Watch CBSN Live

Too Painful To Look

Sorious Samura risked his life capturing footage of brutal atrocities during Sierra Leone's civil war, hoping to attract the gaze of the outside world.

Hiding from rebels who threatened to kill any journalists they spotted, Samura recorded people burning to death, bystanders shredded by gunshot wounds, and the torture of a 14-year-old boy.

Over the past two years, three Western journalists covering the conflict were killed in cold blood.

Sierra Leone: A Look Back
Diamonds And Despair

In 1787, the first of thousands of freed British slaves settled in the capital Freetown.

A series of coups and military governments have dominated the diamond-rich nation since it became independent from Britain in 1960.

Fighting a brutal, decade-long, diamond-fueled civil war, rebels seized Freetown from an elected government in January 1999.

Untold thousands of people were killed, maimed and raped during the conflict. An estimated 20,000 men, women and children had hands and feet chopped off by rebel machetes. Human Rights Watch says the Freetown medical examiner logged over 7,300 corpses that January.

Samura caught images of this slaughter on videotape. The rebels were soon forced out by Nigerian-led regional peacekeepers. The West, shaken by the Somalia debacle, did not want to get involved.

Hundreds of poorly equipped U.N. peacekeepers charged with policing a July 1999 peace accord were taken hostage by rebels last May. Britain sent in troops, and the hostages were released.

The United Nations hopes to form a war crimes tribunal. Controversy has flared over whether child soldiers should be prosecuted.

The shooting is over, but last week Sierra Leone called off plans for elections slated for this summer, citing continuing instability.

The United Nations, trying to defuse its most serious refugee crisis, has started relocating some of the 500,000 Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees from camps near Guinea's volatile southwestern border, trapped by rebel activity.

Samura's work caught the eye of a BBC correspondent, and his bravery was eventually recognized by a series of awards and funding to craft a documentary.

But commercial broadcasters in te United States shied away, saying they could not broadcast what Samora captured on film during the 1999 rebel invasion of Freetown.

Cry Freetown has been broadcast in Britain, Canada, France and South Africa - but has only been seen on cable in the United States. Parts of the documentary were broadcast on public television.

"Our aim was to shock the outside world," Samura told this week from his office in London. "So it was somehow disappointing when Western media said it was too graphic."

The main reason he feels let down is that "Western media keep showing very graphic Hollywood movies that keep glamorizing these Hollywood themes."

"So I wonder if I have to get a Hollywood director to West Africa to tell our story so people will think it's real."

Cry Freetown director Ron McCullagh says the footage was shown to the major U.S. networks, but they all turned it down because the footage was too strong.

Most of the producers he approached told him they just didn't have a place for it.

"We are prepared to show incredible violence in fiction, but we're shielding our audience from the actual violence of reality, which we can do something about," McCullagh says.

Pointing out that footage shown by American networks helped galvanize opposition to the Vietnam war, McCullagh says strong images from places like Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Bosnia could have burned into enough peoples' minds to save many lives.

"Television has to live up to its duty as a conduit between a very large audience and the reality of the world," he says. "We've done too much in the past to moderate reality for our audiences."

"T.V. has got to move into its own, because if it doesn't, the Internet and broadband will come in to take over."

By Chris Hawke
©MMI Viacom Internet Services Inc. All Rights Reserved

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue