In the Land of Magic Soldiers: A Story of White and Black in West Africa
by Daniel Bergner
A review by Matthew Martz
In January 1999, Lamin Jusu Jarke opened his door to find a rebel soldier wearing a Tupac t-shirt and carrying an AK-47. The soldier, pleased to the find Jarke's fourteen-year-old daughter inside, claimed her as his next wife a wedding consummated by rape. But instead of handing her over, Jarke hustled her out a first-floor window. He ran too, but was captured. As punishment, the rebels cut off his hands and threw them in a white burlap sack.
Daniel Bergner, author of God of the Rodeo, casts a direct and unflinching eye on Sierra Leone, "the place of lost hands," through his loosely connected portraits of the civil war that lasted from March 1991 to May 2002. He tells us about a philanthropic mercenary, a teenage cannibal, the British Military, and a family of missionaries who, instead of evangelizing, "build water systems so little kids will stop shitting themselves to death."
In a country plagued by AIDS and overrun by young men named Colonel Danger, C.O. Cut Hands, and Killer, just Killer, it is no wonder that in 2002 Sierra Leone was named by the United Nations as one of the most impoverished on earth (a ranking determined by life expectancy, educational attainment and adjusted real income). Although other atrocities took place (rape, cannibalism), the practice of forcing captives to hack off their own parents' hands stands out for its sheer brutality.
The author's one misstep is that he often buries his narrative under secondary characters. These digressions sometimes make for slow reading, although they do allow Bergner to connect colonization with the moment when, on election day, an amputee removes his sandal with his prosthetic claw and presses his toe to the ballot.
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