UN food official recalls the horrors depicted in the film Blood Diamond
At a time when the film Blood Diamond depicts the efforts of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to feed the hacked and mutilated victims of Sierra Leone’s savage civil war during the 1990s, an agency officials intimately involved in the battle for survival recalled how the smugglers used the names of food for their contraband.
When WFP regional manager for West Africa from 1997-2000 Paul Arès fell into conversation with diamond traders in hotel bars in Sierra Leone, they would tell him they dealt in melons and bananas.
“They were referring to the colour of the uncut diamonds,” Mr. Arès said in an interview on the agency’s web site. “But for me and many others, those diamonds weren’t yellow and orange, but red with people’s blood.”
It’s ironic they chose a food metaphor because food was one thing that was hard to come by in this diamond-rich, dirt poor west African country for the civilians terrorized by rebels and driven from their homes.
WFP’s recovery project in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea is currently facing a $35 million funding shortfall and Blood Diamond’s stars are helping the agency raise much-needed awareness of the hunger and poverty with Djimon Hounsou, and Jennifer Connelly appearing in public service announcements.
Mr. Arès recalled that during the decade-long civil war, Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels hacked off people’s limbs, raped women and killed tens of thousands of people as they enforced their operation ‘No Living Thing.’ In just a few months, 250,000 people in the east of the country fled to the so-called Parrot’s Beak area of Guinea.
“These refugees were in dense, mountainous jungle with very little food,” he said. “It presented WFP with an enormous challenge. Airlifts were impossible so we appealed for six-wheel drive trucks which could tackle any situation.”
Mr. Arès said the true horror of the war hit him when he visited the camps and saw people whose limbs had been chopped off by the rebels. These people were entirely dependent on WFP and other aid agencies. Perhaps one of the most shocking trends to emerge from West African unrest in the 1990s was the use of child soldiers.
“The way they were inducted into the ranks of the RUF made them the most vicious little killing machines around,” he explained, recalling that after the war was over, he saw these child soldiers in rehabilitation centres with scars etched into their shaven heads. He was told that this was where their ‘big brother’ (the rebels) had injected them with drugs when they went on the rampage across Sierra Leone with their AK47 machineguns.
Even though the war ended in Sierra Leone some four years ago, the country is still reeling from the devastation and poverty is rife. Despite its diamond wealth, unemployment is high and the country is 176th out of 177 countries in the UN Human Development Report index. WFP is helping its people to rebuild their lives through school feeding, food-for-work and food-for-training programmes.