The Last Word: Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie began traveling as a good-will ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) some six years ago. She has visited the victims of violence in Africa, Pakistan and Cambodia—first as an observer in the background, then using her fame to draw attention to the plight of the helpless. Recently the movie star visited a refugee camp housing Darfur refugees in Chad. NEWSWEEK's Christopher Dickey spoke to her about her mission. Excerpts:

DICKEY: What was your original motivation for working with the UNHCR, for doing these kinds of trips?
JOLIE: I started traveling about seven years ago with film. I would go to places like Cambodia and hear about the many refugees in Thailand and hear about the land mines and hear about the history ... I remember sitting up for two days straight and reading everything obsessively. I read about the UNHCR, and I realized it was an agency that I didn't know anything about: that they were taking care of 20 million people ... And I remember realizing that I couldn't understand how I had not known that my whole life.

When did it occur to you that you could do something about this directly? Did people approach you, or—
I approached them. I think they thought I was a little crazy.

When was this?
Six years ago. I was very nervous to call the U.N. agency at the time. I [was] considered a rebel in Hollywood. At the time I was also a bit of a wild child. So first I went to Washington [to the UNHCR office] and I sat with everybody there and said, "You know, I know you don't know me. You might have heard things about me ... And I don't want to bring negative attention to your agency. If you could just help me, I'll pay my way."
I spent the next year and a half going to, first, two camps in Africa, and then Pakistan and Cambodia. And with no cameras and with no press, and had the opportunity to have this great education before I spoke at all ... I was transformed in such an amazing way.

But you do have photographers following you now.
It took me a while to agree to do it. I guess I saw that so many times the picture comes before the knowledge and the substance and I certainly didn't want to do that to myself or the organization. And also, I really just was shy. I was shy about sitting on the floor and talking to a woman and having a camera take a picture because I thought it was making less of my conversation with her. But [then I thought,] let the people speak for themselves through the camera. And if I can draw you in a little because I'm familiar, then that's great. Because I know that at the end you're not looking at me, you're looking at them.

I think it's fair to say people start out by looking at you, Angelina.
As long as they end up looking at them, that's the point.

Do you worry about people who say this is celebrity tourism?
I don't know if anybody saying that has spent the last six years of their life going to over 30 camps and really spending time with these people. I can't care.

Do you still go with so few people? I can't believe you take no one with you ...
I take no one. I [go] by myself on a commercial plane and into the field with my backpack.

You still do that?
Yes, I just did that on my last trip. I met the photographer there.

When you got there, what were the people saying about their situation? There are photographs with this boy tied to a tent pole.
The little boy was a normal 3-year-old who disappeared for 48 hours after [his village was bombed]. I can only imagine what he saw. And when found, he was found in a state ... As a first reaction you want to remove [the rope]. But the mother, she has four other kids, she's by herself. Therapists visit him, but if [he's] left alone he will disappear or bang himself. I talked to him for like half an hour and just kind of looked at him for a long time before he touched me, and there was a little boy in there who was open to a kind sound ... There's a normal little kid right there, but he's got a look of fear. He's nervous to touch. And you can feel that need for safety. The mother unfortunately can't not go work for the other children and can't sit with him all day long and hold him, which is probably what would do some good. But what he needs is probably some serious therapy. [There are] lots of children like him there.

Do you despair?
Certainly, at times. The first two years I just cried constantly, like a woman does.

Oh, like anybody does.
Yes, like anybody does, thank you. And I went through a period of just complete lack of hope. And then I went through a period of anger that smart, articulate people in power have not been able to answer these issues and define ways of intervention. And that it just keeps going on. About a year ago, I got a lot of books on international law and I tried to study what was going on. I don't want to have to keep going back to camps, five different times, over the next 30 years of my life, [for situations] that there are no solutions for.