Shades of apartheid South Africa.

That was my immediate reaction when I saw the images from Ferugson, Missouri. Not for the racial divide between the (mostly white) police and (mostly black) protestors demanding justice for Michael Brown, the 18-year-old who was fatally shot by a cop. Rather, it was the military accoutrement: the armored personnel carrier, helmeted police officers in camouflage and vests, sharpshooters taking aim with assault rifles, tear gas and rubber bullets—all shockingly reminiscent of what I witnessed as a journalist 20 years ago covering the fall of apartheid.

By its very nature, apartheid required the virtual militarization of parts of the country. How else could the white minority government impose racial segregation on the majority black population? South Africans of color, who comprised more than 80% of the nation’s inhabitants, were denied even the most basic rights. Skin color was destiny: it determined where you were born, where you grew up, where you were educated, where you could work, whom you could marry, where you could live, where you would die. And it was brutally enforced.

As a result, there was no such thing as community policing in the townships, the destitute, grossly overcrowded and underdeveloped areas where people of color were forced to live. I spent much of my time reporting in Soweto, Johannesburg’s sprawling black township. To enter the place, you first had to navigate a roadblock manned by policemen decked out in full combat gear. These were not your cheerful cops, walking the beat: the white government believed it was engaged in a full-on war to keep the black population, led by godless Communists (as it characterized Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress) from taking over the country. The police patrolled the township in Casspirs, snub-nosed armored personnel carriers that rode high above the ground to limit damage from mine explosions. They brandished semi-automatic rifles, smoke bombs and tear-gas dispensers. They shot to kill at the slightest provocation.

Is that what we want in our country? It was ostensibly a war—the war on terror—that has turned our police forces into small armies. After the al-Qaeda attacks on Sept.11, 2001, federal funds flowed to these law enforcement departments, which were seen to be on the front lines of a worldwide fight against terrorism. Grants from the Department of Homeland Security paid for bullet-proof vehicles, body armor, night-vision equipment. Justice Department money bought rubber bullets and tear gas. The boys in the Pentagon sent machine guns, armored trucks, aircraft and other surplus war equipment.

If the uniform makes the man (or the woman), then what message is transmitted to police officers when they don all this military gear? That their fellow citizens, whose safety and rights they’re sworn to uphold, are the enemy? We, in this country, are guaranteed the right to peaceful protest. Those guys in the GI Joe getups are supposed to be on our side.

Much of this militarization went unnoticed—and unchallenged—until the confrontation in Ferguson. It’s encouraging that politicians of all stripes have decried the deployment of such equipment and vehicles. President Obama, in his press conference on Monday, said that it’s “probably useful” to make sure that what the various police departments are purchasing “is stuff that they actually need….there is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement, and we don’t want those lines blurred. That would be contrary to our traditions.”

Because here’s what happens when that occurs. On March 21, 1960, several thousand black demonstrators gathered outside a police station in Sharpeville, South Africa. They were protesting against having to carry racially designated passes that determined where they could work and live. The 300 or so policemen who confronted them were arrayed atop armored vehicles and armed with submachine guns and rifles. The protest was mostly peaceful; after several hours, a few of the demonstrators threw stones at the police—who began firing their weapons. Sixty-nine protestors died in the two-minute barrage of bullets, many of them shot in the back as they tried to flee.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But we should take it as an object lesson.


Originally published by Thought Catalog at





The latest outbreak of Ebola virus erupted across West Africa sometime this spring. The symptoms are horrific: fever, diarrhea, vomiting, hemorrhaging inside and outside of the body. There is no known cure. About 60% of those who contract the virus die. The disease is estimated to have killed nearly 1,000 people since March, in its inexorable march across Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and now Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria. The hospitals and clinics of Sierra Leone and Liberia, rudimentary in the best of times, have been overwhelmed. Doctors and nurses there are themselves becoming infected and dying, leaving few medical personnel to care for the victims.

A few days later, coincidentally enough, the World Health Organization declared the epidemic an international public health emergency, demanding an extraordinary global response. This is only the third declaration of its kind since the body began issuing such alerts in 2007. Even so, Doctors Without Borders, the international medical organization, called for a “massive deployment” of specialists to the affected countries, saying that “lives are being lost because the response is too slow.”

(The evacuated U.S. health workers are also among the few victims to have received an experimental drug that apparently is effective—but that’s another discussion entirely.)

Why did it take so long for the world to take note? The outbreak is now in its sixth month; would the West have remained so passive if it were Belgians bleeding from the eyes or the contagion had spread from Paris to Rome? It’s doubtful. But by its very nature, Ebola probably wouldn’t find such a hospitable environment in the West. The virus is passed through contact with bodily fluids; modern sanitation facilities, good hygienic practices, well-stocked hospitals, an abundance of trained medical professionals — all would work to help contain an outbreak here.

Not so in West Africa. To be sure, in the nicest neighborhoods of the capitals of the affected countries, the wealthy live in majestic homes surrounded by security fences topped with shards of broken glass. Graceful palms line the streets; there are all manner of modern conveniences, powered by home generators for when the electricity fails. As it invariably does — often. Then there are the slums where the majority of the population live: horrifying, odoriferous hovels constructed from corrugated tin, wood, bits of cardboard, old newspapers. Raw sewage runs in rivulets and mountains of garbage putrefy under the tropical sun.

When my husband and I lived in Liberia, next door to us stood an abandoned home that used to be a Health Ministry office, a once-beautiful building with high ceilings, wide windows and imperious stone lions guarding the stairs to the front door. Squatters had appropriated it; at one point, 87 people inhabited the house. The property was a mess: the windows had no panes; the walls were crumbling; the plumbing had collapsed. People threw their refuse out the gaping windows, creating ziggurats of garbage that grew steadily until someone set them alight to make room for more.

Mornings when I went for a jog along the beach, I’d come upon people emerging like zombies from rotting shells of houses, silently making their way down to the sand to defecate in the tide. Some squatted in the streets, brushing their teeth and expectorating into the gutters; under such conditions, you couldn’t help but come in contact with bodily fluids. Such is the price of poverty in a place where decades of government corruption and graft failed to create basic sanitation facilities. And that was before civil war and unrest in the region further destroyed what little infrastructure existed.

The lack of medical facilities and professionals are equally appalling. Liberia, for instance, currently has a total of about 50 doctors to care for the country’s four million people. That means there are generally more doctors on staff in one urban U.S. hospital than in an entire nation. And doctors there lack even such basic supplies as gloves to protect them from coming in contact with the bodily fluids of infected patients. They struggle too with trying to thwart traditional practices, such as the washing of the dead by village elders, that exacerbate the spread of Ebola.

The West has always maintained a certain lack of feeling about Africa: too distant; too unimportant economically; too other. That callousness is perhaps best illustrated by 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 Africa 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. Wars are raging in South Sudan, Central African Republic, and the Congo — where several million people are estimated to have died. Add to that list the explosion of the Ebola virus across West Africa.

Where is the news in all that? Apparently only when the victims are from the West.

Originally published by Thought Catalog at

Of the myriad bills that Congress didn’t pass this year and issues it didn’t address—thereby earning it the dubious distinction of being the least productive in the legislative body’s history—leaving fully one-quarter of our 169 embassies without ambassadors stands out as a huge failing.

Consider where the vacancies are: until last Tuesday, there was no U.S. ambassador in either Honduras or Guatemala—both countries from which tens of thousands of children have washed up on the Texas border. (The Senate did confirm the nominee to Honduras; the ambassador-designate to Guatemala has yet to have a vote.) In Africa, 13 of our embassies are without top envoys. They include such critical countries as Niger, which the Obama administration sees as vital to fighting terrorism in the Sahel region. (That’s where Boko Haram, the Islamic militant group that kidnapped 200 schoolgirls in neighboring Nigeria last April, operates.) Even the ambassador-designate to Russia –Russia!—may not get voted on before the congressional August recess.

The reason for the vacancies is the usual partisan food fight between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, which controls the confirmation process for all ambassadors. That, and the perception that President Obama is allocating an inordinate number of the top embassy positions to political benefactors instead of career diplomats. (One example: Colleen Bell, a producer of the soap opera, “The Bold and the Beautiful,” who contributed or raised $800,000 for the Obama campaign and apparently had a less-than-stellar performance when she appeared recently before the Foreign Relations Committee to be grilled on her nomination as ambassador to Hungary. The committee approved her nonetheless, but she’s still awaiting confirmation by the full Senate.)

Do these vacancies matter? Having worked as a foreign correspondent and been married to a U.S. ambassador, I’ve seen both sides of the profession. Just as there are bad butchers and dental hygienists, so too are there lousy ambassadors. Many are preening peacocks with an inflated sense of self, more interested in the trappings and perquisites of the office—having traffic stopped for their convoys, flying the flags on their limousines, staging grand parties in their grand residences—than in the substance of their work.

(Those characteristics aren’t limited to our envoys. I once had the privilege of witnessing the wife of a European diplomat throw a world-class hissy fit when her country’s entire delegation was inadvertently denied seats at a luncheon following the inauguration of an African president. “We give so much fucking money to this fucking country,” she announced loudly, flouncing out of the venue, “you’d think we could get a fucking seat at a fucking table!”)

But I’ve also encountered many dedicated and brave practitioners of diplomacy, men and women who care deeply about the power the U.S. can wield for good in the world, and have used the position of ambassador to further that aim. It’s not always easy. They have to navigate the delicate balance between the dictates of their boss back in Washington, and the sensibilities of their host country. Often times they are required to take actions that seem, from their vantage, counterproductive or a violation of personal principles. The courageous among them will find a way to stand up to Washington; some will even go so far as to quit. For them, the position is almost one of a sacred trust.

And when these posts go empty for months on end, it matters–even in this era of instant communications. Yes, you could send in the deputy-ambassador to deliver a stern message to, say, President Putin of Russia that the U.S. is not going to countenance him arming rebels in Ukraine—but Putin knows that the deputy- ambassador isn’t Obama’s man (or woman.) The deputy wasn’t specially appointed by the president, wasn’t vetted by the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, didn’t have a confirmation vote by the full Senate. The deputy doesn’t possess a document, signed by the president, declaring him to be “extraordinary and plenipotentiary.” For career diplomats, who historically have filled about 70% of all ambassadorships, attaining the title is a huge feat; only about 5% ever achieve it.

By contrast, the deputy is just another bureaucrat who obtained his position by having served long enough in the State Department to rise to the proper rank. No matter how talented or intelligent the deputy may be, a head-of-state isn’t going to be inclined to invite him for a quiet drink or a one-on-one lunch or a round of golf in which to develop an intimate working relationship; second-in-command just doesn’t cut it. It’s the equivalent of consorting with a colonel instead of a general. The title bestows authority: a foreign president or prime minister wants to talk to someone who ostensibly has our president’s ear. Or, at least, that of the secretary of state.

While it all may seem antiquated, a holdover from the days of morning coats and top hats, this is the way nations have always dealt with one another—and still do. (In fact, many countries—Norway, Thailand, Spain and Japan, to name a few–continue to require the ambassador to don a morning coat when presenting his or her “letter of credence” to the head-of-state. Here’s what the Dutch government says about the ceremony: “The king puts a gala carriage drawn by two horses at the disposal of every ambassador that present their credentials and, if appropriate, a so-called blue carriage for the embassy staff. Ahead and behind every cortege ride two Military Police riders in ceremonial uniform. At Noordeinde Palace, a guard of honor and a military band is drawn up. Following a salute by four drum-rolls and the national anthem of the ambassador’s country, the guard of honor is inspected, after which the ambassador and retinue goes inside. On departure, the ambassador is again given four drum-rolls. The dress code for the ambassador is morning-coat or traditional dress of their country.”)

Pomp and circumstance aside, you’d think that with Russia meddling with deadly results in Ukraine, al-Qaeda-linked terrorists running amok in parts of Africa and thousands of Central American children turning up on our doorstep–Congress might have figured out that ambassadors do matter.  Why send colonels to deal with these issues when we’ve got dozens of generals waiting to go?

Originally published by Thought Catalog at

The next time you see video of a hateful, vitriol-spewing crowd chanting against allowing immigrants into our country, you might want to think what it’s like to be a refugee.

And with good reason. By the end of last year, civil wars and other violence had forced a mind-numbing 51 million people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations. To put that number into perspective, it’s tantamount to the entire population of South Korea pouring out of the country and decamping to other places. And half—half!—of all refugees are children.

Consider these statistics: The United Nations High Commission for Refugees figures there are about 6.5 million people displaced internally in Syria because of civil war, with another 2.5 million squatting in camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. That’s about 40% of the country’s total population. In Colombia, 5.4 million have fled their homes, the legacy of internal conflicts that have dragged on for decades. Three million people from the Central African Republic have been displaced by sectarian fighting, some walking for three months to escape to surrounding countries while subsisting on leaves and contaminated water, many bearing terrible wounds from machetes or gunshots. And here in the U.S., 57,000 children have turned up on our doorstep, most of them fleeing gang violence in Central America.

Whether it is internal displacement within your home country, or flight to borders beyond, the experience is nothing less than traumatizing. The decision to leave is usually made hastily, with bombs exploding in the distance or machete-wielding rebels bearing down on your home. You grab whatever you can think of in the moment—bedding, food, cooking utensils, a few sentimental trinkets—and dash. The lucky ones leave in cars. The less fortunate—read: most refugees—head out on foot. Propelled by the violence at their backs, they scurry forward under the weight of their belongings, herding their children, trying to find food and shelter along the way. Fear is the animating emotion: fear of what they are running from, fear of what lies ahead. Think, for instance, of the Lost Boys of Sudan, the 20,000 or so children who were displaced and/or orphaned by civil war in the 1980s and 1990s, and traversed a vast and dangerous wilderness on foot for months, so desperate were they to seek refuge in Ethiopia. Think of the fear and despondency that must impel the Central American children nowadays to make their perilous trek to our border.

The fortunate among refugees will often find shelter with extended family members. It’s a humiliating situation, at the very least: squeezed into someone else’s space, living on their largesse, hoping for their patience and understanding. And that’s a best-case scenario. Many refugees end up living in squalid, fetid camps. Seasonal rains inundate their tents; food is scarce; medical supplies, rudimentary; schooling for the children, virtually non-existent. They sit in these camps for days, weeks, sometimes even years. They have no idea what has happened to the homes they left behind, their neighborhoods, businesses, friends, families. It is impossible for them to know when they will be able to return. They become people with no past and no future—only a present of ceaseless misery.

As a foreign correspondent covering wars, I wrote often about the plight of refugees. It was part of my job description. These were some of the saddest stories I had to report, yet I never fully appreciated what it meant to be uprooted until I, too, became a refugee of sorts. In the summer of 1990, I was living in Liberia with my husband, a career foreign service officer who was charge d’affaires of the U.S. embassy in Monrovia. Rebels led by the warlord Charles Taylor were bearing down on the capital in what had become a grisly tribal conflict. Fearing a bloodbath when Taylor entered Monrovia, the State Department ordered all Americans out of the country except for essential embassy personnel. The other evacuees were going on to Washington, but I got off the airplane in neighboring Sierra Leone to sit on a beach until the war ended. I didn’t want to be so far away from my husband.

It was an agonizing wait. Days turned into weeks. I had only radio reports from the BBC to keep me informed of the war’s horrific progress. I had no idea if my husband was safe. (Later, I would learn that a stray bullet whizzing through his office window missed lobotomizing him by about two inches.) I had no idea of the fate of our Liberian friends; of the families of our employees (who were hiding in our basement); of our house; our belongings. I couldn’t work and I couldn’t make plans. Those were among the most disorienting and dispiriting weeks I’ve ever spent. Life itself seemed suspended. And I was lucky. Unlike most refugees, I had an American passport that would gain me entry to just about anywhere in the world. I had a credit card to pay for an airplane ticket out of there, a bank account back in the U.S. to allow me to begin anew. (Which I would eventually have to do: I was never allowed to return to Monrovia.)

We, as citizens, can’t end the world’s civil wars and violence; they require political solutions forged by political leaders. We can, however, recognize that refugees are the flotsam and jetsam of such conflicts. So when you see those demonstrators screaming against the Central American children who’ve crossed into Texas, think about what it would be like to be a refugee. How we respond speaks volumes about us as a people–and as a nation.


Originally published by Thought Catalog at

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.



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?