Interview With Bill Carter: Sarajevo, Humanity, and Raising Compassionate Kids

Reading Time: 12 minutes

For most of us, if we remember Bill Carter it is because of his documentary Miss Sarajevo which Bono produced and wrote a song about by the same name. What some of us may not understand is that for a few months Carter used live satellite link-ups straight into U2 concerts in an attempt to change Europe’s understanding of the Balkan war. The collaboration between Bono and Carter helped bring an end to the longest siege in human history.

Carter went on from Sarajevo to write for magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone. His third book is due out in September of this year. He is also a happily married father of two. I had a chance to visit with him and talk about where he has come from, what he is doing now, and how it influences the way he thinks about being a parent. (A word of caution: our interview discusses situations in general terms which may not be appropriate for young children, so please use your discretion.)

Wecks: So you have done some pretty crazy things in your life like, oh, I don’t know, living in Sarajevo in the middle of the longest siege in human history, or getting right in the middle of the drug war in Mexico. How did those things come about? What made you want to do things like that?

Carter: The answer is a bit elusive to even me. I think it comes from a combination of things. One, a passion to see the world, something I felt even as a child growing up on a farm in the middle of nowhere. I wanted to see the world. But, there is a difference between backpacking around the world, which I did for two years after college, and war zones.

I went to Sarajevo in a time of their history that was very dark. The war had been raging for almost 15 months. I arrived a bit lost with $200 in my boot and ended up staying on and off for almost two years. I stayed because once you meet people in that situation and become close, they become your friends. Once you have empathy for their plight, how does one leave? To me leaving became harder than staying. I wanted to feed my friends for as long as I could, and of course, I then got involved with making a film.

After the war I had various opportunities to go to other wars, which I did, but strangely enough the place where I felt I crossed the line was deep in cartel territory in the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico. The army flew me out of a bad place one early morning.

Wecks: What do you mean by “I felt I crossed the line”? What happened in Mexico?

Carter: By crossing the line I mean I found myself in a situation I was very lucky to get out of. In most conflict zones, I am keenly aware of “where I am.” I am aware of where the snipers, etc. are. I am aware of who is who and what might get me out of a checkpoint or get a gun out of my face. But in Mexico I was deep in drug cartel territory, in a village that had elected a known drug trafficker and whose sister had killed six Tepehuan Indians. Not long before I had arrived three had been literally crucified in the local church, left hanging on crosses to die. The priest, who wore a knife and cowboy boots, shrugged his shoulders when I asked about the murders. Because I was sitting in a hotel speaking with the mayor (trafficker) encircled by his heavily armed henchman, with the sun setting in a village so remote it is rarely on maps, I think I was in trouble. I should have known to get out of there by sunset. Luckily the army intervened and basically guarded me through the night.

Wecks: I know that journalists and the like try to pretend they are holding it all together and objective as they walk through war. They try to be professional observers. That really wasn’t your mission in Sarajevo, was it? What did you set out to accomplish?

Carter: I don’t believe in professional objectivity. I don’t. There is a place for stone cold facts, but if a person claims he is totally objective, then I am not sure he is human. I think a person can have an opinion and a cause, and yet still tell stories that portray truth. Trust me, in war there are lots of truths, many lies, and a whole world of grey. In Sarajevo, and all over Bosnia, the war was similar to the Spanish Civil War in that everyone who came to help or cover it knew who the bad guys were. That does not mean the good guys were obvious. They weren’t. But, the Serbs had the money and military equipment advantage by a long ways and were killing people with impunity in several UN “safe” zones all over Bosnia. Think what you are seeing in places like Homs, Syria, up the violence by a hundred, and continue that for four years. To have a sense of objectivity toward the Serbs would have been strange, and as I said before cause you to doubt your human being-ness. (Note: this does not mean war crimes were not committed against Serb civilians during the Balkan wars. They were. And hopefully those were reported as well.)

Wecks: That kind of activist compassion you engaged in comes at a cost. How did you cope with everything you saw? What has it cost you?

Carter: It does come with a cost. Coping with things I saw in Bosnia was not easy. I left Sarajevo after NATO bombed the hills of Sarajevo, knocking out the Serb positions. I could not imagine going back to the U.S. so I lived in Roving, a small town in northern Croatia for four months, near friends of mine who had escaped from Sarajevo. Finally I did return to the States and after a whirlwind tour of seeing some friends and family ended up in Tucson building adobe homes for four years. Hard physical labor is one of the ways I find balance in my mind and soul. It exhausts me to the point I can’t over-think anymore.

Still, I don’t think of it terms of costs. This is the path my life has taken, and I am content with that path. To go back and alter it would deny all the highs and lows of the life I have lived, which added up makes a life well lived.

Wecks: So as difficult as it was, do you look back and see any positives to come from that experience for you?

Carter: Sure. The positives are huge. To say one enjoys war is ludicrous. What one enjoys is the bond of being in that situation with others. The bonds are stronger than family in some cases. You trust them with your life, your soul. Another thing that is strange about Sarajevo is that life was reduced to single moments with great clarity. Sharing a cup of tea, a beer, or a scrap of food dressed up to look delicious, was monumental. There was no time to answer to. No clock. Hours passed sitting with another person talking, laughing, and dreaming of a better time felt like luxury. It is something rarely created in our busy lives.

Wecks: Do you feel like you have made peace with your time in Sarajevo or is that still an ongoing process?

Carter: For the most part I am at peace with it, but memories created in a place like that are seared into one’s soul for a lifetime.

GeekDad: Knowing what you do now, would you do it again?

Carter: I went to Sarajevo two years after the death of my fiancee, which had put me into a deep grief. Losing her was the most painful thing I ever experienced. My mission to Sarajevo was not to kill myself, but dying by an accidental war trauma was probably on my mind. I was lost without her. Meeting those people in Sarajevo filled that hole. I was still in love with her with no one to share that with. So, instead I ended up burning that energy trying to save 300,000 people. But, now I am happily married and with two young daughters and could not imagine another life. I have no regrets.

Wecks: So catch us up to date a little, tell us a little about your family.

Carter: My wife is Leigh and we have two daughters. We have been married six years and known each other almost 12 years. Our daughters are 4 and 2, which means I am up to my eyes in diapers, endless questions, and Princess dress-up.

Wecks: So has being a father changed your career? Are you still headed “off to war,” or are you staying home more?

Carter: I don’t go to conflict zones anymore. I wouldn’t want to at my age anyhow. War is fascinating on one level — complex — a vortex of lessons that last a lifetime. You see things one cannot describe. You meet people for a day you will know for a lifetime. You see the worst of humanity and the very best, and the very best is the one that makes you cry at night. The worst of us is somewhat obvious and crass. The best of us is heartbreaking. I still travel but I try to work on projects that allow me an avenue into some human truth and yet out of war. And here is the thing, that humanity is everywhere — music, landscape, small stories between a couple married for fifty years, etc. It is everywhere.

Wecks: OK, now I think I am putting the picture together when it comes to your books. Human truth in the simple things explains your book Red Summer, about commercial fishing in Alaska. But your upcoming book Boom, Bust, Boom is about the global copper industry. Copper? Really? Where is the humanity in copper?

Carter: The book begins in Bisbee, where my wife and I lived for a decade. It is an old copper mining town, with a massive open mine pit on the edge of town. It is dormant now, but when it was active the mine was one of the biggest in the world. The story starts when I am literally poisoned by the heavy metals in my backyard garden. The toxins had entered the soil over one hundred years before, when the smelter was operational in town. This, and the fact that the mining company that owns the mine was beginning to talk about reopening the mine, got me thinking. Where do I live? And would I live here if it were once again a mining town? This sent me on a journey to understand both copper itself and the copper industry. What I found was both fascinating and horrifying.

As for your question… the humanity. There are several layers to this. One, and the most basic, is that without copper we would not have a modern civilization — period. Gold and silver get the attention but they are basically useless metals in terms of our societies. Copper is what runs the “machine.” All electricity flows through copper. All cell phones, computers, cars, airplanes, and buildings have copper. Every house has up to four hundred pounds hidden in the walls. Every 747 has 9,000 pounds. China is building twenty cities a year to hold a million or more people. They are building mega-cities that will have upwards of sixty million people. They are building thousands of miles of new train lines. That all means copious amounts of copper. India is producing cities and cars in mass, all requiring more and more copper. The humanity of the story is literally us, the mass of us. Copper also is necessary in our blood. Without we die, and with too much we also die. Copper also has a very unique property. It does not decay and kills germs on contact. This means hospitals are beginning to use copper for doorknobs and bedrails in order to kill MRSA on contact.

All that said, copper mines are one of the most destructive forms of mining. Hard rock mining is the largest polluter of heavy metals in the U.S. Copper mining is the number one polluter. To dig a hole a mile wide, a mile long and 2,000 feet deep creates a hazard that destroys all water tables for tens of miles in every direction. The pollution continues forever. The examples of this are overwhelming. The book deals with the fundamental question we must all, in some way, answer: we need copper to have a modern society, and yet by mining copper we destroy so much. What do we do?

I am realist. I know we need to mine, but not every mine is necessary. And to address that premise I have to decide whether or not to move from my house if the mine reopens. At the same time, in all my investigations I would argue there is only one mine that I would fight to the last breath to stop. And it is not in Bisbee. It is Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska. This mine, if built, will sit on the headwaters of the largest wild salmon run on earth. The risk is not worth it. The book fully explores this region and the complications of the mine plan.

So, in short the humanity is everywhere in this one. There are wars over copper. People are dying in West Papua at Grasberg, the largest gold and copper mine in the world. The politics, the science, the history is fascinating. The American families that created the copper industry are the families that ran this country. The Rockefellers, the Guggenheims basically owned the world’s smelters for decades; JP Morgan; and the list goes on and on.

Wecks: I want to talk a little more about your family. One question that comes to mind is if you think your experiences have made you think differently than other parents?

Carter:I am not sure. I want to spoil my daughters with too much love, like most all sane parents. I can’t speak for other parents. I can say that I think about what I have seen in this world and it makes me appreciate every day more. It makes me excited to show my girls the world, one layer of onion at a time. I think of my daughters in very practical terms: swim lessons, school, friend play dates, etc. But in the back of my mind I am always thinking of some grand picture to always bring lessons I have learned in the world into their world — however small. Being grateful for our food, listening to others, respecting nature, and wanting to add to this life, not take from it.

Wecks: Do you think it is the job of the parent to teach children about the wider world and its problems?

Carter: I think it is our job — absolutely. But there is a time and place for all of it. At the ages of my daughters I am more interested in showing them plants and talking about how volcanoes work. There is time to get to the bigger picture of the world.

That said, we teach our oldest daughter the world map and talk about the world in general terms. I think the key is to interest the child in the world, which then leads to a growing curiosity, which leads to a broader conversation down the road.

Wecks: How can we raise a generation of American children who, while they all may not go to Sarajevo, at least understand it and care about it?

Carter: Again, curiosity is the key and not over pushing it. Kids find their ways into subjects. They are interested in what we are interested in. My oldest daughter wants to know what I write. She wants to know where I travel. We talk about traveling and flying and speaking other languages. That is the beginning. I’ll get to the details when she is older. Or more likely, she will be teaching me the details!

Wecks: Is it possible to teach compassion as a parent? If so, how?

Carter: I am not sure. But my wife and I both teach in our house the golden rule: Do unto others as you would like them to do onto you. Or translated into kid language: Do you like it when I take your book out of your hands? No? Okay, then treat your sister like you want to be treated. For me that simple rule is the very core of compassion. It is simple. Treat one another with grace and respect and hope people treat you the same way.

Of course, in times of frustration I remind my oldest daughter, who doesn’t want to eat her food, or doesn’t like her shirt, that there are hundreds of millions of people that don’t have enough food to eat and don’t have a dresser full of clothes. It is usually something I say to inflict reaction, which isn’t always a good thing, but I can tell she is listening.

Wecks: What concrete things have you done with your children to help them develop compassion?

Carter: At dinner we always ask everyone at the table to say one thing they are grateful for. It can be each other, the food, the sky, our cat, it really doesn’t matter. They both really like this ritual, and for my oldest daughter it has evolved into much more complex answers and thought process.

On a practical level we take their old toys to thrift stores and let them put the toys into the bins. We mail old clothes to people we don’t know well, but know need the clothes. When the kids ask why we are doing this we talk about sharing with others. Oh, and my wife and I try to always answer their questions. Yes, sometimes it is tiring but we try to answer their questions of why is there night and what is the solar system and what is god, etc. As we hear stories on the radio, like on NPR, my daughter will ask questions, sometimes about complex issues. My wife and I try to always answer the question. We don’t ignore the question because it is too difficult. We answer it. Sure, we answer in simple terms but we don’t ignore the question. I think this helps plant the seed of curiosity and compassion, since understanding other people’s perspectives is fundamental to having compassion.

And of course this all sounds heady but really we are a goofy family who loves to laugh and read books and draw castles and build snowmen.

Wecks: If you could tell parents one thing they should do in order to develop compassionate children what would that be?

Carter: Again, the golden rule is key for me. And, keep teaching them about a bigger world out there. One that doesn’t care about Mom and Dad’s love, but instead demands some basic rules of engagement. One, is to enter a new place with an open mind, and be able to say hello in their language. From there many things are possible.

Wecks: So if one day one of your children came to you and said something like, “Dad, I am going to got to Homs to be with the people of Syria and make sure the world pays attention, what would you say?”

Carter: I would say you are INSANE! But if she was in the right spot mentally, and understood the risks she was taking how could I stop her? After all we don’t own our children, only guide them.

Wecks: One of the problems with an interview is that the interviewer can miss the most important questions just because they don’t know to ask them, so I wanted to give you a chance to tell us something that doesn’t often get asked and that you feel you would like us to understand. It could be about Sarajevo, you, or your children. What is it that we don’t know that we should know?

Carter: I wish I knew.

Bill Carter’s memoir of his time in Bosnia, Fools Rush In, is available in paperback. His second book, Red Summer, looks at his time fishing for Salmon in Alaska. His third book on the global copper industry, Boom Bust Boom, will be out in September 2012. If you want to know more about Bill Carter you can find his documentary on Sarajevo and other information on his website www.billcarter.cc and you can also follow him on Facebook.

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