TOPICS > Nation

Cry Freetown

January 25, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a conversation with a man who took great risks to document strife in his homeland, the troubled African nation of Sierra Leone. Media correspondent Terence Smith has his story.

SORIOUS SAMURA [narrating documentary]: I knew it was dangerous, so I had to be careful, because if they realized that I was filming them or [saw] the slightest movement on the curtain, they would have attacked this house, killed me…

TERENCE SMITH: Two years ago photojournalist Sorious Samura was so shocked by the violence convulsing his native Sierra Leone that he decided to risk his life to put it on videotape.

SORIOUS SAMURA: I used the only weapon I had: My camera.

TERENCE SMITH: And Samura’s camera proved to be powerful. With the help of CNN Productions and Insight News Television in London, Samura produced a wrenching half-hour documentary about the rebellion in his own country. Sierra Leone, which means “Lion Mountains,” is a land of some four million people on the West African coast between Guinea and Liberia. It has been in the grip of internal fighting over diamonds and politics for the last decade. Samura’s documentary first aired on CNN in January of 2000. Because of the violence, little of it has been seen elsewhere on American television. The film has won numerous awards, including the prestigious Dupont Silver Baton Award this year. Here are some additional excerpts:

SORIOUS SAMURA [narrating documentary]: This is Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, my country. My name is Sorious Samura. For most of my life it’s been a good place to live, rich in natural resources, the envy of the West. Now, you may judge for yourselves. In the battle for Freetown, the vaguest suspicion was enough for either side to kill.

TERENCE SMITH: Not only did Samura shoot and narrate his documentary, he took viewers back to the landmarks of his haunting journey with both sides in the civil war. The rebels, he reported, enlisted children as fighters.

SORIOUS SAMURA: These are children who have killed and raped, but often under the influence of cocaine and other drugs that they were forcibly given.

CHILD [Translated ]: While I was shooting, I had no idea how many people I was killing. I chopped off hands, I killed. While I was doing this, I wasn’t myself. Again, if I had refused, they would have killed me.

SORIOUS SAMURA: It was five days after the rebels entered Freetown when I made my escape to the Ecomog lines. And I began filming with the Nigerian soldiers who make up most of the peacekeeping force. They, together with what was left of the Sierra Leone army, were all we had between the elected government and the complete takeover by the rebels.

The locals, including small children, watched the full horror of the gun battle in front of them. Anyone rumored to have helped the rebels, no matter where the rumor came from, was considered a traitor and treated accordingly. I filmed many beatings like this one and the executions that followed. Sometimes just because I was there with my camera they would not be so quick to condemn suspects to an immediate sentence of death. In a way, these, the very people who were supposed to protect us, found it hard to avoid the same cruel methods as the rebels.

Africa is the responsibility of everyone; those who have benefited from the riches of this continent, and we Africans who live here now. Share our problems and help us resolve them so that we won’t continue coming out of Africa with these horrible, horrible stories.

TERENCE SMITH: Sorious Samura joins us now for an update on the situation in Sierra Leone. Welcome. Welcome to the broadcast, and also, congratulations on your award. It certainly was an honor, the Dupont. How dangerous was it for you to film this fighting?

SORIOUS SAMURA: Sitting now, thinking back, I’ve always thought I was stupid to even do what I did. But at the time, it was quite important, because the Western media had all decided to leave because, you know, the rebels had no respect for human life at the time. In fact, journalists were a target. They had police… they were looking for journalists, going into houses. So, it was very, very serious at that time, and I don’t think even a second time around I would even ever make such a mistake.

TERENCE SMITH: In your film– and of course we showed only a small portion here, and it’s very powerful– you managed to get both sides apparently to trust you enough to… let you film. How did you do that?

SORIOUS SAMURA: It was slightly easy, because being a Sierra Leonean, I knew the people I was dealing with. I know how they react. I know they are almost always permanently on drugs. So, I had to pretend I was supporting them. I had to…

TERENCE SMITH: The rebels?

SORIOUS SAMURA: I had to, yeah, give them the impression I was supporting their cause, I was supporting the cause of the rebels, the rebellion, and so on. And because of that, you know, they just let me go on. But, of course, I paid the price as well because I got beaten at some point when they realized I was a Sierra Leonean. Because the very first moment they saw me with a camera, they thought I was working for CNN, and they were like shouting, “CNN.” So, it worked a while, and they realized I was a Sierra Leonean, so I got some beating, and then I was taken to their leader. But again, when I managed to escape and join the Ecomog peacekeepers, they were hoping I was going to promote… I was going to give the impression that Ecomog were decent guys, they were good guys.

TERENCE SMITH: Right, and Ecomog is the largely West African peacekeeping force.

SORIOUS SAMURA: Yes. They are the West African peacekeeping force put together basically headed by Nigerians. You have got Sierra Leoneans, Ghanaians, Malians, and so on. But it was, of course, as I said in the film, it was difficult for them at the time because they were confused. But like I said in the film, my job there was to just get that evidence.

TERENCE SMITH: Were you ever tempted– and this is a difficult question to answer– were you ever tempted to put your camera down and try to stop what was going on in front of you?

SORIOUS SAMURA: It’s… like I said, it’s really difficult, because we know our job is to make sure you give the viewers exactly what happened, what you film without distorting the truth. But being a Sierra Leonean, and thinking of the human aspect, yes, at some point I thought, “I can’t let this happen.”

But at the end of the day, I know the people I was dealing with. It’s one of two… either I get the evidence with the camera and shock the outside world, and make them realize and get them to wake up and do something, or attempt to save a single life and probably, you know, lose mine as well in the process. So, the best of two was to just get the evidence, and that’s what I did.

TERENCE SMITH: I’m just curious, what… it was such a brutal war with the chopping off of limbs, arms, and hands, and I just wondered what explains that.

SORIOUS SAMURA: There is no explanation for the kind of beatings that went on. There is no reason so far as to why they would want to chop off arms and limbs of innocent civilians. But basically, what we… what was clear is that this was showing the kind of beating that was going on, the kind of madness that was going on in a country that we have allowed… I mean, including Sierra Leoneans, to go down the trail that we have all sat down and looked at the country going down, abandoning all the children who are supposed to get decent education to know what is wrong or what is right. Basically, it was just a madness that was being shown there.

TERENCE SMITH: What is your understanding now of the situation? What do you hear of the situation in Freetown and Sierra Leone today?

SORIOUS SAMURA: At the moment, there has been a cease-fire. A peace agreement has been signed between the rebels and the government forces, but… which they are observing at the moment.

TERENCE SMITH: Largely observing?

SORIOUS SAMURA: Yeah. Both factions and both parties. But to some extent… yeah, to some extent they’re observing it, but the rebels are still coming between one or two atrocities, but not as serious as it was when they invaded Freetown or what had been going on all over the country. But I am still worried. I have my doubts when things go this quietly in war in places like Sierra Leone, because these are the periods that the rebels find time to regroup, you know, get arms and ammunition. Again, so I don’t know whether…

TERENCE SMITH: And they continue to do that?


TERENCE SMITH: They continue to…


TERENCE SMITH: And do they continue to fund those purchases through diamonds, through diamond smuggling?

SORIOUS SAMURA: Well, it is quite clear. In fact, I have always said to people that the war in Sierra Leone is not basically started by diamonds. Diamonds is the fuel. I mean, it started by a whole lot of things. I mean, the fact that Sierra Leoneans…it was started because of greed. It was started because Sierra Leoneans abandoned their children, no education. We’re talking about social injustices and so on. Diamonds is now the fuel and the rebels are still controlling the mining areas, and therefore, they’re still using the diamonds in the barter exchange system to get arms for diamonds. They’re still doing it.

TERENCE SMITH: At the very end of your film there, you essentially appeal to the rest of the world to help. What, beyond what’s already been done, can the West do to change or improve the situation there?

SORIOUS SAMURA: First things first. I always say that in order to cure a particular illness, you have got to find… You’ve got to diagnose the disease, and, you know, that will be like halfway through the problem. The West… They have got genuine intention to help the situation in Africa — not just Sierra Leone, but the West have always gone into conflict zones in Africa with temporary measures without really understanding why, what, who, and so on, before they actually come with the Western form of solution.

In the case of Sierra Leone, the West is there. I mean, the UN peacekeeping force is there, the British are there, but they need to really go down to the bottom and find out from the grassroots what is really responsible for the Sierra Leonean war before they can find a solution. And the Sierra Leoneans themselves need to get involved. It’s not just a Western solution to the Sierra Leonean problem and this is why, I think… This is what I think we need to do now if we’re going to solve the Sierra Leone problem.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Sorious Samura, thank you very much.