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Notes from the Bunkers: 10 Great Books Exploring Modern Conflict Zones

By most standards - though it sits oddly while today’s politics feel so pointedly combative - the last twenty or thirty years have been amongst the world’s most peaceful. That broad view is of little consolation to these ten authors, though, each of whom have recently found themselves wrapped up in some of the worst hot spots on the planet. Written about events that are current enough to be raw, these texts are poignant and painful because they’re drawn from their own lives, by people who were really there, and really went through it. Perhaps not books for the summer sunbed, then, but vital context and knowledge on some of the darkest spots on earth.

The Raqqa Diaries

At times the tone of The Raqqa Diaries is an almost numb acceptance of the tragedy encompassing Raqqa, a Islamic State occupied city in Syria. Samer’s book’s origins are in desperate and risky communication between cowed citizens in the city and the BBC, as the latter translated infrequently emailed descriptions into a radio show that later became this book. That makes the context somewhat bitty: sometimes Samer is in touch regularly, describing disappearances and public beheadings as ISIS grind his city beneath their feet. Samer’s own home is bombed, and the emotion floods through his words as he tries to control his reaction and maintain essential composure. Later, he stops writing for an extended period, leaving the BBC worried he’s been caught sending messages out, or killed, before he returns to give more torturous detail on a city crumbling around him.

With Raqqa still held by ISIS at the time of writing, this is one of few relatively propaganda-free accounts of what’s actually happening in the city. The text is short, the illustrations haunting (there are, of course, no photos), and the repressed darkness all encompassing in tone and content. Samer’s pain is simply beyond our comprehension.

Tamil Tigress

Another text written under a pseudonym for fear of recriminations, Tamil Tigress is the raw and terrifying tale of one of the Sri Lankan rebel army’s first female child soldiers. Published in 2011 but relating to events taking place in the late 80s, a now-grown woman recalls the events of her teenage years. Armed with an AK-47 and stalking through a jungle malnourished and (more often than not) hiding from government forces, De Soyza gives a real sense of ‘kids playing war’ in the sheer amateurishness of the Tigers’ set up, having simply strolled out of her home one day to sign up. The consequences, of course, are very real. One aspect that hits home is internal discipline: despite allowing their soldiers to simply quit, the Tigers also heinously abused them at times, including in forcing soldiers to attack members of their own family. The whole thing is as futile as it is shocking.

The great positive here is the author’s escape - it’s obvious she survives, of course (the book exists, after all) - but her willing stroll from the Sri Lankan jungle to a better life as an expat Australian is a strangely feel good ending to a situation the author naively climbed into in the first place. The journey is the point here, and is hard to forget.

The new odyssey

The countless deaths taking place in the Mediterranean and on the journey to Europe’s borders are both heavily publicised and strangely depersonalised in western media, with the political often taking precedence over the personal at the heart of the discussion. While The New Odyssey regularly touches on policy angles (in fact, Kingsley’s own view is quite transparent), what this extremely broad book does exceptionally well is talk to the people involved and get under the skin of the issues driving modern day mass movement.

Kingsley - the Guardian newspaper’s correspondent on migration - is very much about people: the migrants and their thinking, the smugglers and their rampant profiteering, and the border guards attempting to enforce tough regulation and the families pulled apart. Visiting over a dozen countries, he talks to the Syrians who are running from torture to Sweden, looks at the fashion stores in Libya that have replaced clothing with life vests, and drops in on the hub of the Mediterranean rescues in Rome, to find a team crammed with ideas that feels its not being listened to. His key message, perhaps, is the obvious: the conditions people run from are atrocious. The problem’s not going away.

Heavy Metal in Baghdad

Written as both an accompaniment and an update to a documentary of the same title, the tale of Acrassicauda (Black Scorpion) follows a band forced underground in Iraq as they explore their illicit love of Metallica, and all things metal. Their burgeoning career is three shows deep when Iraq disintegrates, with the band soon standing accused of satanism by increasingly powerful religious fundamentalists, as their capital becomes a very, very dangerous place.

Set around the fall of Saddam Hussein, the unlikely book explores a struggle first to survive, and later to escape (the latter offering yet another example of the logistical difficulties facing terrified refugees) as the band - talked up as the only heavy metal act in Iraq ahead of the war - recount how they came to be. Presented in an accessibly basic form, the book is little more than a series of interviews with a highly cynical, not particularly educated and highly unusual facet of Iraqi society. It’s their rebellious world view and toxic experience that makes Acrassicauda’s story so fascinating. With the member now based in Turkey, a line only a couple of pages into the book sticks in the throat: a member of the band describes his happiness about his parent’s departure from Iraq before the worst of the troubles. Their destination? Syria.

Boko Haram

You’ve probably heard of the kidnapping of 276 boarding school girls from Chibouk in 2014 through the ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ media campaign that followed (roughly a third of the girls were found alive earlier in 2017; the rest remain missing at the time of writing). What you might not know is that Boko Haram, the loose group of North-Nigerian mercenaries and thieves that carried out the kidnapping, can trace their complex history back through national religious division, western exploitation and a fringe culture of extreme violence.

Smith’s take on Boko Haram is subtle and nuanced, getting far beyond the blunt-force ‘fundamentalism sucks’ tragedy mining of much of the west’s coverage of Nigeria, and instead exploring in detail the thinking, logistics and background of the admittedly toxic group. If this does nothing else, it’ll convince you of how grossly oversimplified our take on Boko Haram can be: the idea that they’re a coherent group at all is shot down powerfully and as thoroughly as the various gangsters have asserted their dominance on swathes of desperate, mismanaged Nigerian society. There’s a sense of ‘if you think you understand Nigeria, look again’ to it all, yet in both its detail and brutality, this jolts the country’s problems to life with sickening but vital vigour.

In Order to Live

Given the appalling Big Brother-esque conditions under which they live, a surprising number of North Koreans do escape the clutches of the Kim dynasty over the border - usually into China - yet when that happens, their stories are often so dramatic and surreal that those that make it into print are invariably worth reading. Park’s ordeal is both harrowing and appallingly typical.

Escaping the North at the age of 13 over the more open of the two land borders and into China, Park’s life actually arguably gets worse in the early stages of her escape. Forced marriage, smuggling and a hostile environment are all encompassing as Park is effectively sold into slavery and forced to navigate a world that’s almost impossible for her and her ailing mother to relate to. The journey from the repressive North to the shiny modernity of the democratic south takes two years and features mountains of issues that only serve to highlight the brutality and complexity often faced even after escaping the Hermit Kingdom. To be caught and returned to the North is to be sentenced to near-certain death. Harrowingly, this book came to be in large part because Park hoped it would garner the publicity needed to reconnect with her missing sister, known to have escaped to China, too. That context, and that the tale was released into the world by a woman only just into her 20s, only serves to bring the darkness home.

The World's Most Dangerous Place

The Somalian Civil War has been ongoing since 1991, causing an estimated half a million deaths in a country with a population of only a touch over ten million. It shows little sign of abating, making it arguably the world’s most persistent humanitarian crisis. Fergusson’s text on the place explores countless angles on the conflict, touching on breakaway republics, mass emigration (estimated to be running at over 20%), piracy, gangs, extreme violence and famine.

Fergusson is a long-established correspondent journalist in the area, and his unveiling of the continued force of what’s known locally as ‘the destruction’ has an air of light at the end of the tunnel to it, exploring the country’s fragmentation and the fragility and susceptibility of its longstanding power vacuum, but suggesting that solutions do exist. Having said that, at times he puts himself in positions so obviously dangerous, it’s difficult to argue with his ‘most dangerous’ premise. For all that Fergusson explores in Somalia, perhaps his most interesting insights fall in the parts of his book focused on talking to those who have left to make a life elsewhere, as they reveal the global implications of the human side of such a devastating conflict. The chaos is enough to keep you up at night.

Death Beat

The well-publicised ‘war on drugs’ has been ongoing for decades now (and to little progress, by most accounts), but if you were to pick out its darkest moments, many would centre on both Colombia, and the late 80s and early 90s. Stuck in the centre of this, journalists looking to expose connections between cartels and the government itself were in very real and very persistent danger.

Duzan’s experience was an intense one that included getting her apartment and workplace bombed and seeing her sister killed in retaliation for their work. She also had a key role in helping to forge an alliance amongst the local media to publish shared and anonymous drugs reports in order to protect reporters. Her personal sacrifice is astonishing and painful, and takes in slum chiefs, jungle dealers and the government, even involving a strange piece of reporting in which she fakes her own kidnapping. Yet Duzan is relatively fact-led as she uncovers hidden depths, grotesque horrors and storied connections in a war that simmers just below the surface, bursting spectacularly into daylight at the first sign of trouble. Cut-throat doesn’t quite cover it, and Duzan herself is utterly fearless, her persistence giving her a startling insight into the almost familial links between power and drugs in her part of the world.

Zlata's diary

Having often been compared to Anne Frank’s diary on its release (though Zlata Filipovic doesn’t hide in the sense that the infamous Anne Frank does), the power of this story of war-ravaged Sarajevo (Bosnia) comes in part through its initial normality, and in part through its child-eye-view innocence.

This is certainly not a historical exploration of the devastating conflict that shredded Yugoslavia in the 90s, then, but rather jottings on the previously pleasant life of a teenager - which had talked about school, ski trips and her love of a cat called Cici - descending into chaos, and given added emotional depth by its impact on a loveable and innocent family. Their food diminishes, cooking facilities and power become scarce, school drops off and Zlata’s friends take any chances they can to flee. UNICEF, meanwhile, uncovered Zlata’s tale and started publishing her diary entries to the world in real time; a portrait of early-teenage simplicity so quickly tarnished. This book came later and tells a broader tale. It’s only natural to put your own family in her place.

We Chose to Speak of War and Strife

The book that led me to read many of the other texts included here, John Simpson’s exploration of the passion, bravery and motivation of war correspondents goes right back to the 1600s and the days of news by foot, before dipping into the shocking experiences of World War II, with detours into interviews with Chairman Mao and experiences with Hitler’s early days.

Being a highly respected foreign correspondent with the BBC, Simpson is better placed to explore the topic than most, and his own experiences infuse into the book, too, especially as he edges into the modern world of clickbait reporting and explores journalistic impact. He touches on everything from public opinion to simply uncovering the facts of cities under siege, war-crimes and the mentality of the wartime leaders. With the concept ‘fake news’ very much in the zeitgeist, a reminder of the true value of journalism in uncovering hard-to-grab facts does no harm. What really brings this superbly written tome home, however, is the astonishing moments it recounts, something of a ‘world record book’ for those doing their writing at the cutting edge. It’s not about one conflict, but many, and it’s full of underlying messages about just how futile and devastating it can all be.

Freelance writer based in Dublin, Ireland. Obsessed with travel, music, sports and books; I tend to write what I love. Hi!


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