The Photographer's Diary

Hope and Horror
in Sierra Leone
by Martin Lueders
 
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December 7th, 1998:

I finally arrive, (after a series of canceled flights and a two-day layover in Dakkar), in Freetown, Sierra Leone to begin working on a project to document various phases of Rehabilitation and Re-unification programs for former child combatants under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Developmentís War Orphans Fund. The project is scheduled to cover phases of programs here, Liberia, Angola and Mozambique for an exhibit and accompanying book at the Reagan Building in Washington, D.C.  The exhibit is tentatively scheduled to open in June and Iíve got a lot of ground to cover; already, I feel Iím behind schedule.

I begin here with lost luggage and mixed feelings - looking forward to being back in Africa again and getting back into shooting a project in black and white for the first time since Ď94 in the Bosnian refugee camps, but feeling a bit anxious about the situation here at the moment. At Lungi, near the airport, the Salesian Fathers in whose compound I stay after arriving late at night, inform me that the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel forces have recently issued a public message stating that they plan to have taken the airport by New Yearís Eve. ECOMOGís, (the West African Peace Keeping Force) presence is huge since returning the elected President Kabbah to power earlier this year.

I anticipate going through roughly 10,000 check points in the next few weeks, as part of this project will entail getting out to villages in the bush to photograph and interview young "Kamajohs", the traditional hunters of the Mende "tribe" who currently support ECOMOG by fighting for the Civil Defense Force (CDF). Questions of calculated risk and access spring to mind because Iím basically winging it on this entire two-week trip, which includes four days in Liberia. I have very few contacts here. The problem is that Iím actually supposed to be in Mozambique at the moment, but the USAID "ground support" there were unable to put together a visiting schedule in time to begin the project before Christmas. So, with some last-minute phone calls from home in Scotland to Amnesty Intíl. in London and the Catholic News Service in D.C.,  I was able to pull together enough contacts to pay most of my expenses for this trip. Because Iím effectively a sub-contractor for USAID, and the State Depít. has issued a travel advisory on SL, theyíre unable to allocate any advance funding for this trip, so Iím largely off on yet another of what I refer to as "reimbursement gigs". Freelancing on international humanitarian issues over the past several years has been very fulfilling and educational work. However, it can be, as they say in Glasgow, "a right pain in the arse"...
 

December 8:

Morning ferry across to Freetown to locate contacts at Don Bosco Home For Street Children, (DBH) with whom Iíll be working on a story for Catholic New Service. Taxi to town center for intros, meetings and to find digs. Mr. Bojohn, a young, emphatic guy who has temporarily taken charge as director for DBH in the absence of American Salesian Father John Thompson, is immediately likable. He insists, after meeting, that I take residence at Fr. Johnís empty flat at "St. Edwardís Compound", very close to where many ex-pat NGO workers are housed, which suits me well, particularly in terms of safety in case the shit hits the fan. I take few shots of kids at DBHĖeating, taking final exams, working at sewing machines in newly-opened crafts center. Millions of calls to make contact w/ NGOs, UN & Intíl. Red Cross staff, etc. and to bloody Sabena Airlines to track down lost luggage. Registered at heavily-guarded, albeit, officially inoperative U.S. Embassy. Freetown seems busy and safe. Heat and humidity are brutal. Long, tiring day...
 

December 9:

Tracked down CNS correspondent Alpha Jalloh by paying radio station to broadcast announcement for contact at DBH. Set up email account at what is loosely referred to as an internet café. Shot couple more rolls of E-6 at DBH and happened across a bakery that serves actual Turkish coffee, which thrills me no end after being kept awake most of the night by roughly 75 mad, barking dogs from the 'hood.
 

Dec. 10:

Freetown is buzzing as today marks the 50th Anniversary of the UN International Declaration of Human Rights. A parade is planned to begin marching from the Cotton Tree, a huge landmark on Siaka Stevens St. in the center of town, and ending up in the Municipal Stadium. All the local and (many) Intíl. NGOs and primary schools are out w/ their banners and colors, and the 1,000's of children marching look very happy and proud to be part of thisĖnever seen so many laughing faces and I think of my own three kids back home and wish they could be here, if just for a few moments to see and feel the excitement.

Note: Ironically, almost one month later to the date, the very stadium at which the Human Rights Parade terminated for an afternoon of speeches by U.N. delegates and VIPs became over-filled with local Sierra Leoneans seeking food and shelter from the carnage which ensued throughout Freetown after RUF rebels, with the help of numerous mercenaries of various nationalities, made good on their promise to enter the capital during the first week in January. By mid-January, nearly 3,000 corpses were removed from the cityís streets and many were washing up on the beaches.
 
 

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