Published by Penguin in 2004
‘Asylum-seeker’; ‘refugee’; ‘immigrant’. ‘Bogus’, ‘scrounging’ ‘criminal.’ In modern Britain, all these words mean the same thing. Newspapers shout about swarms of refugees; others criticise our government’s lack of humanitarian principles. Hardly anyone bothers to look at the refugees themselves, or to imagine what it feels like to leave your home, your family, your life behind and that you might have a good reason for doing so. While newspapers decry “soft-touch Britain,” actually home to only 2% of the world’s 12 million refugees, poorer countries look after millions, with little funding and not much thanks.
After decades of brutal war, Liberia, a small West African country founded by freed American slaves, and Africa’s first democracy, was by the early 21st century, the top refugee-producer in the world, proportionately, with two-thirds of its population displaced internally or over its borders. In 2003, six months after peace arrived in Liberia, I travelled to West Africa to discover what really happens when you are uprooted by war, greed and guns, or – as Liberians would put it – when you’ve been “running, running, running” for 14 years non-stop. When you’ve rebuilt your house five times, and it’s been looted six times, so you don’t bother putting glass in the windows any more. When you carry your mobile phone in your underwear so rebels don’t snatch it. When you’ve been a refugee so long, your camp has an internet café. When, like Francis Fladé Nemlin, you’re a highly-paid NGO worker one minute, and a refugee in a transit centre with 16 dependents, only two weeks later. “Anyone can become a refugee,” he says. “Why not?”
To take a problematic subject and make it enjoyable, accessible and informative is the mark of a good writer. George’s exploration of what it means, in practical terms, to be a refugee in some of the most harsh areas of the world is truly compelling. Taking as her base point the savage – and at times banal – war that ravaged Liberia and the surrounding countries of west Africa, George builds a fascinating picture of a world gone mad, where the reign of tyrants combined with the abuse of tribal loyalties results in an entire country being turned almost comically insane. Can you believe that one of the election rally calls of Charles Taylor was “He killed my ma, he killed my pa – I’ll vote for him”? Comic, if it wasn’t true. George succeeds by rising above the worthiness of her subject and presenting stories of ordinary people surviving in debilitating and humiliating situations, largely through their innate sense of humour and good nature. An exceptional work.
Brian Hennigan, Glasgow Herald