In November 1999, president of CNN International Chris Cramer watched as African journalist Sorious Samura accepted the prestigious Mohamed Amin Award at the News World conference in Barcelona. Samura had risked his life to capture footage of the brutal civil war in his homeland, Sierra Leone, and had survived to share the story with the world. Undaunted by the room full of broadcast executives, the multi-award-winning journalist (he took the Rory Peck Award for freelance camera work the previous month) gave an impassioned speech, scolding international broadcasters for the lack of airtime they had devoted to Sierra Leone’s plight.
The tales of atrocity and despair were as poignant then as they are now, but until recently most major media outlets had paid little attention to the nine-year-long conflict, despite the recognition of Samura’s efforts.
Cramer was so impressed with both the man and the images he had captured, that he returned to the U.S. determined to embark on a project with Samura. The journalist had already hooked up with Ron McCullagh of London-based prodco Insight News Television, and together they had won a commission from Channel 4 in the U.K. to produce a documentary (Out of Africa/Cry Freetown) using Samura’s footage. Within days of the News World conference, CNN signed on as a coproducer.
The 27-minute documentary ultimately received financial contributions from several international sources – including Canada’s CBC, ARTE in France and Dutch broadcaster 2 Vandaag – to help cover the £150,000 (US$225,000) budget, but Channel 4 and CNN were the primary copro partners.
‘It’s exactly the kind of documentary that we try to do,’ says Vivian Schiller, executive VP of CNN Productions. ‘It’s an emotional story. It’s a personal story. It’s important, exclusive material about an important news event that wasn’t widely covered.’
Back in January 1999, Samura was virtually the only journalist who dared stay and cover the story as it unfolded in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital city. The rebel army of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) had already overrun most of the areas surrounding the capital, and they were intent on taking the city. Known for executing and maiming civilians everywhere they go – chopping off limbs is their specialty – the RUF entered Freetown with a singular approach: Operation Annihilate Every Living Thing.
To capture some of the initial images, Samura lied to the rebels, saying he supported the RUF. Later, he managed to cross over and follow the Nigerian peacekeeping troops (ECOMOG), who were sometimes as brutal as those they were policing. But even when he was with the peace-keepers, he wasn’t always able to film openly. ‘I had to cheat once in a while,’ Samura says. ‘I pretended not to be filming them. When we were under heavy attack and everyone was trying to defend themselves and they were doing whatever they know how to do best, I put the camera under my arm and pretended as if I was watching for the rebels while the camera was actually running.’
Samura says he was tempted to leave Freetown at one point, though the pull to stay was stronger. ‘On the second day of the fighting, I went with [the ECOMOG peacekeepers] while they were trying to push the rebels back, right in the heart of the city. All the children and families were hoarded together, in fear and shock, and everyone panicked. I thought, ‘Well, this is it. I don’t think I can take any more.’ But fortunately when I looked at the faces of the children, I thought, ‘I have to do something – at least for their sake.”
Samura filmed for three weeks and came away with 18 hours of footage. He left Sierra Leone, returning only briefly in December with McCullagh and another cameraman. (A short-lived peace accord was in place at the time.) McCullagh explains, ‘We went to Sierra Leone to shoot all of the pick-ups that are in the film, all of the contemporary material in which Sorious explains where he was at what point when he took this particular footage. It contextualizes his material and gives us an opportunity to contextualize the graphic instances of violence that he filmed.’
Once back in London, Samura and McCullagh edited the piece and delivered within five weeks. Channel 4 aired the program in January under the title Out of Africa, while CNN International broadcast it later the same month as Cry Freetown. CNN U.S. waited until February 17, and ran the program in its Perspectives strand as part of a one-hour special, which included interviews with Sierra Leone’s president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, and RUF leader Foday Sankoh. CNN’s decision to air the final cut of Cry Freetown – including scenes of children being beaten by soldiers, men shot dead in the streets and people of all ages with severed hands – was not made lightly. Says Schiller, ‘There are scenes in here that are very violent and difficult to watch. Normally we would never include such violence in a program, but we really searched our souls on this one and realized we needed to break our own rules in this particular case – and we put up all kinds of disclaimers.’
For Samura, he was relieved to find broadcasters willing to take the chance. ‘I reminded them time and time again, it’s the real image of war. I didn’t make these people act out. It was real. And as far as I’m concerned, I don’t see any reason why it should not be shown to the outside world.’
In the wake of renewed upheaval in Sierra Leone – and the recent deaths of Reuters correspondent Kurt Schork and APTN cameraman Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora – the question for Samura is, will he go
back? ‘I would definitely love to, but I’m afraid not in the very near future,’ he says. ‘There are stories there that the Western media won’t touch, either because they’re not allowed access or whatever, and I would have loved to take on that challenge . . . but it’s a bit difficult now for me to take that risk.’ After a pause, he adds, ‘My parents are still there, brothers and sisters, they’re all there.’