Emergency sex and other desperate measures

by

Jenny Haines

Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures. A True Story from Hell on Earth, by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait and Andrew Thomson, Ebury Press, 2004

If you picked up a book at a book fair titled Emergency Sex, you might expect something different from this book’s actual content. There are only a few accounts of desperate sexual encouters while passing through holiday destinations.

It really consists of the true stories of Ken, Heidi and Andrew, who were United Nations representatives in the world’s trouble spots of the 1990s, and early 2000s: Cambodia, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda and Liberia.

Ken was a bored, young, idealistic Harvard graduate who planned to “harness the power of the ascendant America to personally undo the Holocaust” and ended up walking into the new holocausts of the late 20th century, which he could not prevent, only watch, and later exhume and count the dead.

His view soured as he realised in Liberia that Nigerian peacekeepers were stealing diamonds from a country whose peace they were supposed to keep, that the United Nations forces were self-serving, and not in any country to help the poor, downtrodden, forgotten people, or to prevent massacres and genocide. The role of the UN was to stand aside while marauding militias murdered people in their thousands, and the UN would then exhume the graves in preparation for the war crimes trials.

Heidi was a Bowery social worker, unsuitably married to a fashion world entrepreneur, until her marriage inevitably fell apart. Her former husband’s sister found her a job at the United Nations in New York, from where she was posted first to Cambodia to monitor an election.

In Cambodia she met Ken, who became like a brother to her, and Andrew. There is a very moving passage in Heidi’s account of polling day in Cambodia, as she notes the presence of “about 40 taxi girls. Makeup in place, faces powdered white, sweating in their cheap shiny dresses, vote registration cards in hand … I find their presence moving. I never thought they would care about who holds power, but it is probably more important to them than anyone. My own problems suddenly seem inconsequential.”

Heidi moves on after the election to Somalia, where she works as a US intelligence operative, providing revealing insights into what the US was really up to in Mogadishu at the time of the famous “Blackhawk Down” ambush that spooked US foreign policy for years to come.

She later moved on to Haiti. Heidi is a warm-hearted woman who falls in deeply in love at least twice and tragically loses her lovers, fortunately always having Ken in the background to pick her up and set her on her feet again to face a world that is forever changed by her experiences.

Andrew is a doctor whose account begins in Cambodia, where he had been for some time. He had been a doctor in New Zealand, but in Cambodia he worked in his own in rundown, understaffed, unstocked hospital on a 24-hour roster.

He met Heidi and Ken at UN parties in Pnom Penh on the rooftop of their house, sipping mango daquiris. Ken worshipped Andrew for his work, and his human rights and local knowledge. After helping out with polling in Cambodia, Andrew travelled to Haiti, where he was part of the evacuation of Port a Prince when Bill Clinton, spooked by the ambush and killing of US soldiers in Mogadishu, had all UN staff withdrawn, leaving the hapless Haitians to the genocidal mercies of the macoute.

This withdrawal was an eye-opener for Andrew as to real role of the United Nations. Disillusioned, he returned to work as a doctor at UN headquaters but was later sent to Rwanda, then Bosnia to help count the bodies being exhumed from mass graves.

This book is powerful and enthralling, and tells the real story of the United Nations, through the eyes of those who have worked for it on the ground. They travel from idealism to disillusionment to bitterness and make no excuses for the UN bureaucracy in New York.

They see, experience, and tell the reader about, the nasty reality of the war zones they work in, and the failure of the United Nations to prevent genocide, through inaction and bureaucratic sloth.

They survive because they are friends and because they face the truth about the work that they do, and define what needs to be done. They do not claim objective historical, journalistic or academic accuracy. They tell their stories as they experienced them, perceived them and remembered them.

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