As we chatted in the weeks before the interview, we discussed the subject of working abroad and the tendency for a sub-culture to emerge in foreign countries and trouble spots … perhaps turning people rich with dollars into ex-pats behaving badly. (Though I should add that Julia offered no evidence that she has ever behaved badly!)
Under the Wire [£7.99 paperback; £4.99 Kindle] which I read after attending the war photographer’s lecture at this year’s Belfast Festival.
It’s a challenging read, mixing selfish stupidity with selfless bravery, though I often wasn’t able to tell the difference. His madcap adventures – often with journalist Marie Colvin, and particularly centred around Syria where Marie was tragically killed in a rocket attack – point to a lifestyle choice that feels fear, suppresses the instinct to do anything about it, and instead finds ways of coping and even enjoying life in the middle of terror.
Julia mentioned another book in the genre that widens out the subject matter from journalism to international aid work and peace-keeping.
Emergency Sex (And Other Desperate Measures): True Stories from a War Zone [£7.19 paperback; £3.95 Kindle] has lost little of its hating challenge.
A New York social worker, a Harvard law graduate and a Red Cross doctor cross paths and forge lasting friendships in Cambodia around the time of the 1993 election. (There are a lot more desperate measures in the book that sex!)
Running away from a failed marriage, Heidi Postlewait finds refuge as a secretary in the United Nations and signs up for an exciting foreign mission posting helping run elections in Cambodia. Ken Cain wants to avoid corporate tax law and starts to conduct human rights surveys in the Khmer Rouge zone. Andrew Thomson saves lives as he negotiates to improve medical conditions in a series of inhumane prisons, yet can also saves lives by abandoning straight medicine and instead arranging the release of some of the men, often being held without due process.
The book alternates between the three authors, sometimes describing a situation from two or more viewpoints as it tracks their service through Cambodia, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda and Liberia. The writing isn’t lyrical but it’s frank and relates how their daily exposure to death – both those killed as the result of brutal regimes and the targeting of UN peacekeeping staff and their local colleagues and friends – increases with each new mission.
As the sun sets over the Mekong, I down another one and watch mesmerized as pink tracer rounds curve in graceful slow motion over the shimmering water. (Andrew)Sometimes the authors’ idealism weakens. But the beautiful – if battered – locales revitalise their spirits. A seemingly endless supply of reckless abandon, twinned with deep empathy for the victims and survivors keep them from running away from trouble spots.
So too do the relationships they foster with the wider aid/relief community and the military squads who surround them. The title refers to Heidi’s description of her desire for intimacy – or “emergency sex” – in the immediate aftermath of a near fatal incident with a sniper. To a large extent, like an extended sports team trip, what happens on tour stays on tour … unless your lover’s friend arrives to insist that you become a second wife to avoid bring shame on the family, or you write a book about it.
I’m about to explain that I’m not a licensed Lawyer in the U.S., but it’s anarchy here, that distinction matters in Cambridge [Massachusetts], not Mogadishu. (Ken)Experience and stamina starts to matter more than qualification. Judgement becomes flawed. Workers start to believe that being there available to help counts the most when lives are at stake, the sick need tending, and vicious slaughter needs to be documented if the perpetrators are ever to be brought to justice.
The 1990s and early 2000s were an age of phone calls and letters in these countries. Reports were faxed up the chain of command. Satellite phones were cutting age. News spread deliberately and didn’t leak out through the internet people hold in their hands today. Families waited for news.
There’s a cost to the work. Colleagues die. Partners die. But the very work that is meant to be doing good can be destructive too.
There is no way for us to win. The more effective we are, the more damage we do. (Ken)Establishing a justice system is important in a post-conflict regions. The opening ceremony of the new court in Mogadishu came under attack. Ken ended up calling in the raid to a startled Heidi manning the radio back at UN/US base, and arranging for the protection forces to rescue them. The next day a Red Cross worker reminded him “You killed twenty Somalis just to open your stupid American court!” Ken reflected: “I hadn’t thought of that yet. How many we killed.”
The authors are fiercely critical of western policy (particularly the US, through France gets a mention) and the United Nations’ very imperfect manner of operating. Inappropriate risks were taken – sometimes naïve, often deliberate – by local commanders. Valuing its staff more than those they serve, the UN evacuated its own people out of Haiti, abandoning the country’s citizens to certain carnage before returning to clear up the mess. Examples of embezzlement and highly inappropriate behaviour of UN officials went unchallenged despite reporting back to HQ. Why was the genocide allowed to happen in Rwanda?
Andrew led the forensic excavation of mass graves in Kibuye in Rwanda. “On this side of the lake, the newly dead outnumber the living.” Despite being double-gloved, washing parts of corpses from under his fingernails became part of his daily routine. The grave site was next to a Catholic church. Mid-dig, a new priest arrived and …
… insists we pay rent, in cash to him will be just fine, because we have installed our equipment and mobile morgue on church property. It’s to help the survivors he adds, looking me in the eye … [The government] want to return bodies to families for decent burials. The church’s man on the spot asking for money to dig up corpses …Andrew moved from Rwanda to more mass graves in Bosnia to gather evidence of the ethnic cleansing. He celebrated when he heard that Slobodan Milosevic was being flown to The Hague to be tried for war crimes that his forensic evidence would support. (Milosevic died before the trial could be concluded and was never found guilty of the charges brought against him.) Andrew reflected on the UN’s role in the tragedy.
From near the bottom of the grave we pull out the body of a young male dressed in full priest’s regalia. If this is the man we’ve heard about, he was with the people in the church, comforting the soon to be dead and refusing offers to be evacuated by boat at night to safety across the lake … Two priests, same church. One pays with his life, the other wants to be paid for the exhumation. The wrong man is in that body bag.
If blue helmeted UN peace-keepers show up in your town or village and offer to protect you, run. Or else get weapons. Your lives are worth so much less than theirs. I learned that the day we were evacuated from Haiti.Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is never named in the book. Yet it is written clearly between the lines on nearly every page. Returning to New York between missions was incredibly uncomfortable for the workers. The banalities of conversation. The missing camaraderie with relief colleagues. The awareness that their skills could be better used somewhere else in the world. At times the longing to be needed read as self-aggrandisement. Yet their self-criticism, identification of personal weakness and searching assessment of each other in the book and is disconcerting.
As the years stretch out, their lives continue to collide and their friendship deepens. Ken writes:
I watch Heidi play with fire everywhere she goes, and I guess I enjoy watching. But we all understand that one day the romantic adventure won’t end well. And I watch Andrew twist his conscience and faith into a more and more intractable knot with each new impossible mission. They’re both trapped inside their own illusions. It’s all so clear to me. I wonder what’s clear to them.Is doing their job more important than protecting their own lives? Is doing their job helping those in the countries in which they serve? Over how long a period does ‘good’ have to be measured? Months? Years? Decades?
I don’t know who saved the honor of mankind during my time in the field, but I do know that an ancestral memory of tyranny commands me to keep not silent. There is no ambiguity here. I am a witness. I have a voice. I have to write it down. (Ken)Often shocking, at times annoying, but frequently heart-breaking, the tale of these three relief workers simultaneously captures the best and worst of human behaviour and experience. It’s a moving book that will make you weep on the train as you read it and catch glimpses of the horrors we so often choose to avoid noticing in our own land, never mind the countries in which the UN operates.
Andrew wanted to bind the wounds of innocent war victims, hoping to find grace. Heidi embraced the freedom-born-of-emergency determined to liberate herself and, in the process, as many women as she could touch. I planned toe harness the power of an ascendant America to personally undo the Holocaust. [Ken is Jewish.] Don’t laugh. We were young. We weren’t the first, and won’t be the last, to venture forth overseas with grand ideas. (Ken)Believe it or not, this book was the Guardian’s top Christmas gift in its 2013 list of “what to give the aid worker in your life”!