Friday, July 25, 2014

DR Congo

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa

To be honest, I am not sure how politics hijacked my life during my brief stint in Chile in 2010. It must have been related to the upcoming run-off elections for the presidency between Eduardo Frei and Sebastian Piñera because politics seemed to manifest itself everywhere – at every street corner; in every conversation. 

Attending a Spanish language program with other US students at a local Chilean university, I was a bit surprised when classes took a very strong anti-USA rhetoric. Every single day, our (language) professors talked about US imperialist mentality.  I believe that at least one writing assignment was to outline the unwanted involvement of our country in Latin America. (We were given the opportunity to write more essays on the topic for extra credit.) We also sang Cuban socialist-themed songs – all in the name of practicing the subjunctive tense, of course.  After class, I would go “home” to my Chilean host family, who had a comfy apartment in the middle of town, where I would hear an entirely different narrative on the country’s history, culture, and politics. (I will admit, I was a bit surprised when I first saw the framed photograph of Augusto Pinochet displayed in their home, but I got over it pretty quickly.) Indeed, my favorite memories in all of Chile were spent talking to my host parents every day at the dinner table, often drinking coffee late into the night, as they shared with me their experiences. 

Needless to say, all of these opposing views came at a head when I was at an outdoor market with my host family and saw some Che Guevara memorabilia. I picked up something and raised my voice to start negotiating the price, when I heard my host father come up and say, “Don’t waste any of your money on that trash. Look at him – the socialist hero, and now he has become the ultimate capitalist money-making symbol with his face branded on coffee mugs and t-shirts made in China!” Some of you probably will not know this interesting tidbit: Che Guevara actually tried to incite revolution in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And no - his socialist revolution was not successful. Apparently, the fight against the bourgeoisie culture just could not really take off where 80% of the country survived through sustenance agriculture: “The Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara spent almost a year in the Congo in 1965 fighting with rebels in the east before he abandoned the struggle. Malnourished and depressed, he concluded they ‘weren’t ready for the revolution. The Congo has always defied the idealists.” (page 9) I learned this interesting tidbit in the book I read about the Democratic Republic of the Congo (also called the DR Congo), Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason Stearns. Published in 2011, it was deemed “A Best Book of the Year” by The Economist as well as by The Wall Street Journal. 

This book only briefly covers DR Congo’s history, including Che Guevara’s failure there. However, DR Congo is not well known for its failed socialist revolution, but rather as the setting for Joseph Conrad’s (no familial relation there – I checked) famous novel, The Heart of Darkness. Originally a Belgian Colony, DR Congo was ruled by King Leopold absolutely. Even more, he utilized the country’s resources as his own personal bank account and extracted wealth from it mercilessly solely for his personal gain in the latter half of the 19th century. The Belgian Congo was finally granted independence in 1960, after which it was divided into four separate states. However, the region was plagued with conflict until 1965, when Mobutu Sese Seko gained control of the country through a military coup. Changing the country’s name to Zaire, he ruled authoritatively for the 31 years to follow.

This book delves into the fall of Mobutu, which was brought on by the Congolese Wars.  Despite the West’s relative unfamiliarity with these conflicts, they are some of the most complex and important conflicts of our time. (Between 1998 and 2000 alone, an estimated 1.7 million died as a direct result of the conflict, and it is estimated that there were over 5 million casualties. Even more, an estimated 37% of Congolese women were directly victims of sexual violence during these conflicts.) The author notes that these wars are not only difficult for the Western media to report, but also for scholars to even understand. Yet, despite their complexity, we must understand the bloodshed in order for it to end. “The Congolese war must be put among the other great human cataclysms of our time… And yet, despite its epic proportions, the war has received little sustained attention from the rest of the world. The mortality figures are so immense that they have become absurd, almost meaningless. From the outside, the war seems to possess no overarching narrative or ideology to explain it. No easy tribal conflict or socialist revolution to use as a peg in a news piece… How do you cover a war that involves at least twenty different rebel groups and the armies of nine countries, yet does not seem to have a clear cause or objective?” (page 5)
The Congolese War can actually be divided into three separate conflicts: The First Congo War ended with the toppling of the dictator Mobutu in 1997. The Second Congo War began in 1998 and lasted until 2003. However, there continues to be conflict and fighting in the eastern Kivu region of the Congo until this day – resulting in an ongoing humanitarian crisis, a documented in this brief video by the Guardian. 

In order to understand what happened in the DR Congo, it is important to first understand the history of Rwanda. An estimated 175,000-200,000 Hutus directly participated in the killings of the 1994 genocide. Fearing retaliation (and spurred by the government, who told them that the predominantly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front would seek retaliation), 2 million Hutus fled the country. Many of them fled to the Congo, where they were received in Western-sponsored refugee camps. However, it was in these camps, where the Hutu army began to surreptitiously rearm themselves and began to attack Rwanda from the Congo. This was not only the case with Rwanda, as Mobutu had provided asylum and support for over a dozen guerilla groups: “By mid-1996, Musveni [President of Uganda] and Kagame [then General of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, now President of Rwanda] had stitched together an impressive alliance of African government behind their drive to overthrow Mobutu. The war that started in Zaire in September 1996 was not, above all, a civil war. It was a regional conflict, pitting a new generation of young, visionary African leaders against Mobutu Sese Seko, the continent’s dinosaur. Never had so many African countries united militarily behind one cause, leading some to dub the war Africa’s World War.” (page 54)

However, after over thirty years of the dictator’s incompetent Machiavellian-style rule, in which he divided any potential allies in order to secure his power, Congo was in a state of disarray: “The country’s income had shrunk to a third of what it had been at independence in 1960. Inflation was at 50 percent. Between 1988 and 1996, copper production had plummeted from 506,000 to 38,000 tons, while industrial diamond production dropped from 10 million to 6.5 million carats. Coffee, palm oil, and tea production followed the same trend. Only 5 percent of the population had salaried jobs; many of those worked for the state on salaries as low as five dollars a month. There were 120,000 soldiers and 600,000 civil servants to pay and only 2,000 miles of paved roads in the twelfth largest country in the world. To top it off, the government was broke.” (page 165) Needless to say, it was nearly impossible for the Congolese Laurent Kabila (who was hand-picked by Congo’s neighbors to rule the country) to establish control. More importantly, the government was unable to gain control over the eastern region of the Congo, where the Hutu military of the former Rwandan government continued to skirmish and threaten to attack Rwanda. Subsequently, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi led a new initiative in DR Congo, this time against the President they had picked just years before. In fact, it was its action during this war for which Rwanda faces its harshest criticism, as other African governments began to support an independent Congo, free of both Mobutu and foreign Rwandan interference. (Even Uganda and Rwanda entered into a rift in the middle of this Second Congolese War.) Even more, Rwanda often faces criticism of actually enriching themselves through this conflict: “Between 1997 and 1999, official Ugandan exports of diamonds grew tenfold, from $198,000 to $1.8 million. Rwanda’s official exports leaped from $16,000 to $1.7 million between 1998 and 2000, even though neither country has diamonds of its own.” (page 241) 

This book is thick and heavy with information, but is one of the most readable and engaging books I have read about Africa thus far. I highly recommend it, as conflict continues in the region (and even made mainstream news in the United States once again in June.) 

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

South Sudan, Book 2

South Sudan, Book 2

They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The true story of three Lost Boys from Sudan

I have talked a great deal about my best friend, Angelique, on this blog. However, I have never told the story in which we became best friends, instead of just close acquaintances. It happened during our undergraduate orientation, before classes began. We had been engaged in school-sponsored activities outdoors all day, and, we both happened to go in the same restroom before dinner. I was washing my hands when I heard Angelique cry out in alarm, “Oh Emily! Look at your skin – look at your skin! You are turning red!” 

I looked into the bathroom mirror and saw one of the most embarrassingly uneven sun burns I had ever gotten in my life. Normally, I would have been so frustrated with myself and my stupidity for not reapplying sunscreen throughout the day, but as I stared at Angelique’s face full of worry, I started laughing. “Don’t worry, Angelique! It’s just sunburn. It is what happens to white people’s skin when they are out in the sun for too long – they turn red!” 

Realizing what had happened (and, most importantly, that I had not contracted some horrible illness), Angelique began laughing, too. She was fascinated by the strange new pigment of my skin and asked me a thousand questions. Comically, I suppose that I could say that Angelique and I ultimately became best friends over sunburn – but there is certainly something more to it than that. At that singular moment, we both became aware that despite our vast differences of experiences and culture, we could find common ground. It set a precedent for acceptance and appreciation of one another – as our differences were something that we could learn from and even laugh about; not a reason to feel self-conscious or threatened.

When I think back on that experience of Angelique’s first introduction to sunburn, I am always reminded of a scene in the documentary, God Grew Tired of Us. This particular documentary focuses on the stories of a few of the so-called Sudanese Lost Boys, who are given the opportunity to come to the United States as refugees. Although it covers some of their past, it mostly focuses on the difficulties of transition, especially the cultural difficulties of transition. The scenes which I will never forget are as the Lost Boys travel from their home refugee camp in Africa to the United States and their bewilderment as they encountered manifestations of modernity, which they had never seen before: escalators, automatic water faucets, intercoms, butter packets in the airplane meal tray, etc. 

It was with this powerful documentary in mind that I purchased “They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky” on sale at the World Bank Bookstore in Washington DC. (Just for the record: this place has the best books and the best sales ever! I never walk out with less than three books!) I had already read a book about both Sudan and South Sudan, but I felt compelled to read this book, which is a combination of the three distinct (yet inter-connecting) memoirs of Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng, and Benjamin Ajak. It was written with the assistance of Judy A. Bernstein.

This book was published in 2005. The documentary was released in 2007. This is noteworthy because South Sudan did not become a country until it gained its independence from Sudan in 2011. However, it is important to mention that a full-blown Civil War is what prompted independence and that there continues to be a lot of conflict in both countries. (The Darfur conflict/genocide is actually in West Sudan and South Sudan continues to be plagued in post-independence struggles and insecurities.) In the introduction, Judy Bernstein discusses the conflict which led to South Sudan’s independence in simple, yet understandable terms: “Ignited in 1983, Africa’s longest-running war is still going on. North against south, Muslim against animist and Christians, Arabs against blacks. Huge oil reserves in southern Sudan being held by the northern Muslim government fuel the war. Race, religion, and riches. The same things people always kill each other over. With no solution in sight, 2 million blacks in the south have already died. More casualties than Angola, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Liberia, the Persian Gulf, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Rwanda combined.” (page xvii)

The Lost Boys is a term that refers to the over 20,000 young boys from the South Sudanese Dinka and Nuer tribes who traveled by foot across Sudan to escape the destruction of their villages during the Sudanese Civil War (from 1983 to 2005.) They fled to refugee camps in both Ethiopia and Kenya, respectively. This book covers the stories of three of these boys, who experienced many hardships and saw the deaths of many of their friends. 

Benson Deng notes the difficulties that the boys faced in refugee camps in Ethiopia, a neighbor of Sudan which had been generally peaceful: “We were starving and the Ethiopians were experiencing hard times because we were stealing their food. There were thousands of people, many of them boys, but no houses or latrines. Everyone in the camp, ten thousand boys already and more coming, went into the bush for latrine.” (page 89) However, this political situation also manifested itself in their own expulsion from the country later on: “Then war found us again once more. The Ethiopian government had been overthrown by guerrilla fighters called the Ethiopian People’s Liberation Army (EPLA). Before we could harvest, the Ethiopian people warned us to leave their country. We had to evacuate the refugee camp in a week. (page 136)

Reading the personal stories of these boys, it is amazing to see how they survived and came to live in the United States. They survived not only starvation, but also narrowly avoided being actively recruited into the South Sudanese guerilla movement, where they would have been most certainly sent to fight on the front lines against the Muslim-based government in the North. Judy Bernstein notes that however difficult it was for these boys, it was even more difficult for the girls of South Sudan: “Are there any Lost Girls? When the villages were attacked, many of the girls were raped, killed or taken as slaves to the north. Less than two thousand made the journey across Sudan. However, once they reached Kakuma, they did not live in distinct groups like the boys, but moved in with families in the general community. Less than a hundred now live in the United States. Of those still languishing in the camp, some married and other became domestic slaves. They are generally considered one of the most vulnerable groups in the word.” (page 310)

All in all, I would most certainly recommend this book – not so much for its academic content, but rather for the comprehension and insights it provides into being a child of war and without a home. With so many wars going on in the world, we often forget how many children are affected every single day. This book provides a powerful – albeit brief – reminder of the sad realities of so many. 

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Zimbabwe, Book 2

Zimbabwe, Book 2

The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe

The man in the exquisite black and white uniform approached me with a smile on his face. Handing over my menu, I ordered an orange juice, a coffee, and a hearty breakfast. Leaning back in my chair, I admired my surroundings. Indeed, the scene was one just out of a movie. The sun shone brightly through the trees onto the flowers surrounding the outdoor patio of the Literaturhaus – a famous literature house in Berlin, which incorporates a unique book store and a fancy restaurant. All around me were distinguished-looking Germans, laughing and chattering away in the Berlin summer heat. I didn’t look too out of place myself in my summer sundress, designer sunglasses, blonde hair coiffed, and a Spanish-language book in hand by Mario Vargas Llosa. The occasion for such a celebration? Simply put, I had a day off work.

Actually, my primary purpose for this adventure into “West Berlin” (even though the city is no longer divided, there is a noticeable difference and I spent far more time in the East) was to go to the house next to the Literaturhaus, which hosts the Käthe Kollwitz Museum. Raised by a mother who is an artist, I was exposed to many prolific and obscure artists early in my life, but my knowledge of Käthe Kollwitz came much later. However, as soon as I saw her powerful works, I was instantly moved and she became my favorite artist of all. I recently read a biography about her written by the late academic Klemens von Klemperer. In it, he describes that Kollwitz was deeply affected by the suffering of the German people during the First World War. After losing one of her own sons during this conflict, she focused her work on social subjects: the pain of motherhood, hunger, death, and strife – in a dark, bold style. 

My favorite artist might come as a surprise to some of my friends. Normally, I am up for the most modern art I can find/experience. (I mean, I am one of those types of people who went to see an “opera” of jibber jabber in a warehouse – sitting on a beat-up crate as the singer started spray painting the white walls blue.) However, the quality that most attracts me to any piece of art is its social statement, not its aestheticism. Art is another means by which to communicate – and I am much more interested in the content of communication, rather than what is sounds/looks like. 

Needless to say, I have talked about a great deal of art in order to introduce the second book I read about the country of Zimbabwe. I loved the first book I read about this country, “Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa” by Peter Godwin, so much that I actually prolonged finishing it – reading it in small snipets at a time. The book was written by a man of European descent, who was born in what-was-then-Southern-Rhodesia and what-is-now-Zimbabwe. He grew up in a rural area and developed a deep appreciation for the African culture which constantly surrounded him, learning to even speak the Shona language fluently. However, despite his sensitivities, he found himself caught up in the events of the time, fighting Africans as a white soldier in the Rhodesian Bush War. Fleeing Zimbabwe as soon as his mandatory service time was up, he became a lawyer and later a journalist (a job for which he earned the title of “Enemy of the State” by Robert Mugabe.)

As I was looking up Godwin’s website as I wrote my first book review on Zimbabwe, I found myself absolutely entranced by the book trailer for his latest book, “The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe.” I was fascinated to see how a book, an art exhibit, and marketing could combine to communicate a social message so powerfully. (If you don’t want to watch this video, here is an overview of what you would see: As more and more bookstore-goers listen to clips of the book, exposing the human rights violations and the authoritarianism of Mugabe’s government, the displayed bust of Robert Mugabe starts to crumble into pieces. This is supposed to represent the fact that Mugabe’s power could be broken through exposure to the truth and the West’s subsequent action.) I knew then and there that I had to read it.

This book was published in 2010 following a couple of positively disastrous years to the Zimbabwean economy and political atmosphere. Returning to his childhood home to witness what-he-hoped-to-be the unraveling of Mugabe’s regime in 2008, Godwin noted: “Once they enjoyed the highest standard of living in Africa. Now their money is nearly worthless, halving in value every twenty-four hours. Only 6 percent of workers have jobs. Their incomes have sunk to pre-1950s levels. They are starving. Their schools are closed, their hospitals collapsed. Their life expectancy has crashed from sixty to thirty-six.” (page 6) 

In 2008 after botched elections, Mugabe’s regime began to fall apart at its seams, after which he accepted an unprecedented power-sharing in the government; allowing other political parties to take part. However, in the midst of this so-called power-sharing, he re-energized and struck back, eventually disregarding this new arrangement and consolidating his dictatorial power once again. This book shows how this happened – bit by bit; step by step. I highly recommend it to whomever is interested in learning more about this tragic case of modern Zimbabwe. The chapters are short and Godwin writes in a very accessible way; making this new information and African names (still unfamiliar to Western ears) understandable and comfortable. 

One of the aspects which particularly caught my attention is how many times the word “genocide” was thrown around. Indeed, genocide, or rather, acts of genocide occur far too frequently on the African continent. That being said, I had never heard of “genocide” in context to Mugabe’s regime before. Godwin’s explanations gave me a new appreciation for how closely politics and tribe/ethnicity are intertwined. Subsequently, suppression of a political movement can easily turn into an act of genocide - as quickly as wildfire can spread in a forest.

It is worth noting that the author was first declared an enemy of the state in 1983 (three years after Mugabe took power as the Head of Government) after researching and exposing the 1983 Matabeleland massacres, which have been described as acts of genocide. In short, Mugabe sent forces to crush a political party in the southern part of Zimbabwe; targeting a tribe different than his own. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Mugabe would continue with these sorts of actions as he continued to wield power. Godwin described Mugabe’s frequent killings and massacres: “Frances uses a phrase I’ve started to hear: ‘smart genocide,’ a grotesque science that Mugabe is apparently honing. There’s no need to directly kill hundreds of thousands, if you can select and kill the right few thousands. Is this really a ‘refining’ of genocide?... Some call what is happening here ‘politicde.’ As genocide is an attempt to wipe out an ethnic group, so politicide is the practice of wiping out an entire political movement.” (page 109)

Perhaps what is most telling about Mugabe’s disregard to genocide, justice, and human rights is that he granted former Ethiopian President Mengistu Haile Mariam sanctuary in 1991 and later provided him positions of leadership in the Zimbabwean government in national security. In 2007, when an Ethiopian court convicted Mengistu of genocide, Mugabe refused to give him up. (It is estimated that up to 2 million people could have died during Mengistu’s communist Derg regime and the Ethiopian people are awaiting justice.) 

Godwin outlines abuse after abuse of the regime of Robert Mugabe. He notes that, at the time of publishing, Mugabe’s approval rating hovered at only about 12%, according to a Freedom House report. However, he notes that the real reason that the Mugabe regime has not yet collapsed is due to outside forces: “It is about twelve miles to Mvurwi hospital, and on the way we pass a large World Food Program depot. Bags, plump with grain, are stacked up high. This is how Zimbabwe eats. The same Western powers that Mugabe routinely demonizes in his banal biopsy of blame are the principal donors of food to his people. These towers of grain bags are all that stands between Zimbabwe and full-scale famine.” (page 144) Godwin ends his book with a call to action that is both powerful and poignant, sharing the apathy of the West (also including Zimbabwe’s neighbor of South Africa), as well as the pain of the Zimbabwean people - insinuating that they are alone in this struggle.

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Sunday, July 20, 2014



The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget

I almost didn’t graduate from 4-year-old preschool. The reason was that I did not know how to walk backwards –apparently some sign that I was not advanced enough to enter kindergarten. This lack of physicality was evident even when I was a baby – my parents did not invest in a play pen because I would sit in one place if given a stack of books to keep me busy. What I lacked in active precociousness, I made up for in intellectual precociousness. By three years old, my favorite activities were painting, learning to read, completing complex jigsaw puzzles, and identifying classical music composers by their music. 

As I was an only child, no one spoke to me like I was a kid. My age didn’t often show, but when it showed, it showed badly. One such example was during family movie nights – I just couldn’t hold in my emotions when I watched films. I will never be able to live down the time when I was three years old and went absolutely berserk while watching the childhood classic Heidi from 1937. Marching up to the television screen with tears streaming down my face, I pointed my finger at the curly-haired Shirley Temple and yelled repeatedly, “I hate you, Heidi! I hate you!” (Context: That stupid girl had wandered out into the Swiss Alps alone – despite her grandfather’s warnings – and nearly died.) It is also worth noting that I told my parents - for the only time in my life, mind you - that I hated them for picking out that movie to start with before stomping into my room and slamming the door.

There were many more mishaps – don’t even ask about Fly Away Home or Black Beauty – until I finally learned to control my emotions while watching movies. For years upon years, I looked stoically at the screen as I kept my emotions in check during countless cartoons, dramas, and romantic comedies. This all changed when I chose to watch War Dance one day through Netflix.

Many of you might be familiar with the Lord’s Resistance Army of Uganda – the subject of the 2012 KONY social media phenomenon that broke out across the United States. War Dance, which was released in 2007, tells the story of a school choir in an impoverished section of Northern Uganda, that won the opportunity to compete in a national music competition in the capital city of Kampala. The members of this choir – all young and enthusiastic individuals – are the victims of Joseph Kony’s murderous antics – whether they had family members killed or whether they were forced to become child soldiers themselves. As one young girl visited the bush where her father was killed and burst into wailing tears, I found myself crying uncontrollably, as well. That raw pain made a lasting impact on me that was impossible for me to shake for weeks.

Uganda seems to always lie in our public consciousness in the United States – taking aside the explosive KONY campaign. In 2007, Forest Whitaker received the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Ugandan Dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (which also featured the stars James McAvoy and Kerry Washington.) Likewise, Uganda has been the subject of countless news features on the so-called (and self-explanatory) “Kill the Gays” Bill, which was first introduced by a Member of Parliament in 2009. After being passed by the Parliament, the bill was signed into law in 2014 by the President with life in prison favored instead of the death penalty.  

As one can imagine, it would be difficult to choose only one book about this complex, landlocked country in the heart of East Africa. I eventually decided upon journalist Andrew Rice’s “The Teeth May Smile, but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Mystery in Uganda.” This book is a beautiful story of a son (who became an attorney in the United States after leaving Uganda) trying to find the truth of the story of his father, who went missing during the regime of Idi Amin under mysterious circumstances. This personal tale is interspersed in the amazingly complex (and at times, unbelievable) political history of the country of Uganda: “After independence came, in 1962, Uganda convulsed along the regional, ethnic and religious fault lines that colonialism had created. The first head of state, a royal kabaka, was driven into exile by his prime minister, a commoner Anglican from the north. The prime minister, in turn, was overthrown in 1971 by a Muslim solider General Idi Amin. Amin was driven out eight years later by a Tanzanian-sponsored invasion, and after that five rulers followed in quick succession, each more repressive and incompetent than the next.” (page 7)

Idi Amin came to power in 1971 after taking power forcibly from the President Milton Obote, who had run the country as a one-party dictatorship. Amin was a welcome change by the Ugandan people, but one that quickly turned deadly. The economy crumbled under Amin’s so-called “gangster economy”, in which members of his Muslim tribe to the North were given favors and positions without any show of merit. Moreover, an estimated 100,000-300,000 Ugandans were murdered by the Amin regime – many notably were tortured and killed at Amin’s favorite Kampala hotel - with the West fairly disengaged in the midst of the 1970s foreign policy of détente. It was only in 1979 that Amin was brought to his knees through his neighboring country of Tanzania: “Amin called for a truce and international mediation, proposing that he and Nyerere [President of Tanzania] might be able to settle their differences in a boxing match refereed by Muhammad Ali. Nyerere declined the invitation. Instead, his army launched a furious artillery barrage against Uganda’s border defenses.” (page 202) 

Tanzania restored Milton Obote to the presidency, who utilized many similar tactics of Idi Amin to retain his power – leading to the so-called Ugandan Bush War between 1981 and 1986.The result was the defeat of the government troops by the guerilla tactics of Yoweri Musveni, who has served as the nation’s President since 1986. (It is interesting to note that Musveni recruited from the Tutsi Rwandan refugee camps to conduct his guerilla warfare – leading to Paul Kagame rising in the ranks and becoming the head of military intelligence before starting his invasion of Rwanda in 1990.) Met with great enthusiasm at first and highly modern in his tactics of economic development and modernization, Museveni has been more recently criticized for his refusal to give up the Presidency, as he nears the 20-year anniversary of his rule. 

Although this is a book about Ugandan politics and recent history, the author delves into these topics to better explore the topic of personal reconciliation. Indeed, it is impossible to reconcile without understanding the past. The topic of “reconciliation” has become a hot topic in Africa, especially in Rwanda, as the Rwandese praise reconciliation for their ability to move past genocide and contribute to the country’s great economic growth. However, the author questions if reconciliation is really occurring in neighboring Uganda – as the persecutors during the Amin and Obote regimes have yet to receive legal judgment for their crimes. (He also notes interestingly that the Idi Amin regime is not covered in Ugandan textbooks.) 

As the main character, Duncan Laki, seeks justice, he encounters one roadblock after another – for example, the perpetrators were actually granted pardons from President Musveni himself in order to encourage them to come back to Uganda and promote social integration. Moreover, “No one in Uganda took responsibility for Amin’s crimes. southerners blamed the northerners. The northerners blamed the Nubians. The Nubians blamed ‘those Sudanese,’ Amin’s foreign mercenaries.” (page 259) It is heartbreaking to read about Duncan’s challenges, but as the story unfolds, it reads like a thriller.

While the book was very enjoyable, I was left with two poignant questions: Can we achieve reconciliation without justice? And is justice simply a first world luxury?

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!