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Saturday, 7 July, 2001, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
Reacting to tragedy in Sierra Leone
Displaced civilians
Many civilians were forced to flee their homes
On Monday, the UN will holds its first ever summit on the illegal trade in small arms. Seeing first-hand the traumatic legacy of guns in Sierra Leone has forced the BBC's David Shukman to think differently about his reactions to tragedy.

People often ask how troubling it is to visit scenes of conflict or tragedy.

The truth, in my case, is that the task of reporting is so absorbing that there is usually a sensation of being insulated from what is happening around me.

Time after time I'd find myself thinking: "What can I say?"

The mind is easily filled with concerns about journey times, safety arrangements and the details of the story.

Yet now and again, particular images and people can break through.

Sierra Leone is like that. Partly it was what I heard and saw, but also it was the sense that when someone tells me something shocking, I ought to be able to offer a meaningful or even helpful response.

Yet time after time I'd find myself thinking: "What can I say?"


Take the mobile phone shop in Freetown. Yes, they do have mobile phones in Sierra Leone, I too was surprised.
One of many children mutilated in the civil war
There are many casualties of small arms warfare in Sierra Leone

I start talking to Saweeda, the pretty saleswoman behind the counter. She had once worked as a check-in assistant for an airline. When the rebels advanced two years ago, there was panic at the airport - word of the terrible amputations had spread.

At the memory of this, Saweeda's eyes widen in fright. She describes how the last plane was full. She was told to hang on, they'd come back for her. They never did.

As she talks, her fingers pull at her necklace, her brow dotted with perspiration. She remembers how she escaped by boat, but only just.

I mumble something about the ceasefire being welcome. Saweeda smiles distantly. What can I say?

Businesses ruined

Mr Tunis who rents me a car apologises for being a few minutes late. It's the Freetown traffic, he complains, as if everything is perfectly normal.

Yet as we talk, I coax the truth out of him - that the last wave of fighting almost ruined him.

There are children with deep scars on their arms, men with mangled hands, and some of the women say they were shot between the legs

He used to have one of the largest transport companies in the country. But the rebels seized his compound and burned all 11 of his buses. I notice that Mr Tunis is embarrassed to burden me with this.

I ask him a question which I immediately regret - did he have insurance? Not for this, he replies, grinning shyly. What can I say?

Scars of war

In a refugee camp outside Freetown, I'm shown the terrible wounds people have suffered. There are children with deep scars on their arms, men with mangled hands, and some of the women say they were shot between the legs.

Mohammed Sessie is their spokesman. He describes how entire villages were brutalised. He wonders aloud at the morality of the arms dealers who made money from selling the weapons that ruined peoples' lives.

I mention that the UN is holding a special summit on the arms trade. But my words sound hollow.

Child soldier
Even children participated in the warfare
Mohammed is more concerned to show me how the sacks of food aid they receive contain bulgar wheat, which they all hate, rather than rice which they're used to. I offer to raise this with the authorities, which I do. But beyond that, what can I say?

Diamond trade

One night in the hotel bar I hear the boisterous tones of off-duty British military types. I'm curious.

All week I've noticed this group of casually dressed men, the pockets of their photographer-style jackets bulging with I'll never know what.

Are they spies? Sort of. They're former SAS men now working as bodyguards. Their client is a burly American, a diamond dealer it turns out. He comes up to me with a swagger and has a go, as many do, on the subject of all that's wrong with the media.

With the sound system blaring, the cold beer flowing and the air steamy, this is like a scene from a thriller.

Suddenly Mr Hindolo is shaking my hand and urging me to write to him from England

I think of how for years the only way to get diamonds out of Sierra Leone was to buy them from the rebels who controlled the mines, and to pay with guns which were then used in ways I'd just seen.

I want to ask this dealer if he'd been involved in that sort of trade, if he knew the effects it might have had. I ought to ask him.

But tonight, as he tells me with fierce determination, he's asking the questions. He has his men around him. What can I say?

The right words

As I leave Freetown, I pass through immigration control and then get sent to the minerals export office. Am I carrying diamonds? No. Who do I work for? The BBC. Oh my dear friend, says an official, eagerly looking up from his paperwork.

Mr Hindolo says he's an admirer of Britain and grins enthusiastically. Then in the same breath he tells me how the rebels held him prisoner for eight months and treated him terribly.

His eyes, magnified by his glasses, are full of sorrow now. "They destroyed my tractor, you know," he says. And then suddenly Mr Hindolo is shaking my hand and urging me to write to him from England.

"Please do this," he says. I promise to, and will do it, though at first I wonder what I can say.

And then I think that maybe what matters is not what I say but the fact that I say anything at all, that I show that I've listened, that I'm not entirely insulated from the people I meet on these trips - that I can find some way of saying something.

See also:

04 Jul 01 | Africa
Sierra Leone - giving up guns?
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