Academic journal article Policy Review

African Atrocities and "The Rest of the World"

Academic journal article Policy Review

African Atrocities and "The Rest of the World"

Article excerpt

WESTERN JOURNALISTS FACE an occupational hazard working in Africa, particularly those who bypass the more stable and peaceful parts of the continent in their rush to war, genocide, and famine. Conflict, massacre, and starvation command attention, and newspaper correspondents scramble to bear witness. It isn't always easy, and it is almost always dangerous. Sordid transactions at borders, stealth in avoiding roadblocks, at times simply waiting (and praying) out the whims of some officious 14-year-old with a machine gun at an arbitrary checkpoint: All are part of the glamour of the profession.

Our demand for stories from these hot spots has created a small band of intrepid, vagabond war watchers, most of them photographers and cameramen who know the market is always ripe for mayhem. One of the best of them is Scott Peterson, whose new and highly disturbing book is Me Against My Brother (Routledge). Peterson writes that he is not a "war junkie," and yet acknowledges having become "hooked on war" on his first trip to Africa in 1988 -- "on the emotions it inspired and forced me to confront." He does not wish to be seen as a "bluebottle fly, to feast on the gore of war," but rather as someone who feels obliged as much as enlivened by experiencing conflict close at hand.

He need not be defensive about it. Daring reporters who bring back stories from the world's riskiest places perform an important public service. Peterson found his calling early, and in the 12 years since that first visit the continent has provided plenty of conflict to record. Anyone who lives like this over a period of years experiences one of two things: he becomes numb to it all; or he feels a mounting sense of loathing for the cruelty encountered, for the tinpot tyrants and casual genocidaires, and an equal sense of outrage that no one in the more privileged regions of the world seems able, or willing, to stop them.

Those emotions are the driving force behind Peterson's book, a spirited examination of three of the most recent of Africa's bloody zones -- the Sudan, Somalia, and Rwanda, all of which he has visited repeatedly as a correspondent for various American and British newspapers. It makes for powerful reading, and provides a useful occasion to revisit not only the horrendous facts of the slaughter, but the often elusive causes behind it as well.

"The rest of the world"

PETERSON MELDS HIS EYEWITNESS accounts with considerable research into the convoluted recent histories of human tragedy (besides Chechnya and Kosovo, there are few major bloodlettings he has not attended). Judging by some of the accounts in Me Against My Brother, he is lucky to be alive, and accounts of his brushes with death bring a vivid immediacy to the conflicts he describes. This is not a book, however, of "cowboy tales of the front lines and then how I retired to the bar every night to better my colleagues at the telling of war stories....Instead, in its essence, this book is about war crimes, and how people come to commit them."

Peterson calls it a "spiritual journey," but in truth the book does not lead to any deeper understanding of self or the human spirit. There is very little introspection in Peterson's writing or thinking. As a journalist he is primarily political, not philosophical. He is less a pilgrim than an activist, bringing misery to the attention of power. His instinct when confronted with a catastrophe is nor to reflect, but to report, as when he encounters a feeding camp overrun with starving Somalis:

I was so shocked that I did not waste time taking notes. Instead I shot frame after frame with my cameras, seven rolls of film in less than a half hour, 250 images, one every six seconds, the details of misery etching themselves onto my mind irreversibly like acid on steel, details that are almost always the exclusive realm of the photographer.

What reflection there is here leads to a familiar place. …

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