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The jaded, seamy side of peace

For the three authors of a graphic memoir, U.N. work was an exercise in futility.

October 18, 2004|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — Their story begins just more than a decade ago, on the right side of history.

Andrew Thomson, a doctor, wanted to save lives. Kenneth Cain, a human rights lawyer, wanted to save the world. Heidi Postlewait, a secretary, just wanted to save some money and leave her broken marriage behind.

The three U.N. staffers came together at a rooftop party in Phnom Penh in 1993, during the heady days when the world body was organizing democratic elections in Cambodia. Fired up by a marijuana and rum combo called the space shuttle, they began to think maybe the U.N. really could change the world.

But amid the euphoria were glimpses of the chaos ahead. First came the wild contingent of peacekeepers from Bulgaria, allegedly recruited from prisons and mental hospitals to fill the U.N. quota. "A battalion of criminal lunatics arrive in a lawless land," Cain observes in a book the three have written on their experiences. "They're drunk as sailors, rape vulnerable Cambodian women and crash their U.N. Land Cruisers with remarkable frequency."

Six years later, after stints in Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda and Liberia, the three came to believe that not only is the U.N. unable to keep pace with its grand ideals in the new world order, it actually allowed two genocides. They cope by immersing themselves in their work, alcohol, faith and "emergency sex."

Thomson, who spent two years pulling bodies out of mass graves in Rwanda and the Bosnian town of Srebrenica -- corpses of people who had sought safety with the U.N. -- concludes: "If blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers show up in your town or village and offer to protect you, run. Or else get weapons. Your lives are worth so much less than theirs."

The three chronicled their precipitous slide from buoyant idealism to hard-bitten cynicism in "Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures," a bestseller published this summer by Miramax that has outraged U.N. officials and nearly cost Thomson and Postlewait their jobs. (Cain had already quit.) But the United Nations' censure has only won the book more publicity -- and a six-figure deal with Miramax TV to make a television series. The three consider themselves whistle-blowers. Top U.N. officials think of them as disloyal. As the U.N. makes moves to garnish their royalties from the book and TV deals, the controversy raises this question: Are they the worst kind of U.N. employees -- or the best?

"Frankly, we found it a sensational and selective account of peacekeeping," U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said, sniffing at their "sex sells" bid for attention. "Apparently, they still believe in the organization enough to collect a paycheck once a month," he said of Thomson and Postlewait.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has led a campaign to reform peacekeeping since the Rwanda and Srebrenica massacres occurred under his watch, deemed the book "not so bad."

It certainly contains lots of sex. Cain, then an earnest, twentysomething Harvard Law grad, describes a lover teaching him the French word for orgasm, directly translated as "to joy," and how he left the daily horrors behind in those moments. Thomson relates how when he was courting the woman who became his wife, he could not get the stench of corpses out of his pores no matter how many 90-minute showers he took. Even in her embrace, he could not escape his ghosts.

But it is Postlewait's encounters that give the book its title -- and have grabbed the greatest attention. At the time of her escapades, she was a tall 30ish redhead from New Jersey with heavy-lidded eyes, freshly divorced and ready for adventure.

After a near miss in a sniper attack in Somalia, Postlewait finds sudden consolation with a Somali U.N. interpreter after they dive for cover in an abandoned vendor's shack. "And then the strangest thing happens," she writes. "I want to rip my clothes off, rip Yusuf's clothes off ... right there. I can feel this pounding inside me and I can't wait. It has to be right now, not in 10 minutes, not five. Now. An emergency. Emergency sex."

Postlewait's sexual encounters provide a raw insight into the alienation, connection and betrayal that come with trying to live a normal life against the backdrop of mortar attacks, sniper fire and chaos.

Between missions, she has a weeklong tryst with a Masai tribesman she meets on a Kenyan beach -- and then has to decide whether to pay him. Is he a prostitute or just a lucky guy? She has an extended affair with Yusuf, the interpreter, until his best friend tells her she must become his second wife or break it off. Postlewait and an American soldier in Somalia end their date on top of a soft-sided water tank -- in effect a giant waterbed.

"After, we lay back naked, sweat drying, smoking cigarettes," she writes. "Then I spotted an observation tower not 50 feet away, where two soldiers with night-vision goggles were peeping down at us.... I think they set me up."

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