Sunday, April 7, 2024

Guest Post: How I came to write "Falling Night" by Phil Clarke

Set in a fictional country, Phil Clarke’s first novel Falling Night is rich in the feeling of Africa in turmoil and how westerners need to face the situation if they want to have an impact. No one who wants to try to understand the conflicts of Africa should miss this book. Nevertheless, it’s also an optimistic story, showing that danger can change people for the better, and that one person can indeed make a difference.

Phil Clarke studied at the universities of Birmingham and York, where he gained Masters degrees in Engineering and Ecology. He spent most of the 1990s in Africa, both as a humanitarian aid worker and as a tropical forest researcher, about which he has written extensively. He then worked for nearly a decade as an executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), before founding the war crimes investigation agency, Bloodhound. Falling Night is based on his actual experiences, or those of his acquaintances, in the various wars that took place in Africa during the 1990s, but using fictional characters.

Protagonist Alan Swales is no hero and no saint. Bored by a successful, yet dull life in Britain, he decides to become an aid worker in Africa for the adventure. Plunged into a civil war waged by vicious warlords and their child soldiers, Alan has to make unexpected choices about the direction of his life. As the situation deteriorates, he hears rumours of a hidden genocide, which leads him on a dangerous quest for evidence in the face of almost insurmountable obstacles.

In today’s guest blog, Phil tells us of his own experiences in Africa, and what motivated him to write the story in the form of a novel.

Nyiragongo Volcano broods over Goma

The day I personally encountered genocide remains etched into my memory. It began with a descent into the Great African Rift, leaving Gisenyi in Rwanda to enter the empty, war-ravaged streets of Goma in Congo/Zaire where only soldiers moved among shuttered houses. From there, I traversed a rocky plain of jagged black lava that was littered with abandoned dwellings, from which hundreds of thousands of refugees had recently vanished without trace. Beyond, an active volcano loomed ominously above as we negotiated checkpoints controlled by heavily-armed rebels; at one, they detained a small group of refugees who had emerged from the surrounding forest, and whose terrified eyes testified to recent horrors that were too dangerous to voice. Their misery was exemplified by their tattered, brown rags, which provided scant protection from the lashing rain of a violent tropical storm that darkened the sky with dense clouds and drenched the air with gloom. As thunder and lightning erupted all around, I sensed God’s deep anger over what was happening.

Yet we — my team of fellow humanitarians — could not fathom what was actually going on. Confused by myriad impressions and rapidly changing events, we were unable to make sense of the chaos. Where were the million missing refugees? Why had they fled from safety? Who was supporting the rebels? What was their agenda? Would they allow us to bring help? Overriding the questions, there emerged a single certainty: extreme evil was afoot.

That was confirmed the following day, when gunmen opened fire at the relief centre I had just helped to construct; I was some kilometres away, unable to see the events reported in real time by my walkie-talkie that crackled fearful communications between colleagues. That evening, just after I returned to our base, an unexpected visitor showed up: a young French missionary priest on a red motorbike who had made a hazardous visit to the forest. There are hundreds of corpses, he said, three hours’ walk in; go another three hours, and the surviving refugees are huddled among the trees, waiting for help.

The assistance never came, for the refugees were driven ever further away. Over the following six months, half a million would succumb to disease, starvation, exhaustion, bullets, and the blows of sharp weapons as they were relentlessly hunted down over thousands of kilometres in the remote rainforest. Thousands of locals who belonged to the wrong tribe were also killed where I was working; some in their homes at night, while others were abducted and then executed in the prison or a nearby quarry. Murder was everywhere, yet my colleagues and I were prevented from witnessing it because the military authorities carefully shielded and hid all tangible evidence of their atrocities. But we continued to be troubled by rumours that were impossible to verify.

Abandoned refugee camp at Biaro

Until the day when colleagues arrived at a makeshift camp deep in the Congo forest. Tens of thousands of refugees had emerged from the jungle and had settled along a remote railway track to await international aid. They were in pitiable condition: human ruins wrecked by half a year on the run through inhospitable bush. For a few weeks, my organisation valiantly struggled to provide emergency medical relief, but many of the refugees were too weakened to reverse their decline, and they died under our care. Then the rebels blocked all access for three days. When my colleagues returned, they were shocked to find the camps completely empty, except for bullet cartridges scattered over the ground, and huge bulldozed mounds of freshly turned earth that stank of rotting flesh. The soldiers claimed the refugees had left by their own accord, but we knew that was impossible for the hundreds of hospitalised patients who had been too weak to move. The organisation therefore decided to publicly condemn the disappearances, well aware of the considerable danger it would impose on its staff. To mitigate that risk, my team was reduced, so that same evening, I was told I would be evacuated at first light. Five dark months in Congo/Zaire thus finished the following morning, with child soldiers rifling through my suitcase, searching for evidence that I might have tried to smuggle out that could incriminate the perpetrators of their atrocities. The youths were thorough, but were unable to examine my thoughts or confiscate my memories.

A psychologist sent by the organisation had predicted I would suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It normally takes a month after you get back, the Dutchman had said, but for Brits it takes two because of your stiff upper lip. Exactly two months after my return, the ordeal hit me like a huge truck, causing regular bouts of intense pain plus sleepless nights.

Sea view of Tabou showing the market

In those days it was not normal practice to seek professional counselling, so I reckoned the best way to heal would be to spend time in a pleasant, peaceful place; my mind envisaged a tropical beach lined with coconut palms but I did not have the means to make it happen. I did not tell the organisation, but providentially they then proposed a non-warzone posting on the shores of Côte d’Ivoire. Thus followed nine happy months in the vibrant environment of a West African cosmopolitan melting pot, working with Anglophone Liberian refugees in the small border town of Tabou with its Francophone residents and immigrants from Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea, plus a collection of characters from different corners of the world who would have fitted in a Graham Greene novel. Two departing US Peace Corps volunteers invited me to take over an English language evening class for Liberian refugees; not wishing to impose Anglo-American grammar on their quaint version of English, I instead asked the students to write stories. The manuscripts they handed to me for marking provided a fascinating insight into their personal lives; about what it was like to flee their homes, how they earned a living as refugees, and the dreams they had for the future. Storytelling remains one of the most powerful tools of communication.

I started then to write my own story, both as a cathartic process to heal the mental scars of war, but also because I had a unique tale to tell of living through genocide, which was so carefully concealed that many colleagues refused to acknowledge its existence. I reordered my experiences to fashion a new narrative that would allow readers to embark on their own journey into the exciting and sometimes harrowing world of providing humanitarian aid in an African war zone. Fiction allowed me to weave in my anecdotes from other conflicts, plus those of friends, and I added observations about Africa’s lesser-known wildlife from an earlier time when I had worked as a tropical forest biologist. Falling Night took 25 years to reach publication; writing the book has been a long journey but in the process it has softened haunting memories and brought an amazing inner peace. Night will fall, because light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

MurderIsEverywhere welcomes guest posts from mystery and thriller writers for the Sunday slot. If you would be interested in writing a post for us, contact Michael Sears at


  1. Thanks, Phil, for sharing your experiences and for distilling them into Falling Night so dramatically.
    Amazingly, today is the 30th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide (which we hadn't realized when we planned this post). It makes Phil's article even more important.

  2. Your experience was extraordinary, Phil. And the book sounds important and moving. I'm glad to know about it.

  3. Thank you so much for joining us, Phil, and for sharing this harrowing post. I cannot wait to read the book and am glad that writing it allowed you to process some of these heartbreaking stories.

  4. Your book is a real page turner Phil. So horrific that it’s all based on truth. Why is it that these atrocities are not widely acknowledged. Sandra Brewin

  5. Thank you for sharing what you witnessed. So horrific.

  6. An important feature f the book is that Phil shows that there can be dawn after the night.

  7. A deeply unsettling situation that needs courage such as yours to draw the sort of world-wide attention to the many out of sight out of mind horrors plaguing so much of the region. Thank you for that. Jeff

  8. Thanks everyone for you kind feedback. It can take time, but the efforts we do to fight injustice are never wasted. Last September, two Swedish oil executives were brought before a court in Stockholm charged with complicity in war crimes in Sudan — the first case of this kind anywhere in the world since the trial of Nazi industrialists at the Nuremberg Tribunal in 1948. That was achieved by decades of dedicated effort by journalists, aid workers, human rights activists, and later also by the Swedish police once a criminal investigation was authorised.

  9. Thank you Phil for sharing! And thank you for your ongoing struggle for justice. The genocide is incomprehensible and painful to take in.

  10. Thanks Phil. Definitely touched a raw nerve there. As an ex MSF traveling the same roads I also used writing to reduce the trauma. Landing at that Tabou jetty on spring tides with 5,000 Liberian refugees in tow was a memory not to be taken lightly.

  11. For more about the novel, including excerpts, reviews, and interviews, see