Stalking the wars of Africa

A Reuters journalist surveys the desperate legacy of colonialism

The senseless wars of Africa continue without end. Charles Taylor is gone, but the stench and violence of combat linger on in Liberia as humanitarians attempt to reach the starving with donated rice and physicians seek to save the maimed, the halt, and the dangerously malnourished. In the Congo, where more than 3 million have perished in 10 years, there is a semblance finally of renewed government in the capital, but not in the country's distant northeast. Tutsi and Hutu shoot at one another in Burundi. Somalis skirmish still. The 20-year-old civil war in Sudan simmers, with 2 million killed so far. Rebels combat government troops in Uganda.

The democratic nations of Africa - the Botswanas, South Africas, and Senegals of the continent - don't know what to do with their divided brethren. They presided over Mr. Taylor's exile to Nigeria, but they cannot bring peace and development to the places of war, the failed and near-failed states like Somalia and Zimbabwe, or the many jurisdictions where citizens live without basic freedoms.

In Aidan Hartley's sweeping new book, "The Zanzibar Chest," Africa is as bleak as it is vivid. His is a threefold story. One major, well-told narrative thrust follows a young war correspondent's nightmare adventures behind the advancing rebel lines in Ethiopia, amid chaotic tribal hostilities in Somalia, and with advancing and finally victorious Tutsi revanchists in Rwanda during the horrors of the all-encompassing genocide.

There are better books on Rwanda and Somalia and excellent journalistic accounts of the Ethiopian war, but Hartley convincingly relives the horrors, the stench, the utter brutalities, the immediacy of coming upon massacred Tutsi inside a church or battered bodies in Lake Victoria, the pell-mell flight of UN peacekeepers, and the lewd wantonness of conflict.

In Somalia, the instruments of death were more sophisticated than in Rwanda, but Hartley describes just as much cruelty, purposelessness, and sheer lust. His vignettes of victimization, carnage driven by the gleam of booty, and pathological inhumanity depict a Somalia in the early 1990s that was devouring itself with gusto.

Equally effective is his sad survey of a UN operation in Somalia that hardly understood what it confronted, and certainly could not cope with warlords profiting from despoliation. Nor could the US, arriving in Somalia with naive goals and withdrawing chastened and unaware.

Hartley, never the hard-bitten war correspondent of stereotype, is seared by the killing fields, by the child rescued from a mass grave, and by the untimely deaths of fellow reporters. But his book is also a tale of furious adrenaline, of not wanting to be far from the action and danger.

In a sole paragraph of self-analysis toward the end of his pulsating book, he asks whether he "could have done more." He could have helped "dozens, hundreds, thousands" of individuals "by dropping the notebook that was my shield." So, he asks, probably unfairly, what does a war correspondent have to show for the excitement and rough glamour of bitter years? "Only the stories."

In fact, he has provided this very sobering book. Admittedly, as much as Hartley - who grew up in East Africa and has returned there to his roots - feels and wants to be African, much of the book is about the terrible tyrannies that Africans inflict on one another, the misgovernment of Africa by Africans, and the failure of foreigners bent on helping Africa to do much better. In some respects, all of Hartley's reportage, and his book, is oppressively nihilistic.

But there are two other themes that thread throughout the book. In one he affectionately follows the intriguing life of a British political officer in the Aden Protectorate, now southern Yemen, through his love of Arabia Felix, his marriage to a local woman, and his ultimate fiery end in an honorable battle with a frontier sheikh.

This improbable counterpoint to Hartley's main story succeeds at many levels. It also allows the author to follow his third, understated thread: the quest for the meaning of his own father's life, the murdered officer's best friend and fellow British administrator. Deep down, the book is as much about that search as it is about brigandage and brutality. It's also about the growing up years and touching love life of a reporter who finally begins to think beyond the next calamity.

Incidentally, this is not a book about Zanzibar.

Robert I. Rotberg is president of the World Peace Foundation and directs the program on intrastate conflict at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

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