The hierarchy of horrors

Ask an ordinary Brit for his image of Africa, and you will get a collage of nightmarish visions of f

A friend recently returned from a visit to Panzi Hospital in South Kivu, eastern Congo, in a state of agitation. Panzi has acquired a terrible notoriety, for it is here that the female victims of Hutu militiamen, the Congolese army and the forces of the renegade general Laurent Nkunda are treated. My friend, a veteran journalist, has seen his share of horrors, but even he was haunted by the cases he encountered. Gang rape is the least of it. Women raped in front of their husbands and crowds of villagers, women raped so violently their insides are left shredded, girls raped, tortured and thrown on to the fire . . . The dreadful stories went on and on.

"Is this the Heart of Darkness?" he wondered aloud. Joseph Conrad's novel may have been written originally as an indictment of western imperialism, but these days it is used almost exclusively to refer to a savagery deemed particular to Africa. "Is this behaviour - the systematic use of the penis as a weapon of mass humiliation - peculiarly Congolese?"

John Holmes, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator my friend accompanied, certainly thought something uniquely nasty was taking place. The prevalence and intensity of sexual violence were "almost unimaginable", he told reporters, with 4,500 cases reported in the province since January. "The intensity and frequency is worse than anywhere else in the world."

Holmes is not the first high-profile UN visitor to claim a form of ghastly aristocracy for Africa's horrors. His predecessor Jan Egeland made a habit of handing out superlatives. Darfur's refugee camps, he pronounced, represented "the worst humanitarian crisis in the world". Northern Uganda, where the Lord's Resistance Army was pitted against the army, was "the most forgotten humanitarian crisis in the world".

I can understand why these men reach for the hyperbole. To galvanise UN nations into contributing troops or funds, they must raise public awareness, and the journalists who accompany them need memorable soundbites if they are to win airtime. But I do wish they'd stop. Increasingly, it seems to me that these claims of African exceptionalism do as much harm as good. I tire of the notion - touted not only by UN officials but also by western novelists, poets and artists - that Africa is a continent where things happen that would be unimaginable elsewhere.

Let's take the use of rape as an in strument of systematic war. There is nothing uniquely Congolese, or even African, about this practice. It has been applied with enthusiasm in Europe, as Antony Beevor reminded us in his recent account of the fall of Berlin. The Red Army's rape of German females in 1945 was so relentless and indiscriminate that women gathered by rivers as the Soviets approached, held hands and drowned themselves rather than undergo the ordeal.

One of Beevor's revelations was that Soviet troops raped not only German women - something that could be explained, if not excused, by the impulse to subjugate an enemy people - but also Russian women liberated from the concentration camps, for whom they might have been expected to feel empathy. "Having always in the past slightly pooh-poohed the idea that most men are potential rapists, I had to come to the conclusion that if there is a lack of army discipline, most men with a weapon, dehumanised by living through two or three years of war, do become potential rapists," he concluded.

Not only has this method of mass humiliation been used frequently in Europe, it has been applied in very recent history. It is only 12 years since the blood-curdling accounts of mass rapes of Bosnian women and children by Serbian soldiers, bent on degrading an entire community by sowing alien seed in Bosnian wombs. And that happened a few hours' flight from Heathrow, in a relatively sophisticated country many of us associated with holidays and student exchanges.

There's nothing new under the sun, and that, sadly, includes acts of breathtaking viciousness. It's a tad disingenuous for a western civilisation that bore witness to the gas chambers of Ausch witz, the flattening of Dresden and the bombing of Nagasaki to attribute any uniqueness to events in Darfur and Congo. Mankind has proved capable of appalling behaviour regardless of location, culture and skin colour.

The danger of the exceptionalism voiced by Holmes, Egeland and their ilk is that it does more than stiffen backbones in UN chambers. It enforces an incipient racism towards the con tinent, which so many people, in their hearts, regard as somehow predestined for misery. Ask an ordinary Brit for his image of Africa, and you will get a collage of nightmarish visions of flyblown, skeletal children and vile diseases festering in tropical forests. Every time he hears an African crisis has been crowned "worst in the world" or "most neglected on the planet", the old Heart of Darkness cliché takes deeper hold. "Just as I thought," he mutters. And the continent I write about just isn't like that.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Spies and their lies