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."
stills of Sierra Leone from U of M assistant professor
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
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.
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
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
"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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.