Sunday, July 05, 2009

spoils of war

On the disturbing poetics of international journalism's recent attempts to report on Africa. A version of this appeared in Verve's July issue, under a section entitled 'Morality,' part of their 75th issue special.

The United Nations’ Emergency Relief Coordinator called the decade-long series of wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo the most ‘neglected’ emergency in the world – in 2005. In the four years since then, the devastation of Africa’s third largest region has received closer attention; perhaps a little more for the fate of the endangered gorillas who used to populate the country’s once-forested areas than for the epic destruction of its human population, but attention, nevertheless. Ghastly aspects of the war, such as the mining mafia run by renegade Congolese troops to exploit Congo’s incredible mineral resources, or the issue of mass rape and sexual humiliation systematically perpetrated on civilian women to wear the region’s social fabric out and spread terror and disease, will not come as news to serious readers.

In fact, there is something about the news itself that makes it bleakly familiar, tormenting only in its certainties: a subscriber to The New York Times, for instance, finds these facts so recognisable that their presentation almost constructs itself: a kind of genre journalism kicks in and the characters play to type. Corrupt politicians and unhinged rebel army chiefs jostle for power, each leading their own supporting casts of bureaucrats and mercenaries, symbols of greed and arrogance. The landscapes are visions of fallen Eden; pristine landscapes, built vein and bone out of precious minerals, devastated by violence. Every story deemed worth recounting in the press is framed around Africans’ intensely personal, human grief. Every story inevitably appeals to the emotion and compassion, and sometimes the confused outrage, of its readers.

The ‘Africa stories’ are universally anchored to the darkness of the past, recalling the atmosphere of wars that have been waged since the beginning of time and whose essential conflicts have remained the same; the war of tribe against tribe and nomad against farmer, the strong versus the weak. Instead of the fantasy narrative that informed much of the Anglophone Right’s early rhetoric of the Iraq War – construed as a face-off between good and evil – the stories that come out of the Congolese wars, like those from Sudan and, some years earlier, from Rwanda, seem to follow an even older pattern; the repetitive, meticulous, hypnotic praxis of the pre-Christian Iliad, the fatalistic reportage of the victory of nature over civilisation.

This intense focus on the personal and emotional details has some credibility. Reportage of the Iraq war, for instance, has only grown more nuanced in its understanding of the minutiae of ground realities, and that understanding has cracked some of the falsified ethical framework that the war once occupied in popular imagination. But when we talk about warfare in Africa – at large – it seems as though the international narrative hasn’t yet moved in the opposite direction. We have details, should we want them, but the facts never expand to include or direct the larger questions about morality or humanity that war narratives otherwise drive us to reflect on.

All contemporary war journalism embroils us in an incomplete and imperfect narrative. Already heavily handicapped by the secrecy of the war machine and the ethical conflict of what is ‘good’ for civilians to know at a given time, there is something deeper and darker about the nature of modern warfare (or, perhaps, all warfare) that makes journalistic truth possible only in hindsight, if at all: the involvement of corporate interests. Some of the real story of Congo’s long, bloody relay race of wars has been surfacing in recent years, in general and sometimes self-flagellating terms, in English news media around the world. In October 2008, journalist Johann Hari wrote an article for popular liberal website The Huffington Post, in which he remarked, ‘Congo is the richest country in the world for gold, diamonds, coltan, cassiterite, and more. Everybody wanted a slice – so six other countries invaded. These resources were not being stolen to be used in Africa. They were being seized so they could be sold on to us.’ As far back as 2001, a United Nations investigation on the conflict in Congo identified that the war was being run by ‘armies of business’ who were angling for ‘access, control and trade’ of key mineral resources. In November 2008, The New York Times devoted a Sunday magazine cover to the plight of miners working in an operation run by a renegade general in Bisie, Congo, but went no further than highlighting the appalling ground conditions workers had to face.

There are still no names or faces – not even nationalities – to the controlling interests in these wars. There is even less mention of responsibility. Helped along by popular culture, an awareness of the human rights casualties of the international diamond trade has led to a growing demand for certified ‘conflict-free’ diamonds. The brutalities in Congo do not begin and end with jewels. They are also about coltan – a mineral that goes into practically every piece of modern technology, from video game consoles to cell phones. They are about cassiterite – a primary source of tin. The electronics industry appears sensitive to the issue, but even insiders admit that it is almost impossible to know if and how their supply chains might be contaminated by ‘conflict’ minerals.

5.4 million people have already died in the Congolese holocaust. An estimated 45,000 people die every month in causes unrelated to the general living conditions in sub-Saharan Africa. The dead are not just the foot-soldiers of fate in a savage conflict in what persists in cultural imagination as the ‘heart of darkness’. It’s true that considerable feelings of guilt and a growing awareness of the world’s complicity in the corruption of Africa exist, but the only part of the mainstream where expressing this is at all possible, seems to be in fiction. American and British literature and film have produced some punishing contemporary critiques of the plagues of modern Africa, in everything from Bruce Willis action films, (Tears Of The Sun, 2003) to political thrillers (John Le CarrĂ©’s moving The Constant Gardener, 2001, adapted to film by Fernando Meirelles in 2005).

There is always the sense that in their very form, the books and movies are actually all about, and speak almost exclusively, to the non-African audiences they are made for. The best fiction is consistently aware of its limitations. ‘...I came to realise,’ says Le CarrĂ© in his afterword to The Constant Gardener, ‘that by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.’

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