Some people think video games and UAVs are desensitizing us to war. Tell that to James Brabazon, frontline journalist for the BBC, and he'll tell you about the horrors he's witnessed during the Liberian rebellion that can't be unseen.
I wanted more than anything to get into the war, to see it at first hand, to understand it, and to film it. I was motivated by simple curiosity, too. The ‘war' had become a personality about whom we spoke, but never really saw: the absent A-list star supporting thousands of extras in an unfinished, unfathomable production. I lay awkwardly beside Nick [Brabazon's guide and interpreter]. It was always hard saying goodnight, announcing as it did, albeit politely, I'm too knackered to want to talk to you any more.
‘Ja, well . . . Sleep well.'
Nick shifted his weight onto his side, and we drifted off together.
In the morning we were collected from our room and taken across town for an excursion by an excited cluster of rebels. As we walked through waterlogged streets, and then tall wet grass, the remaining townsfolk viewed us with a mixture of amusement and incomprehension. Children caught our eye and vanished behind bullet-drilled doors; a wrinkled old woman shook her stick at us, croaking incomprehensibly in tribal language.
‘I wonder what they make of us?' I asked.
‘They probably think we're mercenaries,' Nick postulated, ‘though neither of us is getting paid so far.'
A sickly smell hung in the air, like the tang of a forgotten steak at the back of a refrigerator. It wasn't long before we found the source. A corpse straddled our path. He was stripped naked, lying on his back. Dark congealed blood on his left shoulder showed where he'd been opened up by a bullet. The boy had been twenty, or younger, and was handsome. He looked serene. A few paces on another man lay dead, his cheek prised open, the back of his skull missing. A deceptively small hole had been bored neatly into his chest by a high-velocity rifle round. He wore jeans; a bloodstained T-shirt lay knotted up in the grass nearby. He was not serene, but angry. They both stank. Like an obscene chef wheeling out the day's specials trolley to expectant customers, the war had served me up an intriguing, indigestible entrée. I wanted something to lighten the mood and the sadness in front of me.
‘He would have been okay,' I broke the silence, ‘if only he hadn't lost his head.'
My words evaporated into the putrid air. Nick said nothing, and took in the scene quietly, examining the corpses, considering the area. He was impassive. The rebels looked at me. I understood why they had brought me here. This was evidence of their power.
I started to film. The mangled face of the second body leaped into the viewfinder. It wasn't like looking at it with air and space around it; now all I could see was torn flesh and broken bone. The lens was supposed to be a filter – I'd heard that said so many times, and accepted it as true. It was, but it did not lessen the impact: it distilled and magnified it. I lowered the camera, and then the rebels smiled, and promised me plenty more in the days to come.
‘We wi' ki' all o' dem,' one fighter assured me.
I had seen dead bodies before, but this was the first time I had seen people whose deaths spoke intimately about my own situation: they had been killed in the centre of town as we had marched towards it the day before. We had heard the shots. Now all I could do was take refuge in forced humour.
Later that day, as the weather closed in, threatening a storm, I called a senior BBC producer from under the citrus tree in our courtyard. I hoped he might be interested in our film. The bodies were good news, of sorts.
‘I heard shots, but, ah, I've seen no combat yet. It's getting closer, though. The war's near. We're definitely onto something here. I've seen casualties.'
I was being grilled on what I had on tape.
‘Well, that's bad news for you but great news for us, James! It sounds like you're getting the film,' came the cheerful reply, ‘but we really need the bang-bang. Let me know when you get some. Right now it's, er, well, we still can't pledge anything up front.'
I hung up and went on the balcony to write up my notes. It was an uncomfortable truth: in order to get paid, I needed to see combat. At least I now knew what was expected of me.
Mid-morning the following day, little pops and whistles jumped above the usual soundtrack of life in town. Nick and I had ambled over to what remained of the local market to film stallholders. Despite the previous fighting, the centre of town was bustling with skittish children and large women selling cracking corn, old torch batteries and fat, edible snails. I cocked my ear towards the south end of town. It sounded as if the rebels were firing in the air again. Then two explosions boomed in the distance, their flat resonance rumbling down the street towards us. No – it's a battle. The rebels were being shot at. I froze as Nick scanned the road ahead. Within seconds the street was empty of everyone except fighters; rice had been spilled on the floor, shoes lost in the rush to flee for cover. A chill ran through me. This was it – and I had no idea what to do.
A score of fighters abandoned their radios and tore off noisily in their flip-flops towards the gunfire. I fumbled with my camera, replacing the battery, trying to clean the lens but smearing sweat across the glass instead. Nick took the AK off his shoulder, and we ran with the fighters.
‘By the time we get there, the contact will be over.'
Nick knew how far away the bangs were. I didn't, and I didn't want to believe him, either. I wanted to see, to film, a fight. Even Nick's language was exhilarating: a ‘contact' was his way, the army's way, of describing a shoot-out.
Up ahead of us, about fifty yards down the stony path, a rebel soldier jumped to his feet from the wooden seat he'd been perched on, yelling support for the others passing him. We ran towards him as he cocked his rocket-propelled grenade launcher. As he stood up, the four-foot wooden bazooka tube slipped between his hands, and dropped hard on the floor. The jolt detonated the charge. The primed grenade sitting in the end of the launcher roared up to the sky in a blaze of flame and an ear-splitting bang. The soldier disappeared in a cloud of smoke and swirling debris, and then fell backwards. The grenade exploded above us, scattering shards of burning metal into the zinc roofs of the houses about us. When I looked back at the ground again, I saw that the back-blast – the powerful exhaust emitted from the bottom of the tube when the grenade was launched – had sucked up the shale from the path and turned it into shrapnel. His legs had been blown off.
Nick and another man dragged him into a house, and laid him on a rickety wooden table. The other man was a medic, and took bandages and white gloves out of his pockets. Nick helped put an intravenous line in the rebel's arm. There was nothing I could do to help. I filmed. Here was real evidence of the war. Sinew and shredded flesh clung to his thigh bone. One leg was pared down to a skeletal strip of calcium and gristle. His genitals had been obliterated.
After a minute of struggling to frame and expose black people in a dark room with a bright white door opening behind them, while not getting Nick on camera, I gave up and just watched. The fighter rolled from side to side, his mouth gasped in air, but there was no screaming. Nick shook his head and I went outside. I struggled to light a cigarette. My hands were shaking. The contact was over, the rebels jubilant at repelling the attack. Nick emerged.
‘Is he dead?'
I took a long draw on the pungent smoke. My nerves settled a little.
‘Ja, very soon. In a few minutes he must be. There's nothing to be done.'
I struggled to absorb what I had witnessed. The unfilmed images sloshed around my mind, swimming at the edge of my consciousness. I had seen a few seconds of war, and it was vile, pointless and deeply unsettling.
As we walked back to town, I reflected on the complexity of filming the moment, too. I had struggled with the camera even though we were in no immediate danger. What would I do if I was being shot at?
It wasn't only a question of technical competence. With no commission to fulfil, no editorial brief to work to, I had no idea what to film. With a very limited supply of tape and fuel for the generator, I had to make big decisions about when to switch on and film. When I did, it had to count.
My Friend the Mercenary © 2010 by James Brabazon; reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc
James Brabazon has worked as a frontline journalist for the last 10 years, travelling through Africa, Asia and the Americas, filming, producing and directing in the world's most hostile environments. Based in London, Brabazon specializes in conflict and restricted access scenarios.
My Friend the Mercenary