May 7, 2006
Death came on horseback.
From the air-conditioned comfort of the brigadier’s trailer, Alex Baines could just make out the black smudge clinging to the horizon like a storm cloud. Through binoculars, the picture was clearer. Ranks of horsemen clustered together, their iron lances glinting in the sun. Except for the AK-47 assault rif les slung over their shoulders, it was a scene straight out of the fourteenth century.
The Janjaweed militiamen were massing for what Alex could only assume was an imminent assault on the Riad refugee camp. He focused his attention on the one man with the power to prevent a massacre.
“General, I beg you, please defend this camp. Your peacekeepers are the only thing standing between these people and mass slaughter.” Arush Singh of the Indian Army’s First Gorkha Rif les looked at Alex with heavy, owlish eyes and sipped his omnipresent cup of tea. As always, the creases on his khaki uniform were sharp and crisp.
“Quite out of the question, I’m afraid,” Singh said, his upper-crust accent betraying his years of schooling at Cambridge and Sandhurst. "My mandate is limited to self-defense. I don't have the authority to shoot at the Janjaweed unless they start shooting at my men, something I very much doubt they will do."
"That is an extremely narrow reading of your authorities. There are half a dozen UN Security Council resolutions that identify Camp Riad by name as a designated safe area. We have the responsibility to protect the people who came here on that basis and with our explicit guarantee of security."
"Riad is officially a safe area. Unfortunately, however, the one resolution that specifically established my command provides a much more limited mandate. We are authorized to use lethal force only in self defense. You know the resolution, Mr. Baines, and the reason for it. It is not an oversight or an accident. The mandate was carefully negotiated among the members of the Security Council. It's high politics, and there's nothing a simple military man can do about it."
The problem, Alex knew, was China. Beijing was allied to the Sudanese government in Khartoum and skeptical of the UN mission in Darfur. The Chinese were hungry for access to Sudan's vast oil reserves. Rather than veto the resolution that created UNFIS-the UN deployment in Sudan- and face international outrage, Beijing had quietly neutered the mission in tedious negotiations in New York over the scope of the mandate. That was the way things worked in the UN system, and it was why, despite deploying a six-hundred-man force of Bangladeshi and Uruguayan infantry, UNFIS was something of a paper tiger.
"We've checked this carefully with the lawyers in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations back at headquarters," Singh continued. "They are quite clear on this point."
"The lawyers aren't here," Alex insisted. "We are. What happens next is on us, and we can't pass that responsibility back to New York." There was a sharp edge to his voice. Dark tendrils of anger and fear clawed at his heart. He knew that he was losing the argument, and the consequences oflosing were too terrible to contemplate.
"Our first priority now has to be the safety of the international staff," Singh said. "We are here to help deliver aid and assistance, not to fight a war with the Janjaweed. The situation has grown too dangerous. We need to prepare for evacuation."
"We have a responsibility to the refugees who put their faith in us. The Zaghawa could have fled to the mountains when reports of a Janjaweed attack first surfaced two weeks ago. They stayed because I asked them to, because I promised that we could protect them."
"You really shouldn't have done that," Singh sighed, sipping his tea.
When Alex opened the door to the trailer, the blast of heat hit him with an almost physical force. The cloud on the horizon had grown larger. Pulling the binoculars from his pocket, he surveyed the scene. A large man on a white horse rode across the front of the Janjaweed ranks. It was too far for Alex to see the rider's face clearly, but he would have bet a sizable sum that it was Muhammed Al-Nour. Even by the standards of the Janjaweed, Al-Nour was a murdering thug with a well-deserved reputation for brutality.
Most of the camp's ten thousand residents were members of the Zaghawa tribe. Arab Janjaweed militia had been battling the African Zaghawa for the better part of two decades. It was an unequal struggle teetering on the edge of genocide.
Pocketing the binoculars, Alex knew what he had to do next. Hehad to tell the Zaghawa elders that they were going to die.
As much as he would have liked to deny his own responsibility for what was about to happen, he knew that he could not. Washington had been afraid that a mass exodus from the camp would undermine the credibility of international efforts in Darfur and lead to a growing drumbeat of support for military intervention in Sudan. Moreover, the intelligence community was flatly contradicting the desert nomads' predictions of a Janjaweed attack. The government's multibillion-dollar reconnaissance satellites saw nothing that would substantiate their story. The CIA's best analysts dismissed the reports as groundless.
The State Department had instructed Alex to persuade the Zaghawa leadership to keep their people in Camp Riad. In Alex's six months in the camp, the elders had come to trust him. And when he advised them to stay, they listened to him.
Alex made his way through the squalid encampment toward the makeshift shelter where the tribal council met.
The elders were waiting.
Daoud Tirijani, de facto head of all of the Zaghawa tribesmen in the camp, stepped forward to greet him. He was a tall, thin man who looked to be in his late sixties. His sun-wrinkled skin served as testament to a harsh life in the desert. His robes were caked with the thick yellow dust that blew ceaselessly through the camp and settled in a gritty film over everything and everyone. A cloth shesh was wrapped around his head and neck, leaving only Daoud's face exposed to the elements. Fatima, the tribesman's principal wife, stood behind him holding one of his fifteen grandchildren. A girl. Alex bowed his head briefly in wordless apology but then looked the Zaghawa elder straight in the eye.
'Tm sorry, Daoud."
The tribesman nodded. His expression did not change.
"The Janjaweed are going to come," Alex continued. "General Singh will not fight. There may still be time for you to lead your people to the hills."
Daoud shook his head. "It is too late for that."
In a gesture of extraordinary generosity, Daoud reached out and clasped his forearm. Alex reciprocated, locking eyes with the Chief. For the Zaghawa, this was a mark of respect. Daoud was acknowledging that Alex had done all that he could. Somehow, this made him feel even worse.
"You are a great man, Daoud, a true leader. It has been a privilege to be your friend."
The ground began to rumble under their feet. The Janjaweed were coming.
Daoud turned and barked orders in Zaghawa too quickly for Alex to follow. The small knot of elders dispersed, returning to the subclans they were charged with leading through this crisis.
Fatima walked up to Alex and handed her granddaughter to him. For a moment, he resisted the responsibility, overwhelmed by what it was Fatima was asking of him and ashamed of his reluctance to accept it. Then he took the girl. He did not know what else he could do.
"Her name is Anah," she said.
Daoud's granddaughter was stick thin. She could not have been more than six years old. She clung fiercely to Alex and did not cry. Anah was a brave girl.
Wordlessly, Fatima turned away and walked to stand beside her husband.
A Janjaweed charge is a fearsome thing to see. The militiamen preferred the intimacy of the spear and sword to the impersonal killing power of automatic rifles. Nearly a hundred riders on stout horses rode through the center of the camp like an armored fist. Their leveled lances cut down scores of camp residents as they tried to flee. Alex saw one of the elders, a man he knew well, decapitated by a strike from a machete. There was nowhere to hide. The only hope for the camp residents was to stay alive long enough for the Janjaweed to sate their bloodlust.
A few peacekeepers in powder blue helmets stood and watched the slaughter. They carried their rifles slung harmlessly over their shoulders. The Janjaweed gave them a wide berth.
A few of the Zaghawa men tried to fight back, but they lacked training, experience, and weapons. Some tried to hide. Most tried to flee.
Alex saw two Janjaweed ride in parallel through the center of the camp with a chain suspended between their saddles, catching refugees around the knees and ankles, and sending them crashing to the ground . From behind a stack of crates stenciled with Australian flags, Daoud stepped out in front of one of the riders, holding a length of iron pipe. Dodging the tip of the Janjaweed's lance, he swung the heavy pipe in an arc that caught the rider on the shoulder and dumped him from the saddle. The militiaman fell hard and Daoud raised the pipe like a spear. Before he could deliver the blow, an Arab riding a white horse and wearing a black Bedouin-style headdress rode up behind him and stabbed Daoud in the neck with a curved sword. Alex recognized him from his picture in the CIA bio. It was Al-Nour.
The horse reared. The animal was so white that it seemed almost translucent in the desert sun. The muscles and veins under its skin were clearly visible. Alex recalled the passage from Revelation: I looked and there before me was a pale horse. Its rider was named death, and hell was following close behind.
With a speed and grace that belied his size, Al-Nour jumped from his horse and wrapped a length of cord around Daoud's ankles. Remounting, the Janjaweed leader dragged Daoud's body down the main road of the camp. As he rode past, Al-Nour looked at Alex and Anah with a sneer playing on his lips. He pointed his bloody blade at Alex's head but did not lift it to strike.
Alex held on tightly to Anah. He did not dare put her down. Even as he kept her safe, however, he drew strength from her. Anah had been entrusted to him. Here in the shadow of death, the survival of this one small creature was his sole responsibility.
Slowly and carefully, Alex made his way through the maze of crude shelters, moving in the direction of the trailers that housed the international staff. He whispered reassurances to Anah in English. It did not matter if she understood the words.
The killing became less efficient as the riders broke up into smaller groups and spread out through the vast camp. A few stopped murdering long enough to rape.
Alex was light-headed and dizzy. His vision narrowed to the point where he felt he was looking at the world through a long tube. Anah grew heavy in his arms as she clung to him with her face pressed tightly against his shoulder.
He had nearly reached the trailers when the cavalry arrived. A small armada of helicopters appeared in the sky over Camp Riad, and for a moment Alex dared to hope that the Janjaweed would be pushed back. The deadly Cobra gunships stayed silent, however, and circled above in lazy figure eights as four massive U.S. Marine Corps Sea Knights set down near the trailers. The blast from the Sea Knights' twin rotors sent sand and shelter material flying in every direction. Even before the helicopters had settled on their landing gear, efficient Marine rifle squads had dismounted and secured the perimeter. They did nothing to challenge the Janjaweed.
Alex assessed that the one Marine carrying a BlackBerry rather than a rifle was the mission commander. When he got closer, Alex could see the oak-leaf insignia of a lieutenant colonel and a name tag over his breast pocket that read HARROW.
"Colonel Harrow, I'm Alex Baines with the State Department. This is a UN safe area, and the Janjaweed militia are in violation of multiple Security Council resolutions. Between your Marines and the UN peacekeeping contingent, there's more than enough strength to push the Janjaweed back and save what's left of this camp."
"I reckon you might be right about that, sir," the colonel replied in a soft Georgian drawl. "But it's not in my orders. This is a NEO, a non-combatant evacuation. My orders are to get you and the UN civilian staff out of here."
"The international staff will all fit on one Sea Knight," Alex insisted. "You can evacuate at least a hundred Zaghawa on the other helicopters. We should start with the sick, the injured, and the children."
"No can do, sir. Not in my orders. Besides, we can't have refugees swarming the helos looking for a way out. It's too dangerous. I need to ask you to get on board now, please."
Alex felt the blood pounding in his temples. He fought to control his anger and failed. Without thought, he lashed out with a fist, catching the Marine colonel on the jaw and knocking him to the ground . Two young Marines stepped in quickly to defend their commander. One grunt grabbed Alex's free arm and twisted it behind his back. The other reached for Anah but stopped short when he saw the savage look in Alex's eyes.
Harrow rose from the ground and held up his hand. "It's okay. Let him go. In truth, I don't really blame him. But get this man on one of the birds. If he resists, you can restrain him ... gently." A trickle of blood ran down Harrow's chin from his newly split lip.
"Get your shoulder into it next time," he said, before turning to greet General Singh.
Alex's guards escorted him to the door of one of the helicopters. A Marine sergeant supervising the boarding stopped him. He looked at Anah and then at Alex. 'Tm sorry, sir. No locals on the helos. Colonel's orders. Internationals only, sir."
"She's my daughter," Alex replied, shouting over the noise. Even as he said it, he realized it was true.
The Marine clearly did not believe that the underfed African girl in the dirty gray shawl was Alex's child.
"Uh, do you have any identification papers for her, sir, a passport or something?"
"Her passport is in my travel bag in my trailer on the other side of the camp. Do you think we should stop there on the way out and pick it up?"
The Marine shook his head. He had real problems to deal with. Refugee paperwork was not his concern. He gestured for Alex and Anah to board.
When all of the international staff was on board, the Sea Knights rose with surprising agility from the desert surface. Two of the helicopters were flying empty.
Revue de presse
“Without question the best book I’ve read this year.” —Mystery Scene
“With their intelligence and humanity, Alex and Marie are easy characters to root for—but even the bad guys are well-drawn and believable….This is first-rate fiction. Let’s hope Palmer has a sequel in the works.” — Kirkus, starred review
“Palmer’s first novel offers an insider’s look at the world of American diplomats stationed in foreign countries…. Pair this one with John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener (2001).”
“A timely thriller... A satisfying finale and a nuanced view of the diplomatic life.”
"The American Mission by Matthew Palmer cuts so close to the bone it could be nonfiction. It opens with one of the most horrific scenes I have ever read, which segues into a fast and furious story of international intrigue and corporate corruption, with nonstop action, vivid characters and crisp dialog. This is a thriller of great integrity and intelligence, written by an author who really knows his stuff. I highly recommend it."
—Douglas Preston, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Monster of Florence and co-creator of the legendary Pendergast series.
“Superb! Embassy insider Matthew Palmer takes us inside the secret "club" of international diplomacy, and races his characters through political tightropes and hair-raising encounters. I read this tale at warp speed, thrilled all the way. With The American Mission, Palmer joins the exalted ranks of Follett, Forsyth, and Clancy.”—Tess Gerritsen, Internationally Bestselling author of Last to Die
“Talk about writing what you know — Palmer is a veteran diplomat and it shows on every page of his debut novel. Crackling with authenticity that sizzles with emotional clout, this is a superb debut by a coming star in the thriller genre. Five stars by any review.” —Steve Berry, New York Times
and #1 Internationally Bestselling author of The King’s Deception
“The American Mission is one of those wonderful novels, where great story telling is woven through with the intricate detail only a knowledgeable insider can supply. I loved it!”
— Iris Johansen, #1 New York Times
-bestselling author of Hunting Eve
“Bristling with high adventure and low-down international politics has it all - unforgettable characters, razor-sharp dialog, insider details that only an American diplomat would know, and an exciting love story. Reminiscent of Graham Greene, Mr. Palmer is far better than John le Carre. This is the sort of book you don’t want to end, and when it does, you crave the next one. Mr. Palmer is a rare talent. You won’t want to miss The American Mission."
— Gayle Lynds, New York Times
-bestselling author of The Book of Spies
"What a fantastic debut thriller...Only an insider with years of service in the diplomatic corps could detail the intrigues of the international and domestic politics of Africa."
—Taylor Stevens, New York Times
bestselling and Barry Award-winning author of The Informationist