We Did Nothing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 June, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 June, 2003, 12:00am

We Did Nothing

by Linda Polman

Penguin $169

'You can't just . . . kill people,' UN commander Francis Sikaonga says, standing over the bodies of dying Hutus. 'Oh yes, we can,' replies a Tutsi government soldier coolly. 'You know that very well.'

Such a macabre scene from the 1995 stage of the Rwanda conflict embodies the powerlessness of the United Nations' blue helmet troops. Dutch freelance journalist Linda Polman, who lectures to government, military and academic audiences all over the Netherlands, has witnessed the impotence first-hand.

Throughout the 1990s she covered UN peacekeeping missions around the globe - in Sierra Leone, Somalia and Haiti as well as Rwanda. The reason the blue helmets consistently achieve nothing is simple: the UN charter rules out intervention. 'So if we see blue helmets somewhere in the world it is not because they have violently forced their way in, but because the government of the sovereign host country permits them to be there.'

If the blue helmets 'misbehave' they are out, Polman notes. Her book is laced with such Swiftian absurdity which at times may make the reader want to scream.

This is all the more true because Polman writes with forensic tenacity, relentlessly pursuing her lines of argument. On the need to share out water to parched Tutsi refugees in Rwanda, she asks what the point is when there are only 18,000 litres for 150,000 people. That boils down to a decilitre - half a cup - for each desperate throat, she points out.

Just keeping all the refugees on their feet until the next morning would require at least 450,000 litres: three per refugee. 'And then, of course, another 450,000 litres tomorrow.'

Polman then asks how you dispense the water (by hand is the only option) and how long this will take if it is possible at all. Cups are not in evidence, she notes.

Nothing seems to make the journalist flinch - not even mutilated children. She records seeing a young Hutu child who rolls up his trouser leg, revealing a tiny, pink, flayed limb which resembles 'a half-peeled banana'. (Someone suggests that the skin could be stuck back on.)

Everywhere there is terror, despair and excrement. It is a vision of hell which recalls another the Khmer Rouge constructed, as described by John Pilger in Year Zero.

What makes the suffering Polman encounters appear so intractable is that very often the victims just are not interested in what Westerners might tentatively label progress.

In Haiti in 1991 the people find the idea of American-style democratic elections 'tremendous' - until they discover that, from then on, a new president must be chosen every few years. 'Democracy immediately became slightly less interesting. Unfair even.'

Likewise, in Somalia in 1992, the idea of fostering stability through peaceful disarmament goes down like a Black Hawk. Apparently every Somali male carries a gun, a grenade or a knife in his pocket. Operation Restore Hope duly wobbles before it is optimistically renamed Continue Hope then crumbles, becoming the biggest United Nations failure of all time.

A certain Freddy, one of the last US soldiers left, voices relief that the operation is ending. At the same time, he frets that more of the same is to come.

'Know what I'd like?' he says. 'That all the Haitians, Somalis, Serbs, Tutus, Hutsis and God knows where else we'll be sent, would go and sort out their own problems.' It is hard to disagree.

Polman offers no solution to the UN's peacekeeping problems. She just reports - but does it so well the result is a devastating expose of folly.