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  • Why I Write
  • Aminatta Forna (bio)

There was a time when war was a man's business. Wars were fought by soldiers, and soldiers were men. Men gave their lives. So naturally men, male authors, took custody of the stories of other men and the wars they fought. Soldiers were the greatest casualties of war. And in the minds of many people this continues to be the case.

But the nature of war has changed. The battlefields of Europe during the Great War, in which armies faced each other dug into opposing trenches on either side of fields emptied of crops and livestock, belong to the past. Many if not most conflicts now are civil conflicts; they are fought in urban areas, and they are fought by rebel fighters, factions, militias, and self-styled armies. The fighters of today are very different from sixty years ago and so, too, are their victims. According to the UN International Children's Emergency Fund: "Civilian fatalities in wartime have climbed from 5 percent at the turn of the century … to more than 90 percent in the wars of the 1990s and today."

"Armed conflict kills and maims more children than soldiers," noted Graça Machel, during her time as the UN independent expert on the impact of armed conflict on children. And women, too, suffer disproportionately as victims in war. The world now finds itself a place in which, perversely, the safest people in a war zone are likely to be the combatants. The phrase "women and children first" takes on a new and chilling meaning.

The change in the way wars are fought, upon whose bodies, has changed who writes about war and how they write. My own vivid memory as a young woman in the 1990s is of the reports by the British journalist Maggie O'Kane, one of the first, perhaps the first, to bring the stories of the horrors being inflicted upon the women of Bosnia during the Yugoslav conflict. Maggie O'Kane wasn't the first woman war correspondent; Margaret Bourke White and Martha Gelhorn matched male reporters for courage as they filed reports from the [End Page 17] frontline. Maggie O'Kane's reports, though, were different, filed typically many miles away from the front line. They offered readers of her newspaper, the Observer, a different perspective on the Yugoslav war. Maggie O'Kane didn't talk to generals and commanders, she talked to the civilians in towns and villages near where the fighting was taking place, and she began to hear stories of rape, of the existence of rape camps where Bosnian women were held and used for sport by Serbian army soldiers. Rape was used as a weapon of war in Sierra Leone, in Darfur, it continues to be so in Congo. War is not, if it ever was, the provenance of men.

My first book was a memoir, the story of how a country loses its way, blundering from a place where people recognized some degree of moral certitude, step by blind step, into the dark space in which democracy gives way to dictatorship and oppression eventually gives way to war. When I am asked why I write about war, the answer necessarily takes me into talking about how I came to write fiction. The answer is that my road to becoming a novelist was a convoluted one. I did not set out to become a writer of fiction, I metamorphosed into one.

I began my working career as a journalist. I thought journalism was a way of writing about the things that mattered to me and getting paid, which was what I needed at that time. In my midtwenties I became a television reporter with the BBC. A decade later I was done. I have often said the happiest two days of my career as a journalist were the day I first walked into the BBC and the day I walked out. I was never content as a reporter for a large organization. And Africa, it scarcely needs to be said, was not a priority. Once in the 1990s, following a tip-off from a UN worker, I approached my editor with a...