ are themselves local human rights activist, so they are partners to us rather than employees, even when we of course pay them for their service. Although some refuse to accept payment, feeling that they have an obligation to support the work of Human Rights Watch as we seek to protect their civilian population from harm. For an entire year in Libya in 2011, all of our drivers and fixers and translators simply refused to accept any payment for their work, saying they were doing it for their people, not for payment. Finally, when the Libya capital Tripoli fell, we convinced them to allow us to pay them for their important work, and one of them used to money to finally get married. That was a real humbling experience, to see how much these incredibly brave individuals cared about the work we were doing. And it just goes to show you just how extraordinary some fixers really are.
Many fixers believe that their rights & safety are often neglected by clients. Do you agree with this?
Too many journalists and others who use fixers see them as simple employees who get paid by the day, do their job, and that’s the end of the relationship. They don’t understand that after we leave, the fixers and translators continue to live in their societies, and that a groundbreaking exposé the journalist wrote on the abusive security services may end up with a knock on the door of the fixer by those same security services. All too often, we also don’t think about the psychological impact of our work on our fixers and translators: what we are investigating is happening to their people, and it is a very different experience to interview a torture or rape victim as a foreign journalist versus interviewing that same victim when they come from your community.
Fixers do a job that is of fundamental importance to the success of our work. They deserve to be treated with respect and care for their safety, and to receive fair compensation for their work. It’s important to agree on all of that up front—the salary, but also what happens if the fixer gets hurt, arrested, or the car ends in an accident. Those issues need to be discussed up front, or you can end up in a very unpleasant situation.
What more do you think can be done by the clients to boost the safety and protection of fixers who often risk their lives in order to make sure our work is done professionally and successfully?
It’s not just about the safety of the fixer, it is about the safety of your entire team. You don’t take a combat-level first aid course to apply a tourniquet to yourself when you step on a landmine: you take the course so you can help out a colleague when something like that happens. So what happens if you are the one who steps on the mine, and your fixer hasn’t had any security or first aid training? You’ll pay the price. If you are going to work with someone for a long period of time, invest in them as a team member. Give them the training and feedback they need to function effectively. You can only work effectively in dangerous places if everyone on your team is part of the team, from the driver to the fixer, and understands what to do when something goes wrong.
We need to always be conscious that fixers stay behind when we are finished with our assignment, and that their risk exposure is completely different from our own. When I had to go see the much-feared Asayish (secret police) minister of Iraqi Kurdistan about secret detention facilities they were running and torture in those facilities, my Kurdish fixer was literally shaking with fear, and for the first half hour of the meeting, the minister yelled at us non-stop. I could laugh all of that off, but I certainly understood what it felt like to be in my fixer’s boots at that moment. He came from a well-connected family so it was all fine at the end, but you really need to constantly think about the potential consequences of your work and actions on the safety of your fixer.
You are currently helping one of your fixers gain asylum in another country. Without giving us any information that would damage the case, can you explain what is happening? Do you feel that every client has the duty to go so far as to protect and help their fixers, even after they have completed their project?
My fixer in Turkey is a young Syrian woman who fled to Turkey with her sister. She has a university degree, has worked for many NGOs, and also happens to be Lesbian, so being in conservative Turkey is very difficult for her as she has to hide her sexuality and is often insulted for refusing to cover her hair. She tried to get on the boats several times, risking her life. I talked her out of trying again, promising that I would try and help her get asylum in Canada. But even with my connections, and her profile as a secular, educated, English-speaking Lesbian woman, it has proven very difficult to get her asylum. It’s been a big effort, but in a way also a very educational one, as it gave me a lot of first-hand insights into just how difficult any legal path to asylum is for Syrian refugees, which is after all one of the main areas of my research. She’s like a little sister to me, which is the way I feel about quite a few of the fixers I work with.
I don’t think it is our obligation to go that far in helping everyone we work with, but for me my fixers are part of my team, and part of a big family. I’m still in touch with fixers I worked with 15 years ago. We lived through some very intense experiences and had to place our lives in each other’s hands, so that forms some pretty strong bonds. Not everyone may feel the same way, but I know many of the best journalists in the world share that view—people like Jon Lee Anderson, Lynsey Hilsum, Lyce Doucet, C.J. Chivers. They all stay in touch with their fixers, and when they suddenly have to head back to a hellhole they haven’t been in a long time, their absolutely loyal fixer will be waiting for them at the airport and they will hit the ground running. It’s not just about caring about these extraordinary individuals, but also just smart journalism.
However, all of us have an absolute obligation to help a fixer if they get into trouble because of our work together. If a fixer is threatened or imprisoned, or God forbid killed, we can’t just wash our hands of the situation. I’ve had to evacuate my share of fixers from their country, and Human Rights Watch has always made sure to look after those we work with. We’ve resettled people, helped them apply for asylum, and looked after their financial needs. That is an absolute obligation, and if you’re not willing to take care of that, you shouldn’t be hiring anyone. Of course, there are wonderful organizations like the Rory Peck Trust who can help deal with a crisis like that.
You have completed fact-finding missions across the globe in Lebanon, Kosovo, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Macedonia, Indonesia, Uganda, and Sierra Leone, among others and most recently in the Central African Republic. For how many of these trips did you use fixers and how important were they for the trip?
Even when I speak the language in a place like the Central African Republic, I will normally use a fixer. A fixer isn’t just a translator: they are an essential guide, and a core part of any mission we do. They have a much deeper understanding of the local culture, the history of the conflict, and the dynamics of the situation. In many places I work, it would just be inconceivable to try and be productive without a local fixer—let alone get out of the place alive! But of course, in many of these places, we are not talking about what you would traditionally think of as fixers. When I first went to investigate the abuses committed by the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda, my local ‘fixer’ was a young boy called Jimmy who had been seconded to me by a local politician, as we couldn’t find anyone else to do the work. We drove all over northern Uganda on the back of motorcycles, interviewing victims of the LRA. Ten years later I went back, and little Jimmy was running his own NGO and was a big man in town. If you make an effort, you can turn even a kid into a wonderful fixer.
When you use a fixer for a fact finding mission like in Libya where you examined the use of landmines and prisoner mistreatment, are the fixers often also used by journalists too, do you think there are many transferable skills from media fixers to NGO / Human Rights Group fixers?
For almost the entire war in Libya, Jon Lee Anderson of the New Yorker and I worked together with a handful of wonderful fixers. Some days they would work for the New Yorker, and some days they would work for Human Rights Watch. From a fixer’s perspective, our work was not all that different—we’d end up interviewing many of the same people, even if the questions were a bit different. Our work as human rights investigators tends to be a bit more in depth: it is not enough for us to get a quote from a village chief saying ten people died, we will want the names and ages and circumstances of all ten deaths, and then will go interview a bunch of additional witnesses and ask the same questions. That can get pretty tiresome and repetitive, but it is essential when you are doing an investigation. It can get pretty exhausting for the fixer, that’s for sure. But the skills they learn strengthen them as investigators, and many of the fixers we trained went on to work as journalists, like Fares in Gaza who is now the NYT stringer there.
If a fixer who has only worked with journalists would like to start working / get more work with NGOs / Human Rights Groups what would your advice be to them?
For fixers who have only worked with TV journalists, working for human rights investigators can be quite a change of pace. Often when working with TV, fixers only need to focus on a few choice quotes that will go into the story, but our work requires verbatim translation which is much more intensive and time-consuming. We don’t want a summary of what is being said, but are taking down a full testimony. The work can also be of very long days, and many interviews about the same subject asking the same questions. I often have my fixers tell me, ‘but you already asked that question?’ and I tell them I want to ask it again. It’s a lot more like a police investigation, and we have to get the facts absolutely right. That is what our reputation depends on, getting things absolutely right.
So the work days can be much longer and the work more intense, but one big difference between most journalism and NGO work is that we do advocacy, and try to stop the abuses we are documenting. There are many situations where people refuse to talk to journalists about what happened, but they are willing to talk to Human Rights Watch because they feel we can make a difference. And having people place that trust in you, or that hope rather, feels pretty good—including for the fixer.
In your eyes what do you feels constitutes a good fixer?
Being a good fixer is a difficult job. It requires a lot of patience, knowledge of the situation, and social skills. You need to be able to gain people’s trust, and to read their emotions while you are interviewing them. Often, the most direct psychological connection in the interview is between the fixer and the victim, not between the journalist and the victim. The victim is telling their story to the fixer, so they are the ones in the hot seat. A good fixer needs to be both tough and full of empathy. This is a difficult job and you need to keep your cool under pressure, but at the same time you need to have a big heart.
Can you tell us about a few of your favourite fixers and why?
I better don’t start listing my favourite ones as I am sure to leave a few out, and what if they read this and don’t see themselves listed? There are so many, men and women. Pradeep was my fixer in Nepal in 2005, at the height of the civil war. We happened to both be born on July 14, in different years. So we drove all over Nepal documenting disappearances, executions, torture, so much brutality. One day, we ended up going to this very remote island, with all the bridges destroyed. We had a journalist from Rolling Stone who was profiling me with us, and he asked Pradeep if the road we were traveling was safe. In all seriousness, Pradeep turned to him and said, “The road is 100% safe, but there are landmines.” “WHAAAT?,” the journalist exploded. “Yes, there are landmines on this road, but we informed the rebels we are coming so there is no problem,” Pradeep explained. When we got to the island, we had to rent bicycles. Pradeep kept lagging behind, and told us that evening that it was his first time ever on a bike. So we rented a buffalo-drawn carriage the next day.
A few months later, Pradeep ended up on an army list of enemies and was under serious threat, so we had to get him out of Nepal. We got him refugee status in Norway. He contacted me a bit later and said he wanted to go back to Nepal. I asked why, and he told me that it was too bloody cold, that he had nothing to do, and that the food sucked in Norway because they didn’t use chillies. We had a good laugh, and instead I hired him to come work for me in Darfur where I was with the UN for a few months. Ten years later, he is still working for the UN, we had lunch a few weeks ago.
It would be equally useful to know who have been your least useful fixers and why
Well there have been a few extraordinarily bad ones! I had a young woman in Jordan who insisted that it was her duty to come to my hotel room after work, saying that we would be able to start much earlier in the morning that way. That was a rather awkward situation to get out of, particularly funny since she came on the recommendation of a journalist friend who said she was ‘amazing’. But the absolute worst was in Pakistan, during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. I hired an English teacher to work as a translator for me. Sounded good, but the problem was that he couldn’t speak any English! And he was manic depressive and taking some kind of medication that made him fall asleep in the middle of interviews. We cancelled the day’s work and decided to have lunch. I asked him to go get us some kebabs so I could have a chat in private with my colleague about the situation. He asked how many he should get, and I said four. Half an hour later he came back with two bulging bags—instead of four kebabs, he had bought four kilos. Let’s just say that relationship didn’t last long, but we had a good laugh after.
And then there are the lazy types who show up late every morning and try to knock off at 5. The ones who don’t want to translate verbatim. Or who want to be paid insane amounts of money. I will always treat my fixers with respect and make sure they are paid fairly and looked after, but this isn’t a 9 to 5. We are working in war zones and trying to save lives, and put in very very long days. You do this because you care, not for the money.
Can you tell us about one of most memorable experiences you have ever had with a fixer?
There have been many, but one of the experiences that stayed the most with me was the many months I spent in Chechnya and Ingushetia in 1999, 2000, and 2001 during the start of the Second Chechen war, with an amazing woman named Malika. It was a brutal time, as Putin unleashed horrific bloodshed in Chechnya. We were just surrounded by bloodshed—there were days when we literally had to tip-toe over bodies and blood at the overstretched hospitals, with wounded and dead everywhere. There were so many bombing victims, massacres, torture centres, executions. We travelled with armed bodyguards, working seven days a week from morning to night for months. And Malika was pregnant with twins at the time. As her due date came closer, she arrived furious one day to work. I asked her what happened, and she explained that she had tried to convince her husband to take her best friend as his second wife so she could keep working after the births, and he had refused! That just made me laugh out loud.
Wherever we went, we also ran into people she knew, and she’d always introduce them as a relative or a neighbour. After a while, I asked her, how can you have so many neighbours and relatives? She explained that anyone related to her clan is a relative, and that anyone from her neighbourhood or native village in the mountains is a neighbour—a completely different definition of what we are used to. But that is the power of a fixer—they open a new world to you, and having a great fixer just makes for an amazing experience.
As NGOs and Media Organizations reduce their budgets, close down offices, strip back global presences, how do you see the role / importance of the fixer changing?
While there are many changes in the media world, that is not necessarily the case of human rights organizations or NGOs. Twenty years ago, every journalist and photographer working in the Balkans was getting double day rates and all expenses paid, and now even some of the top names in journalism are struggling to make it as freelancers. The world of human rights investigations is quite a bit more stable, and instead of contracting has grown tremendously, both in terms of leading international organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the International Crisis Group, but also with many smaller local, regional, and international organizations. Human rights organizations often have greater funds to dedicate to crises: what media organization would dedicate two years of staff time and resources to a forgotten conflict like the Central African Republic, like Human Rights Watch did?
So fixers do need to realize that there are many opportunities beyond traditional journalism, including in the human rights field. It helps a lot if you are familiar with human rights law and language, so taking a course in human rights or doing an internship with a human rights organization always offers invaluable experience.