As a very young child, journalist, author and documentary director Rauli Virtanen was fascinated by tales of faraway lands shared by a sailor neighbor. Soon he was off to school where geography and history classes set his curiosity roaring. You might guess it was not long before he decided to explore the world by himself. He has visited every independent nation recognized by the UN. And that is no small feat as the number of recognized countries has grown steadily since the 1970’s. Now there are altogether 193 of those countries.
You have written about and from almost every crisis situation and recent historical event in the world. What is common to the situations you cover?
I witness an increasing brutality towards civilians; less respect for women, children and international organizations such as the United Nations, Red Cross, Red Crescent and the media. Terrorist and criminal elements are also increasingly part of conflict. It is becoming more dangerous for outsiders to go and support. Before, you could show a white flag as a humanitarian aid worker. But now there is a risk in many conflict areas that aid workers and journalists get kidnapped for terrorist reasons or money.
Do you see yourself as a war correspondent, an author or a journalist?
I see myself as a journalist or author. I don’t like the title of “war correspondent”. Today, often the so-called war correspondents follow one war after the next and visit each place for a week or so. I am also not interested in military strategy. I primarily focus on civilians and the impact that conflict has on them, not the military aspects of war. The real war correspondents and photographers worked during the world wars or Vietnam, men like Ernest Hemingway, Peter Arnett or women like Martha Gellhorn who also covered Finland’s Winter War.
What is your biggest learning about conflict?
As President Martti Ahtisaari says, every conflict could be solved if the parties just sat down together. This is of course true. The trouble is many parties are not willing to do that, until they get the upper hand. There are a lot of unresolved conflicts, Afghanistan and the Middle East are clear examples. Humanitarian intervention worked in the case of Kosovo. Sadly, the UN is not able to make this kind of resolution in the case of Syria. There is no oil in Syria. The US has not played its part. It’s time to be tough on the Middle East. There are new conflicts brewing in Africa and now that there are Islamic extremist elements the situation can get worse. There are of course, also good examples of conflicts being resolved. Spain has been a good example. So has Ireland. ETA and IRA are now behind us. The Balkans situation is much improved.
You must have seen the greatest atrocities and the greatest acts of generosity. What comes to mind?
I have seen terrible atrocities. Last fall in Syria, in the city of Homs, I saw civilians suffering in two suburbs that were totally destroyed. These were the worst scenes of populated area destruction I have seen in my career in over 40 years. I was in West Beirut in 1982 when many of the buildings were destroyed by the Israeli air force, but Homs was worse and Aleppo must be even more tragic. Kabul has also been very badly destroyed after the Soviets left and infighting continued. Witnessing Sarajevo was also very painful. People were in fear of snipers for years.
I have also seen great acts of generosity; neighbors helping each other; people housing relatives or distant relatives, like in Syria or now in Lebanon when the Palestinians are fleeing their homes again. In Syria small enterprises are contributing to the Red Crescent. My finding is that in times of crisis, it is often the poor who are the most generous. The rich can always afford to flee their country. War creates greed, crime and suffering. You can also find generosity in war.
Tell something about the personalities you have met. What has impressed you about them negatively or positively?
I have never been interested in “collecting” interviews of heads of state, like I used to collect countries. I have been most interested in meeting average people, because they are genuine and honest, and often have no political interest. Of course, I do tap in to academics, human rights campaigners and often the most impressive ones, doctors, nurses and aid workers.
Talking about people, I did spend 45 minutes with Nelson Mandela and he was above any person of our lifetime. After all the painful years he endured, he had no bitterness. I also admire Kofi Annan and enjoyed interviewing him. I believe he has been the best Secretary General of the United Nations. I have not met Aung Sang Suu Kyi, yet. I have great respect for her. But things change. Now she is a politician, my feeling is she is not strong enough with extreme Buddhists in Burma.
I also interviewed Monseñor Romero in El Salvador at his home and accompanied him to the churches. I had a very high respect for him. He was not afraid to talk against the Salvadoran oligarchy.
What makes a good piece of journalism?
Investigative reporting is good. It means the journalist spends enough time to dig into the stories and find out something others have not found. Today, there is a problem with the media because it is too fast. Investigative reporting is “slow”; it sometimes requires months.
Vivid reporting, getting as close as possible to the people and describing their feelings is also important.
If you had to define the qualities of a good journalist in a few words, what would those be?
The number one quality of a journalist is curiosity. Perseverance and empathy, cultural sensibility and respect to other cultures are very important. And of course, adaptability is key. Sometimes you have no idea where you will sleep and what you will eat when you set out on a mission.
Where do you begin your research? Do you observe, interview witnesses and so on in a particular order? How do you set out on a mission?
It depends. If you have been to a country before you will have networks, contacts, your own files. By now, I have lots of colleagues and contacts. But let’s hypothetically say twenty Finns get kidnapped in Cameroon. I would have much less to start with. I may know someone in that country. In Cameroon, I have a friend called Paavo. I would call him straight way. Then I would find out which Finnish Embassy is closest to the hostage situation and I would also contact the local media. Internet nowadays is also very useful, and by that I do not mean only Google.
Right away upon arrival, I would have a local person, what we call a “fixer”, often a journalist. This person would know the different players, speak the language and communicate with me in a common language. And that is how I set out to do the job. I observe and talk to people in the street.
It is important to have a good fixer. Sometimes in the process, you realize that the fixer may be preventing you from meeting certain people and you simply have to change the fixer.
Is it possible to keep one’s objectivity and neutrality?
All credit to objectivity, but you don’t have to or can’t always hold onto that. A good example comes from the siege of Sarajevo twenty years ago, when all of us journalists there took the side of the sufferers. As a consequence, BBC’s Martin Bell coined the term “journalism of attachment”.
Who do you most admire in your profession?
Anthony Lewis, the New York Times columnist who just recently died, was someone specialized in the Middle East. I always read his column. He was a Jewish liberal and he wrote about the need for change.
Christiane Amanpour reporting for CNN is very good. She did very good work on Sarajevo during the Bosnian war.
I like Robert Fisk. He writes for the Independent. He has also been a Middle East specialist since the 1970s. He is quite radical for his views and is probably not very much liked in the US, Israel or the UK. But he is a good writer and does not see things black and white either.
There are many great Finnish print journalists also. If I have to choose one favorite TV program covering international affairs, it would be Ulkolinja at YLE/TV1. It delivers a well-packaged 50 minutes documentary that penetrates beyond the superficial world of the daily news bulletins. If YLE were to axe that program, I would go mad!
What do you fear?
I don’t have fears about my personal safety… well, maybe now I worry that I could slip on the ice and hit my head! I worry about my children’s safety. One of my kids works as a human rights observer and peace monitor in Southern Philippines in an area where foreigners don’t travel because of the violence and kidnappings. When they were small the kids worried about me, but that didn’t stop me traveling to dangerous places. Now it is payback time! I now know how they felt then.
Like every person, I hope I will stay healthy and can continue to travel and work. I hope I will not lose my memory completely and forget all the ugly and beautiful places and things I have seen and done along the way!
What drives or inspires you?
My endless curiosity and restlessness. Once you start to travel, it is very hard to stop. The long Finnish winters encourage me with my life choices! Being with my youngest son, who is now 11, is also very important. I have been fortunate to take my three sons – and my ex-wives – to different parts of the world, showing them various cultures, also poverty and kindness of the people. It has been the best education I have been able to offer them although it is maybe a bad excuse for my workaholism. I am very thankful for that opportunity.
I suspect you will never retire?
No, no, no! Of course, traveling is now more painful than before with all the security, crowds and delays at the airports. But in the plane I work and enjoy the time to plan and read. I hope I can continue working very long!
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
To combine and balance work with private and leisure time! I have never been too good at it. But I started golf two years ago and I really enjoy it! My youngest son also loves it!
If you were food what would you taste like?
My favorite food is Thai. I would probably be like that too, spicy, so maybe cannibals would leave me alone.
What are the most underrated and the most overrated virtues?
It’s a tough question. I could say humility. But if Finns are too humble, then they don’t raise their heads enough. I dislike arrogance very much, people who know better and put others down. Injustice, racism and discrimination make my blood boil.
Do you have a life motto?
Yes, I do have a half joking one: Trust me – I am a reporter! I know it is not a popular opening statement!
Image: Osma Harvilahti