Ghassan Charbel
Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

The Cannibals of Nations

The golden weeks are gone. Celebrations don’t last forever. They were beautiful and thrilling. We quarreled, argued and guessed right and wrong. Brilliant teams, not militias, engaged in this spotless war, which was fought with goals, not drones.

It’s a war without coffins and armies. Boys swimming in lights and harvesting medals without a drop of blood. Sportsmanship in a wild, savage world. Thanks to them. Messi made us forget Putin, Mbappe outshined Zelensky, Ronaldo overshadowed Biden, and the Atlas Lions eclipsed Kim Jong-un.

Sports analysts diverted our attention from the new wave of the coronavirus and from speculations about an imminent World War III. But the vacation is over and it is necessary to return to the gloomy world and the pessimistic articles.

Sometimes the news seizes its reader. This is what happened to me when I read the news of the death of the “Japanese cannibal”, Issei Sagawa, more than forty years after the crime that gave him the title.

The story began in Paris. He was a student at the Sorbonne and on June 11, 1981, he invited his Dutch classmate, Renée Hartevelt, to his apartment. During dinner, he shot her, then raped her, cut off parts of her body, and ate from it for three days, taking the necessary pictures.

He tried to hide what was left of the body in a forest, but the police arrested him. When experts confirmed that he was suffering from a mental disorder, he was sent to a psychiatric center in France, and then to a similar center in Japan, where he regained his freedom in 1985.

Sagawa turned into a star and published books, some of which became popular, especially the one titled “The Cannibal.” When the French police interrogated him, he did not lie, saying, “Eating this girl was an expression of love. I wanted to feel inside me the presence of someone I love.”

We read a lot in the news and stories about lovers with disorders, who were lured by the embers of love to murder or commit suicide. But Sagawa’s story is thrilling, painful, and sickening. The recurring story of cannibals came back to mind, mingled with exaggerations.

Ali Abdussalam Treki was minister of Foreign Affairs during part of the Muammar Gaddafi era.

During an encounter in Paris, I asked him about his memories of Gaddafi when he went on talking about his African missions. I asked him about cannibalism, and he replied that the accusation was practically leveled against Bokassa, the Emperor of Central Africa, who was also rumored to have shared the lions he had acquired in eating the flesh of his opponents.

He also recounted how the president of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko, was annoyed by a waiter on his yacht, so he ordered his assistants to throw him to the crocodiles, which devoured him. He noted that Mobutu preferred to eat monkeys’ brain meat.

One day, he said, Gaddafi asked him to deliver a verbal message to the President of Kenya. After the meeting, Kenya’s foreign minister tried to take over the small private jet that had taken him to the country, offering him a ticket in return. But Treki came up with a lie to escape with the plane.

Treki stressed that Africa’s problem was not in cannibalism, but rather in plundering countries’ budgets and mines, consuming public money, and wasting opportunities for development and progress. He concluded by saying that the tragedy begins when the president considers that the map and whoever is on it are his personal property, and has the right to dispose of without deterrence or scruples.

I had a feeling that some tyrants are doing to their countries what Sagawa did to his girlfriend, and they consider devouring the land and those on it as an expression of love. I remembered the day it was said that Bokassa spent a quarter of the poor country’s budget on his coronation as emperor because of the Napoleon complex that haunted him.

I recalled the day when Gaddafi was taken by the praises of a “dishonest” visitor, so he decided to give himself the title of the “King of Kings of Africa.” His aides scrambled to find him a suitable crown.

Sagawa’s crime is appalling. But killing an individual, as brutal as it is, is less dangerous than killing a country. Maps can be assassinated in different ways, mainly by demolishing the state, destroying its institutions, fragmenting the army, subjugating the judiciary, and using the ballot boxes to produce governments that turn a blind eye to the theft of public money and impunity.

Sagawa is a hideous killer. But corruption remains the worst when it occupies institutions and public life, and becomes a popular culture. Corruption is a killer that steals the bread, the book, and the medicine, the opportunity to work, tranquility, and hope for a better future.

Corruption is a daily assassination of people’s right to a decent life. Many countries have been exhausted by the infiltration of the corrupt into their arteries, and their willingness to illegally trade in everything without exception.

I think of Lebanon. The system’s devouring of citizens’ assets is a thousand times greater crime than Sagawa’s devouring of parts of his girlfriend. Public money eaters are more dangerous than Sagawa, because they assassinate people and generations.
I feel the same when I follow the news of those accused of corruption before the Algerian judiciary, including three heads of government, a remarkable number of deputies, and a batch of generals.

I am struck by the statements of Iraqi officials and experts saying that the amount of money looted or wasted in the past two decades is close to $600 billion. The country that sleeps on amazing wealth has not defeated poverty and suffers from declining services and power outages.

The corrupt devoured the flesh of states and left some of their young men nothing but to sit with despair and the allure of extremism, or to try to escape by jumping into the “death boats.” The crime of the Japanese “cannibal” is less brutal than the mass killings carried out by cannibals of nations.