As Aidan Hartley relates in The Zanzibar Chest: A Story of Life, Love, and Death in Foreign Lands, his dazzling new account of those years, Somalia’s horror was inextricable from its allure. When American soldiers first arrived on the shores of the Somali capital in December 1992 to feed the starving, Hartley writes, they quickly found their way to the beautiful white-sand beaches along the Indian Ocean. Nobody had told them that the warm waters off Mogadishu had long been a dumping ground for offal–and a breeding ground for sharks. The beach parties continued for several weeks–until the attacks began. A young Frenchwoman bathing just off shore was torn in half before horrified onlookers, and a Russian wading in the surf was dragged to his death. The Marines erected a skull and crossbones “No Swimming” sign; Club Med Mogadishu quickly fizzled out.
Hartley’s book is a gonzo adventure story, a mesmerizing account of his decade as a war correspondent for Reuters, chiefly in East and Central Africa. In his early twenties when he fell into journalism, the Kenya-born Hartley displayed a serendipitous sense of timing. The collapse of Cold War rivalry led to the withdrawal of U.S. and Soviet support for their proxy states across the continent; dictators toppled, pressures for democratization grew, and political convulsions unleashed a wave of civil wars, tribal conflict, and in the case of Rwanda, one of the worst mass slaughters of the 20th century. Hartley was in the thick of it, part of a peripatetic pack who shuttled from combat zone to combat zone–Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda–filing dispatches to deadline and partying hard in his down time. When not following Ethiopian rebels through the bush, or bearing witness to the Rwandan genocide, Hartley was usually “recovering” at “the Swiss Chalet,” his sprawling house on the outskirts of Nairobi, more or less of an updated version of Karen Blixen’s romantic retreat in the bush, where Hartley and his friends consumed drugs and pursued sexual adventures with abandon.
Hartley weaves this narrative together with the equally compelling story of his parents’ own largely unrequited romance with Africa. Hartley’s father, born at the turn of the century, was, as the author writes, “a different kind of empire builder,” one who believed in teaching indigenous peoples under colonial rule how to develop a degree of self-sufficiency.
After graduating from Oxford, the elder Hartley headed to the Tanganyika Territory, then the flyblown Yemeni port of Aden, to teach irrigation and other agricultural techniques to the remote people of the interior. Aidan’s mother served as a nurse in India and Burma during World War II, and arrived in Yemen as the governor’s secretary in 1949. After a love affair in the desert, the Hartleys embarked on a life together in Arabia and Africa–staking out ranches in the bush or on the Swahili-speaking coast, subject to the vagaries of Third World dictatorships and the physical dangers of their environment.
The third part of Hartley’s book–and the least successful–tells the story of his father’s best friend Peter Davey, another British colonial development worker whose love for the “Empty Quarter”–the Yemeni desert–leads him into an ill-fated marriage with a local girl and a fatal encounter with a Yemeni warlord. Fascinated by the theme of doomed expatriates in the developing world, Hartley pieces together the story of Davey’s life from diaries found in the Zanzibar Chest of his time after his father’s death.
The grace and precision of Hartley’s writing bring Africa to life as well as any travel writing in recent years. He writes of “flights on battered Antonovs, with the word nasdrovje!–cheers!–emblazoned on the nose of the fuselage,” of soaring over the African landscape and seeing “the silhouette of our little aircraft ripple over pulverized cities, refugee camps, the acetyline white flashes of anti-aircraft fire.” He captures the despair of a Somali refugee camp: “A chorus of hacking coughs heralded dawn, as a few fires built by those with strength enough to gather twigs were lit to cook the dried animal skins and bones they had found out on the plains. By eight, the survivors of the night tottered on spindly legs around and around until they flopped down panting in the heat.” He describes the life of the foreign correspondent as one of “all-nighters, hitching rides on tanks busting down palace gates, sipping dictators’ champagne, scoops and whores and house arrests smelly socks and Caterpillar boots, the shits, deadlines coke cut with pig laxative from condoms smuggled in the bowels of living men.”
There was also, of course, plenty of death–much of it close to home. In one of his most terrifying passages, Hartley provides a detailed account of the murders of four young journalists–all close friends–who were beaten and shot to death by a Somali mob in July 1993, after they had rushed to photograph the effects of a U.S. missile attack on a Mogadishu compound during the botched pursuit of the warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. Two other colleagues died after their Ethiopian Airlines jet was hijacked, ran out of fuel and crashed into the Indian Ocean. Hartley had his own share of narrow escapes, including a hair-raising plane crash in the Sudanese bush. Yet the rising body count, seemed, if anything, to energize those left behind.
Debunking the truism often heard on the Africa beat that “no story is worth dying for,” Hartley acknowledges that he and his colleagues were driven by ego as much as by their desire to expose brutality and suffering. “This job was all about risking your life to get the pictures, the scoops, or the cover shot,” he writes. “If you nearly died for a story, editors sent you herograms. Your friends slapped you on the back. You were in the chips. You got an award. You got none of these if you were safe and ten miles down the road.”
Hartley’s account of his romance with an American photographer can get a bit cloying, and his repeated digressions into the life of Peter Davey, while brilliantly reported, lack the compelling drive of the author’s own experiences; Davey simply isn’t that interesting. One also yearns for a bit more about the lives of the Africans he meets along the way. There also isn’t much in the way of analysis or context here. He offers a perfunctory history of colonial meddling and tribal tensions in pre-genocide Rwanda, and delves briefly into the Cold-War machinations that turned Third World backwaters such as Ethiopia and Somalia into dangerous, heavily armed dictatorships. Still, Hartley’s book is far more than a ramble through the life and times of a war correspondent.
It is impossible to read his account of the doomed nation-building effort in Somalia and not see disquieting parallels with U.S. misadventures in Iraq. The navet and arrogance demonstrated by the American military planners who, with the best of intentions, blundered their way into a bloody guerrilla war on the streets of Mogadishu are again on display in the anarchic alleys of Baghdad. Hartley’s account brings home the often fatal costs of misreading a vibrant and tortured continent.