November 5th, 2008

earthrise

The Death of V

Apparently V died yesterday. I don't make a habit of studying the lives of dictators of countries I otherwise know little about, but V shared my precise date of birth: like me, he was born on 26 April 1967. Unlike me, he was born to a young single mother in the capital of a developing country; like me he went to the local grammar school; unlike me, he joined his country's army as soon as he had finished school, aged 18 in 1985, and rose rapidly through the ranks, to the point where he had a commanding role in the government campaign against the rebels in the east of the country.

V's country was a corrupt single party state, and the army was exceptionally poorly supplied. Three days after his/my/our twenty-fifth birthday, on 29 April 1992, (when I was in Belfast, researching what became my PhD) he led his fellow soldiers on a protest march from the east to the capital. The government fled, and V found himself the youngest head of state in the world, in charge of a disintegrating country faced with an unwinnable civil war.

V was not a good president. He killed his political opponents in mass executions; he conscripted children as young as twelve into the army; he kept power by paying off white mercenaries with his country's looted diamond wealth; and the rebel insurgency gained in strength, to the point where on 13 January 1996, when I was busy with the Northern Ireland peace process, debating the possibility of elections and George Mitchell's report on decommissioning of terrorist weapons, V's colleagues removed him from office, and themselves handed over power to a democratically elected government two months later. V fled to Britain for asylum, eventually starting (but not finishing) a law degree in Warwick University and working as a nightclub bouncer.

In 2000, the year after I had moved to Belgium, V left the UK and went back home again, living unemployed with his mother in the dismal suburb where he was born, reportedly drinking heavily and rumoured to be using narcotics. Yesterday's news is therefore not surprising. Of the various mildly famous people who share my birthdate, two others have died, one murdered in South Africa, the other in a car accident. V's death appears to have been from more or less natural causes, exacerbated by lifestyle choices.

I deliberately haven't named his country up to now, because I wanted to tell the human story of someone with whom I have only the obscurest of links. But if you are interested, it was Sierra Leone, and V's full name was Valentine Esegragbo Melvin Strasser. Not many people will miss him, but presumably his mother loved him.

Edited to add: According to his mother, this is all untrue and he is not dead after all.
usa

A New Start

By glorious chance I happen to be in New York at the moment, and watched the results coming in with friends who live uptown. I got a cab back but ran into celebrating crowds when we reached 47th St, so paid it off and walked the rest of the way to the hotel (on 29th). An amazing atmosphere, and I'm so glad I was here (and bought the T-shirt).

And I realised I'd been concentrating more on the party politics of it, but for the black people of America this is a moment of triumph. By the time the final result was called, everyone else had left the party except me and a black friend of my friends; and she was in floods of joyful tears. People who in living memory had difficulty even in voting have now elected one of their own. My son will grow up thinking it is not remarkable that America could have a black president; my friends' baby boy, due in January, will not remember a time when there wasn't one until he turns eight (God and the voters willing). That is what makes it such a special moment.

(And the Obama daughters will get a puppy.)