Author, adventurer and filmmaker Robert Young Pelton is known for penetrating the world’s most dangerous places. His journeys have taken him inside over two dozen conflicts and 120 countries over two decades, including the siege of Grozny and to the battle of Qala-I-Jangi and the White Army battle for Malakal in South Sudan. He was present at the rebel campaign to take Monrovia in Liberia,with mercenaries in Sierra Leone, and accompanied U.S. Army Special Forces who fought on horseback as they entered Afghanistan in 2001. His range of contacts is vast and wide, ranging from keeping company with insurgents during the war in Iraq and Syria to being the only journalist to spend time inside Blackwater, running RPG Alley in Baghdad for month. He has set up ground networks of locals to report news inside Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Libya and is constantly focused on enhancing the safety of journalists, aid workers, civilians, soldiers and anyone who works or lives in hostile environments.
As a journalist, Pelton has worked for ABC News Investigative Division, CBS, ’60 Minutes,’ CNN, VICE and National Geographic His five-year-long television series on the Discovery Channel ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Places’ set the standard for survival shows as he tracked down and lived with terrorist, military and rebel groups from the Taliban to the FARC to the Chechen rebels.
As an author, Pelton is best known for his guide The World’s Most Dangerous Places, now in its fifth edition. His other books include his autobiography, Come Back Alive; The Adventurist; Three Worlds Gone Mad; Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror; and Raven, his first book of fiction based on his early childhood. He recently wrote an entire issue of VICE magazine and shot a documentary while in combat with the Riek Machar’s rebel army in South Sudan. He is currently working on a book for St. Martin’s press entitled ‘Finding Kony.’ Pelton is a consultant to the Tangiers Group, which owns battleface.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I will turn 60 this year and get up happy and excited about that every day. My philosophy towards work is simple: never make your passion your job because you can never take a vacation. But seriously, ever since the age of 40, I essentially only do challenging projects that interest me and benefit others. Officially I haven’t had a job since I was in my mid 20’s, and retired when I sold my ad agency and publishing company in the mid 90’s to become a full time “student of life”. To get by, I have always started businesses, fixed businesses and generally made other people a lot of money. I have worked with visionaries who have big ideas, or worked on projects I fund and find intriguing. I also write articles and books as well as do documentaries on topics of interest to me. The mix of helping others and growing yourself is important.
What or who first attracted you to covering conflict? Tell us how you got started and who helped you break in.
I used to do expeditions and found that more seasoned people suggested that it was much harder to get into a rebel camp than to discover lost tribes or cross continents by four wheel drive. As I spent more time entering war zones and people risked their lives to get me into conflicts, I felt I had to go deeper. So I wrote my guide to survival called not very creatively, ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Places.’ My major focus since the mid 90’s has been on obscure conflicts or hard to reach rebel groups or unusual groups like pirates, contractors, jihadis etc. I have only done two embeds, which I did not think is the appropriate way to understand war, but hopefully has fallen out of vogue. No one really helped me do anything on the media side since I just do things myself and find a market for it later.
What are the items you can’t survive without in the field?
Money, Crystal hot sauce, a good pair of boots and one of my DPx Gear knives. I used to have quite a compact kit when I carried my Leica M6 back in the film days. Now I find myself lugging a laptop, batteries, BGANs, iPhones, iPads etc. This also creates the temptation and penalty of instant communication everywhere I go. It also means anyone with a cellphone is now a reporter. So perhaps the biggest threat to the old way of doing good journalism is ‘instant journalism’. So I force myself to take my time to figure things out and get things right.
What makes your approach different to getting attention from editors?
I fund most of my own stuff since much of what I do is not in vogue or even on the media’s radar. If you look at when I began to hang out with jihadis, contractors, mercenaries in dirty wars, they weren’t even part of any discussion. Now when I say I need to get somewhere because a war is going to kick off, I still get a meeting but I don’t necessarily get a commission. But if an editor is into my style of deep dives like former VICE editor Rocco Castoro, we can do great things. I wrote an entire issue of VICE magazine on South Sudan based on my promise that I could hunt down the leader of the Nuer rebels. Tim Freccia was the shooter who shared my enthusiasm to communicate how the world’s newest country was falling apart in real time. I was able to write 60,000 words in two weeks, Tim cut his footage into a 30 minute doc, I did the script and voice over and people had an extraordinary window into the conflict.
My goal is to look over the horizon, make the contacts before things hit the fan, take the time to understand the players, try to spend time with all sides and then take even longer to understand the full picture. I have been working on my book on Special Forces since 2001, I update my book The World’s Most Dangerous Places when appropriate and have no problem taking years to figure something out. Then when the timing is right I immerse myself deeply until I feel it is finished. They call this ‘slow journalism,’ which I hope will become the antidote to our social media/citizen journalist/Twitter need for instant gratification.
Describe that item you carry around with you all the time and never use.
I have a bad habit of hoarding food and water that last the entire trip. Tim Freccia calls me King Rat because I still had a pack of smokes at the end of our trip.
What media/news/feeds do you follow and why?
I tend to follow local journalists and friends who are working in the countries I am interesting in. At the end of the day I tend to be a content generator rather than a content consumer.
How do you measure risk?
Risk is the tolerance you have for anonymous threats like car bombs, rocketing and random gunfire. If you can’t deal with a certain level of violence and death outside of your control then you are not going to be comfortable in today’s wars. Criminal threats are easy to manage. Managing not to get shot while under direct fire is a bit more scientific but still manageable. The reality is that front lines are manageable risk environments. It’s the random stuff you need to focus on.
I have trained Special Operations folks on how to be terrorists, how to survive hostile environments and worked directly for theater commanders in Afghanistan on safety and battlefield information. I have gone through a number of courses in both Special Forces training and in the private security sector to understand their world. My time in direct conflict with the ex-EO crowd, old Afghan hands, Special Forces have built in respect for training and direct action experience. Risk is something you have to understand to measure and never confuse what will kill you with what you are afraid of. But at the end of the day you are more likely to die in the taxi to the airport than on the front lines.
How do you protect yourself?
When I enter an area I make contact with the correct power structure and never lie. All it takes is one Google to make your life miserable if you aren’t straight with people. They will typically have read your Wikipedia page and the top searches before they meet you. When I went to Chechnya in 1999, Bin Laden’s people said they would not get in my way because ‘80% of what I write is true.’ That is an odd endorsement but it meant they wouldn’t kidnap or kill me. I develop a network of locals who keep me informed and can facilitate my movement when needed. When door knocking on commando missions, I hang with with the oldest guy in the stick or the medic. I don’t have the usual security or gear seen on most journos since I tend to share risks with the locals. I normally wear a black monogrammed golf shirt and pants and carry my gear on a battle belt so I can run and it won’t fall off. When I am doing missions with Special Forces I wear full military gear because they hang the equipment for specialized radio comms, medical pouches, emergency extraction and the basic gear they can find on me if I go down. With Blackwater I wore whatever they wore, minus the weapon. I was know as the ‘Bullet Bitch,’ since they insisted I carry full rounds and grenades. Not to use but so they could pull the rounds off my body. It is very clear in today’s wars, there are no special concessions for journalists. I don’t carry a weapon but I carry a lot of people with weapons.
Tell us about your most recent assignment or work.
I was just in Libya to understand the situation, from learning about ISIS just outside Sirte to smuggling networks on the border with Tunisia. I am interested in the impact of migrants and the massive changes on the African continent that will affect the rest of the world.
Describe your most rewarding career moment.
There are many, ranging from riding a horse in Colombia to leave ten days of captivity by the AUC to flying in old Russian gunships to evade Taliban jets. The more daring publishers, networks and editors have published my work so I have had very few disappoints in my career and many, many rewards. I live life, if appropriate I write about it, film it or document it. Doing stories I want to do, writing books that I think are important, making documentaries that act as windows to our world and going to bed happy and looking forward to tomorrow is all I could ask for. Doing all this while maintaining a home, a marriage, a family, my health and a positive outlook on life is my greatest achievement, not my work. I can only hope I can share that gift with as many people before I die.
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