In praise of ants

In praise of ants

It’s seven months since the incomparable Gaëtan Mootoo took his own life. Gaëtan dedicated that life to a travail de fourmi, ant-work, though on a grand canvas. As Amnesty International’s longest-serving Africa researcher, he spent over thirty years patiently documenting the ways in which individual named women, men and children have been affected by war, state oppression, poverty and violence across West and Central Africa. In the 1980s he gathered some of the earliest evidence of atrocities by the regime of Chad’s former president Hissène Habré, contributing key parts of a record that eventually led to Habré’s life imprisonment in 2016. He was in Abidjan at the start of the second Ivoirian civil war in 2004, and a decade on was still chasing the truth about allegations of French aerial attacks on pro-Gbagbo demonstrators in the aftermath of the Bouaké bombardment, as well as international justice for Gbagbo’s own crimes. At the time of his death he was pursuing mass graves in northern Mali, and the killers of journalists like Norbert Zongo in Burkina Faso. Gaëtan’s work continues to radiate outwards in many directions.

Just before Christmas, one small strand of his work, amongst many, echoed back. A US Treasury press release plinked into my phone, announcing sanctions on Major-General (retd.) Israel Ziv, and on three private security companies that Ziv co-owns. The US government claims that Ziv has

supplied both the Government of South Sudan and the opposition with weapons and ammunition. Ziv used an agricultural company that was nominally present in South Sudan to carry out agricultural and housing projects for the Government of South Sudan as a cover for the sale of approximately $150 million worth of weapons to the government, including rifles, grenade launchers, and shoulder-fired rockets. Ziv has been paid through the oil industry and has had close collaboration with a major multi-national oil firm. While Ziv maintained the loyalty of senior Government of South Sudan officials through bribery and promises of security support, he has also reportedly planned to organize attacks by mercenaries on South Sudanese oil fields and infrastructure, in an effort to create a problem that only his company and affiliates could solve.

I’ve been peripherally aware of Ziv’s activities in South Sudan for several years, but the scale and scope of these allegations, if true, surprised even me (Ziv has denied them). Nonetheless Ziv’s pedigree would have been grimly familiar to Gaëtan, as would the strategy of rolling up military assistance in development projects. It was one of Gaëtan’s reports on Guinea, back in 2009, that first named one of Ziv’s now-sanctioned companies, Global Law Enforcement and Security Ltd (GLS). It took another nine years, and a second armed conflict 3000 miles away, for its activities to reach a reckoning with the gloved fist of U.S. sanctions. Nonetheless it was arguably Gaëtan’s tenacity, coupled with the depth of his astonishing address book — the slow accretion of all that patient ant-work across West Africa — that helped put Ziv and his companies on the international radar in the first place.

I didn’t know Gaëtan nearly as well as many other Amnesty International colleagues, present and former. But I did have the privilege of spending one of the most formative three-week periods of my life with him in Guinea in late 2009, helping to research and write that report: an apprenticeship that expanded my early experiences of field research in ways that have shaped my life and career ever since.

We were there in the immediate aftermath of one of the great ruptures of recent Guinean history: the 28th September 2009, when beret rouge presidential commandos and gendarmes opened fire on a huge peaceful demonstration inside Conakry’s main stadium against the CNDD junta that had taken power in a coup nine months previously. Over 150 people were killed. Soldiers and gendarmes raped at least 40 women in the stadium and the surrounding streets. Other female protestors were kidnapped by members of the security forces and held in private houses around the city, where they were drugged and abused for days. Ours was one of a rash of UN, media and human rights teams parachuted somewhat inefficiently into Conakry to try to make sense of what had happened that day, and what was then still happening as the junta itself slowly imploded in further violence (a week after we left, the junta’s leader, Captain Moussa ‘Dadis’ Camara, was shot in the head by men loyal to Dadis’ aide-de-camp, precipitating his evacuation to Morocco and weeks of negotiation with a caretaker vice-president, which managed to avert an all-out civil war and return Guinea eventually to democratic civilian rule).

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The 28 September 2009 demonstration and its aftermath (c) Amnesty International

I was 28, and new to Amnesty. I had recently joined as its temporary Military/Security/Police researcher. This was my first Amnesty ‘mission’, in the unfortunate evangelical nomenclature of Amnesty’s internal vocabulary. I had no idea what to expect. Gaëtan asked me simply to meet him in Paris with a notebook, and to bring him a copy of Much Ado About Nothing from a London bookshop. He dined me regally in Montparnasse that night, and the following morning we flew to Conakry.

For the next three weeks, Gaëtan never seemed to stop, even to read Shakespeare. He ate little: breakfast in the morning, and then nothing but a glass of bissap or a coffee until the end of the day. And from morning till late into the night we met … everyone. Because everyone in Conakry seemed to know Gaëtan: not only Guinean human rights defenders of all political stripes (whose own skilful and courageous documentation formed the poorly-credited basis of what all us foreign investigators in the capital were doing); but also some of the most senior members of the CNDD junta itself, who remembered Gaëtan’s advocacy for their own rights during their long years of repression and imprisonment under the previous regime, back to the 1990s. This gave him unique access to some of those who planned and executed the 28th September massacre, at a time when everyone was afraid to speak, as violence continued, and as the country seemed to be sliding towards fracture.

And so it was — sitting late one night in a Conakry suburb in near-total darkness with a general whose military trial Gaëtan had attended as a fair-trial observer fifteen years earlier, and who greeted Gaëtan as an old friend — that we first heard about a private firm of foreign mercenaries training a new youth militia for the junta. The general explained how since seizing power Captain Dadis had begun recruiting Guerzé youths from his own region, Guinée forestière, as the new regime’s trusted enforcers. Some into seven new escadron mobile units of a massively expanded gendarmerie – to which, we later found, French government trainers remaining in the country had continued to offer training for several months after the coup. And some, the general said, into a new, two thousand-strong non-uniformed militia being trained in two camps in the Kindia region to the east of Conakry by foreign military trainers contracted by the junta.

In these febrile weeks, with many expecting a new civil war, Conakry was awash with rumours of this kind. Of night-time Libyan arms flights into the airport. Of diamond-funded mercenaries training militias in the forests. But no precise details about who these trainers were, or who was ultimately employing them. It was the general who first told us who was paying these trainers, what exactly they were doing, and that a private Israeli firm had been in charge of the operation’s inception.

A tip from a general sitting in the dark wasn’t any kind of proof. The next day we met formally with one of the military officers in charge of some of the forces that had attacked the stadium protestors on the 28 September. He’d returned to Guinea several months earlier after a posting as a senior official in the UN Mission in Haiti. Swapping a blue beret for a green one evidently hadn’t suited him. There were several weeks’ worth of dirty plates stacked high in his office around an unmade camp bed. Visibly sleep-deprived, he banged his fist on the table as he emphatically justified his subordinates’ actions at the stadium – necessary, he said, to subdue an Islamic plot that was “threatening the country’s national character”. And as Gaëtan talked back, quietly, politely, we noticed that amidst the paperwork piled on his desk lay a glossy brochure for a company called GLS – Global Law Enforcement and Security Ltd.

We didn’t get to read the brochure, but something rang a bell in my head. Something about another firm I’d come across at an arms fair the year before, and whose own brochure I’d picked up, offering a kind of one-stop-shop for the aspiring African political operative: advice on how to set up your new political party, to be dispensed by a former Likud party manager; arms and military equipment, offered by a well-known Israeli arms broker; training for your police force and army to manage “tension amongst the different branches and parties” during “a Democratic Election Campaign”, to be provided by a prominent former Israeli police commander and another former IDF commander.

Several days later, Gaëtan’s contacts book performed another serendipitous magic trick. He had found another opposition activist injured at the stadium, and as we talked, one of his young relatives sat listening impassively beside him. When we began to talk about the security forces and their role, the relative said, diffidently, that he’d been hired a few months earlier to work for a company called GLS at a former gendarmerie camp outside Forecariah, 70 kilometres to the southwest.

The detailed description we obtained that night of the training and drilling of youths at the camp, of the trainers’ names and designations, and of how the recruitment was being organised, corroborated everything we’d heard from military officials, and later from a second camp worker; as well as documentation relating to the trainers that we subsequently obtained. And, critically, it tied the operation back to GLS.

The intrepid Rukmini Callimachi, then with the Associated Press, later proved that the white trainers were indeed in Forecariah by doorstepping them in their hotel there. But they were discreet enough not to mention the Israeli company’s name (though not genteel enough not to threaten to mace a lone female journalist). When we got back to London we were able to put together a larger body of evidence. We obtained names and email correspondence between some of the trainers, mostly former South African policemen, describing their travel to Guinea and their immediate handlers; interviews with some of the trainers themselves — contracted through two separate UAE-registered companies — and with an official from GLS’ parent company, Israel Ziv’s Global-CST; photographs of the trainers at the camp, and documentary evidence of their journey to Forecariah. Enough confidently to name the company publicly.

(Global-CST adamantly denied that it had provided any military training in the camps; admitted that it had signed a contract to provide a new presidential guard to Dadis’ regime but said that it had “diverted the project to a foreign company to comply directly with Israeli law requirements“; and insisted that it had instead been engaged in building a water treatment plant just outside Conakry, technical preparations for an election, and agricultural consulting).

This body of corroborating documentary evidence was critical. But without Gaëtan’s access to the Guineans at the very top and the very bottom of the militia operation, we would never have started our inquiry; would never have found out who was involved, and what they were doing; would never have had the confidence to piece together the rest of the trail elsewhere.

***

I learned two things from Gaëtan, and from our elliptical pursuit of the mercenaries in the forest. Both are blindingly obvious in theory, but difficult to achieve in practice. First, Gaëtan showed me the investigative value of deep and diffuse networks of contacts, of the kind that can only be built up through years of actually being in places and talking to people. The obverse of Gaëtan’s working practices is now in vogue in conflict and human rights research: the kind of open-source investigative research that can take an individual’s name and tell you from deep-diving social media what she had for breakfast. This online OSINT work can generate extraordinary levels of detail. It can parse facts with enormous sophistication. Nonetheless it’s usually assembling a jigsaw from information and documentation generated tangentially to the object of your enquiry, and thus with pieces missing: gaps of human action and intention that are sometimes obscured by the dazzling detail on the pieces of the jigsaw that you’ve found. Though it’s rarely appreciated, the best of this open-source work – including that done by Amnesty itself — fills in the gaps through old-fashioned legwork: by getting real people who have been involved in an event to tell you what they did and saw. And that’s only really possible through large, diffuse, non-specific networks of contacts. The kind of associative miracles that Gaëtan’s contact book conjured every day. I sincerely hope that Amnesty, for all its changes, necessary and not, remains an organisation that values these extraordinary deep networks, and the labour needed to build them.

Gaëtan wasn’t old-fashioned in this respect. We also used social media sourcing in our Guinea investigation in ways that may not have been totally new, but which were certainly then under-developed, at least for African conflict research. 2009 was roughly the point, for instance, at which enough people in rich countries had got rid of their first camera-phones for them to be fairly widely available in west Africa; but just before Twitter became widely enough used to serve as a remote, real-time feed for what people were filming and photographing. Almost everyone we met in Conakry had a video of the massacre on their phone that they’d either taken, or had received from someone else. Without Twitter, you still had to do some cursory legwork to see them, in ways that now seem baroque. The first thing that the first person I interviewed said was ‘Tu as le Bluetooth?’ In Conakry’s markets, a few weeks after the massacre, you could buy ‘28 septembre’ CD-ROMs, or view them in the small market shacks where you could also pay 50 CFA to watch pirated showings of Fast and Furious 4, or play FIFA 09 for fifteen minutes on a Playstation console taped to the ceiling. At home in Paris, Gaëtan declined even to own a mobile phone. In Conakry, though, he was a rapid convert to the possibility of triangulating testimony with crowd-sourced phone footage, even if we weren’t yet doing it in a very sophisticated way.

Similarly, some of our best photographic evidence of the foreign militia trainers came through looking up the Facebook profiles of the trainers whose email addresses were included in logistics emails we’d obtained, and finding the training camp photos they’d helpfully posted for their friends in their own galleries. The kind of thing that is now the bread-and-butter groundwork of every journalist, but which then felt quite new.

Nonetheless we’d never have found those photographs — still less turned them, and other evidence, into a publishable account of who did what, when, and where — without those late-night, sodium-lit conversations in peripheral districts of Conakry.

Of course, some OSINT evangelists will say that they can also reproduce these human networks: using Twitter feeds and public records and Facebook pages to conjure the names and contact details of a dizzying number of bystanders to any given event. But the account you might get from DM’ing a previously uncontacted Twitter handle, or cold-calling a Facebook poster, is one that the teller wants uncompromisingly to be told, and to be told in that way. That account will be laser-like: often hugely illuminating, but fiercely directed. Gaëtan was the master of an entirely different approach. From his astonishing contact book he generated testimony, documents and evidence from shy bystanders, and even perpetrators. Testimony that didn’t always want to be told, shedding an altogether more diffuse, diffident lamplight. This testimony and documentation may be no more intrinsically truthful than the broadcasting of a witness you just met on Twitter; but it can include insider details you can never get from speaking purely to the abused and the outraged, however indispensable their voices are.

This kind of testimony, however, requires motivation. And Gaëtan’s second lesson – one I’m still trying to learn – was that that motivation could come not from pressure or flattery; but simply from the complicated solidarity that bound him to those whose careers, suffering and cruelties he’d been documenting for three decades. He’d been there with them, these politicians, soldiers, activists and policemen. Gaëtan didn’t pretend to be their friend: an imprisoned opposition politician knew that they wouldn’t be exempt from Gaëtan’s unbiased scrutiny when ten years later they themselves came to power. But they had a shared history, a proximity of experience, that allowed Gaëtan the most surprising access to the protagonists and not just the witnesses of events: from the political prisoners to the ethnic cleansers, and to those who have been both.

(Though it’s often unspoken in human rights research, and uncomfortable for peripatetic white researchers like myself, I think an undeniable element of all this was the fact that all the members of our team, except me, were African: Gaëtan originally from Mauritius, and a doctor specialising in sexual violence who joined us from Dakar).

It’s that proximity of experience that I think ultimately distinguishes Gaëtan’s decades-long West African pilgrimage from the dazzling open-source conflict research that is now on the rise. Such open-source research looks across the global panopticon of the internet to see what is being done to and by strangers ‘over there’. It can find hidden things about Russian intelligence officers or Belizean money launderers the researcher has never met. And it can broadcast and amplify the messages, suffering and experiences of other distant strangers. Of course it would be idiotic not to exploit that global panopticon to the fullest possible extent. It has changed conflict and human rights investigations irrevocably, and for the better. But without deeper personal connections to the subjects and truth-tellers in our investigations, we can’t generate the shared experiences, the strange solidarity – complex and ambiguous though it may be — between subject and chronicler, that can unlock sources, perspectives and truths not to be found on the internet.

***

I have many other memories of those electric weeks in Guinea. I remember Gaëtan looking out the window during an interview at the offices of a Guinean human rights organisation, seeing a Land Cruiser full of beret rouge commandos arriving at the building and coming up the front steps, and gathering his notebooks and briefcase with supreme calm while he said “Mike, je pense que nous partons s’il ne te derange pas”, before we and our interviewees raced out the back stairs. (Gaëtan always seemed to know when to leave, and where the back stairs were.)

I remember our delegation meeting the regime’s newly installed Prime Minister to present our findings about the massacre. At the end of the meeting Gaëtan scooted into the seat next to the Prime Minister on the sofa to advocate for two minutes for the new regime to abolish the death penalty. Whatever human rights scandal the media happened to be focussed on that month, even in the midst of an incipient civil war Gaëtan never seemed to forget to take the opportunity to push on the hard, slow work of these long-term campaigns.

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(L) Donka morgue, Conakry, where many of the bodies of protestors were taken after the 28 September 2009 stadium massacre; (R) Social media 1.0: protestors take cellphone videos of Guinean gendarmes outside Conkary Stadium, 28 September 2009 (c) Author/Amnesty International

I remember feeling deeply, crawlingly ashamed when a group of women who had been assaulted during the massacre came to find us at our hotel at the end of our trip to present us with a huge, beautifully dressed fish covered with grilled bananas. (Several years later, I heard from one of these women how over the next two years Gaëtan helped them with both money and advocacy to obtain asylum in France; one of many refugee cases on which Gaëtan and Amnesty’s French section worked, largely invisibly, and often with his own resources).

I remember leaving Conakry late at night, and walking through the doors of the airport to find our path to the check-in desks blocked by Lt-Col Moussa Tiégboro, the tall and physically imposing leader of Guinea’s anti-drug brigade, whom Guinean prosecutors have charged with helping direct the massacre. Dressed in the brigade’s skin-tight black T-shirts, Lt-Col Tiégboro and his adjutants led us into a side room. I was petrified that they would search us, take our notes, find the photographs on our memory cards. Tiégboro opened a laptop to show us a video of a Guinean journalist who had recently been detained by his Brigade – to prove to us that he was still alive, it seemed, but which was little reassurance for our own position. Gaëtan peered politely at the laptop over his glasses, assured the Lieutenant-Colonel that we would note his statements in our report, and thanked him firmly for facilitating our passage through Conakry’s international airport. There was a pause. And then, somehow, some kind of tension left the room, and we were suddenly having a cordial cup of coffee while Tiégboro ordered the Air France flight on the tarmac to wait for us.

Gaëtan’s colleagues have hundreds of these kinds of stories, many posted online since his death. Just as we should be wary of the kind of orientalist fabulation of fieldwork of which I’m undoubtedly guilty here, so we should also be wary of nostalgically beatifying fieldworkers like Gaëtan. His style and his refusal to compromise his working methods didn’t always find favour with everyone, either inside or outside Amnesty. But the sheer number of these stories about him; the volume, corroboration and charisma of these testimonies; paints a picture that will surpass and outlive any of the grim inquiries currently underway into his death.

***

Incidentally, I’ve no doubt that Global-CST’s Conakry water plant was indeed built. The firm even sent me photographs of its opening ceremony in Conakry’s Sonfonia district. Nonetheless in May 2010, after our report was published, the Israeli Ministry of Defence announced that Global-CST had been fined a reported NIS 90,000 (about USD 25,000) for negotiating to supply arms and military training to the Guinean regime without prior approval. A Global-CST representative told me that this was a misunderstanding, and that though they’d signed a contract for “a certain security project” a few days before their official licence arrived, they had nonetheless switched their focus to “substantially improv[ing] the distribution of safe drinking water” to the people of Conakry. This slap on the wrist doesn’t seem to have substantially slowed down the company, which opened up a major new project in South Sudan in 2016, two years into the country’s breathtakingly violent civil war. But it did draw the attention of the US and Israeli governments to the company and its principals; and they’ve evidently continued to watch.

It’s still to be seen whether the far more powerful US sanctions now levied on Global-CST, GLS and their founder will dim their humanitarian enthusiasms, whether for water plants, farming projects, military training or arms deals. If it does, it will be thanks to the slow ant-work of many people: including – in part – Gaëtan Mootoo, Rukmini Callimachi, and Guinean officials and activists who can’t be named here. Ant-work that was never the grand, dazzling exposé; but the patient digging of a hole.

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