Evil only survives because we walk away from its horror

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I WANT to tell you a story about fear and conscience. It is a story from five years ago, but a story that travels, a story with parallels. Five years ago, in a time of chaos, I travelled to a town in the centre of Africa. It was a town high in the mountains, surrounded by forests of conifers and with a long and wide main street originally designed with horse-drawn carriages or ox wagons in mind. By the standards of Central Africa it was also a town of unusual sophistication. There was a university here and several seminaries for the training of nuns and priests. On the main street there were two good hotels and, at the top of this street, an acre or so of fine colonial houses set amid a rich landscape of bougainvillaea and palm trees. For decades this town had been the main seat of learning and culture in the country. Students travelled there from across the region, so well respected were the lecturers and professors.

But when I arrived it was a place that had ceased to exist as part of the civilised world. The physical infrastructure was intact, but the men who controlled the place seemed to me to have come from a darker, fevered zone of the imagination. There were roadblocks - more than 30 on the short journey from the border to the centre of town. At these roadblocks were men with machetes and grenades. Some of them were drunk, others dangled the grenades through the open window of our car and laughed. All of them had been participants in mass murder. They were men and boys who had passed beyond the bounds of humanity and they were looking for people to kill; to be precise, they were looking for people who were black and tall and thin, people who conformed to the physical archetype of the country's ethnic minority.

I am telling you this story because it has profoundly shaped my view of world events. The experience of those few days in that African town still make me feel a sense of weakness and of shame, however much I try to rationalise what I feel was my own failure. By the time I arrived in the town, most of the ethnic minority population had been exterminated. This had been achieved through the joint efforts of a political elite that directed the killing and the soldiers and peasants who did the hands- on work of murder. People were killed in any number of ways; among the more imaginative means employed by the army was to dig trenches, fill them with gasoline and set them alight. They then forced men, women and children to jump into the trenches.

I knew that there were still members of the minority hiding in forests and private homes. The soldiers and the militia were stepping up their attempts to find them. And I was also made aware that a sizeable group of refugees, members of the minority, were camping out in front of the offices of the local administration. They had been driven from their villages. Some had lost family members. Most had survived attacks on the roads leading into town. They were very lucky to be alive. It appeared that some of those involved in the genocide feared the prospect of justice and had decided to try to preserve the lives of these people, perhaps so that they could later claim that they had acted heroically. But the people were quite plainly terrified. I had been told that, at night, the army and the militia would come and seize some of them. They plainly understood that they were living on borrowed time.

I asked the local prefet - the chief administrator - what would happen to them. He assured me that they would be safe. For the record, this prefet is now facing charges of genocide at the International War Crimes Trial in Arusha, Tanzania. I went back at night to try to speak with the people. But the army came up and told me and my colleagues to go away. It was on the colonel's orders, they said. Nobody was to be allowed near the refugees. And being afraid,very afraid, I did not insist on my right to stay there; I did not insist that I should be allowed to speak to the people and confirm for myself that they were indeed safe. Fear made me step back. Fear made me turn round and negotiate my way home through the roadblocks. Fear made me decide that the safest - not the best - thing to do was nothing.

You must understand that this encounter had come after seeing many dead bodies, after seeing the capsizing of a world. And in this town of scholars and churches the moral order had been subverted: the "good" man was one who killed his neighbour, the "bad" man was one who shied away from murder. But I come back to the question of fear. I have since told myself that nothing I or my colleagues could have done would have made a difference. The army would have physically prevented us from approaching the frightened refugees, had we tried to push forward. They and the militia had their plans for those people and we would have been unable to alter that. And all of that is true in so far as it goes. But my own actions were motivated not by those rational considerations, but quite simply by fear. I was physically powerless and afraid for my own life. Confronted with evil, I had to admit an inability to be heroic.

I don't doubt that the soldiers understood this too. They were seasoned killers and they had the power. In such times the gun maketh the man. I am not a warmonger; the corpses, the shattered limbs, the orphans, the smell and the blood of war long ago proved to me the waste and horror of it all.

But that encounter in Central Africa helped to convince me that there are times when evil demands that we employ force to ensure that it is defeated. This is a notion that our liberal society finds difficult to countenance; it seems to challenge the very idea we have of ourselves at the end of this century.

War makes us shiver; we lie awake wondering where it will all end, where it will lead us. And we are right to question and right to worry. But when you have had all the arguments and the anxieties, you are faced with a very simple question. When confronted with evil, do you take a view that you should not act to prevent it continuing? You may take this view for any number of reasons:

n You believe there is no national interest to be served by intervention (honest but blinkered)

n You wonder why we act in one place when we did not act in, say, Rwanda or East Timor (a fair question, but it evades the point)

n You believe that everybody involved is savage and one side is bad as the other (frequently expressed, but racist, and it ignores history)

n You believe that the long-term consequences may be catastrophic (intelligent and sober, but this again misses the point)

There are all these reasons, and I do not mock anybody who espouses them. But I come back to the question that faces all of us: when confronted with evil on a vast scale, do you sit back and do nothing when you have the power and scope to do something?

Of course, we cannot intervene everywhere, all the time. But we can intervene where it is possible, and where the scale of the crime insists that we act. That is why, for example, we have a UN convention on genocide: the legal injunction that forces us to recognise the singularity of some international crimes above all others.

Evil survives - whether in East Timor or Rwanda or the Balkans - because those with the power to act fail in their moral duty. There are those who will tell you that it is not as simple as that. But it really is. It is as simple as not walking away.

The writer is a BBC News special correspondent