As parents, we transmit the qualities—and myths—of our leaders through the stories we tell our children. Think George Washington and his cherry tree, Abraham Lincoln and his Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King and his “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.

But what if we not only did not pass on those tales to the next generation, but actively worked to suppress them? Surprisingly, that is what happened in the case of Nelson Mandela. That he was nonetheless able to seize the imagination of hundreds of thousands of young South Africans and inspire them to rise up against apartheid’s unspeakable oppression is yet another tribute to what was his last-of-a-kind leadership.

The details of Mr. Mandela’s arrest and imprisonment are well known. In July 1963, South African police raided the secret headquarters of the armed wing of the African National Congress at a farm outside of Johannesburg, arresting most of its leaders. Eight of them, including Nelson Mandela, were sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island, a desolate stretch of rock off the coast of Cape Town. The raid effectively stilled black opposition for a decade. What remained of the ANC was forced to regroup outside the country, far from South Africa’s borders. An entire generation of black activists was imprisoned, banned or exiled. To deter resurgence of political movements, the police assumed unbridled powers of arrest and detention and recruited an army of black informers; the government imposed harsh restrictions on the press.

The measures left blacks utterly intimidated. People shunned political discussions; to speak of such matters was to invite repression. The ANC’s protest campaigns of the 1950s, the creation of its Freedom Charter, the stories of its leaders—all slipped into obscurity, suppressed by parents too frightened to tell their children. Newspapers could not even print Mr. Mandela’s photograph.

A young man recounted to me a remarkable example of this parental attempt to protect their children when I was working as the Monitor’s South Africa correspondent in the late 1980s.One day when he was a little boy, he asked his father about graffiti he had seen spray-painted on an electrical sub-station on his way home from school in the sprawling black township of Soweto. “Who is Mandela?” he inquired. His father instantly slapped him across the face; in a choked voice, he ordered his son never to utter the name again and stalked out of the room.

To an outsider, the anecdote was startling on several levels: the young man’s ignorance, as a boy, of Mr. Mandela; his father’s visceral response to the ANC leader’s name; the seeming success of the white-minority government to gag an entire generation of black parents. But perhaps even more astonishing was that when the young man told me the story 15 years after the fact, Mr. Mandela had become an iconic presence in every township across South Africa.

For although the government succeeded in obstructing the usual imparting of political lore from parent to child, those stories—like most universal truths–found another conduit. Here is how it happened: the mid-1970s saw the rise of a new anti-apartheid movement, Black Consciousness (which generally rejected the ANC’s non-racial and inclusive philosophies), and other leaders, most notably Steven Biko. Influenced by the movement, high school students in Soweto led a massive protest march on June 16, 1976, against the imposition of Afrikaans as the language of instruction. Their parents knew nothing of the planned demonstration. The police responded with violence; the protest turned into rioting that raged for months.

The government ultimately stamped out the unrest through brutally repressive measures that included arresting hundreds of the student organizers, putting them on trial and sending them to be imprisoned on Robben Island. There they met Mr. Mandela and his cohorts. It was nothing short of an epiphany for the youngsters: the ANC leaders organized stealthy study sessions, away from the prying eyes of their wardens, in which they taught the ANC’s philosophy and history and the roles they had played in earlier demonstrations and protests. One such student told me he used to feel practically dizzy with all that his elders had to impart.

For the first time ever, the young people learned about how the previous generation had been involved in the anti-apartheid struggle. (Which earned the Robben Island prison the sobriquet of “The University” among activists.) So that when the youngsters were released from the jail in the early- to-mid- 1980s, they returned to the townships as fervent ANC converts, eager to spread the stories of the organization and of Mr. Mandela. Their activism, among others, spawned another spasm of violent protests that ultimately led to Mr. Mandela’s release in early 1990, and to the country’s first democratic elections four years later in which Mr. Mandela was elected president.

It is thus one of the great ironies of South African history that where most parents had failed, the apartheid government unwittingly succeeded in elevating Mr. Mandela to the very status it had so cruelly sought to suppress.

Of all the rightly deserved accolades heaped on Nelson Mandela with his passing, perhaps the most important have to do with his humanity, his ubuntu, as it is called in Zulu. On its own it was rather remarkable; when compared with current leaders everywhere who routinely put political expediency and professional longevity ahead of the greater good, Mandela’s humanity was nothing short of stunning.

For this was a man who could, justifiably, have emerged from decades of imprisonment bitter and vengeful. Consider what he endured: In 1964, Mandela and seven other African National Congress comrades were convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the apartheid government and sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in jail on Robben Island, a desolate stretch of rock off the coast of Cape Town.  It was a place of great hardship and isolation:  the cells tiny and damp, furnished only with a straw mat, the water so saline as to be almost undrinkable. Mandela and his comrades worked long hours, pounding rocks into gravel; he is thought to have contracted a lung disease from inhaling the dust. After a few years, he was transferred to work in a lime quarry. There the glare from the sun, glinting off the lime, permanently damaged his eyesight. Initally he was allowed only one visit and one letter every six months. (This, at a time, when he had young children.) He  would spend 27 years in prison, denied all life-cycle events that give meaning to one’s existence; the authorities even prevented him from attending the funeral of his first-born son,who died in a car accident.

Yet when finally released from prison, Mandela’s message was one of reconcilliation. The white naysayers–the same ones who had refused to engage the ANC during the decades it used only non-violent means of protest, finally forcing the organization to take up arms–warned of  the impending bloodbath. In their twisted logic, you had to keep the system of repression going for fear of what would happen in reprisal when it stopped. Not that there wasn’t precedence on the continent; think Rwanda, Congo, Sudan. You just have to look over South Africa’s border at Zimbabwe to see how a mad, spiteful despot has gone after the white citizenry and destroyed the country in the process. But that was not Mandela’s way. Not during the years of talks that led to the first democratic election in 1994, not when he was voted in as president, not in ensuing years after he stepped down. The contrary; he preached tolerance and patience and unity.

I never had the honor of formally meeting Mandela.  The closest I got was to sit at the table next to his at a luncheon following the inauguration of Joaquin Chissano, the first democratically elected president of Mozambique. The event took place under a white tent on the lawn of  the Presidental Palace on a brain-boilingly hot day. Nevertheless, Mandela had traded his signature outfit of brilliantly colored shirt and trousers for an elegant dark suit befitting the occasion. As the honored guest, he was the first to be escorted to the buffet table by a white-jacketed steward. The man, who had an I-can’t-wait-to-tell-my-kids-about-this look on his face, explained all the dishes to Mandela, then picked up a plate and attempted to serve him. Mandela gently protested, but the steward insisted;  it would be his honor to dish out food for the South African president. Which he did, triumphantly bearing the plate back to Mandela’s place at his table. It was a fascinating little tableau: Mandela, humble yet regal, with an air of authority and gravity that somehow still managed to be approachable in his interaction with the obviously ecstatic steward. I spent the rest of the lunch trying to figure out ways to get closer to Mandela, but he was well-shielded by his (mostly white) bodyguards.

I did, however, have the pleasure of interviewing one of his former prisonmates, Govan Mbeki, the first of the ANC’s senior leaders to be released from Robben Island. (His son, Thabo, would succeed Mandela after he stepped down as president.) That encounter provided some insight into the motivation that informed Mandela’s sense of humanity. Mbeki was freed in November 1987 for medical reasons and confined to his home in New Brighton in the Eastern Cape; I flew down there and was allowed to spend the day with him. Besides his formidable intellect and humor, Mbeki’s most remarkable characteristic was his utter lack of bitterness. He was imprisoned on Robben Island for 24 years; like Mandela, he had been forced to spend what should have been the most productive years of his life apart from family, friends and community under brutal conditions; he was now a frail, old man. And  yet he bore his captors no ill will. Indeed, his spoke of nothing but optimism for the future. How could he be forgiving–as Mandela would be upon his release–for essentially having missed out on so much? He said: Even in our darkest, most trying times, we always believed in the justness of our cause. Justice would ultimately triumph; that would be our reward. Hatred and revenge would only destroy what we had worked so hard to achieve.

Stunningly simple words. But Mandela modelled those beliefs as president and international statesman. He was a once-in-a-lifetime leader. It’s doubtful that any of us will see his likes again.

For reasons personal and professional, I’ve been away from the blog for a while now, during which several important events occurred. I’ll try to address them in upcoming posts.

The first, and perhaps most important, was Charles Taylor’s sentencing in the Hague to fifty years in prison for his role in atrocities committed in Sierra Leone during its civil war in the 1990s. I have a very personal—albeit indirect—relationship with Taylor.  Before backing the unspeakable acts of murder, rape and mutilation in neighboring Sierra Leone, he invaded his home country of Liberia in December 1989, in an attempt to unseat the then-dictator, Samuel Doe.  That was five days before my wedding to a U.S. diplomat, Dennis Jett, who was the deputy-ambassador at our embassy in Monrovia.  We went ahead with the ceremony anyway; Monrovia was a long way from the fighting upcountry and the invasion seemed a minor thing.

That illusion was dispelled in the following months. Taylor and another rebel hacked their way through the country in what became a civil war of remarkable brutality. Never, even as a journalist working in other part of Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, had I witnessed such wanton atrocities. After a while, the original aim of the conflict—the ousting of the president, the defense of the government, the primacy of the tribe—ceased to matter; only the killing counted. As a result, the State Department ordered me out of the country in June 1990, just as Taylor was about to march into Monrovia.

I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Dennis and our friends to likely disaster.  Many of the other diplomats were hiding Liberians who were of tribes that were being hunted down by either government troops or Taylor’s rebels. (Shades of Nazi Germany.) So before departing, I told the stewards and gardeners and guards who worked at our house to move into the first floor with their families. Although we didn’t have Marines protecting the place, I hoped the fact that it was an official U.S. residence would dissuade soldiers and/or rebels from breaking in and spiriting people off to executions on the beaches around town.

A few years later, I received a letter from Mohammed, one of the stewards.  He was illiterate and must have gotten a professional letter writer to pen the missive. In it, he thanked me for saving him and his family, and the families of the other employees; at one point, he said, there were upwards of 40 people, many of them children, living in our house. (Dennis moved to the safety of the embassy compound almost immediately after my departure.)

This was a small consolation, compared with what happened to many of my friends and acquaintances. Later, I would interview survivors who had made it to neighboring Sierra Leone. The stories they recounted were almost too unbearable to hear.  A teenaged boy who tried to flee the fighting told of being detained at a rebel checkpoint manned by Taylor’s Freedom Fighters. A rebel suddenly, and for no apparent reason, fired two bullets into the chest of a man standing ahead of him in line, then sliced off the man’s head with a machete. Holding the head by the hair, the rebel dangled it in the face of the man’s wife. “Clap for your husband’s head,” he said, then turned to the horrified people waiting in line. “You must applaud this head,” he shouted, and they managed to clap their hands. “Now laugh at this head,” he cried, and the people tittered. “Now sing: up, up Major (Charles) Taylor.” The people sang.

While the young man was waiting at another checkpoint, a Jeep came roaring up and stopped abruptly. A highly agitated rebel emerged from the vehicle, demanding to see the checkpoint’s commander. “Here I am,” said one of the the Freedom Fighters, stepping forward.

“I have something to show you,” the rebel said, bringing forth a plastic bag and emptying its contents–a large pile of human penises–on the ground.

“But what did you do with the men?” the commander asked.

“Oh, nothing,”  the rebel laughed. “I just cut off their penises and told them to get going.”

“Well done,” replied the commander. The two men counted the severed members; there were fifty-two in total, which prompted the commander to decree that the rebel henceforth would be known as the Fifty-Two Reporter.

All this happened before Taylor conquered Liberia and, as president, turned his sights on Sierra Leone. When I was evacuated, I went only as far as Sierra Leone, the next country to the west. I wanted to remain  in Africa, if only for the news. As long as the conflict continued, and Dennis faced real danger, and I remained separated from my home, and my friends suffered unknown fates, I hungered for news. In the U.S., Africa hardly counts  even in its most tragic moments. In Sierra Leone, however, there were hourly bulletins. The BBC, Voice of America, American Armed Forces Radio, the English services of the French, German and Dutch broadcasting companies–all beamed at Africa, all focused on the war in Liberia.

I stayed at a coastal resort catering to French tourists, where I watched them arrive and depart with a kind of tidal regularity, and the beach boys–as they called themselves–from the nearby fishing village, who had turned into tour guides. They all had wonderfully biblical names such as Moses and Samuel, except for one who was called Alfa Romeo.  Evenings, I’d wander up to the bar. Nursing a beer and trying to kill time, I’d talk with the bartenders and waitresses about the latest news from Liberia. We only knew in general terms the horror that was being visited on the people there by both Taylor’s fighters and the soldiers of the incumbent president, Samuel Doe. But it was enough to make the Sierra Leonians decry their neighbors as barbaric and unholy. Nothing like that could ever happen here, they insisted; we’re not like the Liberians.

Indeed, they seemed the gentlest and kindest of people. Virtually all were working at the resort to save money for schooling. And in the ensuing years, watching from afar as Sierra Leone descended into the hell that Charles Taylor aided, abetted and funded, I often thought of them. And hoped and prayed that they had somehow escaped the maelstrom. At least now, with Taylor’s sentence to 50 years in prison, I can be certain of one thing: justice, however glacial in its progress, has been served.

 

 

The king of Saudi Arabia made a momentous proclamation not long ago: women will be granted, for the first time, the right to vote and run in future municipal elections. This, in a country that practices a strict separation of the sexes, prohibits women from driving, requires them to have a male chaperon for most public excursions. Given that the next election cycle is almost four years away, this could just be a sop to activists. They have been demanding–against the backdrop of the Arab Spring’s dramatic political upheavals– more rights for women, along with a more equitable and representative form of government. Saudi Arabia suffers from the same repressive regime and sectarian divides that plague most of its Arab brethren. But it has an additional problem, one that also affects the other wealthy oil kingdoms of the Gulf: a split personality.

This duality results from the wealthy elites sending their sons and daughters send off to the West to be educated, where they experience an unprecedented amount of freedom, both intellectual and physical. By the time these students return home, they often have changed greatly. But not their countries. The returnees are thus forced to engage in extreme forms of subterfuge to continue living their newly expanded lives. I got to experience this bizarre double-existence firsthand while reporting in Kuwait, courtesy of a businessman who invited me to his “farm” for the weekend.

On Friday, the day of rest in Islam, I was picked up at my hotel in a Mercedes limousine and driven about an hour outside Kuwait City, along the sea coast. The “farm” turned out to be a beach house set far back from the road, among the sand dunes. The businessman, a quiet Standford graduate, had always received me in his office in the capital dressed in a dishdasha, the traditional long white robe, and ghutra, Arab headdress. On that day he greeted me adorned in the tiniest of swimming thongs. His wife, cocktail in hand, sported the type of bikini whose minuscule bottom Brazilians refer to as “dental floss.” Rock music blasted throughout the house and grounds. Their three children raced all-terrain vehicles on the sand, screaming as they flew across the dunes. Similarly and scantily clad neighbors drifted in from nearby compounds.

The drinking and dancing and raucous conversation continued throughout the afternoon until suddenly,  at sunset, the music stopped and my host disappeared into the recesses of his house. He returned dressed in his dishasha and ghutra.  Everything about him had reverted to his former self: his countenance, speech, demeanor, even the pace at which he walked.  The picture of the traditional Kuwaiti, he was now ready for the ride back to the capital–and to his other, work-week life: subdued, segregated by sex, tee-totalling.

The contrast between his two lives was stunning. I have often wondered since about the toll it takes. Imagine having to subvert part of yourself for most of the time, able only to express it–if at all–secreted away. (Gay life before the advent of Stonewall? Gay life in the U.S. military before the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell? ) This privation obviously can’t compare with the  life-and-death struggles for basic human rights that are occurring in Syria and that were hard-won in Egypt and Libya, among others. It’s just another facet. Or a metaphor for the lack of self-expression enforced throughout the region. One can only hope that women’s limited participation in Saudi political life–if it truly is allowed to happen–begins to chip away at these barriers.

It has been a sad week for foreign correspondence, what with the deaths of Anthony Shadid and Marie Colvin.  Shadid, 43, died last Thursday from an apparent asthma attack while on assignment in Syria for the New York Times. Of Lebanese-American descent, Shadid spent most of his career covering the Middle East for the Associated Press, Boston Globe, Washington Post and the Times. He won two Pulitzer Prizes for his reportage while working for the Post; the Times had nominated him, along with others, for the 2012 Pulitzer in international reporting. In the citation that accompanied the nomination, the Times wrote: “Steeped in Arab political history but also in its culture, Shadid recognized early on that along with the despots, old habits of fear, passivity and despair were being toppled. He brought a poet’s voice, a deep empathy for the ordinary person and an unmatched authority to his passionate dispatches.”

And then Wednesday came news of Marie Colvin’s death, along with photojournalist Remi Ochlik, in Homs, Syria. The two died when their makeshift media center came under the relentless, brutal  shelling by the Syrian government that has killed thousands of unarmed civilians. Colvin, 56, was the consummate war correspondent, having covered conflicts in Iraq, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Kosovo, Chechnya, Zimbabwe, as well as the uprisings in the Arab world in the past year. She wore, quite literally, a constant reminder of the dangers that foreign correspondents face: a black patch over her left eye, which she lost to shrapnel more than a decade ago while covering the war in Sri Lanka between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels.

Clearly, the death of three Western journalists cannot compare with the wholesale slaughter–and this isn’t hyperbole–by the Syrian government of its citizens. But the point is that the three chose to be there. As such, they represented the best of the profession, an unwavering commitment to bear witness regardless of the risks. It is not an easy thing. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that the number of reporters killed in the last ten years has jumped 30%, compared with the previous decade. Part of this can be explained by the fact that most armed conflicts nowadays are civil wars in developing countries: undisciplined armies battling even more undisciplined insurgents. And the danger to those covering the conflicts is certain only to rise. Colvin herself recognized the risks in a speech she gave in 2010, honoring the work of journalists and photographers who died in the line of duty. “It has never been more dangerous to be a war correspondent, ” she said, “because the journalist in the combat zone has become a prime target.” How ironic her words now seem.

Beyond the obvious physical dangers, there are enormous psychological tolls as well. You always feel a bit dirty–for lack of a better word–parachuting into a war zone to be with the besieged. You live among them for a while: dodging bullets,  sharing the constant fear of death, experiencing the same deprivations of food and water. They open up their hearts to you–and then you leave. You pull out your American (or British or French or German) passport and go back to a place where no one is shooting at you, where the water runs clear and cool from taps, where grocery stores stock thirty-six different brands of cereal. You can’t help but feel relieved. But guilty, too. It’s one of the things that keeps you going back, again and again.

It can make you a little crazy, having one foot in the world of thirty-six types of cereal, the other in places where small children are blown apart by grenades. It makes for journalists who become drunks or action junkies or cut-rate hacks. But it also makes for truly heroic reporters like Shadid and Colvin, reporters driven to tell the world things most people would prefer not to know.

Obviously, every time something like this happens, it strikes a very personal chord. I cannot help but relive the death of my first husband, Dial Torgerson, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, who was killed in 1983 while covering the wars in Central Amercia. I remember at the time wondering whether it was all worth it. We had only been married for ten months; we had a lifetime of togetherness ahead of us. Over the years, I’ve been sustained by the belief that Dial wouldn’t have wanted his life any other way. Surely he would have preferred to live, but the security of playing it safe, of confining himself to some newsroom would, for him–as for Shadid and Colvin–have been no life at all.

Reading the reams of articles about the child sex-abuse scandal at Penn State, I’m reminded of various dictators around the world I’ve covered/known. I’m thinking of those who started out as saviours in their respective countries and did much good–only to succumb to the seduction of power and their own vanity, clinging to their offices in ways that undid their legacies. The similarities between them and Joe Paterno, the Penn State football coach, are striking.

Robert Mugabe, the despotic leader of Zimbabwe, and Alberto Fujimori, the former president of Peru, are prime examples. Mugabe spent decades, starting in the 1960s, fighting the white-minority ruled government in what was then known as Rhodesia. (Which included a ten-year-stint in prison for his efforts.) By the time the war ended in 1979, he was seen by many as a hero and elected prime minister of the newly independent nation. His call for reconciliation among the formerly warring parties was hailed as a model for the continent. Mugabe put much effort into what the World Bank called “human resource investments and support for smallholder agriculture;” as a result, by 1990, Zimbabwe had a lower infant mortality rate, higher adult literacy and higher school enrolment rate than average for developing countries.

If he had stopped after, say, 20 years in office and stepped down, today Mugabe would be remembered as a kind of George Washington to his nation. Instead, as the years passed and he struggled to remain in power, his rule became one of economic mismanagement, corruption and brutal repression. In 2000, Mugabe embarked on a mad land grab, seizing white-owned farms without compensation and “redistributing” them,  mostly to his family, political cronies and military officers. Elections in the past decade have been marked by vote-rigging, rampant intimidation and violence. The impact on the country has been stunningly ruinous. Zimbabwe’s GDP plummeted 40% in the last decade–this, in a country that was considered Africa’s bread basket. Life expectancy for Zimbabwean males is now 37 years; for females, it is 34 years.

In Peru, Alberto Fujimori came into office in 1990 amid staggering hyperinflation and widespread terrorism. He enacted as series of draconian economic reforms that revitalized Peru, set the country on a path to robust growth and and brought it back into the global economy. To combat terrorism, he granted the military broad powers to arrest suspected insurgents and try them in secret military courts with few legal rights. (Fujimori contended that these measures were justified because judges feared reprisals against them and their families.) To many of his countrymen, he–like Mugabe–was a hero for returning Peru to economic stability and ending the 15-year reign of terror by the Shining Path guerrillas. This, despite staging, with the help of the military, a kind of coup in 1992 that shut down the congress and purged the judiciary

If Fujimori had left office in 2000–as required by the new constitution he put in place–he would be remembered for his signature achievements of bringing prosperity and peace to the country. Instead, he got his supporters in Congress to “reinterpret” the constitution, which allowed him to run for a third term. Shortly after the election, which was widely seen as rigged, Fujimori fled to Japan amid a corruption scandal. He was ultimately arrested during a visit to Chile in 2005 and extradited to Peru; he is now serving a 25-year jail sentence for human rights violations, bribery and embezzlement, among other things.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Joe Paterno is even vaguely analogous to either Mugabe or Fujimori. But the trajectory of his 46-year career follows a similarly disturbing arc. Here was a college football coach who broke the mold, who endowed two professorships at Penn State in the humanities to demonstrate his commitment to academics, who helped raise money to quadruple the size of the library, who benched star players for missing class. And he won football games. He became an iconic, revered figure on campus and among Penn State’s tens of thousands of alumni.

And if he had left, say, 15 years ago–at the not-unvenerable age of 70–his would be a magnificent and singular legacy. Instead he stayed on, secure in a cocoon where the money and prestige that his football team brought to the university made him, quite literally, untouchable. It has been reported that both the former president of Penn State, Graham Spanier, and a member of the university’s board of trustees tried to induce Paterno to retire in 2004–to no avail. Perhaps it was his desire to become the winningest coach in Division I college football, which he achieved in October of this year. Or it was simply a failure of imagination, an inability to fathom a life beyond the adulation and spotlight.

Thus, as arguably the most powerful figure at Penn State, Paterno ignored or dismissed stories of serial child molestation and rape by his former assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky, that allegedly continued for years. Those around him and in the university’s administration, whether out of reverence or fear, went along with it. In doing so, Paterno inadvertently dragged the university into a systemic cover- up of what appears to be the worst scandal in the history of collegiate athletics. And still he refused to step down, even when the full horror of the allegations  came to light. Instead, he issued a press release stating that he would retire at the end of the season–there were still several football games to be played–a move that finally forced the Penn State’s trustees to fire him.   (And set a mob of clueless Penn State students to rioting.)

It was an ignominious end to a man who, like so many others in positions of power before him, had stayed too long.

 

In the face of the much-deserved media coverage of the “Arab Spring” uprisings, it was gratifying to see the Nobel Peace Prize committee acknowledge a sadly under-reported, but no less bloody nor intractable, arena of conflict: Africa. The Nobel committee awarded the prize earlier this month to Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and to Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head-of-state. They shared the award with Tawakul Karman of Yemen, a pro-democracy campaigner.

In bestowing the honor, the Nobel committee was clearly underscoring the role of women in promoting peace and democracy. The committee said the three received the award “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” Indeed, the prize’s citation read: “We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.” But by choosing two -thirds of the honorees from Africa, the committee also shone a bright light on that continent’s oft-neglected conflicts, the world’s “other wars.”

Ms. Gbowee received the award for uniting Christian and Muslim women against the warlords of a civil conflagration that raged in Liberia for 14 years. She founded the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement in 2002, which began with women praying and singing in a fish market. Ms. Gbowee mobilized thousands of women in nonviolent protests that included a sex strike and the push for peace talks among the warring factions. These and other actions helped to end to the conflict in 2003, which led to the democratic election of Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf in 2005.  For her part, Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf is seen as having brought peace and stability to Liberia. She created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the mandate to  ”promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation” by investigating the civil upheavals, and secured forgiveness for billions of dollars of Liberian debt.

That the Liberian conflict dragged on for so long, and with such horrendous results, speaks to the world’s general indifference to Africa. I was in Liberia at the start of the first convulsion of the conflict, in 1989-90. I watched as two rival rebel groups hacked their way through the country, bent on overthrowing the dictatorial president, Samuel Kanyon Doe. The war turned into a tribal bloodbath: soldiers from differing tribes were decapitated and had their penises severed; innocent civilians were massacred. All this happened during the run-up to the first Gulf War. Thus, after their initial interest, members of the international press corps melted away, decamping to the sexier story in the Middle East. Yet the remarkable brutality in Liberia, the killing, rape, maiming and wanton destruction went on, in one form or another, until 2003. (And spilled over, most horrifically, into neighboring Sierra Leone.) After a while, the original aim of the conflict–the ousting of the president, the defense of the government, the primacy of the tribe–ceased to matter; only the killing counted. The killing became a sickness, a rottenness that infected everyone, destroying the stuff that holds a people together.

But the West has always maintained a certain lack of feeling about Africa. That callousness is perhaps best characterized by the attitude of a former foreign editor for one of the biggest newspapers in the U.S.  A friend of mine covered the continent in the 1980s for the paper and was among the first Western reporters to encounter the famine in 1983-84 that ravaged Ethiopia, killing hundreds of thousands of people. He tried desperately to interest the foreign editor in the story. Her response? “People are always starving to death in Africa. Where’s the news in that?” At a time when Western media organizations are closing their African bureaus or greatly reducing their presence on the continent because of budget constraints, this indifference only grows. Today there is a famine in Somalia that barely rates coverage. Conflicts continue in Sudan, Central African Republic and the Congo–where several million people are estimated to have died.

Where, indeed, is the news in all that?

The New York Times ran a chilling story last Sunday about about a young Argentinian woman who was, unbeknown to her, raised by the military officer who tortured and killed her parents. It is yet another heart-breaking piece of what was known as Argentina’s “dirty war”: the kidnapping (or “disappearing”)  and murder of thousands of suspected leftist terrorists, mostly Argentine citizens, by the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 until 1983. Estimates of the number of people killed range from 9,000 to 30,000.

The military men who carried out these crimes were thought to have taken around 500 babies from mothers in the clandestine detention centers and given them to military and security officials to raise as their own. The children grew up utterly ignorant of their true identities and of the circumstances of their early lives. (To say nothing of the fate of their biological parents.) But through the relentless work of their grandmothers and a human rights group, along with advancements in forensic technology and genetic testing, these children–now in their 30s–are being identified and reunited with their biological families. The Times’ article chronicled one such story, that of Victoria Montenegro. Her father, an army colonel, finally confessed to her in 2000 at a restaurant over dinner that he had headed the operation in which her biological parents were tortured and killed, and that he had taken her for his own child in May 1976, when she was four months old.  You can read about his subsequent imprisonment and Montenegro’s struggle to embrace her true identity in the full article at the following link:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/09/world/americas/argentinas-daughter-of-dirty-war-raised-by-man-who-killed-her-parents.html?ref=argentina

The story is a horrifying reminder of what governments have done to their own citizens in the name of security. But to reach that point, they required the complicity of the country’s institutions, as well as its populace. I covered Argentina in the 1980s, after the generals had been sent back to the barracks and replaced by a civilian government. Stories and documents about the “dirty war” were just beginning to emerge. I profiled one such case,  in which a young plastics expert was taken from his job at a government research center by security officers–never to return. I was able to trace his progress through a series of torture centers, one of which was located in a huge police garage in a residential area of western Buenos Aires. Small homes lined the street opposite the garage.   When I  interviewed the denizens of those houses, all of who had been resident during the time the garage was used for torture, they all–to a man and woman–denied knowing anything about what was transpiring in the building across the street. Yet one survivor of the center told me: “I could hear kids playing in the street. How could they not hear my screams?”

Sadly, much of the country turned a blind eye to the kidnapping and killing of their neighbors–a condition necessary to allow the generals to carry out their unspeakable deeds. It would be hyperbolic to draw a parallel between what happened in Argentina and the recent killing in Yemen by U.S. drones of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen accused of being a terrorist organizer.  But the almost universal silence and lack of questioning about our government’s decision to assassinate one of its own citizens is disturbing. The U.S. obviously isn’t Argentina of the 1970s; we are still a functioning democracy with institutions to protect our rights and freedoms. But those institutions are only as strong as the demands of its citizens. The complicity of Argentina’s people during its “dirty war,” whether by omission or commission, should be a cautionary tale to us in the U.S.

Amid the myriad stories about the Arab spring–which has segued into summer and fall– the Washington Post ran a piece last month about a former high-ranking State Department official who reportedly met with aides to Moammar Gaddafi at the height of the Libyan uprising to advise them on how to keep their boss in power. I’m not going to mention his name because the Post reporter was unable to contact the diplomat for comment and based the story on minutes of the meeting unearthed by an al-Jazeera journalist from the ransacked headquarters of Libya’s intelligence agency. Still, the specter of an ex-U.S. diplomat shilling for a blood-drenched despot (and one who had the whole of NATO and the U.S. against him) unfortunately rings true.

Full disclosure: my husband was a foreign service officer for 27 years. As his wife for part of that time–and as a journalist–I watched the various ways in which American ambassadors lose their sense of integrity and judgment and succumb to terminal cases of clientitis. It’s easy to see why. Theirs is the life style of the rich-and-famous, courtesy of the U.S. government: enormous houses, phalanxes of servants, bodyguards, limousines flying the official flag, constant rubbing of shoulders with those in power. It’s difficult not to internalize these trappings and begin to think of yourself as powerful. The State Department’s culture of conformity only reinforces such perceptions.

Indeed, this is an institution that values conformity so highly it created a special honor to acknowledge those who stray. The State Department’s Christian A. Herter Award is given to senior diplomats who speak out or otherwise challenge the status quo. It’s awarded for “extraordinary accomplishment involving initiative, integrity, intellectual courage and constructive dissent.” (Apparently, the Department has had a hard time finding worthy recipients in the last several years.) What does it say about an institution–and its employees–that bestows special recognition upon those who haven’t sold their souls?

It’s difficult for these diplomats to give it all up when their careers are finished. Short of being a dictator of a small, corrupt country, there are few jobs in the world that can compare to that of being a American ambassador. All that power, all that glory. Besides, what actual skills do they posses other than a Rolodex–or its electronic equivalent–full of names and the promise of access? Sadly, it’s all part of a broader Washington phenomenon, whereby everybody uses the contacts they’ve gained to their advantage. This is what it has come to: generals retire and become part of the military-industrial complex. Congressmen retire and become lobbyists. Diplomats retire and do the same.

Still, shilling for Gaddafi has to represent a new low.

The sordid details of the alleged sexual attack by Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund, are indeed shocking. Also distressing–obviously in a different context–is the fact that he was staying in a $3000-a-night hotel suite in New York, the site of the alleged crime. Never mind that upon his arrest, he was pulled out of the first-class section of an airplane that was about to depart JFK for Paris; in my experience as a foreign correspondent covering international financial organizations, I found that representatives for these institutions generally considered themselves entitled to such perks. (Indeed, one World Bank rep I knew refused to leave the airplane after landing in a central African nation when he was denied access to the airport’s VIP lounge.)

The IMF has said that Strauss-Kahn was in New York on private business; ostensibly he was paying for the suite out of his own pocket. His wealth clearly would allow for that. He’s married to the American-born French journalist Anne Sinclair, the daughter of a fabulously successful art dealer. Still, there’s something unsettling about such overt conspicuous consumption from the man who’s responsible for helping to draft the draconian austerity measures to bail out Greece and Portugal, for dictating to profligate and corrupt developing countries the tough terms to reschedule their foreign debts.