A remarkable journey into hell: a country where nothing works and murderers rule.
Novelist/journalist Bergner, whose God of the Rodeo (1998) was set in another hell—a maximum-security prison in Louisiana—here voyages to a country the UN has repeatedly deemed “the worst on earth”: Sierra Leone, in West Africa. Torn apart by a decade-long civil war uncommonly vicious even by the standards of a region where civil war and ethnic violence are endemic, Sierra Leone seems to many outside observers to be utterly unsalvageable. In this vivid narrative of travel and observation, Bergner gives only a few reasons to think that anything is better than that; as he wanders among terrorized, maimed villagers (a favorite tactic of rebels and government troops alike being to lop limbs off suspected enemies), doubtful aid workers, and vicious fighters such as one “young man with an AK-47 and a black cap and white drug-frothed saliva webbing the corners of his mouth,” he more than suggests that the situation is hopeless. There are many in his narrative who would argue otherwise, from homegrown politicians who believe that one day Sierra Leone will be a paradise to which “the rich will come, the poor will come, the middle class will come” to white mercenaries who love the entire business of war, such as one South African who crows, “It’s the biggest and best game in the history of mankind.” And then, of course, there are the missionaries, ever hopeful of recruiting souls in all the mess. While wondering whether his views are not freighted with prejudice as a white, Bergner delivers a memorable, scarifying portrait of a country in terminal turmoil—one whose leading citizens, he notes, pray will soon be recolonized by any power that can keep the peace.
First-class reporting and storytelling add grace to a depressing tale—one that Bergner deserves praise for venturing to tell.