The best books about the tragedy of war

The Books I Picked & Why

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

By Ishmael Beah

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

Why this book?

Despite having worked in war zones for over a decade including responding to the first genocide of the twenty-first century in Darfur I found Ishmael Beah’s book about his life as a child soldier confronting. Maybe I was always one step removed from the people who were doing the killing or the war in Sierra Leone was particularly debased. Either way, this is a difficult book to read because it shows us in vivid detail the terrible life of gun-totting children. Every time I put the book down, the images painted by Beah lingered in my mind for days on end. A Long Way Gone, takes you into the hurt, anguish, and pain of a young boy separated from his family and forced to make a diabolical choice—kill or be killed.


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Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan

By Ann Jones

Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan

Why this book?

Ann Jones’ memoir Kabul in Winter takes the reader inside the lives of Afghan women following the overthrow of the Taliban in the early 2000s. The book includes the necessary tour of Afghanistan’s history taking the reader through major events alongside the more valuable contribution of her time in Kabul. The book’s beauty lies in Jones’ ability to explain the plight of Afghan women in the complex context of entrenched cultural norms and religious beliefs without relying on simplistic Western cliches. We get to understand that there is no easy solution, no quick fix, because the entire society is structured around an uber patriarchy. I loved how her writing didn’t hold back and how her passion shines through along with her anger and despair.


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The Shadow of the Sun

By Ryszard Kapuscinski

The Shadow of the Sun

Why this book?

I prefer to read books whose focus lingers long enough on a conflict to uncover its complexities and contradictions. But in this instance, despite The Shadow of the Sun sometimes reading like a backpacker’s travel memoir, I couldn’t put it down. Spanning four decades and much of Africa, the narrative begins in the newly independent Ghana of the nineteen-sixties when the hopes and aspirations of a continent are alive on the streets of Accra, and continues through to the troubled times of Eritrea and Ethiopia in the mid-nineties and many coups and wars in between. Kapuściński’s writing covers the mundane through to the life-changing. From the state of the roads, to stories of his neighbors, to the geopolitics of governments, the breadth of his writing helps the reader contextualize the Africa of today.


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City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp

By Ben Rawlence

City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp

Why this book?

Ben Rawlence’s City of Thorns makes the list because of his ability to weave a powerful narrative around the day-to-day lives of refugees living in camps. Far too often our knowledge of refugees is limited to numbers—the number of people who die crossing the Mediterranean, the number living in a camp, or the amount of dollars required to ease the suffering. This book is an antidote to the numbers. Rawlence introduces us to the hopes and challenges of nine residents of what was then the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab, Kenya. Unfortunately for the nine, Rawlence’s book covers a period when famine and terrorism hit the Horn of Africa adding another dimension to understanding the plight of the most vulnerable caught up in the vagaries of war.


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Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq

By Rory Stewart

Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq

Why this book?

Occupational Hazards provides a glimpse into the challenges of rebuilding countries after war. In mid-2003 Rory Stewart joined the British government effort to rebuild Iraq. His time overlapped with my early days but regrettably, operating in different areas, our paths never crossed. While I was focusing on humanitarian assistance and community development, Rory was navigating the politics of Maysan province. Rory is an accomplished writer who turns the prosaic work of governance, such as ensuring local salaries are paid, into an exciting and insightful narrative of the mechanics of running an occupation. Luckily for the reader, Rory isn’t the desk-bound type and as a result, we are taken to the streets of Amara, the reed houses of the Marsh Arabs, and the delicate negotiations between competing factions who are seemingly always only one step away from civil war.


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