In the Land of Magic Soldiers A Story of White and Black in West Africa

Daniel Bergner




Trade Paperback

224 Pages



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A Los Angeles Times Best Book

In this chilling, unflinching, and beautifully written narrative, Daniel Bergner journeys into the heart of the world's most war-ravaged country: Sierra Leone. A land of spectacular beauty, of vine bridges across jungle rivers and white lilies in radiant swamps, Sierra Leone has been torn apart by a decade of civil war. It is a society ruled by terror, plagued by corruption, and defenseless against disease.

In the Land of Magic Soldiers tells the stories of a group of native Sierra Leoneans: a father who rescues his daughter from rape, loses his hands from punishment, and then begins to rebuild his life; a child soldier (and sometime cannibal) and the priest who tries to help him; and a highly Westernized medical student with an immunity to bullets and a cure for HIV. Interwoven with their stories are those of the would-be saviors: a family of American missionaries who make their home in a tiny village as the war overruns them; a mercenary helicopter gunship pilot who thrives on the fighting he tries to end; and the army of Great Britain, committed to intensive intervention in a country that is so anarchic and desperate that, forty years after independence, its people long to be recolonized.

A story of white and black, of the First World and the world left infinitely behind, of those who would nation-build and those who live in a realm of fire and jungle, In the Land of Magic Soldiers is an unforgettable work of political reportage by "a terrific reporter with a novelist's eye" (Peter Applebome, The New York Times Book Review).


Praise for In the Land of Magic Soldiers

"The black and the white of Bergner's [subtitle] are, on the one hand, the victims of the seemingly endless civil war in Sierra Leone and, on the other, the missionaries, aid workers, and British soldiers who arrive to restore hope. Bergner follows such bleak narratives as that of Lamin, a husband and father whose hands were chopped off by the rebels, and Komba, a child soldier who calmly describes eating a victim's heart . . . He [has] a journalist's eye for the telling moment; in one scene, amputees, coming to the polls to vote, pose happily for the cameras, while a member of the CNN crew says casually that the segment probably won't air in America."—The New Yorker

"The journalist and novelist Daniel Bergner is right . . . to see Africa's civil wars as a horror of our time that deserves exploration . . . Bergner has a keen eye . . . What is of value in this book is less what it says about Sierra Leone than about the human condition."—Adam Hochschild, The New York Times Book Review

"Bergner is at the forefront of journalists who practice that virtually lost art of literary war reportage perfected by such luminaries as A. J. Liebling for The New Yorker during World War II and Michael Herr in his collected Dispatches from Vietnam . . . Bergner's special gift is his ability to personalize this hell on earth through a human cast of characters . . . Bergner delineates all this [information] in spare pages, sans purple prose or jeremiads, leaving the reader to feel: Lord, give us all hearts that break, even if the carnage isn't on CNN and the bad guys aren't on playing cards."—Neal Karlen, The Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

"Bergner [is] a deeply accomplished young writer . . . [He] has undertaken a huge, ghastly task, and his book is a remarkable achievement, so beautifully written, and written with such intelligence, that you will not pull away from it . . . Bergner describes what is magical and what is malign in Africa as well as anyone ever has, sometimes with the skill of a poet and sometimes in icy detail . . . A wonderful book."—Gloria Emerson, Los Angeles Times

"Astonishing, unsettling . . . In the Land of Magic Soldiers is a remarkable book, full of piercing images and brilliantly observed details. Against all odds, Bergner draws us into this land and these people. Despite the horror, we read on, not out of moral obligation to people who live out their lives in a devastated world, nor to learn some useful geopolitical lesson, nor even from a perverse fascination with the pornography of violence, but for ourselves, because knowing these stories somehow makes us better, richer, and more intelligent human beings."—Jill Laurie Goodman, Chicago Tribune

"Mr. Bergner's book is a good one, in that he does not give way to caricatures. Even the killers are human, Janus-faced, and tragic."—K. A. Dilday, The New York Sun

"Daniel Bergner is a brave man and he has written an extraordinarily good book here, a compendium of surreal horrors, vastly improbable characters, and very fine writing. Those who have illusions about Africa will find little comfort here; in fact, they will find some passages unbearable, and curse Bergner for daring to examine the heart of darkness in his subject and in himself. But these things should be heard, because there is no way forward unless we stare at the truth long and hard enough for the path of salvation to be revealed. Mr. Bergner has done this for us in the insane jungles and slums of Sierra Leone. His eyes are clear, his pen is true, and his book is a truly valuable addition to the canon of post-colonial African literature."—Rian Malan, author of My Traitor's Heart

"Unusually candid . . . Bergner is a talented freelance writer who has artfully captured the horror and the anarchy of the civil war that ravaged Sierra Leone [and] provides a sharp contrast to the current situation in Iraq."—Foreign Affairs

"Daniel Bergner's stories of Sierra Leone's killers, victims, and rescuers are too intimate and beautifully told to be put aside. We're seldom lucky enough to get so talented a writer to make so sustained a commitment to so difficult and neglected a subject. Bergner has created humane literature about a war of cruelty beyond belief."—George Packer, author of Blood of the Liberals

"Bergner [offers] sharply drawn profiles that ultimately foretell the limits of the ongoing U.N. rescue mission . . . Sierra Leone may be out of the news, but that makes its story all the more important."—Tom Masland, Newsweek

"A searing, gruesome, and moving exploration of civil war at its worst. In the Land of Magic Soldiers presents the human faces of a conflict fought without humanity."—Big Issue

"In this compilation of stories from the civil war-ravaged West African country of Sierra Leone, Bergner demonstrates a deft dramatic touch. He all too vividly recreates the violent rebel advance on the capital, Freetown, as seen through the eyes of Lamin Jusu Jarka, whose hands were chopped off against the root of a mango tree. It is hard to believe, after reading about the 'twenty seconds of localized apocalypse' that a South African mercenary helicopter pilot unleashed on rebel trucks, that Bergner was not himself hovering above the scene."—Publishers Weekly

"A remarkable journey into hell: a country where nothing works and murderers rule. Novelist/journalist Bergner, whose God of the Rodeo (1998) was set in another hell—a maximum security prison in Louisiana—here voyages to a country the UN has repeatedly deemed 'the worst on earth': Sierra Leone, in West Africa. Torn apart by a decade-long civil war uncommonly vicious even by the standards of a region where civil war and ethnic violence are endemic, Sierra Leone seems to many outside observers to be utterly unsalvageable. In this vivid narrative of travel and observation, Bergner gives only a few reasons to think that anything is better than that; as he wanders among terrorized, maimed villagers (a favorite tactic of rebels and government troops alike being to lop limbs off suspected enemies), doubtful aid workers, and vicious fighters such as one 'young man with an AK-47 and a black cap and white drug-frothed saliva webbing the corners of his mouth,' he more than suggests that the situation is hopeless. There are many in his narrative who would argue otherwise, from homegrown politicians who believe that one day Sierra Leone will be a paradise to which 'the rich will come, the middle class will come' to white mercenaries who love the entire business of war . . . And then, of course, there are the missionaries, ever hopeful of recruiting souls in all the mess. While wondering whether his views are not freighted with prejudice as a white, Bergner delivers a memorable, scarifying portrait of a country in terminal turmoil—one whose leading citizens, he notes, pray will soon be recolonized by any power that can keep the peace. First-class reporting and storytelling add grace to a depressing tale—one that Bergner deserves praise for venturing to tell."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

In the Land of Magic Soldiers
ONEThere is a place where the bend in a path--just that, a slight curve in a narrow strip of mud--can produce an ache, a longing, a bending of the heart. Within the jungle on either side stand the cotton trees. Twelve stories high, their monstrous trunks fan out toward the earth in giant buttresses, forming the walls of strange rooms. To step inside those chambers, to have the massive growths enclose you, to lean with your feet on the spongy ground and your back to the cool damp bark, with almost all the sounds of the world absorbed by the misty air and the immensity
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  • Daniel Bergner

  • Daniel Bergner is the author of Moments of Favor, and God of the Rodeo: The Quest for Redemption in Louisiana's Angola Prison and writes for numerous publications, including Harper's, The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. He lives with his wife and two children in New York City.