Friendship forged under fire

2010-07-25 13:00
Julian Rademeyer
Equatorial Guinea, 2004 – A man writhes in agony on the floor of a cell in Black Beach prison. His arms are twisted behind his back, handcuffs fastened so tightly they cut to the bone and rust shut as the flesh begins to rot. At night a drunken madman bursts into his cell and terrorises him with a loaded pistol, threatening to execute him.

The prisoner is Niek du Toit, a former South African special forces colonel, arms dealer and gun for hire. He is also the linchpin of a plot to overthrow the country’s dictator.

Rewind two years to another country and a secret war fought by gunmen with fanciful noms de guerre like Dragon Master, Bush Dog, Jungle Root and Nasty Duke.

It is 2002 and fighters with the rebel LURD army in Liberia are making a push towards Monrovia. With them is James Brabazon, a young English journalist in search of a “meaningful ­adventure” and determined to film close-quarters combat for the first time.

His camera follows a band of ragged teenage gunmen along a muddy jungle track. The only sounds are their hushed voices and the steady crunch of threadbare shoes on damp earth.

To his left is Du Toit, the man he hired as his bodyguard, clutching an AK-47 and scanning the bush for an ­escape route.

It was the beginnings of an unlikely alliance between a liberal British journalist raised to loathe apartheid and a former reconnaissance commando who had fought in apartheid South Africa’s dirty wars and whose suspicions of journalists were deeply ingrained.

Their friendship was forged in the flames of a brutal civil war and a journey into a conflict that had been raging largely unnoticed by the international community for three years.

Both became desperately ill and had to care for one another. Twice in one afternoon, Du Toit saved Brabazon’s life. And together they endured a hellish 480km journey into a war neither believed they would survive.

Throughout, Brabazon recorded ghastly images of combat, torture, executions and a truly horrific case of ­ritual cannibalism where a prisoner’s heart was cut out and eaten.

Brabazon’s memoir My Friend the Mercenary about the war in Liberia and his narrow escape from ending up in Black Beach prison along with the other Equatorial Guinea coup plotters, was launched in Joburg this week.

In an interview with City Press, Brabazon said the “most valuable lesson I learned from the experiences I had with Niek and with the rebels in Liberia is that there is no such thing as a good person or a bad person”.

“People do good things and evil things. The very black and white portrayal I’d been brought up with of people being either good or bad is a lie. It is much more nuanced than that.

“From the good I saw Niek do in my company as a friend, but also in helping save the lives of Liberian civilians, it seemed to me it was not as straightforward as saying that this man fought for apartheid and therefore is a bad man.”

Du Toit had been hired as Brabazon’s security adviser. A veteran of Executive Outcomes’ operations in Sierra Leone, he was a “natural, if unorthodox, choice”.

Brabazon had covered conflict before as a photographer in Kosovo.

“Liberia was the first time I witnessed close quarters combat. It was a very specific conflict and in many ways, an old-fashioned and medieval one fought with modern weapons.

“If you are the last person a dying man sees, that confers enormous ­responsibility on you, not only as a journalist, but as a moral entity. You can’t just parachute into war, film it and leave. It stays with you and you must tell those stories.”

A telling photograph in the book shows Brabazon and Du Toit seated side-by-side on a wooden bench.

It was taken on July 8 2002 during one of the worst days of fighting in the town of Tubmanburg.

“A prisoner-of-war had been brought back. He was a beautiful young man. He was shocked, there was a bullet wound in his arm. He had been stripped naked and on impulse I started filming him reasoning if I was filming they would not do anything to him.

“Then the body of a rebel soldier was brought back from the front. They shot the prisoner at point blank range where we were standing. I walked over to the dying man and kept filming.”

Then, Brabazon lit a cigarette, sat down on the bench with Du Toit and one of the rebels borrowed his camera and took two frames of them.

“Fifty yards to my right is a dead prisoner and a few hundred metres away there is hand-to-hand fighting going on. There came a point telling that story where I really expected to be killed. My survival was a statistical aberration and I sort of believed it was an inevitability that I would be killed. Niek stuck by my side the whole way.”

But he is realistic about Du Toit’s motivations. “Niek was something of an opportunist and saw opportunities for himself in this war.

“There was a genuine offer from him to assist me but later he began to have an interest in diamonds.

“Whoever I had been when I met Niek was a stranger to me when I returned to London. In order to survive, Niek had helped me navigate to a place inside myself so dark I could no longer find my way back to normal life. Without him to talk to, it seemed as if I was completely alone,” Brabazon writes.

Soon they were talking again, this time about Niek’s involvement in plans to overthrow the president of Equatorial Guinea. Brabazon was invited along to film the coup and introduced to Simon Mann, the former SAS officer who masterminded the coup attempt along with Mark Thatcher.

Brabazon had his bags packed and was ready to go. But then his grandfather died and he missed the call. Had it not been for that twist of fate, Brabazon would most likely have been jailed and tortured alongside Du Toit.

Du Toit, who was released from Black Beach Prison last year and repatriated to South Africa after “five years of hell”, has vowed he will never take up arms again as a mercenary.

He now works on contract for a friend in a vehicle manufacturing plant in the Middle East.

“The book’s title should be My Friend the Ex-mercenary. That life is behind me. I’m calm and happy and there is nothing chasing me,” Du Toit said. He is uncomfortable with being labelled a mercenary and sees himself as a man who was professional soldier.

He says he is “ashamed” of his ­involvement in the coup attempt and regrets it. Many of the men jailed with him are now doing security work in ­Angola.

Of the book, Du Toit says: “It is a truthful account of events. It’s a little bit harsh on me, but that is what happened. We are still pals. We share each other’s pain and hardship and future plans. He’s almost family.”

Brabazon believes Du Toit. “Niek saw the bottom line quickly that mercenaries and war reporters both need war and both need to get paid after it.”

Du Toit has paid his dues, he believes. “Nobody else involved has said they regret what they did or are ashamed of what they did. Niek has made a very full and frank apology.”

  • To win a copy a James Brabazon's memoir My Friend the Mercenary, get a copy of City Press for competition details.