In the early 1990s three young people attracted to the ambitious global peacekeeping work of the UN cross paths in Cambodia. Andrew strives for a better world through his life-saving work as a doctor. Heidi, a social worker, is in need of a challenge and a paycheck, and Ken is fresh from Harvard and brimful of idealism. As their stories interweave through the years, from Rwanda, Bosnia and Somalia to Haiti, the trio reveal a world of witnessed atrocities, primal fear, desperate loneliness and base desires. They fend off terror and futility with revelry, humour and sex; ask hard questions about the world order America has created, the true power of the UN, and whether there is any possibility for change.
This is a startling celebration of the power of humour and friendship, of the limits of human compassion, and the need for a warm body and a cold beer during a Condition Echo lockdown. A book that shows the human cost of global politics and the tragic truth that wars are much more avoidable than our governments would ever admit. A brilliant, provocatively funny and fast moving book.
Contrary to what the title suggests, this is not a funny, lewd book. The authors are UN staff, who in various circuitous ways, end up as a tight trio in Cambodia and serving in missions in Rwanda, Haiti and Liberia in particularly bloody, and probably avoidable, times. These are their personal accounts in journal-like entries that bounce from person to person.
The UN made a big stink about denouncing it because it was "unfairly" critical; the mainstream press and non-profit orgs got excited about the "expose" angle. But to me it was more about how people are people, and coming to terms with evil--which can only be done on a personal level. Exploding idealism and piecing together what's left into something more real, but not dead. You go through the process with the authors of becoming addicted to missions and learning that you take your joy where you can--in small and large triumphs, in the awareness of small things that are right. You see how people can do jobs unimaginable to them--digging through fresh mass graves or wading in knee deep excrement in prisons--but how we are hardwired to just do it when you have to. The difference between soldiers and aid workers is muddy, but the divide between politicians and those on the ground vast.
Some might find this romanticizing international development work, as only those of extreme privilege can, or simplifying incredibly complicated conflicts. Maybe somewhat. But it forces readers to think about things we don't want to, that is all too easily avoided in our cushy lives. They're not on a high horse--I don't feel guilty for my comfortable bed. I left the book feeling an incredible amount of respect for the people on the ground, civilian and solider alike, who meet our world's shit head-on, and wanting to jump on a plane to find my own personal salvation as an adrenaline junkie.
I spent two years in Rwanda. In the Programme Office, one wall was devoted, floor-to-ceiling, to books that people had brought with them or received in aid parcels from home. Every now and then something so special would come along that people would literally write their names on a list to read it.
This was possibly the most widely read book of my time overseas. It tells the story of three American civilians who wind up working for the UN during one of their most volatile periods in history. It charts Haiti, Rwanda, Sudan - the lot. And it does so humanely, poignantly, and with a generous dollop of humour, which you seriously need when dealing with atrocities such as genocide.
I happened to read the chapter on Kibuye sitting on a bus as it left the town. I knew the place as a weekend getaway, but the story of 'banana man' left me cold.
This is an extremely important book. It highlights the gulf between our good intentions and what, realistically, has been achieved. A fascinating insight behind one of the most globally recognised emblems.
Quick, entertaining read - but somehow I thought it'd be better. Good look at what it's like working for the UN/any horrible bureaucracy, but two of the three main characters were really annoying - one just fucks her way around the world because she can't get a real job back home, and another seems shocked to realise going to law school doesn't mean you have all the answers. I thought they'd come to some deeper realisation than 'oh wow, we can't really do much to help anyone maybe the UN isn't that helpful?', but nope. Maybe I'm being too harsh. Like I said, a quick, entertaining read and some exciting scenes from war zones etc.
This would have been a far more interesting read if it had just focused on Andrew's story. I'm honestly not sure why the other two got into humanitarian careers, as they only seem interested in bragging rights for tough locations but show little respect or interest for the people living there. Kenneth gets enraged about bureaucracy but suggests few solutions, Heidi seems to be constantly on the lookout for her next bed buddy, and only Andrew appears to actually make connections with the people he's attempting to help. Disappointing book for all the hype.
During the long anticlimax of this book, when all three authors start writing their final reports, Ken summarizes their effort: “Collectively we experienced—maybe represent—all the exultation and catastrophe of a decade spent trying and failing to do well by doing good in a new world.” He and his role model Andrew can’t shake this tragic tone; instead, they use their respective religions to contextualize themselves as martyr heroes in a brutally flawed machine that converts youth, trust and idealism into bureaucracy, buck-passing and corpses.
Heidi, the secretary from New Jersey, regularly criticizes her co-authors for exactly this failing and effectively carries their book with her energy and authenticity. With the exception of maybe four paragraphs of abstracted and awkward love making contributed by the men, Heidi is also responsible for almost all of the “Emergency Sex.” I’m pretty sure there’s a whole incredibly popular genre of tell-all memoires written by sexually liberated women (for sale near the cash register, at the airport). I haven’t read any of these. So, I don’t know if Heidi’s prose is derivative and I was prepared, instead, to find her sections of the book totally refreshing. In the midst of the grim ethical calculations being made by the two male leads, it’s a treat to find Heidi writing:
“I’ll have to act all earnest and somber too and nod my head a lot. I’ll have to ask relevant questions, and the whole time Ken will be nervously waiting for me to use foul language, and when I do, he’ll smile and make that little coughing sound to show everyone he’s disassociating himself from me.”
All of the authors foreground their thoughts about one another and their tendency to rank and rate themselves against their colleagues. This depiction of the credibility culture of hard core aid workers was particularly fun to oversee. “Emergency Sex” is, as the title would suggest, a voyeuristic book. It’s an all access pass to a very exclusive club: board that helicopter, enter that dank secret prison, jump into the mass grave, or kick your daiquiri’s back poolside with the do-gooding jet set.
But amidst this formidable momentum, the book is also polemical. With first-hand experience, Cain and Thomson argue (not originally) that following the U.S. Military casualties in Somalia, both the U.S. and the U.N. failed spectacularly at their mandates and humanitarian objectives and, worse, betrayed the trust of the vulnerable people to whom they promised safety and protection. Their disillusionment at being part of these failures effectively balances the heady self-satisfaction that makes the first part of the book seem like a recruiting advertisement for the UN.
This would be a rewarding book to teach to high school students and it would be easy to read while traveling or on vacation. It is enjoyable but not essential.
Overall, this three person memoir was interesting, especially if you have wondered what it is like to be a humanitarian aid worker for the UN. I was disheartened by the inefficacy of the UN and its missions and I am glad the authors were honest about the realities and limitations of the UN.
The reason I am giving this book 3 stars is because I felt most of the writing was weak. One of the narrators (Ken) was quite melodramatic and, at times, seemed to romanticize the events. Heidi, who appears to have signed up with the UN to escape her marriage and her financial struggles in NYC, talked more about her sexual conquests and I never felt convinced that her heart was in the work. To me, the best writer and most admirable of the three was Andrew, a doctor. He kept his storytelling very simple, knowing that the events were dramatic enough and to say more would be too much. I wish that he had written his own book.
Most of us learn about the more daring aspects of life through the news media, via gossip and through friendly conversation. It takes a rare breed to launch into learning where guts leads a truly inquisitive nature, where danger is the morning meal. The authors are three of those people. Unsettled or unhappy with just living out their professions at home, they each join the U.N. at a young age as volunteer peacekeepers. What follows is staccato learning, being thrust into situations where they forsake apprenticeships for quick thinking and accelerated decision making. Gripping narrative that compels attention, even as you may be revolted by what you witness through the narration.
You grow to love Ken, Heidi and Andrew as they make it through their first mission - overseeing the first democratic elections in Cambodia following the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge - and accept further missions in Mogadishu, Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda and Liberia. In each case, they follow events involving genocide, mass killings of ethnic populations. In many cases, those killings continue while the U.N. volunteers are trusted with documenting the carnage, and they must deal with the leaders of rebel groups engaged in the obliteration of life. At the same time, they must handle internal politics and find ways to make progress in spite of often insipid leaders of their own.
They never portray themselves as heroic, but rather, you get a close-up inspection of their inner thoughts, their doubts about the work in which they are engaged, their inability at times to comprehend and absorb the hell on earth they are required to witness. Quick to document also the failures of the U.N. and the U.S. in preventing further carnage, they fault administrations for abandoning missions when a simple surge would have save thousands of lives. Be happy that you can learn about our worldwide missions without having to participate on the ground. The days are fraught with immediate danger, and often it is only quick wits that allow them to return to base alive.
Ten years in the heat of battle makes for a dramatic coming of age. The "sex" part of the stories, while never graphic, is realistically and honestly characterized as immediate, providing relief from the ultimate stress of their daily work. The authors convey their tales in first person, and in rotation, so you get a real sense of how each is handling (or not handling) events independent of each other. After Cambodia, while they occasionally connect in one country or another, their assignments are often on opposite sides of the world.
This is non-fiction that reads like an historical novel, entertaining, enlightening and full of tension and mystery.
Some of the writing gets a little technical and focused on war for me, but what an awesome story, what an awesome book. This inspires me and makes me want to seek a job where I can be of more assistance to people. Highly recommend!
Incredible. Three UN aid workers - one trained as a lawyer at Harvard, a doctor from New Zealand, and a divorcee from New York and homeless shelter worker - pen their memories of life on the front lines of conflict zones in the 90's. The book starts in Cambodia, where Dr. Andrew has been providing medical care for victims of the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, and the first mission for Ken and Heidi as UN peacekeeper staff. The book follows them through Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, Liberia, and Ethiopia where lovers die, pregnant women are murdered, and AK-47s rule.
This book is highly critical of the UN for the mismanagement and incompetence with which these three felt numerous affairs were handled. Instead of taking responsibility for the deaths of both civilians and UN workers, various HQ officials were busy pushing the blame into someone else's lap. The final "Coda" finishes with several statements coming from UNHQ and President Clinton issued as apologies for actions not taken and lives not saved. The book concludes with the Norwegian Nobel Committee's announcement of Kofi Annan's receipt of the 2001 Peace Prize, citing that "neither the Rwandan Tutsis nor Bosnian Muslims were consulted," damning the man who would not take responsibility for his organization's cowardice, as hundreds of thousands that could have been saved were butchered.
This was a fantastic read! I was hooked to it from the beginning and couldn't put it down. It was absolutley not as racy as the title implied. Following the authors from their entry into the UN world and following them on their missions, made me feel like I was there. It was a little hard stomach some of the details and I had to take breaks in between.
While it does showcase the inefficiencies of the UN and how it failed terribly in Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia etc., it nonetheless brings out the potentials and possibilities for good it can achieve if it involved itself fully. The UN ultimately is made up of member states and can only be as effective as its members will for it to be. The book did affect my view of the Clinton administration that I had high opinion of in the past.
In spite of the inevitable gloom that comes with a book like this, I was nonetheless encouraged that the writers, esp. Kenneth Cain did not end with cynicism but remained optimistic, albeit with caution. It's a good encouragement for people like me who are starting out in the field!
This was so good but also terryfiyng. As a humanitarian aid worker, I really never ever want to be in any of the situations they described here. Not in the mass graves in Rwanda and Bosnia, not being shot at in Mogadishu with a crazy driver, not in Liberia with the cannibalism baby eaters, nor the killing fields in Cambodia...
Over the years I have read a lot of memoirs of humanitarian aid work. Often the characters aren't the most appealing, but i found this book particularly annoying in some ways. That being said it did have some redeeming features.
The way the authors became disillusioned with the UN through their careers within it was interesting. The 90s was a bad decade for the organisation. I liked Andrew and felt he approached things with a productive attitude. Ken came across as naive and his belief in US imperialism was tiring, but he did seem to develop as the book progressed. Heidi was largely insufferable, she seemed to be more interested in her next conquest than the work and it felt uncomfortable the way she often failed to see the power dynamic she was stepping into when she began sleeping with people from the country she was posted in.
Drei junge UN-Mitarbeiter (jung, unter 30 nämlich, zumindest zum Zeitpunkt der beschriebenen Ereignisse) berichten von ihren (wahren) Erlebnissen in verschiedenen Krisenzonen der Welt Anfang der 90er Jahre. Der kalte Krieg war vorbei, die UN und die USA sahen die Chance eine neue Weltordnung herzustellen und Demokratie zu exportieren - mit durchwachsenem Erfolg. Kambodscha, Haiti, Somalia, Ruanda, Jugoslawien, das sind die Schauplätze, von denen die Autoren aus erster Hand berichten. Anfänglich voller Idealismus und mit dem Wunsch, die Welt zu verbessern sind die drei vor Ort oftmals mit schrecklichen Grausamkeiten konfrontiert, aber auch mit Bürokratie, Korruption, falschen Entscheidungen und Ignoranz. Wechselnd berichteten die drei Autoren, Heidi, die als UN-Sekretärin arbeitet, Ken, ein Jurist, der allerdings in der Heimat am abschließenden Examen gescheitert ist, und Andrew, ein australischer Arzt, von ihrem ganz persönlichen Alltag. Hierbei fand ich persönlich die Kapitel von Andrew am sympathischsten und auch seine Arbeit am beeindruckendsten. Heidi ist vermutlich diejenige, die für den Titel des Buches verantwortlich ist, allerdings hat sie nicht nur "emergency sex" sondern sowieso ständig Sex mit wechselnden Geschlechtspartnern, was nicht unbedingt mit der Rettung der Welt zu tun hat. Ihre Kapitel haben ich teilweise als sehr selbstbezogen empfunden.
Nach seiner Veröffentlichung schlug das Buch offenbar große Wellen und der damalige UN-Generalsekretär Kofi Annan wollte es sogar verbieten lassen. Das Buch bietet einen sehr interessanten, teilweise bedrückenden oder gar schockierenden (je nachdem, was man sich so ausmalt, wenn man so ein Buch liest) Eindruck in die Welt der UN-Friedensmissionen. Natürlich handelt es sich um eine extrem subjektive Darstellung und für manche Ereignisse gibt es sicher eine andere Seite der Darstellung, aber ich halte das Buch für sehr lesenswert!
Gripping, honest stories from three UN workers who met in Cambodia, where they assisted in monitoring a successful election in 1993. They spent the next seven years unsuccessfully trying to recapture that experience in Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, and Liberia--sometimes together, but more often spread across the globe. Unflinching, very critical of the UN, and fascinating even if the writing is not always fabulous. A reminder for those of us who grew up in the 1990s and tend to think of the pre-9/11 world as a kinder, gentler place.
A journey from naivety to a mature realization and acceptance of the horrors and evil of this world, as well as hope for humanity's future. It has been a long time since I've read a book that has enamoured me.
There is truth in these stories, and one might want to puke after reading about the hyposcrisy of governments and institutions. It's a book that challenges and questions our morality and beliefs. There is a Rwandan quote somewhere in the book that says, "Bury the dead but not the truth."
I highly recommend it as a book for our generation to remind us that while we were growing up and complaining about clothes, some families in the world were being helplessly killed - and to move us into making better and humane choices that do good or avoid causing more harm to the world. We always seem to only remember the Holocaust, but even during the 90s, people were still being killed by virtue of their ethnicity or religion or origin or beliefs. It hasn't ended when World War II ended.
3.5 stars. Worth reading this book which is a cult classic among humanitarian aid workers, foreign service officers, and other long-term travelers who have decided to make their homes in some of the world's most beautiful and dangerous places.
This is potentially the best book I’ve ever read (certainly the best one I’ve read this year). If anyone has ever wondered about alleged “peacekeeping” efforts on a global stage, and the lack of actual interest in uniting any nations, this book is a fascinating recount and read.
Leaving this review after many years because I just remembered it! I read this book in a class about foreign policy and the Bildungsroman. This book at once glamorizes and criticizes foreign aid work. It’s raw and snappily written.
Serious and well-written book on the lived experience of three UN peacekeepers across three continents. Made difficult subjects easier to read about, but I have grown to resent the title and the sales pitch, sexual encounters are not what this book is about.
Ken Cain, Heidi Postlewait, and Dr. Andrew Thomson have given their readers a realistic account of something most will never have to see with their own eyes, let alone experience in person. From Nigerian soldiers murdering nine year old sex workers in Liberia before decapitating them and placing their severed heads inside their genitals to mass graves with thousands upon thousands of intertwined bodies in Rwanda to Scud missiles trailing across Israeli skies to pitched combat in the middle of a failed state, this book graphically details exactly what no one wants to think about. War is an unimaginable horror that victimizes even those people who dedicate their lives to high-minded ideals that might lessen the burden of those in its wake.
Beginning in Cambodia in the early 1990s, the three narrators forge a friendship that would withstand distance, time, and the pains of war. Cain was just out of law school when he took up the democracy building mission in Phnom Phen. Postlewait, recovering from a painful marriage and an emotionally taxing job working with New York's homeless population during the late 1980s, sought out more tropical climes in which to undertake her secretarial work for the UN. And Dr. Andrew Thomson, disenchanted with the medical establishment in his native New Zealand, was moved by tales of the Killing Fields from a Cambodian refugee met during his studies. The work the three did in Cambodia, while challenging, whet all of their appetites to be the contractors for a new world order. The Cold War had ended, walls were falling, the global community suddenly felt much smaller than just a decade earlier. Ambitions were grand.
Their fellow peacekeepers and aid workers were young, cosmopolitan, beautiful people from around the world-an envious set with which to keep company. But Cambodia and the nascent new world order would be short lived. Interventions in Somalia, while successful at first, would soon turn deadly, and idealism would give way to cynicism. After the death of 18 US Army Rangers in Mogadishu in 1994, rebel factions across the globe were emboldened to stand up to an empire that had little taste for blood. Haiti's thugs would drive away a US Warship, within weeks genocide on a scale three times as intense as the Holocaust killing would begin in Rwanda. The UN mission quickly went from keeping peace to prosecuting war crimes.
After Somalia and Rwanda, when it seemed as if it could get no worse, war broke out in Liberia. The human rights tragedies were extreme and graphic. Drugged child soldiers running amok with AK-47s and grenade launchers, foreign soldiers mandated to keep peace instead plundering diamond mines and committing equally appalling human rights violations. Innocence had given way to reality and shortly after, all Cain, Postlewait, and Thomson were all back in New York dealing with the depression of loss, the trauma of combat, and the horrors of complicity that each felt in the face of mass suffering.
There wasn't much optimism to be taken from the book, but hidden within was the vaguely inspiring message that their human ideals still exist. If future generations of young people from privileged lives choose to go about the same work, to devote their lives healing the suffering of those less privileged, then vindication will seem possible. The stories in this book are human stories, of suffering, of misery, of death, but also of life, of celebration, and even of sex.
The subtitle of the book, A True Story from Hell on Earth, however, better explains the compilation of stories within. Some are better than others, even entertaining. Cain writes with particular grace and humor, at one point explaining his bewilderment at seeing the Palestinian Intifada (or so he thought) play out in the middle of the Cambodian jungle while hoping that his inept Bulgarian accompaniment wouldn't get him killed. Thomson evokes the true passion that would seem to motivate the life of a peacekeeper. He is serious and calm, but also human and frail, a stoic man of seemingly modest pleasures. He is the most human of the three characters. And Postlewait is perplexing beyond her seemingly forthcoming manner. At one point she describes wanting the blood of a rebellious people to flow through her veins, the best explanation we might have for the importance she subscribes to her sexual exploits throughout. What emerges, in the end, is an important series of stories that one cannot imagine reading in any other form than the series of memoirs in which they are presented. (c) Jeffrey L. Otto April 29, 2008
A jarring depiction of humanitarian work in conflict zones. It doesn't glorify the work. It challenges you to think about the systemic failures through first-hand traumas. A reminder that savage acts were not all that long ago. The authors did work worth doing.
Absolutely my highest recommendation; the best book I've read this year (2008). The authors were UN Peacekeepers during the 1990s and into the early 2000s and these are their tales. If you are at all aware of the existence of other countries you should read this book. If you are a firebreathing conservative and think the UN should be shut down, you should read this book. If you are bleeding-heart liberal and think the UN should take over the world, you should read this book. If you think it matters at all how the US is viewed in the other countries, you should read this book. If you don't think it matters how the US is viewed in other countries but are aware that other people have opinions, you should read this book. You should read this book. It is gripping. It is well-written. It matters.
Three U.N. workers recount their experiences working overseas during pivotal international conflicts (including the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, political turmoil in Haiti, and the drive to establish the democratic vote in Cambodia). Despite one of the author's almost single-minded focus on sex (and a disturbing, almost colonial, habit of sleeping with as many "exotic" and "brown" locals as possible in her quest for feminine independence and social understanding -- there is a line in the book in which she wishes that her ancestors had been slaves so that she too could be heir to such a rich cultural heritage) the book is thoughtful and hearbreaking. The most provoking pieces are written by the Australian doctor who is undergoing a crisis of conscience and faith.
How do you rate who well a book shares such horrific things? Not one of the three set out to be authors, but to do good work, however they sought to do it (lawyer, social worker/secretary, doctor). Not one of the jobs would you wish on your enemy, it's work of saints, and it's demoralising, cause there is never a right decision. Geopolitics are not simple. Ken nor Heidi can offer solutions - and reviewers are far less equipped to critique them on this fact!
What I learnt with the timeline of the world's events, and the coincidences between pulling out of one country, the loss of face, and therefore the inaction in another area.
I thought this was a well-done story but it's interesting how one of its inherent traits is a self-absorption (necessary for the work these people do) that winds up being a turn-off. It's an interesting internal debate: on the one hand, to really admire and be thankful for these people doing work that I doubt I would have the stomach to do; and on the other hand, to be so annoyed by their narcissism (especially Heidi's - good grief). In the end, I am glad I read it but I don't think I'd like to meet the characters.
I've finished this collective memoir with mixed feelings. Three former UN workers share their perspectives of work and life from behind the UN camp fences in some of the saddest and most desperate parts of the world during the 1990s. Their individual voices ring out initially with naive optimism, but as the toll of genocide, war and futility wears them down, their stories become depressingly similar. I had hoped for a more uplifting tale but this was not the case.
Not a book I'd recommend for a light holiday read.