Fleeing the Jurisdiction

A single, glittering premise
February 20, 2007, 3:22 am
Filed under: Law, Sierra Leone

To paraphrase another traveller in strange lands: when first I arrived here, I thought I could easily write a book; after a month – perhaps a pamphlet; now, it has become difficult to write a single word. This is not, as some have suggested, due to some repetitive strain injury resulting from overuse of a heavy thesaurus, but rather a paralysis of another kind.

Working in defence grants a licence to test the orthodoxy of a particular narrative of events. In the course of this, however, it’s natural to encounter distortions, misrememberances, blame-shifting, conflations, mythologisation and other variants of confusion or outright deceit. By pursuing reasonable doubt, myriad perspectives are aired. Given a common place and time, subjectivity will turn a fool into a martyr; a villain into a hero. From this environment, then, it becomes difficult to say anything with authority, except that there is no simple conclusion.

With this in mind, it strikes me as hubristic (told you my thesaurus hand was unimpeded) to attempt to render this conflict in mere black and white. Two such efforts are notable. The first, and most recent, should at least be lauded for bringing Sierra Leone to the attention of cinema-goers and readers of celebrity magazines. After all, for those whose minds actually register this country’s existence, there is usually a single line entry: Sierra Leone – see War.

That titanic starpower should be brought to bear in illuminating this country’s otherwise overlooked history is commendable. Unsurprisingly, however, the exigencies of the studio system, the need for box office returns, and the parallel desire not to have movie fans dry-heaving into their popcorn have required a neat, dilute reading of its turmoil. The evildoers must be identified; their motives explained.

Hollywood has thus resolved the conflict, and decided the guilt of parties in a way that the Special Court has not yet found itself able to voice. Putting aside the minor inconsistencies of the film – such as the fact that vehicles here keep to the right of the road – the film errs most when it seeks to represent one armed contingent as overwhelmingly responsible for the atrocities of the war.

A cursory examination of the Special Court’s indictments would dispel this fallacy. With detainees representing three factions, including a number aligned with the current administration, those held at law on suspicion of bearing ‘the greatest responsibility’ are a diverse assortment of politicians, stooges, ideologues, sociopaths, and backwoods ne’er-do-wells. Occasionally, all in the same package.

Imposing a linear, two-dimensional storyline on such chaos does a disservice not only to those maligned, but to anyone hoping for a more comprehensive understanding of what is inescapably a complex affair. For example, casting the RUF as the bloodthirsty invaders of Freetown, in preference to a more nuanced portrayal citing renegade soldiers as culpable, is symptomatic of the sort of dumbing-down that cannot conceive of an arena of violence beyond crude labels of good and evil.

An equally grave mistake is made by those who misconstrue the bloodshed here as directly and singularly linked to mineral wealth. The second portrayal of this country, to which I referred, was written by a Colorado journalist, and has influenced a number of subsequent works, not least the aforementioned film, to which it very nearly lent its title. Whilst usefully placing West Africa in the context of domination by diamond cartels, its suggestion of a war motivated primarily by greed is blunt, and overlooks a number of factors.

As well as gold, bauxite and rutile, Sierra Leone is rich, perhaps beyond anywhere else, in diamonds. Approaching the mining area of Kono, with signs for aid projects rising from the dust like tombstones and those homes that have survived bombing campaigns literally undermined in search of glossy rocks, this is impossible to overlook. The world’s most successful marketing exercise, touting a compressed form of carbon as an emblem of love, honour and purity, has turned this quiet jungle outpost into a giant slag heap.

Dazzled by the worth and symbolic weight of precious stones, some commentators have side-stepped the relevance of the entrenched corruption and cruelty that characterised Sierra Leonean government for decades and which ultimately gave rise to revolutionary objectives. Despite a sometimes brutish methodology, the RUF, at its inception, found a populace sick of institutionalised inequity and therefore receptive to its reformist agenda.

However compromised this popular uprising may have become, its ideals still resonate with many Sierra Leoneans who see the outcome of the war as maintaining the status quo. That such sympathy should linger even after protracted bloodshed suggests that the conflict was, at least for some participants, deeply rooted in reasons more political than criminal.

A chronological assay of the war appears to bear out this alternative. The diamondiferous regions of Kono and Tongo Field, though relatively close to the Liberian border and to RUF strongholds in the south, were not subject to attack and capture for some five or six years after fighting had commenced. If the motives of the rebels had been so single-mindedly acquisitive as is suggested, then a campaign targeting these areas would have been more likely than the actuality of a drawn-out borderland offensive seeking to recruit disaffected villagers for a march on the capital. Evidence supporting the latter account is substantial.

Maybe part of the problem in conceptualising the full scope of the war in Sierra Leone is that, from the vantage point of Western consumer society, the idea of fighting for a sense of what is fair is seen by many as altogether quaint and naive next to the pervasive power of capital. Or maybe the notion of a story without a clear indication of who the ‘good guys’ are is just not good copy.


3 Comments so far
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Ah, Hollywood strikes again. Whether tis nobler to bring flawed attention to our unseen corners of the world or leave tehse conflicts obscured in anonymity…

Comment by Kate

Perhaps “Blood Diamond” could be catalogued under “Sierra Leone — wildlife/cheetah.”

And “Blood Diamonds” under “Sierra Leone — amputees.”

I recommend Ezra, the film that took the top prize at FESPACO. It’s very loosely based on Sierra Leone. The acting’s a bit sketchy and it could have been edited down by a good 45 minutes, but otherwise, a much better story.

Comment by Karen Palmer

very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

Comment by Idetrorce

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