“Compassion fatigue” became one of the nastier strains of the 1980s, the sense that one could have too much of a bad thing, especially when the bad things came from Africa. The ailment arose as a reaction to Live Aid and the perceived hectoring of Sir Bob Geldof. Every once in a while, western consciences are pricked by some alarming and immediate catastrophe, but for too many in the West and the East and the North of that continent, the litanies mount up into a blur.
Places few have heard of crash onto our screens, and then fade, remembered not as homes but as events. Biafra is one such place, as is Ogaden, or Katanga,or Goma, just as Darfur has entered the lexicon of horror. How then, do those who plug away at improving Africa reach into our souls? This is a special quandary. Ask anyone who has spent time in any African nation as a diplomat, aid worker, tourist, peacekeeper, businessman, musicologist, economist, doctor or mercenary and they will implore you to go and see for yourself the humanity, the humour, the hospitality, the everyday saintliness and the sheer terrifying random chaos of the place from which they have traversed. This book is a case in point.
Forgotten War takes five photographers to the most benighted corner of the continent and presents us with their souvenirs. I admit with a modicum of shame that a wave of cynicism washed over me as I first flicked through this collection. In fact, the headline that sprang to mind was ‘Madonna’s New Catalogue’. Still, there were snaps that caught my attention, to which I returned and found mesmerising. There is a photo by Gary Knight of a patient in a hospital. It is unclear if it is indoors or out, or if the cloths hanging from lines are washing or mosquito nets or bandages. It is unclear if the patient is male or female. It is unclear if the padded bandage across her/his mouth is to ward off infection or heal a facial injury. All that is still are his/her eyes. They burn out of the centre of the picture like Kalashnikov rounds. The picture could have been taken in China in 1937, or etched by Goya in 1812, or filmed by Fassbinder in 1974. It carries a message of loss, anger, strength, hopelessness and perfect stillness among some swirling wind.
The photo was taken at a hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières in Bunia, eastern Congo. That region is loaded with natural wealth and surrounded by predators. It is the epicentre of the worst humanitarian disaster to have stricken the entire Earth in the past 60 years. And every time you and I use our mobile telephones, we are profiting from the carnage. The region is cursed with enormous deposits of Coltan, a mineral that helps run the technology that makes mobiles mobile. Its value has skyrocketed as the mobile has become an essential encumbrance to our getting around and being heard. The higher the value of Coltan, it seems that human life devalues in direct proportion.
Rwanda is one of the five African countries that descended on the region to take sides and pelf in the civil war that first deposed the most corrupt dictator in Africa and dragged on in the wake of Mobuto Sese Seko. The term ‘kleptocracy’ was coined by a US diplomat who acted as a bagman for Mobuto. It could be said, in bitter retrospect, that at least the country’s wealth was being stolen by a native.
Rwanda, obviously desperate to prove that there is no nobility in suffering, stole Coltan in such vast quantities that Congo’s tiny neighbour briefly held a near global monopoly. Mass rape compounded the Aids crisis; slave labour was common; millions were displaced. By the time a peace of sorts was enforced, around four million Congolese lay dead. “Imagine a tsunami deadly as the one that devastated much of Asia during Christmas 2004, striking every few months. That’s the equivalent of what happened in Congo for six years.” Cholera, ebola, malaria and the plague still kill over 1,000 people each month. In Congo during the years 1998-2004, all four horsemen of the apocalypse ravaged at will.
Five noted photographers, Ron Haviv, Gary Knight, Antonin Kratochvil, Joachim Ladefoged and James Nachtwey have gone and seen for themselves, and the souvenirs they have returned with are not for the mantelpiece, but for that private place one ought to store when one feels one’s compassion slumber.