Fred Abrahams: Human Rights Research Took Him Into Iraq


He used to spend summers on the Vineyard; the son of David Abrahams and Carole Cronig Abrahams, grandson of Mae and Henry Cronig, a family that has become part of the Island's history. But most recently Fred Abrahams has summered in places such as Kosovo, the Czech Republic and Iraq, and he has become a part of global history.

This Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center, Mr. Abrahams, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) consultant, will share insights and observations from his experiences this spring as a field researcher in Iraq. Most of his time was spent in central Iraq interviewing Iraqi families, visiting their homes, listening to their stories. He describes it as a "shocking, emotional and dynamic trip from all perspectives."

He sounds matter-of-fact, almost casual, as he explains, "The complicated part of the job is that people tell you what they think is the truth. With human rights abuses, memory is a tricky thing." He compares it to someone who's been mugged trying to remember the details of what the mugger was wearing. "Imagine then recalling those facts after someone has burst into your home, taken your husband, murdered your son or daughter. Our job is to collect the facts in a corroborative manner."

The coauthor of A Village Destroyed, May 19, 1999: War Crimes in Kosovo (University of California Press), the 35-year-old Mr. Abrahams is expert at interviewing and compiling the experiences of victims of human rights abuses.

Slight and boyish-looking, Mr. Abrahams was a college German major who spent time in Europe as a student of international affairs. In 1989 he was working at odd jobs in San Francisco (he was a department store Santa Claus, among other things), when news of the fall of the Berlin Wall made headlines.

"That was when history handed me a career," he says. He went to East Berlin as a "political tourist," collecting archival material for university libraries and writing articles. "It was tumultuous and exciting - a good place to feel a sense of purpose."

He spent almost three years in Berlin and then Prague, where he worked with the Helsinki Citizens Assembly, and European dissidents such as Vaclav Havel (who was to become the first president of the newly democratic Czechoslovakia). "The work chose me," he says, recalling a sense of being "swept along."

Mr. Abrahams returned to New York to begin a master's program in international affairs at Columbia University. As a summer project, he and two other students, funded by a grant, went to Albania to help university students publish a newspaper. Albania was in economic crisis, there was war in neighboring Yugoslavia, and the country was emerging from a repressive, communist past. The student newspaper, which had a distribution of only 2,000, was shut down by the government.

"It was the closure of the paper that led me to human rights work," he recalls. He began to record events and send reports to HRW, a private, nonprofit, international human rights monitoring organization.

Mr. Abrahams spent months in 1998 and 1999 monitoring events in Kosovo as the senior field researcher for HRW, and he later testified at Slobodan Milosevic's trial at the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague.

He was sent to Iraq this spring as a consultant for HRW.

"I think Iraq faced immense and intense challenges. It's cliché to say it, but accurate to say it's much easier winning the war than the peace. Even the U.S. military was surprised how quickly the Saddam government fell. What shocked me politically, was that I was totally stunned by the absence of any postwar plan by the part of the U.S. government."

What impressed Mr. Abrahams most was the hospitality of the Iraqi people. "They may not like American soldiers who are there in body armor and automatic weapons, but when interacting with them I got invited to numerous lunches. A lot of Iraqis express very sophisticated political views. Some of them said, ‘Look, I am not Saddam Hussein, and you are not George Bush. Our governments may disagree, but we don't hold that against the American people.' "

He spent most of his time in Falluja, a town in central Iraq where American military had fired on a group of demonstrators, killing 20. The military claimed they were returning fire; protesters claimed they were unarmed, and anti-military sentiment was rampant.

"We interviewed about a dozen families whose relatives had just been killed by American forces. All of those families graciously took us into their homes - took time, despite their grieving, to explain their version of events, and were hospitable to the point of offering us lunch and a place to sleep."

He and a coworker, completely independent from any military affiliation, traveled around Iraq with a translator and a driver, checked in regularly with the HRW office. And at night they listened to the sounds of gunfire, "but it's amazing how quickly you get accustomed to it," adding, "I don't want to put the focus on the risks that we go through as human rights researchers. I mean, we chose this profession."

He pauses to reflect, and says, "For me the main point is to provide information. I don't have a political message - well, maybe that human rights should be central to our foreign policy. Human rights is more than just getting rid of a dictator. It's helping to promote a system in Iraq that will be respectful of political and religious rights - things like an independent legal system, and depoliticized police, and all those rights that we largely take for granted in the United States. If victory is building a democratic and stable Iraq, then that will clearly take a long, long time."

Mr. Abrahams will be spending the weekend on the Island to participate in Cronig family celebrations. His Vineyard reunions, he says, help him reorient to life at home.

"My main strategy to recalibrate from war crimes and doses of inhumanity is in nature, and the Vineyard is a huge part of that. It's my decompression chamber back to normal life. There's something regenerative about Gay Head, Lake Tashmoo - even the fried clams at Nancy's. I find it healing."

He and his fiancée, Sarah Kershaw, a New York Times bureau chief, are based in Seattle, Wash. Mr. Abrahams is completing a book on the transition to democracy in Albania (for Public Affairs, a member of the Perseus Book Group in New York).