Skip to main content

Writer and Historian Jay Winik

Jay Winik's new book, a bestseller, is April 1865: The Month That Saved America (HarperCollins). He writes that April 1865 is a month that could have unraveled the American nation. Instead it saved it. During that month the war ended with Lee surrender, Lincoln was assassinated, and the rebuilding of the nation began. Winik is a senior scholar at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs and a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal.


Other segments from the episode on July 9, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 9, 2001: Interview with Jay Winik; Interview with Andrew Kromah.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Historian Jay Winik talks about his new book and the
history surrounding the Civil War in April, 1865

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Historian Jay Winik is the author of the best-seller "April 1865." He
describes it as the month in American history that could have unraveled the
American nation, but instead saved it. It was the most decisive month of the
Civil War and perhaps in the life of the United States.

On April 9th, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General
Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, but the war wasn't over yet. It could have
continued, Winik says, for months or years. In less than a week after
Appomattox, President Lincoln was assassinated, adding to the chaos and
uncertainty of the time.

Jay Winik is a senior scholar at the University of Maryland's School of Public
Affairs and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal. He was an adviser to
the late congressman and Defense Secretary Les Aspin. While he was a senior
staff member with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Winik witnessed
civil wars around the world. Those wars inspired him to write about our own
Civil War.

Mr. JAY WINIK: When I set out to write my book, everyone said to me, `What do
you have to say about the Civil War? You're not even a Civil War historian,
per se.' And that's really quite true, but because in a previous lifetime I
had actually traveled to a number of civil wars--El Salvador; in Nicaragua;
dissolving Yugoslavia; Cambodia, which was the site of "The Killing Fields," I
had a number of sort of intimate and personal experiences seeing the kind of
dynamics of civil wars and how they sort of just flame out of control. And
as a result of that, it both inspired me and it gave me really fresh insights
when I turned around and set my sights on the American Civil War.

GROSS: Did seeing the outcome of other countries' civil wars make the outcome
of the United States' Civil War seem even more remarkable?

Mr. WINIK: Yeah, absolutely, because, I mean, throughout history what one
finds is far too many civil wars end quite badly with terrible, tragic
consequences. Think of Northern Ireland, which has gone on for some 200
years; think of Rwanda or Lebanon or Cambodia, or think of the horrors today,
whether it be in the Middle East or in the Balkans. Well, our Civil War could
have ended just as badly with the same terrible, fateful consequences and,
indeed, almost did. And that it didn't really does make the story of "April
1865" such a remarkable story.

GROSS: Well, let's look at April of 1865. That's the month that Confederate
General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. That
happened on April 9th of 1865. What was the circumstances behind Lee's

Mr. WINIK: What happens is, in the beginning of April, Lee's forces were
being besieged for some nine months in Richmond and Petersburg by U.S. Grant.
And Lee had actually devised a very kind of daring plan in which he had
decided he would take his troops down South 140 miles, hook up with another
Confederate general, and from there they would take to the hills and actually
potentially wage a guerrilla war. And everything the Union was doing was to
forestall that possibility. Indeed, early in the month Lincoln said to U.S.
Grant and to General Sherman that one of his greatest fears really was that
the Confederates would wage guerrilla war. And in a series of events, what
happened during those first days of that month where Lee is doing everything
to escape--and, I mean, indeed, there's one point where this surrender seems,
potentially, to be getting closer, where his men are slowly being encircled.
And three of Lee's top generals come up to Lee and they raise the possibility
of that most dreaded of all words, which was `surrender.' And Lee looks at
them and he thunders very coldly and he says, `Surrender? No, never. Our men
fight far too bravely ever to think of surrender.'

And then when it does become apparent, though, that they are encircled on the
east side, on the west side and on the south side, and the only way they can
go is north, the only direction they don't want to go in, it's at that point
where Lee will convene a council of war. And this proves to be one of the
most fateful and really one of the most important meetings in all of American
history. Lee sits down with some of his closest aides. And one of his aides
says to him, `No. We shouldn't surrender.' He said, `We should take to the
hills like partridges and rabbits and a little more bloodshed now will make no

Now when Lee sat down to weigh this decision before he would decide what to
do, he had to think, firstly, could they do it? Could the South do it? And
in the end, Lee decided that that was too much. It would not only destroy--he
will then say--sitting down with his aides, he will say that a guerrilla war
like that would not only destroy the North, but it would destroy the South,
and quite presciently he says, `It would take many generations for this
country to recover.' And at that point he sort of sat up and he sort of
straightened himself and said, `And now I must go meet General Grant and
surrender, and I would rather die a thousand deaths than do that.'

And, of course, what's so fascinating about all of this is that we tend to
think about Lee as being a great military man, and, certainly, he was that, or
a great tactician, and, certainly, he was that. But, arguably, his finest
moment comes not in war, but it comes in peace and saying no to a destructive
guerrilla war. And it's at that point that he would go to meet General U.S.

GROSS: You praise both Grant and Lee for how they handled themselves at
Appomattox, in which, you know, Lee officially surrendered. What was the
terms of the surrender?

Mr. WINIK: Yeah. Once Lee makes his decision that he's not going to wage
guerrilla war and he says, `And now I must go meet General Grant,' it's funny
because that morning he would don his finest uniform because, as he says, `I
must now meet General Grant and I will surely be his prisoner.' Well, how
will Grant treat him? You know, this has been too often telescoped in
history, but, in fact, we know that that morning General Lee was actually
quite nervous. And well he should have been nervous because, throughout
history, defeated generals, defeated traitorous generals, defeated rebels,
more often than not in history had been beheaded or they had been hung or they
had been imprisoned or, like General Napoleon, they were exiled. And, in
fact, that very morning the Chicago Tribune editorialized `Hang Lee' and just
days earlier on the steps of the patent office in the Union capital of
Washington, DC, the vice president, Andrew Johnson, gave a rousing speech to
about a thousand in which he said, `We must hang Lee. We must hang Davis. We
must hang them 20 times.' So Lee did not necessarily--and from history, he
did not--he had much to fear.

But if this were surely Lee's finest moment in saying no to guerrilla war, on
this day, it will also be U.S. Grant's finest moment. Grant finally comes in
and he's actually wearing a mud-spattered private's blouse. And what's so
fascinating--consider the dynamics. Here is Lee; Lee, who is in many ways the
sole scion of the founding father George Washington and Martha Washington, and
he's surrendering to the son of a tanner, U.S. Grant, who had been a failure
most of his life. I mean, it's really an American story.

And interestingly enough, what they do in the beginning is they actually talk
about the old days. They talk about the Mexican War. Grant talks about how
he remembers meeting Lee, because even back then Lee was a great figure. And
Lee at one point says, `You know, I tried to recall your face all these times
during battle and I could never quite do it.' And they're talking so long and
so happily that at one point it is not Grant, but Lee, who says, `I suppose we
should discuss the object of why we are here, the surrender.' And at that
point Grant will just handle himself really brilliantly and really
presciently. He does several things that are quite important for us to look

Firstly, he allows the defeated rebels to keep their sidearms. Now this makes
no sense militarily, and it makes no sense tactically, if you are worried
about the South waging guerrilla war, as Jefferson Davis was calling for. But
what U.S. Grant was saying is, `We may have defeated you, but we still honor
you. We may have defeated you, but you are still our countrymen.'

He also enables, upon a personal plea from Lee himself, the defeated rebels to
keep their horses. Again, there--this makes no sense tactically or
militarily, if you are worried about guerrilla war, but, once again, Grant is
saying `You are to be our countrymen again.'

But the most poignant moment of all will happen when the two pieces of paper
are exchanged and then the surrender is roughly concluded and Lee will shake
hands with every man in this Wilmer McLean house. And at that point he
starts to walk out. U.S. Grant comes up. Grant makes eye contact with him
and he tilts his hat in surrender, a gesture that is then mimicked by all
these tens and hundreds and thousands of soldiers around him. And this one
small gesture will soon ricochet and echo in every little home and household
in the South, setting the tone for the healing to come.

But, of course, what's so crucial to remember at this point is, as we said
earlier, that Lee has only surrendered his army. There are still three
Confederate armies in the field, over 175,000 men, and the situation is still
quite volatile.

GROSS: Do you think that when Grant allowed Lee and his men to keep their
arms and keep their horses that Grant was taking his cue from Lincoln?

Mr. WINIK: Yeah. Just before April 1865 began, Lincoln would have a crucial
meeting with U.S. Grant and Sherman to talk about the war, when it will end,
how it will end, and what is to happen when it finally does end. And in this
meeting he says several things. Firstly, he talks about his fear of guerrilla
war. Secondly, he worries that there will be a final, bloody Armageddon. And
Grant will say, `Lee being Lee, there will be a final, bloody Armageddon.'
But then thirdly and most importantly--and, again, here is where Lincoln
really shines as much as any time in a war. Lincoln says, `You know, when
this war ends there must be no bloody work. There must be no hangings. There
must be none of that.' And, of course, what Lincoln was thinking about was
the French Revolution, which was heavy on everyone's minds. And Lincoln was
saying, `That must not happen here.'

So, in effect, what Grant was doing was he was carrying out the vision of
tenderness and magnanimity that Lincoln had laid out for him earlier just
before April 1865.

GROSS: When Lee surrenders to Grant, this does not quite end the Civil War
because there are still Confederates in the field fighting. Who's left in the

Mr. WINIK: Yeah, there are still three Confederate armies in the field,
scattered in different departments, both in the South and the West. There's
really over 175,000 men. There are three separate generals who will be sort
of determining this. And what's so crucial to remember is that even at that
point--and just to give a little example, no less than Robert E. Lee's wife,
Mary Lee, who is directly descended from Martha Washington and by marriage,
of course, to George Washington, himself--she is the step great-granddaughter
of Washington--she will say, `Lee is not the Confederacy. Richmond is not
the Confederacy.' So, as Lincoln knew and feared, the situation was still
quite volatile. How much longer would the war last, a week, three weeks, a
month, six months? Well, as Lincoln knew and feared, such time spans had been
enough in history to start, fight and win wars, to unseat great dynasties or
to complicate the reconciliation to come. And, in fact, as, really, on a
mournful script, that's what would happen just five days later.

GROSS: How did the three remaining Confederate generals end up surrendering?

Mr. WINIK: Yeah, what they will eventually do is they will eventually get
word of Lee's surrender. And one by one they will reject Jefferson Davis'
call for a continued guerrilla war, because Davis' government was on the run
and he was continuing to sort of call for a continuation of this war in the
most deadly fashion possible through partisan warfare. And yet rather than
following him, the generals would follow the words and the spirit and the
actions of General Lee.

GROSS: My guest is historian Jay Winik. His new book is called "April 1865."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Jay Winik. He's the author of the new book "April 1865"
about the month that ended the Civil War.

Just five days after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, President Lincoln
was assassinated. What were the motives, as far as you know, of John Wilkes
Booth in assassinating Lincoln? How much did that have to do with Lee's

Mr. WINIK: Yeah. No, it had a lot to do with Lee's surrender. And this is
one of the most fascinating, intuital, explored nights, really, in American
history. You know, it's five days after the surrender of Lee, but not only is
it the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, but consider what else happens on
that same evening. The same time at night, at 10:14, not only one, but three
deadly assassins would fan out to strike. One assassin, John Wilkes Booth,
will murder Abraham Lincoln. Another assassin will stab five times the Union
secretary of State, William Seward, and a third assassin will be prepared to
plunge a knife into Andrew Johnson's heart, Andrew Johnson, the Union vice
president, but only at the last second he gets cold feet.

And what happens is what John Wilkes Booth eventually hoped would happen, is
that he would sow anarchy, chaos and somehow prolong this war and maybe sort
of undo the surrender that happened when Lee surrendered. And, in fact, he
almost succeeded.

GROSS: Well, describe Washington, DC, after the assassination.

Mr. WINIK: Yeah. I mean, it's just fascinating. What's so important is for
us to see it not as we do with the comfort of hindsight and the most powerful,
regularized, institutionalized democracy in the world, but to see it through
their eyes. And on that night, once Lincoln was shot and assassinated and
Seward was stabbed five times and Johnson was targeted, the Union was in such
chaos that the people literally feared being murdered in their beds. Indeed,
the chief justice would say, `It was a night of horrors.' And, in fact, it
was a night of horrors. Indeed, there was such chaos and turmoil that night
in Washington that the Union Cabinet would soon be discussing whether or not,
in effect, a Napoleonic coup was under way. And, of all people, they actually
thought their own great general, Bill Sherman, was behind it.

And, in fact, The New York Times would write that evening--or actually the
next day, I should say--they would write that if this were France, all the
country would be in bloody revolution by the next day. So there was really a
lot that had to be handled that evening. And then in addition to that there's
one other thing: the transition to who becomes president, because it was
actually far murkier than we tend to think of it.

GROSS: Well, you know, I think there were two things--a minimum of two things
that could have gone wrong. First of all, the assassination could have opened
up an opportunity for the Confederates to resume the war. But, second of all,
there were cries in the North for revenge against Lincoln's murder, cries of
revenge that could have also led to chaos.

Mr. WINIK: Right. It potentially could have led to the very scenario that
Lincoln never wanted, which is this kind of bloodbath of retribution and
vengeance and hangings and all the rest. And that was one thing that had to
be avoided.

Another thing was the opportunity to continue the war, because at the point
that this decapitation of the Union government is taking place, General Lee is
back in Richmond safely at his home. And if Lee were a Milosevic or a Yasser
Arafat or you pick your favorite strongman on the world stage today, you can
bet that he surely would have taken advantage of this to perhaps give a wink
and nod and say, `Let's try a little guerrilla warfare and take advantage of
this fleeting weakness.'

GROSS: Now there's a lot of concern that Andrew Johnson, although he was
picked by Abraham Lincoln to be the vice president--there was concern that
Johnson would be a terrible president. Why were so many people so worried?

Mr. WINIK: Yeah. Well, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Johnson had only
met with Lincoln once, and quite by happenstance. That was on the day
that--when Lincoln was assassinated for only 30 minutes. And to this day we
don't know what they talked about.

But more importantly, Johnson was a relative newcomer to the administration.
He wasn't of the Republican Party. He was an outsider. And more than
anything else, Johnson was widely written off as a drunkard and a buffoon in
the Washington establishment. And he was a man who nobody ever thought of as
being president. And when he assumed it, people were really kind of stunned.

GROSS: Well, what do you think saves the day after Lincoln's assassination
and prevents the Confederates from taking up arms again and prevents the North
from seeking revenge for the murder of Lincoln?

Mr. WINIK: Yeah. No, that's really a good question. I mean, if we look
around the world today at the civil wars that seem to kind of persist with
this melancholy regularity, what we see is it always takes two sides to create
the peace. And in our case in April 1865, we would be fortunate to have
leaders on two different sides who would really do much to sort of create the
healing and the reconciliation.

First and foremost, more than anyone, there was Abraham Lincoln, who really
did have the genius and the foresight and the wisdom to know that how this war
ends is every bit as crucial as how it was fought. And it was Lincoln who
talked about binding up the wounds. It was Lincoln who said at City Point to
Grant and Sherman, `There must be no bloody work. There must be no hangings.'
So even when Lincoln was assassinated and when Lincoln was dead, it would be
Lincoln's vision that would sort of guide the surrenders, where the Northern
generals would receive their counterparts; foremost, Grant, who acted
brilliantly at Appomattox, but General Sherman would also act equally with
magnanimity and dignity at Durham Station when he receives Joe Johnston's

And so these leaders will do much in the North to kind of quell the calls for
vengeance and for hatred. In fact, at one point General Lee is actually
indicted and Grant will step forward and say, `If he is--if Lee is indicted
and it stands,' he will actually--he raised the specter he could even resign.
He said, `It must not happen,' and so the indictment was quashed.

And then equally important is that there was not only these men on the
Northern side, but on the Southern side. Robert E. Lee, having always been
the nemesis for Abraham Lincoln, ironically will become Lincoln's partner in
peace at the end of the war because Lee will do much to kind of continue the
efforts to quell this--the continuation of the war through a deadly guerrilla

GROSS: Of course, one thing we have to consider is that when the Civil War
ended and the United States was unified again, the South started to erect
really racist laws. And although slavery was illegal, African-Americans still
had few, if any, rights in the South for quite a while.

Mr. WINIK: Yeah. No, no. What would later follow was just a tragedy in
every way, shape and form. And one of the ways I think about this is I think,
you know, had Lincoln lived, he would have wept at the tragedy of
Reconstruction and he would have seen it as a flawed nightmare in every
respect. I also think he would have wept at some of what happened in the
North, as well, where there were also continuing elements of racism just in a
different form from what happened in the South.

But there is no doubt that the continuing struggle for civil rights and for
true freedom and true equality would really take another 90 or 100 years.
And, of course, many argue that it's a struggle that continues to this day.
But what's crucial to remember is that's a very different kind of chapter and
story than us becoming like a Northern Ireland or a Middle East or a Balkans.

GROSS: You used to work in government as an aide to Les Aspin. Have your
views of American government changed or American leadership changed as a
result of writing this book?

Mr. WINIK: Yeah. I mean, it--I mean, I've changed in all sorts of ways. I
mean, a lot of things I used to think when I was in government I don't think
anymore, after having spent four years reflecting on how this country kind of
emerged out of the turmoil of the Civil War and somehow survived. What I
really come out of this believing is people make history; leaders, men and
women. And, you know, there's a reason, I guess, why we have such bitter
debates over who becomes president or over who becomes our most senior general
or over who takes Cabinet positions, because it's not simply just the policies
or the government, per se, but if men and women at the top decide to pervert
the institutions of government, they could do that. But in the final
analysis, I think it's really these people who, at crucial moments, are either
shaped by history or shape history. And here we really see why leadership so
matters. I mean, I'm convinced that April 1865 is, in a final analysis, a
story of leadership on both sides.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. WINIK: Thanks very much for having me.

GROSS: Jay Winik is the author of "April 1865." He's a senior scholar at the
University of Maryland's School of Public Affairs.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: Coming up, starting an independent radio station in Sierra Leone
during the civil war; reporting on fear campaigns and atrocities while the
station was under fire. We meet Andrew Croma(ph), the founder and the main
voice of Sierra Leone's KISS 104.

(Soundbite of music)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Andrew Kromah discusses his life in Sierra Leone as
an investigative journalist and founder of two radio stations

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Andrew Kromah founded an independent radio station in his country, Sierra
Leone, eight years ago during its civil war. He now runs two stations. The
one in Freetown, the capital city, has been burned down twice. The station in
Bo, Sierra Leone's second-largest city, has been attacked with gunfire and was
temporarily closed down and forced into exile. That's just part of the
punishment Kromah has faced for keeping listeners informed about corruption
and atrocities. Kromah is often on the air broadcasting from his station in
Bo. He's one of the investigative reporters who reports under the house name
of Mr. Owl. Kromah grew up in the bush and has studied in the US at the
University of Texas and Duke University.

I spoke with him last week during his trip to the United States to study
public radio here. I asked him about covering Sierra Leone's democratic
election in 1996 when the rebels were mounting a campaign of terror to scare
people away from voting. As part of this campaign, the rebels amputated the
arms of thousands of men, women and children. I asked Kromah how his station
in Bo covered the story.

Mr. ANDREW KROMAH (Journalist): On the day of election, that was when we
were on the air telling people to go out and vote. It is your right. You
need it. You need a government. The military government need to go out. We
don't need a military government. It's not democratic. That day, we were
shot at. The commandants came up to the station just about 100 yards away and
the man who was standing beside me as the security was killed--I mean, this
was like two feet away from me--and bullets kept coming up. So we had to tape
the microphone over the speaker of the VHF radio. We ran into the bush and we
were still broadcasting from the bush while guns were being shot, were fired.
But the message at that time was to tell the people that go out and vote,
because our broadcast was getting to the villages where voting was taking
place. We didn't want that incident that was at our station to stop that. So
we continued. People were being amputated, in fact very close to the station.
There's a village next door, not too far away. We could hear the people
screaming. And--but we still continued to be on the air, to broadcast.

GROSS: Did you try to warn people about the possibility of amputation?

Mr. KROMAH: Yes, we did. When we go on the air and we get information about
danger areas, we tell people about those danger areas, and we are able to tell
them where safer areas are due to the interviews we conduct.

GROSS: Do you still see a lot of people walking around now who were amputated
during that '96 election?

Mr. KROMAH: Oh, yes. Children, women. I personally have witnessed
amputations. I thought I was gonna be the next. We've seen these things
happen and we're interviewed victims. I mean, we are talking about at the
time blood is dripping from the arm or the leg, we've interviewed them. We
have also had the opportunity to interview the perpetrators, why they do it.

GROSS: What are some of the things the perpetrators have told you?

Mr. KROMAH: Most of these people, they are just senseless. They didn't
know. They were just assume that the civilians don't like them, they don't
support them, so there's gonna be operation, no living thing. So I would ask
them questions like, `Then how will you go end no living thing?' They said,
`Well, until we find out that people change.' I said, `But is that the way
you gonna get people to change?' These are the hard questions that we ask,
and the reason why you ask them is because you want them to give out pertinent
information that people can know how these people perceive themselves.

GROSS: Now I understand that during the military takeover in 1997 that the
citizens of Bo where you live refused to accept the rule of the rebels who had
taken over and that your...

Mr. KROMAH: Yes.

GROSS: station became the only source of information for the city
because the city was basically cut off from--What?--the rest of the country
during this nine-month rule of the military?

Mr. KROMAH: Yes. It was a matter of deciding whether we should resume
broadcasting or not. Because that area was being protected by the civil
defense force, it was safer for us to broadcast from there. And we used that
radio station to tell the people that a military government is not your
answer; to tell the people that you have your rights to elect a civilian
government, and that don't support that government at all. That was very
brave of us, and we did that and did that, we became successful. People had a
sit-down strike, nobody went to work. We had to go into exile finally and
then resume broadcast again in 1998 when the democratically elected government
was reinstalled.

GROSS: Sierra Leone is a very dangerous place to practice journalism. It's
probably particularly dangerous for you. You're both the founder of a radio
station and an investigative reporter on that radio station. How do you
protect yourself? Do you carry a gun?

Mr. KROMAH: No. No. You don't. What you carry is your ID to show that you
are reporter for the radio station because...

GROSS: But that's part of the reason why they want to hurt you, because they
know you're a reporter.

Mr. KROMAH: Well, in most cases, when they want to hurt me, I'll tell you,
`Ah, ah, ah, ah, if you hurt me, nobody is going to know what you want to do.
I am here. You don't pay me. But I know you want people to know why you're
cutting their hands. You want people to know why you're burning their houses.
So if you kill me, how will people know how you perceive?' That has been
personally my survival, and I...

GROSS: Now tell me. Let me stop you. Has that actually worked sometimes?

Mr. KROMAH: Yes. Yeah, it's worked. Me and my--I have a very young wife,
very beautiful wife, with two young children. When my wife gave birth to my
son Anev(ph), we decided to take the children to show to our parents, but
there was no way we can afford to go by air. But because I believed that I
can go through the West Side Boys--these were soldiers that were recalcitrant,
very notorious guys--I set on this journey. I had put my family in the car.
Before I could start the car, my son, Abdu Kareem(ph), five years old by then,
said, `Daddy, let's pray before we start the car.' So I said, `OK.' So he
prayed for the trip, that the trip would be OK. `God, please guide my
father, guide us, protect us on the way.' After that, I started the car.

And when we were abducted that day, it came into my mind, for about two hours
I was negotiating our release. I was letting them to know that I'm not there
as an enemy. `If I'm an enemy, why will I come to you? Why would I come
through your area anyway? I'm just a journalist. I work for KISS radio.
Don't you know KISS radio? Don't you listen to KISS radio?' One or two
people said, `Yes, you don't like us. You tell us that we are killing
people.' I said, `But, yes, you're killing people, but the other side is also
killing people, but you have a reason why you're doing it. You guys are not
killing people?' They said, `Yes.' Their reason ...(unintelligible) me. So
I said, `Well, do you want an interview because I need to let the people know
what you are doing these things for?' That saved me, the ID card and I'm a
journalist, and especially so the institution that I work for, that I believe
in the truth.

GROSS: So did you interview the people who were interrogating you?

Mr. KROMAH: Yes, I interviewed them, and again, you see, they must rely on
you. I told them that I would air their messages. I aired it out, and then I
went to the government's side, interviewed the minister of defense, and he
also granted an interview. In fact, it was very nice. He actually appealed
to them to see a reason to stop the atrocities, and that if they don't, then
they would pursue them anyway. So you see, these messages go from one side to
another side, but being in between as a journalist, the only thing that would
save you is the truth. And I think you must identify yourself that, yes, this
is what I do.

GROSS: So the rebels who had abducted you and your family, when you
interviewed them, what was one of the main points that they wanted to make in
that interview?

Mr. KROMAH: They wanted to let the people know that the government owe them
salaries. They wanted to let the people know that the government is
illegitimate and that they want a transition government that will protect
them. That if they don't have a government that will protect them, then they
will continue because they were afraid of revenge. They have caused so much
atrocity. These are the guys who burned down Freetown January 6, 7 and 8, who
caused the worst atrocities in the world. I mean, we're talking about
killing, burning children, burning grandparents in their houses. Within three
days they did burn about over 5,000 people. These are the people I'm talking
about. So they got a chance to tell the world, or the country, that they were
doing this because they were forced to for the government don't like them, the
people don't like them, and they want a transition government that will
protect them from revenge. And I put that on the air.

GROSS: So you put that on the air and then you interviewed the government and
put their response on the air, too.

Mr. KROMAH: Yes, ma'am. Yes, yes.

GROSS: Did you get any reaction from the rebels after the broadcast?

Mr. KROMAH: No, I keep going, going. You solve one problem today and you
have bunch of problem. You have news coming from other areas. So it's like
it keep going. It's a mission. It's a journey. You keep going until you
find out that peace comes. And we were very happy when UN came.

GROSS: When the UN came?

Mr. KROMAH: And I knew that was gonna be the answer, when UN came in.

GROSS: What difference do you think the United Nations has made in Sierra

Mr. KROMAH: Three international committees made a big, big, big differences:
the United States government by threatening to prosecute all perpetrators for
crime against humanity. That was one of the strongest, because I remember
interviewing Ambassador Scheffer, who was ambassador-at-large for war crimes.
Then the British government and the American government really told these
people that this is wrong that you are doing. The United Nations deployed the
largest peacekeeping force ever deployed anywhere in the world, and they were
ready to make sure that peace returned to the country. I think they really
made a very, very remarkable impact on the country.

Today as I'm sitting here, I've made a phone call this morning. Disarmament
is going on, demobilization is going on, and people are reintegrating. We
must co-exist.

GROSS: My guest is Andrew Kromah, the founder of two independent radio
stations in his country, Sierra Leone. We'll talk more after a break. This

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Kromah, and he founded
and runs a radio station in Sierra Leone in the city of Bo. And the radio
station specializes in investigative reporting and reporting on the rebels,
reporting on the government, and there's been a lot of reprisals against the
radio station because it has angered people on all the sides in its attempt to
tell the truth.

What are some of the reports you have done lately that are very risky and

Mr. KROMAH: Like, for instance, there's massive corruption going on in the
country, and we think that must stop. We have put on air, revealed, I could
say, acts of corruption by the government. We have revealed fierce atrocities
that were usually unknown to other people, that we exposed this. We figure
those are very dangerous. There was a recent one with us and the power
company. We have an arrangement to the power company, the electricity
company, to provide us electricity, and when we cannot trade, they come in
with announcement, we air the announcement, and then they deduct it from how
much we owe them, simply because the economy is really, really bad. You
cannot depend on advertisement revenue for operation. This time around there
was storm and an electric pole was knocked down, the naked cable was lying
down there. A child was killed.

GROSS: A boy? A child was killed by this live wire?

Mr. KROMAH: We report--yes, there was electric--yeah, by the live wire he was
killed. So we reported that strictly in the news. And then Mr. Owl went on
the air to blame the...

GROSS: I should explain, Mr. Owl is your investigative journalist persona.
That's the name you use.

Mr. KROMAH: Yeah, that's the name we use is Mr. Owl. Mr. Owl will see
what is happening and describe it here and then as he's on the air. So people
really listen to--it is one of our most listened program. This time around,
Mr. Owl reported that ...(unintelligible) must be held liable because we
found out that they were informed about the live wire lying down there and
they did not disconnect it. The children, the schoolchildren, after the
funeral ceremony, were returning home and they still saw the live wire lying
down there. They demonstrated. We reported that--strict live reporting. And
then what hurt the light company was we issued a notice for people to stay
away from the area. That was one. Secondly, we also told the people that you
would not have electricity in that area until that problem is solved.

The light company did not see that as something we were doing in their favor.
They threatened to disconnect us if we don't pay them the arrears. We were
owing them 4,630,000 leones. That's equivalent to about $2,500.

GROSS: So because you covered the story about how the live wire killed a
child and the electric company wasn't doing anything about it, because you
covered the story, you might lose your electricity?

Mr. KROMAH: Yes. They gave us a deadline to pay, and that amount is a huge
amount of money for us to pay.

GROSS: So what are you gonna do to try to raise the money?

Mr. KROMAH: When I go back--it's still unknown. I've been here for three
weeks. I was studying how National Public Radios work. When I go back,
that's the issue I'm going to handle. We have a very old Russian generator
sitting there. It consume about two hours of diesel fuel an hour, and that
bites a lot into our revenue.

GROSS: Now I know that one of the investigative stories your station has
covered had to do with prostitution. What was the story?

Mr. KROMAH: We found out something very ...(unintelligible) that the men who
love to have sex with a prostitute and pay the prostitute more if they don't
protect themselves by using condom. If they use condom, then they will pay
less. This lady was actually evacuated from a war zone by a police officer
who was having sex with the lady as well, and we found out that was not
proper. So we decided to investigate. Then we find out that this lady in
fact was infected with AIDS, HIV. So we tried to find out, `How did you
contract this AIDS?' We found out that she was rescued from the war zone and
then taken to a brothel, where she was kept. For her to survive, she had to
get into sex with men, and to her surprise, the men would choose to pay her
more if they don't use condom, and pay her less if they use condom. Now we
decided to let the men know that they are responsible for the increase and the
spread of AIDS. That's what we got from covering the story on prostitution.

GROSS: How are men reacting to stories like that, where they're being held
accountable for not using condoms?

Mr. KROMAH: Well, these men are usually illiterate, uneducated, so we tried
to let them know these facts in their own languages. We're working on it. We
have three programs that deal with family issues. You know, the family in
Sierra Leone has been broken apart. We have a youth program, which is
actually a children's program. We have women to women's programs. So issues
like that are discussed in the women's to women's program, so that the women
discuss it and they are guided by it. Then we also discuss it in the men to
men's program. Boy, you should be--I mean, it was very amazing how much men
call in to explain that they didn't know that AIDS existed, so that's why they
were doing that.

GROSS: Do you think they honestly didn't know it existed?

Mr. KROMAH: Yes. There's not much education about AIDS. There's much
education about tuberculosis and other diseases like malaria, but not much
about AIDS. That's all.

GROSS: What are some of the myths about AIDS that are circulating in Sierra
Leone? And what are some of the most important information you think you have
to broadcast in order to combat these myths?

Mr. KROMAH: People believe that AIDS is from Europe, is from America, it does
not exist there, and it's a manmade disease. And they don't believe it
because of their marital status. You know, we have polygamous homes where the
women basically don't have much say. They don't have control over their men
to decide how many women you can have; in fact, whether you should have a
relationship out of the married home. So these people shift the budding of
AIDS to another community. They never accept that it is within their
community. They don't. They don't believe it is there. I think that's the
most serious one that I would really bring out, and that is why we are trying
to combat that you have to realize it is there. Listen to this lady. Listen
to the doctor. Listen to what we're telling you about the statistics. But
the problem here is most of the reporters in Sierra Leone are not
scientifically educated about AIDS, and I think that is one area we need to
look at.

GROSS: My guest is Andrew Kromah. We're talking about the radio station he
founded in the city of Bo in Sierra Leone. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Kromah, and he is from
Sierra Leone. He founded and runs a radio station in Bo, which is a city in
Sierra Leone, and it's a radio station that has been attacked several times
because of the information that it has presented that has challenged the
government, challenged the rebels, and also challenged myths about AIDS.

Did you study broadcasting or journalism at all?

Mr. KROMAH: No, I just believe in the truth. I'm an economist. I work as a
research assistant for a very hard professor, and he will tell me--I remember
the first time I wrote, he told me to go in and searching for data. I came up
with eight pages, and he said, `God, no. I need only one page and I should
let you know that out of the one page, I'm going to reduce it to just one
paragraph, so please go back and do it, and I need it in two hours.' That to
me always kept me on the line, that whoever you preparing what for, especially
a document you're trying to give information to somebody, you must thoroughly
research it and it must be important and it must be very interesting to the
people. So that has been my guide, and I've used this to run the radio
station. I have actually sacked a board who did not go down with the mission;
I have sacked three news directors; there was one time I suspended a whole
newsroom and decided that they should go in for one-week training on how to
report in a violent environment.

GROSS: What advice do you give your staff about how to report on a violent
situation so that the information gets on the air and the staff doesn't get
killed in the process?

Mr. KROMAH: Stay with the truth, that's one. And secondly, make sure you're
not taking side. You are playing a role where you're trying to build, to
create dialogue, so you don't try to favor any one group. You must balance
your story. That was very key in our reporting on the conflict, because
you're looking at two sides; sometimes, in fact, it became three sides. You
have the civilians in between there. So your obligation is to the civilians
to be able to decide, to listen to both sides. So that's why you go down to
one side and interview and go to the other side and interview. You stay with
the truth and nothing but the truth. Stay with it and you are OK. So that
you have the opportunity for people to believe you. I have an inscript on the
wall `believability.' That people must believe in what you're doing, they
must believe in what you're saying every day, and today we have established
very, very much committed to the truth.

GROSS: Your radio station's call letters are KISS, your radio station is
called KISS 104. Now there have been radio stations in the the United States
with those same call letters. They're usually rock radio stations. How did
you come up with KISS as the name for yours?

Mr. KROMAH: I'm a rock fan.


Mr. KROMAH: So I'm a rock fan. Even this morning I watched rock on the TV.
Remember, I went to Duke for some time.

GROSS: Right. To Duke University.

Mr. KROMAH: That was a rock area, so all that was in my mind was get a name,

GROSS: So did you name it after the rock group KISS or after another rock
radio station that was KISS?

Mr. KROMAH: I guess, you know, this is something that was new to me so I
just picking up a name, so I picked up a name, K-I-S-S, KISS, simply because
in United States, you have KISS, you have Capital Radio, this radio, so I
chose KISS.

GROSS: OK. So do you think most of the people in Bo, where you broadcast in
Sierra Leone, do you think most of them have radios, and what kind of radios
do they have?

Mr. KROMAH: That is one of the success stories, that we have made people to
rely on radios, so they--I have pictures even in my bag with people who have
to use their small transistor radios with them on the farm, on the village,
small packed village roads, they have their radios with them close to their
ears. They hold their machete in one hand and the radio in the other hand.
I've gone to somebody farm where you find children scaring birds away from
the rice farm, and they have their radio sitting there. We have music
programs like "Molimba,"(ph) that plays the kind of music they like, so they
are always listening to those music and the program on their farm, on their
jobs. Those small transistor radios, they go a long way and they have a lot
of them around now. There's an increase in number of radios.

GROSS: Is there any TV?

Mr. KROMAH: No. In Bo, except a few rich diamond dealers, they have TV and
videocassette players with them. But no television station that covers Bo.

GROSS: What about written newspapers?

Mr. KROMAH: None in Bo except Freetown, and they're not reliable.

GROSS: So if you want information, you gotta turn on the radio.

Mr. KROMAH: Yes.

GROSS: What's the next big issue you're gonna have to cover when you go home
to Sierra Leone?

Mr. KROMAH: We have two transitions now that we need to make sure that we go
through them properly. One is transition from war to peace. We need to make
sure people contribute to development positively. And they will have
transition to a true democracy. There's election coming. We want to have
massive voter education. People must be educated. We must have political
dialogues so that people at the end will accept the election result.

GROSS: Well, I wish you good luck and I thank you so much for talking with

Mr. KROMAH: Thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: Andrew Kromah is the founder of two independent radio stations in his
country, Sierra Leone. We spoke last week during his trip to the United
States to study public radio stations here.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue