By Musa Okwonga, for The Huffington Post
Carsten Stormer, a war photographer, was a man born out of place, and has spent most of his life rushing between peace and peril, trying to find out where he should be: hence the title of his memoir, “To The Front and Back, Please: tales from the world’s frontlines“. Born in Munich, with a metabolism set not for routine office life but adventure, he tried life first as a seafarer, and then took his CAMERA to document conflicts in eight of the world’s most daunting theatres, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Burma. In the course of his odyssey from 2004 onwards, which lasts him the best part of a decades, he evolves from a young man simply seeking his place in the world into someone wiser, regretful and yet somehow more grateful for all that he has. Stormer’s main initial motive, which is to find thrills beyond anything his life back home could promise, quickly gives way to a desire, perhaps even a need, to document the incessant horrors that he sees around him. Whilst he takes image after image in warzone after warzone, there is always a sense that he is fighting one of the greatest enemies of all, which is the invisibility of suffering; the ease with which countless murders and other brutal acts occur in the darkness, away from public scrutiny.
The greatest strength of Stormer’s book is that, like the best photographers, he knows when to STEP back and allow images from the lives of others to tell the story. The people he meets during his journey are scarred by unfathomable loss; people such as Mohammed, the boy from Darfur who returned from collecting firewood to find that his home had been torn apart by Government forces, and most of his family slaughtered. As Mohammed pursues revenge, Stormer accompanies him, his sense of futility growing all the while. As the author wades through this monotony of horror, he remains keenly aware – and often guilty – about his supreme privilege, the right to leave any of this at any time; whilst Mohammed and others sink further into the spirals of retribution, Stormer is free to come and go, a scenario about which he increasingly feels uneasy.
At the same time, he is also unsettled by the strength of spirit that he sees in the survivors. “I couldn’t believe how quietly and calmly some of the men told their stories,” he writes. “I wanted to see fury, grief, despair, all the feelings one associates with great suffering. I couldn’t comprehend how they could take it all so LIGHTLY.” In the very next paragraph, he answers his own question, noting that “It wasn’t until later that I realized that life went on for them simply because it had to. They started each new day from scratch. They didn’t carry their anger and grief forward from one day to the next, as to do so would change nothing. The only option they had was to adapt themselves to their fate. They possessed nothing, they put up with everything. Laughter can’t make you forget things which have happened, but it does make them more bearable because it’s full of humanity.”
This growing awareness stays with Stormer as he moves through Congo, Iraq and Somalia, and it is in the latter place that the book sees one of its most moving moments; when MMK, the handler who routinely guides Stormer away from danger, is found dead, having been gunned down by unknown assailants. As Stormer notes, “it would have been impossible for me to operate in Mogadishu without the help of MMK. He provided my board and LODGING, arranged safe conduct through a lawless city, persuaded people to give interviews, enabled me to visit refugee camps. In the course of lengthy conversations he explained a great deal about the fate of his country, a land forgotten by the world. He was not obliged to do all this; it was just the way he was. “We’ve got to help our friends in the outside world,” he always used to say, “even if the world forgets us.””
MMK, and others like him, should not be forgotten; and “To The Front and Back, Please” is a VITAL and vibrant attempt in that respect. Indeed, MMK’s mantra when asked about life in Mogadishu – “Some days are good, some bad” – could easily have worked as an alternative title for this book, as Stormer makes his frequently bemused and outraged way through encounters with implacable warlords and infuriating UN bureaucrats. Stormer avoids the temptation, all too common in works of this nature, to go for the simplistic Western happy ending; as he comes to the close of this impressively insightful work, he chooses to focus upon the life of a girl he cannot save. Bailyn, a Muslim who is shot by the Philippine army, dies in his arms, and he is powerless to find medical care for her; a direct inversion of so many of the saviour narratives that litter this literary field, as Stormer goes on to question the systemic failures that allow those such as Bailyn to perish so cruelly and needlessly. He ends by counting his blessings at having emerged mostly unscathed, and, crucially, still with the vigour to amplify the stories of those whose perilous lives he has witnessed in passing.
This book is a coming of age; somewhere in there, too, there is a call to action. We are so saturated with apathy, overwhelmed by tales of conflict; the reason that people get away with so many terrible acts is that they commit horrors so vast as to be almost unimaginable. Where Stormer succeeds is in making that horror human, relatable, and uncomfortably close: he makes it real, and he therefore allows us grow angry, fuelling the moral fury that is behind so much effective political progress. And, for that, we can thank him.