Hunting the lord of war - Page 4

SF-based investigator Kathi Austin helped expose a notorious arms dealer and awaken the world to a key human rights struggle
The intrepid Kathi Austin
Photo by Brandon Joseph Baker

But he soon did something that would significantly boost his career and help make him what another Bout pursuer once described as "the McDonald's of arms trafficking." He switched sides and helped the new post-genocide Rwandan leadership topple the neighboring Zairian presidency of Mobutu, Bout's own longtime client.

Zaire is known today as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bout would make yet more money years later aiding another warlord who attempted a violent coup inside the country, Jean-Pierre Bemba. The International Criminal Court last month charged Bemba with mass brutality and rape committed against civilians between 2002 and 2003.

"He [Bout] has no loyalty," a Bout associate told Merchant of Death authors in 2006. "His loyalty is to his balls, his sweet ass, and maybe his wallet."

Probably Bout's most cynical move occurred in Afghanistan. At the start of his career, in the early 1990s, he allegedly maintained an intimate business relationship with commanders of the Northern Alliance, the tribal army that fought Taliban extremists for years until gaining power in Afghanistan with US help following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

US officials began openly acknowledging in 2005 that Bout earned as much as $50 million also furnishing the Taliban with military equipment during its reign over the country.

Austin's upbringing is the antithesis of what one might expect from an international human rights investigator. The oldest of five kids, she played guitar in a country-and-western band with the rest of her siblings, embarking on tours throughout the South from their home in Richmond, Va.

"We would play for people who had no money," she said. "We'd camp out for three days just to give them some music."

In the '60s , the family of Baptists played at small African American churches during the climax of Southern segregation and against the backdrop of racist terror. They defied the neighbors and invited black friends over for dinner or socialized with them publicly. The Austins were largely apolitical, but Kathi says her parents insisted on human decency and encouraged a basic sense of justice and rebellion.

Her exposure to the destitution of many formerly enslaved black families in the South translated seamlessly in her own mind to Africa, a continent that fascinated her. But her understanding of the continent was limited.

"I just wanted to go save Africa one day. It was what I said I wanted to do with my life when I was really young.... I had this kind of missionary zeal, this very naïve, humane impulse."

Few people in her family considered going to college, but Austin hungered for academic achievement, securing a scholarship to the University of Virginia in the late '70s.

Civil rights turmoil at the school politicized her and transformed her deeply. A model Organization for African Unity held for college students each year at Howard University in Washington, DC had the greatest impact. She attended it devotedly for several years. After competitive debates, politicians, professors, and other experts would speak to the students about Africa's colonialist history and the anti-Apartheid movement.

"I really began to understand a lot of the underpinnings of what was going on with the African liberation movement in South Africa," she said. "I became engrossed in it and learned a lot intellectually and got a good sense of what I thought."

Austin began to zero in on the Ronald Reagan administration's agenda of undermining Soviet communist influence in the region.

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