Temptations Of War

James just wanted to film the war in Liberia. But bloody conflicts dirty even the cleanest of hands. Find out more about James Brabazon's story in his book, "My Friend the Mercenary."

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GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

OK, so most people understand that there is no shame in working for money. What else would you work for, right? I have flipped burgers, cleaned toilets, scoured bedpans - all this, not of the goodness of my heart, no, but for a paycheck. There's nothing wrong with that. We call it the American way. But even in a hyper-capitalistic context, there are things that we recoil from people getting paid to do. Maybe because we think they shouldn't be done at all. Today, from PRX and NPR, we proudly present a very special SNAP JUDGMENT. We're calling it "The Mercenary." I'm asking you to clear the next hour because we're going to break format a bit and stick with a single story you absolutely, positively need to hear. Thank me later. Right now, hold on tight. My name is Glynn Washington and this is SNAP JUDGMENT.

(MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: Now then, please be advised, we'll have something for the youngsters next week, but this is not it. It is Lego time for the little ones because our first story starts in the middle of Liberia's civil war. Documentary filmmaker James Brabazon wanted to film one of the rebel groups as they tried to overthrow the warlord turned president Charles Taylor. So James made a deal to be embedded in the ranks of the rebel soldiers as they fought their way toward the capital.

(MUSIC)

JAMES BRABAZON: We hoped to be working behind rebel lines, quite deep into Liberia. At that stage, I had no idea quite how to meet people behind rebel lines and for how long.

ANNA SUSSMAN, BYLINE: James walked into Liberia's Civil War with a camera and a mission.

BRABAZON: My ambition almost uniquely had been to meet the rebels to prove that they existed, to interview their leadership. Some very serious regional commentators and organizations had doubted that there was a war going on at all. I wanted to prove that it was really happening. The initial plan was very modest. I thought that to prove that the rebels existed, to see them in action and to interview their leadership - I probably needed three weeks.

SUSSMAN: Near a border outpost, he met with a representative for the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy - the LURD. They agreed that James could travel with them as they marched through the country, town by town, towards the capital Monrovia where they planned on taking out the government of then-President Charles Taylor with machine guns and RPGs.

BRABAZON: So things that can go wrong can be being injured in a firefight, getting separated from the people that you're walking with and getting lost in the forest, heatstroke, dehydration.

SUSSMAN: The country had seen many years of civil war by this time. Rebel groups had become famous for their violent attacks on civilians. So James took a little protection with him on his journey. He hired a private mercenary, a guy named Nick du Toit.

BRABAZON: I hired Nick because, you know, I knew my limitations. I knew that I wasn't going to be able to kind of help myself off if I was injured or if there was a problem.

SUSSMAN: James is a documentary filmmaker from England, a journalist trying to report a story about the devastating impact of a war in Africa. And Nick du Toit was a guy who had spent his life fighting wars across Africa as a career soldier of fortune.

BRABAZON: You know, he was someone that had fought in defense of apartheid South Africa. And, you know, being part of South Africa's apartheid army had this sort of same moral equivalence to me as someone who'd served in the S. S. in the German army. It wasn't something that I was intellectually or morally well predisposed towards. But when I met Nick, he was an extremely unprepossessing character, you know. He looked - he was very mild-mannered, very self-effacing, very quiet, and not at all the image of a professional soldier that you would expect. You know, going in, I suppose I felt a sense of curiosity towards Nick. Who was this man? What had he done? And what was his real motivation for going in with me? Was it simply to help a filmmaker in Liberia or was there, perhaps, another motive?

SUSSMAN: So with a change of clothes and some extra batteries, Nick and James began their long walk with the LURD rebels through the Liberian countryside.

BRABAZON: It started off, you know, quite a nice, cool walk one morning from one of the rebel fire bases. And by the end of that first day, I was already thinking, I don't know how I can do this. Thick canopy jungle with dense scrub, tiny little pathways to follow. There were these enormous tree roots, which could be as high as your waste, snaking over the path, which you'd constantly have to climb over, would crawl under. There were streams and rivulets that you had to either wade across or walk over. Metal-blasted remnants of what had once been very picturesque jungle villages. At night, we would sleep in destroyed buildings. We met some retreating soldiers carrying winded colleagues. We saw evidence of the war the nearer we got.

SUSSMAN: And pretty soon, they were faced with one of the country's most dangerous threats.

BRABAZON: I will save you and your audience the grisly details of what severe amoebic dysentery looks, smells and sounds like. But Nick would hold me up by my wrists while I defecated into a ditch. He would then clean me up, drag me back into the hut and lie me down in my cot so I could go to sleep. And, you know what? It turns out that once another man has held you up while you take (bleep) into a ditch, you're either mates or you're not. And at that point, I couldn't have cared less what Nick had done in his military career to whom or for what reason. He was my mate. He sorted me out.

SUSSMAN: James got so sick that they had lost almost all the time he had scheduled for filming.

BRABAZON: After three weeks, I had filmed almost precisely nothing.

SUSSMAN: James called his production company, and they said sorry, man, you're out of money.

BRABAZON: So I was then on my satellite phone having this conversation having a look over at Nick who was dressed in full South African special forces uniform with a Kalashnikov across his knees and about 300 rounds of ammunition strapped to his chest thinking this is going to be an extremely difficult conversation to have. And, you know, kind of the nature of mercenaries is kind of that they get paid to be there. So I walked over to him and I said look I've got - I've got some bad news. I'm afraid we're going to have to call it a day and go home. We don't have any more money kind of at all and definitely not to pay you with.

And he was very calm. He just said, look, you know, if you don't make this film, everything we've done up till now has been in vain. You don't have anything to sell. You can't possibly make any of the money back so let's keep going. And he agreed to stay with me for free and that he would do the trip without being paid.

SUSSMAN: So they kept going all the way to the front lines of the war. And for the next month, James and Nick encountered an almost incessant onslaught of bullets and bombs. This is actual recording from their footage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTAGE)

BRABAZON: We spent, I think, nearly 28 days pretty much continuously in combat. Actually, there were, in fact, multiple times in combat where he saved my life by dragging me out of the path of a rocket propelled grenade. You know, there were moments of intense, existentially threatening action, and hours and hours and hours of boredom sitting on the balcony of the blown-out house where we were staying in hundred degree Fahrenheit heat just shooting the breeze.

SUSSMAN: The two men slept in the same bed together every night. And every day, filmed exactly what happens in a very brutal war.

BRABAZON: There had been a fairly substantial battle going on for most of the morning, some of which I had filmed. And the rebels had taken a prisoner. We walked up to the sort of patio area behind an abandoned house where they had this guy sitting on the floor. I started to film. They began to torture the prisoner, started to put cigarettes out on him. Then they cut his ears off, and they dragged him down the street chanting. I filmed all of this, and they gave me an interview while they were doing it. I felt very strongly at the time that it was something I needed to film, and there was absolutely no way that I wasn't going to film it. And I felt that by switching the camera off and refusing to film it would send a very powerful signal to them, which would not necessarily be in my own interests. I didn't want them to feel that I was judging them. We were walking back up the main street, up the hill back to the room where we were staying. And Nick just turned around to me and said you know they only did that for the camera. Nick meant that that prisoner of war had been tortured and butchered because I had been there filming. It'd be a lie to say that I was not in somehow, in some way participating. That's a very hard thing to digest.

When I got back to the house that evening, I went to sleep. And the only way I can describe it is I lay there and I replayed in my mind what had happened. And I thought to myself, you will never be able to un-see this. You'll never unlearn this. It was almost as if I felt as if I was - felt as if I was falling through the back of my own head in this sort of freefall. Working in conflict like that, it's like pig iron on your moral compass. It's very hard to steer true. Everything around you is violence and obscenity. What is it in you that keeps you pointing in the right direction? And that's where I was finding out how robust my compass was. The sense of moral confusion that came out of that war, for me, wasn't just the acts of brutality, but the fact that they were carried out by people who were looking after my best interests. I would sit down with rebel commanders in the morning. We might have a bowl of rice if we were lucky. We'd share a last cigarette. We'd talk about, you know, our families, girlfriend, what we wanted to do after the war. And then maybe later in that day, I'd film them executing a prisoner. And then that night, they'd come 'round and sit on the balcony with me, and we'd share another cigarette. That's very difficult to assimilate. And that led us into some very dark moral quandaries.

SUSSMAN: At one point, government forces were closing in on the rebels and also on James and Nick. It looked like it could actually get very ugly for all of them. So James let the rebels use his satellite phone, which they used to get more ammunition. Now he wasn't just documenting the war, he was participating in it.

BRABAZON: There is no such thing as being a neutral observer in war. There's no such thing as being the independent reporter. There will come a point at which you need to act in your own self-defense in war. After one last very, very bad ambush where we had to get up and run through a lot of heavy machine-gun fire, I put the cameras away and that was it. I just concentrated on getting out. You know, Nick and I walked nearly 300 miles out of that jungle together. So by the time we finally left Liberia, it was like saying goodbye to your kind of college roommate from hell.

SUSSMAN: By the time Liberia's Civil War had ended, more than 250,000 people had died. The country was completely broken down. Schools, hospitals, roads - everything was pockmarked or blown up. Almost a million people fled as refugees. Another million were displaced inside the country. James tried to return to his tidy life in England.

BRABAZON: You know, when I got back from that trip, it's only then that you really realize how you've been affected by it. And, you know, it's such a luxury to be able to talk about battle fatigue, you know, o talk to someone about posttraumatic stress. Almost entire population of Liberia, in some way or another, was exposed to some form of combat stress. So, you know, I'm wary and slightly skeptical of middle-class white journalists talking about how horrific their time in Africa was when really that's kind of beside the point. But yes, it's like falling into darkness. And it's hard to see in the darkness. It's hard to find your way.

When I came back to the UK, it's very hard to reintegrate into kind of polite, English society when the people that you really want to hang out with are basically war criminals. It doesn't put you in a good place. I was a mess, you know. I had lost a lot of muscle mass. I had him massive, wild shaggy beard. My eyes, you know, were dark and had collapsed back into by head a little bit. I looked awful. You know, I had terrible scabies so I had scabs and I itched. And, I mean, I was just a mess.

SUSSMAN: To keep himself sane, he kept in contact with his friend Nick du Toit. And after a few months, James boarded a plane and flew back to West Africa to meet up with Nick. The journalist and the mercenary sat down for a beer on a humid, tropical night and discussed the options for two men in need of a war.

WASHINGTON: It's not over, not by a long shot. Keep it locked to find out what happens next. You're not going to believe what James and Nick are about to do. When SNAP JUDGMENT "The Mercenary" episode continues, stay tuned.

(MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT "The Mercenary" episode. When last we left, filmmaker James Brabazon had flown to a small, West African country, and was just sitting down planning his next move with his friend the mercenary.

BRABAZON: Me and Nick sitting on the veranda of our hotel in Guinea, Conakry drinking warm beer. And it was there that he announced to me that he had a new project on the go, which was effectively to overthrow the government of a sovereign nation to remove the president from power. And I sat and listened to him, pretty much exactly how it lined up. He was going to be involved in a mercenary-led seizure of power. And I - I mean, he looked slightly in disbelieve himself like, he was saying it to me almost as if he was testing the idea out. He asked me, straightforwardly, whether or not I would like to film it. The idea of filming a mercenary-led seizure of power was just - I mean, let's be honest - too good to turn down. What I believed was is that it was a story that definitely needed to be told. This was an event which could potentially change the lives of tens, hundreds of thousands of people, and someone needed to be able to tell it as it actually happened. And I - and here, I just thought, yeah. Let's do it. I'll film it. And then came the sucker punch.

It's like ah, great you'll do it. See the thing is that we needed you to do us a favor as well 'cause what we want to do is make it look like a local uprising and not a mercenary-led operation. So rather than it looking like a bunch of former apartheid-era, white mercenaries overthrowing a sovereign nation, we want to make it look like it's been a local uprising against tyranny. And the way that we're going to do that is by putting lots of black mercenaries into local uniforms surrounded by the person that we're going to put in power.

And then if you could film it in such a way so that we can only see the new guy and the black troops and we can't see white faces, what we'll then do is release that footage to the world. Now that's an entirely different proposition to going along with your mates and filming a military operation to overthrow a president. That is agreeing to participate in a mercenary-led seizure of power, which I'm pretty sure is against international law. I agreed to do it because if I had said no at that point, all access to that operation would've ended. I would've closed the door. It was a no-brainer.

SUSSMAN: Well, you could've said no. You could've said that's too far. I'm not interested. Thanks so much. Have fun.

BRABAZON: You see, yeah, in theory, it would be possible to reject an offer like that. And, of course, I could have done. I'm having a beer with a friend of mine who has - I mea, say, absolutely directly saved my life on numerous occasions. The person that, with the exception of my mother, you know, I'm closest to in the world. And he's saying yeah, let's just keep doing this thing that we're really good at. Let's keep having this adventure. I mean, I hate to say this, but it was exciting. You know, I mean, there are reasons why young men go to war. There are reasons why young men have always gone to war and will always go to war, which is because one of the unspeakable truths about war is that it's fun. And that is a very hard lesson for people to learn. But if people don't accept that as the truth, you'll never be able to understand why young men go, what motivates them to go to war. And I was a young man motivated to go to war so I went for it.

SUSSMAN: And there was one more thing - war and fighting were in James's bloodline.

BRABAZON: My last name, Brabazon, my surname, my family name, it means mercenary.

SUSSMAN: One of his grandfathers had actually fought as a mercenary in foreign wars. And his mom's dad, who had partially raised James, had fought for the British in North Africa.

BRABAZON: You know, he was very clear that he was very proud of what he did, but he did it because he had to not because he wanted to particularly. He had to fight in the war because it was war of national survival. As far as he was concerned, it was his duty to do it. You know that's something I really fundamentally misunderstood as a child, and as an adult. I was very seduced by my grandfather's stories of the war, but I failed to understand that they went because they had to. And when I went to war, I went for some very unpalatable reasons. Yeah, the coup was imminently about to happen, and I was expecting a call from Nick at any moment.

And my grandfather was really, very, very ill. And then he passed away. So I told Nick that I would be sorting out the arrangements for the funeral. I went to our family house in Kent. I switched my phone off. I had no access to e-mail, and for nearly two weeks, I was in, you know, grieving, arranging the funeral, burying my grandfather. When I came back from Kent to London, I got back to my apartment, opened the curtains, switched on the radio. Almost the first thing that happened was a news report that had just come in that a planeload of suspected mercenaries had been arrested in Zimbabwe. My heart just sank. I knew immediately what it was. It was like someone had reached out of the radio set and shaken me by the neck. It's happened. You've missed it, but it's gone so terribly wrong. Nick was convicted of treason, and sentenced to 34 years in Black Beach prison, which is Africa's most notorious jail, a title for which, by the way, there is not inconsiderable competition. He was tortured. He was bound hand-and-foot. He was kept in solitary confinement in a tiny cell in the dark.

I felt guilty. I wanted to be there with him. I felt - I felt that I'd let them down by not being there. I felt I'd let Nick down by not being with him. It was only as it began to sink in and details emerged of how exceptionally brutal their treatment had been that I realized that my grandfather's death had handed me another life. And they tortured someone to death within the first couple of days, you know. And I'm just a kid from South London. You know, what - how was I going to stand up to that? So in retrospect, profoundly glad that I didn't go, but I - it was a complicated, emotional moment. Now to find myself going to award ceremonies or dinners, drinking champagne, having a lovely time, and Nick was in jail in fear of his life. That was very difficult. At times like that, I would often feel, man, I wish I was with you. I wish I wasn't here. I wish I was there with you because I would feel more real.

I would feel like a better person if I was there with you rather than with this bunch of people. But, you know, that's vanity too because if you come into the room and say right, OK, fine, boom, put down your glass of champagne. Here are the handcuffs we're off. Coming? Of course, the answer would've been no. I thought I knew enough about war to be careful of what you wished for, but I didn't know quite enough, and perhaps I wished for too much.

WASHINGTON: James's friend, Nick du Toit, was released from Black Beach prison 5 and a half years after his capture. We'll have a link to James Brabazon's book "My Friend the Mercenary" on our website snapjudgment.org. Pat Mesiti-Miller did the sound design on that story. It was produced by Anna Sussman. When SNAP continues, we're going to do some very, very strange things for money, and we're not going to be ashamed. When SNAP JUDGMENT "The Mercenary" episode continues, stay tuned.

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