Book review: My Friend the Mercenary, by James Brabazon

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Canongate, 352pp, £16.99

SIX years ago a Boeing 747 stuffed with mercenaries and their matriel was detained at Harare Airport in Zimbabwe. The news emerged that they had been intent on a bout of fashionable regime change in Equatorial Guinea.

That information was quickly followed by rumours that Mark Thatcher had, from his villa in South Africa, been knee-deep in the plot. The South African government was apparently considering extraditing Thatcher to face justice in Equatorial Guinea, whose Caligulan president Teodoro Obiang did not look fondly on political opposition.

At that point most British citizens were absorbed by the possibility that our former prime minister's son could spend the rest of his life hanging from his heels on a meat hook in one of the less sanitary sections of Black Beach Prison in Malabo.

For film-maker and journalist James Brabazon, Mark Thatcher was not a primary concern. Brabazon was thinking of another man who, instead of merely investing in the failed coup in March 2004, had been arrested on the ground and was being eaten alive by cockroaches in Black Beach Prison. That man was a middle-aged South African mercenary called Nick du Toit, and James Brabazon regarded him as perhaps his dearest friend.

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 film-maker 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.

In 2002 Brabazon, an adventurous but then unheralded journalist, decided to film the civil war in Liberia. He was advised to hire an experienced bodyguard and was introduced to Nick du Toit, a former South African Special Forces soldier who had since become one of the most celebrated mercenaries in Africa.

Brabazon employed du Toit because he wanted to get in and out of the Liberian bloodbath alive. What followed astonished him.

It is fair to say that Brabazon was personally responsible for forcing the Liberian conflict on the conscience of the rest of the world, and was therefore indirectly responsible for the foreign interventions which ended the civil war and ultimately delivered the psychopathic former president Charles Taylor to the International Criminal Court at The Hague. The film which he shot and the broadcasts that he made from Liberia had, in 2002 and 2003, stiff competition from better publicised war zones in the Middle East. But they were broadcast, and they made their stunning impression, because Brabazon recorded a medieval conflict fought with 21st-century weapons.

The most powerful chapters of his book are those that describe the Liberian war, and have attracted the front cover endorsement of Andy McNab. Most of us who have not been to war nonetheless know that it is horrible. Most of those who, like McNab, have been to war know exactly how horrible it is. But perhaps you have to experience modern war in equatorial Africa to understand why the Geneva Conventions were formulated. They were a partly successful attempt to paint a thin layer of humanity on to small fragments of the everyday business of slaughter.

Brabazon found himself a long way from Geneva, in unmitigated barbarity, among lords of the flies with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades. The horror is described wide-eyed in his book. Its most perfect summary comes when Brabazon returned to Liberia in 2003, having in the meantime edited and broadcast his film of 2002, which among other equally bilious outrages showed rebel Liberian fighters taking a prisoner, gleefully torturing him, disembowelling him alive and then eating his heart and liver.

He found himself back among the same rebels, who had certainly seen the film – they relished all media coverage of themselves. They regarded him with their usual indifference.

"The reason that none of these guys is pissed off with me about the film," Brabazon told a colleague, "is that none of them thinks that I filmed them doing anything wrong."

In the midst of this Gehenna, du Toit kept his AK-47 trained on the surrounding foliage, his eyes at Brabazon's back and his cynical courage before his charge's face. Brabazon is clearly a brave man. He equally clearly believes that he owes both his fortitude and his life to the South African mercenary.

In that Liberian abyss Brabazon was compelled to wonder, exactly who is the bad guy here? The blood-drenched "freedom fighter" or the more restrained mercenary? Just who is the "mercenary" – the profiteering journalist or his amiable bodyguard? The result in My Friend the Mercenary is a fascinating argument with himself – as well as with other people, not least the modern South Africans who tried to explain to Brabazon exactly what du Toit and his comrades got up to in the bad old days.

In 2003 du Toit began to drop enigmatic hints about a forthcoming adventure, which Brabazon might like to film. It involved the invasion by mercenaries of a small west African dictatorship. The two men drifted apart and Brabazon half-forgot those hints, until he turned on his television in March 2004 and saw the news from Zimbabwe. There but for fortune … there but for soldiers of fortune …

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. And yes, Mark Thatcher was involved, but he got away with a fine and a suspended sentence from a South African court. Du Toit did six years in Black Beach Prison.

Brabazon greeted his release with unalloyed pleasure. The achievement of this conflicted but compelling book is to help us to understand why. It may also persuade us that we are lucky to find vocations – almost any vocations – that do not oblige us to become drinking buddies with African mercenaries.