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The Daily Review, Tue., Feb. 1

Into the dark heart of Africa Add to ...

When you combine the virtually lawless political environment in West Africa with ruthless mercenaries, desperate rebels, shady arms dealers, greedy oil executives, soulless intelligence operatives and the lure of illegal diamonds, you have a recipe for a spellbinding adventure story. With My Friend the Mercenary, first-time author James Brabazon certainly cooks this mix into a fast-paced page-turner.

Set largely in war-torn Liberia, the story starts in the spring of 2002. Having already spent some time covering war zones as a freelance photojournalist and filmmaker, Brabazon is offered a unique opportunity to accompany rebels from the group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) into Liberian territory, where they hope to depose the despised president, Charles Taylor.

Realizing the dangers associated with such a venture, Brabazon recruits the services of veteran South African mercenary Nick du Toit. Truly an odd couple, the fiftysomething du Toit and thirtysomething Brabazon nonetheless form a close bond as together they endure hardships, illness and, eventually, combat.

Although that first foray into Liberia ended in near disaster for the rebels, Brabazon became almost fixated on this relatively obscure regional conflict. As the rest of the Western world closely followed the fighting in Afghanistan and the U.S. build-up in preparation for the invasion of Iraq, he continued to seek out broadcasters and funding for his film projects in Liberia.

For his part, du Toit became embroiled in an ambitious scheme to topple the government of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea and replace the president with a puppet regime that would be more favourable to financial backers.

Through the trust and friendship that was forged during their challenging exploits in the jungles of Liberia, du Toit not only confided in Brabazon his coup plot, he also invited him to become an integral part of the mission's execution. Only sheer happenstance - the unfortunate timing of his grandfather's death - prevented Brabazon from accompanying du Toit and his comrades on their ill-fated "African Adventure."

On March 7, 2004, a Boeing 727 was seized at the airport in Harare, Zimbabwe, along with 64 suspected mercenaries and their equipment. Two days later, du Toit was arrested along with his advance guard in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea.

Aware of just how close a call he had - and realizing that he, too, would have ended up in Black Beach prison, the most notorious penitentiary in all of Africa - Brabazon attempted to help his mercenary friend by tracing the trail of intrigue behind the coup plot. The common denominator gleaned from this dissection of betrayal and greed at all levels is that there truly is no honour among thieves.

Throughout the entire tale, there are few, if any, truly likeable or even morally redeemable characters. The LURD rebels have no clear ideology, other than to use their drugged-up child soldiers to defeat Charles Taylor's equally stoned and youthful fighters. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and various other mercenaries similarly have little regard for the human suffering generated by their intrigue and mischief.

Depicting himself with a rare honesty, even Brabazon, as the central figure in this memoir, is far more of an anti-hero than a Hollywood stereotype. Hooked on the adrenaline rush of what he describes as filming the "bang, bang," he admits to suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, which takes a toll on his personal relationships. Furthermore, his admissions of willful co-operation with U.S. intelligence agencies and agreeing to (albeit not fulfilling) the desires of his mercenary colleagues to aid and abet a coup d'état clearly removes him from the ranks of legitimate war correspondents.

A brave adventurer and a brilliant storyteller, Brabazon cannot honestly be described as a journalist. It would seem that he understands this all too well, as his final passage reads: "I ask who I am, who I was, and what change I might be owed from the cost of all the hubris and bloodletting that became my career. Out of the darkness I try to conjure the dreams that will not come, and face the memories that will not go. Nick in his cell, me in my sanctuary.

"And I ask this, too: Who is the mercenary?"

Scott Taylor is a former soldier and an independent war correspondent. His most recent book is Unembedded: Two Decades of Maverick War Reporting.

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