The Greatest Humanitarian You’ve Never Heard Of
Bob Gersony was a mostly anonymous U.S. diplomat—and his country’s best model for creating change in the world.
Glory is not always won under the klieg lights. The novelist Graham Greene wrote that “true glory is a private and discreet virtue, and is only fully realized in solitariness.” Likewise, the golden age of U.S. diplomacy was not only a matter of celebrated victories, such as Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to China in 1971 or James Baker’s negotiations to reunify Germany in 1990. It was also about the many small and lonely achievements that occurred in the far-flung corners of the globe by the middle ranks of a talented and dedicated foreign service.
For nearly 40 years, during the Cold War and after, Robert Gersony, a son of Jewish Holocaust refugees, a high school dropout, and a Vietnam veteran, worked as a State Department consultant in virtually every war and disaster zone on Earth. Living alone out of a sleeping bag, he conducted dozens to hundreds of interviews with refugees in each place, drafting reports that always made foreign policy smarter and more humane, often dramatically so. His reports from the bush and from the deserts of the developing world reached the highest levels of the bureaucracy. Never seeking promotion, he was a solitary individual battling the vast, impersonal forces of conflict and bureaucratic inertia—and often succeeding at it.
Gersony retired from his contract work for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in 2013. But as Americans today battle a pandemic, economic catastrophe, and technological and social upheaval, Gersony has much to teach about how progress does not require fame, notoriety, or credentials—or worldly success even. Gersony never sought to be promoted out of traveling the world and interviewing refugees. He was like a foreign correspondent who stayed in the field until old age and made the world better for it. His life was about truth. That may be why it was such a success.
Sprawling, civil war-torn Mozambique in 1988 was typical. Gersony conducted 196 interviews with refugees there, each interview lasting several hours, in locations separated by many hundreds of miles. In the course of his field research, Gersony painstakingly discovered that the anti-communist, white South African-supported RENAMO insurgency, about to get massive military aid under the Reagan Doctrine, had in fact no program of governance whatsoever and was engaged in large-scale killing, rape, and mutilations. On returning from Mozambique in March 1988, Gersony briefed Secretary of State George Shultz and Maureen Reagan, the president’s daughter.
Days later, Shultz slipped into the president’s hand an out-of-system breast pocket memo detailing the substance of Gersony’s report. RENAMO, the Portuguese acronym for the Mozambican National Resistance, was immediately dropped as a candidate for Reagan Doctrine aid. That set the stage for the winding down of the civil war, saving perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives and preserving the reputation of the Reagan Doctrine. “I would like to express my profound thanks for your exhaustive work … under difficult and often hazardous conditions,” Shultz wrote to Gersony.
Gersony always traveled alone or with a translator, rarely as part of a team. “I sensed the stories of these people truly mattered. All these refugees and displaced persons were experts about what they knew. We depend on them to learn about the world,” he told me. To Gersony, refugees were the real chroniclers of history, that is, if you bothered to listen to their individual stories, since refugees were at the end of the chain of events that had begun with decision-makers at the beginning of the chain. He never asked people their names so they would not suffer retribution by authorities—whether government forces or guerrilla bands. But he did identify each person he interviewed by a distinguishing characteristic—a way of gesturing, a piece of cloth that he or she wore—so as to remember them all and preserve their humanity as individuals. “Poverty equals invisibility,” the novelist William Vollmann wrote. Gersony made the poor and the victims of war strikingly visible in his reports.
A few years earlier, in 1984, Gersony uncovered in Uganda the killing and starvation of more than 100,000 civilians, mainly women and children, in a civil war-torn area known as the Luwero Triangle, where he was one of the few foreigners to venture. He filed cable after cable and briefed one group after another in the State Department and in the human rights community in Washington and Geneva in order to draw official attention as to what was happening. But no action was taken. This was long before the internet and social media could spread information and bring pressure to bear. In the end, he leaked his findings to the Washington Post. The world media subsequently erupted, and the killing dramatically slowed. The revelation was important to the process of replacing a murderous regime in Uganda with a far better one. (Though, unfortunately, the better regime that came to power in 1986 under Yoweri Museveni has, over the decades, descended into its own form of destructive authoritarianism.)
Elliott Abrams, then-assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, had attended a talk by Gersony about the Luwero Triangle at the time and recalled: “It was the first time I ever heard or saw Bob Gersony. I remember thinking: This is new. This is not a USAID brief. It is not an embassy brief. … It’s firsthand. It is rare, shocking. You know, you’re an assistant secretary of state. You get daily reports from the embassies, from USAID, from the CIA, from the National Security Council staff. But none of them can often tell you what is really going on in a country, at ground level, to ordinary people.” He continued: “That was the amazing thing about all of Gersony’s work for many years to come. He could always tell you what none of the agencies could. Bob would go on in his career to gain an extraordinary amount of access to high officials, even though he was always a mere contractor … because what he had to tell people really was new.”
In 1985, Gersony solved the problem of piracy against Vietnamese boat people. People still had been fleeing by boat a decade after the communist takeover of South Vietnam. Pirates, often Thai fisherman, were robbing the refugees of their small amounts of gold, jewelry, and cash and gang-raping the young women before throwing them overboard. Then they rammed the rickety schooners to pieces, and the occupants mostly drowned. The U.S. Congress had given the Thai Navy enough money to buy one coast guard cutter a year to patrol an area 14 times the size of the Great Lakes. “Are we out of our minds?” Gersony exclaimed. After many days of interviewing surviving Vietnamese refugees in southern Thailand, Gersony conceived of a plan for gathering intelligence at the dockside bars where the fishermen hung out to share tales of their exploits. Arrests and convictions soared. Within three years, piracy incidents were 7 percent of what they had been, and soon after the attacks virtually ceased.
Gersony was an ascetic, living on one meal a day with no alcohol or caffeine: a neurotic character straight out of a Saul Bellow novel but spending his life in Joseph Conrad-like settings of tropical danger. “People imagined Bob as some strapping Cary Grant figure in a field jacket. But when they met him, they found someone touchingly vulnerable and earnest, always shy and nervous before each assignment,” Carol Chan and James Fleming of USAID said.
Living alone in refugee camps on both sides of the Sudan-Chad border for many weeks, also in 1985, Gersony stumbled on the ethnic cleansing of the Zaghawa and other people by Goran tribesmen, who were brutally forcing the victims over the border into Sudan from their Chadian homeland. The pro-American and pro-French Chadian dictator Hissène Habré was an ally against Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya. But Habré was also an ethnic Goran who perceived the Zaghawas and others as enemies. Gersony was the first to document this particular depredation linked to the Chadian leader. In 2016, Habré would be found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment by a court in Senegal.
In 1989, while the world media was focused on the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gersony was crossing the border alone from Ethiopia to Somalia to uncover and bring to the world’s attention what would later become known as the Isaaq Genocide, the systematic slaughter of many tens of thousands of ethnic Isaaqs conducted by the pro-American Somali dictator Siad Barre’s forces against an ethnic group whose fighters were involved in attacks on his chaotic and despotic regime. Because much of what Gersony uncovered in the course of his life’s work was obscure and happened to barely literate or illiterate people, there was often very little of a historical record to go on: Academics went to Gersony more so than he to them. The Isaaq Genocide, like others, was a story he had to piece together through hundreds of interviews with refugees. He felt that all of these crises mattered and mattered greatly because they had happened to real human beings and were therefore critical to our understanding of ourselves.
In 1997, Gersony traveled with a driver for weeks in anarchic northern Uganda, where even the Kampala regime of Museveni, as despotic as it was a quarter century ago, wasn’t quite sure what was happening. There, Gersony uncovered the atrocities of Joseph Kony and a bizarre and frightening ethnic Acholi group that Kony led called the Lord’s Resistance Army, often composed of child soldiers pulling people out of vehicles at roadsides and disemboweling them or clubbing them to death. “I was curious about him,” said Ben Bamulumbye, Gersony’s driver in northern Uganda. “I never met someone from far away who said matter-of-factly that he needed to go to this very dangerous region where even government soldiers were afraid to go. And I never met someone like him again.” Gersony’s six weeks of travel with Bamulumbye yielded a 107-page report, “The Anguish of Northern Uganda,” which made it to the desk of Museveni, as well as the National Security Council in Washington. This was 14 years before social media learned about the Lord’s Resistance Army and demanded Kony’s capture, leading to an inconclusive manhunt by U.S. Army Special Forces.
In every case, U.S. embassies and the State Department in Washington were giving this reclusive high school dropout, who never finished his education, their full support—even though he didn’t make their jobs easier. “Bob was a truth teller, not a pleaser,” said Brunson McKinley, a longtime refugee expert who worked with Gersony in Bosnia.
Indeed, in 1994 while traveling throughout Rwanda on assignment for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Gersony uncovered a mass murder of Hutus perpetrated by the new Tutsi-dominated regime of Paul Kagame, which had been occurring in the immediate wake of the Hutu-orchestrated genocide of up to a million Tutsis. It was a complicating and inconvenient truth in an otherwise good-versus-evil situation—of Hutu villains and Tutsi victims—that no one in the international aid community wanted to hear at the time. Gersony suffered reputational attacks from members of both the human rights community and the State Department, who were not at first prepared to accept the fact that the new Rwandan government they were supporting was itself guilty of human rights crimes. Gersony, who always wore people down with his meticulous research, was eventually vindicated. The resulting diplomatic pressure from both the United Nations and the U.S. government, on account of Gersony’s field work, tamed Kagame’s behavior, improving the nature of the Rwandan regime and saving countless lives.
Early in his career, Gersony had read André Schwarz-Bart’s 1959 classic, The Last of the Just, about the Lamed Vav, the 36 “just” men of Jewish tradition who according to legend appear in every generation. Their personal merit keeps the world from entire destruction. They accomplish this task by experiencing and internalizing all the pain of the world. The novel begins with a medieval pogrom and ends as one of the Lamed Vav comforts inmates in their last moments in a Nazi death camp. On finishing the book’s last page, Gersony became determined to live up to the standard of the Lamed Vav. “The book underlined how I would define integrity. It reinforced how I wanted to act throughout my life. I told myself I would take chances, particularly bureaucratic chances, as it would later turn out, by not adopting a policy of keeping my mouth shut together with a go-along/get-along evasion of responsibility,” he told me.
Soon after Rwanda, in 1995 and 1996, Gersony was in Bosnia, interviewing hundreds of refugees and relief workers on the best way to implement the Dayton Accords. “Dayton,” said Tim Knight, who headed USAID’s disaster assistance response team in Bosnia, “was a very, very fragile peace agreement. And it would not have taken much to restart the fire.” One of the reasons Bosnia remained peaceful was Gersony and Knight’s successful effort to build more than 2,500 new houses in 48 villages for returning refugee families, 80 percent of whom were Muslims, which created some 4,000 jobs in the process.
Gersony and Knight’s program was not without some controversy. The houses they had built were for returning ethnic majorities in each village because Gersony’s interviews had demonstrated that there would have been no way to protect returning ethnic and religious minorities from local retribution while the embers were still hot from a vicious civil war. Thus, in a sense, their project helped solidify the creation of monoethnic cantons, which went against the spirit of Dayton. Gersony’s answer is simple: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. While the project did not contribute to reconciliation, it did alleviate the refugee situation and help stabilize local economies that played a role in keeping Bosnia at peace.
“Nobody in the intelligence community collected human intelligence the way that Gersony did. He gave voice to the voiceless,” said Patrick Cronin, the effective No. 2 at USAID in 2002, just after Gersony had returned from 10 weeks on the dangerous North Korean border in Chinese Manchuria. While Washington was still in shock from 9/11 and gearing up for the Iraq War, Gersony meticulously detailed daily life in North Korea from 86 lengthy refugee accounts, the first American to have ever done so. “It was utterly enthralling. Every sentence [of Gersony’s brief] was an impactful gut punch,” Cronin said. “Like a vivid documentary of a whole subject unknown to the world.” (Barbara Demick’s pathbreaking book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, would not appear until 2009.)
Gersony never did acquire any formal credentials, except for a bronze star for service awarded in Vietnam. But he worked at a time when the bureaucracy would take a chance on someone like him, whose very lifework dignified the quiet idealism of the American brand. Moreover, he was someone whose deep reporting always allowed the complex ground-level situation of obscure places to influence high policy.
Throughout his career, Gersony repeatedly exposed the illusion of knowledge where none actually existed. He demonstrated how, despite the internet and social media, what is going on at ground level in remote parts of the world can still be shrouded in mystery. “What you learn from refugees and displaced persons you often cannot learn from satellite photos and wire intercepts—you learn the very nuances and texture of situations and how each place is unique and different from the other. And therefore what you learn in the field should be integral to policy formulation,” he explained. Of course, we have less and less of that nowadays, as mere opinion, often unseasoned, increasingly seeps into the media, influencing government decisions and drowning out old-fashioned reporting in the back of beyonds away from capital cities.
For example, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Gersony spent several weeks traveling alone through the Putumayo region of southern Colombia, infested by guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, the FARC). The United States was in the process of spending billions of dollars on Plan Colombia, a vast nation-building project designed, among other things, to eradicate coca production necessary for cocaine. But despite all the money and bureaucrats thrown at the problem, no one in Washington was actually sure if the coca eradication program, which involved crop spraying from low-flying planes, was effective. Gersony, with his fluent Spanish, simply wandered around the towns of the jungly lowlands, asking people if they were still growing coca in their fields. And it turned out that they were. Thus, when he returned to Bogotá, he had news.
“I had doubts about the spraying beforehand, but the main thing about Gersony’s briefing was his knowledge of agriculture and how crop substitution was a bust,” said Anne Patterson, the heavy-hitting U.S. ambassador in Colombia at the time, who went on to become ambassador in Egypt and Pakistan. “Gersony was not a purist driven by ideology, like others in the aid and humanitarian communities. Nowadays, inside the bureaucracy there is immense risk aversion. … Bob Gersony is from another era.”
Indeed, he is. Nowadays much of this type of research is done by Beltway bandits and other large-scale consultancies, as well as by major human rights organizations, which in quite a few cases have built-in institutional and bureaucratic biases and therefore do not always produce anything original, according to Gregory Gottlieb, a longtime former senior official at USAID and now professor at Tufts University.
Gersony’s genius is that throughout his career he worked alone and was never prone to groupthink. In that sense, he is comparable to his late friend and colleague Fred Cuny, a legendary relief worker who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in war-torn Chechnya in 1995. But whereas Cuny was a towering, larger-than-life Texas character and raconteur, which endeared him to many journalists, Gersony is an introvert whose only job before entering the human rights field was in the commodity trade—a reason why he wore people down with facts and figures, always based on individual accounts, which is how he constructed his grand narratives.
“You must always believe what refugees tell you as they straggle across the borders of conflict zones,” Gersony told me. “There is a big assumption out there that lack of education means you’re not smart. That’s not true. Uneducated people can still be very good observers, with very good memories. The stories of refugees about what has just happened to them have a literal truth that is hard to replicate.” And that is the stuff of history.
Regarding the world that the United States faces today, Gersony comprehends the intrinsic complexity of it and how the danger for the Biden administration will be making decisions based on partial information and grand schemes and ideas. He knows that all isms can be dangerous, whether realism, idealism, or neoconservatism, since each place requires its own unique approach. The solution lies, therefore, in embassy reporting, getting diplomats away from their desks and out into the field so they can better inform higher officials in Washington what is actually happening. For Gersony, the golden age of reporting should never end. Gersony’s lifework offers the ultimate lesson about why we must rebuild the State Department and USAID.