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My American dream

About the author
Sorious Samura is a documentary film-maker.
Sorious Samura with his cameraSorious Samura

You know, if you are in prison in the developing world, accused of committing crimes against the state, it is hard to imagine what is going to happen to you…

The way the accused is dealt with is quite different from that in the west…well, maybe not if you are accused of being a terrorist, in Camp X-ray or Guantanamo Bay.

In the developed world you are innocent until proven guilty; whereas in the developing world you are guilty until proved otherwise.

So, personally, I was not at all surprised at the treatment we received at the hands of the Liberian government from the moment we were arrested at our hotel. If I was slightly disappointed, it was at seeing the Liberian people, those very poor people whose story we were there to tell, lining up the streets of Monrovia, shouting, calling us names, armed with stones and sticks, trying to attack us, convinced that we actually were enemies of their beloved country.

This story for me is like a very bad dream; one I would prefer not to talk about. The only reason why I might want to look back into such a past is to try and understand the present. So indeed, perhaps briefly I should take you back with me, even to that trauma, which I would far rather leave where it belongs.

It was early in 2000 after making ‘Cry Freetown’ with Insight News, a documentary film about the nine-year-long conflict in my native Sierra Leone, when I was offered the opportunity by western media to tackle the sorts of issues that have helped cripple my continent. There was corruption, the scramble and fight over our mineral resources – in our case the diamonds which were used to fuel rebellion – not to talk of illiteracy, the massive unemployment rate, as well as the social injustices.

Despite this huge gap between the haves and have-nots, I had managed to teach myself how to film and so was able to get into a profession which has today armed me with the right tools to represent the silent majority from my part of the world.

For this, I would like to thank UNICEF. They helped fund the video production course in Britain which gave me an edge over colleagues, in a country where TV was only resurrected in 1993, ten years after it went out of operation due to mismanagement and corruption.

We agreed that the first step for me had to be neighbouring Liberia. This was one country that was being accused of supporting and financing the rebel movement in Sierra Leone, believing that they stood to gain control over the sales of the conflict diamonds.

I was already in my thirties and my African political consciousness was well formed.

I was hungry, angry and desperate to deal with our problems head on.

With no disrespect intended to fellow Africans who have been risking their lives trying to tell these very same stories, I felt this was our time. Because this was CNN, the world’s biggest stage.

I felt this was time to open our wounds, and examine them properly, hoping to find some of the answers to our problems.

Having lived within such a system for most of my life, I knew exactly the risks that lay ahead.

So, armed with this knowledge, I went to Liberia with three other colleagues in an ill-fated attempt to use the plight of this country – America’s first son in Africa – to try to understand why my continent was stuck in this rotten situation. Everyone in the sub-region was blaming the war for this. So what better place to start than in the country that kicked off war in our region?

It was meant to be a thorough investigative story understanding life from the point of view of everyone from the ordinary man to the top of the pile. We were hoping to get President Charles Taylor to explain his commitment to war in the region to us.

It was on the third week of our filming that we stumbled on something that I think was vital to Charles Taylor, as well as the international community. And that day was to be our last day of freedom in Liberia.

Life in the balance

That night, we were arrested, thrown into prison and charged with espionage – a charge, if the country is at war, which meant death by firing squad. Some rebels happened to have started invading the country at the time. They quickly announced Liberia at war.

What was really surprising to me was the lightning way the British and Americans became deeply involved.

Here we were facing the death penalty at the hands of a president known to have tortured and killed innocent people, including journalists, in the past, amidst wholesale condemnation by human rights and international bodies.

This is the ruthless President Charles Taylor we are talking about. The moment we were taken to his torture chamber, the National Security Agency, and thrown in separate cells where his men began torturing us, I knew our end was nigh.

It quickly became clear that this stage-managed show was all about me versus Liberia or say, Charles Taylor. I was put in a separate cell from the other three where they started filling my room with smoke. Soon, others came with knives threatening to open my chest and eat my heart, a common practice among rebels.

We endured this for days while western powers were piling the pressure on Taylor and his government.

I am a Sierra Leonean, not an American. In fact, there were no Americans amongst us. But suddenly there they were. In no time at all this whole show was taken over by the Americans. I still do not quite understand what prompted the Americans to get involved. Perhaps it is simply because they cared, because we shared their values or maybe because this Charles Taylor had fled an American prison to gain ascendancy over his people by the blatant use of force.

The American Embassy in Liberia, former president Bill Clinton and some White House officials were all over the place, trying to secure our release. Cars from the American embassy were driving all over Monrovia to meetings set up to put pressure on Taylor.

A wonderful woman working in the public affairs department made the release of all four of us her personal mission. Like the rest of us, when Insight’s editor, Ron McCullagh, arrived in Monrovia, he was shaken and distressed to hear in the courtroom that we were now to face capital charges. She took his arm and told him not to worry because “…we are with you.”

The Reverend Jesse Jackson insisted on talking to me personally – just to make sure we were okay. He asked me all sorts of questions. What he did not realise was that if my answers were brief and misleading, it was because I was in this room, surrounded by the chief justice, the head of police and five gunmen. He prayed for me over the phone and assured me of our release.

Apart from their military, which by strange coincidence had a heavy presence off the coast at the time, they used every available means to get us out of Charles Taylor’s clutches.

Within a week, bullyboy Charles Taylor succumbed to almighty American pressure. And this is why I love the Americans. They probably saved us a lot of suffering; maybe even saved our lives.

I was frankly impressed with this nation, these people, who not only represent our values but also respect our freedom and human rights.

They clearly showed me: they are the good guys who care about our world.

BUT…But…knowing well from this point on how caring, how good intentioned the Americans are when it comes to helping the voiceless, the defenceless and the innocent, it just leaves me wondering why on earth they are always portrayed as the bad guys – by the very poor people they try and help.

Where have they been going wrong? Most of the people I spoke to in Somalia while we were out there filming were quick to point out that Americans not only failed to capture that ‘bad guy’ Mohammed Farah Aideed, but that their ‘intervention’ turned them into monsters, gangsters, leaving them more divided than they were in the beginning.

In short, fighters and innocent civilians alike believe that America’s best intentions were not only harmful to the fighting factions, but that they just did not help the poor, oppressed people at all.

As for the Sudanese; they believe that the al-Shifa bombing was not only a crime against the weak, but an action not intended to help their situation in any way whatsoever. Mr Clinton said the bombing targeted a chemical weapons factory. Whatever it produced, however, al-Shifa was also the main manufacturer of affordable and essential drugs for humans and animals in Sudan. I do not want to believe how many people died because of these bombs…

Some of them told me that actions like these not only create conditions prompting people to flee to safer western countries, but also turn others into ready-made students for terrorist networks.

The response I got from the Afghans confirmed my way of thinking.

They argued that the American decision to eliminate the food convoys providing much needed food to millions of starving people, who also happened to be victims of the Taliban, forcibly suggested that the Americans just did not give a toss about the innocent.

Was not America simply on a revenge mission, caring not a whit about who gets caught in the middle? Some of them, interestingly, even asked me what would have happened if some other power had tried to starve millions of Americans.

I was not sure about the answer. But having listened to their arguments against American intervention, I could not help but wonder what might have occurred in 2000, had it been American (rather than British) soldiers who were held hostage by the West Side Boys in my country, Sierra Leone.

Adding it up

For all America’s good intentions and political authority, why do they keep getting so wrong what the British and others managed to get so right?

Twelve years on from the first Gulf War, thousands of people are still paying the price – millions of Iraqis are short of food, tens of thousands are dying from sanctions, while thousands more are simply waiting to die and hating Americans and their foreign policy every day.

There is no doubt that every civilised man and woman wants to see the evil shadowy terror networks who are threatening people’s freedoms, peace and values stopped in their tracks and brought to justice.

But I wonder whether in the desperation to try and win this war against terrorism, the big daddy of all democracies, America, is now making the same mistake as earlier ‘peacekeepers’ in Sierra Leone – becoming repressive and ending up threatening freedom in the guise of defending it, just like the terrorists themselves.

Finally, I wonder why George Bush and Tony Blair are so positive about war and so uninterested in the road to peace. I just wonder what is so dangerous about listening to the real people, the millions of poor ordinary powerless citizens of this One World who are whispering now to the high and the mighty – ‘peace’. Shall we wait again until the whisper turns into a scream?

Moses, the young boy whom Samura filmed being beaten up inCry Freetown

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