Anjan Sundaram and Lindsey Hilsum discuss the Central African Republic, genocide and Martha Gellhorn.
It’s taken me a while to sit down and write to you while the ideas sparked by your piece have been going round in my head. The concept of ‘A Place on Earth: Scenes from a War’ is a bit like James Fenton’s great poem ‘Lines for Translation into Any Language’, which I recommend if you don’t already know it, as the observations are singular (‘I saw that the shanty town had grown over the graves and that the crowd lived among the memorials’) but say something universal about a society at war. For me the lines of yours that stood out were: ‘The heroes were the cobblers. Everywhere in the country, even in the bush, you could see them frantically sewing footwear for those who needed to flee.’ I love that. I wish I had seen and written it.
One of the weird things for those of us who have not been to CAR [the Central African Republic] is trying to keep the sides straight in our minds. The Seleka and the anti-balaka – who are the Muslims and who are the Christians? There is such an obvious but important distinction between being the writer and the reader, the one who was there and the one lying on the sofa, reading, trying to get her head round it.
I never understood why outsiders couldn’t remember which were which between the Hutus and the Tutsis, but I have learnt that these identities are hard for foreigners to absorb. (A Somali friend who worked in Rwanda told me her mother once asked: ‘Which are the ones who look like us, darling?’) Anyway, your piece was clear, which was important, and brought in the regional element which was also important, even as you painted such a vivid picture of what it looked and felt and even smelled like.
Which brings us onto genocide. Like most people, Rwandan and non-Rwandan, who were there in 1994, I struggle to think that anything other than Rwanda and the Holocaust (oh, all right, and the Armenians in the 1910–20s) is really genocide. Rwanda was such a textbook example, complete with the build-up of ideology and a leadership who plotted to get the Hutus to ‘do the work’ and ‘finish the job’, all those euphemisms of slaughter broadcast on the radio. CAR is different, it seems less planned and more two-sided – i.e. first the Seleka killed the Christians, then the anti-balaka killed the Muslims. Now the Muslims are being killed or forced out of CAR, they’re the ones in danger as a group, so is it genocide against them? I prefer your definition that you had witnessed the ‘implosion of the country’. It’s a good phrase and I feel I have seen many countries implode. But is it a get-out clause because you don’t want to say it is or isn’t genocide?
Is it our job as reporters and writers to make these definitions or should we wait for the lawyers? You end by asking what we are seeing, but aren’t we – the readers – relying on you to tell us?
All the best,
Thank you for the kind words.
Sometimes we see something and don’t quite know what we’re seeing, don’t you think? Sometimes, a senseless war looks rather like a righteous revolution. A scene of people reconciled, working together, looks much like a scene of people working together with buried hate – which of the two are we seeing? – as you write in your Granta piece, ‘The Rainy Season’, about the Rwandan genocide. You also write that you ‘witnessed the horror without immediately understanding what it meant’.
I was able to relate to your statement, because in CAR I felt I was seeing an immense tragedy but was unable to process it to any precise conclusion. The genocidal intent was clear: people spoke openly of exterminating Muslims. The numbers are damning: 140,000 Muslims used to live in Bangui and fewer than a thousand remain. I wondered who could proclaim this a genocide or not a genocide? It seemed we had waited too long already. I wanted to get across something of this dilemma, its urgency. Perhaps I ask the question about genocide also because I prefer for the reader to see things with me. I tell them some of what I know, but I wonder, putting them by my side, what do they see? I find this dialogue more rewarding than a one-way ‘telling’ of how I see it. I sense some of this approach in your writing, too.
CAR was striking in its dissimilarity to Rwanda, where I have lived for the past five years. In CAR the radios were hardly broadcasting, the papers had stopped printing, and yet in remote areas of the country the killers all knew that they wanted to exterminate the Muslims. This sentiment had passed as though through the ether, perhaps reaching back to some old ideas of identity. No one had told them. Yet everyone knew. Do you think that as reporters we sometimes expand theoretical definitions that are too perfect? Real life is so messy, and it seems to me that a part of our job is to report on the coarseness of life, which rarely fits cleanly into any definitions. We add to the debate about these definitions, helping to create new ones that people can feel comfortable and secure in – until we again disrupt them with fresh observations.
Fenton’s poem – thank you for mentioning it – reminded me of Martha Gellhorn’s powerful essay ‘Das Deutsches Volk’. (‘No one is a Nazi. No one ever was. There may have been some Nazis in the next village . . .’). Again, our characteristic neatness in how we see the world shines through. When you witness countries imploding or history in the making, what is it that you think is most important to see? What do you think, perhaps, we miss most often? I also wonder sometimes how much of our job as reporters is to record events, and how much is to take on a more activist role, against, say, repression, in the spirit of Orwell. I wonder how witnessing the genocide in Rwanda shaped your views on this?
Many apologies for the long delay in replying. Over Christmas and New Year I was convalescing from a knee operation, and decided to spend the time reading not writing. I often feel that as a journalist it’s all output and not enough input or reflection. Anyway, that’s my excuse!
Lots of interesting ideas in your letter. I like your approach of being honest with the reader about not immediately understanding the evidence of your own eyes – you’re right, I do that too. I mistrust ideologically driven reporters who find only the villages bombed by the Americans and never those attacked by the Taliban, for whom reality neatly reflects what they already believed, paint-by-numbers journalists who provide colour between the lines they sketched out before the plane took off. The only point of getting backache from a ten-hour journey on a rutted road to talk to people is to have your worldview overturned. I don’t mean having no principles or beliefs, but to be open to being wrong or ignorant, to test your assumptions.
Which brings us onto Orwell and the activist thing. I’m not an activist partly because I have often been proved wrong. I believe in reporting civilian suffering – of course I do, that’s what I witness all the time. But the short circuit from the dying baby to the indictment of government policy isn’t always obvious. I reported from Syria several times last year, and information is better than ignorance, but that doesn’t mean that I have an idea of what any outside government should do other than providing more humanitarian aid. Something must be done! Indeed it must, but I don’t necessarily know what. Is it all more complicated than it was in Orwell’s day, or am I just an intellectual and political coward? Sometimes I wish I were an investigative reporter, exposing corporate corruption. Maybe that’s where the clearest moral imperative is today. But sadly, you need to understand vast amounts of data and I can scarcely add up or use a computer.
Back in the 1970s and 80s I was an activist on Central America, railing against US policy in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala. But when I moved to Africa I found my marvellously clear political beliefs were jolted by reality, which stubbornly refused to fit my politics. It was, to use your word, messy. That was what journalism did for me.
In my day job as a TV reporter I spend a lot of time boiling down experience and clarifying, trying to explain. The medium doesn’t lend itself to nuance nor really to analysis, except of the simplest kind, although you can still throw out ideas or operate on more than one level.
But when I’m writing I sometimes try, if not to confuse, at least to question the evidence of my own eyes. I’m searching for more than one meaning. I think we frequently miss the import of events because we’re not familiar with the history that the people we report on take for granted. In Rwanda, for example, the reductive Tutsi / Hutu narrative misses the important fact that Tutsis brought up in exile in Burundi and Uganda are very different from those who always lived in Rwanda. Relations between returning exiled Tutsis and survivor Tutsis are complex and strained. It’s a subtlety but as someone who’s lived there for five years, you’ll know that if you don’t understand that, you understand nothing. These are the kind of things journalists miss and writers need to explore.
I have become very aware of the limitations to my own understanding. I was living in Baghdad at the time of the 2003 US invasion. All my Iraqi friends were desperate for the Americans to come because they could imagine nothing worse than Saddam. They persuaded me they were right. Now? Well, several are dead. Others say they look back at Saddam’s time with nostalgia. We make our judgements based on those we meet and our previous experience, but I often think that the more I know, the less I know.
Oh dear, I’m getting gloomy! Where are you going to report from in 2015? Increasingly I think I want to write about individuals in the context of events, rather than the events themselves. I’m becoming like those modern anthropologists who think you can’t extrapolate or draw any conclusions from anything! That can’t be right, can it?
All the best,
PS: Reread the Martha Gellhorn piece you mentioned. God, she was good. Controlled and angry and painfully observant. I want to be her when I grow up.
Greetings from Washington DC. As much as I love to travel, and how essential it is to our work, the dislocation of arriving in a new place is still striking; it always takes time and effort to find new bearings.
Your story of Iraq reminds me of Mobutu’s declaration: ‘Après moi, le déluge.’ After me, the deluge. He was quoting Louis XV. Just like your Iraqi friends, the Congolese can be nostalgic for Mobutu’s dictatorship and even Belgian colonial rule, despite the horrific stories of how colonial officers would cut off people’s hands for not gathering enough rubber. It’s a perverse nostalgia, as I write in my book, Stringer. Dictators know all too well that they have destroyed the institutions necessary for governing the country; they know that once they are gone the country will likely descend into chaos. Experiencing such change – from what seems like order to chaos – can be confusing. Memories of life under the dictator become cherished. In a way, the people are not wrong, and in another they are: the dictator’s rule could not have lasted forever, and the chaos was inevitable. The nostalgia is deceitful.
Narratives of Rwanda seem sadly stuck in the old Hutu and Tutsi divide. Even when Rwandans have moved on the stories about them have not. My next book is about a group of journalists I taught in Rwanda, Hutu and Tutsi, from families of the killers and the victims in the 1994 genocide. Despite their vastly different and conflicting histories, they faced similar pressures from the Rwandan government.
You’re so right about activism and the difficulty of defining policy. As an activist you have to be willing to get your hands dirty, and make trade-offs that may do good to some and even harm to others – anathema to the journalist! The journalist’s idealism is still useful. Foreign governments, in their long-term aid interventions, often perpetuate the problems they claim to be trying to solve. There’s so little understanding of the societies they work in, and little awareness even when their programs falter. Immersive journalism is a solution. There seems to be less and less of that nowadays, sadly, as budgets are cut and correspondents cover twenty countries each from far away hubs. Uncovering subtleties like the Hutu and Tutsi divide seems more remote. Hence, as you point out, the greater role of the writer.
I feel that anthropologists are sometimes like mathematicians. When I was studying math I got a distinct sense that people were playing with complex ideas for the beauty of those ideas, the pleasure of the experience, and sometimes the vanity of their own brilliance. The work had very little connection to or effect on the world, which seems odd to say about anthropology and mathematics, but that’s how I felt.
I may return to Congo in 2015. The tropical world never ceases to astonish me. The profusion of life: there’s always something to be found, or something that comes upon you. It makes you live and think about life. Ideas are what excite me most about writing, and what a privilege we have to be able to test our ideas in the field, constantly! I agree with you: ‘The only point of getting backache from a ten-hour journey on a rutted road to talk to people is to have your worldview overturned.’