Ryszard Kapuscinski, a great reporter and one of the finest writers of nonfiction, died Tuesday after suffering a heart attack. He was 74, and had lived a hard life, so perhaps there was nothing surprising about that-- but where he died was a little surprising. He died in bed, in a hospital in his native Warsaw. Of course, for most people there's nothing surprising about dying in the hushed, sanitary atmosphere of a hospital, but Ryszard Kapuscinski was nothing like most people.
The Washington Post recounts a scene from Kapuscinski's legendary career as a foreign correspondent for the Polish Press Association:
At the outbreak of the 1967 Biafran secessionist war in Nigeria, Mr. Kapuscinski heard of a road that was blocked by burning roadblocks and from which "no white man can come back alive."
Testing the rumor, he passed the first roadblock but was assaulted at a second by machete-wielding thugs who supported the United Progressive Grand Alliance political party. They took his money and doused him with the flammable liquid benzene.
"The boss of the operation stuffed my money into his pocket and shouted at me, blasted me with his beery breath: 'Power! UPGA must get power! We want power! UPGA is power!'" Mr. Kapuscinski later wrote. "His face was flooding sweat, the veins on his forehead were bulging and his eyes were shot with blood and madness. He was happy and he began to laugh in joy. They all started laughing. That laughter saved me.
"They ordered me to drive on."
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Kapuscinski wrote about that incident in his 1992 book, The Soccer War. The Soccer War, a beautifully written collection of reportage and ruminations, is also the best introduction to Kapuscinski's career, during which he covered 27 revolutions and coups in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East.