How to report on a descent into African hell

My following review appeared in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald:

A reporter puts ethics aside when he becomes involved in a bloody rebellion in Liberia.

James Brabazon
Text Publishing, 304pp, $34.95

Some journalists live under the delusion that they are objective creatures, unable to be bought or sold and committed to telling the truth. Many strive for this goal but others take sides out of necessity or choice.

In war zones, lines are deliberately blurred, with Western governments routinely working with the most brutal individuals in the name of liberation and victory. The role of supposedly independent reporters in these situations should be clear: victims are given precedence.

Witness one of the finest conflict journalists, Nir Rosen, embedded with the Taliban in 2008 (and the fierce criticism he received for spending time with the “enemy”). His task was to understand the other side, to hear why so many Afghans and foreign fighters were determined to battle the invaders.

Sometimes, clear ethics take a back seat to a rollicking good adventure. The British journalist James Brabazon descended into hell in Liberia in 2002 by striving to document the civil war. The political struggle between President Charles Taylor (now facing war crimes charges in The Hague) and the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy was heating up and soon resulted in extreme violence. “I had been to war before, several times, but nothing like Liberia,” he told Vice magazine in June. “That was the first time I had people trying to kill me at close range.”

Brabazon writes with a pace and passion that reflect a journalist obsessed with the story. After coming down with amoebic dysentery, he is close to broken, and death stares him in the face:

“Battered by near-constant rains, the terrain was sodden. We passed through one last village, whose dilapidated houses hardly kept the encroaching jungle at bay. Deserted, it reeked of putrid flesh. We marched in silence, and out of the shadow of a decrepit hut thatched with torn raffia hobbled a child covered with infected burns. Her limbs were swollen with gangrene. She stood and watched us pass her. The stench was unbreathable. No one stopped. No one spoke. We carried on in silence and left her there to die.”

He travelled with a small camera crew and bodyguard, Nick du Toit, a former South African special forces colonel. The two men soon became close friends and the journalist started hearing details of an impending coup in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea led by a former SAS officer, Simon Mann, and Mark Thatcher, son of the former British prime minister.

The die was cast; the writer planned to be witness to a criminal act of sabotage and robbery.

The attempted coup was a spectacular disaster. Thatcher escaped jail but Mann and Du Toit spent years in the harshest prisons in Africa. Du Toit, with whom Brabazon formed a lasting friendship, told London’s Observer in mid-June that the coup attempt only went ahead because he had been assured that both the British and South African governments were behind it. Brabazon escaped prison by a stroke of good luck.

The appeal of this intriguing book is the constant internal dialogue undertaken by the writer that displays his unease with how to report a story in which he is directly involved. For example, when Britain’s Channel 4 asks him to refer to Du Toit as a “mercenary”, he initially refuses out of loyalty to his friend. He acknowledges the impossibility of being objective when examining the story but his honesty is refreshing; he doesn’t claim to be anything he is not.

Brabazon paints Du Toit, now working for a vehicle sales company in Yemen, as a fascinating contradiction. He is brash and arrogant but also humble with a growing affection for African democracy (as long as he can make money in the process). “You have to get rid of the dictators,” he tells the author, seemingly oblivious to the fact that his actions on the continent (during South Africa’s apartheid and beyond) contributed to the maintenance of a dysfunctional political reality.

“The unpalatable truth,” Brabazon writes, “is that adversity breeds friendships that transcend moral judgments.” He still regards his “mercenary” as a friend.

Text and images ©2023 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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