Hope and Horror in Sierra Leone

One Man’s Terrifying Journey Through an African War
by Teun Voeten
St. Martins Press, 2002

by Bill Weinberg

Belgium-based Dutch photojournalist Teun Voeten was already a veteran of the bloodbaths in Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Colombia when he arrived in the West African nation of Sierra Leone in February 1998. A particularly brutal guerilla army, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), had been terrorizing Sierra Leone since 1991, and Voeten was there to photograph demobilized child soldiers who had been abducted and forced to fight for the rebels. At first, he is almost cynical about the whole ghastly affair, as if jaded to the point of complacency—the cliché of the hardbitten war reporter.

But shortly after his arrival, a ceasefire ended as the country was invaded by a multi-national intervention force led by Nigeria. RUF and government troops alike went on a rampage of looting and senseless killing, plundering what they could before Nigerian forces seized the country. As a European journalist, Voeten was an obvious target. He was forced to flee into the bush before he finally escaped across the border to Guinea weeks later. Voeten quickly loses his swagger after a few brushes with death. He was humbled by the selflessness of locals who put their lives on the line to help him survive, hiding him from the rebels, feeding and housing him. Voeten certainly wouldn’t have made it without the bravery and savvy of his colleague, local BBC correspondent Eddie Smith. When Voeten was safely back home in Brussels, Smith would be killed in a rebel ambush.

Reckoning with the experience sent Voeten back to Sierra Leone a year later—partly to deliver funds to a friend’s school project. It also drove him to dissect and understand the conflict, and how it has frayed Sierra Leone’s social fabric. “How de body?” is the common greeting in Krio, Sierra Leone’s creole tongue—which takes on a hideous irony in light of the rebels’ habit of ritual amputation of their victims. “Jamba” (marijuana) didn’t seem to mellow out these killers, who were also hootched up on amphetamines, heroin and worse stuff—the better to brainwash press-ganged pre-adolescents. As numerous war victims bitterly complained to Voeten, the Sierra Leone violence was even worse than that of Bosnia and Kosovo—yet the world paid little attention.

For all his vivid depictions of on-the-ground brutality, Voeten doesn’t overlook the international context for a near-forgotten war in a paradoxically impoverished but resource-rich part of Africa. His investigations also took him back to Belgium, where he interviewed sleazy Antwerp diamond merchants who fund the rebels and launder their “conflict diamonds.” He documents how the British, meanwhile, snuck around an official embargo to sell arms to the government forces, who were hardly less brutal than the rebels. As in so many countries in Africa and the global south, Sierra Leone’s people were caught between hostile forces backed by foreign powers for their own ends.

How de Body?,
illustrated with Voeten’s own photos, is a testament to the heroism of ordinary people around the world who struggle to keep alive a sense of simple humanity in wars that grind on outside the global media spotlight—portrayed only as decontextualized atrocity pornography, if at all. Voeten’s journeys through Sierra Leone’s nightmares shed light where too many other journalists have only seen hearts of darkness.


See Teun Voeten’s special WW3 REPORT photo essay IMAGES OF OCCUPIED BAGHDAD: ww3report.com/iraqphotoessay/