“This is a big inconvenience for me…”

So, apparently, it was a “big inconvenience” for Naomi Campbell to appear before the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague yesterday… words fail me. Sometimes perhaps it’s just best to let people hang themselves by their own words: their own ignorance (“I’d never heard of Liberia…”) and their own selfishness. Of course it’s also a “little inconvenient” to have your arms/legs/noses/genitals hacked off with machetes by rebels financed by illegal diamond mining. But I digress… here are some more “inconveniences”…

Sierra Leone - Freetown - A young girl, with obvious trauma, constantly counts her remaining fingers after rebels cut off her left hand as part of a campaign of terror directed against the civilian population. Murraytown Amputee Camp.

Sierra Leone - Makeni - A woman brutally injured by rebels in an unsuccessful attempt to cut off her arm. The arm is now completely lifeless. The amputees carry the visible scars of the Sierra Leonian conflict on their bodies - a constant and painful reminder of the cruelty and damaged psyches of the years of war

Sierra Leone - Makeni - Isatu, 34, shot through the vagina by rebels after rape.

Sierra Leone - Freetown - Safia, 14 was forced to watch her father murdered. Because she cried, the rebels dripped molten plastic into her eyes. Milton Margai School for the Blind

Unseen but not forgotten…

Last month saw the release of Unseen a new collaborative project by the British Press Photographers Association (BPPA). So many images are commissioned editorially and never used and this project sought to showcase some of that work. I have a few spreads inside as well as the cover of which I’m very proud.

Ibrahim was amputated in Freetown in 1999 when the rebels occupied the Waterloo area. They tried to hack off his other hand but were unable to

The image shows Ibrahim who had his right arm hacked off by rebels from the RUF (Revolutionary United Front).
Despite the Guardian Magazine running the story, the image above was never published. It did however get some recognition at Pictures of the Year (POY) in America.

I remember when I took the assignment, I was very apprehensive. I’d made quite a lot of work in Sierra Leone for a project on young men and violence called The Lord of the Flies (largely an attempt to partially refute Robert Kaplan’s arguments) and had returned subsequently to look at the immediate effects of the mutilations. In the intervening years it seemed that the amputees had become part of a grotesque circus of photographers coming in, ‘doing the atrocity tour’ and leaving; I honestly didn’t know what I could really add to the story. Still, the job was to produce a big exhibition for Handicap International and I had no editorial constraints.

I tried very hard to just photograph the amputees as they were – the fact that they’d been brutalised, an aside on everyday life. In one of those rare moments that make doing this work extraordinary, I turned a corner in a village in Makeni and came face to face with Hassan Fufona. Hassan had polio as a child and the rebels cut off his one good arm. I’d spent days with him in Freetown in 1999 watching him beg, being fed and returning to a hut where he lived with his ageing parents and small brother. A haunted, gaunt boy. Now newly married with two adopted war orphan children in a new town he was transformed. I photographed him in bed with his wife giggling as she put on his prosthetic harness and I photographed him as the head of a family outside his new house. Now, I don’t make any claims to have changed much with photography or in fact to have done much to make the world a better place but meeting Hassan again certainly changed me a little. Sometimes you can’t see the small victories in Africa but they are there. You just have to know where to look.

Hassan Fofona begs outside the Post office
Hassan Fofona begs outside the Post office
Hassan straps on his artificial arm
Hassan straps on his artificial arm
Hassan Fufona and his family outside their resettlement house
Hassan Fufona and his family outside their resettlement house

We are the miracles that God made
To taste the bitter fruit of Time.
We are precious.
And one day our suffering
Will turn into the wonders of the earth

from Ben Okri’s ‘An African Elegy’