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Life during wartime

NGO big or go home
By S.I. ROSENBAUM  |  April 6, 2011


WORLDS COLLIDE Marine Captain Rye Barcott took breaks from fighting insurgents in Fallujah to check in with his NGO.
In Fallujah, Marine Captain Rye Barcott got good at separating the two parts of his soul. 

On the one hand, like most soldiers, the Rhode Island native was developing a taste for combat, the adrenaline rush of violence.

But most soldiers hadn't founded an NGO at the age of 22.

Barcott was a University of North Carolina student when he visited the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, to research ethnic strife. Instead, he partnered with two local activists — a former street orphan and a widowed nurse — to found non-governmental organization Carolina for Kibera (CFK). Together, they raised money to bring schools and health clinics to one of the most desperate places on Earth.

"I think there are lots of opportunities to reach out to people fighting to improve their situation," Barcott told me back when I first wrote about him, in 2001. "It doesn't take much."

Their first project was a soccer tournament. People in Kibera loved the game, but tournaments were run by corrupt local politicians; teams were divided by ethnicity, and matches could spill over into violence.

The teams CFK organized were multi-ethnic, with kids from warring groups playing side by side. The admission fee was a community garbage clean-up.

The program was a huge success.

I kept in touch with Barcott, and worried when he was deployed to Fallujah. Of all the people I've interviewed, he was the only one I ever e-mailed to say, "Don't get yourself killed."

So when I saw that he was in town on a book tour for his new memoir, It Happened on the Way to War, I called him up. His voice sounded the same, warm and energetic. When I asked how he'd managed to come home from war unchanged, he laughed.

"I didn't," he said.

"The effect of violence was damaging," he told me. "I felt a pull to the experience of combat." A few times a week, after patrols, he would satellite-phone CFK. Mostly, he tried not to talk about the NGO with his fellow marines.

"I tried to keep the two worlds compartmentalized," he said. "But the compartments always broke down. At a certain point they always clashed and converged."

Like when? I asked. And he told me.

At one point, Barcott found himself in Abu Ghraib. He was there to interview a pair of detainees, assassins who had killed a Fallujah politician. "These assassins were kids, 11 and 15 years old," he says. "And when I found them at Abu Ghraib, they were on a field kicking a soccer ball."

They could have been kids in Kibera. "What separates them from us?" he asked. "There has to be a better way than this."

Barcott's memoir comes out this week, on the 10th anniversary of the founding of CFK — now a million-dollar organization. Barcott will read from the book on April 8 at the Harvard Book Store at 7 pm.

Barcott says he didn't leave Fallujah with any easy answers. But there is one thing he feels certain of.

"All change starts with small groups of committed individuals," he says. "If you're able to cross boundaries and have conversations with folks that are very different from you, you can make a difference."

Related: Mad Men on Mass Ave, Goon to Carolina, Chafee and the hazards of a bold politics, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , North Carolina, Rhode Island, Kenya,  More more >
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