Edinburgh International Book Festival: Mukesh Kapila

Review by Ryan Rushton | 14 Aug 2013

In recent years efforts have been made to bring to light the ongoing ethnic cleansing that has ravaged Sudan. Dave Eggers’ biographical novel of Valentino Deng, What Is the What, and a McSweeney's collection of new South Sudanese fiction has helped to humanise the plight of millions in the now independent Southern nation. Mukesh Kapila’s book Against A Tide of Evil aims to publicise the structural and governmental eradication of North Sudan’s populace while retaining the human focus that can motivate action.

In 2003, as head of the UN in Sudan, Kapila was based in Khartoum when stories started to emerge of the atrocities being committed in Darfur. Fighting against governmental obstruction from the Sudanese and refusal to act from the UN, Kapila was forced into the position of whistleblower. He contacted the BBC and alerted the world to these crimes, while also effectively signing his own resignation letter.

In what is a harrowing event, Kapila sometimes has the strange detached attitude of those who have seen too much of the worst in humans. An observer of the latter stages of the Rwandan crisis, he recounts his experiences with self-deprication and an awareness of the absurdity that is inescapable when dealing with large bureaucratic organisations. Perhaps the only moment his mask slips and the audience witnessed a show of emotion is in recalling the story of Aisha, a schoolteacher who had been raped along with many other women in her village and had decided to walk a large part of the length of what was then the largest African nation in order to demand action. This was the tipping point that led him to expose the culpability of the Sudanese government and the inaction of the UN. At that point Kapila realised that nothing was more important than change and blew the whistle.

With the Sudanese crisis ongoing and mutating into ever more complex issues, Kapila is asked what can be done. He offers a two-fold answer: for one thing he believes early identification of these atrocities is the key and secondly he advocates a truthful, non-interventionist policy in which organisations like the UN and foreign governments do not make promises they can’t keep. Instead he suggests empowering groups internally by letting them know they are on their own and offer realistic kinds of aid. This is perhaps not the answer the audience wants, but the kind of nuanced understanding from someone who has seen how much more damaging an unthinking wholesale interventionist approach can be to a region.


Mukesh Kapila appeared at The Edinburgh International Book Festival on 10 Aug http://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/mukesh-kapila