Conflict correspondent James Brabazon’s book, “My Friend the Mercenary” makes journalism very uncomfortable. It truthfully exposes how media profit from wars, the myth of objectivity and the lengths reporters will go to to get the story. And still come back alive.
“A man is hanging naked from the ceiling by a meat hook. His feet are bound, but his mouth is open – screaming a confession. He is surrounded by half a dozen soldiers in ragged uniforms whose fists are caked in his blood.”
James Brabazon’s book “My Friend the Mercenary” is compellingly comfortless. The first chapter deals with the violent and bloody torture of mercenaries in that hell-hole known as Black Beach prison in Malaba, capital of Equatorial Guinea. It details how “one of Africa’s most notorious mercenaries” Nick du Toit started his 34-year prison term for his role in a miserably failed military coup meant to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea.
After hours of emotional and physical abuse, with septicaemia setting in and cockroaches feasting on the pus pouring from his sores, Du Toit’s head is plunged into a bucket of freezing water and the scabs are ripped from his eyes. Brabazon describes how Du Toit then opens his eyes to see that the war correspondent is not there with him. The journalist missed out on reporting on the coup by a simple twist of fate largely engineered by his friend, the mercenary.
The disquiet, however, begins a couple of pages before. This is where Brabazon quotes a line from a Bob Dylan classic: “Name me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him.”
“ ‘Visions of Johanna’ is a brilliant song,” said Brabazon. “By using that quote I wanted the reader to start thinking about whether you can say anyone is just and righteous. Can you name me someone who’s not a parasite, can you… ?”
A former photographer whose head was filled with war stories by the grandfathers who raised him, Brabazon’s first foray into reporting under live fire was in Liberia where he hired the mercenary-cum-bodyguard Nick du Toit who’d later become his best friend. It would prove to be a smart choice because Du Toit saved Brabazon’s life many times over, and spared him the horror of Black Beach. Brabazon never made it to Equatorial Guinea.
Watch: The trailer for “My Friend the Mercenary” by James Brabazon
What drove Brabazon from London to the jungles of Liberia and then to Paris where he courted Simon Mann and other feted guns-for-hire to cover an attempted coup financed by Mark Thatcher? “Nothing terribly noble,” said Brabazon, who admits to not knowing what he was getting himself into. Then there’s the fact that the war in Liberia was so under-reported. “There were no pictures, no reports coming in from Liberia, no journalists had been there… It was a completely unknown entity. I had no idea what was ahead of me and neither did anyone else who was involved in the project. “
“One of the general motivating factors was that it was extraordinary that you could have the largest UN peace-keeping deployments on earth in neighbouring Sierra Leone – some 17,500 air-supported combat troops – and there was a vicious civil war going on 100miles across the border in Liberia and no one knew about it. No one was doing anything to stop it or to try to engage with it. As a journalist it just felt like this was a gift of a story, the ultimate scoop. Going to war as a reporter to bring out these stories of the very violent, ragged margins of society seemed like a vehicle to both do something that every young man would like to do, but to do something that had meaning attached to it.”
Brabazon believes war journalists face the same moral issues everyone else does on a daily basis, but accentuated by the gravitas of armed conflict. “That is what war does, it amplifies decisions and consequences. Possibly the biggest difference between being in a state of war or not is that the consequences of your actions can have a profound and lasting impact on yourself and other people.”
This is possibly why the myth of media objectivity makes Brabazon so angry. “It is simply a lie,” said Brabazon. “The idea that journalists can operate as war reporters who are impartial observers is a myth. I don’t know where it originates from because it is so obviously false. Perhaps as a society it makes us feel better about our ability to understand something if we think that what is being reported is objective and the truth, with a capital ‘T’.”
Brabazon feels the real question is not whether or not reporters can be impartial. Rather it is about knowing that, as a journalist you are not impartial, you will influence and will be influenced. Knowing this and making sure you tell the story in a way that is both credible and authentic, despite the influences is the work of such a journalist.
“Working in war is a series of compromises from the moment you arrive in the theatre to the moment you leave,” said Brabazon. “If you work on the frontline, as I have done, there comes a point where you are going to have to act for your own personal survival. Once you are exercising your natural and inalienable right of self-defence it means you can’t be an objective observer or independent analyst any more. You are necessarily involved and implicated because you will have to do whatever it takes to survive. That is the unsung truth of what going to war is about – it is about survival. For me, working as a war reporter is not so much that I am burnishing an ideal, but that I am thinly coating that ideal with an alloy of expediency.”
It is a job that often pushed Brabazon to the brink of death. “My personal survival on the trips to Liberia was a statistical aberration. There was no rhyme or reason for it. A bullet travels two inches to the right or two inches to the left and that is the difference between me being killed or not,” he said.
What fuelled Brabazon during his earlier reporting was the thought that his footage wouldn’t be bought unless it had the fruits of conflict on tape. “When I was starting out I was regularly in contact with a BBC producer who told me that the material I was filming wouldn’t be commercially viable – in other words he wasn’t going to buy it – unless I had dead bodies and fighting on tape. As an inexperienced young filmmaker I felt absolutely compelled professionally to get that on tape. When I came out of the jungle, the BBC didn’t want to buy the material anyway. That was a salutary lesson.”
Brabazon now lectures in media ethics and war reporting and says that one of the biggest lessons he imparts is assessing risk and ensuring journalists make decisions with which they can live. “There were other people who had gone to their deaths as a result of a commissioning ethos like that. I think the media has a responsibility to itself and to younger people coming through from the bottom. Without these new people we are finished as a profession.”
Brabazon paid a high price for his chosen vocation, one that has claimed an exacting pound of flesh in terms of his well-being, psychology and relationships. Extremely charismatic and magnetically attractive, there was a moment during our interview when a mobile phone discharged on the periphery and I saw a wildness flash alive in Brabazon’s eyes. He ripped the microphone off his shirt and charged towards the source of the distant ringing intoning: “That’s going to drive me fucking insane.”
In that split second there was the smallest sense of what this man had seen. “Warfare is not pretty, it is a brutal business. The way in which war reporting is done now; it would be very easy to forget that people get killed in wars. It is not about politics. It is about the dirty game of killing each other. When I went to war I discovered that I didn’t find anything glorious or uplifting. I found it quite disgusting and tawdry. What I did, what Nick did and what other journalists did. There is no glory in that. If you have watched someone begging for their lives and die on someone else’s whim – that is what war is. It is some mother’s son screaming in the dirt.”
Yes, the war reporter has seen the worst, but don’t pity him or force him into a martyr’s mould. His choices were made consciously. “I am very suspicious of the ‘fetishisation’ of the war reporter as victim. I went to war and I knew, intellectually, there would be a price. I came out with a career-defining scoop. The toll that was exacted on me personally and psychologically was severe, but fundamentally I was able to leave. It took me 300miles of walking through primary jungle to do it, but at the end of the journey waiting on the tarmac for Nick and I was an airplane. I could come home. But for the people of Liberia there was no way out.”
By Mandy de Waal