09 August 2005

Curiosities Of The Modern Era

Mercenaries, Whole Grains & Moscow Beauty Queens

First things first: Popcorn is a whole grain. Which is obvious, I suppose, if you stop to think about it. Whole grains explode into exploded whole grains; they're still whole, at least in a dietary sense.

We'd like to think that everything worthwhile would be as obvious and unheralded as whole grain popcorn. But you and I both know that the world works on a level less clear-cut. It's hard to quite put this into words, but it's a feeling most of us share, though we keep it unspoken. Things don't just happen. There are people and forces that smoke cigars in wood-panelled back room, talking decisively. There are a great many things in life whose reasons are unknowable. And yet they make a kind of perverse sense.

Exhibit: Born in Uzbekistan, Russian mobster Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov currently languishes in an Italian jail. This is mainly on account of his single-handed rigging of the French-Russian vote swap at the 2002 Winter Olympic figure skating games. A Knight of the Order of St. Constantine in France as of 1999, Tokhtakhounov was previously known for fixing Moscow beauty pageants, in addition to the less interesting laundry list of alleged ties to loan sharking, extortion, money laundering, racketeering, and a handful of unexplained deaths in East Germany. A Soviet expatriate knight with three homes in Rome, Milan, and Forte dei Marmi has given the course of his life over to bars and thick walls for the sake of ice skates. Say what you will about the Russian mafia; they have a taste for beauty, even if the delicacy best used to express it falls out of their thick-fingered, quietly desperate reach.

Exhibit: Executive Outcomes, a mercenary firm based out of Pretoria between 1989 and 1999. Comprised mainly of ex-South African Defense Force special forces, it took contracts in Angola, Sierra Leone, and Papa New Guinea and grew during the decade into a complex web of shell companies and subsidieries like Ibis Air, owned by founder and former South African intelligence officer Luther Barlow under his umbrella company, Strategic Resources Corporation. Links to SA's Civil Co-operation Bureau and a number of mineral companies, including DeBeers, have been put forth but never proven. Certainly the organization was effective. After Sierra Leone ejected UN peacekeepers in 1995 in favor of a EO contract during their protracted and bloody civil war, less than 300 mercenaries routed the Revolutionary United Front and paved the way for elections, doing in a period of weeks - and for less than US$20 million - what the UN was unable to accomplish in three years with an occupation force of 18,000 that cost up to a billion dollars annually. In 1997, between negotiations with the RUF that called for the removal of all foreign troops and UN discomfort with the EO - who had been accused of making a play for African diamond wealth - the contract was terminated.

Meanwhile, unless you were there, scuffing rubber boots on the sides of a rusting old Russian military helicopter that leaked when it rained, privy to deadly complicated financial games, running Eastern European guns into Zimbabwe under triple-registered bush planes - unless you sat in on board meetings and had known the men involved since when you were twenty-two and doing things that demand black grease paint and piano wire - well, how can any of us say for certain who's right, and who did what?

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