BRITISH TV TAKES UP SIERRA LEONE'S CAUSE
'Cry Freetown'  on ITV Channel 4
Just over two months ago, Britain's Independent TV Channel 4 showed Sierra Leonean Sorius Samura's highly acclaimed film documentary 'Cry Freetown'. The film is a vivid record of the horrendous reality of Sierra Leone's civil war, depicting a curious mixture of unspeakable inhumanity and barbarity laced with intrigue and boundless conspiracies on all sides – government, Ecomog and rebel alike. 

On its first showing the film had the singular effect of numbing many a hardened viewer even in a society like this one which on most occasions is fed with programmes full of gratuitous violence passing as entertainment. Similar shock treatment was given to the rest of the world's audiences when the film was shown during prime time on the CNN networks.

Samura's film for once focussed the attention of the British public on the painful reality of the human disaster and suffering to which Sierra Leone's poor, defenceless and innocent civilians have been subjected almost nine years to the day. 

The film has won fame and acclaim for Samura who is continuing to collect one accolade after another for his brave and courageous output. He has just returned here from South Africa where he bagged another of these awards last week.
 

...and BBC 2 Television takes after him
This past week saw the showing, on two consecutive days (Wednesday 29 and Thursday 30 March), of a powerful two-part report about Sierra Leone on Britain's main current affairs programme, Newsnight, on BBC 2 Television. 

As has become inevitable from our country's extreme circumstances, all the good things about Sierra Leone and Sierra Leoneans were subsumed beneath the gruesome details of what has been variously characterised as the epitome of man's inhumanity to man, in our tiny and until now (for the international media) inconsequential part of the world.

BBC reporter Robin Denselow gave a harrowing account of the fate of the (no longer metaphorically) dismembered state of Sierra Leone, the condition of its (by now) overwhelmed and long suffering citizens, its child soldiers and the ever increasing population of amputees and physically (and mentally) impaired citizens of all ages and sexes. It was indeed sheer human madness being brought into the living rooms of British viewers, mine of course included.

The report was a fitting sequel to Sorius Samura's documentary 'Cry Freetown' but it had the singular virtue of concentrating our minds on the situation post the Lomé Agreement, which was signed last July between the rebel groups and the Government of Sierra Leone and guarantied by the international community. The agreement is meant to bring the civil war to an end and under its terms, as a step towards achieving this goal, the rebel RUF and AFRC were brought into the Government of President Kabbah. But disarmament has been painfully slow and, at the time the film was recorded, insubstantial. Since then of course there have been larger numbers disarming though it is still far short of the level that would signal a drastic improvement in the expectations of Sierra Leoneans. Things are no nearer the stage of normality.

This belated interest in showing the harrowing events in Sierra Leone to the British public is by no means accidental. The British now have a stake – economic as well as political – in ensuring that the peace process succeeds in Sierra Leone. Political stability in Sierra Leone and the success of the peace process are clearly perceived by the British Labour Government as critical factors of success for their own foreign policy, following the fiasco over the 'Arms to Africa affair'. The highly visible personal interest and proactive intervention of Ms Clare Short, the Secretary of State for Department for International Development, has been courageous and commendable. The UK has put in excess of £47 million pounds towards maintaining the Kabbah government and holding together the country's tenuous economic infrastructure. Without this huge subvention by Britain, our country would by now have collapsed.

If Samura's 'Cry Freetown' was chilling and mind numbing, Denselow's report was politically instructive though equally disheartening. True, it did not show us bloated bodies and charred remains of anonymous victims here and there, littering the parched landscape as with the former; nor did we see the brutalising of suspects by the various factions – Ecomog, RUF, CDF Kamajohs, and ex SLAs. But we were shown snapshots of real life in Freetown and the Northern provincial capital Makeni, both bustling with life in a kind of deceptive reality – a melting pot in which the healthy and able-bodied were mingling with the hungry, poor and hundreds of amputees with varying degrees of mutilations and physical impairments.

To me it foreshadowed the reality of what life will almost certainly be like in the foreseeable future even when the threat of rebel atrocities has been finally removed …except in this case the governors of Makeni were the rebel RUF who appeared to have a very firm grip on this – their key prize in the North.

The footage focused on the dilatory nature of RUF disarmament and its volatile and remorseless leader Corporal Foday Sankoh. Most Sierra Leoneans that one has talked to since, felt sickened by the incessant yapping and incoherent babbling of Sankoh who failed to offer any comfort to the wounded and traumatised victims of the civil war which was spearheaded by his group. He  neither showed humility nor an inclination to accept responsibility, even if in part, for all that has happened. Instead he brazenly denied that his rebel group was responsible for any of the amputations or the abduction of children and their forced indoctrination into taking up arms. It was a denial that seemed all the more remarkable by its hollowness and the lack of conviction evident in its utterance.  But the case for all of us was put most succinctly by one of the amputees who said that they as victims had been prepared to forgive these people for what they had done to them, for the sake of peace in the country. "Why", he asked, "have they not reciprocated our gesture?"

Missing from this report was any reference pictorially or verbally, to the pro government CDF-Kamajoh militia which has also been accused of committing some of these atrocities. One was left with the impression that only the RUF had done all these horrible things, although it is undeniable that the RUF are responsible for the most of it.  Nor was any mention made of the ex Sierra Leone Army (SLA) soldiers or their leader Lt Colonel Johnny Paul Koroma and the constructive role that he has played to date. Kamajoh disarmament like that of the RUF and the AFRC/ex SLA rebels is just as critical for the whole peace process. One ought to add that in the case of the Kamajohs, they did not start the war and if they have committed atrocities they might say in their own defence that it was in revenge for that meted out by rebels to innocent civilians including members of their own communities. But even that will not excuse the vicious nature and extent of their actions especially now that it is accepted that innocent people became targeted in many attacks by all sides to the conflict.

The point of the film was that in reality, Kabbah's government has less than wholesome control of the country. But  it has to be said  that this situation did not arise by chance and that it was already the case even before the election that brought Kabbah to power in 1996. Much of Sierra Leone was by then not under any recognisable rule and rebels roamed the terrain freely. Now it has somehow come to be accepted that even after Lomé the rebels still continue to control more than half of the country including, rather worrying for the government, the most economically important areas such as the mining areas in the East and North East. This is so, despite the current deployment of UN troops at many strategic locations inside the country.

The report discussed the myriad of problems hampering the current UN operations, reportedly the largest ever mounted by the world body, to achieve disarmament and demobilisation of the combatants and to help stabilise the surrounding political and economic circumstances of the country. The number of UN troops and personnel is expected to peak at 11,000 by July.

The International community is determined to make sure that this operation does not fail. One sincerely hopes that they do not. However, since the Sierra Leone operation is being used as a test case to re-establish the substance and credibility of the peacekeeping role of the UN the impression is bound to be given that our country's plight, which was ignored for nearly 7 years of fighting, is really just an incident of convenience. One fears that because it is being tied to the fate of the UN itself, it may be the UN's prestige rather than Sierra Leone's interest that will end up as the deciding factor. That's when serious mistakes can be made. Let's hope that they will in fact put Sierra Leone's interest ahead of the UN's ..for once!

The lesson that one drew from the programme was the underlying hidden one, also a challenge to the people of Sierra Leone, namely that the international community no longer believes that President Kabbah, Foday Sankoh or any of Sierra Leone's present generation of leaders have the ability or capacity to deliver this delicate stage of the Lomé process to their citizens. It categorically stated that Kabbah's "democratic" government did not have control over most of the country; but at the same time it concentrated on those who had the most control (by force) – the RUF. But in this case also, its leader Foday Sankoh clearly failed the test of humanity and the finesse of quality for such leadership, despite being given numerous opportunities by Denselow throughout the programme to do so.

Thus what the programme established was that there was a leadership void that was currently being filled by the presence of the international community in a large force, through the agency of the UN.  It however left the unasked question unanswered: Are there Sierra Leoneans who can make the difference by taking up the challenge to lift  their country out of its present terrible condition?

This was painful and sober viewing that left one with a very nasty taste in the mouth.

1 April 2000