Salone News

Sierra Leoneans Cry Over "Blood Diamond"

21 December 2006 at 00:20 | 809 views

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

About 100 survivors of the civil war in Sierra Leone watched Hollywood’s depiction of the bloody 11-year conflict at an Atlanta theater Sunday afternoon. Reviews were positive, but the experience proved difficult.

"I saw everything I saw back in Sierra Leone," Henry Shyllon, 48, said of "Blood Diamond," starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Shyllon was caught in the crossfire for two months, witnessing barbarism he’ll never forget.

"I saw amputations, children as young as 2 getting their limbs cut off," said Shyllon, who had returned to the country for a visit. "They are the true victims: the men, women and children who had to endure this suffering."

The movie focuses on the illicit diamond trade in Africa. Mercenaries routinely sneaked diamonds over the Liberian border to be sold, with the money funneled back to finance various factions. The diamond industry has since begun issuing conflict-free certificates in an effort to eliminate the "blood trade."

"It was very, very hard for me to watch the movie," said Shyllon, an account executive born in the West African country and currently living in McDonough. He’s working on a documentary about amputees in Sierra Leone. "I had tears in my eyes the whole time."

Most who attended said the movie was accurate, painfully so.

"I chose to sit in the back of the theater to see how the group would respond," said Michael Sho-Sawyer, national chairman of Youth for Sierra Leone Improvement, which provides free education for underprivileged orphans and literacy programs for adult women. The organization, which has a local branch, also provides treatment and counseling for individuals with HIV or AIDS.

"People were crying. I was crying," Sho-Sawyer said. "It was a very emotional, tense experience. Lots of people had to get up and leave the theater."

More than 50,000 were killed in the Sierra Leone war, which pitted government forces against members of the Revolutionary United Front. More than 2 million people (half of whom were children) were displaced during the conflict, which lasted from 1991 to 2002. About 15,000 Sierra Leone natives now live in Atlanta, according to Sho-Sawyer.

"It was very emotional, being reminded how people suffered for something they didn’t even know," said Tommy Tucker, 50, of Atlanta. He escaped from Sierra Leone five years after the war started, and he’s still trying to come to grips with the "indescribable suffering" he witnessed.

The civil war had a devastating effect on Sierra Leone’s economy, with current unemployment nearing 70 percent, Sho-Sawyer said. Illiteracy, meanwhile, stands at around 60 percent. "We’re working for scholarships, for health care," he said.

And while there’s much to be done, there is, finally, hope in the African nation. "We’ve been a peaceful nation for four years now," said Sho-Sawyer, who left his native country just before the civil war started.

While the movie brought back painful memories, Shyllon said, it’s hoped he film will bring greater attention to what happened in Sierra Leone.

"We must never forget," Shyllon said.

Photo: Dr. Michel Sho-Sawyer of YSLI.