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Telling the Untold: Remembering Andre Vltchek (1963-2020)

Andre Vltchek in Santiago, Chile (2019)

Patrick Henningsen
21st Century Wire

On September 22, 2020, author, investigative journalist, filmmaker, playwright, philosopher, and a revolutionary, Andre Vltchek, died at the age 57.

He passed away in his sleep following a long car journey with his wife Rossie from Samsun to Istanbul. While some initial reports suggested that the Turkish authorities might be investigating ‘suspicious circumstances,’ it was later stated by a close colleague that Andre had been suffering from chronic health challenges and that the cause of death was a pulmonary embolism. It was an abrupt end to an incredible life.

Born in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), Russia, Andre would later become a naturalized U.S. citizen after defecting from the Soviet Union. His work has spanned three decades and he is best known for his in-depth reportage from numerous conflict zones including Bosnia, Rwanda, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Syria, to name only a few. He has authored over of 20 nonfiction books, novels and plays, as well as worked on a number of documentary films. His writings and commentary have appeared in numerous international publications including Der Spiegel, The Guardian, China Daily, New Eastern Outlook and Counterpunch, to name only a few. He was also an independent global affairs correspondent for networks like France 24, RT International and Press TV.

In addition to this, for the last 12 months, Andre began working more closely with 21st Century Wire as a special featured contributor. All in all, we commissioned nine exclusive feature articles from him, conducted nine on-location radio interviews, and also worked together on a series of short video reports from Europe, the Middle East and South America. I can only say how deeply saddened we were to hear the news of his passing, and I can speak for so many others I know in saying that Andre’s departure has left a massive void in the world of journalism and political commentary – at a time when experience and integrity are needed more than ever. He was also a great student of geopolitics and understood well the dynamics of global power more than any academic or think-tanker I know. Over the past year, I learned a lot about Andre Vltchek, and through his eyes, a lot more about this big world we all inhabit. If you wanted to know what’s happening in the world, you followed the news, but if you wanted to really know what’s happening on the global street, you followed Andre. It’s no exaggeration to say he risked life and limb to bring people the truth. It’s really hard to believe he’s left the stage so soon.

This last year was a typical whirlwind for Andre. We began working closely together in the fall of 2019 when he was reporting on the political upheaval in Hong Kong, as well as moving around in half a dozen other locations. As it happens, it was a significant watershed period in history. By then, the political brush fires of discontent and discord were spreading rapidly through Europe, the Middle East and South America. What a time to be a journalist, especially an intrepid one, and Andre wasn’t about to let this explosive epoch pass without giving it a fair crack. Incredibly, he was able to embed himself in nearly all of these global hot spots, as well to document a number of other tertiary stories, too. Over the past few years, like so many other international journalists, Andre had been based in Beirut, and when protests broke out there last fall, he was well-placed to report on it. As ever, Lebanon’s street demonstrations were a deeply complex political and sectarian affair, but unlike most western journalists keen to identify and harp on partisan political fault lines, he wasn’t so ensconced in the nuance of Lebanon’s local sectarian and confessional rivalries as much as trying to search for the fingerprints of a familiar gang of usual suspects, namely western NGOs and other US State Department-backed front groups, by now infamous grey actors in Washington’s ‘democracy’ roadshow. He remarked on the suspicious Otpor! symbolism of the clenched fist in the air, as well as the marked segregation among demonstrators between the NGO-friendly pro-American class and Lebanon massive underclass. Less interested was Andre in the myriad of political parties and signature Lebanese-style in-fighting as he was in the ever widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, between the burgeoning underclass and the jet-setting elites. Amid the chaos and despair, he was still searching for signs of hope – hope for a more equitable future and the dismantling of the currently neoliberal status quo. In the end, he couldn’t contain his frustration with Lebanon, as evidenced in this bluntly honest and moving piece, “Quo Vadis Lebanon?”.

After falling out of love with Lebanon, in the late autumn he said good-bye to Beirut for good, and headed for what was arguably the most exciting and perilous continent on the planet at that time, South America, with no less than five major uprisings taking place at once, in Chile, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, as well as resonant political toggling happening in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Nicaragua, and of course Venezuela, a country he cared about deeply. If you wanted to have your finger on the pulse of the Latin street, it was the place to be, and so it goes without saying that Andre would slide into the milieu.

Somewhere in between the Andes and The Levant, Andre managed to do another Herculian loop around Asia, filing a series of eye-watering reports from locations like Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia. For me personally, this was an incredible masterclass in 21st century Asian affairs. From his reporting in Malaysia, I learned about the devastation brought on by the rapacious deforestation and corporate takeover by palm oil plantations which have turned the country into a giant foreign cash crop. Indeed, Andre had a rare talent for telling the untold. He would call it as he saw, and would rarely mince words. In his documentary film Downfall! he described the US-backed coup in Indonesia in 1965 as an “intellectual and cultural Hiroshima.”  Whether it was the graphic post-mortems of globalized late-stage capitalism, or NATO’s pillaging of Central Asia and the Middle East, he always found a way to get under the skin of the prevailing narrative, no doubt causing an awful itch for the superficial western consensus reality.

In Borneo, it was literally eye-watering, after he contracted a near deadly parasite infection in his eye which required medical treatment which he was not able to get locally, but eventually got treated after he left the country. But it hardly slowed him down. Off to another jungle, or the next simmering war zone or uprising.

IMAGE: Andre Vltchek documenting the Goma war zone fallout, Democratic Republic of Congo (2009)

Following his last Asian sweep, he was confronted by a thoroughly depressing and dark environment in Santiago, under the cosh of the harsh national lockdown imposed by Chile’s neoliberal government led by Sebastián Piñera. Our radio interviews from South America in March 2020, Panic, Lockdown, Backlash’ and later in June, ‘Chile’s brutal ‘Corona Coup’ were among the best segments we’ve ever aired. Previously, in one of our first full-length radio interviews recorded in October 2019, Andre deconstructed the gambit of popular uprisings in Hong Kong, Ecuador, Lebanon, Catalonia and others. Later, he would witness firsthand in Bolivia the aftermath of the US-sponsored, fascist beer hall putsch and flight of deposed President Evo Morales, and told the important story of a marginalised indigenous population based in Altiplano, as they gathered themselves preparing to restore the country’s rightful government. It was absolutely stunning reporting. It was Andre’s raw emotion anchored by a special documentarian eye for detail which made his segments so captivating.

I regard his piece on the global lockdown as seminal, titled, The ‘Battle’ Against COVID-19 in a Fragmented World, Has Ruined Billions of Lives, where he captured the global zeitgeist and the pungent sombre mood of the moment. Andre made sure we all remembered that, too.

I was always impressed how Andre was able to quickly embed himself in any area or situation, taking its political pulse. Andre was able to compare and contrast political movements in different locations. This brought a level of richness and depth to Andre’s work, and it’s one of the things which I found to be extremely authentic and engaging, as it unearthed another massive side to global politics absent from the corporate media – leftwing and socialist movements, virtually invisible in pro-western mainstream press and punditry. How can you cover, or pretend to know what’s happening on the ground without this perspective? The answer is you cannot, and for this reason I believed his perspective provided an important balance to our coverage of global affairs.

The fact that we shared similar anti-imperialist and anti-elitist perspectives, and that we both believed in a nation’s right to self-determination, allowed for a level of fluidity along geopolitical editorial lines. It also helped that we were both well-versed in western soft power and ‘smart power‘ subterfuge – enough to be able tell a real revolution from a western-backed colour revolution. However, we did not always see eye to eye ideologically, and so we had our share of heated political discussions. His ardor was undeniable though – you could never contain him within the tidy frame of journalist, reporter or filmmaker. His landscape was far more expansive than that. By his own admission, Andre was a committed internationalist, in the Cuban sense. He strongly believed that if one is to cultivate real political awareness, then it should start with having an international perspective, because imperialism, as a de facto continuation of colonialism, is the fundamental source of pain and suffering in the developing world. He was strongly committed to international socialism, explained in his own words in an emotional manifesto, published with his quintessential gusto in 2016, and unabashedly titled, Why I am a Communist.” Andre believed strongly that as internationalist state actors, countries like Cuba are front-runners in the spirit of international cooperation and therefore are fundamentally a force for good in the world. Regardless of one’s political preference, it’s difficult to deny how many times Cuba (a country under US embargo for over 60 years and with relatively few resources) has led the way in providing international aid or medical assistance to locations in crisis – often in places which were routinely eschewed by sanctimonious western governments. Andre made a point to highlight these, along with similar missions undertaken by socialist governments from Venezuela and North Korea, as well as similar effort by China. Western critics of those efforts will claim these are not real humanitarian efforts, but rather, a state propaganda exercises designed to curry favor with a global audience. To this point, Andre would point out that you’d be hard-pressed to find a state actor on the international stage that is not engaged in some kind of soft power operations overseas. Actors like the US, UK and France are not only engaged in such efforts, but do so with bottomless tranches of funding and resources – on the aggregate exceeding all of the other countries combined. All of which makes the relatively small but hugely symbolic efforts of countries like Cuba all the more impressive in comparison – winning hearts and minds the old fashioned way, through hard work, human-to-human organisation, and above all a dedication to their mission of service. Andre had the same mission: running towards trouble and strife, offering nothing but himself, along with his pen and camera lens, with a deep conviction that by doing so he could make the world a better place. But he was no naive revolutionary. He knew the flaws and shortcomings of conventional politics, and offered some of the most brutal critiques of western leftism and the ascendancy of the neoliberal radical centrists. In that sense, he was a realist on the Left.

I admit, we had some brutal arguments over editorial issues. I had to wear my editor’s hat, something I so loath to do. In truth, I’d so often prefer to be in Andre’s boots; swashbuckling and intrepid, fighting for my convictions, and making my case to the editor to publish ‘all of it,’ and be damned. Of course, Andre knew the score, certainly no stranger to the nature of relations between writer and editor were always bound to be inherently attenuate. Even so, his hard-headed nature meant that he would never readily accept the uncanny bureaucratic alchemy of the editorial room. But it was that stubbornness which made him such an exceptional reporter, raconteur and witness extraordinaire.

It’s hard to conceive just how prolific he was, and how much we can still learn from his work. Andre was on the ground in Hong Kong throughout most of the umbrella protests, exposing time and time again how the violent ‘pro-democracy’ mobs lauded by the BBC and CNN were being marshaled by Joshua Wong and actually had the full backing of the US State Department and all of its soft power assets. His report, ‘Hong Kong’s Hooligans: Western Shock Troops‘ contains some unforgettable imagery. Similarly, in the Middle East he revealed how, since 2012 the US and its allies have been using the radical jihadi fighters from China’s Uyghur community in Xinjiang as proxy militants to wage their dirty war in Syria. He was also on the ground in the Philippines in 2017, and knew that ISIS fighters, arms and money were being injected into Marawi with an aim to destabilise the Duterte government for not obeying the diktats of Washington. This level of covert nation-building by the West is rarely if ever covered by mainstream media, but it was Andre’s stock and trade.

As a denizen of the world, Andre was always monitoring the trajectory of political movements on the ground, but he also took the time to take the cultural temperature too. He was always keenly aware of his environment; the art scene, local music, underground cafe culture, poetry and literature, and the independent cinema, and the quality and potency of the local graffiti too – all important barometers of political vibrancy, and potential for change. To less observant journalists, such particulars would dissolve in passing – taken for granted as mere background noise, but Andre always paid attention to them. Perhaps that’s what drew me to Andre’s style of reporting to begin with, as I tend to follow the same interpretivist methodology when I travel or report on location. It’s why I really appreciated Andre’s razor-edged, gonzo-style of journalism. Read any of his articles and you’ll quickly feel the difference in texture between his work and everyone else’s. His accompanying photography is also unique, always giving the reader a real feel for the place and its people, but always, always against a vivid political backdrop.

Still hope: “Afghanistan can still fly” (Image Credit: Andre Vltchek © 2017)

In a world dominated by desktop journalists and plastic pundits, he was the genuine article, our man in the field – shades of Hemmingway and Steinbeck, with some Harper Lee thrown in for good measure. Andre wasn’t afraid to insert himself and situations, and sometime push a situation and people to the limit in a way that so many great writers and artists often do, feeling (and knowing) they have the power to reform the discourse and thus, change the way people see the world. I recall during our conversations how often Andre would so lament the noticeable disappearance of the dissident intellectuals on the scene – the poets, the composers, the artists… the dreamers, those unsettled iconoclasts whose grist has fueled the flame of revolution through the ages. Those who are ready to stand up for liberty, justice and equality, and demand the restoration of dignity for a people abused by an unforgiving Hobbesian system. Politically speaking, in our increasingly homogenized and globalised 21st century political economy, they are an endangered species . No doubt, Andre was (and still is) a keeper of that flame.

In all of my years working in media and journalism, I have never known anyone who was as passionate and as driven as Andre Vltchek. He certainly wasn’t a careerist in search of mainstream acceptance and accolades from the liberal establishment. No desire for the champagne socialist circuit; the ingratiating Guardian and Frontline Club panel discussions, the TED talks, and the usual human rights NGO junkets. He wasn’t even remotely interested in that world, which was why he was shut-out by the ‘great and the good’ manning the gates of corporate mainstream media. And yet, he stands head and shoulders above them all, having visited some 140 countries, authored some 18 books, including a collaborative work with Noam Chomsky entitled, On Western Terrorism, produced and directed documentaries films, wrote stage plays, as well as penned several hundred feature articles for a variety of publications worldwide. He exuded the youthful exuberance and spirit of adventure which you’d be hard-pressed to find in any journalist half his age. Beyond his sheer talent as a reporter, he was a witness to events and people, intimately involved in his research subjects, and absolutely believed that by being there, on site, on location, he could somehow help to steer events towards a more positive outcome – by virtue of his telling the story which wasn’t being told, by lending his voice to the voiceless. He wrote from the heart, and was never ashamed about it. In that sense, you could say he was journalism’s one true revolutionary.

Andre always struck me as akin to that rare breed of warrior known in lore, who preferred to die with honour on the battlefield, rather than to be showered with medals and parades post factum. If you asked Andre, he would tell you he was just doing his duty as a human being. Virtues aside, who ever wants to see a colleague, friend, or comrade, fall in battle. It surely reminds us of what a relatively ephemeral ball of fire our lives really are, along with the mourning knowing that they won’t be around for the next conflagration, or to see victory in their lifetime.

Perhaps Andre never expected to see victory in his lifetime, or maybe he believed that at the end of day, all there is, is the fight. And more often than not, it’s that spirit which defines us. Not whether we won or lost, but how hard we fought, who we fought for, and why.

Such is the way of a warrior.

RIP Andre Vltcheck (1963-2020)

Author Andre Vltchek has worked for over 25 years as an international reporter, photojournalist and documentary filmmaker, and has authored 18 books including the best-selling title, Exposing the Lies of Empire. His portfolio covers a vast array of subjects covering culture, wars, political science, and world history. Four of his latest book titles include China and Ecological Civilization with award-winning academic John B. Cobb Jr., Revolutionary Optimism, Western Nihilism, the revolutionary novel, “Aurora”, and his film & dialogue with renowned US academic Noam Chomsky, entitled, “On Western Terrorism.” Andre’s work has taken him to every corner of the globe, including ground-breaking journalistic work in locations in Southeast Asia, Middle East and South America.

See more of Andre Vltchek’s work at his own independent publishing company here..

Also, see a list of available book titles on Amazon here.





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