Saturday, June 12, 2010

Variations on a Theme, part 1.

Readers could be forgiven for thinking Scott Peterson has a death wish.



I don't think he really does, and he is not a man without fear, but someone who has learned to shove it aside and keep moving.

Me Against My Brother is divided into three parts: Somalia, Sudan, and Rwanda, with a thick sheaf of pictures in between that Peterson took while in each country. Some of the pictures are expected-starving children, queues for UN food aid-and some aren't-pictures of American troops on top of tanks, a truckful of bodies, the dust covered in people killed outside of Rukara, a accidental cross formed by two severed arms in the dirt.

Peterson does a commendable job of providing enough history and political analysis to explain to readers without much background how the explosive situations in Somalia, Sudan, and Rwanda developed, and fortunately includes a lot of information on the maneuvering of the UN, the US, and the role outside forces played in the conflicts. Fortunately, though, Peterson never lets his book get high-level enough to shield the reader from the violence playing out a finger-tip away.

Peterson has a gift for capturing the textures, smells, and sounds of violence, from his descriptions of the guns of the killers clogged with the "thickening paste" of the blood of people shot at close range, to the intimate damage done by machetes to the living and the dead. Peterson himself faced near-fatal encounters several times, including a particularly harrowing attack by a mob on the day that Dan Eldon, Hansi Kraus, and Hos Maina, American, German, and Kenyan (respectively) journalists and photographers who were beaten to death in Mogadishu. Peterson identifies Dan's death, and describes the blend of idealism and arrogance, the mentality that makes people like Eldon and Peterson go into zones the world would prefer to ignore: "this was not supposed to happen, no story was worth this, though it was a real risk we so regularly dismissed...we lived with death every day here, but not our death."

What makes Peterson leave Somalia for Rwanda and Sudan? He doesn't ever really explain it, and his narrative is refreshingly absent of the idealistic-speak of other visitors who think that a few pictures to "show the world" what is happening may make a difference.

Instead, I think Peterson is facing the challenge that so many Holocaust survivors and historians faced. How to communicate the unspeakable? How to frame in words something that the mind rebels from, runs from, attempts to plaster over to save itself from trauma? Peterson's refusal to run and unwillingness to spare the reader's sensibilities is extremely admirable, but even in this narrative is the sense that at the moment the reader arrives at the heart of the horror, words suddenly cease to be able to communicate the sheer agony.

Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the UN's doomed 'peacekeeping' force in Rwanda, perhaps described it best when he said the horror of Rwanda had been directly grafted onto his cortex. Although Peterson's words will always be at one remove, his book does remarkable job of trying to transmit something that can't, perhaps ever, be caught in words.

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