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The Rouen Chronicles: The Strange and Short Saga of Dominique Vergos

August 3, 2014
Dominique Vergos - 1980s - somewhere in Afghanistan

Dominique Vergos – 1980s – somewhere in Afghanistan

1.

Agreed it is a bit of an unusual – almost certainly posed – picture of a man on camel in what appears to be some Middle Eastern or Central Asian desert.  For those who knew him well there is little doubt of either the man or the place. It is the Frenchman Dominique Vergos a top a camel somewhere in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s, where for a number of years he worked with the Afghan mujaheddin in their decade effort to expel Soviet troops from their country. It was related (by his family) that the Soviets placed a $100,000 bounty on Vergos’ head, never collected because he evaded them the years he slipped in and out of Afghanistan. I don’t know if the information is accurate. I am trying to remember from whom I received the picture; I believe it was from his widowed wife, thanking me for an inquiry about Dominique just after I learned of his fate.

He frequently went alone, deep into Afghanistan, where he made contact with rebel groups fighting the Soviet military occupation. In an age of cell phone intercepts and advanced satellite photography, still nothing really could compare to “on the ground” intelligence – direct contact with the many peoples and movements in Afghanistan. Very few westerners had access to it; few ventured into the Afghan heartland where the risks of not returning – or worse – really not finding anything or anyone – were great. Among the few that did – essentially a rather small handful of journalists, adventurers, spies and the like, was Dominique Vergos. That it required both a kind of stamina and courage rare in most people is undeniable. No question that Vergos possessed both. It might also help, as the British would put it, to be “a bit daft” as well. The intelligence thus provided cannot be underestimated.

When the war ended, the last Soviet troops left the country, their tails between their legs, leaving a mountain of arms and communication equipment for the Afghan rebels to use against one another. Shortly before, unable to tear himself away from the center of action, Vergos set up a household in Peshawar, in nw Pakistan, near the Afghan border, in a region largely out of control of the Islamabad government. There on Christmas Day, 1988 as the Soviet Occupation was coming to a close, returning from “The America Club”, one of his house body guards “accidentally” emptied an automatic rifle into Vergos’ body, killing him instantly, or so the story goes. (Another version of his death is that he was killed late one night when he went outside to feed the dog.) A few days prior, he had been warned by the French Embassy a few weeks prior to his death that his life might be in danger.(1) Months later, his brother, Didier Vergos, traveled from his home in Rouen, France to Peshawar where in a rather unpleasant experience, he identified the body and then had it transported back to France.

Dominique Vergos’ remains lie buried in a small cemetery sitting on a hill near Brest, the French port town in the Brittany region where I saw it in the summer of 1992 on a visit to the Vergos family where the family still owns property. After some hesitation, it was related (by those close to him) that in his Afghan ventures that Vergos was actually employed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency, a connection that was made during the Lebanese Civil War of the late 1970s where he worked as a photographer for a French news agency. Was it the C.I.A. or is that simply a generic term for some U.S. based intelligence agency? There are a fair number of them. Girardet (see below) suggests he did so for the money; my hunch is that, like some others in war zones, he became addicted to high level of drama and could never accustom himself to “a normal life” outside of a war zone. There was always something “high risk, high gain” about Dominique even before he began his adventures as a spy for Washington.  I would have thought he would work for French intelligence, but Vergos had a nose for power and seemed to greatly admire everything about the United States, so the C.I.A. connection was not implausible. His assassination – for that is most likely what it was – has never been explained. My speculation, granted it is no more than that, is that Vergos knew too much and as a result needed to be eliminated so that his impressive store of knowledge of Afghan rebel groups could not be used against them in the future.

Already, almost immediately with the withdrawal of Soviet forces, the Afghan strategic situation shifted from one in which the United States alliances with its Afghan partners would collapse, as it did, and worse, that the rebels and the U.S would soon find themselves on opposite sides of a wide political divide…although I cannot prove any of this. And so he died, or was killed, now a quarter century ago, with enough time having passed that I feel I can write about it all.Others, including his now deceased widow (who remarried) Juliet Crawley Peck, speculate that the Afghan secret police during the Soviet occupation, the Khadhad him killed. To this day there is no confirmation.

2.

In the summer of 1992 I returned to France for several weeks. During that time I went to look up old friends and acquaintances from an earlier period. Between September of 1964 and early June of 1965, I participated in St. Lawrence University’s first “Junior Year Abroad” program. After a six-week initial orientation period in Paris, our group of some 25 or so moved to Rouen, in Normandy, a city with a rich cultural and commercial history, located along the Seine River which runs through its center, halfway between Paris and Le Havre, where we stayed for the academic year. We attended the Faculté des Lettres at the university at Mont Saint Aignon, on the high grounds north of Rouen. Frank K. Kappler III and I lived with the Vergos family during that time at 75 bis rue de Renard in Rouen.

I do not remember Monsieur nor Madame Vergos’ first names; we simply referred to them as “Monsieur” and “Madame” Vergos. He hailed from the Brest region and had a history of maritime adventures in his blood. She came from Lille in France’s far north near the border with Belgium. They had two sons, fraternal twins, Dominique and Didier Vergos. They were for the most part quite a conservative family and there is little doubt that Dominique absorbed his father’s political orientation to a considerable degree.

Monsieur was a strong supporter of one Tixier Vigancourt, probably the most extreme right-wing French politician of the period, with French fascist, ultra-nationalist credentials par excellence. Vigancourt ran for the French presidency in 1965 and came in forth; He went on, appropriately enough, to become the campaign manager of French ultra-nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-semite par excellence. His support for Le Pen was among Vigancourt’s later political connections; the earlier ones were just as right-wing. During World War II, he was a strong supporter of and participant in the pro-Nazi Vichy government headed up by Marshall Petain. During France’s war to crush the Algerian resistance movement which ended two short years prior to our arrival in Rouen, Tixier Vigancourt was a strong supporter of the para-military Organization de l’Armée Secrète (O.A.S.) which engaged in numerous terrorist acts in Algeria itself against French opponents of the colonial venture and as well as against Algerians challenging French rule. It France itself, the O.A.S. also conducted a campaign of terror that included numerous attempts to assassinate French President Charles De Gaulle. Its leader was General Raoul Salan whom Tixier Vigancourt defended in court against charges of treason.

It was Tixier Vigancourt for whom M. Vergos had the utmost admiration.

As I recall, his sons Dominique and Didier did some work for Vigancourt’s campaign. Having described M. Vergos’ politics, I should say that he was polite and even friendly to Frank and me. I don’t know what he did during World War II or if he had a role in support of Vichy. Nor were his right-wing French-Catholic conservative politics at all unusual. It was in the later months of our stay that some of his politics surfaced; for the most part it didn’t and even if it had, for the first six months there my understanding of French was too poor to have made much of it. But I do remember one incident where he went on about “Les Juifs” (the Jews) and how they controlled the world and couldn’t be trusted. In my (then) innocence I burst out “But M. Vergos, I am Jewish myself and neither my family nor I control anything.” Perhaps he did not know my ethnicity; I do not remember, but his face turned red and he began to make apologies, that he wasn’t talking about me, etc. Usual bullshit of someone confronted with their own racism.

Although I “forgave” him at the time, the remark hurt me deeply and I never forgot it. It was only afterwards that I began to wonder about Vigancourt and what he was about. Madame Vergos, remains, fifty years later, one of my favorite people. I suppose she must have shared her husband’s right-wing politics – the marriage seemed quite stable – but she was cut out of a different mold. Kindness exuded from her every pore. A somewhat high-strung, nervous woman with a high-pitched voice, she was a very considerate, loving human being who wouldn’t and couldn’t hurt a fly. She looked after Frank and me as if we were her own children and if I decided to go back in 1992 and look up the family it was in large measure to see her once again.

Dominique (left) and Didier Vergos. Dieppe, France, March, 1965

Dominique (left) and Didier Vergos. Dieppe, France, March, 1965

Why did our program director, Dr. Oliver Andrews, chose such “arch-conservative” families for us to live with? I don’t know; perhaps they weren’t all that way? And in the end on the personal level I have no complaints really with how I was treated among the Vergoses. To the contrary. But I suspect he looked for stolidly middle, middle-upper class families whose politics would be somewhere between centrist and right-wing to counter balance what he knew to be the left thinking of so many French university students. The talk might be “left-wing” at school; but back with our families they would take a more conservative bent. As for the twins, at the time Didier was pursuing a technical education; he would go on both to skipper an oil tanker than ran from the Persian Gulf, up through the Red Sea through the Suez Canal to Marseilles, France and back. At the time we were there, Dominique was a student at what is referred to as L’École de Beaux Arts in Rouen – an art institute. One had to already have talent to be admitted, and this he had; but he wasn’t a very attentive student, often skipped class and if I remember correctly got expelled …and then re-applied. My memory of these details is admitted sketchy, but that is what I recall a half century later.

3. The four of us, Dominique, Didier, Frank and I were a good mix. We did a lot together, got along very well and developed genuine friendships. On several occasions, M. Vergos took the four of us on excursions, one to Dieppe, another to the surrounding region in Normandy. I have photos from that time. I don’t remember how it happened but once the four of us were extras in an opera that was playing in town as well. When Frank and I left Rouen in June, 1965 it was on very good terms with the Vergos family. We returned home to the United States sometime in late July, 1965. Shortly thereafter, very shortly actually, Dominique came to the United States. He stayed with my family in Jamaica, Queens, New York. Just after he arrived I had to go off to college (St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York) and I didn’t see that much of him then. He wasn’t the first and certainly the last of my foreign friend who would stay with my mother, borrow money that he never paid back (and probably never intended to) and left having broken the hearts of a few star struck American women along the way. He stayed for several months, traveling some along the East Coast, before running out of money and heading back to France.

I would occasionally hear how he was or wasn’t going back to finish his studies, that he couldn’t “find himself” (who could in those days) and then lost track. The details of his life, pieces of it, are gathered here. In the early 1970s Vergos became a photographer for the French version of Vogue, the famous fashion magazine, a job he held for a few years before quitting for more dangerous, adventurous and profitable pastures. Sometime around 1980 friends from Rouen related that he had become a professional photographer and had gone to Lebanon to work for SYGMA, a French press agency. A Dominique Vergos photo on sale at EBAY dated August 15, 1976 has him in Beirut photographing the massacre of Palestinians at the Tel Zaatar refugee camp done by Lebanense Phalangist fascist elements. It is a part of a series of 38 photos of that massacre still offered on EBAY entitled “Beyrouth, 15 Aout, 1976.” . By that time I was  involved in Middle East peace and solidarity work; in 1981, a year prior to the Israeli invasion, I visited Lebanon but was too busy to look him up. I wondered though, for whom was he working? France was far from neutral in that Civil War. But I never found out.

There are portraits of Dominique Vergos written in a number of books about the Afghan War. A  elaborate sketch is found in a history of the wars in Afghanistan. Actually it is his wife, Juliet Crawley Peck, who is featured in a chapter in  Killing The Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades Of War In Afghanistan by Edward Girardet. She headed up a British humanitarian aid organization. But there are a few telling paragraphs about Vergos as well.  Girardet covered the Afghan war for The Christian Science Monitor, knew Vergos and quoted him in some of his articles. The brief portrait Girardet paints of Vergos is rather cutting, but admittedly, it rang true to the “Dominique” I remember. In “Killing Cranes” (pages 233-4) Girardet describes Vergos as “a flamboyant French fashion photographer-turned-war-reporter-cum spy” – quite a description. He goes on to give flesh to that skeleton, speaking of Vergos as “tall and suave with his groomed shoulder-length hair, always carefully dressed in front-line chic (whatever that means – rjp). He wore silk scarves, Mongolian riding boots, embroidered Turkmen waist coats and tribal turbans.” Girardet goes on:

“Dominique found that he could do better financially as a spy for a consortium of NATO intelligence organizations than as a journalist. Whenever he traveled he carried a revolver and a Ghazni sword. He was also never without his huge Damascus curved Bowie knife which he used to take out while chatting in restaurants or at parties. Taking his sense of adventure to the extreme, Dominique was an excellent horseman who would disappear for months on end deep inside Afghanistan, ostensibly to shoot photographs, which he did, but also to record rifle serial numbers to determine weapons’ distribution among the guerrillas.” (2)

David Loyn mentions how Vergos would lead American television crews into Afghanistan during the war years. One time he led a NBC television crew into the war-torn country for a week’s filming that netted some $80,000 for a week’s work. Dangerous but profitable. He was frequently quoted during the war in the U.S. media. For example, a Washington Post story from February 21, 1985 quotes Vergos commenting on how anti-Soviet mujahhedin would ride around in open vehicles in the western Afghan city of Herat (see p.8 of this link). He claimed that at the time the rebels controlled three quarters of the city. His intelligence connections are more than likely the explanation of his close contacts with U.S. media outlets.

Also according to Loyn, after Vergos married Juliet Crawley, his U.S. spymasters cut him loose because he was married. Soon the couple had a son Finn. Vergos began another project, in which intelligence agencies have long been involved, refugee repatriation. He landed a job with the United Nations Refugee Agency mapping Afghanistan in case refugees in Pakistan should be able to return to Afghanistan after the war’s end. It was while so employed that he was killed; it was never clearly determined who was behind Vergos’ death although the idea that it was a simply mistaken action by his night watchman has been since discounted by those who have written about the incident. After the fall of the pro-Soviet government in Kabul, Pashtun rebel leader Abdul Haq, later executed by the Taliban, tried to help solve the mystery to no avail.

I wasn’t entirely surprised a decade later to hear that he had gone on from Lebanon to Afghanistan, had been employed by the C.I.A. and was killed by his own private body guards in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1989. Still quite a life’s journey, no?  Twenty five years after his death, he lives on; one of Dominique Vergos’ photos is on sale on EBAY for 80,000 Euros.

Footnotes:

1. David Loyn. Frontline: Reporting From the World’s Most Dangerous Places. Summersdale Publishers, 2011. p.50-51. (originally published in 2005)

2. Edward Girardet. Killing The Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War In Afghanistan. Chelsea Green Publishers. 2011. pp. 233-4)

________________

Links:

Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 1

Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 2: Ahmed Ben Bella

Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 3: Robert Merle in October, 1964

Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 4: “Fortunes de France” Series Translated Into English

Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 5: City of Wisdom and Blood

Rouen Chronicles: Arques La Bataille and Dieppe

Rouen Chronicles: Dieppe 2 – The Botched Dieppe Raid of August 17, 1942 (in two parts) – Part One

Rouen Chronicles: Dieppe 2 – The Botched DieppeRaid of August 17. 1942 (in two parts) – Part Two

Rouen Chronicles: Amsterdam – 1965

Rouen Chronicles: Ferid Boughedir

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