CO144 Tom Rosenstiel on Political Fact and Fiction

Tom Rosenstiel founded and for 16 years directed the Project for Excellence in Journalism. He was also a reporter and editor, and he recently published his third novel, Oppo.


If you are looking for reading suggestions to fill up the lock down hours, I’d suggest anything by Dave Eggars. He’s a great and inventive writer. He started out with a huge hit about 20 years ago with ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’. That was the actual title, in case you aren’t familiar with it, and it suits the book. It was a memoir, an autobiography basically, and he wrote it while he was still in his twenties, which is a bit unusual, mostly it’s at the end of people’s careers that they write memoirs, but if you read the book, you’ll see it was worth it.

He’s written novels and other works, but the one I’m reminded of is called ‘What is the What?’, it’s the true story of a guy called Valentino Achak Deng. Valentino comes from Sudan, and he eventually settled in the United States, but that was after some truly amazing and often horrifying ordeals in his childhood.

Most of the people in his village were murdered, he went on epic treks as an unaccompanied child across several countries in East Africa, from one refugee camp to another, and he was very lucky to survive hunger, war, disease and every other biblical misfortune; many of the people he encountered did not survive. He didn’t know it at the time, he was a child caught up in a civil war, but the author of much of his misfortune was a man called Omar al-Bashir. He was the president of Sudan, and started a civil war to get access to the oil under the lands where Valentino and his family lived.

That’s hugely simplified, Sudan suffered a decades-long and very complex conflict based on resources, ethnic and religious differences, and outside interference, but al-Bashir is undoubtedly someone who has the blood of thousands on his hands. He was overthrown a year ago following intense protests from his own population against poverty and bad government. There are elections scheduled for 2022. I don’t know if they will make things much better, Sudan is miserably poor but they can hardly make things any worse.

I thought of that book when I saw a headline recently, that al-Bashir is likely to be extradited to the Hague to face war crimes charges by the interim government in Sudan. That’s a pretty new thing to happen. It’s not the first time, Slobodan Milošević, the leader of Serbia during the war in ex-Yugoslavia was extradited 2002. But historically, dictators have rarely been brought to justice, except some sort of victor’s justice if they are overthrown, they tend to get shot by their successors.

Both ex-Yugoslavia and Sudan were particularly cruel wars for civilian non-combatants. That’s the legal reasoning behind putting those dictators on trial, but in researching that, I came across a startling fact. The lethality of some wars for the civilian population in recent years is appalling. Syria stands out as by far the worst, with 24 civilians per 100,000 in 2019 alone.

After that wars in South Sudan, where Valentino is from, Burkina Faso in West Africa, the Central African Republic, and Somalia, all had civilian death rates between six and nine per 100,000 in 2019 alone, bear in mind that’s just for one year, the people killed stay dead, so those figures are cumulative for however long the wars go on.

Those figures are terrible, obviously, but what’s really striking is that mixed in with those African countries with wars with high civilian death rates are El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico, who all have similar civilian death rates, not from real wars, but from gang wars. In fact El Salvador has a total murder rate higher than the civilian death rate in all war zones, by a huge margin, more than 60 per hundred thousand, compared to 24 per hundred thousand civilian war deaths in Syria, though obviously there are likely to be other murders in Syria not accounted for there.

The United States has a long history of intervening in Latin America, usually with the stated aim of stopping communism. It seems like crime is a much bigger threat to many of the people there than war, and if wars with lower civilian death rates justify UN peace talks, war crimes trials at the Hague and other diplomatic efforts, it would surely be in the interests of the United States and all western countries to put some resource into helping those countries fight crime.