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Tale of African mercenary wins literary reporting nod

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BERLIN, Oct 25, 2005, 2005 (IPS/GIN via COMTEX) -- A British-born writer has won the top Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage for a compelling description of a journey with a mercenary who revisits the scenes of his war-time experiences in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Alexandra Fuller, who married an American and now lives in Wyoming, won $60,000 (50,000 euro) for her 2004 book "Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier." The 10-member international jury hailed the book a "spellbinding literary accomplishment."

The award was established in Berlin in 2003 to honor "literary reportage," which combines journalism and creative nonfiction. Fuller was born in England, but moved to Central Africa at the age of 3 with her parents and sister. She described her childhood memories in Africa in her successful debut book "Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight."

It is during a Christmas visit to her family in Zambia that Fuller befriends "K," a neighboring farmer and veteran of the white Rhodesian Light Infantry Commando Unit, whom she persuades to revisit the scenes of his wartime experiences in troubled African countries. Out of that journey is born "Scribbling the Cat," which deals with love and hate, war and friendship.

The book provides an authentic insight into the troubled history of Central Africa, and the violence of decolonization and guerrilla warfare. Northern Rhodesia became independent as Zambia, and Southern Rhodesia as Zimbabwe.

The writer, who describes herself as an African, was recently asked about her views on wars. She said that while she hated wars, she could not hate the soldiers whose burden it was to fight them. Nor could she ever choose "one side or other" in any conflict.

"After all, anyone who is given a gun is also given lies with which to carry them into battle. And then afterwards, when the politicians have moved into retirement villages or returned to their secluded ranges and the wars they precipitated are just blots in their resume, the soldiers who carry the horror of the war in their very souls must somehow find a way to live with what amounts to the most awful knowledge," she said in a statement.

"I don't know which is worse for a soldier -- to know that you have been lied to and to live with fury for the rest of your life, or to believe the lies for the rest of your life and to live with hatred and arrogance."

The second prize, or place, was won by Abdellah Hammoudi, a Moroccan-born author who gives a gripping account of a pilgrimage to Mecca in his book, "Une saison a la Mecque: Recit de pelerinage" (A Season in Mecca: Account of a Pilgrimage). He won 30,000 euro.

Hammoudi, 60, professor of anthropology at Princeton University, said in Berlin that the "hajj" was a journey at many different levels -- geographical, imaginary, collective, personal and initiatory. He said in a statement his book was an approach toward "the truth of existence -- because there is no existence without origin, or without a past, a present and a future, and at the end of the journey there is success or failure."

A major surprise at the Lettre Ulysses Awards ceremony was the third prize awarded to "Riverbend'"' -- a pseudonym for a 26-year-old Iraqi woman who began writing a Web log in August 2003 that was published in book form as "Baghdad Burning" in June 2005. The prize comes with 20,000 euro.

The writer, who worked as a programmer and network expert for a small software company before the war, now lives with her parents and siblings in Baghdad. Her childhood and early adolescence was spent abroad, "probably in an English-speaking country," and she had studied at the University of Baghdad, Lettre officials said.

Catheryn Kilgarriff, head of Marion Byers Publishers in London which published the book, said at the award ceremony that the writer had been overwhelmed on hearing that "Baghdad Burning" had been nominated.

She read a message from Riverbend saying: "The blog began as a way to vent the frustrations and anguish over the situation in Baghdad in 2003. Through intermittent electricity and a phone line that disappeared for days at a time, I blogged because I felt like it was the only way to get my voice heard.

"I never imagined, however, that so many people would read the blog and that it would become recognized as a window to Iraq under occupation."

This year the Lettre jury considered texts that had been published after Jan. 1, 2003.

The four other writers shortlisted for this year's awards were Carolin Emcke, a Der Spiegel war correspondent; Ricardo Ucedo, a Peruvian journalist writing extensively on corruption in government and army circles; William Langewiesche, an American author-researcher, whose latest book "The Outlaw Sea" describes lawlessness and anarchy on the oceans; and Suketu Mehta, whose 2004 work "Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found" is his personal portrait of the megalopolis.

Read more about the awards and the winners at

Copyright (c) 2005 IPS-Inter Press Service. All Rights Reserved.

(C) 2005 Inter Press Service. All Rights Reserved

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