Magazine article The Spectator

The Heartlessness of the Matter

Magazine article The Spectator

The Heartlessness of the Matter

Article excerpt

The heartlessness of the matter SOLDIERS OF LIGHT by Daniel Bergner Allen Lane, £16.99, pp. 202, ISBN 0713997478

OPERATION BARRAS: THE SAS RESCUE MISSION SIERRA LEONE 2000 by William Fowler Weidenfeld, £16.99, pp. 214, ISBN 0297846280

The West Side Boys had subjected their bleeding slice of Sierra Leone to a long reign of terror, murder and kidnap, the local dish being mutilation and hand-chopping of anyone who vexed their ganja-inflamed minds. In the humid afternoon sunshine of 25 August 2000, 'Brigadier' Foday Kallay's drugged West Siders were offered a surprise bonus of prime beef on the proverbial platter when young Captain Marshall led an unsuspecting patrol of the Royal Irish Regiment into a village close to the muddy waters of Rokel Creek. Disarmed, Marshall got a humiliating beating. Soon the soldiers' purloined watches and wedding rings reappeared on Kallay's wrists and fingers. Eleven taken hostage, panic in Whitehall.

Four years later, after a civil war costing 50,000 lives, 500,000 reportedly homeless, and 10,000 mutilated, some 13 men now stand indicted of atrocities before a United Nations-backed special court. (The notorious RUF leader Foday Sankho had died in good time.) The court began its deliberations in Freetown inauspiciously when the defence challenged the impartiality of the presiding judge, Geoffrey Robertson QC, author of a book reportedly prejudiced against limb-chopping, sewing up vaginas with fishing lines and the padlocking of mouths. Evidently Judge Robertson has described Charles Taylor, former president of neighbouring Liberia, who played a prime role in Sierra Leone's diamond wars, as a 'vicious warlord'. It is said that Taylor, now exiled in Nigeria, might be brought before the war crimes court in Freetown if only Judge Robertson can be persuaded to understand that the Strand stops short of Fleet Street.

The British colony of Sierra Leone was founded in 1787, partly as a refuge for freed slaves. In December 1941 Graham Greene, putting fiction and film criticism temporarily behind him and braving the U-boats, sailed for Sierra Leone on a clandestine mission for HMG. The result was The Heart of the Matter, published in 1948, and the unhappy Major Scobie of the colonial police, who dies with the words 'Dear God, I love...' and we will never know who. Greene was coy, in the style of a British gentleman spy pitting his wits against Nazi and Vichy agents, about his nameless 'African colony' being Sierra Leone, and did not want his fictional officials to be mistaken for the real ones, doubtless forerunners to High Commissioner Peter Penfold, described by William Fowler in Operation Barras as playing a crucial part in the evacuation of foreign nationals in 1997 and in the efforts to assist the restoration of 'the legitimate government of President Kabbah' (more accurate would be the 'invisible government of the unseen president'). Greene's world-weary Major Scobie, down to his last ounce of God, had perhaps foreseen it all:

Why, he wondered, swerving the car to avoid a dead pye-dog, do I love this place so much? Is it because here human nature hasn't had time to disguise itself? Nobody here could ever talk about a heaven on earth ... Here you could love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worst.

I recall reading Greene's novel under a sluggish fan on humid Takoradi afternoons while playing soldier in the Gold Coast Regiment (the Ecole Normale Supérieure, as it transpired, of a fine tradition of Ghanaian military coups, dictators and crooks of generally less impact than Liberia's Charles Taylor). …

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