Excerpt From “The Disaster Tourist” (in production)

I spent something like six months in Somalia during the civil war in the run-up to the arrival of foreign troops in a failed attempt to restore order.

Those six months in 1992 and 93 felt more like six years, or perhaps the entirety of my life. When every day is a fever dream of madness, time stretches out.

I suppose some people must think of Mogadishu as their dearly loved hometown, but for me it will always remain a city dreamt of by a terminal drug addict, and Somalia a rough first draft for the end of the world.

Every aspect of life in this sadistically tortured country has been twisted so grotesquely that more than one aid worker has wondered out loud whether we hadn’t so much come to a land of unfortunates as we had died and arrived in the waiting room for the pits of hell.

Mogadishu was once called the Paradise of the Indian Ocean.  Well sure, perhaps once, but it has become clear over the months of civil war and famine that some metaphysical planning board has re-zoned it as a bedroom community for hell.

On this Sunday in the late November before the international armies arrive and arguably made things worse I’m sitting in the back of a massively armed Toyota Land Cruiser on a short errand to the docks and then the main market, or as I’ve come to view it, the Looted Goods Recycling Center.

A Toyota Land Cruiser war wagon
A Toyota Land Cruiser stripped for wa and bristling with gunmen who probably don’t even know how to use their AK-47’s

The Toyota is called a technical for some vague reason having to do with Italian terminology left over from Italy’s occupation of the country for much of the century. There are other theories of how the term came about but they all mean the same thing. A looted heavy duty SUV or truck to which a heavy calibre machine gun has been mounted. They will also frequently have three or four men armed with light machine guns hanging onto the outside and usually at least one inside. The term and the idea of arming a four wheel drive vehicle has spread since its introduction in Somalia in the early nineties and now can be found in just about any war zone or disaster area around the world.

The two guards on the roof of the Toyota that I am in each have an AK-47 in addition to the heavy machine gun bolted in front of them.  Inside with the two of us are a driver and two more armed Somalis.  You could tear a house apart with the firepower these guys are carrying.

There’s a neat little system at work here.  Any non-Somali who walks anywhere outside of an armed compound, no matter how short the walk, runs an extreme risk of being beaten, robbed and killed.  And since the only vehicles available are in the hands of Somalis who have acquired them from god knows where, you’re pretty well stuck with having to pay upwards of a hundred dollars a day (cash in uncreased US 20 dollar bills please) to go anywhere.  If you refuse and try to walk, the same people will probably shoot you down just to maintain their business position.

Newcomers make the mistake of feeling at ease as they speed through the littered streets protected by violently trigger happy guards until they learn that the weapons and the gunmen are only there to protect the vehicle.  The guards won’t lift a finger to protect their passenger unless it’s a question of keeping the poor bastard alive long enough to collect the day’s hire.

Technicals come under attack frequently because the battle wagons are the most highly prized of looting tools and that means all vehicles are potential targets for freelance hijackers.

There’s a tremendous amount of status associated with weapons and technicals.  The teenagers who make up the bulk of the technical guards are at the top of the swagger list.  They get the women, the drugs, the fearful respect and anything else they want just by a negligent wave of a gun muzzle.  They’re dangerously violent at the best of times but horribly and psychotically murderous in the late afternoon as the effects of the amphetamine like plant they chew takes effect. Khat, in all of its spellings is the drug of choice in northeastern Africa. Most of it in Mogadishu is flown in daily from Nairobi in specially charted light aircraft. It is grown mainly in Ethiopia and has to be transported to the buyer in not much more than 24 hours otherwise it loses its potency.

The highest sport on the status list is reserved for the few even more crazy who ride around in trucks converted to carry such Somali sport hunting weapons as recoilless rifles which are a kind of baby tank cannon.  On a couple of occasions I’ve seen trucks sporting rocket clusters ripped out of abandoned Somali MIG fighter aircraft.  No one seems to know whether they could be fired but really who would want to doubt.  An air to air missile fired at close ground level range would go through a block of buildings like a sword through a mouse.

A US Marine Light Armored Reconnaissance Vehicle and Italian Soldiers in a Fiat-OTO Melara Armored Personnel Carrier (right) guard an intersection on the “Green Line” in Mogadishu. The line divides the northern and southern part of the city and warring clans.

You should see the destruction the warring factions have inflicted on this

town.  There’s hardly a building without a shell hole in it, there’s no electricity, no water, no businesses.

The scale of looting and extortion is astonishing.  Except for those homes and buildings that were fortified and defended constantly throughout the civil war, everything has gone.  Windows and frames, plumbing fixtures, doors, electrical wiring, all stripped out of the buildings and sold somewhere else, mostly in Yemen across the Red Sea or south in Kenya.  All of the above ground telephone and power lines have gone, even some of the buried cables in the downtown have been dug up and shipped away for resale.  It’s a city of concrete and cement and nothing else ­ a rotted corpse of a city.

The arrival of international aid groups has given the looters the best time they’ve ever had.  Shiploads of highly valuable relief food and tonnes of equipment meant for the refugee camps disappear with depressing regularity the moment they arrive in the country.

Some of the worst offenders are the very guards who are supposed to stop it.

A word about the guards.  They’re supplied by General Mohamed Aideed, the leader of the faction which holds control of most of Mogadishu and a fair part of southern Somalia.  These technicals might be hired and paid for by the international aid groups but they still work for Aideed and Aideed is the top dog in the looting food chain.  Foxes guarding hen coops have nothing on technicals guarding relief supplies.

The technicals are used to guard Mogadishu port.  Well that’s what they’re hired for, but mainly they hang around helping their relatives steal food.

CARE employs 900 technicals at the port.  And whether they show up or not, whether the port is operating or not, they demand payment, some twenty thousand dollars every four days, (in uncreased 20 dollar bills please.)

The International Red Cross also operates from the port and oddly enough they too employ exactly 900 technicals.  They are of course the same people being paid twice for doing not much at all.

Every once in a while, about twice a day really, technical units at the port will get into arguments with each other and start firing.  They might be well armed but no one has given any of them any training.  When the arguments start the bullets spray wildly all over southern Mogadishu and only coincidently is the actual target ever hit.  We’ve learned rather quickly to get under cover when the firing starts to avoid the 7.62 millimeter lead rains.

Things settle down when the sun sets and the Khat chewers slump into inactivity. But, then there is a second wind towards midnight and for no particular reason the various factions will fire off rockets and heavy artillery at no particular part of the city so sometimes the night sky just blossoms with fireworks and booming explosions.

Top Techniques for Writing – Part One

There are some pretty specific techniques and practices you can pick up from the world of serious journalism, in particular newspaper, magazine, and broadcast journalism, that will elevate your analytic and writing skills far above the average.

They will work for any kind of writing you do, be it Fiction, Journalism, Non-Fiction, Plays, Daily Journals, whatever.

I am a product of the journalistic world, and I still use its tools and practices in my non-fiction and fiction worlds which of course have nothing to do with daily journalism.

They are founded on attitude, consistency, and simplicity.

They do not require much if any work on your part. But, they will, absolutely, improve everything in your writing life.

The first thing you have got firmly grasp is that you will forget some, part of, or all of a thought or observation you have unless you get it down in physical form.

Memory is as fleeting as summer lightning. It is all too common to forget the very fact that you had thought of something in the first place. You have no hope of hanging onto more than a few fragments of an idea if all you rely on is memory.

And be aware that the mind is far too quick to make up details, recreate false statements, and utterly mess up anything that has been in your head in an incomplete manner for more than a few minutes. There is a reason why police offices, lawyers, journalists, doctors, and many other detail oriented professionals get issued a notebook before anything else.

The second thing is that no note-taking system can be too simple. And the simplest is pen and paper.

If you need to stop what you are doing to open an app, or fish your phone out of your pocket and enter its security code, or stop to find your special pen, or fire up a voice recorder, your thought is in danger of disappearance. At best, your thought is subject to corruption as your mind tries to fill in details it does not have.

The third thing is, as much as possible try to use one system only.

Don’t use Evernote, One Note, Google Keep, Zoot, or any others indiscriminately and simultaneously. You will lose notes.

Here is my system. Others will have better and perhaps worse, but that’s okay as long as you pick something and stick to it, making no changes to it without long and hard thought.

One of the writers I greatly admire is James Rebanks (A Shepherd’s Life) who says he and his fellow shepherds in England’s Lake district are pathologically opposed to new ways of doing things. “If you have done something on your farm for generations the same way, and it works, then that is a good reason not to change.”

Now generally, I am not a follower of that philosophy. I am the type who is always the first kid on the block with the latest technology, the latest software, the latest gadget. But, when it comes to writing, and more specifically the recording of those ideas and other elements that go into writing, I am a purist.

So, pick something and use it without modification until you are unequivocally sure that a change will help.

Telescoping Fisher Space Pen. It also writes underwater and upside down
Telescoping Fisher Space Pen. It also writes underwater and upside down

I carry a softcover notebook of about 60 pages that fits into a hip pocket. It is with me all day, everyday. With it I also have a telescoping pen that also sits in the hip pocket. The Space Pen is the right size but there are others. You could also have a cut down pencil if that is your preference. But the point is that the notebook and the pen are always together and always on your person.

The Procedure

  • Date and time your thought.
  • Write it in one simple sentence, or a decent sentence fragment.
  • Only when those two things have been done, and it doesn’t matter how fragmentary your recorded note is, do you then tag on any context, color, or subsidiary thoughts.
  • Don’t worry about handwriting, in fact it is good practice not to even look at the paper while you are jotting. When you open your notebook, don’t try to find the next available page or section of page, just open it at random, give it a quick glance to make sure that you have a clear space to write, and then charge ahead. You can indeed write without looking at what you are doing.
  • You must always try to make sure that nothing gets between the still bubbling thought in your brain and the words on the paper.

The next step, and it can be done quite some time after the actual note taking, is to make a Table of Contents entry.

I number all the pages in my notebook. When the note is done I flip to the first page and on its own line I put down the random page number where I dumped the note. Then, I give it some sort of title so I can refer to it later. A primitive TOC will make finding and using your note a lot easier. Having to flip through dozens of pages looking for something or other is no a good use of your time.

It is really important to get these notes into a more formal record keeping system before they turn into cryptic messages from an alien underworld. So, as soon as you can it is best to put them into your favourite computerized data system, be it Evernote, Zoot, One Note or whatever. It really doesn’t matter what you use as long as you only use one. If you scatter notes across recording systems you will lose them.

For longer notes, or perhaps even full scenes in a book manuscript, you can use a portable voice recorder and then import them as text files using one of the Dragon Naturally Speaking editions that supports transcription, not all do.

Using a voice recorder is superb for describing a location you might want to use in a story, or to get down as much complicated detail that you think you will need.

A variation on that technique is to hit the video button on your phone and visually record your surroundings as you describe the scene.

A different system might be necessary when working right at your computer. It may be best to pop open your database program and type out a note, but be wary that you don’t get shunted down a rabbit hole. I keep my little notebook right next to my mouse, or I reach for the voice recorder.

Remember this at peril of losing your thought; your note taking system has to be one-step simple.

A lot of people have asked me about the idea of learning shorthand for note taking. My answer is, don’t bother.

I learned shorthand as a young reporter and use it still, but it is of limited use to the fiction writer. There are rather simple techniques outlined on the web and in instruction books for what is called Speed Writing and you could look into them if you are interested.

The main thing is, have a way of getting that thought out of your head as quickly as possible, with the least technical effort so you don’t run into this common scenario:

Find app,

Open it,

Menu, select Make New Note   

At which point you forget what the hell your were going to say.

Covering the Arctic

Here’s a snippet of what I might slip into The Disaster Tourist.

“I should take some lead pencils with you.  Bloody cold where you’re going and pens freeze don’t you know.”  Parting advice from my Managing Editor in CBC Radio News as I was being happily packed off to the eastern arctic to set up the first radio newsroom there.

Dear old eccentric Eric Moncur had about as much knowledge of what we now know as Nunavut as I had— absolutely nothing.  We both had to look at a map to see where he was sending me.

Oddly enough that advice about pencils was spot on.  Many many times over the years that I have spent in the arctic, first as a bush pilot, then reporter, and now media consultant, I have yet to find a pen that doesn’t freeze.

But pens are the least of the problems facing a reporter in the arctic and more particularly in Nunavut.

First of all there is no such thing as being a  journalist in Nunavut.  Such pretensions are reserved for fly-in foreign correspondents and southern media types on short-term swings to vacuum up interesting features.

To cover the arctic one has to be a reporter first and last.  Reporters must talk directly to people to find out what is going on, they have to record their comments exactly, and they have to tell the stories fairly.  As a journalist, and I was one of those for a long time too, you can afford the lazy luxury of doing analytical pieces formed from your own opinions, interpretive insight pieces, and just generally a lot of writing that requires more thumb sucking than anything else.

Journalism by journalists just doesn’t work in a region where the people demand to know just what the hell is going on and to hell with the editorial spin and gloss.

There’s also a strong cultural problem in trying to do southern trained reporting in Nunavut.

The Inuit as a people dislike direct confrontation.  Any questioning that has to be done for a story must be indirect, respectful, and non aggressive.  On Parliament Hill in Ottawa we are used to the full speed bulldozer approach to news gathering.  In Nunavut one needs the slow careful attitude of a palaeontologist.

When I was sent to Frobisher Bay, now Iqaluit, to set up the first CBC radio news operation, I had the largest beat of any reporter in Canada.  It crossed three time zones, encompassed a quarter of Canada, and took in western Greenland for good measure.  At the time I think that only four of the 26 communities in Nunavut had long distance phone service.

Have you ever thought how difficult it is to conduct a broadcast radio interview with someone at the other end of a snapping, crackling, and fading short wave radio link?  Throw in for good measure that the person you are interviewing has english as a very limited second language and you begin to understand why some of the stuff we put on the radio was utterly incomprehensible.

All of the communities now have superb satellite phone links, email, fax, and in some cases video conferencing facilities, but the old job of reporting is still exactly the same.  Reporters in Nunavut have to get out and talk to people otherwise they won’t have a thing to put into their broadcasts or newspapers.

I’m fond of saying that 90 percent of reporting is simply knowing that something is going on — the rest is just mechanics.  But in a region where there are precious few news releases, fewer news conferences, no wire services, and a general reluctance for people to phone you up and offer a story, worrying about what might be going on turns into a huge dark monster that haunts every northern newsroom.

The best way to find stories is of course to talk to people as much as possible.  That’s fine if the reporter is based in Iqaluit and wants to only cover that community.  But to discover the weird and wonderful goings on in places such as Pangnirtung, Resolute Bay, Arviat or any other community, a reporter pretty well has to go there.  Very few news operations can afford travel to even the closest communities except in rare and unusual circumstances.  It’s cheaper to fly from Ottawa to Australia than it is to go from Iqaluit to let’s say Cambridge Bay or Resolute.

Any Ottawa journalist who accepts a freebie flight pretty well guarantees a snarky and career deadening conversation with a humorless news manager following policy. A reporter in Nunavut, or anywhere else in the Arctic for that matter, who doesn’t learn the fine art of hitchhiking by aircraft, piggybacking on charters, and playing the “send us the invoice” game, is never going to do much in the way of providing decent news coverage.

This once reached an extreme for me when I wanted to cover the start of Naomi Uemuera’s solo trip to the North Pole in 1978.  His DC-3 Dakota aircraft was leaving Resolute Bay for Greenland and then to the last bit of land in Canada before the pole.  The trouble was that the flight was being paid for by National Geographic Magazine.  They were not about to let any reporter on board at any ticket price.

I got on the flight and covered the story (surreptitiously) by talking the charter airline into allowing me to fly as co-pilot, out of date ratings and licenses be damned.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation had very strict rules against this, and still does.  Fortunately there were more than a few managers with at least one blind eye.  I hope there still are.

The Disaster Tourist – Life in War Zones — soon a book

While I continue to work on my Adventure Thrillers such as Cobra Flight, I am also developing some Non-Fiction projects.

In active development now is a quirky, irreverent, and most likely scandalous look at how relief workers and journalists conduct themselves in war zones and humanitarian disaster areas. It also turns a jaundiced and withering eye on the criminals, politicians (often the same people) and the celebrities who make huge money out of human suffering.

I’ll be posting excerpts from my outline as I move ahead with the project.

But keep in mind, this is Non-Fiction and although it may read as Fiction it most certainly is not.

Overview

The Disaster Tourist

 

The Disaster Tourist is about the wild and often hallucinogenic world of aid workers and journalists caught in the huge disasters of our time.

It’s about the strange state of frenzied insanity that develops among reporters and relief workers amid death, starvation and mass murder, a state which allows them to always know where to find beer and a good time, even when millions can’t find water.

A Canadian military Hercules aircraft delivers relief supplies to East Timor
An international aid effort to rebuild East Timor after the Indonesian Army had trashed it came from as far away as Canada. This C-130 Hercules transport is delivering the first Canadian aid following the return of international aid workers in 1999. (Converted from 35mm slide)

It’s about how the people who run aid organizations are more concerned about publicity and making money than the lives of their aid workers or the people they are supposed to be helping.

It’s about media bosses in North America, Europe, and Australia being more concerned about the impact and ratings of news coverage than the conditions under which their reporters have to live.

The Disaster Tourist tells how aid groups are more concerned about appearances during a disaster than helping people and how they try to engineer the best coverage possible.

Through a highly personal and controversial style, Rick Grant, tells of his experiences as a foreign correspondent, consultant, and as an aid worker following the Ethiopian civil war, through the fall of Somalia into savagery, and amid the debris left following the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the Kosovo War, and many years amid the ruins of Afghanistan.

A refugee camp in Northern Albania
Northern Albania suffered greatly from the influx of refugees during the Kosovo War. And no town had it harder than Kukes which lies directly on the border with southern Kosovo. These refugees were housed temporarily in tents by CARE before being moved further south by UNHCR

The Disaster Tourist relates tales of amazing ineptitude by the world’s aid organizations, about senior officials endangering the lives of their field workers, about how combatants in disaster areas now know that the arrival of aid means vast riches for them.

It tells how the world’s media helped to create the debacle that led to the death of US troops in Mogadishu and the retreat of the UN Force from Somalia. How senior news anchors such as Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Ted Koppel, and Geraldo Rivera conducted themselves in war zones, sometimes very badly.

It shows how once famous Hollywood celebrities prostitute themselves for media exposure in disaster areas and endanger aid workers doing it. How major aid donors are given free “tours” of disaster areas at the expense of money that could go to famine victims.

It contains accounts of aid workers dealing in the black markets of Bosnia Somalia, Afghanistan and other countries. How one United Nations worker looted museum artifacts, how another bought automatic rifles for sale back in the United States, how a major aid organization fed its workers on looted food and used looted equipment.

It’s about the vast drug trade that fuels the Somali civil war, the mafia operations in Bosnia, how the people of Sarajevo had to survive both the shelling and their own criminals.

The Disaster Tourist is about what it is really like to live and work in a disaster area and how knowing where to find the beer is sometimes more important than worrying about the dying.

 

I don’t have a tentative publication date yet. That depends on how some of my Adventure Thriller novels in the pipeline go but I hope to get it out in eBook form in time for Xmas 2018 and in paperback and audiobook shortly after.

In the meantime, if you wish to keep abreast of this and other projects then why not sign up for the newsletter through the link in the main menu at the top of the page.