Interview: Tim Butcher

A war correspondent is no stranger to dangerous situations and near death experiences. Yet when Tim Butcher said that he was planning to retrace the journey of Victorian journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley through “Africa’s broken heart”, the Democratic Republic of Congo, old Africa hands told him that it was “suicidal”.

However, a desire to truly understand the nation that inspired Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness gripped Butcher, made stronger by his personal connections – Butcher’s mother had sailed down the Congo on an African tour in the 1950s, and Stanley’s expedition had been sponsored by the paper Butcher worked for, The Daily Telegraph. He tells me, “I never felt that I had a genuine understanding of the region. That feeling niggled.”

It was, then, Butcher’s “sheer, bloody-minded curiosity” that drove him to write a will and travel to the Eastern border of the Congo in 2004. From there he journeyed almost 2,500 miles to the Atlantic Ocean, by motorbike through Congo’s volatile Eastern badlands, and then down the mighty Congo River, much of it in a dugout canoe.

Butcher’s second journey was marginally less “suicidal”. But following the route that Graham Greene immortalised in Journey Without Maps through war torn Sierra Leone and Liberia, 350 miles of it on foot, can hardly be called safe. It was a “stone in my shoe” that drove Butcher there too, after the deaths of his journalist friends Kurt and Miguel in Sierra Leone, and being compelled to stay out of Liberia after receiving death threats from Charles Taylor’s regime. Having been “shit scared” in West Africa, Butcher wanted to confront his fears.

Reading about Butcher avoiding Congolese soldiers in Blood River, and walking through “Africa’s Killing Fields” in Chasing the Devil, I was captivated by both the audacity of his adventures, and the simple humanity with which he brings the places he travelled in to life. And it also strikes me throughout our conversation just how normal and modest Butcher is. “I blush slightly when comparisons are made with the explorer generation. The Congo journey took less than two months. Many people do three years cycling round the world – in Liberia I only walked for 32 days.” Butcher does admit that he has “an extreme form of comfort zone”, and is “more risk tolerant than others”, unsurprising given that he was a war correspondent for twenty years.

After graduating in PPE from Magdalen College, Butcher “made coffee for the Telegraph foreign desk”, before reporting on conflicts all over the world, including stints as the Telegraph’s correspondent in Africa and the Middle East. “One of the thrills of it [being a war correspondent],” he tells me, “is seeing things at their most raw, the artifice stripped away, purely good and purely bad. I saw love, decency, survival and empathy, but also evil.”

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I ask Butcher whether he ever felt close to death as a war correspondent, and he admits that he did at times, but adds, “I was the writer type…the cameramen are the most insane as they have to point camera at the actuality, whereas a writer can hide under the bed.”

“You work the law of averages, you cross a front line at 2am, as every soldier in the world is asleep at 2am in the morning. You take the fuse out of your vehicle so your brake lights don’t show.”

Butcher recounts being the first to walk across the front line in his last war, in Gaza in 2009. “The IDF, they kill Western journalists, Western NGO workers. I was terrified as I walked across this half mile of rubble, with the beam of a battle tank following me. You know they’re watching you. It’s a little bit like Saving Private Ryan.”

There is also plenty of luck involved in escaping unscathed. Butcher tells me how he felt “very safe” when embedded with British soldiers in Iraq in 2003. Yet a helicopter which he had been told to get out of just before take off, crashed five minutes later, killing everyone inside. Now married with two children, Butcher tells me that reporting on conflicts, “is a young man’s game, for people who don’t have kids, who don’t have partners.”

You need energy and flexibility, he says, and, in advice given to him by “a particularly wise, old sage”, you must “never miss breakfast”. But the cardinal virtue of journalism, Butcher says, is when you are “modest enough to know you don’t know anything, and curious enough to make that situation better”.

However, unlike reporting, Butcher describes how writing Blood River gave him “a sense of being in control of my own destiny”. He tells me, “The absolute high ground as a journalist is to be able to write what you want. That’s absolute heaven…Once you’ve been to 125 refugee camps in 6 different continents, what is going to blow you away, make you thrilled?”

And the emotional toil of war reporting eventually begins to take its toll too, he says. “I remember seeing a child carried in Kurdistan, Saddam’s Iraq, in April 1991…like a wax doll, pale skin, cold, eyes glazed and marbled up. I remember coping with that.

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“But in the Hizbullah War in 2006, my child was about 9 months old. I saw 24 people killed in the same house, and one little boy was exactly the same age as my son. Having children and a partner makes it very, very difficult to carry on. When I was younger, I was able to be more dispassionate, but not now.”

Writing books, then, is Butcher’s current passion, and he enthuses, “You skate over the surface as a journalist, but writing a book you go vertical instead of horizontal.” Butcher describes himself as the “biggest pub bore on Graham Greene”, telling me that he can “correct Greene’s mistakes in his own autobiography”. But while Butcher’s books are rich in historical detail, he says that he aims to “try to understand to the journey of the place itself.”

“My personal journey is a device to hook people in, to get to a journey which is much more interesting, which is the journey of the people…I use history to bring it alive.”

Butcher’s next project, Gabriel’s Rage, will take him on foot across the Balkans, retracing the journey of Gabriel Princep, “the angry young man who fired the shot that changed history” when he assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, sparking the First World War. The project, Butcher says, is “touching on some wonderful territory”, and he intends to do the conflicts of the Balkans “a bit more justice” than merely being “unspellables versus unpronounceables”.

Returning to the subject of his current books, I ask Butcher what he thinks now about Africa after his experiences, and he tells me how “all over Africa I found an incredibly strong spirit to survive, in astonishing depravation and poverty.” He points to the successes of Africans living in Britain, “running the NHS”, and playing Premier League football, in contrast to Africa where “if you are the tallest poppy you will be cut down”.

Butcher is realistic in his assessment of the continent, explaining, “In Britain it took us hundreds of years to slowly and bloodily learn the lessons of working together. Africa hasn’t learnt that lesson yet.” Yet his optimism is palpable as he refers back to the “inspiring, humbling, energetic, cool” people he met on his journeys, and tells me, “I hope I’m realistically confident that one day their voices will be heard.’