An Impossible Shoot

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We arrived in Sierra Leone in '91 as the negotiations between the RUF rebels and the "elected government" were underway to establish a government of national unity. For the first time, the rebels had agreed to move their headquarter to the capital, Freetown, in order to implement the Peace Accord. Tensions were extremely high with sporadic fighting breaking out across town.

Sierra Leone was cut off from the rest of the world. We had to fly from Guinea via Mali and then take a UN helicopter into Freetown. The UN helicopter, at the time, was the only way to enter or exit the country. Even then, the helicopter had to make a wide detour, sweeping out over the oceanrather than to fly in directly above ground, in order to avoid being shot at.

Even though we had done more than six months of research, we were able to find very few information sources regarding the conflict. The only information available at the time was reports from the mass media reporting on this terrible civil war perpetrated by a blood-thirsty-rebel group, the RUF. According to the media, the RUF were after the diamond mines, and were spreading terror throughout the country by amputating the hands of men, women and children.

We arrived with the idea that we would find a country devastated by the civil war and that we would see amputees at every corner. The media had written pages and pages of articles about these amputations and were estimating, depending on the magazines or newspaper, between hundreds of thousand to several million people affected. Knowing that the Sierra Leone population was roughly 4.5 million at the time, we expected that at least one out of two people had been brutally crippled based on the reports.

When we first arrived we didn't see any amputees, the violence and the tension were there, but not the amputees. Freetown was literally a war zone – people were injured and starving, buildings were destroyed, bullets were flying, and desperate people were trying to get out of the way of danger. We were shooting tape almost night and day with two cameras trying to accumulate as many interviews and images of the devastating conflict.

We had to go fast because the government and the military thought that we were doing a humanitarian movie on the food situation and had given us the authorization to do so. We would never have obtained the authorization to do anything else. The movie was co-financed by this great organization: Action Against Hunger, who made arrangements for us on the ground and helped with our "cover". The NGO had been in Sierra Leone for years helping to alleviate the food shortage in the country. At the time, Action Against Hunger, was the only NGO devoted to not only solving hunger crises around the world but also to explaining the true reasons behind these food shortages. After more than 20 years trying to solve and analyze these types of crises, they came to the conclusions that in most cases, the reasons for mass starvation were actually based on political reasons.

Working with AAF at the time was necessary as they provided tremendous logistical support: coordinating travel in the country and analyzing the situation in a more accurate way. Philippe Peccatier, the head of communications for AAH was with us on a full time basis. He would become the co-producer of the film as well as a very good friend. The more difficult side of this association was that they had some “nutritional centers” which would provide shelter and food to the malnourished refugees from the war. We spent many days in these centers interviewing the refugees and of course got attached to the starving children who came to see us as the entertainment for the day. Some of them were starving to death and the food and medicine they waited for came too late to help. Most of the images in the movie of children and families come from these centers.

We started documenting the suffering and learning about the war by interviewing victims and officials, local journalists and military. After a while, still not seeing the millions of amputees, we went to inquire about them with the government and we were told that they had been all put in a camp. The government immediately offered to take us to this camp – where most of the international dignitaries and media had toured - to interview these victims. We were very nervous arriving in the camp wondering what millions of amputees would look like. Surprisingly there were probably less than 200 of these amputees, all regrouped in a camp built by the government next to the remaining international hotels. When we asked where the others were, we were told that they were still in the jungle and that the government had not been able to reach them for safety reasons. The interviews we conducted in the camp, with a representative of the government watching us, gave very little results. Everyone interviewed gave us the same story: they had been attacked by the RUF rebels and amputated for no reason.

The next day we returned to the same camp, but late in the evening, and without the government's knowledge. We spent much more time re-interviewing the same men and women who had talked to us on the first day. This time, when confronted with very specific questions, their stories were quite different. They spoke of their mutilations – which hadn't just been by the hands of the RUF: some had been amputated by the Sierra Leone Army, some by the peacekeepers, some the pro-government militias or Kamajors. When pressured to explain why they had lied to us the day before, they explained that they were essentially paid by the government to tell this story to all the foreign journalists and dignitaries that came into the country to make an “assessment” on the civil war.

Later, when I looked more closely at the pictures included in the articles published about the conflict I recognized the same people that I had interviewed myself.

That was the first hairy situation which could have derailed the making of the film if the government had learned what we had just taped on that second visit to the camp. The second situation came from the so-called peacekeepers or ECOMOGs, financed by the United Nations.

Many reports had been circulating about atrocities that were being committed by ECOMOG soldiers; atrocities that ranged from torture, summary executions, shooting and bombing of civilians etc. In order to obtain an interview with the General or chief commander of these forces, we had to be very persistent. The general was at first very willing to describe the great success he and his men had had in stopping the rebels and bringing them to accept a peace agreement. Unfortunately, his willingness to speak changed abruptly when asked about the atrocities being blamed on his troops, which he, of course, denied. One of the more feared Captains at the time was known by the nickname, "Captain Blood." When asked about this man we received a very brutal answer and the interview was immediately terminated.

We later learned from other witnesses that Captain Blood was known to bring trucks full of rebel suspects onto a bridge in Freetown, where he would throw them over the rail into the water and shoot at them while they were falling.

Our third strike with the government came when we went to interview the rebels against the recommendations of the ministers. The government had made it clear to us that we should not interview the rebels because our safety couldn’t be assured and as one minister put it, "they are so illiterate anyway, they wouldn’t be able to talk to you." It took us a long time to establish a connection to the rebels, not because we didn’t know where to find them – they were officially in town – but because they had decided to not give any interviews to foreign journalists that "had manipulated the truth" for many years. It took us almost a month to convince them that we were not here to demonize them but to tell the truth. Once they believed us, they were all willing to tell their side of the story… and were perfectly able to do so. For “illiterate” people, I must say some of them were the most knowledgeable people I had met in the country with an analysis of world politics that was much more developed than that of some of the current ministers we had met. Our safety was never in jeopardy in their campground, even if we didn’t feel too at ease being surrounded by young soldiers, some teenagers, armed with AK-47.

Unfortunately a couple of days later, a government jeep came to find us while we were shooting to let us know that the Interior Minister, also head of the Kamajor militia, wanted to see us immediately. In his office, he told us very directly that the government knew what we were up to we needed to cease filming immediately. He gave us two hours to bring all our tapes to him, if not we would all be put in jail and the equipment confiscated.

We were shooting the movie in Digital Betacam, which, at that time was a fairly new professional standard, I knew that such format was not available anywhere in the country. I went back to our campground, took 5 blank tapes and labeled them as shooting tapes. The real tapes left the country in the suitcase of the honorary French Consul and we continued the shooting.

I could go on and on, on about the bombs exploding and the bullets flying or watching the suffering and the death of innocent civilians. The truth of the matter is that the worst of this experience was to witness on a daily basis the most horrible suffering you can imagine and feel that we were totally responsible for it. The threat of jail or deportation was not much in comparison. It became clear to us after several weeks in the country that not only had the media been totally manipulated as to the reasons of the conflict but that this conflict was created from day one by our corporations and our governments without any respect for the lives of innocents we were destroying in our path. That was definitely the worst of an impossible shoot.

Philippe Diaz, Director/Producer