Monday, April 30, 2012

One Down Many to Go

In 2007 I was called upon to edit a television program for ABC News titled "Hell: Our Fear and Fascination". The show examined the concept of "Hell" across many cultures and delved into where, when and how the idea was conceived. Everything from the religious to the contemporary existentialist notions were examined in a short but concise manner in the 40 minute program. The biblical notion of hell seemed to have evolved around a toxic garbage dump that existed outside Jerusalem in the days of old. Dante's Inferno in the 14th century later visualized the idea of "Christian Hell" in a more vivid manner, which to this day forms the basis of contemporary hell mythology. Hindus have more than 100 separate underworlds and Muslims describe seven different fires of torment. The Jews do not believe in the implicit notion of heaven or hell.

As part of the program we also examined the lives of people who had lived through hell right here on earth. Three individuals out of the countless who survived the worst atrocities inflicted by humanity were chosen. Sister Diane Ortiz was brutally raped and tortured in Guatemala 20 years ago after being mistakenly suspected of supporting rebel fighters. Her story of courage was powerful. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel had lived through the worst death camps ever devised by the human mind in Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald. His life is a constant reminder of the tenacity of the human spirit. The story that really stayed with me, was that of a handsome young boy named Ishmael Beah. At the age of twelve he was forced to become a soldier in Sierra Leone, and was forced to murder his own people during a decade long brutal civil war which started in 1991. Like many children who were conscripted to fight the wars of mad men, he was forcibly drafted after his family was exterminated. He had seen unspeakable horrors and later became an instrument in inflicting horror on others. He had lost count of how many people he had killed under the influence of "Brown Sugar", a concoction made  of gunpowder and cocaine which the children were forced to snort before they did the killing. Ishmael Beah was one of the lucky ones who survived the war, and was later adopted by an American family, and went on to write a best selling book titled "A Long Way Gone" which documented his unthinkable life.

While editing the TV show I had to watch a documentary titled "Cry Freetown" made by a Sierra Leonean journalist Sorious Samura. Watching the footage was like being in hell. There were parts that were so gruesome that I could not view and had to fast forward through to stay sane. The film captured the moment when the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) forces led by the brutal warlord Foday Sankoh entered the capital Freetown with their battalion of child soldiers. The violence that they inflicted on civilians on their journey was grotesque and painful to see. Amputation of limbs was their chosen method of inflicting terror. They called them "Long Sleeves" and "Short Sleeves", referring to those that were hacked below the shoulder and those below the elbow. 50,000 people were killed during that war and half a million people were displaced. Today the children of Sierra Leone still bare the scars of the decade long war, with amputees all over the country serving as a visual reminder.

One of the main architects of that hell inflicted on Sierra Leone was indicted on war crime charges this week at The Hague. After five long years and millions of dollars spent litigating, the warlord turned president of neighboring Liberia was found guilty on eleven charges by the UN appointed Special Court for Sierra Leone. Charles McArthur Ghankay Taylor was found guilty of aiding and abetting the rebels in Sierra Leone who carried out some of the worst atrocities ever known to mankind. The former warlord was convicted on charges of murder, rape, sexual slavery and enforced amputations. Charles Taylor's primary interest in neighboring Sierra Leone was for its diamonds. He supported the RUF rebels to secure the diamonds so he could fund his dirty war in his own country. The diamonds would soon earn the name "Blood Diamonds" and they still proliferate the market from Antwerp to New York.

With this guilty verdict Charles Taylor became infamous for another reason. He became the first African head of state to be convicted for his part in a genocidal war. While many in the west and in Africa were proud of this moment, there were others who were angered calling it the "blue eyes" or the white mans justice. No matter how you see it, one cannot ignore the facts. Charles Taylor, with all his charisma and sophistication was a man engaged in an ugly enterprise which had become the only life he knew. The enterprise included providing information to the CIA, working with international arms dealers and enriching himself in the process. And like all wars he was implicated in the atrocities that become a part and parcel of that enterprise. While there are many western war criminals who roam free including George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair, Paul Wolfowitz, Henry Kissinger and that list is long, when an African despot is singled out and prosecuted by a predominantly western apparatus, it sure does come across to many as uneven justice. Since the Nuremberg trials the west has born the burden of making sure that impunity to kill on a mass scale does not go unpunished. That drives them to hunt down criminals in parts where the justice system is hijacked or is practically non-existent.

While an unprecedented amount of money was spent in prosecuting Charles Taylor, a decade later the "justice for who" question does become an important point to examine. There have been many wars that have been started since and are still in progress in Africa and elsewhere. Children are still being conscripted and are being made to commit heinous crimes by the likes of Joseph Kony and others. Poverty and illiteracy drives people to commit unspeakable acts of violence against their neighbors. And the victims never receive justice, compensation or reparations. While Charles Taylor in his old age is being made an example, and a clear message is being sent to the likes to Bashar-Al-Asad of Syria and Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan one thing is also starkly evident that there are many more who go unpunished. So as people in Sierra Leone and Liberia watched Charles Taylor be condemned, there was guarded celebration, as it is a moment in history they rather forget and move on and hope that it never returns. Even though the risk is always there.

For those of us who watch these events from a distance and read about unspeakable crimes in newspapers and books, there is a disconnect.  To bear witness to it in reality, to live through abject poverty and famine, to fall to the depths of depravity is a sensation that can only be visualized by the privileged, but can never be felt. To empathize and feel moved is but human and to watch perfectly rational human beings like Charles Taylor conduct themselves with grace on television is chilling. Another insane person we saw this month conduct himself with perfect composure on television was Anders Breivik. The Norwegian delusional mass murderer who killed 77 with impunity a year ago claiming it was an attempt to save Norway from being over run by multiculturalism. Here he was gloating in the media exposure that he was being awarded and we all watched intrigued and repulsed at the same time. To watch these individuals from a distance is to realize that those who create hell are among us. There are those who create it on an epic scale like Hitler and Stalin and there are those who do it on a much smaller canvas. The architects are those who are nurtured in a setting that is soulless and devoid of any norms of humanity. All of us are born innocent, it is our social conditioning that makes us who we are and leads to do what we ultimately chose to do.

All the tools required to create hell on a global scale have already been invented and tested. Nations like India, Iran, Pakistan and North Korea, who struggle to feed their own people, toy with the ultimate weapon of hell, the nuclear bomb. They launch missiles and flex their muscle in a global hell raising competition. Other prosperous nations continue to stock pile and engage in the commerce of weapons, making sure the constructs of hell are always in ample supply if needed. Yet life goes on and people's faith continues to root itself in mythological ideas of heaven and hell, so they could be in denial of the ones that exist right here on earth. For those of us who think they visit hell when they face minor inconveniences like no air conditioning on a hot day, Charles Taylor and his ilk remind us of the bubbles we live in and the distant wars that we inadvertently orchestrate by being ignorant. 
It is what it is.