on 7 October 2003
Run a search for books on the wars in the Balkans or even Chechnya, and you're likely to come up with a few hundred hits. Do the same for the recent wars in Liberia, Congo, Cote d'Ivoire, or Sierra Leone, and you'll be lucky to come up with a dozen. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, these conflicts in Central and West Africa took on such a bestially violent nature, that many authors and journalists fearing for their personal safety chose understandably to look elsewhere for stories. And secondly, media and publishing interest in another war in Africa is in short supply. After all, there's only so much misery we northerners can absorb before our pity and sympathy run dry, right?
Taken in this context, Teun Voeten's horrifying tale of his experiences in war torn Sierra Leone is that much more admirable. What begins as one freelance photojournalist's search for a "sexy" story on child soldiers quickly becomes the account of his fight for survival after a provisional ceasefire collapses, leaving him stranded in the middle of one of the most dreadful wars in recent memory. Sought by rebel forces wishing to execute him as a spy, Voeten lives for weeks in the bush before making it to safety.
Having narrowly escaped with his life on his first visit, Voeten incredibly returns on three other occasions to document a conflict that went largely ignored in the West, having had the misfortune of coinciding with NATO action in Yugoslavia.
How de Body? is fascinatingly vivid, graphic, often morbid yet somehow consistently witty. Voeten's prose expresses a gallows humor common among the idealistic pessimists that make up the corps of war correspondents.
Like any good feature writer, he constructs the story around those who've lived it. And in the midst of a barbaric war that saw the shocking return of the practice of punitive amputations, Voeten highlights the contributions of ordinary people made extraordinary by a need to overcome great evil.
Part personal memoir, part narrative of a war with a little investigative journalism thrown in for good measure, How de Body? probes beneath the surface of a seemingly irrational African war, dissecting the roots of conflict from regional tribal tensions to the complicity of western diamond merchants.
This book is a must read for anyone interested in conflict and West Africa, or who simply enjoys reading intelligent journalism. With How de Body? Voeten has entered into the top echelon of a genre that includes the noble likes of Misha Glenny, Scott Anderson, and John Reed. My only regret is that there were not more examples of Voeten's photographic work in the region.