This is Mukesh Kapila’s very personal story that, as the subtitle says, tells How One Man Became the Whistleblower to the First Mass Murder of the Twenty-first Century.
It is also in part my own personal story. I met Mukesh in Geneva not long ago. We were there to farewell a mutual friend, Bob McKerrow, who is in the process of retiring from the Red Cross after 43 years of dedicated service to humanity.
The venue was Mulligin’s Irish Pub in the heart of Geneva, a fitting place for three cosmopolitan people in this cosmopolitan city whose streets throb with visitors from around the world. With an infectious enthusiasm as one of my strongest advocates, Bob dragged me to meet Mukesh almost as soon he arrived.
Mukesh Kapila speaking in Geneva at the farewell of our good friend Bob McKerrow as Bob headed for retirement after 43 years of dedicated service to humanity with the Red Cross
“Mukesh,” Bob said, his unabashed zeal forming an instant bond. “This is Bill Nicol. He’s written the definitive book on the tsunami. You must read it.”
Taking hold of the print proof, which Bob insisted I carry with me to Geneva, Mukesh quickly flipped through it. Now Professor of Global Health and Humanitarian Affairs at Manchester University, he was no slouch in grasping the essence of what I had written.
“The tsunami was a game changer,” he responded, his bright eyes shining with energy as he looked up from the book. “It was so big, so massive, the whole world joined together to help. It led to global reform in disaster recovery and changed Indonesia forever too. But no one has written the story. Until now, it seems.”
Mukesh then paused and shook my weighty tome. “By the look of this,” he said, “you seem to have filled the gap.”
So began what for me was a remarkable discussion in the rowdy atmosphere of rejoicing Bob’s great humanitarian contributions. Rarely do I meet someone who “gets it” in terms not just of the book but also the importance of rebuilding Aceh in four short years after the tsunami. But Mukesh did. He “got” it. Instantly. As did Bob before him and a handful of friends closely involved with Aceh’s reconstruction.
So also began my own journey into Mukesh’s world, a world in which I felt instant and deep rapport.
That world has seen Mukesh deal with some of the world’s most awful man-made atrocities—the genocides of Rwanda, Sebrenica and Darfur among them; the awful bloodbath in Timor too. He has also dealt with natural disasters. He was point man for the World Health Organisation in its response to the tsunami in Indonesia and has been a key figure in the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
While I did not meet Mukesh in Indonesia, I found from reading his book that we had other things in common. He had worked in East Timor where I had also lived while researching my book on its own man-made disaster caused by irresponsible Portuguese “decolonisation”, which later resulted in bloody civil war, Indonesian military occupation and militia massacres. And my youngest son, Brad, had, like Mukesh, worked with the UN in Sudan, although in far off Juba rather than Darfur.
So our personal journeys had unknowingly crossed paths well before we ever got to meet in person.
But that is not from where my empathy and rapport with Mukesh sprang. These came from reading his beautifully told story as UN Resident Humanitarian Coordinator in Sudan when the Government of that country orchestrated its rein of genocidal terror on Darfur.
More than that, they came from sharing his frustration at dealing with senior managers who refused to see the problems.
They came from experiencing the same isolation and loneliness of the outcast blamed for raising the problems and accused of being “emotional” and “provocative” for even daring to air them (two of many labels often cast my way).
They came from the same sheer exhaustion of working to help people only to be thrown on the scrap heap of history for your troubles.
And they came for me, like Mukesh, from being left to deal with my own post-traumatic stress that left me debilitated and distressed long after the party was over and everyone had gone off to their own self-congratulatory cocktails. (Well over four years after finishing in Aceh it has only been in the last few weeks that I have been able to at last sleep through a full night, the mental and physical exhaustion still lingering long, long after the events in Aceh that triggered the burnout).
Hence, reading Mukesh’s story was like reliving in my own small way the many traumas of a life lived trying to warn of impending disasters like the catastrophe in Timor or fighting to rebuild a community and nation devastated by one like the tsunami.
In the case of Timor, my greatest regret in researching and writing my book Timor: The Stillborn Nation (later updated for East Timor’s independence as Timor: A Nation Reborn) is that as a novice author and still-green journalist I lacked the skills to write more quickly.
The Timor bloodbath had well and truly begun by the time my book was published. But I could see the tragedy coming as the Portuguese engineered their untimely exit. Their hasty rush for the door gave rise to the very same politics of hate, fear and selfishness Mukesh fought against in Darfur.
I briefed politicians and security agencies on my return to Australia while struggling to write what I had observed and learned first hand in Timor. But it was hardly enough. I should but did not write some short articles on the subject for the Australian media. Not doing so was a personal and professional failure.
Would it have made any difference if I had written some news articles on the subject? Probably not. They would certainly have been critical of Portugal and Indonesia. They would also have been critical of Fretilin, the newly radicalised version of an earlier failed political party, ASDT, after gaining no traction with the Timorese community.
Herein lay an ideological problem. The pro-Timor lobby in Australia saw Fretilin as the good guy in the whole affair. To them, it was the white knight doing battle with Indonesia’s black military heart.
I suspect, therefore, that, far from facilitating a productive discussion of developments in Timor, anything I might have written for the Australian media at the time would not only have fallen on deaf ears but, more to the point, have been provocatively divisive. Assuming anyone had taken any notice, that is, something I doubt.
It is not until tragedy strikes that we humans begin to see the tragedy for what it actually is. We are too often blind in the lead-up when all seems in order. And when it strikes, we have this great instinct to shoot the messenger, as happened with Mukesh, instead of the perpetrator.
You’d have to have been in our shoes to know the silent inner pain that goes with the job. But you can get close to it by reading Mukesh’s personal story in Against a Tide of Evil. It is the next best thing.
For me, the book was a page-turner. His highly forgivable admissions of personal failure as UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Sudan sit side by side with the intransigent people from Kofi Annan down who bear culpability for knowing what was happening in Darfur (Mukesh tells of how he reported it up the UN chain of command in daily detail) but sat in silence doing nothing to prevent the genocide.
Likewise, his back stories from his home in India to his education and eventual citizenship in the UK and his side stories linking the atrocities in Rwanda, Yugoslavia and Timor with those in Sudan provide a broad picture of a great humanitarian struggling to make the world a better place.
For me, the picture Mukesh paints goes well beyond genocide. It goes to the heart, sometimes the dark heart, of human nature and organisational endeavour.
We humans are social animals. We congregate together for company and common purpose. When that purpose is evil, as in Darfur, the whole machine we create to govern ourselves can become a machine of evil. Even when it is not, as with the UN, it can nonetheless fail in preventing evil.
What makes the difference in promoting, tolerating or defeating evil? Mukesh nails it in one word: leadership.
Where leadership fails, so we and our organisations fail. Where it succeeds, so we as a community succeed.
Mukesh himself was and continues to be a leader, an exemplary one. I say this because I define leadership as the exercise of personal initiative regardless of any formal authority.
Those like Mukesh who take the initiative to identify and fix a problem, any problem, are by definition leaders.
That other group, the naysaying do-nothings who sit on their hands, are anything but. They are just stubborn, boneheaded logjams. They may have power, the power of veto, but they are nothing more than dreary followers of an established narrative and self-indulgent order.
Good leaders fill the organisational or government vacuum with their positive political presence and personality. By force of character, they leave no space for the negative forces to enter or take hold.
Bad leaders do the reverse. They vacate the space creating a vacuum that sucks in all the negative forces that, if they gain traction, come to dominate and are hard to dislodge. That is when evil takes hold.
Think here not of genocide. It is but an extreme consequence. Think instead of the ordinary office environment.
Evil starts when bullying and intimidation are ignored only to then seep into the culture where contempt asserts itself over decency. The dominant narrative then isolates and excludes critics as “emotional” and “provocative” as they did Mukesh, or perhaps having “harsh judgements” as they did me in Aceh, while bolstering those who exercise the dark forces of power as “strong” and “determined”, perhaps even “visionaries”.
If you’ve ever worked in a toxic office environment you will have seen this at work. Everything distorts. Those who behave badly are lionised with positive labels while those who behave well are destroyed with negative ones.
But that is only part of the story. The other part is the collective and wilful blindness that goes hand in hand with the problems.
I have experienced this and wrote about it in my second book, McBride: Behind the Myth. That book took me six years to write but credit for my difficult, detailed, determined investigation went to another journalist. Such is the way of things when people can only see what is in front of their nose. But that is hardly the point I wish to make here.
More important was the blind intransigence of the Australian scientific community, media, public and professional classes to what was really happening. Even when the great scientific fraud that eventually brought William McBride down was revealed, many still refused to believe he could do any wrong. His cohort of staunch, powerful allies including the distinguished investigative journalist, Phillip Knightly, in the UK, refused to change their thinking even when presented with the incontrovertible facts.
McBride sought to silence me with a defamation suit in the Australian courts. That case ran for a decade or so until McBride eventually withdrew it as part of a wider settlement with my Australian publisher, the ABC.
Hence, again, my empathy with Mukesh. It is difficult to fight on alone when those with greater power seek to crush you. The established narrative of the moment—in Mukesh’s case that patience and silence would solve the problems in Darfur, in mine that I was irresponsible for outing the fraud while another was lauded for it and given the credit—takes enormous effort and great energy to shift, if it ever does.
People just want to keep believing what they have always believed; and they want none of the trouble that changing their beliefs entails. So they shoot the messenger. The status quo is a far easier place to occupy.
Hence the great isolation and loneliness of the leader who breaks the mould by speaking what to others is the unspeakable truth.
In Mukesh’s case, it was not only those in the UN command chain and other related international agencies who left him to flounder alone and were culpable by their silence.
In reading his story, I could not help wondering about the survivors of other genocidal atrocities. Where were their voices of support? Where was their outrage? Could they not form their own multi-nation, multiethnic, multi-religion lobby to demand international action for earlier and improved interventions and enhanced retributive and reconciliation systems to prevent and overcome similar crimes against humanity? Their silence seems no less disappointing than the limp-handed intransigence of any manager who stonewalled Mukesh.
But of course we can be more forgiving of other genocide survivors. Who would want to relive the trauma? Then again, perhaps they prefer to remain victims than become leaders. Or perhaps those survivors who do become leaders prefer to join the established order, be it the UN or the Red Cross, in an endeavour to make a difference. I hope it is the latter but would nonetheless like to see a more orchestrated and purposeful voice from those with a serious moral authority in this dreadful area.
Such things aside, I am led to reflect in reading Mukesh’s book that it is only the wider systems of societal control—ethical governance through systems of law and order built upon a moral code of fairness, decency, honesty, tolerance and the like—that actually keeps the sociopaths in check.
In other words, it is the situational constraints that prevent bad leadership from spilling into bad human behaviour that extends in the extreme to genocide. Remove those constraints and I have little doubt the nasty side of human nature has the potential to exert itself with unfathomable vengeance.
It is in this context that I recommend Mukesh Kapila’s Against a Tide of Evil. It is not just about Darfur, let alone Rwanda or Yugoslavia or Timor. It is about you and me. It is about our society. It is about the sort of world we want to create, strengthen and maintain.
An abiding theme of Against a Tide of Evil is that evil triumphs when a few good men do nothing. I would go further by saying that evil begins when we let it; and we let it when people in positions of power lack accountability for their failure.
Accountability breeds responsibility. That is the be-all and end-all of human relations. Good people like Mukesh hold themselves accountable to the highest standards of human behaviour. They need no external accountability mechanism. It is not so with others. School bullies, for instance, bully when they are left free to do so without consequence. They stop when held to account by those with power.
On the global stage, the role of the International Criminal Court becomes critical as a deterrent in delivering global accountability. Mukesh raises this precise point. But I was surprised to learn in reading his book that the ICC itself needs a reference from the UN Security Council before it can embark on any prosecutions against those who commit crimes against humanity.
This seems way off mark. It politicises the judicial process through a committee system that is not only overtly political but also subject to serious veto from political interests that for one reason or another may wish to see the killing continue.
As with all decent judicial systems, there needs to be an independent prosecutorial arm that can consider references on their own merits independent of any over political processes. A direct reference from a UN Humanitarian Coordinator should be sufficient to activate any ICC review to establish whether a prima facie case exists to warrant formal charges being laid.
While the UN would no doubt be highly reluctant to see any of its country heads having such an authority, it makes perfect sense to me that they should.
The media also has a role in bringing the spotlight of accountability to bear on any abuses. As a former journalist myself, I know just how important an independent and powerful media presence is or can be. It can bring governments to their knees or shake loose the numbing inertia of a body like the UN to actually do its job. While media reporting in itself is unlikely to stop the killing in any genocidal situation, it does bring huge pressure to bear on external interests to intervene with greeter force.
So what to make of all this in conclusion?
We in the West should not see the tragedy of Darfur as too distant to be relevant in our lives. Given the right conditions, it could happen anywhere.
As the West experiments with its own economic bankruptcy from massive government debt, it may be more than good fortune that we have so far escaped an economic and political collapse. Do we have sufficient social capital to remain as cohesive as we are should we find ourselves in such circumstances? Do we have the political leaders to move us in a positive direction if all else fails? Will anyone come to our rescue if we go the wrong way like Darfur?
Ponder well if you think such questions are unimportant. As you do, think of Against a Tide of Evil.
It is more than a story of what Mukesh Kapila did to stop the genocide in Darfur. It is a case study of failed politics, failed leadership, failed management and failed global systems that could not and would not respond with timely force to prevent or limit human suffering, suffering we could all experience should our own societies fail.
Mukesh Kapila’s book is, therefore, a work of great relevance to everyone. It offers a model of positive leadership we can all follow. It also offers a management study in what not to do.
My own book on Aceh’s recovery from the 2004 tsunami follows suit. It too offers a positive model for what we can do as a global community to rebuild after a mass human tragedy. Likewise, it offers a negative model of things to avoid by revealing what went wrong in Haiti when the international community transplanted misguided lessons from Aceh to that unfortunate country.
Together, the two books cover the field of man-made and natural catastrophe. Both should be read in their specific and widest context.
Organisational systems fail when individuals in supposed leadership positions within them fail. Leadership is the key to making them work, as Mukesh graphically highlights. But leadership is far from easy. It is more a political skill than a technical one. To do well, it requires great introspection and self-criticism; great strength and determination too. Mukesh offers all these and more in Against a Tide of Evil. I commend it to you.