The Horror

The Washington Post
August 27, 2000
(Review of “Me Against My Brother: At War in Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda” by Scott Peterson)

Africa is an expression of vastness. It is a matter not just of size but of drama and emotion; so much occurs in Africa, and at so many extremes. This is a blessing and a curse for anyone writing a book about even a sliver of the continent’s experience. The blessing is obvious because good material is the foundation of good writing. But if the subject is war in Africa, how can a book say what needs to be said without reaching a Tolstoyan length?

Scott Peterson encountered this dilemma in Me Against My Brother: At War in Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda. Based on his experiences as a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph of London (he is now a writer for the Christian Science Monitor), the book concerns not just one but three of Africa’s most horrific conflicts in recent memory. In Somalia, a country disintegrated into sand and bloodshed. In Sudan, two million people have died since 1984. In Rwanda, nearly a million people were murdered in 100 days. Peterson was blessed, or cursed, with the vastness of his experiences in those wars. He came close to being killed by gunfire on many occasions and nearly succumbed to cerebral malaria. He met mass murderers and petty murderers, and he saw and smelled the noxious result of their efforts–corpses drying in the equatorial sun or oozing into the jungle floor. He was one of the few journalists to visit Africa’s worst killing zones when they were at their deadliest.

“This book is about the extremes, as they can and do exist in Africa,” Peterson warns in the introduction. He aims to explain the politics and history behind the wars, and he aims to give a first-person account of what the wars looked like from the inside. These tasks are difficult to accomplish in a 357-page book. It might be possible to provide context and color for only one war, as Philip Gourevitch does so admirably in his book on Rwanda, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. It also might be possible to write a literary book about several wars, eschewing the minutiae of politics, if you have the elegant touch of a master like Ryszard Kapuscinski. Sadly, Peterson’s book, though compelling in places, skips too quickly and lightly over events and ideas that, if explored in greater depth, would tell us much more.

This is unfortunate because Peterson has much to offer. He was one of the relatively few (and very brave) journalists who entered Kigali, the Rwandan capital, as the genocide was getting under way. “The terrible assumption was that anyone still alive must have been one of the killers,” he notes. He ventured around with French troops evacuating expatriates. “A crowd of killers lined a dirt road in silence as we passed, stopping momentarily from their bloody work like children caught stealing from a cookie jar,” he writes. “Armed with cudgels and machetes and long knives, their handiwork was nearby–three corpses bleeding into the wet sand. An hour later we returned with a group of Belgian evacuees, and the number killed by the silent crowd had risen to 11.”

Kigali soon became too dangerous for anyone but the killers, so Peterson left within days; his editors ordered him to take the last evacuation flight. He devotes just a few pages to his experiences in Kigali in those days, and this is a pity. His passing encounter with the killers who stood silently at the roadside, amid the corpses, certainly warrants more than the lone paragraph he devotes to it.

The book’s longest section focuses on Somalia, where United Nations troops intervened in 1992 to staunch a famine. After a honeymoon, Somalia’s people turned agains the U.S.-led forces, and 18 U.S. Rangers were killed in a bungled raid; the United States withdrew, leaving the country to devour itself. Peterson gives a good sense of what Mogadishu was like in those days, and he explains how close he came to being killed by a mob that, later in the day, killed photographers Dan Eldon and Hansi Kraus. “I was being clubbed and a boy brandished an 18-inch blade toward my face and as I fended that off a machete smashed into my head,” he writes.

The mob that attacked him was reacting to a brutal and unnecessary U.S. raid that killed numerous Somalis, and Peterson is harsh on our conduct. But at times there is more anger than eloquence in his words. To state, as Peterson does, that U.N. officials, peddling their blue-sky assessments, were “trying to cover up their failure with a thick layer of [expletive],” is entirely accurate but not particularly incisive. In the epilogue, Peterson admits that “one of my frustrations about this book is that it cannot portray the whole experience. I’ve had to be selective, lopping off entire battlefronts and nations at war, and with them, some of the human lessons worth learning.” An honest and courageous man, he is hardly the first writer to feel inadequate before the task of describing Africa’s vastness.

Peter Maass is the author of “Love Thy Neighbor,” a memoir of covering the war in Bosnia for The Post.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.