For his Div III thesis, Sander Thoenes studied abroad in 1991 and authored “Soviet Journalism in the Gorbachev Years,” earning a $10,000 MacArthur Foundation grant. From Non Satis Scire, Hampshire College Alumni Magazine, Fall 2016
James Miller was reminded of that in September, when the communications professor and a dozen others gathered to dedicate a new bus stop outside of the Robert Crown Center in memory of one of Miller’s former students, Sander Thoenes 87F. Sander, said Miller, was “an ideal Hampshire student.” Born in the Netherlands, insatiably curious, Sander studied English literature and modern Russian history and burned with the belief that journalism had the power to give voice to ordinary people. The bus was Sander’s vehicle of choice. He used it frequently to get to classes on other campuses around the Five Colleges. He had the chance to join buddies who pooled their money to get a car of their own, but he chose not to. He continued to ride the bus alongside fellow students, staff, and local residents — a vehicle of the people.
Sander dedicated his life to giving voice to people the world needed to hear. At Hampshire he became fluent in Russian, and spent a fall in Moscow interning for U.S. News & World Report. Over three months in Russia, he interviewed more than 40 journalists, media experts, and government officials to more fully understand the role of the press in Soviet society during the reforms of President Mikhail Gorbachev. He drew on his reporting for his Div III, “Between Glasnost and a Free Press: Soviet Journalism in the Gorbachev Years.” The work earned him a $10,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation and admiration on campus. Miller, who was Sander’s Div III chair, still keeps a copy of the thesis in his office.
After Hampshire, he wrote for the Moscow Times, a pioneering English-language weekly, then became the Central Asia correspondent for the London-based Financial Times, reporting on stories from Chechnya, from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan. When he decided he wanted to cover the chaotic, nascent democracy emerging in Indonesia, Sander took courses in Indonesian culture, history, and language at Leiden University in the Netherlands, becoming fluent in Bahasa, the main language of Indonesia, before moving to Jakarta.
Two years later, covering the landing of InterFET peace- keepers in Dili, East Timor, he was killed by military gunshot after falling from a driver’s motorcycle.
At one of many memorials around the globe, Jay Rosen, chair of the Journalism Department at New York University, spoke to Sander’s insistence on telling stories from the ground up. “I’m speculating,” Rosen said, “but I believe Sander thought it wrong to report on a population when you don’t in some way live among them as people. When you operate by this code, you learn their language. You hang out with them. When you walk the streets you begin to see through their eyes. If later people take to those streets for a revolution, as they did in Moscow and Jakarta (or recently Belgrade), you can understand the event from below as well as from above.”
It is the reason that Sander was on a motorbike in East Timor, not with a translator, but with a driver. It is the reason he was on the ground. It is a reason he liked taking the bus. At the new shelter and bus stop outside the Robert Crown Center, a small plaque reminds us all of Sander’s legacy. It reads:
As a Hampshire student, Sander rode these buses to the classes that taught him about the transformative potential of journalism. As a reporter, he traveled the world recording and writing about the human struggle for freedom. In September 1999, East Timor voted for independence. Sander’s life ended when the Indonesian military shot him, preventing his articles from revealing their genocide. His death led to global awareness of the annihilation of the Timorese. Whatever journey you are about to take, you have the power to make it count.