Returning home

If you visited Sierra Leone today, you would see a picturesque and peaceful country, a lush tropical land on the coast of West Africa that is vibrant with culture. Most of the people you'd meet there would greet you with a warm smile, many purveying a selection of woven mats, fine fabrics, pots and pans, and other market items in the colourful and bustling streets of Freetown, the capital city.

But if you looked a little further, if your instincts ran a bit deeper, you'd notice that underneath the vitality of Sierra Leone is an undercurrent of tension and heartbreak. Colonial buildings, once glorious, now slump sadly on street corners, decaying from neglect. Poverty is rampant and trust is rare. Everywhere you go, suspicious eyes are lowered over hushed voices, and all too often someone is missing an arm, a leg or an ear – haunting visual reminders of the darkest days in the country's history, a period of civil war that raged from 1991 to 2002.

Dez Kamara
Desmond Kamara returns to Sierra Leone and tells the stories of child soldiers.

The unsettling underbelly of modern- day Sierra Leone is a truth that U of L alumnus Desmond Kamara (BA'10) knows very well. Desmond, or Dez, as he prefers to be called, was born and raised in Sierra Leone, and was a young man when the war erupted. What occurred in the years that followed would forever change the face of Sierra Leone, and set Kamara's life on a course he would never have predicted.

War is never pretty, but the civil war in Sierra Leone bears a particularly ugly scar. Child soldiers, some as young as seven, were the binding thread in the fabric of the rebel resistance. It is estimated that up to 50,000 children between the ages of seven and 18 were traumatically removed from their homes by rebel forces during the violent upheaval and were subjected to weeks of brutal "training" – most often under the influence of drugs that they were forced to take. Anyone who tried to escape was shot in front of the others, in many cases by a fellow child soldier. Countless children saw their parents shot dead, or watched helplessly as their mothers and sisters were dragged off to become bush wives and sex slaves. Villages were pillaged and then burned to the ground. With no family left and no home to run to, these children took up the automatic weapons that had been thrust into their hands and put them to use as instructed.

The effects of these horrific experiences, not surprisingly, caused massive social fallout. Dozens of organizations from around the world rushed to Sierra Leone to work with former child soldiers, rehabilitate them and reintegrate them into society. Cause Canada was one of the organizations involved in the effort, and Kamara, who was a teenager at the time, was hired by Cause Canada in 2001.

"Most of the kids I was working with didn't know anything different than war," says Kamara. "Some had spent almost half of their lives in combat, and had been forced to do terrible things. They were brainwashed. They needed an incredible amount of counselling and support to return to normal life, and we worked tirelessly to try to help them."

Dez Kamara kids
Kamara in Sierra Leone in 2010 with children at a mission school. The child with the sunglasses is the son of a former child soldier.

Kamara worked out of St. Michael's rehabilitation centre in Freetown, where he met a man by the name of Robert Cornellier from Montreal. A film director by profession, Cornellier was in Sierra Leone to shoot a documentary entitled Lost Childhood, a film that follows the lives of six child soldiers after the war. Kamara and Cornellier hit it off, and Cornellier quickly realized that Kamara would be an invaluable asset to the production. He enlisted Kamara as a consultant/researcher, and Kamara was happy to provide background knowledge and expertise on the kids involved.

"I knew the kids very well. I lived, worked, ate, played and prayed with them. I knew their stories. I could tell when they were being honest, and how to make them comfortable enough to share experiences. They trusted me," says Kamara. "It was always my goal to honour these kids, and tell their stories in a way that was respectful and truthful."

A year after the film wrapped, Kamara was in Canada leading a youth delegation under the auspices of Cause Canada. While here, he decided to take the first step in fulfilling a dream he'd always had of someday studying abroad. With encouragement from the Canadian staff, Kamara applied to a college in Calgary, and was accepted. He moved to Canada to begin the program in 2004.

"I always wanted to continue my education outside my country," says Kamara. "With the atrocities I'd seen, I wanted to experience something completely different. I knew that my work in Sierra Leone was not complete, but to really make the difference I wanted to make, I needed to go out into the world and bring what I learned back home with me."

After two years in college, Kamara was accepted at the University of Lethbridge to study anthropology. In 2007, he decided to contact Robert Cornellier and sent him an e-mail message to say hello. As it happened, Cornellier was also trying to connect with Kamara.

"Robert had been calling random people in Sierra Leone, trying to locate me, but no one he spoke with knew how to get in touch with me in Canada," says Kamara. "I sent that e-mail message to him at just the right time."

Cornellier was looking for Kamara because he was preparing to do a follow-up film to Lost Childhood called The Kids of St. Michael's. Cornellier wanted Kamara back for the second project, and Kamara was keen to accept. He went to his U of L professors for their opinions on what to do.

"The support I got was phenomenal," says Kamara. "My professors unanimously told me that I absolutely had to do it, that I couldn't possibly know where this might take me. I contacted the Applied Studies office, and we made it happen."

The Kids of St. Michael's became an applied study in Kamara's degree program. Kamara took a much bigger role in the process the second time around, co-directing and narrating the film, as well as working in front of the camera as host. The premise of the project was to find the six children from Lost Childhood and see how they were faring, but the concept proved impossible to fulfill.

"The kids were spread out over the country, and a few we couldn't locate at all, so we had to change our plans," says Kamara. "The film became a road film, following me as I searched for the children, and the discoveries I made about the current situation of child soldiers."

Only three of the six previous child soldiers featured in Lost Childhood were found during the making of The Kids of St. Michael's, and to Kamara's dismay, not much had changed.

"In fact, their situations were worse," says Kamara. "There is very little support for them. Reconciliation and reunification programs are being cut short, funding has dried up. There is so much work left to do, and no real way to do it. In Africa we say that it takes a village to raise a child. These children fought for up to ten years of their lives. To just put them back into society is not enough. The objective of reintegration has been met, but has to be properly followed up. We need to support the kids even if it takes ten more years."

Kamara is already working with Cornellier on plans for a third film that will focus on furthering the reconciliation process in Sierra Leone, and increase support for former child soldiers. Although he feels his work for the cause isn't yet done, Kamara speaks reflectively and openly about what his future might hold.

"Two years ago, I never thought about being the co-director of a film," he says. "Right now I'm still contemplating the direction that I want to go; I'm considering what I really want to do. I'm just going to go with the flow. If an opportunity arises that will allow me to help the world become a better place, I'll take it."

This story appeared originally in the Fall 2010 issue of SAM. For a look at the full issue of SAM in a flipbook format, follow this link.