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Risk of Truth in 'Rebel Armies' : Stage: Mark Lee's drama draws heavily from his experiences in Africa.

February 27, 1990|NANCY CHURNIN

SAN DIEGO — The job of the journalist, like that of a witness on the stand, is to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

But what if telling the truth claims innocent lives? What is a fact weighed in balance with life and death?

That is the question posed by Mark Lee's "Rebel Armies Deep Into Chad," having its West Coast premiere Saturday at the Old Globe Theatre's Cassius Carter Centre Stage.

It is a question that matters deeply to Lee, who filed news reports as a correspondent in war-torn Uganda from 1980 to 1982.

Lee, a Minneapolis native now living in Los Angeles, said he doesn't believe that anything he wrote contributed to anyone's death. But the idea that he might slip and inadvertently endanger one of his sources was constantly on his mind.

"If you were seen talking to someone in the marketplace, that person could be picked up and shot," Lee said in an interview at the Old Globe, shortly before a recent rehearsal.

"What is autobiographical is that I was always scared that, through an accident of my own, I would cause someone to die. The responsibility of a journalist--What are you going to report? What are you going to do to ascertain the truth?--worried me the whole time as a constant psychological presence. What do you do if you're alone? And I was alone." (For a full year, Lee said, he was the only Western journalist working in Uganda.)

It was his very interest in such life-and-death issues that sent him to Africa in the first place.

When Lee, now 38, studied at Yale, his most influential teacher was Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Robert Penn Warren (named the first poet laureate of the United States in 1986), to whom he dedicates "Rebel Armies." Lee credits Warren with encouraging him to think about the "big questions."

After graduation in 1973, Lee considered and rejected law school, then turned to various jobs--taxi driver, security guard, hawker of "little green things that glow in the dark"--all while he wrote poetry and short stories and explored the New York literary scene.

But the smug insularity of that life made him uncomfortable. While living in Rome in the late '70s, he read about the civil war in Ethiopia's Eritrean region and decided to acquire press credentials--originally from the Pacific News Service in San Francisco because he had no journalism experience and that organization "would give credentials to anyone," he said.

"The idea that these people in Ethiopia were sacrificing their life for something they believed in was exciting for me because I think I was used to people in the New York literary scene who were worried about where their next grant was coming from," Lee said.

"I passed through Nairobi and met the United Press bureau chief and tried to interest him in letting me write for him. He told me I should go to Kampala, Uganda, because there were only two stringers there and they were about to be thrown out of the country."

Once there, he found out why stringers didn't last very long in Uganda--all you had to do to be expelled was write a story about the frequent government atrocities.

Lee bought time in Uganda by turning down an offer to write for BBC radio and sticking to print journalism (government officials listened to the radio, but didn't bother to catch his stories in foreign newspapers, he learned).

He also was indirectly helped by his editors overseas, who did not think killings in Kampala were worthy of big play.

"Eighty percent of my work was spiked," Lee said. "They didn't want massacre stories."

The two stories he wrote that made the biggest splash were about elephant poaching and the Kampala golf course, where golfers had to make their putts near unexploded grenades.

"One hundred thousand people were being killed and they give all the play to elephant poaching," said Lee, shaking his head. "I think we have too much news today and it's easy to become desensitized to the horrors of the Third World. I think the point of writing plays is that they can make people realize there are human beings behind the headlines in Asia and Africa."

Ultimately, Lee wrote a massacre story that got him expelled. He went to a village north of Kampala where government troops forced all 27 of the village men to dig a pit in a sorghum field, then slashed their throats and pushed them in the hole.

Lee found two men who survived by pretending death; he tied one badly injured man on his back and rode him via motorcycle to a hospital.

The Ugandan government didn't hear of the story, which he sent to Associated Press, United Press International and Reuters news services, and several foreign papers, until it was noticed by Amnesty International, which lodged a protest.

After a tense three days of governmental scrutiny that led to his expulsion in 1982, Lee was offered a position in Beirut by the London Daily Telegraph, but turned it down because he wanted to be a fiction writer.

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