“A blink of an eye, and a million killed”

Author Aidan Hartley talks about his new book, "The Zanzibar Chest," the horrors of Somalia and Rwanda, and when you know war has become genocide.

Topics: Africa, Author Interviews, Somalia, Books,

"A blink of an eye, and a million killed"

Just after I got in touch with author Aidan Hartley in London by phone, he anxiously asked if I’d actually read his new book, “The Zanzibar Chest: A Story of Life, Love and Death in Foreign Lands.” Many authors expect interviewers to have perused the publicity information rather than the text itself, so I wasn’t surprised to hear Hartley so concerned. (Yes, I’d read the whole thing — it’s hard not to.) Turns out, however, that Hartley specifically wanted to know whether I’d gotten to the optimistic last two pages. Otherwise, he explained, his memoir of growing up in East Africa and reporting on the continent’s worst conflicts in the 1980s and 1990s might be too dark, and too devastating, to take.

Yet “The Zanzibar Chest,” even at its most harrowing in Hartley’s riveting chapters about the U.N.’s failed intervention in Somalia and the Rwandan genocide, is thrillingly charged with an undercurrent of passion. That love for Africa is in Hartley’s blood; he’s British, but his family has lived there for four generations. What separated Hartley and many of his Reuters colleagues from the war correspondents was that they were writing about their homes. Such intimacy lends his first book a sense that, in each disaster, the stakes were personal and therefore much, much higher.

Hartley, now in his late 30s, lives on a farm in Kenya with his wife and children, writes for the British magazine Spectator, and is working to establish Africa’s first environmental news agency. He spoke to Salon about the West’s failures in Somalia and Rwanda, the current fighting in Liberia, how you know when a genocide is a genocide, and why some countries might not be ready for a Western-style democracy.

Do you miss reporting on wars or conflicts? Or have you had enough?

I’m definitely over it. I worked for a think tank after I stopped working for Reuters and I had to go into the Congo. This was in 2000. It’s the first scene of the book, the moment when my wife Claire phoned and she’s about to have our first daughter and I realized I was very definitely over the urge to do this. I still travel all over Africa, but I would be very circumspect about doing silly stuff. I just try to avoid the conflict now.



As opposed to looking for the conflict. I was really fascinated by the idea that your editors would say “No story is worth dying for” and yet that was clearly not true. Why do you think that you were willing to risk your life for this?

Initially I didn’t think this was what I wanted to do. It’s the misfortune of people in East Africa to live in a troubled region. When we were growing up, we expected it to be peaceful, and it just didn’t turn out that way. Living in an area that you love, you get sucked into things. At Reuters, one ended up writing about everything from football games to macroeconomics to travel agents’ conferences, and it just happened that there were more wars than anything else going on. So it became a way of life.

There aren’t really any “war reporters”; there are just reporters who end up covering a lot of wars. I’m horrified by people who say, “I want to be a war correspondent.” That’s an incredibly unpleasant thing to say. One of the things about a lot of the Western correspondents who go and cover wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that those places are not their homes. What I tried to convey in this book is that this is my home. Somalia is close to my home. I would go home to my family, and God forbid that [conflict] would engulf your own threshold, but in a very real sense it was doing that all the time. For example in Nairobi, with the whole democracy movement to overthrow [President Daniel arap] Moi … that whole process was something that affected us all.

You write about this line between journalist and participant and how you often felt compelled to get involved in a conflict. You were advancing with rebel armies through conflict-ridden areas, for example in Ethiopia. Was there any moment where you felt yourself coming very close to getting involved?

In Kenya, as an East African of European origin — we had a pretty checkered past there and I’m pretty ambivalent about the whole colonial project — I felt very strongly that that was a time when I could cross the line and get involved politically. But I also felt that I have been part of the process because I reported what was happening in Kenya from 1989 until the late 1990s. One can be involved without crossing the line. One doesn’t have to wear rubber gloves throughout the whole experience. By your own interest it’s implicit that you’re involved. But there is a journey in the book that goes from being slightly immature to being, I hope, more mature by the end of the book about wanting to cross the line.

You just said that you’re “ambivalent about the colonial project.” That’s interesting — especially since you’re a fourth-generation Brit living in Africa. While covering Somalia, you write that for all their arrogance, the British had their feet on the ground in a way that the U.N. in the 1990s did not. What did you mean by that?

It’s also reflected in the whole story about some reporters: Whether they’re black, brown or white, they lived in the area and report on what is their homes. You’re just simply not going to understand what is going on in a country like Somalia unless you lived there. My only point with regard to comparing the colonial ancestors with UNOSOM [the United Nations Operation in Somalia] was that people like my father might have been part of a whole superstructure that was wrong, wrong, wrong, but as individuals they lived their lives there. The U.N. gets hardship leave every six weeks, and hardship pay, whereas those colonialists who stayed are there for very often their entire lives. They could speak the language. My father could speak several vernacular languages — Arabic, Somali, etc. — he really made an effort because he loved the place. And that was just qualitatively different from the type of person who would just go and work in Somalia because there was a good opportunity for a bit of a thrill and a six-month contract.

Unfortunately, even for people who are very serious about the work that they do, the way we live now is not disposed to [living as my father and other British colonialists did]. We live in the modern world. It’s a bit of pity you aren’t stranded for a year and instead keep getting pulled out on relief flights for your R&R or whatever. That’s not to say there aren’t wonderful people working in those regions. But in that instance I was speaking about UNOSOM and this sort of disgusting thing that they imposed on Somalia that was so ignorant and offensive because it disregarded the Somalis entirely. It was sort of hermetically sealed from it.

How? How was it completely obvious to you that they didn’t understand Somalia?

First of all, Somalia descended into the state that it was in during the civil war largely because of foreign intervention — the pouring of weapons into the area during the Cold War and a lot of U.N. policies that had caused trouble for the country. When UNOSOM started, I don’t think anybody believed that they would be able to put Somalia back in two years. The parallels with Iraq are rather stark. The declaration that the guerrilla war is going to end “now,” and we’re going to have the New York head of police running the country’s police forces, and law and order will be restored …. it’s just fiction. Did anyone know what course Iraq would be taking in the last few weeks? It was obvious that it wasn’t going to be plain sailing from the day that the war was declared ended, surely. You can’t imagine in a country that has been ravaged by dictatorship and doesn’t have any kind of history or structure or Westminster or American democracy to suddenly create a democracy in a couple of years.

Basically what foreigners have got to understand when they go into something like that is that they have to be in for the long haul, that it’s a long process of give and take, and maybe, in the end, countries like Somalia don’t want to be Western democracies. That’s the sad truth of it.

Do you think that’s true?

Put it this way, I don’t think there’s going to be a Western-style democracy in Somalia in the foreseeable future. It has a few hospitals run by NGOs, but it has no police force, no schools, none of the infrastructures of government, and it hasn’t since 1990.

Have you been back?

Yes, lots of times. And I always find it fascinating how a country so off the map has continued to exist. Life goes on in its strange, sometimes wonderful way. The Somalis have created this fully privatized state. It’s a sort of libertarian heaven because there are no taxes, no controls. It’s just a smoking hole that the world has done nothing about.

Is it still as violent as it was in the early 1990s?

After the fury of the civil war, it sort of died down. Every now and again one militia takes a series of potshots at another militia, and a few people get killed and another building gets destroyed. It sort of just ticks along. It’s kind of offensive to me how the Western world hasn’t done anything about it. There are all these pronouncements about places like Afghanistan and Iraq, but the reality is, they leave work undone in places like that. Somalia supplies refugees to the rest of the world who work in taxis and 7-Elevens and send money back to their relatives in Somalia — where the problems continue.

It’s often been said that the last decade of neglect in Africa, and perhaps elsewhere before Sept. 11, has a lot to do with what happened in Somalia in 1993 when 18 American soldiers died.

Certainly after Somalia that is why [America didn't get involved in African conflicts]. Until now, possibly, in Liberia. Before that there was very little interest in intervening in conflicts. There was a terrible conflict in Liberia in 1990 and there was no suggestion in getting involved there. The one turning point was under the U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. He said, “Give me your battalions for peace.” He thought that the world could come down to end famine, dictators, civil wars, that sort of thing. They’d be using the might of the West for the good — to deliver bags of food and come between warring armies. So there was this blip moment toward the end of George Bush Sr.’s administration, when the Balkans were regarded as too risky, that Colin Powell said that Somalia was a good idea. Because they didn’t think it would be problematic.

It was a gesture, and one in the right direction. And I’m not ever going to criticize the good intentions that America had when it went into Somalia. They weren’t after oil; they were out to do the best thing possible. But they didn’t go in with any sort of dossier of advice. You can’t ask an artillery general to expect to understand what’s going on in Somalia’s politics or society. Half of those guys are Vietnam veterans — they had amazing problems understanding where they were. I think sometimes they thought they were in Vietnam. And after the [1993 disaster] you had the Mogadishu effect, where [the United States] didn’t want to get involved in anything in the continent. That’s what happened in Rwanda. That’s the single largest reason why there wasn’t more of an armed response to the genocide. Since then there hasn’t been anything that matched Rwanda in its fury and it’s hard to see how big military intervention would do a great deal in the Congo to stop a war that has allegedly killed 3 million people. In terms of the West being proactive in a peacemaking role, Somalia ended it.

Do you think we’re seeing something changing now with Liberia?

It seems to me that the Mogadishu effect is over with this sort of new neoconservative movement in the States. But I think the same mistakes are being repeated. In the case of Liberia, no, you won’t see the same sort of aggressive peace imposition that took place in Somalia. You would only see a small liaison force. For many reasons, I would say that’s probably a good idea. Maybe a West African force can lead that problem better. I’m quite cautious about there being a strong Western peace imposition force in Liberia because, once again, there’s very little infrastructure there. It’s very difficult to say you can impose peace unless you say, “We are just going to run this country. We’re not even going to have any kind of pretense that we’re going to hand it over to a democracy within a certain period.” But once you say you’re just going to run everything according to military rules, then you’ve got an empire. America has never wanted to have one of those. But it’s interesting, because you’re being sucked in that direction, against your will.

You write about how the media paid less and less attention to Africa over time as well. What was that like, especially being in Rwanda and realizing that no one cared when one of the great tragedies of the 20th century was playing out?

Over time it has definitely been the case that international media have covered Africa less and less. The thing that kept it going during the 1980s was that there was an immense interest in South Africa — the whole apartheid story drew in large numbers of journalists. Basically these resources have been drained because the bottom line is what speaks now. A lot of these companies like Reuters became listed on stock exchanges and they’re beholden to their shareholders.

For example, all the time that I was a reporter in Nairobi there was a Newsweek correspondent for Africa based in Nairobi — he had a big office and a company car. That no longer exists. It seems scandalous that there’s an entire continent of 50-something nations that isn’t really covered, except out of Johannesburg. I think the same is true for Time magazine. The Washington Post and the New York Times are pretty good about it, though.

So what was that like during Rwanda? It must have been surreal for you.

It was appalling, horrible. There was a small Nairobi press corps and other people coming in from Kampala who knew what was going on. But even those media organizations that should have been the most conscientious about covering Africa — the supposedly liberal ones — were the ones that didn’t want to know. They didn’t want to acknowledge that such a terrible thing could be happening in Africa, most particularly at the time of the South African elections. They wanted to produce out of Africa a positive story: Nelson Mandela’s victory. Which I understand. It was a great moment for everybody, April 21, 1994. I describe it on the flight out of Rwanda, on that evacuation plane.

How long were you in Rwanda during the genocide?

I started covering Rwanda in October 1990, on the second day of the invasion by the rebels, and I carried on going there pretty regularly until the outbreak of the genocide, which was in the first week of April 1994. I stayed there for the rest of the year.

At what point were you and everyone you were traveling with aware that this was genocide? At what point does that become clear?

It doesn’t. And that’s why I say it’s like “an ant crawling across the hide of an elephant.” Get this: In the first week of the civil war in October 1990, the Hutu extremist government began chopping up Tutsis. I wrote the story on Oct. 15, 1990. It was immediately picked up by human rights groups. I took pictures of the people who were being hacked up. It was ignored by the embassies. The embassies were given all the information, and governments didn’t do anything, and throughout the civil war, human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were all saying, these guys are gearing up for a big one. We knew that something was coming. But “genocide” is a word that you don’t use lightly. So we didn’t reach a trigger point.

What we did realize in 1994 — and we’re talking about weeks here — was there was suddenly an open program for [killing in Rwanda], but frankly I don’t think anyone thought they could be so efficient about doing it. It took the Germans several years to kill six and a half million Jews … having to kill people in large numbers is an amazing task. What took everybody by surprise is really — it happened in three weeks. And it happened by manual labor, it didn’t happen with gas chambers. It happened with machetes and rocks and all the other stuff. Within a blink of an eye, nearly a million people had died and we were thinking, “Christ there’s another one and a half million people left who they might still kill.”

And remember we couldn’t physically get places. When we walked from the Ugandan border to Kigali [the capital of Rwanda] in April, we saw things along the way. The mayor of Kigali had boasted that 60,000 people have been killed in the capital, but it’s a long way to go from 60,000 to a million, do you know what I mean?

It’s impossible to comprehend. And you were traveling through this country by foot, and one imagines that in that short time you must have witnessed mass murder everywhere.

Yeah, I did witness killings. I describe the woman with the child on her back running after another woman with a child on her back.

You actually saw that?

It was happening everywhere. Basically, what was happening was that you’d see it from a distance, from your hotel room, looking down on roadblocks, Or you’d see it as you drove up to a roadblock. How many people did I see actually being killed? Several. I saw lots of people who’d been killed 10 minutes before and who were going to be killed 10 minutes after I left. I saw people saying, “Tonight we will be killed,” and they were probably killed. And so on. In most cases, the militias didn’t take much trouble to conceal what they were doing.

You must have felt so vulnerable.

Yes. For example, even when we were in a U.N. vehicle, an armored personnel carrier, you’d go through a roadblock and you’d have these guys with nailed clubs drunk out of their mind, asking, “Are you Belgian? We kill Belgians.” We’d just say, “No, we’re not Belgians.” And I describe the walk to Kigali. It was a combat situation — we were being fired at and all that sort of stuff. I never felt so exposed as in Rwanda. But we were not their target. They had a very specific target — anyone who was Tutsi.

Right, whereas I feel like you were more of a target in Somalia.

No! In fact, in Somalia if anything happened bad, it was because you happened to be in a Toyota Landcruiser and they wanted the car. Or maybe you were the victim of crossfire. But no, we were never targeted in Somalia, except maybe spontaneously.

Have you been back to Rwanda recently? And how do you feel about it?

I was back in 2000, and the feeling that I had was that the country will take an awful long time to recover from what happened. It’s not over yet, because there’s still great tension between the communities. The Congo was a consequence of what happened in Rwanda. The killing just spread across the border. Whereas the Tutsis were the main victims at the time of the Rwandan genocide, the RPF [Rwandan Patriotic Front], the Tutsi army, went into the Congo and killed a lot of Hutu civilians. I describe how there’s a road in eastern Congo where there are so many dead people that the tires are crunching on bones and spectacles and so on.

None of it is over. Kigali is quiet but forlorn — everyone is basically haunted. I remember the time I was there, my taxi driver had enormous scars on his face, which were machete scars. They’re a traumatized nation, and the conflict in central Africa continues. But hopefully not indefinitely. These things just take generations to recover from.

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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