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Guy Edmunds (London, UK)

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Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World
Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World
by Samantha Power
Edition: Hardcover

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ooops, she's done it again, 5 Mar. 2008
Samantha Power seems to love big subjects, and writing big books about them. Following her Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Problem From Hell", she has written a highly compelling and important biography of Sergio Viera de Mello, the UN Mission chief killed in 2003 in Iraq.

A career UN civil servant, de Mello may at first glance appear an unlikely subject for a biography. Yet his was an extraordinary career; and even while working for an often derided institution (unjustly so, as the author is keen to argue), he earned the respect of people across the globe, from refugees to heads of state. On a journey that led him through Sudan, Lebanon, Cambodia, Bosnia, Congo, Kosovo, East Timor to his untimely death in Iraq, he strove to wed his passion for academic philosophy to his practical experiences, always pushing for better responses to ostensibly overwhelming problems. This was a remarkable life that would, and perhaps one day will, make a remarkable film.

The beauty of the book, though, lies not only in its descriptions of what happened. In Power's eminently capable hands, de Mello's life is also mined for the practical wisdom he accumulated through his reflective and relentlessly self-critical approach to his work. Thus one man's biography is used to explore some of the most urgent dilemmas in the world today. Presented in a final chapter with great intellectual coherence, the result is a series of cogent arguments on how to lift the promise of international cooperation from its current state of uncertainty, contention and mistrust.

The tragedy is that at a stage when de Mello's wisdom is most urgently needed, he is no longer alive to impart it. Yet we are fortunate that Samantha Power has stepped in to the breach. This book will no doubt win prizes; read it now to see why.

Refugee Sandwich: Stories of Exile and Asylum
Refugee Sandwich: Stories of Exile and Asylum
by Peter Showler
Edition: Paperback
Price: £26.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Essential insights into a very fraught process, 13 Aug. 2007
In almost every country of the world, immigrants have served as convenient scapegoats. Most notable in the UK has been the rise of the "bogus asylum seeker", a tabloid demonisation desperate to take advantage of our welfare benefits and steal our jobs. Underlying such vocal discourse is a sense that the distinction between the genuine asylum-seeker and his "bogus" counterpart is clear, and easily discerned.

Peter Showler's book powerfully disabuses the reader of any such notion. Based on years of personal experience, he has written a series of fictional short stories that illuminate the intense difficulties and pressures of how these decisions are made. His subject matter is the Canadian asylum-determination system, described by the UNHCR as one of the very best in the world.

His writing is sparky and enjoyable, while his tone is objective. Some of the officials he describes are deeply concerned about the plight of those in front of them; others, almost indifferent. His fiction succeeds in illuminating the intensely human elements of the asylum-determination process, and the result is frequently disquieting. What emerges is deeply problematic, a system straining to overcome differences of language, culture, history and meaning even while it is subverted by the all-too-human shortcomings of politicians, lawyers and bureaucrats.

If this is indeed a fair representation of the Canadian process, then our own system in the UK deserves much greater scrutiny. Politicians frequently touch on the challenges posed by asylum and immigration, but usually with more opinion than genuine expertise. Showler's book is a very valuable corrective to this tendency, and its lessons apply internationally.

Peace at Any Price: How the World Failed Kosovo (Crisis in World Politics)
Peace at Any Price: How the World Failed Kosovo (Crisis in World Politics)
by Iain King
Edition: Hardcover

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Incisive and Compelling, 16 May 2007
In the past decade, Kosovo has only ever hit the headlines because of violence and tragedy. Ethnic cleansing, war crimes, NATO intervention: these events dominated the news agenda for the first six months of 1999 and defined Kosovo's international reputation. Sadly, destruction is clearly more telegenic than construction, and the vitally important attempts to steer Kosovo towards a better future have received far less attention.

The authors' task is to tell the story of the UN mission that has administered Kosovo from the early days after NATO intervention through to - presumably - its imminent independence (conditional, supervised or however formulated). This is the first significant study of UNMIK, and succeeds brilliantly in illuminating its challenges, dilemmas and limitations.

From its uncertain first steps, by 2001 UNMIK oversaw the largest per-capita investment in peacebuilding that the world has ever seen. Yet the returns on that investment have been unimpressive, yielding a host of lessons that the "international community" urgently needs to learn if it is to succeed in elsewhere.

Paying particular attention to the orchestrated ethnic violence of March 2004, the authors convincingly portray an international community consistently unwilling to confront hardliners in the Kosovo Albanian community. This timidity is the source of the failure identified in the book's title, and has long-term consequences for Kosovo and its population.

As a ground-breaking study, the book almost inevitably left me wanting more. What could UNMIK realistically have achieved, given the timeframe and resources available? How much influence could a short-term mission - however well-resourced - really exert over Kosovo's long-term development? Social and political change is a long-term process, yet western politics - under the scrutiny of the 24-hour media - demands rapid results. Do we really have the stomach for the necessary long-term engagement, or are we content simply with the illusion that something is being done?

Necessarily, the authors have been more conservative in their aims, but in exploring UNMIK's successes and failures, they have rendered a great service to those who must grapple with these problems. We can only hope that future Donald Rumsfelds will choose to listen, and be willing to learn.

A Time for Machetes: The Rwandan Genocide - The Killers Speak
A Time for Machetes: The Rwandan Genocide - The Killers Speak
by Jean Hatzfeld
Edition: Paperback

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating insights, 26 Mar. 2007
On April 7th, 1994, the small, Central African Republic of Rwanda was enveloped by the fastest genocide of the twentieth century, claiming the lives of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus within one hundred days. The world looked on, first in denial, then with incredulity, and finally, with condemnation - far too late to be of any use to the victims.

Comparisons were drawn with the Holocaust and the killing fields of Cambodia. Yet what set Rwanda apart even from these genocides was that so much of the killing was done not by agents of the state, but by ordinary men - farmers, labourers and shopkeepers - with the machete their weapon of choice.

Jean Hatzfeld, a French journalist, gained access to a group of Hutu friends who were willing to speak to him from prison, without danger of self-incrimination. Ostensibly modest in scale, A Time for Machetes records their reflections about the genocide as it unfolded in Nyamata, a district in southern Rwanda. As a result, the book succeeds brilliantly in explaining how the genocide came to pass.

The conversations are relayed directly, in the words of the killers themselves. Chapters are split up to cover different themes: for example, were they coerced to kill, or did they do so willingly? How did the first kill feel? What was the role of women? Did they profit from the killings? Did they maintain their religious observance during the genocide?

The result is one of the most important books I have ever read. For in letting the killers speak with their own words, the author shines a light on their humanity. And if we can learn anything from history, it runs through the reflections of these ordinary men: how the capacity for the deepest inhumanity is so very, very human.

A Human Being Died That Night: Confronting Apartheid's Chief Killer
A Human Being Died That Night: Confronting Apartheid's Chief Killer
by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Confronting the South African Dilemma, 12 Jan. 2007
If it were possible to reduce an entire country's future to a dilemma, then you might say that post-apartheid South Africa's has been between forgiveness and revenge.

In this book, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela very powerfully explores the intensely human aspects of this dilemma. Following on from her heart-rending experiences in the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, she becomes fascinated by Eugene de Kock, a man whose public persona came to personify apartheid's violent crimes.

Based on a series of prison interviews, the author provides a compelling account of de Kock's journey from loyal public servant to ruthless murderer. She describes how his conscience was numbed as his actions were implicitly condoned by the system he thought was protecting, and how he struggled after apartheid as his political masters deserted him and he is forced to confront his crimes. Dr Gobodo Madikizela is also generous in charting her own reactions to de Kock, less as a professional psychologist than as a black woman. Yet throughout she never loses her analytical edge, interweaving the narrative with authoritative commentary, clearly and compelling laid out.

The result is at once coolly rational and highly emotional; like the very best books, it challenges the mind as it tugs at the heart. I recommend it very highly.

Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq
Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq
by Rory Stewart
Edition: Hardcover

69 of 74 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spectacular Second Book, 27 Jun. 2006
This book, Rory Stewart's second, is hugely impressive. Those who enjoyed The Places in Between, his astonishing account of his walk across Afghanistan, may have wondered "Where on earth does he go from here?" The answer lies in this gripping account of his year working for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.

Stewart clearly makes for a talented administrator, bringing enormous energy, enthusiasm, deft political judgement and skilful diplomacy to the job at hand. His writing is understated, crisp, lucid and occasionally poetic. His descriptions of those he meets reveal a perceptive eye and deep sense of humanity, while his comments on policy reveal a keen intellect and reflect a wisdom borne of experience. He is sceptical about the grand rhetoric and designs emanating from Baghdad, wary of the all-too-easy universal theories of "foreigners in a hurry", and pragmatic about what he can achieve in a limited period of time. And throughout the chaos, confusion and intermittent danger, you have the impression that he is unfailingly polite.

Stewart's narrative is also, I suspect, unusual in at least three other respects. He demonstrates a clear honesty about his own limitations that more careerist bureaucrats might avoid. He records disagreements about policy decisions with little desire to settle scores or have the last word. And he displays a deep interest in Iraqi history and culture that contextualises the narrative magnificently. Should you feel a little perplexed by the proliferation of political factions, sheikhs and tribes that tumble across his pages, do not be put off; consider instead the size of the challenge that confronted those foreign administrators.

This is an insider history that shirks sensationalism, and is all the more powerful for doing so. It provides an important counterpoint to those self-appointed experts whose newspaper columns are often longer on opinions than genuine expertise. If you wish to understand the dynamics of modern Iraq, to explore the grand rhetoric and sobering reality of twenty-first century nation-building, or simply want a damn good yarn, then read this book.

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