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Witness to the world's most intractable hatreds

ME AGAINST MY BROTHER: AT WAR IN SOMALIA, SUDAN AND RWANDA By Scott Peterson Routledge 357 pp. $26

Once it was said there were four horsemen of the Apocalypse: War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death. Monitor correspondent Scott Peterson has met them all, in Africa and in many other parts of the world. His fascination with the first of the four has taken him to many embattled places where chaos is more characteristic than order, where conflict resolution is an oxymoron, and where the coveted reporter's freedom to move and report is circumscribed by the exigencies of local politics.

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In "Me Against My Brother," Peterson focuses on three African countries. The book is a detailed and illustrated tour of the ill-defined battlegrounds of Somalia, a country riven with clan warfare; Rwanda, the site of a genocide that rivaled Pol Pot's murderous rampage in Cambodia; and Sudan, where holy wars rooted in the Crusades still rage and where all four horsemen often seem conflated into one gargantuan nightmare. (There are 16 pages of painfully vivid photographs.)

The book is also an examination and analysis of the complicated "aid game" played by governments, international organizations like the United Nations, and a myriad of nongovernmental groups that provide various forms and degrees of protection and assistance.

In his critique of ill-conceived US policies in Africa, Peterson suggests that too often American leaders, whose rhetoric is invariably laced with phrases about peace and freedom and the protection of human rights, seem to act "as if a decision had been made that Africa and Africans were not worth justice."

In his prologue, Peterson not only offers such critical comments, but introduces the political contexts of the three cases that form the core of his report.

Throughout the rest of the book, he provides needed historical background, introduces key players in tragic dramas, and describes in detail the hellish contexts where deadly debates about tribalism, nationalism, ethnic control, religion, geography, and hegemony are played out. The shifting allegiances and alliances in these regions confound even informed observers, and widespread corruption exists at each level of society. Peterson takes us through inconceivable Faustian bargains that have been struck only to collapse as the fervor of hatred drives quiet souls to commit unspeakable acts.

In chapter after chapter, the reader is drawn in to the text, vicariously bearing witness to manifold crimes against humanity and also learning about the complexities of seeking solutions. Almost as disturbing as the poignant portraits of suffering is the revelation that many of the righteous paladins who seek to relieve their suffering, sometimes become inadvertent participants themselves. Their dilemma is illustrated in many countries, but may be best summarized in Peterson's terse comment about the terrible reality of "saving children only so they can fight in the war," as he suggests happened during Operation Lifeline.

Such action continues to confound would-be saviors in Sudan, the place that is suffering "the most desperate and corrosive [and least publicized] of all conflicts in Africa."

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Peterson himself states it aptly when he writes, "This is not a pretty book." It isn't. But it is a terribly important one.

*Peter I. Rose teaches sociology and anthropology at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. His most recent book is 'Tempest-Tost: Race, Immigration, and the Dilemmas of Diversity,' (Oxford University Press).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society