"This will be an unjustifiable war and because it is unjustifiable it is immoral. And if it is immoral, in my view, it is also evil." -South African Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu
"A war is a war. It's a brutal thing."
-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld
Last Thursday morning as the U.S.-led war against Iraq began, I walked into my office at the Institute for Security Studies to joking calls of, “Hey, Warmonger!” and laughing threats to string me up by my toenails to make an example of American arrogance. I laughed and sat down at my desk, fired up my computer, and checked the news. The troops were going in, Bush was making stern-sounding speeches about defending the American people and disarming Saddam Hussein, and much of the rest of the world was looking on with self-described “disgust, helplessness, and anger.”
I am relatively cynical about American influence abroad. In 1998 I was conducting research for my Harvard thesis in Kenya when the American embassy in Nairobi was bombed. Hundreds of Kenyans were injured and many blinded by shards of flying glass from the explosion, but the U.S. was initially ambivalent about providing aid to the victims of the blast. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright downplayed the news that officials in Washington had repeatedly denied the Ambassador’s requests to move the embassy from its insecure location downtown (news that indicated most Kenyan casualties could have been prevented). I watched as the FBI forbade rescue efforts from proceeding, sealing the area off as a crime scene even as some Kenyans died beneath the rubble. Witnessing the aftermath made me aware that American freedom and democracy were fragile. I woke up to the harsh reality that human life has little value in power politics, but my underlying belief in my society remained intact.
Regardless of whether one sees this war as being driven by a just cause or an out-of-touch American military juggernaut, most agree that it is changing America’s presence in the international community. As an American living abroad, I feel alienated when I see signs proclaiming “America-UK-Israel is Axis of Evil”, but I am also sharply conscious of how far away I am from the domestic politics of war and protest. As I let the magnitude of the new global situation settle in, I struggle with a combination of anger, fear, and homesickness. I recognize that the deepest sense of home I have is for the U.S., the deepest sense of identity is as an American, and that the foundations of home and identity are suddenly in question as the war unfolds.
Thursday afternoon I went to my bank to deposit a check. The only form of identification they accept from foreigners is a passport, so I turned over my eagle-embossed passport along with the signed check. In the background, television monitors aimed at the people waiting in line were tuned to war news instead of the usual Nedbank propaganda. The teller looked down at my passport, looked up at me, and said loudly, “Well, well, well, we have an American in the bank!” She went on to inform her fellow tellers, and in the process ended up announcing to everyone there that I held an American passport. Waving it around from behind her bullet-proof glass, she yelled, “Why are you bombing Iraq?”
I pointed out that I myself was nowhere near Iraq, even going so far as to say that I didn’t vote for the guy who single-handedly ordered the war. She continued to argue, saying that Bush was a madman and that most Americans must support him since he is the president. As soon as my transaction was finished, I made a beeline for the exit. South African banks have double doors at the entry and exit; you enter the first door and have to wait for it to close before the next door opens. A man followed me into the “holding area” between the two doors, and in the few seconds we spent there leaned over and said quietly, “I should kill you so you Americans can see how it feels to see civilians dying for nothing.” The next door opened and I ran out, breathing through a dizzy sense of unreality as the man disappeared around a corner. I stopped to tell a security guard what had happened and then left. As I drove the final stretch to my house in Killarney, I passed the U.S. Consulate where protesters have been camped out 24 hours a day. I managed a feeble “hoot for peace” as I passed them, and heard others hooting through the night from my living room several blocks away.
The official South African position has consistently been against the war. President Thabo Mbeki sees it as a “blow to multilateralism”, and his view is shared by many African leaders. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said on Friday that the attack on Iraq was an "immoral" war in which America was abusing its power, and Nelson Mandela has openly lambasted both President Bush and Prime Minister Blair for their failure to use diplomacy instead of force. The United States has closed its embassies in South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya, citing security issues.
The African perspective on war incorporates concerns about the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), which depends on support from the G8 to work towards poverty alleviation and economic development on the continent. With Europe and the United States in the heat of a political standoff over the war, aid to Africa is again on the back burner of the world’s leadership. Many countries are allegedly withholding planned aid to African countries in case it is needed “more urgently” in Iraq for humanitarian relief. Meanwhile, more than 400 African workers have fled Iraq for Jordan, fearing for their lives. The International Organization for Migration reports that African workers crossing the border are largely of Sudanese origin, with some Somalis and Chadians. There are refugee camps being set up, but for this small group caught between a war and a hard place, the prospects are bleak.
U.S. and British Diplomats say that South Africa’s stance on the war may be less important than its stance on Zimbabwe when it comes to funding development. With African criticism of the United States’ aggression comes the inevitable charge that South Africa and the African Union have done nothing to curtail the violence and instability in Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe (or “Mad Bob” as he is known around these parts) is terrorizing his opposition and preventing food production that is causing famine in the entire Southern African region. South Africa’s lukewarm embrace of and refusal to interfere with the violent and destabilizing Zimbabwean leadership has made many South Africans and others in the region furious at the inaction. Unfortunately, Mad Bob and the rest of the African continent will become more and more marginalized as the world’s attention turns to Iraq.
For more information on Zimbabwe, go to ZWNews.com
Last Friday, March 21, was Human Rights Day in South Africa. It was also the day the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) handed its final report to President Thabo Mbeki. The TRC embodies one of the biggest political compromises ever made. Designed to allow an investigation of who did what to whom during the apartheid era, it allowed amnesty in exchange for information. The objectives were to educate the nation about what happened during what some call “state-sponsored terrorism”, but more importantly, to allow a healing process through the sharing of stories.
The compromise was the offer of amnesty. Some of the atrocities committed by the apartheid security apparatus have now been aired, but victims and survivors who participated by telling their painful stories have seen no compensation or justice. Perpetrators of gross human rights violations have been set free while victims continue to struggle with old wounds, economic, physical, and emotional. A local newspaper described one woman’s experience with the Commission:
“In addition to her describing in graphic detail how her husband was tortured by the then Venda security police, her story was convincing because she had an exhibit - her husband, sitting helplessly on a wheelchair.The man became mentally and physically disabled after he was brutalised by the police. He was arrested for assisting ANC "terrorists" and severely tortured. During the torture, the man soiled his pants and the police forced him to eat his faeces, the commission heard. The woman spoke of the agony of having to look after a man who is unable to be a man, who is a vegetable.”
The perpetrators of this torture have been granted amnesty and are currently working in the new South African police force. Some victims fear that reparations from the government, an alternative to traditional justice, will fade into the realm of “unrealistic” solutions the way the American government now refuses to entertain the idea of reparations for slavery. As reconciliation takes it course, justice means different things to different people. The question is whether the amnesty for those who did participate in the TRC and the freedom from prosecution of high-level leaders and politicians who didn’t, worked. Despite the many failings of the Commission, most South Africans say it was a (qualified) success. The sacrifice of great things to avoid war infuses politics here, as far from the current American rhetoric as Joburg is from San Francisco.
The full text of the TRC report can be found here.
For some reason, this war has brought on a bout of homesickness unlike any I have ever experienced. Maybe it’s a combination of how long I’ve been living away and the alienation of war politics, but it mostly manifests itself as a craving for serious Mexican food. I dream of fresh salsa, hot tortilla chips, big fat burritos from the Mission district in San Francisco. Occasionally these cravings are interrupted by thoughts of real toasted bagels with tomato and cream cheese in the morning. I close my eyes and remember how it feels not to speak with a strange accent, and how there are places in the world where I can order a glass of water (“wadder”) and have the server understand me. On Sunday I’ll think about the bulk of the New York Times and brunch with old friends. I’m still happy where I am and with the huge flood of incredible work I’m doing, but it’s good to know my ties to home are still rooted somewhere beneath the surface.