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Collapse – A Memoir

Author’s Note

 

I began writing about the war five years after it was over; a war the world witnessed from afar but for which I was very much present. In this memoir I set about chronicling the collapse of that unhappy nation. Throughout my life I have always been the most diligent keeper of diaries. I think it’s that it never seemed sensible to me for a person to trust solely in his own memory. Whatever the reason, when I finally sat down to writing, with the help of those notebooks I was able to recall not just the headlines and the chapter headings (the day the rebels broke the city limits, for example, or the tragic burning of Happy Days Church), but also the minutia – the observations which to others might have seemed inconsequential in the midst of all that was going on (the ill-judged red of one negotiator’s nails as she co-signed the first, doomed peace accord). But it was in these small details that I later found the blueprint for reconstructing that ravaged country that I once so loved.

 

In the writing of this memoir I have replaced some people’s names with pseudonyms or used their nicknames in order to protect their true identities. Others remain unchanged. On a few occasions I have reproduced key conversations and scenes for which I was not present. However, each of those instances is indicated by a footnote, and in every case I was informed in great detail about what happened or what was said very soon after the event took place. Without exception, the second-hand information I received was from friends and colleagues whom I trust implicitly. That being said, this is a memoir, not a history. For readers in search of a more comprehensive account, there are at least three impeccably researched books that explain those awful years with far more objectivity than I could ever hope to achieve. They are: Anne Lynn Jones’ Red is the River, Michael Mwandishi’s The War the World Ignored, and Jacob Neilson’s The Smaller Half – books which unravel the labyrinthine politics of that small nation and attempt to answer the big question: Why? This is not one of those books. My ambition is smaller. I simply set about to tell my own story, as well as the story of a few of my closest friends who did not survive to tell their own.

 

On that note there are a few people I would like to acknowledge, without whose protection and camaraderie I would probably not be alive today: George Fields, friend and colleague, who carried me on his back for two days while I passed in and out of consciousness until we reached an improvised field hospital, where it emerged that George had been carrying me all the while walking on a sprained ankle; the nurses of Medecins Sans Frontieres without whom wars would be even more dreadful than they already are;Sarah Harvey, fearless but never foolish photojournalist who always knew when it was time to ‘get the hell out’, and whose picture of me shaking hands with the President secured my safe passage through countless military roadblocks; Joe, top man, much, much more than an interpreter who can talk his way out of trouble in at least a dozen languages, and whose tendency to translate what I should have said rather than what I actually did say saved my bacon on numerous occasions; Madame Carrine, for the bright light she cast over everyone and everything in her unfathomably resilient hotel, for accepting payment in any currency except US dollars (for which she never gave any explanation), for cooking us meals that magically tasted like each of our mothers’ recipes, for returning my shirts to their former white against all the odds, for restoring our humanity; Mr and Mrs Seto, for hiding me; Graham Adams, at the UK Foreign Office, for his flawless intelligence updates; Mark Cheep, for advising me on which of those updates to ignore; Christine, for everything.

 

Some speculation has arisen with regards to my motives for staying on once the situation escalated and the violence became widespread. It is true that almost everyone who could leave did, and my not being a journalist naturally threw up some red flags. I’ve since been accused of everything from naïve recklessness to lunatic heroism. The truth is that in the beginning I remained out of simple curiosity, confused as to how this peaceful place I’d first read about in books, and then experienced for myself, could transform so quickly into a hell that defies description. By the time I realised how dangerous the situation had become, getting out wasn’t an option, so I stayed and did my best to avoid the fighting and to stay alive. If given the chance to go back and leave with the other lucky few (the foreigners), would I make different choices? Unquestionably. Nothing about the violence of that war was glamorous or exciting. The scenes I describe in the coming chapters one could not have dreamt up, such was the sheer creativity of the malevolence, the ingenuity of the evil, except that it was not evil but something less abstract, more palpable. There was nothing gained or learned or solved from the blood that was spilled.

 

Finally, a brief explanation of the dedication at the front of this novel, the man whose name I never knew. Perhaps his namelessness is appropriate. The nameless man was probably a beggar. He was of the lowest social caste, a victim even before the onset of the war. He roamed the streets begging for money or food, which people sometimes gave him and sometimes did not. On the day I last saw him he was standing at a crossroads. I was hunkered down in an abandoned hair salon across the street, terrified for my life, waiting out a two-day standoff between government troops and rebel fighters, which had completely emptied the once thriving neighbourhood. The man, who was naked to the waist, stood at the centre of the crossroads deciding on which of the four roads he would attempt his escape. Suppose the roads led north, south, east and west. This man had no home, no particular destination, so each road was the same to him. It was midday on the equator and the man cast no shadow. He was facing south and that road seemed as good as any so he began to head in a southerly direction. He’d barely walked ten steps when a shot rang out. The bullet nearly killed him. As it was it tore his ear in half and a hand leapt from his side to hold the flapping lobe in place. South was dangerous. The man returned to the centre of the crossroads. He turned and faced the east. East was better than south, he now knew, and just as good as north and west, for all he knew. And so the man headed east. This time he advanced further, a good twenty paces before the explosion of a gunshot ricocheted off the buildings and a bullet struck the man’s naked shoulder. He was in visible agony as he stumbled back to the relative safety of the centre. North and west were similarly untested and so the man directed himself northwards, with extreme caution. On his fifth step to the north he triggered a landmine. The blast tore the man’s feet off clean at the ankles but it didn’t kill him. I watched, aghast, as he dragged himself back for the third time. The only option left was for the man to go west. Unthinkingly, because what was left for him to think about, the man pulled himself west, dragging his bloody stumps behind him. He was clearly dying. Even if the blood loss didn’t kill him, which I knew it would, infection, thirst, hunger would finish him off. The doomed man kept on, clawing west. No gunshots. No landmines.

 

I made my escape on the western road. The man was already dead when I passed him. I dedicate this book to the nameless man, who chose the wrong path three times before he chose the right one.

 

Louis J. Irving,

October 1999

 

Editor’s Note

 

Four years after the original publication of this book, Louis Jules Irving (also known as Laurence Deer, Mark Firth, and Joseph Milner), was implicated in the findings of the National Truth Commission mandated to investigate the causes of the conflict. The Commission’s report accused Irving of spearheading a government facilitated land grab during the mid-nineties in the resource-wealthy, agricultural north, in which land was purchased from owners of medium-size farms at hugely undervalued rates and sold to worker-led cooperatives under a newly passed Land Reform Act. The new law, which was to become the focal point of the Commission’s investigation, essentially paved the way for farm workers to apply for group financing to assist them in the purchase of valuable land – on which they had previously worked in poor conditions and for notoriously low wages. The loans, which were ostensibly public in that they were lending government-borrowed cash, were handled by numerous local lenders then springing up around the country (GroupFarm, The Co-Op Farming Bank, Together: Grow, to name a few)the majority of which were in fact subsidiaries of the privately held foreign development fund, ­Firth Management, which had helped negotiate loans for the government to the tune of several billion dollars as incentive payments to encourage the passing of the Land Reform Act. The new law forced the landowners to accept the buyout offers of their workforces, despite uncompetitive terms across the board.

In the beginning, the new law was widely (and wildly) popular among a largely poor and landless majority. But these new cooperatives were designed to fail; born into debt, having borrowed at ludicrously high interest rates on tight repayment schedules, the co-ops began defaulting in astonishing numbers. This ‘unforeseen’ crisis was made worse by one of the nation’s driest wet seasons on record, resulting in an extremely poor yield in the co-ops’ first crucial harvest. With workers unable to repay their loans, land was repurchased at absurdly low prices by a government-subsidised holding company, on whose board sat a Mr Laurence Deer (Irving). The workers and their families, who had lived on and farmed the land for generations, were summarily evicted to make way for foreign-operated mining ventures subject to the sale of lucrative contracts in which Milner (Irving again) Consultants acted as broker.

 

When the displaced workers and their families began to revolt against the injustice of their forced displacement, targeting foreign contractors in a series of attacks, Irving became involved in a proxy war against the impoverished population, covertly arming and funding several ethnic militias through the British owned, Cyprus-based military firm, Cheltenham Shield. With tensions high and countless disputes over rights to what little agricultural and grazing land remained, this was tantamount to lighting a match under a bonfire. Having been one of the largest per-capita exporters of coffee and grain crops on the continent throughout the eighties and nineties, the country now found itself on the brink of famine. On paper, though, the economy was thriving: GDP saw a dramatic rise in the years leading up to the war owing to the surge in foreign investment. The IMF and The World Bank were kept at arm’s length with growth rates consistently in excess of 5 per cent. But a booming economy masked an escalating war. When three of the warring rebel factions agreed a temporary ceasefire, rearmed and made their way south in an effort to overthrow the country’s kleptocratic elite, the world finally began to pay attention. By then it was too late to curb the violence, and within just three years of passing the Land Reform Act the nation had become embroiled in an all-out civil war. Irving’s influence in the conflict would later be revealed in one investigative piece for The New York Times with the headline, ‘Irving’s War’.

 

After the publication of the Truth Commission’s findings in 2003, Irving was extradited to The Hague where he was charged with committing crimes against humanity, corruption, the unlicensed sale of military hardware, and a number of other lesser crimes. Over the course of his trial an entirely different picture of Irving emerged. The truth, however, proved insufficient in that particular court of law, and the widely covered collapse of the prosecution’s case ensued. For two weeks Irving was a free man until he was rearrested and successfully convicted on a new charge – the murder of his close friend and colleague, George Fields (about whom he speaks in his Author’s Note), in an apartment in London’s Notting Hill in October 2004, for which he received a life sentence. With his reputation in tatters and now a conviction for murder, the publisher removed the book from circulation with a ‘Search and Destroy’ order. After Irving’s suicide in prison in 2008 the rights on his ‘memoir’ transferred to Irving’s daughter, Ms Draper. After her father’s death, Ms Draper contacted me and initiated a conversation that would lead to this, the reprinting of Irving’s book. After careful consideration, it was agreed that the book you are about to read would be published with a new introduction and notes from the historian, Michael Mwandishi, who calls the document ‘Irving’s love letter to his own immense superego’.

 

Irving’s motives for writing the book remain unclear, though it has been suggested he was engaged in the fraudulent manufacture of an historical narrative in which he would present himself beyond rebuke, as nothing more than ‘a naïf wielding a knife at a gunfight’– to use his own words. All profits from this republication have, and will continue to be, donated to charitable foundations, including organisations working to assist Irving’s victims.

 

As Irving’s editor it pains me to admit my own part in the publication of his many untruths. Very little of what Irving writes is unembellished. Nothing that you read in these pages should be considered fact (most of it is far from it), though every effort has been made in this edition to determine where something close to historical accuracy has been portrayed and is accordingly indicated in Professor Mwandishi’s diligent notes.

 

Addressing the characters mentioned in Irving’s Author’s Note: George Fields did not carry an injured Irving for two days on a broken ankle to hospital. Instead the pair was seen by a number of witnesses travelling south by car, though they did arrive and were treated by nurses at Médecins Sans Frontieres for injuries that included a sprained ankle (Fields) and gunshot wounds (two: shoulder and arm, Irving). Speculation about the extent of Fields’ knowledge of Irving’s dealings during the war is unverifiable. All that can be said with any certainty is that Irving killed Fields in a flat in London years after the end of the war. Sarah Harvey did take a photo of Irving shaking hands with the President, and Irving did use the photo as he describes, to wile his way through the country’s many military checkpoints on a number of occasions. Joe, the translator? Irving was an astoundingly accomplished linguist (he spoke half a dozen languages fluently, and at least as many again at a conversational level). Nonetheless, he would often travel with interpreters, though the character of Joe in this book appears to be an amalgamation of several different real personages. Madame Carrine was no saint. Her ‘unfathomably resilient hotel’ in fact doubled as a brothel, catering to rebels and soldiers alike, which is almost certainly how she was able to remain in business for so long, even after the outbreak of war forced most of her competitors out of the capital. The madam’s decision not to accept American dollars kept foreign nationals away and largely shielded her from the scrutiny of roving war correspondents. She was killed during the conflict, and Irving describes her death in Chapter Fourteen with uncharacteristic restraint and a cold adherence to the facts. Mr and Mrs Seto could not be identified. Graham Adams, a junior clerk at the Foreign Office, spoke with Irving on a number of separate occasions, giving him public information and keeping a record of his travels. It would appear that Irving made this connection and offered details of his supposed whereabouts in the hope of building an alibi, should he ever need it. His plan backfired, for it was Graham Adams who first became suspicious, after reading the memoir, which he received as a Christmas gift from his girlfriend in 2001. After speaking with his superiors at the Foreign Office, Adams contacted the publisher and MI5, where a file was opened on Irving two months later. Mark Cheep either does not exist, or is another false name. Christine, one of Irving’s paramours, has consistently refused to be interviewed on the subject of her relationship with Irving, or anything else for that matter. In her only public statement, Christine stated she had no knowledge of either Joe’s (she knew Irving as Joseph Milner) true identity or his criminal activities. ‘I knew he was married once, that’s it.’

 

Those readers who are returning to COLLAPSE will perhaps notice that the dedication to the ‘nameless man’ at the front of the original print has been replaced. This is the only editorial change that has been made to Irving’s original text – besides the accompanying notes, and the new introduction. The new dedication replaces the original dedication to the ‘nameless man’ who appears only once in Irving’s text.There is no evidence to support the truthfulness of Irving’s story. Most likely the ‘nameless man’ is a creation of Irving’s own creative malevolence, his ingenious evil, except that to call Irving evil is to abdicate responsibility for his terrible crimes. He said it best himself: ‘it was not evil but something less abstract, more palpable,’ and it lurked in plain sight, beneath our very eyes.

 

Perhaps Irving’s ‘greatest’ gift was in his abilities as a storyteller, and the ease with which he seduced his audience and readers. Unfortunately though, these were never just stories. The things that happened were not the mere machinations of a novel; they were part of a war in which many thousands died. Irving exploited his victims, and then he exploited their stories. This new edition of his ‘memoir’ hopes to set the historical record straight.

 

J. B. Lyle,

July 2009

 

Introduction

 

After a tide of inevitable uprisings (I believe that there are inevitabilities when it comes to the politics of empire, empirical truths, let’s call them) swept our country, and we eventually gained our independence from the British in the late seventies, a group of my academic contemporaries and I were selected by the newly formed government to begin the daunting task of trawling through the historical archives of the recently departed colonial administration. I had until that point lived my entire life among the British and, needless to say, I thought I knew them reasonably well. But as I would soon discover from my decade-long excavation of the millions of documents they left behind, I had very little idea of who they were or the true extent of their legacy.

There is neither the space, nor the desire on my part, to retell that story here. (But I urge the reader to educate his or herself on that history, to which end a list of recommended works appears in the Further Reading section at the end of this introduction.) I will instead provide some background to my decision to agree to write this introduction against every one of my instincts (not to mention the better judgement of my wife).

 

I met Irving many times, both before and after the publication of Collapse, though he did not permit me to read more than a few chapters of his book in advance, no doubt for fear that I would flag some of the inauthentic turns of phrase he had ventriloquised into the mouths of his characters. I cannot exactly say that I disliked him, and certainly his expletive tendencies adorned his character with something of a crass charm, but neither did I like him particularly either, and I often found my conversations with Irving to be reminiscent of the kind of shouting one does at a noisy party, agreeing to things you can’t quite make out above the din. It is fair to say I had my reservations about the man.

 

When the National Truth Commission published its findings on Irving’s involvement in the war, I remember experiencing a shuddering elation. I was at once vindicated (having discreetly called the publisher of Collapse to voice my concerns about the legitimacy of Irving’s forthcoming ‘memoir’) and at the same moment devastated by the revelations of the misery he had inflicted upon my fellow countrymen; I had never felt such a complex fusion of utter desolation and sheer joy as I did when Irving was finally arrested.

 

Some time later I was called on to present evidence at Irving’s trial where the defence team practically accused me of co-authoring Collapse, claiming I had edited numerous chapters, read the manuscript in its entirety, and even written certain passages myself. Though these accusations were clearly ludicrous, Irving’s numerous visits to my home, and an email chain in which I admitted to being impressed with the level of detail he achieved in some of his descriptions (details that were admittedly obtainable through some diligent research and certainly not proof of any first-hand knowledge), undermined my testimony. The prosecution’s failure to predict this kind of attack on my credibility as an expert witness was just one in a series of spectacular blunders that resulted in the stellar implosion of their case, a defeat I took very badly and after which I was diagnosed with depression.

 

As an historian I have dedicated my life’s work to rebuilding the historical narrative of the country in which I was born. For many years this work was characterised by my attempts to shout above the roaring voices of colonialism that screamed from every dark and subjugated corner of our society – from our children’s textbooks in school to the pages of the week-old newspapers in which we wrapped the fruit and vegetables we purchased at the markets. These were typically the voices of white British males who, more than a century ago, had come and stolen our land, appropriated our wealth, and ‘educated’ our children, before embarking on a cultural genocide in which we were literally and spiritually rewritten as a people. When I received the news of Irving’s mistrial I felt something akin to the utter desolation one must feel upon receiving the news that a cancer, once beaten, has returned.

 

For many months after the case collapsed I had a recurring memory of an evening on which Irving came to my home to get my opinion on a particular passage in his book (I don’t recall which passage it was). I remember he opened a bottle of expensive Scotch he’d ostensibly brought as a gift, though neither my wife nor I are drinkers. Irving proceeded to get quite drunk, and the conversation inevitably found its way to the war, at which point my wife retired to bed (this wasn’t long after Irving’s arrival, who she could never stand), and I asked him to tell me how he had survived the war, both physically and mentally. In his free-wheeling intoxication Irving then said something that I still remember to this day: ‘Michael,’ he said, ‘I’m slippery. I’m like a slippery, slippery fish. No one can hold onto me for very long.’ And then he trailed off into some tired clichés about the majestic sunsets and the resilience of the people’s spirits. That night I woke from a terrible nightmare, convinced that the bed was filled with fish bearing Irving’s image and swimming all about me. Such was the extent of the psychological effect the man had on me.

 

The call from Irving’s editor, Mr Lyle, asking me to write an introduction to accompany a new edition of Collapse, caused these nightmares to return. After a week of sleepless nights and bitter arguments with my wife (her life had also been derailed by the trial, and she was adamant that I not accept Mr Lyle’s proposition), I called him back at his home (it was four in the morning), resolved to tell him that neither I nor anyone in their right mind would write an introduction to Irving’s monstrous pack of lies. Moreover, he had better seriously reconsider what he was doing before he undid years of rehabilitation for the victims and further discredited himself as an editor by reprinting this trash a second time. Mr Lyle answered the phone as though it was the middle of the afternoon and he had been expecting my call. The speech I had prepared fell to pieces and I asked Mr Lyle if the printing would go ahead with or without my introduction. ‘The wheels are in place,’ he answered. How true were his words. ‘We are being reckless, Mr Lyle,’ I said, reaching for my wife’s arm as she stormed from our bedroom.

 

‘Write whatever you like,’ said Mr Lyle. ‘Irving’s dead.’

 

And yet immortalised. Irving’s story has outlived him, and somewhere down the road his words have established a certain truth, though of course not in any conventional sense of the word. Still, in that moment when I acquiesced to Mr Lyle’s request, perhaps out of some ingrained servitude of the colonised, perhaps to be heard above the colonisers (both real and imagined), perhaps just to have the last word, I could not help but think of myself as the nameless man of Irving’s creation, caught in the crossfire of history as he watched, like some omniscient and malevolent force, hell bent on creating a world in his image in which he was everything, from beginning to end.

 

But what is the meaning of Irving’s nameless man? It is a question that has caused me no small amount of anxiety over the years. If he is a purely fictional entity – and I believe he must be – then shouldn’t he serve a purpose, even if only in Irving’s imagination? For a long time I searched for some deeper meaning within the parable. At moments I felt that I had come close, but in the end the message always slipped away. Eventually I just stopped searching and accepted that the nameless man’s life and death meant nothing, that his only purpose – as with all of Irving’s characters and victims – was to serve the creation of this elaborate myth. When Mr Lyle told me that Irving’s dedication to the nameless man was going to be replaced in the new edition, I became concerned. It seemed that this act of editing would involve us in a dangerous game, one in which the dice were loaded, the winners predetermined. The text should remain as it was, like any other piece of historical or forensic evidence. Who were we to tamper with it? I asked myself. However, when Mr Lyle told me who the nameless man would be replaced with, I was quietly amused. Who else could Collapse be dedicated to than the man for whom it was exclusively written? Who would we most wish to see suffer the fate of the nameless man? Of course the answer is Irving himself. The choice, I agreed, was a good one.

 

M. Mwandishi,

August 2009

 

Further Reading

 

Reading The Colony, by Michael Mwandishi

Landed: A History of Empire and Agriculture, by Susan Markowitz

‘How Long Will You Be Gone?’ A Fear of Freedom, by Sally Wombeki

Fish & Brits: A Culinary Study of the British Empire, by Thomas Pearl

Mine, Mine, Mine: A History of Mining and Modern Day Imperialism, by Gerald Hurth & Jomo Kwembe

Collapsed: The Fall of Louis J. Irving, by Evelyn Draper

COLLAPSE: A Reader’s Guide, edited by M. Mwandishi

A Loaded Canon: Literature and the Colony, edited by Sam Mtombe

Irving’s War,’ in The New York Times, 17 Feb, 2003, by Thomas Gould

 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

studied English Literature at Bristol, and later, Violence, Conflict and Development at SOAS (The School of Oriental and African Studies), with an emphasis on the Khmer Rouge trials in Cambodia, and the prosecution of atrocity crimes. Since then he has worked on documentaries, written and taught about the International Criminal Court, been a landscape gardener in New York, and worked in a bowling alley bar. Throughout these jobs he has been writing fiction. Jesse has three short stories published in The White Review, and is currently writing his first novel. 

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