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magazine home > archives > summer 2003 > features

Sierra Leone is a country with abundant resources and high hopes for the future, but a decade of civil war ripped the country and its people to shreds. Thanks to efforts by the international community, including a U of M documentary film producer, the country is on the rebound.

Diamond in the Rough
by Greg Russell

Last January, on a late sunny afternoon in Sierra Leone, U of M assistant professor Barbara Cook was walking down a street in the capital city of Freetown when she felt an uncomfortable tug at her pants leg.

"I looked down, and there was this little boy, maybe five years old — both of his hands had been cut off," recalls Cook. "He was grabbing at me with his stumps and pulling at me. He was looking for any kind of help."

Video stills from Sierra Leone

Video stills of Sierra Leone from U of M assistant professor Barbara Cook.

Cook was moved, though not altogether surprised. "The most horrific aspect of this incident is that this is a common sight in Sierra Leone," she says.

During a 10-year civil war in this small, West African country, thousands of innocent people were raped, maimed, tortured or murdered during the most vicious war of the 21st century. Young boys were forced to maim or kill their own parents; young girls were taken as sex slaves. Some 75,000 people were killed and two-thirds of the country's population has been displaced.

A year after a fragile peace was put in place by the United Nations, thousands of people still suffer in a country whose total infrastructure was destroyed by war.

Telling truths

Cook is an assistant professor/documentary film producer in the communication department at the U of M. In January, she spent two weeks in Sierra Leone as part of a medical relief mission. As part of her job as filmmaker, she is charged with exposing sometimes grotesque and often ignored truths.

"I am committed to telling the story of the people of Sierra Leone," says Cook. "Not many have done so thus far, and this I find reprehensible. The American media has not told this story because it doesn't impact our economy and therefore is of no interest to the average American."

Cook hopes to raise awareness of the plight of Sierra Leone through a documentary that will be shown at film festivals while serving as a fund raiser for future relief missions.

Cook says Sierra Leone has had a rocky history. The country gained independence from British rule in 1961, but a series of corrupt regimes led to a brutal civil war. In 1991, a group of rebels known as the Revolutionary United Front started what became a decade-long bloody struggle for power. Battling over Sierra Leone's lucrative diamond trade, the RUF rebels used their trademark terrorism-tactic of severing the limbs of their captives to control villagers.

"The rebels would come through villages and round up citizens and give them one of two choices," Cook says. "Have your hand cut off or suffer some other fate we deem appropriate. For those who elected not to have their arms or legs chopped off, they were generally locked into churches or hospitals and burned alive. I saw children, orphaned children as young as three years old, whose arms had been cut off."

Cook says thousands of people elected to have their limbs cut off; still thousands more were burned alive.

"Perhaps even more devastating, young boys were often made to commit these atrocities against their families," she says. "These newly orphaned boys were then swept along as part of the ever-growing rebel movement. The young girls were forced to become sex slaves. When they became pregnant, they were abandoned in the bushes. Girls as young as 10 suffered this fate.

"One girl I met, Maria, had been taken captive by the rebels when she was 9 years old and raped repeatedly by hundreds of men. When she was 13, she had been left in the bush alone, in labor, for five days. Her baby was too big to pass, and it died inside her. She is 19 now and has many physical and psychological problems because of this. This is not an uncommon problem, but there is little medical help available."

The documentary filmmaker found other equally disturbing atrocities. "In Kenema, I met the sole survivor of a missionary group whose staff, nuns included, were killed by the rebels and eaten."

Cook says one of the most unnerving discoveries was the almost nonexistent media attention the war has received in the United States. "I consider myself to be reasonably well informed," she says. "I am teaching
TV and news reporting at the University, but I had no idea this was going on. I think this is true for most

A chance meeting on the U of M campus enlightened Cook. One of her students was acquaintances with Samuel Pieh, director of the Mid-South Africa Link organization that leads missions to Africa each year. Pieh, now a Memphian, grew up in Sierra Leone — his great-grandfather, Sengbeh Pieh, was part of the Amistad slave ship revolt of 1839. Sengbeh returned to Sierra Leone in 1842 after a trial in the United States freed the slaves after their revolt. Because of this, Pieh feels a strong tie to his former country.

"We seek to form health-care and education partnerships between the U.S. and Africa," Pieh says. "We are concentrating on Sierra Leone for the next three years because we feel we will see a tangible impact."

Pieh says he was looking for a documentary film producer to continue telling the story of Sierra Leone where Steven Spielberg's Amistad left off. "Cook is very creative, and she thinks outside the box," Pieh notes. "She will help raise the awareness we need; missions such as ours are very expensive."

Cook says her documentary will expose the deplorable medical conditions the war produced. "There is one doctor for every 20,000 people in Sierra Leone," she says. "The war destroyed the entire infrastructure
of the country — the hospitals, the schools, you name it. In the hospitals, there was no running water or electricity, and often the medical team treated patients by flashlight and candle light.

"I interviewed many of the people who came to see the doctors. One woman came in having pain in her breast. She was wholly consumed with cancer. All the doctors could do was to give her pain medication. She is likely dead now."

Cook says people by the hundreds would wait in line for eight hours to see a physician. During the relief trip, doctors saw 2,000 patients and performed 85 cataract surgeries. She says that most people won't see a doctor until Pieh returns again next year.

"I was really humbled by their gratitude," Cook says. "They would return days later, wait in line for eight or nine hours again just to say thank you. One man came with his most valued possession, a chicken, as payment, as a token of gratitude. This was all he had, yet he was willing to part with it as a matter of courtesy."

Cook says many relief organizations are afraid to return to the country because of the atrocities that were committed during the war. She says it will take many relief missions over several years to repair the damage. "They have tremendous resources, like the diamond industry," she says. "With support, the country can rebuild itself, but right now they are in desperate need of health care and an education system."

Another U of M professor, Dr. Robert Malkin, also took part in the trip. Malkin, through a summer institute at the U of M and through his Engineering World Health organization, works to improve medical facilities in Third World countries.

Rays of hope

Cook says she was most touched by the children who often saw their parents killed, raped or maimed before their eyes. Her documentary often captures the sadness and despair that only the horrors of war can produce.

"When you do see a smiling face, you remember it," Cook says. "I met one little girl, about 4 years old. Her mom was raped and killed, and her dad was maimed. I don't know if she understood what happened. While I was there, I became her pumoi, which is their word for white person. She latched onto me.

"She never smiled, never spoke, not even in her native language. She was consumed with this eternal sadness. I would give her coloring books and balloons to make her happy. But this girl is emotionally damaged beyond repair. There are thousands of orphans like this."

Cook says she was forever changed by the trip. She plans to return next year and is considering basic medical training so she can help in another capacity.

Cook hopes her documentary will make people think twice about the luxuries Americans enjoy.

"We are so bombarded with mass media, this will be an enormous task," she says. "I hope I can get through to some people with these images, but it is hard to compete with Saturday morning cartoons."

Though the smiles are rare, Cook does see a bright future.

"The people there are so resilient," she says. "You do see smiles on some of the kids' faces. And where there are smiles, there is hope."

For information on the Mid-South Africa Link, contact 901/388-6651 or e-mail

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