Children Are Diamonds

Children Are Diamonds
by Edward Hoagland
232 pp. Arcade Publishing. $23.95

In the late 1970s, the novelist and travel writer Edward Hoagland spent several months in Sudan, which was then Africa’s largest country and one of its most fragile. There he observed the deepening divide between the Arab north and the black Christian south, exacerbated by “demoralizing poverty” and the influence of militant Islam. His account of his journey, “African Calliope,” wove encounters with government ministers and Dinka cattle herders, expatriate businessmen and Khartoum taxi drivers into a portrait of a country struggling for unity yet tipping toward civil war.

Hoagland’s terrifying and powerful new novel, “Children Are Diamonds: An African Apocalypse,” revisits the region long after the tipping point has been passed. It is the 1990s in southern Sudan, where decades of tension have exploded into one of the continent’s most brutal conflicts. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army, knitted from several southern tribes, has been fighting a war of independence against the government in Khartoum, which launches periodic offensives and sends bombers to strafe the countryside. But the S.P.L.A. itself has split along tribal lines, with one faction, the Nuer, newly allied with the government and the other, the Dinkas, continuing to press for secession. The war has also had a spillover effect. The Lord’s Resistance Army, a messianic band of insurgents, has found sanctuary in the anarchic region along the Ugandan-­Sudanese border, abducting children and massacring civilians in the Ugandan bush.

Hoagland’s central character, Hickey, is an American, a former schoolteacher and current adventure-seeker based in Nairobi, the crime-ridden capital of Ken­ya. On the lam from Egypt after embezzling from an American shipping company at the start of the Persian Gulf war, he scrapes together a living smuggling gold, hiring himself out to safari companies and driving grain-laden trucks to refugee camps. “I am a guide, ne’er-do-well, aid worker, what-have-you,” he announces at the outset.

During his downtime, Hickey hangs around the rooftop swimming pool at the New Stanley hostelry, a refuge for missionaries and airline crews, and shacks up with a parade of Kenyan girls and lonely expatriates. When a friend from a Baptist-­financed relief group, Protestants Against Famine, hires him to run medical kits and food to a relief station in southern Sudan, he loads up a Land Cruiser and heads off on the long, risky drive north through territory controlled by the Lord’s Resistance Army, with a self-described “consultant” (and presumed spook) named Craig along for the ride.

“Children Are Diamonds” is the latest addition to a remarkable collection of books about the war in southern Sudan, including Aidan Hartley’s “Zanzibar Chest,” Deborah Scroggins’s “Emma’s War” and Dave Eggers’s “What Is the What.” Like them, Hoagland’s novel evokes the time and place with haunting imagery. Here again is the raw beauty of a land where all development has been frozen by the fighting. “Beyond the gorge sat endless savanna grasslands, woodlands, parkland in tropical, light-filled yellows and greens,” Hickey observes of the region around the Bahr al-Jebel, the “Mountain Nile” in the territory of the Dinka pastoralists. “Although the hartebeest, kob, buffalo and reedbuck may already have been eaten and the rhinos and elephants shot to buy guns with their horns or tusks, the vistas remained primeval.”

Here also are scenes of deep suffering. Displaced Dinkas fleeing Antonov bombing raids by the Sudanese Army flood the medical compound of Protestants Against Famine, an abandoned church school deep in the bush. “One man was burdened by a goiter the size of a bagpipe’s bladder; another with a hernia bulging like an overnight bag,” Hickey observes. There are patients “with cataracts, V.D., bronchitis, scabies, nosebleeds, chest pains, Parkinson’s, thrush cellulitis, breast tumors,. plus the usual heartbreaking woman whose urinary tract, injured in childbirth, dripped continuously, turning her into a pariah, although it would have been as easy as the hernia for a surgeon to fix.”

Trying to hold them all together is Ruth Parker, a middle-aged nurse from Ohio who has survived her own recent trauma, having been kidnapped and possibly raped by a breakaway gang of rebels, then made to walk 20 miles back to her clinic, naked. Quietly competent and defiant, Ruth has assembled a small surrogate family. Leo, a Maryknoll priest, “a shambling, white-haired Dubliner,” came to Sudan because, he tells Hickey, he had “tired of counseling drunks.” Bol, a Dinka schoolteacher whose “skinny wistfulness” hints at a terrible past, holds classes for war orphans under a tamarind tree and dreams of escape to England or the United States. Ruth ritualistically walks a maze in the garden and tends to an emaciated waif she has adopted and named after the priest. “Although she did not consider Him responsible for every famished child, the accumulation of outrages was undermining her faith,” Hickey notes as the war creeps closer. “She prayed less, walked her Labyrinth more; and feeding little Leo every few hours helped a lot.”

Hoagland aptly captures the lives of Western do-gooders and opportunists lured by the adrenaline rush of Africa, evoking the closeness, and the randomness, of death in a war zone. Many characters — the bush pilot called Mickey (“like Rooney in the movies”) who cracks jokes about his “joystick,” the C.I.A. man who maintains a furtive silence about his mission — are rarely sketched beyond a pithy description and a few lines of dialogue. But Hoagland gets the details of their world right: the crackle of Serbo-Croatian or Russian, heard over a shortwave radio, from the cockpit of an Antonov; the casual arrogance of S.P.L.A. commanders; the maneuverings of penniless African girls in Nairobi or Kampala, selling themselves to Westerners in exchange for a decent meal and perhaps a new blouse.

He also paints an indelible portrait of Hickey, whose world-weary detachment fades when he is confronted by the scale of the suffering he sees in southern Sudan and by Ruth’s courage and commitment. Eventually he returns to Kenya with a Land Cruiser full of damaged children who have sought refuge in Ruth’s compound, including a walleyed girl named Ya-Ya and Otim, an escapee from the Lord’s Resistance Army who was forced to murder his own parents: “The ritual was that they should help kill members of their own families . . . so that they couldn’t think of running home, and eat a piece of their parents, to sever them forever into pliancy.”

Soon after Hickey’s return to Nairobi, the Sudanese Army launches an offensive that sends tens of thousands of civilians fleeing into the countryside and claims the lives of three Norwegian medical workers near Ruth’s compound. Hickey is dispatched in a small plane to rescue her. “It’s so random it’s bedlam,” Ruth exclaims as she, Hickey, Bol and several orphans prepare for the harrowing journey ahead. “You have to believe in heaven, and I don’t know if I do.”

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