The Liberian Avenger
Harpers. Vanity Fair. The New Yorker. Its no surprise these mags are all finalists in the Reporting category of the National Magazine Awards. But this year, the glossies are facing a dark horse. Human Rights Quarterly (HRQ), an academic journal with 2000 subscribers worldwide, has muscled in with a 19,000-word analysis of the human rights situation in Liberia.
"I've been in seventh heaven" since hearing the news, says HRQ editor Bert Lockwood. "It's a surprise and an honor to be included."
So what made the piece, by a 34-year-old lawyer named Kenneth Cain, worthy of contending with The New Yorker's Ken Auletta and Seymour Hersh, whose coverage of Microsoft and the intelligence community was nominated in the same category? The other finalists are Paul Roberts, who covered the sugar industry for Harper's, and Sebastian Junger and Janine Di Giovanni, who filed dispatches from Kosovo for Vanity Fair.
"The Rape of Dinah" chronicles a decade of unfettered execution, torture, rape, and cannibalism in Liberia. At the heart of the scandal are an estimated 50,000 rapes that went unprosecuted and uninvestigated, even as Bosnian atrocities reaped attention worldwide. "I thought I was inured to human rights tragedies, but I was driven to tears reading this," says Lockwood, who has edited HRQ for 18 years. The story is not only "beautifully and compellingly written," but also "one of the best pieces of reporting I have ever read."
The American Society of Magazine Editors keeps its selection process hush-hush. ASME's spokesperson would only say that 21 screeners chose the Reporting finalists from 130 entries, and the choices had to be ratified by four judges. If the judges were not satisfied with the finalists, they could add a new one from the pool. Reporting awards go to articles that "give a definitive account of . . . an event, a situation or a problem of contemporary interest or importance."
Cain, author of "The Rape of Dinah," calls himself a "total outsider" with "no connections to anyone" in the selection process. His sole qualification: He's an angry young man. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1991, Cain signed on as a human rights monitor for the United Nations, which sent him to Haiti, Cambodia, Somalia, and Rwanda, where his job was to "go to mass grave sites and count the skulls." The more deaths he saw, the more appalled he became at the UN's cowardice and incompetence to respond. He recalls thinking, "Civilians are dying by the thousands, and no one's doing anything."
By the time he arrived in Liberia in 1995, he says, the institutional negligence was "out of control." Cain's mandate was to investigate reports of human rights abuses in Liberia, but the reality, he soon found, was that "hundreds of thousands of people were being killed and tens of thousands raped, and nobody knew and nobody cared!" Upon learning that his independence would be limited and his report "highly edited and sanitized," Cain quit.
The scene: a hot night in Monrovia. "I would stare at the ceiling fan, sweating from malaria, and know that civilians were dying and being raped just a few kilometers away," Cain recalls. His options, he felt, were to become an alcoholic, an investment banker, or a crusader. He took the high road, thanks to a fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations, whose current president is ex-New York Timesman Leslie Gelb. After a year of quiet research in New York, Cain produced his manifesto and sent it to HRQ. Lockwood accepted it on the spot.
"The Rape of Dinah" is understated, with only the occasional snapshot of teens fighting under the influence of "narcotics, cane juice, and voodoo" or of a bandit who "cut off a woman's breast, roasting and eating it" while his victim bled to death. The piece is not only a chronicle of war crimes but a critique of the failure of the UN and the international community to respond in any constructive way. Cain contends that war crimes get more attention if the victims are white or if oil, U.S. security interests, or European or American soldiers are at stake.
"In a case like Liberia," he says, "what you get is either deafening silence or a series of rote recitations." Even when the human rights community offers concrete remedies, most are "totally unrealistic, righteous rhetoric, unconnected to actual human beings. I would rather see them funding a clinic for raped women in Monrovia than spending their resources saying the same thing all over again." (Nota bene: HRQ pays authors and editors nothing.)
Cain's competition includes "Hard Core," Ken Auletta's 16,000-word report on the Microsoft trial. New Yorker editor David Remnick calls it "an extraordinarily tough and fair-minded piece," noting that "Ken had access to all the principals and that's hard to get." Remnick is proud to give reporters like Auletta or Seymour Hersh the time and space they deserve.
Hersh was nominated this year for three pieces, including analyses of the decline of the National Security Agency and the subversion of UNSCOM by the CIA. "What Sy does is enormously labor-intensive," Remnick notes, "because you have to drill a lot of dry wells." But the New Yorker editor would rather shell out for quality than be constrained by the banality of the bottom line. "The most cost-effective approach would be to do things that are merely quick and easy," he says, but "you can't sell yourself out in the short run and the long run."
Vanity Fair's entries in the Reporting category are "Madness Visible," by Janine Di Giovanni, a foreign correspondent for the Times of London, and "The Forensics of War," by Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm. VF editor Graydon Carter says he was surprised, reading Junger's piece, to find out how war crimes investigators in Kosovo do their job: "Your first inclination would be to think they go for mass graves and try to solve those cases, but instead, they go for things they think they can prove."
Carter calls Di Giovanni "a brave woman" who "goes places few people would go." In his eyes, she deserves credit simply for returning to the Balkans time and again. "Just the nerve of her going backjust the air flight to Kosovo. . . . "
Harper's contributing editor Paul Roberts spent about a year researching his 10,000-word piece "The Sweet Hereafter." His editor, Clara Jeffery, calls Roberts a "great reporter and graceful writer" who "did an amazing job at integrating current events regarding the Everglades' supposed cleanup and the history of the sugar industry." She compares it to another Roberts piece about the timber industry, in that both show "how the government and the lobbyists affected legislation to the detriment of the environment."
Dark horse Cain remains humble. "I'm gratified and surprised that the men and women who made this selection recognized the importance of the universality of the value of life," he says, "even in forgotten corners of the world like Liberia."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter