The New Yorker
by George Packer (RPCV/Togo)
April 24, 2015
Warren Weinstein, the Al Qaeda hostage who was killed by an American drone strike in Pakistan in January, was once my boss. He was the Peace Corps country director in Togo in 1982 when I was a new volunteer, just weeks out of college. At the end of that summer, after finishing training, I and others in my group were prevented from taking our posts around the country by a Togolese bureaucrat who was a relative of the country’s dictator, Gnassingbé Eyadema. The petty financial dispute took weeks to work out. In the meantime, a few of us were housed temporarily with the Weinstein family in Lomé, Togo’s capital, on the Gulf of Guinea.
The Weinsteins lived in the diplomatic quarter, but that makes it sound a bit too grand. The house was a small villa with a metal gate and certain American comforts that, even before setting out into the field, I thought were incredibly luxurious: ground beef, Oreos, air conditioning, a VCR. But, outside the gate, Togo was waiting-the deep sand of the unpaved roads, the boys playing barefoot soccer with a ball of clothing scraps, the smell of fried dough and cooking oil in the humid afternoons.
I was having a hard time adjusting to the prospect of two years in Africa. It wasn’t the physical hardships so much as the strangeness of everything, which made me strange to myself, and instilled a sense of loneliness that never left while I lived there, nor for some time afterward. The interlude at the Weinsteins’, with nothing to do for weeks on end inside a disorienting facsimile of normal American life, didn’t help. Any American who wasn’t reaching for an existential lifeline from Kierkegaard or Conrad was too shallow, in my mind, to see the nothingness that lay exposed in the tropical sunlight. I was full of unkind judgments, all originating with myself. And because Warren, who was around forty then, with an academic background, appeared to be suffering no doubts, I couldn’t understand him. He wore versions of local attire: a functionary suit in robin’s-egg blue, or embroidered print shirts made of cloth from Ivory Coast. He spoke excellent French, and even Swahili (though this was more useful in East Africa). He was always in motion, hurrying to the office, checking on volunteers, dealing with two bureaucracies, the one in Washington and the French-colonial- inspired Togolese government. His cheerful energy amazed me, and I mistook it for thoughtless complacency.
Warren, his wife, Elaine, and their daughters were as hospitable as they could be. I was too self-absorbed to imagine the hardships the family faced, even with a semi-functional freezer. In a way, being a volunteer was simpler: once in our villages, we were to get as close to Togolese life as we could. That gave us a certain structure and identity, even if it was precarious. But the family of an expat official in a small West African backwater had a harder time finding a connection or a purpose. Boredom and isolation must always have been at the door.
I can now see what I didn’t at the time: Warren was exactly what a development expert (he specialized in small-business development) , living with his family in a poor country, needed to be. He loved the place where he was, and he adapted to it outwardly while maintaining an inner conscientiousness about his responsibilities that might be eroded if he went completely native. He did not allow himself to sink into the semicolonial comforts of a career expat, or the ready-made opportunities of a good department man. His focus was on the job and what it could achieve. Aid work requires thoughtfulness and self-criticism, but mostly it needs knowledgeable action. What good was an American having a personal crisis to the Togolese people?
Warren went on to spend the better part of his life in Africa and South Asia. Over the past decade, he devoted himself to one of the world’s most dangerous countries, Pakistan. He learned Urdu and adopted the local dress. By all accounts, his commitment to development work and the people at its heart remained exemplary. Nearly seventy, an age when many aid consultants are thinking about retirement, he took one more contract in Pakistan. On August 13, 2011, just before he was to return to his family in Maryland, Warren was kidnapped from his house in Lahore. He was passed into the hands of Al Qaeda in the mountains of North Waziristan, where he was held for more than three years.
When the first news report of his capture surfaced, I wondered whether it was the Warren Weinstein I knew, and concluded that it couldn’t be: the gaunt, gray-bearded face in the hostage picture looked nothing like my memory of him, even allowing for thirty years of conventional aging. But by then Warren had passed through more dark nights of the soul than I could imagine.
In the last video released by his captors, at the end of 2013, Warren said that he felt utterly abandoned by his country. He asked President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, members of the American media, and his family to work for his release. He described his career of public service, including with the Peace Corps in West Africa. “The years have taken their toll,” he said. “Needless to say, I have been suffering deep anxiety every part of every day, not knowing what is happening to my family, not knowing how they are, and because I am not with them.”
On January 15, 2015, Warren and an Italian hostage, Giovanni Lo Porto, an aid worker, were killed by an American drone strike, along with four Al Qaeda militants that had been targeted after months of surveillance. Their deaths were confirmed only this week, and announced by President Obama yesterday. Warren is far from the only civilian casualty of U.S. drones, which have killed thousands of people in Pakistan’s tribal areas, most of them militants. Since the strikes are highly classified, the numbers are anyone’s best guess. The world is awash in murdered innocents. How bitter that Warren’s death, which remains the responsibility of the terrorists, came at the hands of the government he was serving all those years ago in Togo.
The distance from Lomé to Waziristan is hard to fathom. Al Qaeda didn’t exist in 1982. An aid worker’s greatest worry was malaria, not beheading broadcast worldwide or death from the clear blue sky. The end of Warren Weinstein’s life raises painful questions about the morality and the utility of drones. It also shows the inadequacy of U.S. efforts to secure the release of American hostages, or to give their families the support and the information they need. Warren’s daughters, now in their forties, and his wife, Elaine, spent the years of Warren’s captivity working tirelessly for his release. In a statement after his death, Elaine spoke of receiving “inconsistent and disappointing” assistance from the government. She also said that the Weinstein family is heartbroken. For my part, I wish I had met Warren one more time.