My Friend the Mercenaryby James Brabazon
“Intensely vivid story of war and the peculiar breed of warriors who fight in 21st-century Africa. . . A haunting memoir and tribute to an extraordinary comrade-at-arms.” —Kirkus Reviews
In February 2002, British journalist James Brabazon set out to travel with guerrilla forces into Liberia to show the world what was happening in that war-torn country. To protect him, he hired Nick du Toit, a former South African Defence Force soldier who had fought in conflicts across Africa for over three decades. What follows is an incredible behind-the-scenes account of the Liberian rebels—known as the LURD—as they attempt to seize control of the country from government troops led by President Charles Taylor. Brabazon’s friendship with Nick opens a door to a dangerous world of mercenaries, spies, and violent regime change. In this gripping narrative, Brabazon paints a brilliant portrait of the chaos that tore West Africa apart: nations run by warlords and kleptocrats, rebels fighting to displace them, ordinary people caught in the crossfire—and everywhere adventurers and mercenaries operating in war’s dark shadows.
“A fully adrenalized book about civil war, mercenaries, and the tiny margins by which fate determines the course of one’s life. . . . A classic story of intrigue, greed, and violence in one of the most dysfunctional countries in the world. It is a gripping story that I couldn’t read fast enough.” —Sebastian Junger, author of War
“Among the most exciting true stories of adventure—and misadventure—I’ve ever read about modern Africa; a beautifully written adrenaline rush by one of our generation’s bravest journalists.” —Aidan Hartley, author of The Zanzibar Chest
“An outstanding memoir about the power of friendship in the morally complex theater of war. James Brabazon is a fearless reporter and a brutally honest narrator. I couldn’t put this book down.” —Andy McNab, author of Bravo Two Zero
“One of the most brutal, true stories you may ever read and yet streaming through it is a remarkable and unlikely friendship.” —Peter Hallett, Utterance
“Intensely vivid story of war and the peculiar breed of warriors who fight in 21st-century Africa. . . A haunting memoir and tribute to an extraordinary comrade-at-arms.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Reads like a political thriller. Brabazon’s searing narrative captures both the allure of war—the rush of danger, the deep camaraderie, the get-rich-quick mirages—and its brutal realities. It’s both a seductive paean to and a harsh exposé of the mercenary ethos that fattens off of Africa’s travails.” —Publishers Weekly
“Unsparing prose, a visceral shock ride into horror. This book reveals the savagery of Africa’s least known wars, fed and exploited by opportunists and plunderers who are drawn to these ravaged countries like vultures to a carcass.” —Jonathan Kaplan, author of The Dressing Station
“The first two thirds of Brabazon’s extraordinary confessional, My Friend the Mercenary, is the story of how the professional partnership of a young, liberal British filmmaker and a hit man for apartheid South Africa developed into intimate comradeship. It was a strange and dangerous liaison, and it found itself in the heart of darkness. . . . The concluding chapters of his book present as full and convincing an account of that failed assault on Equatorial Guinea as we are likely to read.” —The Scotsman (UK)
1 — Shake Hands With the Devil
Treading quickly on the halo of my noon shadow, I skirted the edge of the pool. I glanced at my watch. It was midday on 11 April 2002. I was exactly on time. At a table in the luxury hotel in Johannesburg two white men sat waiting. One, muscular with a ponytail, hid behind a pair of black sunglasses; the other, older and with a neat side-parting, stroked the end of his moustache, scrutinising the terrace and my arrival. I threw out my palm in a premature greeting, and they rose in unison to return it with a gruff “Howzit?”
I’d met the ponytail in Sierra Leone the year before. A 37-year-old South African former paratrooper and one-time mercenary, Cobus Claassens had fought in the troubled West African state during the mid-nineties with a military company called Executive Outcomes, a private South African-run army which had been hired by the Sierra Leonean president to defeat rebels who threatened to overrun the capital, Freetown.
With the highly trained soldiers of EO on the ground, the rebels were quickly and comprehensively destroyed. Cobus stayed on after his contract wound up, carving out a living from the freelance security contracts that hovered like flies around the carcass of the country’s diamond industry.
He was back in South Africa for a short holiday—a chance to see family and chase some business contacts. I’d met up with him a few days earlier when a chance conversation had planted an idea for a filming trip in West Africa. It was as preposterous as it was compelling: I would get access to a war in Liberia that no other journalist had filmed, and few even knew was happening. To do so I would need his help, and his man.
I stepped under the shade of the umbrella and saw them clearly.
Cobus spoke first.
“This is Nick du Toit. Nick—this is James.”
His Afrikaner accent bent itself awkwardly around English vowels. Nick, a plain, forgettable-looking man in his forties, reached over the table, and shook my hand. There was something awkward about him, as if his hands and ears were too big for his body, like a teenager waiting to grow into his skin. I wondered if this was really the soldier that Cobus had in mind. Nick’s gaze was alarmingly direct, but not aggressive. He released my hand, sinking his six-foot frame back into the chair. Drinks arrived.
“Great to meet you,” I said to Nick. “Thanks for coming along.”
I was struggling to disguise my unease. I was here to recruit a war hero to protect me while I filmed in Liberia. I thought I knew what I needed—what I had already been told I would require: a bodyguard; an experienced soldier; someone capable of defending me under fire—someone, frankly, extraordinary. Nick looked like none of these things: if anything, his white-and-blue checked shirt, freshly pressed chinos and neat row of pens in his breast pocket made him look profoundly ordinary, like an accountant or mild-mannered manager. Disappointment sagged into my shoulders.
Tilting our beer bottles inward, the three of us touched the necks lightly. The gentle double-click of glass on glass was swallowed by the rhythmic pumping of the hotel’s infinity pool cascading gallons of crystal water beside us. There was no one in it. It was too hot to swim.
“Nick was a Recce, a Special Forces operator down here, in 5 Reconnaissance. He was about to be made a full colonel when he quit. He knows the type of area you’re going to very well.” Here Cobus paused for effect. “Nick was with me in Sierra Leone, actually.”
I liked Cobus, but he was a consummate hustler. I was beginning to wonder if he’d sold me a pup. Cobus was sure to take a generous commission from whatever I paid Nick to hold my hand in the jungle. Like a car salesman throwing in a full tank of petrol to sweeten the deal, he added: “He’s an experienced combat medic. Aren’t you?”
“Ja,” Nick agreed, “we were all trained to a certain standard, but the medical side became a bit of a speciality of mine. We did a lot of long-range stuff in Angola. I had to patch myself up once. We trained in civilian hospitals, too. They had all sorts of injuries, a bit more interesting than just the ones you got in the army.”
Nick looked down at the table, almost self-conscious. His voice was quiet, matter-of-fact. There was no hyperbole, apparently no bullshit.
I knew almost nothing about the ‘recces’, other than what I’d learned hanging out with Cobus. South Africa’s equivalent of the British SAS, they were highly trained killers and survivors who fought both conventionally and controversially in the service of the apartheid state during the bush wars and insurgencies that had torn Southern Africa apart for a quarter of a century. They were dedicated, arguably fanatical professionals—but unlike the SAS, they had not, ultimately, been under the control of a democratic government. In fact, the South African Army closely resembled everything I had been taught to despise when I was growing up: it was hard to shake the feeling that the Recces must have been more Waffen-SS than Special Air Service.
“A colonel? Have you worked with journalists before?”
I just couldn’t see how Nick was going to rub along with the media, however well he might know the jungle.
Nick’s gaze, set by a pair of profoundly blue eyes which reflected the turquoise pool beside us, fixed on me again. His expression was open, but unreadable. Somewhere below us, the bizarre but unmistakable toot of an elephant filtered through the hum of the city. Nick was studying me intently, like a farmer weighing up the price of a steer at auction.
“No, but from what Cobus tells me it sounds like it could be a lot of fun.”
Fun? I thought. Is that really what people who kill other people for money think is fun?
“A colonel?” I repeated to him.
Disbelief crept into my voice. He looked away for a moment, as if embarrassed at the mention of his former rank, and then nodded.
“It was a desk job at the end. I went private—Sierra Leone with EO and then mining in Angola. EO was quite an adventure. We ran a mobile Fire Force team; Cobus was my second-in-command.”
He must have seen my head jerk in surprise. I knew very well what Cobus’s unit had got up to in Sierra Leone—and Nick had just outed himself as his commanding officer. That meant that men under Nick’s command had killed a great number of rebels at close quarters, and then routed them. It was disturbing to think how much blood they’d seen shed between them. I changed the subject.
“I don’t know how much you know, but Cobus thinks I need someone to hold my hand in Liberia. I’m planning a three-week trip into rebel-held territory.”
I paused and looked at him, trying to judge his reaction. His face was still impassive. I realised that I was trying to sound convincing and knowledgeable about Africa in front of two Africans who had been fighting here while I’d still been in school. Suddenly I felt lost. I bluffed my way onwards.
“No one has any real idea what’s going on there. The main thing I want to do is meet the leadership and hopefully film some fighting—to prove a war is really happening. You’re very highly recommended.”
This last line was addressed to Cobus, who now seemed equally impassive. My confidence was ebbing fast. I had never attempted anything remotely like the trip I was suggesting—I didn’t even know if it was feasible.
I turned back to Nick. His demeanour might have been underwhelming, but his experience was—apparently—compelling.
“Are you interested?”
A thick, conspiratorial smile spread across his face and we all shifted our chairs closer. Cobus reached and took Nick’s notepad, turning over a fresh page. My gut tightened a little more. Cobus folded away his shades.
“Here’s the plan.”
Wrapped up in a comfortable bubble blown out of my own hubris, by the time I met Nick I thought I knew who I was: someone who had already plumbed the depths of human suffering. In the eight years since I had left university—an ivory tower that encouraged boyhood curiosities for the scandals and scrambles of African history—I had worked mainly as a stills photographer in some of the world’s worst trouble spots, or so I’d thought. I’d taken pictures in Kosovo, Afghanistan and the occupied Palestinian territories, and spent long periods of time working in Zimbabwe. I’d photographed artillery barrages at 12,000 feet in Kashmir, and taken photographs in Eritrea where corpses littered the battlefield, but I’d never seen close-quarter combat.
When I’d started taking pictures at school I’d been mesmerised by the work of Robert Capa and Don McCullin. I thought that a camera and the right attitude were all I’d need to follow in their footsteps. I was wrong. I hadn’t been prepared for the competition. In London it seemed that every other person I met was a photographer and all of them were scrambling for a piece of the action. I was barely scraping a living and couldn’t see how to break through to the life of a professional photographer I’d imagined for myself.
I met Cobus in Sierra Leone during my first trip to West Africa in 2001. I arrived as the violent, decade-old civil war in Sierra Leone was finally drawing to a close. With a box of film and a couple of battered cameras I found myself en route to the capital, Freetown—a 29-year-old photographer on assignment, shooting a magazine feature about the deployment of British troops. I was accompanied by Robert, an American writer who promised an interesting footnote to my story: we would be staying with a former mercenary.
After clearing customs we were bundled into a helicopter transfer to the city, and then whisked away by Land Rover at the other end. Eventually, we ended up at a pleasant bungalow on the outskirts of the capital. It was stiflingly hot. A smiling, muscle-bound South African opened the door. I stepped over the threshold into Cobus’s home. I may as well have stepped through the Looking Glass.
Robert had arranged to stay with him for a fortnight. He assured me I’d be welcomed, too, but, in fact, he’d never met Cobus, either. He’d only hooked up with him through the notice-board of a private military website. In a fit of largesse, Cobus had invited “us” to stay. He handed us a set of keys, and told us that there would be a Mercedes and driver sent along for our use in due course. If we had any problems, we just had to call.
I had no idea who Cobus was, nor, indeed, what “problems” I might need to call him about. No one mentioned the word “mercenary,” but with his military bearing and house full of khaki equipment, he clearly had a story to tell.
I came and went from the house, finishing the magazine assignment—grateful for the car, and the meals cooked up by his housekeeper, which stretched my meagre budget. The magazine piece practically wrote itself: everyone had something to say about the war they’d narrowly survived. A double amputee described how he’d had his hands severed by rebels from the Revolutionary United Front; others spoke of soldiers in their early teens holding them down while their eyes were gouged out, and the sockets filled with molten plastic from burning carrier bags.
The RUF was infamous for its extreme atrocities. The mutilation of civilians was a favourite tactic. Their fighting units went by the names of Blood Shed Squad, Burn House Unit and Kill Man No Blood Unit—this latter group prided itself on beating people to death without a drop of blood being spilled. The Born Naked Squad stripped their victims naked before killing them. So it went on. Their military campaigns were known by a series of cruelly honest code names, too, including Operation Burn House, Operation Pay Yourself and the brutally self-explanatory Operation No Living Thing.
In my second week in the country I flew with the United Nations to the Parrot’s Beak—dangerously insecure bandit territory to the east of the country. While Freetown had been effectively disarmed a few weeks earlier, and now lay under the control of the British and UN, not a single round of ammunition had been surrendered in the Parrot’s Beak. As we landed, sixty or so children limped their way out of the thick undergrowth and made their way to the edge of the clearing. Held as slaves by the RUF, they had been forced into combat as child-soldiers, raped or confiscated as “wives.”
I felt lucky to witness the moment of their freedom, but also felt a sense of shock at my own ignorance. I had no experience of the actual events that shaped these people’s lives, and yet here I was, taking photos and gathering stories like a tourist collects souvenirs.
Back in Freetown, Robert left in a hurry to get to his daughter’s graduation in the US, and I found myself alone with Cobus on his couch, staring at storm clouds piling up beyond the window.
“So who are you?” he asked, pouring another glass of Red Heart rum. He sounded genuinely interested, his Afrikaner accent only mildly inflected with irony. I was perplexed. After two weeks of sleeping on his couch—an occupational speciality of mine—he knew exactly who I was.
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, who are you?” he repeated, stretching and swallowing his vowels in turn.
It suddenly struck me that my arrival may have been more of a shock than he had let on.
“Hang on, you did know I was coming to stay, didn’t you?”
He smiled and shook his head, and handed me the glass of rum.
“Oh God, I am so sorry.” Humiliated, I put the glass down. “I thought you’d invited us both. I’m sorry, I should have asked. I’ll find a hotel, it’s . . .”
As I stood up and moved towards my bags, pulling my camera over my shoulder, a motorbike pulled up outside. A few seconds later the screen door slammed and a stout, slightly comic-looking man with a Mediterranean tan bustled into the room.
“Yossi, this is James. He’s a journalist, a friend of mine. He’s been staying with me.”
I put my hand out and said hello. Yossi looked me level in the eye, and spoke in a thick Israeli accent.
“If you take my photograph, I will kill you.”
Suddenly, Yossi didn’t look so comic. I looked at Cobus, whose eyes were flashing me a smile.
“I’ve got a brilliant idea,” I said.
Yossi hadn’t taken his eyes off me, or my camera.
“How about I don’t take your photo?”
Yossi and Cobus laughed.
“Yossi and I have some business to sort out,” Cobus explained. “James, why don’t you, er, make yourself even more at home? I’ll be back later.”
The screen door banged to and the motorbike coughed. I was alone. I could either take the Israeli’s threat at face value, and leave—or accept Cobus’s generosity and make the most of my final few days before my flight home. I fidgeted, and finished the rum.
Over the next six days, Cobus showed me his Freetown. It was a city haunted by the recently departed war, but a city, nonetheless, where you could still enjoy yourself. We went to a casino, and gambled away the last of my field budget; we drove out to an ape sanctuary, where I took the most profitable single picture of my career—a portrait of a unique albino chimpanzee called Pinky. Along the way I was introduced to the rogues’ gallery of mercenaries, soldiers and businessmen that Cobus called friends.
Yossi turned out to be a sniper, who had commanded an elite undercover squad in the Israeli Defence Force. During the Lebanon war in the ’80s, his unit had fired fifteen shots, and killed fourteen enemy commanders. Settling in Freetown as a businessman in 1990, Yossi started his own security company. Shortly before I left, he came and asked me a favour. Almost shy, he wondered if, possibly, I might take some photos of his children. As I snapped away, I saw him at the edge of the frame, scrutinising my lens.
Other characters popped up at house parties and in beach-side bars. I met Neall Ellis, Nellis as everyone called him, on the beach with Cobus. A legendary helicopter gunship pilot, Nellis had flown for the South African Air Force before joining EO. Already a legend in the air force, he had quickly become a local hero in Freetown after almost single-handedly holding off a fresh rebel advance on the capital in 2000 when Sierra Leone had been abandoned to its fate, and most of the professional soldiers were long gone. He had flown dozens of sorties in his Russian HIND gunship until, finally, the British managed to secure the city.
Cobus and Nellis were fascinating to me. I had been brought up to revere the black liberation movements that South Africa tried to eliminate in the ’70s and ’80s; but they told the other side of their war, the politically incorrect accounts that were never taught in school. I felt like a priest in the company of whores. Their banter was infectious, their honesty disarming and the beer flowed into the night. Their stories of courage and friendship were all too easy to get carried away with.
At night, feeling less priestly, Cobus and I stuffed his Mercedes full of pretty girls, taking them from one bar to another as curfew approached. Then, back at his house, ensconced on his sofa with an apparently endless supply of rum and Coke, we talked about his twin obsessions of diamonds and history. I put my earlier nervousness to one side and asked him about his time with Executive Outcomes.
Cobus handed me a photograph from across the table. He stood, centre-frame, unrecognisable in combat fatigues, his face blacked with camouflage paint. A dozen or so other mercenaries clustered around him. It was impossible to tell if most of them were even white or black—so completely had their identities been obscured by the trappings of war.
“I was hired from friends amongst the senior Executive Outcomes people. I signed up in May ’95. I was offered three times what I was making in the army, so I quit and became a mercenary.” Several of his friends joined up as well. “We didn’t even know which country we were being sent to fight in. They told us on the plane flying up there from South Africa that we were going to Sierra Leone, the worst place in the world.”
He smiled at the irony of having made it his home, and re-filled his glass.
For Cobus, the fight became personal. Wiping out the rebels was more than simply a job to be done for money—in the face of their legendary cruelty he felt increasingly obliged to “cleanse” the rebels from the forest. He styled himself an Angel of Death, with justice, he believed, firmly on his side. His mobile force, commanded by Nick du Toit, went and smoked them out. On one occasion they received a report of an attack on a village, and arrived to find women with sticks thrust into their vaginas, and old men with their throats slit. Eventually the rebels were found twelve miles away, terrorising another village.
Cobus and his men fanned out through every hut and hunted them down. There were no surviving rebels; no prisoners; no mercy. Cobus’s face hardened.
“At a certain point a human being becomes less of a human being, and more of an animal, and then he should just be culled and got rid of as quickly as possible so the rest of humanity can go on with their lives.”
I had no such stories to share. Cobus’s uncompromising attitude to summary justice was hard to digest, too far outside my own experience to judge properly. Cobus bade me goodnight. I cleared away the cigarette ends and empty Coke bottles, and pulled a mosquito net over the couch where I’d slept for the last three weeks.
My time in Sierra Leone was up. Cobus took me to the airport by speedboat, and urged me to stay in touch. As the boat sliced through the clear blue water, I asked him if he had any regrets.
“We did something that gave some hope to these people,” he answered. “But yes,” he said, “yes.” The beach loomed up, and the engines idled. “I regret not having killed more of the rebels.”
Like his stories from the nights before, his comments did not invite discussion. He set his stall out: whether you bought into it or not was irrelevant to him.