It’s 1993, in Cambodia, and 300 United Nations civilian peacekeepers, journalists and diplomats are having a rooftop party. The young international crowd includes three U.N. workers: Kenneth Cain, a 25-year-old Harvard Law grad; Heidi Postlewait, a 30-year-old social worker who’s just left her marriage in New York; and Andrew Thomson, a doctor from New Zealand who has lived in Cambodia for some time. It’s not long until the much-heralded free elections, the event that’s drawn all three of these aid workers together. But the Khmer Rouge still terrorizes Cambodia, and the optimistic, wide-eyed U.N. workers who volunteered to bring peace know that they’re enjoying what might be one last good time. There’s lots of drinking, impressive dancing, romantic tension, the possibility of falling into strange beds by morning.
The party is one of a handful of exuberant moments that Cain, Postlewait and Thomson have detailed in their book, “Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story From Hell on Earth.” It’s also one of the reasons a few conservative media outlets have portrayed the book as being what the title signaled it might be: an American bender of sex and drugs and irresponsibility in exotic places. “U.N. missions painted as booze-soaked orgies,” the Washington Times’ headline trumpeted. “UN beset by sex, drugs, book says,” said Canada’s National Post. “Sex & Drugs at U.N.,” said the New York Post.
“Emergency Sex” does spotlight sex and drugs: Heidi writes of ripping off her boyfriend’s clothes immediately after coming under sniper fire in Somalia (“It has to be right now, not in ten minutes, not five … Emergency sex”). Andrew describes a beloved marijuana cocktail, the Space Shuttle, that he consumed while in Cambodia. Still, the headlines are silly in light of the U.N.’s much graver problems, and misleading in light of the book’s obvious intentions and accomplishments.
“Emergency Sex” is serious, beautifully composed and aggressively honest. Weaving the authors’ three distinct narratives, it’s uniquely able to show how various peacekeeping and intervention efforts in the post-Cold War 1990s completely fell apart after Somalia. Heidi and Kenneth were stationed in Somalia when 18 American soldiers were killed and the United States pulled out; Andrew, working in Haiti, watched in despair as the United States abandoned its mission there, too. What followed was a series of catastrophic miscalculations and cowardly acts, by both the U.N. and the U.S., from Africa to Europe, much of which the authors bear witness to on the ground, and afterward, quite literally, in the graves of Rwanda and Srebrenica.
Today, Andrew and Heidi still work for the United Nations, which is now threatening to fire them for publishing their memoir. Kenneth is a writer and was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2000 for a Human Rights Quarterly article on war crimes in Liberia. Salon spoke to all three at a cafe across the street from the U.N., which they heartily slammed. They also discussed what it’s like to stand in a grave of 10,000 human bodies, how U.N. peacekeeping soldiers sometimes terrorize the countries they’re sent to protect, and, of course, why sex is sometimes the ultimate solace in the field.
Heidi and Andrew, are you being disciplined for writing this book?
Heidi: There hasn’t been disciplinary action taken. We got a letter of reprimand that was kind of open-ended. There’s so much media attention about us publishing the book and the U.N. potentially firing us that they’ve backed off on that a little bit. But they’re not letting it go.
Andrew: What’s very clear is that the galleys have been read at the highest levels of the organization, by people in the inner circles of Mr. Annan. They’re the ones who are driving this process. I take these threats really seriously. I don’t think it has anything to do with the sex. I don’t think these people are hopeless prudes at all. For me, it’s everything to do with [the U.N.'s] failures to stop genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica.
Is there any chance that it’s about the sex and parties?
Andrew: It’s been a really opaque process. The place runs like an authoritarian regime. But the building leaks like a sieve and what I’ve heard is that they’re not happy with our eyewitness account of the aftermath of two genocides that some of them could and should have done more to stop.
Kenneth: They’ve threatened to dismiss Andrew and Heidi for having written their memoirs. However, for example, there’s $10 billion missing in Iraq right now from the oil for food program. Is anyone waving staff rules at any of those senior administrators and saying we might fire you? No. One million lives were lost in genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia that could and should have been prevented by U.N. soldiers on the ground and were not, by this very leadership. Has anyone there been disciplined for losing 1 million lives?
Andrew: They’re more concerned about their own reputations than they are about learning lessons or remembering.
Heidi: We didn’t write about anything that hasn’t been written about 100 times before. They’re making a big deal of the fact that we’re U.N. staff members who are writing this. They’re questioning our loyalty.
So let’s get to the sex, for a moment, as I’m sure by now many people are curious about what exactly goes on during these missions. I imagine that in dangerous, life-threatening situations sex serves many purposes.
Heidi: Everything is intensified and magnified — friendships, your faith, your desire to stay alive. Andrew said something about the sex being an antidote to that feeling of being near death. “Emergency sex” is a metaphor for that intensity. People out there don’t have their usual family support systems. You don’t have a daily routine. You’re really needy. You’re seeing terrible things. In a month, you’re in a kind of relationship that would take three or four years here. They don’t generally last after the mission is over, which is probably a good thing.
I was interested in your relationship with Yusuf, in Somalia, because eventually he asked you to be his second wife, and you considered it. It seems like after living in that culture for so long you actually had become part of it in some way.
Heidi: The thing about that was that nothing was real out in the field. He bought me Somali clothes and I would cover my head and go out with him. I got to go places in Somalia that no other non-Somali went to because he had relatives there who would come and pick us up and sneak us out. They would show up in pickup trucks outfitted with an antiaircraft gun — these enormous things bolted to the back — and all these guys would be sitting on the back chewing khat, with AK-47s slung over their shoulders. It was like Mad Max. I was living in a fantasy world with him.
He actually left the country with me and we lasted about two months in New York. When it became real life, I realized that I could never tolerate some of things he expected.
Anyone else want to talk about sex?
Kenneth: What Heidi was saying is a very American thing. I felt for a long time that I was in a movie. It took me until this guy I knew got killed, and me getting physically shot at, for me to snap out of the idea that I had stepped into some crazy, hyped-up version of “M.A.S.H.” It’s very American and probably all of us went through it, except for Andrew, who’s from New Zealand, where they don’t have movies.
Andrew: Or sex.
Kenneth: Also, the violence and the chaos — and we felt this a little after 9/11 in New York — makes the barriers, the walls between people, crumble. When life is abnormal those walls go away. You think: Why did it just take the fact that my buddy was just killed for me to finally hug this woman here?
The media response has been really interesting on the sex. Mostly they’ve written about Heidi’s sex, or exclusively about Heidi’s sex. I had sex too — it’s in the book!
Heidi: The New York Post cut two of my sex scenes and put one right after the other. One wasn’t good enough, there’s two, so it seems like all I wrote about in the entire book was getting fucked. No.
The thing is, I was in relationships. They flow throughout the book. So there’s some sex, but that’s about a woman finding herself, being in a man’s world, and doing the same things that men normally do — like going to a prostitute. In the field, God, you drive past where all the prostitutes are and it’s nothing but U.N. vehicles. But Ken’s sex scenes are far more graphic than mine: A woman screaming in French, “I’m coming! I’m coming!”
I also think there’s something else going on — when Heidi describes her experience with the [male prostitute] in Kenya. Americans aren’t used to young women going off alone and sleeping with African men, period. It’s foreign, dangerous, to them.
Heidi: As soon as I went to Cambodia I understood that this was an opportunity for me to have experiences. I wasn’t going to be held back by any sort of stigma. I mean, you don’t have to necessarily run off with a Kenyan prostitute. But people are so afraid when they travel that they miss so much in life.
OK, we can go back to the U.N. now, since it’s certainly becoming clearer that sex and partying is probably not what upset them about the book. Is it possible that they’re concerned about failing certain missions that are going on right now, for example, Sudan? Are we at one of those moments — as we were in Rwanda in 1993 or 1994, when we should all recognize that we are experiencing another genocide?
Heidi: Yes. The government of Sudan is saying they don’t want a peacekeeping operation. That’s always a problem for the U.N. But they’re not tough enough.
Kenneth: The Security Council can say, “We don’t care what the government says, we’re going in.” From the immediate post-Cold War moment, when Mr. Annan was the head of peacekeeping, the institution has squandered its moral authority. It’s been in a permanent process of disgracing itself. It started in Somalia. The week that the U.S. pulled out of Somalia was the week that the war started in Rwanda. It was then that the safe havens collapsed in Bosnia. All hell broke loose in the early ’90s. Well, people notice. So the government of Sudan knows that it’s more or less costless for them to say that they don’t want a peacekeeping force. They know nothing’s going to happen.
Andrew: It is a chance for Mr. Annan to redeem himself over his personal failures in Rwanda and Srebrenica, and I’m following it with great interest. You can call it ethnic cleansing, acts of genocide, crimes against humanity — who gives a shit? People are dying and they’ve been dying for a long time. The Sudanese government needs to be leaned on hard. During the genocide in Rwanda, Rwanda had a seat on the Security Council. And the Rwandan ambassador — the ambassador who represented the government that was busy killing its own people — was listened to and respected. Why didn’t someone punch his lights out? Or throw him out of the Security Council? It’s obscene, this politeness. Throw Sudan out of the U.N.
Kenneth: The players get addicted to the credibility they get at a major conference. In Somalia, there were dozens of peace conferences in Nairobi. You have these Somali warlords who are raping and butchering and stealing, and you march them up to Nairobi for a peace conference and give them a five-star banquet. They have a lot to drink and they have ready access to prostitutes. Of course, they don’t want to leave the peace process! They’re happy to have more peace process!
Somalia was really the turning point for U.S. foreign policy, but it’s hard to grasp its effects and how it might be affecting our current situation. You were in Haiti, Andrew, at the time. Can you describe what that was like?
Andrew: It was amazing how rapidly it all fell apart. “Black Hawk down” in Somalia led to a loss of nerve in the Clinton administration, and it led them directly to order that boat, the USS Harlan County, out of Port-au-Prince harbor. The boat had military and civilian police on it and our civilian mission collapsed. It was a shameful moment.
Kenneth: It’s a little hard to disaggregate where we point fingers at the U.N. and where we point fingers at the U.S. That particular moment was a U.S. failing. What the Clinton administration and the U.N. couldn’t understand is how bad the loss of authority is when you promise to intervene, and withdraw right after. [Civilians] come forward and tell the truth about the regime. And then you leave. That can backfire terribly for that [civilian]. The decisions we’re making in Iraq right now are going to have implications for a decade in the Middle East, and policymakers constantly forget that.
Andrew: The men on the ground with the guns are very sensitive to the smell of any capitulation. Once they see a boat sailing out of the harbor with the troops that were supposed to bring peace, everyone’s a target.
Heidi: I also think the U.N. needs to stop pretending that it’s a neutral party, because it has a greater impact than any other group once it steps into a country.
Is what happened in Somalia still affecting U.S. policy now?
Kenneth: Today, we have a group of people [in power] who understood what a catastrophe that was in terms of the U.S.’s authority, and they have gone way too far in the wrong direction. The blowback from Somalia is now going on in Iraq, going in the wrong direction.
The decision was made not to send civilian peacekeepers to Iraq, correct?
Heidi: Not now. We have no one in Iraq now. They’re running the civilian part of the mission from Cyprus.
And that’s because it’s too dangerous?
Andrew: What can we do for the Iraqis if we can’t even protect our own staff? We’re still in shock from that suicide truck bomb hitting our headquarters in Baghdad a year ago, last August. Twenty-three dead, 100 wounded. An investigation showed that U.N. security was dysfunctional at every level, right up to the top, high up.
Kenneth: Every six months there’s an egregiously scandalous moral catastrophe in that building about which no one is responsible.
Andrew: Now we have a food-for-sex scandal in eastern Congo, where our peacekeepers have been exchanging food for sex from young Congolese women who have been raped and brutalized.
And that happened in Liberia, too, correct, which you write about. That chapter is one of the most harrowing in the book — Nigerian and Ghanian peacekeepers raping and killing young Liberian girls. So there’s no screening process for U.N. peacekeeping soldiers?
Heidi: None. I remember when we were in Cambodia there was a group of African troops. They were barefoot. They had no shoes. They weren’t soldiers at all — they were people they picked up off the street, put on a plane, and shipped to Cambodia.
Andrew: If we can’t send peacekeepers who are going to help the people they’re supposed to help, let’s not send them at all.
All of you admitted when you had enough and stopped going on missions. I can’t imagine that that was easy. When did you know you had enough?
Heidi: I know in the book that it seems that I was leaving Haiti after my boyfriend died, but the day he died was my last day at work. I had already resigned. I was tired of it. It wasn’t the U.N. It was just that I was ready to settle down and do something else.
Kenneth: I was in Liberia where the U.N. was working with a West African collection of peacekeepers called ECOMOG, who were as corrupt and depraved a group as you could assemble and still call them peacekeepers. Much of the fighting had to do with Nigerian troops [peacekeepers] occupying the diamond mines, and a lot of people were dying because of that. That was too much.
There’s a certain self-congratulation for being courageous enough for doing this kind of work, and therefore it’s very difficult to stop because then there’s an element of cowardice. When my partner and I were going to the prison in Mogadishu and it was dangerous, I wrote that neither of us had the courage to say that we were too scared to go. You have to work up the courage to say that you’re scared or that it’s not worth it. That’s hard.
Andrew: Mine was a rolling process that went downhill gradually. I was ready to resign after the evacuation from Haiti. But the opportunity came up to run the forensic investigations for the two war crimes tribunals [in Rwanda and Bosnia], and my logic was that at least if we weren’t able to stop these bastards from killing hundreds of thousands of people, maybe we can go back in and get the forensic evidence to nail them in court. Morally, my last two missions were positive, but psychologically and physically they were devastating.
What do you mean?
I remember sitting in the shower in Bosnia, trying to get the stench out of my pores, and losing all track of time, thinking I’d been there for five minutes when it was an hour. A lot of your ideals can get left behind in the last mission you did and the temptation is to do one more. Eventually, you decide I’m going to die or I’m going to go crazy and you leave your ideals behind and go home.
Is it hard to adjust to normal life?
Heidi: It’s tremendously hard. On mission there are always other people and always something going on and you know where to find people if you need them. You come back here and live this isolated existence — I found myself staring at the wall for days. You get used to a simple existence on missions — you’re happy if you can get a vegetable that day or a bag of sugar or a hot shower.
Kenneth: Another thing that happens in the field is that you get very angry. People are dying and people are constantly screaming at you and there’s physical violence. I had a hell of a lot of trouble when I came home. I was working at a silly job in the asshole of the entertainment industry and I clocked my boss at one point. I thought he was acting unethically and my blood boiled and I just clocked him. Then I was horrified.
Andrew: To tell you how out of it I was: When I got back to New York in 1997, I would wander around the streets thinking about genocide in New York City. Thinking about, what would it be like if you cut this city off from north of 42nd Street and east of Fifth Avenue and you started to kill everyone with blue eyes — something arbitrary — or black hair. Or everyone who was short. That was insane, walking around the streets and thinking of genocide on the Upper East Side. It took me a while to get back to choosing the right shampoo.
Kenneth: In late summer, in the subway, there’s this smell. I think it’s urine going bad. It has the whiff of the rotting bodies of Rwanda. And that smell always sends me far.
Andrew: To be very close to horror doesn’t allow you to process to it. I remember in Rwanda, my senior forensic expert and I had gone to some mass graves and we found one huge grave where the locals — the survivors — had taken all the dead from one commune, dug a huge hole which was probably 30 meters long and 9 feet deep, and put all the bodies in there and tried to stack them. The bodies that were whole were stacked in one corner and then all the heads that were loose in another corner, femurs and different bones in another corner. I don’t know — 5,000 bodies? 10,000? 15,000? I remember standing on the side of that grave and lowering him in on a rope and thinking, “This is not different from the photos of the liberation of Auschwitz and Dachau with the bodies piled high.”
And I felt nothing. I couldn’t feel anything. Then I started giggling because I left him in the hole and I wouldn’t pull him out. When we eventually got out, we were both giggling. Then someone invited us to a wedding which was maybe 15 feet from that grave, and a Rwandan couple was getting married and as you can imagine we got totally drunk, we just got smashed. And we were giggling.
It wasn’t until I got back that I started to feel that. It’s like riding a bicycle: As long as you keep pedaling, you stay upright — and when you stop, you just fall off.