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PeoplePhil Clarke

Phil Clarke

Robin Mills met Phil Clarke in Crewkerne

My career as a war crimes investigator seems to have been influenced by my DNA, for my Danish mother is from a family of prosecutors, lawyers, and judges, while my father—a Fleet Air Arm helicopter pilot—had many ancestors who have also experienced combat with the armed forces. In 1971, when I was 4 years old, he anticipated regular postings to Portland and Yeovilton, so my parents searched for a home halfway between the two. They settled in a Somerset longhouse in the centre of Crewkerne, which has become the UK base for three generations of my closest relatives over more than half a century. My mother continued family tradition by becoming a Legal Exec in Beaminster, while my oldest nephew now studies law at Exeter and has joined the Officers’ Training Corps. Apples don’t fall far from the tree…
My route to war and law was less straightforward; I was educated at St. Bartholomew’s, Maiden Beech, and Wadham schools in Crewkerne, followed by Yeovil College, and then did a degree in mechanical engineering at Birmingham. I considered a career with the RAF, but was lured away by Africa’s wildlife after a visit to that continent in 1988, when I persuaded the company that sponsored me through university to arrange a placement in Johannesburg during one summer break. While there, I did a weekend safari in a national park, which was memorable not only for getting charged by two rhinos while on foot, but also for the game guide’s amazing knowledge of local plants and insects. That sparked an unexpected interest in natural history, so after leaving university, I joined an expedition to Tanzania’s tropical dry forests to help with a biodiversity survey. This led to a job as camp leader, and then a year later I became the program coordinator.
Working in those pristine fragments of God’s Creation was a huge privilege that compensated for the minimal pay; I learned zoology and botany on the job, collected many species that were new to science, and have since co-edited a scientific textbook Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa that was published by IUCN in 2000. In September 1993, on the last day of my final expedition, I rediscovered the extinct tree Karomia gigas.
A month later, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled into Tanzania from neighbouring Burundi to escape massacres by the army. That caused an apparently chance encounter with two newly-arrived representatives of the French aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), who were looking for premises in Dar es Salaam to run their operations. They took up an invitation to share the base where I worked, and I was soon impressed by their dynamism and ethics. That rekindled my desire to work for refugees—I had applied for aid jobs while at university, but had been rejected due to a lack of experience. Now however, after three years of running expeditions in the bush and speaking fluent Swahili, I was sufficiently qualified to become a logistician.
MSF sent me to Somalia in 1994, shortly after the Black Hawk Down incident, into a maelstrom of violence and anarchy where every man carried an AK-47 and where aid workers were kidnapped for ransom. Next, I was posted to Rwanda and Zaire (now DR Congo) and the utter darkness of genocide where half a million refugees were secretly exterminated in the surrounding forests to avenge the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Those wars traumatised me and shook my faith in humanity, but strengthened my relationship with God, who has spared my life at least 15 times from murderous rebels, wild animal attacks, tropical diseases, road accidents, and severe Arctic storms.
After Congo, I worked for MSF in relatively calm contexts in Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Lebanon. An idea arose to fictionalise what I had experienced as a means to heal, so I started to write a novel. Falling Night was finally released twenty-five years later in June 2023, and is one of the few aid worker novels ever published. It tops the Goodreads list of humanitarian aid books.
In 1998, I moved to my maternal homeland when I became director of MSF-Denmark, which was a dream job that allowed me to learn about media campaigns and develop techniques to investigate war crimes. I visited Sudan’s war zone in 2000 to understand how the petroluem industry was exacerbating that conflict, and was shocked as a Scandinavian to learn that one oil company was Swedish. My subsequent failure to get MSF to speak out against their activities made me realise I would have to do such work on my own.
When a new war broke out in Darfur, Sudan, in 2003, I quietly arranged for a satellite analyst to map the burned villages and enabled Amnesty to publish the results in 2004; it was the first time remote sensing was used to document human rights abuses. I then asked the satellite analyst to map the destruction in the Swedish oil company’s licence area, and guided a volunteer to gather all relevant data on the company’s communications and on attacks in their concession. This information was given to a Dutch organisation who used it as the basis of a report that was released in June 2010, which exposed how the company made 93 million USD profit at the alleged cost of 12,000 dead and 160,000 dispossessed Sudanese civilians. Two weeks later, the Swedish State Prosecutor for War Crimes opened a criminal investigation into the company’s activities in Sudan. Over 80,000 pages of evidence have now been gathered, and a court case against the company’s two top executives was started in September 2023. The trial will take two and a half years and will be the longest in Swedish legal history, plus the first time worldwide that a major company is prosecuted for complicity in war crimes since the conviction of Nazi industrialists at Nuremberg in 1948.
Despite the success, I realised my undercover investigations posed a risk for MSF’s field staff, so I resigned my directorship in March 2007. I also felt called by God to continue working on war crimes; without prospective income, I decided to ‘live by faith’, trusting God would provide. A year later, with no money and a huge mortgage repayment that I was unable to meet, I was unexpectedly offered well-paid part-time work with a mineral exploration company in Greenland. That Divine intervention led to seven memorable expedition seasons in the high Arctic with its vast, dramatic landscapes, violent storms, and a very close encounter with a polar bear when my rifle jammed. It also gave me insider insights into the extraction industry that proved essential for my ongoing attempts to indict the oil company’s middlemen who have escaped the current prosecution. I released a report in 2013 that was filed with the Swedish authorities together with another filing against a daughter company for similar activities in Somalia; both cases were unfortunately dropped due to legal technicalities. But I have not given up—the right opportunity to reopen them will surely come.
My life took another dramatic turn in 2019 when my mother suffered a brain haemorrhage; she was the main carer for my father, who was severely disabled by 30 years of Parkinson’s disease. With two incapacitated parents, I was forced to pause my life in Denmark and move home. My mother eventually recovered but struggled to cope with my father’s deteriorating condition. Covid exacerbated the problem, so I spent half my time in Crewkerne over the following years. That cloud however had a silver lining, for my return to the West Country brought some of the healing I still need from over-exposure to war and suffering. Walking, cycling, and driving through the beautiful countryside and quaint villages that I have known since childhood anchor me to a time before I encountered the misery that blights so many people’s lives. And they are a reminder that I am attached to this small corner of the world unlike anywhere else, for I grew up in this area where many friends plus part of my family were, are, and will remain. My grandparents lived in Sidmouth and North Coker, while other relatives were in Birdsmoorgate, Charmouth, Mosterton, and Sherborne. My father, who passed away two years ago, is buried in Crewkerne’s cemetery beside my eldest niece, who died of cancer aged 6 in 2013. My mother is still here, whilst my twin brother and sister both have a house in the town. And in the centre stands St. Bartholomew’s Church where I have worshipped Almighty God for over fifty years, connecting me to generations of Christians who have lived here and have each done their part to make this world a better place.

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