In the novel, Libertyville, two young men, a British reporter and a West African coup leader form a complicated friendship as they navigate the dangers and opportunities of a failed state. As civil societies grow weaker around the world, their moral choices reveal the pitfalls faced by people everywhere.
The air was choking gray and the ground shook from the concussive force of the RPGs. It was my third week out and the first time I’d been sick to my stomach, so I was one of the lucky ones. I probably still stank of the oily fish and cassava stew of the previous night’s meal. Klaas had thrown out the tinned food and hired a local cook. He said it was better that way. Except when it wasn’t.
The rebels straggled out, a broken line of boys and what they called officers, many of them scrawny and not much taller than the children. I strained to see through my field glasses.
In the month I’d spent with Platinum Security, I’d been struck by the rebels’ superior armaments. The rebels wore Liberian camouflage and there seemed to be no shortage of AK-47s and Chinese patrol mortars. Standard Eastern bloc stuff, but, in quantities that made Grand Mare’s army look impoverished by comparison. But I’d been, not surprised exactly, but struck, to see so many walking barefoot. No boots, and if they wore shoes at all, they were beat up sneakers or the standard-issue flip flops, the kind you buy at a village market for fifty shillings. Nobody cared a damn for these men, and the rebels cared even less for the young boys and girls they’d kidnapped. The kids’ only value was to pull a trigger or take incoming. In Liberia, Captain Butt Naked sacrificed a child before every battle.
Unable to do more than write about this, and intent on using the details that could make this real to compassionate housewives in Leeds and your average business bloke in the City, I strained to see the rebels’ feet. How many were barefoot? How many of their feet were bloodied? My hands sweated against the nubbled black plastic of the field glasses. I went back to cursing the stew of the night before. I had diarrhea all morning and, I suspected, I was running a slight fever.
Ndakalo, one of the Himba guys, tapped me on the shoulder. Slight, compact, and quiet-moving, Ndakalo held his rifle as if it was weightless. Behind him stood one of the village militiamen, the kamajors.
Recruited from the best hunters in the villages, they were knowledgeable about the terrain, but often illiterate. Most were convinced that the initiation into the kamajors gave them supernatural powers. I felt an unexpected intimacy with these guys, coupled with fear, as if I’d stumbled on an open grave, in a strange sense, my own. (A stranger recognizes a new grave, but does not know who lies in it, another one of those intriguing Grand Mare proverbs.)
“We go,” Ndakalo said.
“Right,” I said, glancing at the kamajor. Dangling from the strings crossing his neck like the truss of a turkey were leather packets containing substances believed to have magic powers. On his battered t-shirt he, or his initiator, had painted a red circle, like a bull’s eye, dead center of his chest. I liked the fuck you aspect, but I wasn’t keen on standing near him if the shooting started.
We were heading to the town that had been left for dead by the rebels. The helicopters had already gone in, but Klaas wanted ground level. I stuffed the binoculars in my ruck. Taking a last look at the hunter, I noticed that he wore a digital watch. I wondered if a silicon chip would cause his mojo to go haywire.
We trudged through the ashes. Burned metal had turned bronze and black, the scorched afterimage of flame. Poisonous-smelling smoke hung in the streets. The rumors of napalm weren’t true, but the smoke was enough to damage your lungs. Concrete block walls stuck up from the ground, leached by fire to the color of antique bone. A stranger might mistake these walls for an archaeological ruin, knowing a new grave but not who lies in it. Only weeks before, Tadeni had been an ordinary town.
The men told me to walk in the middle of the file so an attack from the front or rear wouldn’t be mine to answer. They weren’t protecting me so much as themselves from my ineptitude. I didn’t argue, but I thought they were wrong. By that time I never went anywhere without my rifle.
Klaas had assigned me to a unit with three enlisted men. They were all veterans of the southern African wars. Willie was a white Rhodesian who had served in the South African special forces. Ndakalo was a Himba from Namibia. Domingos came from Angola. He had been fighting the longest, eleven years, since the war that expelled the Portuguese. I turned back to him. His eyes blood-red from the smoke, stayed on the field.
“Where's Willie?” I whispered.
“Checking survivors. Maybe rebels,” Domingos said softly. “It takes time.” Like the others, he possessed a stillness I could barely comprehend in a living thing. The men simply watched. Nothing in the world existed but that ruined street, the mud and trash at our feet, the rubble. I felt as though we weren't alone, as if the air still held cries of people who had fled or been killed or raped or hacked: the immanence of death.
Willie poked his head round the corner of a deserted bank, and I felt the impulse to grab my rifle, reflexive, in that split second before recognizing him. I kicked myself mentally until I had something approaching the proper reaction: relief, affection for round-faced Willie with his jaunty gold tooth. Distant feelings, but recognizable. Forcing yourself to have them was like patting your back pocket, making sure your wallet was there. Your passport. A sign of ordinary humanity.
When I was with Platinum Security, whole weeks went by, muddied by sweat and dirt. I remember Tadeni because of the boy who carried the head. When Domingos brought him in that night, it was one of those moments when perceptions don’t jibe; you shuffle through the deck of your past but there is no reference.
Our cook, Ruben, had set up the makeshift kitchen; he was slicing potatoes. I glanced up, quickly, assuming the boy came from the town, and that he was carrying a sack of food under his arm. As he came closer, I saw that he was carrying the decapitated head of a middle-aged man. The slack folds of the man’s face revealed dissipation: there was something morally revolting about him even in death. The head was gray and puttyish, an absence of color I had learned to recognize; nonetheless the man’s character seemed indelible. Unkillable.
The boy carried the head the way a kid carries a ball home from a game, naturally, almost as if he’d forgotten he was holding it, but when he saw our reactions, he panicked. He was a child soldier, so he had lost his affect, but I could see his subterranean feeling in the way he tightened his grip, pressing the gray skin against his ribcage, the scale of the thing comical and obscene, the head man-big; the boy the usual malnourished specimen, skinny legs poking out from filthy shorts like drinking straws.
The boy stopped. Domingos edged him towards us with his rifle.
Ruben, dropping his eyes, quickly returned to his cooking. Platinum wasn’t known for taking prisoners. This wasn’t a regular army with prisons or hospitals. Platinum killed people. They did it efficiently, as quickly as possible. The better men made an effort to minimize suffering, but it was their job: killing people. The boy was a rebel. His prognosis was not good.
The black soldiers who had been standing around the kitchen fire melted away. Domingos tried to follow them.
“Domingos!” Klaas called. Domingos kept walking. “Domingos. Now.”
Domingos turned round, glaring at Klaas, deep, incised grooves running from his nostrils to his mouth. I remembered Domingos’ own story: Jonas Savimbi’s rebels in Angola had kidnapped Domingos as a child.
“Put the head down,” Klaas ordered the boy.
The boy didn’t move. Remembering my run-in with the boys near Lundo, I was torn between compassion and wariness.
“Down,” Klaas said, pointing. His voice took on a terrible clarity. Not anger, but command. The boys' eyes followed his hand. He put the head on the ground. The head rolled, landing facedown. I felt my gorge rise.
“Water?” Domingos asked the boy.
The boy said nothing. It was as if no one had spoken.
Domingos handed the boy a canteen. He took a sip, but only a minimal amount, making it clear he was doing it under duress.
“Where did your unit come from?”
The boy, working his mouth, looked uncomprehendingly at the ground.
Wiping his knife on a towel, Ruben slipped it into his trousers and walked over to the boy.
“Where does his unit came from?”
Ruben translated into patois to the boy. The boy’s face came to tentative life. Makeni, he said.
“Where were you fighting?” Klaas asked.
They kept asking him questions, the standard questions for a captured enemy. The boy answered, a schoolboy reciting the multiplication tables, the names of capital cities.
“What was your job?”
“I toted the ammunition,” the boy said. “And food.”
“How did you join the rebels?” Klaas asked.
“The rebels come to my village,” the boy said. “They take me.”
“Who is that?” Klaas said, pointing to the head.
“Who cut off the head?” Klaas demanded.
The boy pressed his lips tight.
Crouching down to the boy’s level, Ruben asked: “Who chop dis?”
“Me did,” the boy said, looking at the ground.
“Why you do dis ting?”
The boy spoke, quickly now. When he finished, Ruben shook his head.
“The army soldiers tell him, cut off dis commander’s head,” Ruben said. “You carry it now. This is your job.”
The army. This was the first time I had heard of the Grand Mare military committing the same kinds of atrocities as the rebels. So much for Johnny Gabriel Samora and his Sandhurst training. Of course, the Belgians had done the same shit in Congo. Had we learned nothing? The world had gone bloody mad.
“We should shoot you,” Klaas told the boy. Calm and lucid, like a physician saying this will be uncomfortable.
I saw Domingos tense up. He was a big man, more than six feet, in good shape, heavy knotted muscles bulging out from under the cut-off sleeves of his white t-shirt. Klaas put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and the boy closed his eyes briefly, his lids tissue-thin moth wings. I couldn’t sit by and let this happen. I stepped forward, but Klaas raised his hand, never taking his eyes from the boy.
“It’s not our job to bury you,” Klaas said. “Domingos, I need a shovel. Bring this rebel a shovel to dig his grave.”
Domingos stared at Klaas. Klaas had gone too far, I was sure of it; I wouldn’t have been surprised if Domingos went after him. After a few tense seconds, Domingos went off to find a shovel. When Domingos came back, Klaas nodded at the boy. Domingos handed the shovel to him. Klaas placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder, walking to the treeline.
“Dig,” he said.
I imagined how it would feel to dig your own grave when you were twelve. The weight of the spade, its awkward length. The boy was stick thin, but the red laterite was forgiving. Still, he struggled.
Klaas lit another cigarette, in for the duration. I couldn’t stand watching but I couldn’t move. I thought about how to stop Klaas. I still hadn’t found a plan when Klaas told the boy to stop. He had dug only the shallowest of graves. Boy-sized.
“Not you,” Klaas said. “Him.”
The boy stared at Klaas.
“Him,” Klaas repeated, pointing to the head, lolling about on the ground near the grave. “The commander. Bury him. He’s dead.”
The boy picked up the head with both hands. Walking over to the grave like someone in a dream, he dropped his commander’s head into the hole. The boy’s face lost its immobility, its flatness. He didn’t laugh or shout, but his face almost looked like a normal boy’s face again.
“Cover it,” Klaas said. “Put it away.”
Lifting his spade, the boy covered the head with dirt.
Afterwards: manioc stew with fish, potatoes, and onions. The boy ate, we ate, the tension and strangeness dissipated.
“What’s your name, then?” Klaas asked the boy.
The boy looked at Klaas, surprised. There was no need to interpret.
“Alpha,” he said.
Alpha. The first letter of the Greek alphabet. The foundation of all Western alphabets. Plutarch speculated that alpha was the first letter because it was the earliest sound children made, aaah lifting off the childish tongue requiring no clamping of the jaws or motion of the tongue. In Greek, alpha meant ox, a beast of burden considered the most basic of necessities.
Alpha joined Platinum Security. He fetched water, washed dishes, hauled trash, and carried supplies. He never touched a weapon.
A month later, I stumbled back to Libertyville reeking, my face layered with a month’s worth of beard. I took a long shower and then another. For several days, I slept and ate, but mostly slept. I walked on the beach but not for very long. Food had no taste. I assumed that would come back, at some point.
Platinum had taken over an old military barracks on the outskirts of the city. When the mercs were on a mission, the massive steel doors stayed locked. When they were in town the place erupted into a maelstrom: boxes, papers, satellite phones, grungy tin plates stained with remnants of the same local food we ate in the field, piles of weaponry catalogs from the former Soviet Union, where the clandestine de-accessioning of the Cold War arsenal was a growth industry.
The going-out-of-business sale would last for the next decade, supplying the African continent with AK-47s. The Platinum barracks was the first place I heard the name Viktor Bout, the Ukrainian who became the world’s most notorious arms dealer. Bout was supplying Charles Taylor in Liberia. Taylor, in turn, armed Lahai Spaine’s RPF. The Soviet Union’s plutonium was rumored to be on the market but that wasn’t my beat.
I wrote a series about the mercenaries and the recapture of the diamond fields, telexing my copy from the barracks. The communications system was the best in the country, far more reliable than the office center at the Peninsula. They had a massive generator that clunked on when the power went out, and there was no shortage of fuel.
The barracks officially belonged to the Ministry of Defense, so it was not unusual for Victor Kamara to appear, arriving quietly, with only a few members of his entourage. He would smile and joke with the Platinum guys before disappearing into a private office.
I thought at the time that Victor enjoyed the camaraderie, and, as a soldier himself, found the mercenaries interesting. It was hard not to. Platinum was a United Nations of War. Mostly African, of course: officers white, enlisted men black, no obfuscating. But there were others, less easily categorized: an Ethiopian flight mechanic, a good-natured officer from Fiji, and a fiery Jordanian who thought Hizbollah was going to save the world. The helicopter pilot, a Brit who looked like a dentist from Stokes-on-Kent, flew bombing missions lower and closer to the rebels than pilots half his age. There were two Americans, a ponytailed Vietnam vet who held the record for boffing Fula and Mandingo girls he picked up at Paddy’s, and a guy sent by a military contractor in Oregon who was rumored to be a CIA plant. The American was later elected to Congress, represented The Company’s interests just as assiduously.
Contrary to the mythology, the mercs in those days were paid very little. Platinum’s contract stated that the Grand Mare government would hand over the astonishing sum of one million British pounds per month, but the soldiers complained that they took home less than a secretary’s wages in the U.K. while the company's founders bought themselves beach houses in Mallorca. The Nigerian peacekeepers were underpaid, too, but compensated by working clandestinely with the rebels, who paid them in diamonds. Eventually, a healthy contingent of Platinum guys decided they could bear the iniquity no further and went to work for the rebels.
There are a handful of academics and think tank types who claim that Platinum made the mercenary business respectable. They were certainly useful. Small-scale wars were erupting all over the world and the developed nations were reluctant to send their own troops to conflicts that often seemed like Third World equivalents of disputes between the Crips and the Bloods. Exclusive reliance on national armies was a fairly recent phenomenon, anyway, made possible by the rise of the nation-state at the end of the eighteenth century. Mercenary soldiering, on the other hand, was the world’s second oldest profession, from the Greeks who fought for the Persian emperor Darius to General Lafayette, who profited handsomely fighting for the colonists in the American Revolution.
An earlier generation of mercs had a better time of it, coasting on the remains of empire. The British mercenary Mad Mike Hoare and the Frenchman Bob Denard, who commanded les affreux, the terrible ones, had both written swashbuckling memoirs. I confess to a fondness for Denard’s story. In 1978, Denard, commanding twenty-nine mercenaries aboard a rusting trawler, invaded the Comoros Islands, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean that still holds the world’s record for coup d’etats. Denard had the good sense to install himself as de facto ruler of a country where his greatest challenge was deciding how many towels to bring to the beach.
In reality, Denard and Hoare were colonialist bullies. Most of the current crop weren’t much better. In Bosnia, the mercenaries tended to be trigger-happy Ukrainians steeped in corruption, venal brutes drifting from failure to failure. Platinum Security was not that much better, but it was different. Platinum’s principals had a substantial interest in Grand Mare’s largest diamond mine.
The world was changing, and the mercenaries fit a niche. Privatization, mate, Klaas said, grinning. It worked under Thatcher. Pulled your English asses out of the fire, didn’t it? I laughed, but later, as we watched Iraq unfold, the downside was clear: once mercenaries are involved, neither the interests of ordinary citizens nor the rule of law are represented on the battlefield.
But in Grand Mare, there was no choice, or it seemed that way at the time. I thought Victor had been bloody intelligent to hire Platinum. And I liked Klaas. Observing him in the field, I could gauge where his hardness shaded into something else, a compassion that had, nonetheless, striations of cruelty laced through it. A necessary cruelty, I believed then, and I still do. The circumstances of war had formed Klaas’ character. He was as precisely adapted to his time and place as one of Darwin’s finches.
Susan Zakin is the Journal's editor. Her novel, Libertyville, will be published in late 2023.
Brian's Ready to War Playlist
You No Go Die…Unless ::: Fela
African Soldier ::: Seen Kuti
Mercenaries (Ready for War) ::: John Cale
Riot ::: Basement Five
Warrior Song ::: Sarkodie
Ain’t No Grave ::: Johnny Cash
Devil In The Woods ::: The Gun Club
Jammu Africa ::: Ismael Lo