DYSENTERY, MERCENARIES, AND JUST MISSING OUT ON VISITING HELL
Vice: Give us a basic breakdown of the series of events that led to you being here now, releasing a book about a failed coup in Equatorial Guinea and how you managed not to have been imprisoned in the world’s most famously awful jail.
James Brabazon: In May 2002 I wanted to go to Liberia and make a documentary about the civil war there. A civil war that very senior regional commentators, the UN, and national governments had no access to or understanding of. A lot of people disputed whether the war was even taking place. I had heard about the conflict between president Charles Taylor and a Liberian rebel group called the LURD who were fighting to take power. I was just starting my career as a documentary filmmaker and I thought this would be a great scoop, to film a war that not only no one else has filmed or seen, but that most people don’t even know about. More importantly, it was a really important story to be telling.
So how did you go about getting into Liberia?
I went in as a news producer. I took a cameraman and a soundman with me, and a bodyguard, Nick du Toit, a former South African special forces colonel. We became extremely good friends. He was then approached by Simon Mann a year later to help overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea. Nick asked me whether I would not only film the operation but whether I would participate in it. But I will go into that later.
How did you become so close?
Nick and I became friends initially out of necessity. We went in on a three-week trip rather naively. After three weeks we had seen no combat, and the contracts for the soundman and cameraman were up. They had also both been quite badly injured during the walk into the forest; they went back home. When the cameraman left he gave me a video camera, a box of tapes, some batteries and a charger. The next day I shot my first ever TV pictures. A couple of weeks after that the production company I had gone with could no longer afford to run the project. They told me I would not get paid a fee for the trip and also that Nick couldn’t be paid anymore and the support base we had in Sierra Leone would go too. So I had to go and tell Nick—who was at this point in full South African reconnaissance battle-dress with an AK-47 on his lap and 300 rounds of ammunition strapped to him—that he would not be getting paid any more. Nick's reaction was characteristically generous. He said, "You haven’t got any footage of combat, you can't sell the project, you haven’t done what you set out to achieve, let's just keep on going."
How did things go from there?
I had very bad dysentery. Nick had been very ill with it and recovered; at one point I thought he had died. Then I got it, it was a very virulent strain of amoebic dysentery. Basically, Nick would have to carry me out of the hut to a ditch nearby and hold me up by the wrists while I took a crap. Once someone has done that a few times you are basically either mates or you are not. By then we had become very close. Subsequent to that, we then had an exponentially increasing number of near-death experiences together where he directly intervened to save my life twice. I not only owed him my life but also the success of the project as he had agreed to stay with me without pay. This is what led up to his asking me to be involved in the coup.
[caption id="attachment_17948" align="aligncenter" width="400" caption="An emaciated James toward the end of his first trip in Liberia. © James Brabazon"][/caption]
What had you been doing before the Liberia trip?
I had been a photographer, doing reportage, and it was that which had taken me to Sierra Leone a year before my Liberia trip where I had met some mercenaries from Executive Outcomes. One of them then introduced me to Nick. Liberia was my first experience of close quarters combat. In Eritrea I had shot stills during the war—it was extremely intense. On the Badme front I think it was something like 5,000 incoming artillery rounds an hour—it was like living in an earthquake. We went to the battlefield at Tsorona, which was like looking at an African first world war—countless bodies. I had spent time in Kosovo and the Balkans, I had been to war before, several times, but nothing like Liberia. That was the first time I had people trying to kill me at close range.
You were with photographer Tim Hetherington in Liberia, right? How did you end up with him?
Tim had contacted me out of the blue, though we had met a few of the same people in Sierra Leone. He asked me to take him to meet the rebels. I said no. Why would I want to compromise my exclusivity on the story? But then I went back on a bigger filming trip later on and it became very evident that I would need all the help I could get, and I would need someone shooting as well as myself. This was a feature length film I was making. Tim and I met up and he was just an excellent guy, very talented. He works in a way that no other photographers work. I took him in, rather grandly, as my AP to shoot b-roll. He has gone on in his own right to make an amazing film about Afghanistan and rack up a load of photography awards.
You talk about the rebels as far more organised than they are portrayed elsewhere. Often they are referred to as a randomly violent mish-mash of men and children with no formal organisation. How did you find the rebels to be after spending so much time with them?
Descriptions of the rebels as "African rebels", this generic "African rebel" tag, is ludicrous. The notion of an African rebel is itself nonsensical. The idea that the Liberian rebels were a shambolic caricature of a rebel army in Africa is just lazy journalism. It is accounts written by people who were either not there, or were and didn’t understand what was going on. That is one of the fundamental flaws of war reporting. Often the war reporter is expected to provided in-depth analysis of the totality of the conflict. Actually, when you are on the ground watching the prosecution of conflict, you understand about 100 metres squared of that war at any one time. Combat is terrifying—people running all directions, committing all sorts of atrocities around you, legally or otherwise. That fear and confusion happens in the middle of a rebel army or in the British army. But if you look at the rebel forces in Liberia, how they were constituted, broken down into units, there were ranks honoured, salutes given, a system of military discipline. It is very different to how it was portrayed—completely different organisation to a Western army and, at times, profoundly shambolic. But there was a very strong esprit de corps. These people weren’t bloodthirsty drug addicts on the rampage, they were fighting for something. But whether you agree with what they were fighting for, how they fought for it was another matter. But they lived in the bush, ate a handful of rice a day and a few stewed cassava leaves. They didn’t get rich. They weren’t living the high life, it was not a caricature of rebel bandit lifestyle, they had a very hard life, fighting a war that was extremely unpopular. But they did it because they believed it was the right thing to do. I strongly and profoundly disagree with many of their motivations, and almost all of their tactics, but it would be to misunderstand the conflict to assume it was random murderous barbarism. It was a conflict born out of a very long history. It’s a question of perspective. The rebels had many different reasons for fighting: family loyalties, some were hungry, some were brought up to do nothing else, but they had simple motives and aims they wanted to achieve.
Controversially, I would say that however awful the rebel army was, whatever atrocities they committed, had they not fought against President Taylor I do not believe we would have a democratically elected government in Liberia today. The current government is able to exist because LURD fought Taylor. A LURD government would have been different only in name from Taylor’s, but the struggle allowed democracy to take root. Anyone who says otherwise, I would say, has missed to point of that war.
Have you been back to Liberia since the war?
Yes, I have made four films there. I went back in 2003 during the transitional government and actually met the Liberian officer who had been tasked with my execution.
To find out what happened in Liberia, and how James managed not to end up in jail with a load of mercenaries in Guinea, check back tomorrow.