Historic Letters from 2000

View other: Staff Stories

This is the first of a handful of letters written by Michael Simpson (One Sky founder) in 2000 when his vision for One Sky was first developing....

June 14, 2000


Well, here I am in Sierra Leone, West Africa.  My goal to research the war affected child for a documentary and to establish contact with Friends of the Earth – Sierra Leone.  The road leading me here partly fate, partly political and partly personal.  Sierra Leone is deeply immersed in war.  The center of town is pockmarked with bullet holes, mortar fire and buildings burned, razed or bombed to a rubble.  Whole blocks have been destroyed, churches toppled and apartment buildings destroyed.  There are troops everywhere. Every major intersection is sandbagged with mounted machine guns ready, hardened troops that sometimes smile and say hello and sometimes just stare straight ahead.  There is a constant drone of
helicopters overhead and three British war ships float prominently out at sea.  There is no doubt that this place speaks of the despair of war.  I am comfortably housed in an apartment only five minutes from the evacuation point on Lumley Beach and minutes from the UNAMSIL United Nations headquarters.  There is a crack contingent of Indian troops camped outside of my apartment compound and the military holds meetings next to a swimming pool only 200 feet away.  I could not be deeper into a safety net than I am.  My local contact insists that for this week it is foolish to be anywhere else.  Having been here since September and having lived here in 94/95 he says his bag is packed and he is on the alert to evacuate within fifteen minutes notice.  Myself, I look around and things feel pretty calm although there is no doubt that the buildup of Liberian troops on the border does not bode well.

On Friday my plan is to move to Laka Village out of town into a children’s camp where there are a couple of hundred refugee kids, most of them former child soldiers.  Right now, despite the relative security of international troops, it is deemed too dangerous to move much beyond Aberdeen, which is where I am located.  Car after car of aid workers, U.N. officials and ‘white people” drive from here to town or from town to here worried about being kidnapped by RUF or roque gangs within the city or an invasion of the city limits.  Many of the foreigners are jumpy…some are very relaxed.  Personally, having taken the taxi and walked numerous times through various districts it does not feel that tense.

That is not to say you need to go very far to witness the trauma of war.  I walked by a camp of war amputees this morning where 1000 people are housed by Doctors without Borders… many of them victims of the RUF who chopped their hands or feet off with machetes.  Stories of the horror of war abound here and the proof is everywhere as children of only nine or ten with a bandaged stump at the elbow beg for a coin or change.  At the same time smiles are everywhere and everybody is thankful for the presence of internationals.  The minute I landed at the airport people were thanking me… yet I had done nothing but be here. Much of this war is determined by rumour and innuendo and presence.  There is some fear about the British moving out tomorrow and only time will tell what will happen.

When I was in El Salvador this winter working on our landmines project I had a long conversation with Dr. Ricardo Navarro who is now head of Friends of the Earth International.  I talked to him about Sierra Leone and the need to link war and the environment in a more fundamental way.  We talked about human security and environmental security and the links between people, conflict and our surroundings.  He pulled out a letter from a fellow named Olutunde Johnson who runs Friends of the Earth here in Sierra Leone and we both talked about what a strange coincidence it was. 

I tracked down Olutunde yesterday on Roberts Street downtown.  Olutunde lives in a corrugated iron shack in a run down section of town with a dirt street and broken concrete everywhere.  There are tiny little alleys through which people navigate to their rooms amid the open sewers past rusted metal and broken buckets and smashed car frames.  Everything here is either broken or stripped of parts.  Children run around bare foot laughing and skipping. The sun bakes down mercilessly in the dust and I wonder how the remains of the wooden buildings could possibly stand this climate.

Sometimes when we are on a journey we don’t stop to realize where we are.  But I found that when I saw a dilapidated sign with green hand written paint that said Friends of the Earth – Appropriate Technology Centre, I did stop.  I stopped right there in the dust and just stared at this hopeful little advertisement amid the shacks, and running children and broken things and I was overwhelmed with emotion.  Here in the middle of a bloody war, amid the atrocities of the human imagination was an environmental group.  Here was a link to the thing I hold most sacred in my life… our dear mother earth.  Beyond all the strife and horror and hopelessness here was a sign… a literal sign that the Earth was important.  The connection to our Mother Earth was alive.  I pulled myself together and walked in.

Olutunde was more than friendly, introducing me to his children and Veronica who works with him.  We talked and I promised to return the next day.  Today, in the morning, we again tossed around ideas.  We talked about Sierra Leone. We talked about the war.  We talked about working on projects and organic agriculture.  We talked about bicycles and development.  We talked about people and the environment and linking the two.  We talked about First World consumption and Third World needs.  We talked about analog forestry and the structure of environmental groups.  Most of all we talked about the war.  He showed me pictures.  They had a fifty acre community organic agriculture project at mile 91.  All that is gone now as are most of the people in the photos he showed me.  He showed me a picture of a young man named Brima Kamara who was a member of Friends of The Earth.  He lay in a hospital bed staring straight up with both his hands chopped off and bandages on his genitals.  This is our reality Veronica said.  This is what we face.  The war here supercedes all conversation and will remain with this country for many years.  I asked who the woman in the picture was.  That is the nurse she replied.  It was too dangerous for them to wear uniforms so they wore civilian clothes.

She pulled out a calendar, which showed their training programs.  They are funded by local donations only, which astounded me.  They hold training programs in job creation and clean up programs as well as forestry and organic agriculture.  There was no doubt in my mind as we talked on the dirt floor amid the broken walls of his home that these guys were completely underfunded.  I asked about the cleanup campaigns and would they have one in the near future.  Yes, yes Veronica replied.  We will have one on June 24 the last Saturday of the month in front of the law courts.  Why there? Because that is where the most people are.  The clean up campaigns are meant to draw attention to sanitation and the need for cleanliness… linking human health and the environment within an urban context.

All of a sudden there was a commotion on the street amid the usual hubbub of noise and shouting.  I saw a girl run by holding her hands on her head as if she had witnessed a car accident and there was excited running and screaming.  A crowd was starting to form around an alley at the neighbor’s house.  What was going on was unclear but it had the seriousness of something beyond the usual West African shouting.  I asked Veronica and Olatunde but they did not know… then someone shouted about a child drowning.  I hesitated.  Should I go get my camera or just run and find out.  Within seconds a British helicopter gunship had spotted the emerging crowd and flew in overhead while I raced through the rubble of the alley, ducking corrugated roofing overhead and past screaming people.  We came to a large toilet pit about twelve feet across and pushing past swarming bodies I saw two young men swimming in the pit…someone was pushing a ladder into the mire full of oil and human excrement and plastic and filth.  The area was littered with broken refuse and junk.  I was trying to get past, through the crowd when a tiny four year old boy was thrown out of the quagmire by his wailing rescuer.  The hysteria in the crowd was overwhelming.  People were screaming and shouting and children were crying and some people just stood holding their heads turning in circles. The poor boy had slipped into the cesspool.  Looking like the most likely person to know something medical, the child was quickly tossed overhead by the crowd, his tiny little body drenched in slime to land at my feet.  I tossed aside my notebook and turned him over.  I sat him upright and pumped his body trying to get the fluid and excrement out of his lungs.  His tiny body felt cold and lifeless.  My mind was racing and I thought I ought to be doing artificial respiration on him.  How long has he been in there I asked. He has been missing an hour was the hysterical reply.  No pulse, no heartbeat, no signs of life… I made a half hearted attempt at CPR but knew I was working on a dead child.  I was covered in excrement and oil and the poor boys insides were all over my legs and clothes yet my overwhelming desire was for the wailing to stop.  Could this crowd just stop screaming and let me think.  I could feel the reptilian desire to flee conflicting with a fighting desire to tell everyone to just shut up for a second. The camouflaged helicopter flew overhead one more time adding to the noise.  Finally, I knew that everything I was now doing was useless, token, his body having long since expired in the darkness of the pool.  I looked at his mouth full of mire and asked myself if artificial respiration would be anything more than a gesture. He lay there, eyes closed, all but four years old...having drowned in a cesspool in the middle of a war in one of the poorest countries on the planet.  His name was Reginald Princewise and he will soon be nothing but a statistic.  I stood up and walked out of the crowd.

Veronica, who knew the child, was crying about her country. 

‘This is Sierra Leone… this is our country!  This is the reality of our war… a toilet pit… a toilet pit!” she kept repeating.  I felt like crying myself, but there was so much screaming, so many people wailing and such sorrowful looks that it just didn’t seem appropriate. It was clear to all of us that our conversation had been interrupted with a horrible reality check.  The links between a healthy environment, sanitation, human health, poverty, war and human rights were all summed up in this tiny body being loaded onto a motorbike to be driven to the hospital.  Was he a “war affected child”?  Although he was not one of the estimated 5-10 thousand child soldiers or a girl sex-slave or a war amputee this child was most definitely a victim of war.  For what is a war-affected child if not this?  A dead boy, drowned in an open toilet pit in the middle of the rubble of a ruined city.  There were no bullets, no heroes, no great stories to be told here of narrow escapes.  Instead there is just the more telling, seemingly symbolic reality of dying in a shithole having barely started your life.  Here in Freetown there is so much going wrong and the whole atmosphere is so overwhelming it can be so easy not to think about what is happening… not to let reality sink in. To ignore the open wounds or tragedy that are everywhere.  We returned to Olatunde’s house after I half heartedly snapped a couple of shots and then we all sat down rather dumbfounded.

“Tommorrow I will show you our projects”, Olatunde said, trying to smile. 

“Yes, tomorrow we will go and look at your projects” I said, standing up and feeling that this was the only logical conclusion before catching a taxi back to Aberdeen, back to the razor-wire-safety of my apartment building.

I write these few words here now… only a couple of hours later because I feel the overwhelming desire to fight this direction.  To go tomorrow and see Olatunde’s projects. To overcome this world’s tribulations not by winning in the long run but by struggling in the short term.  To face the terrible onslaught of human indecency by refusing to turn the other way.  I feel this is our challenge as true environmentalists no matter where we are, no matter what struggle we take on.  I feel our goal is to draw the links between those things that do not affirm life, and to be clear about and celebrate those things that do affirm life.  I look at the tropical tree that grows in front of me here… searching for sunlight and struggling to live, to reach up to the sky and drink in the sun’s energy and I feel a tremendous sense of solidarity.  None of this human tragedy is new to our species but the fact is, like the tree, we are still here, still struggling, still alive and breathing, affirming our desire to live… the planet’s desire to live.  I hope you are all well… I hope you are all living life fully and know that my heart is with you.



Be the first to comment on this story. Use the form below.

Leave your comments on this story:




Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Submit the word you see below: