Claire Sweeney's Diary With Sierra Leone's War-Scarred Children
The Mirror November 28,2001
Tears streamed down Claire Sweeney's face. She had expected to be moved but had not expected to be so shocked. She felt physically sick.
Slowly, through a translator, a young girl soldier called Finda told Claire her story. She told of shooting her father when she was just 10, of being forced to take drugs and of fighting in the army which threw screaming women and babies into burning buildings.
Throughout her appalling testimony she avoided Claire's eyes, believing the visitor would judge her for what she had done after she had been kidnapped and forced to serve in the rebel army in Sierra Leone.
Claire admits that until then, stress was worrying about whether she would pass a TV audition or do well on Comic Relief's Celebrity Big Brother. Now all that was thrown into horrendous perspective.
"It was a huge reality check. It really upset me," she says. "We moan and grumble and worry about stupid things but this made me realise we have to get back to basics.
"All I could do was hold this girl's hand and try to make sense of what she and thousands of traumatised children like her had suffered during the conflict which has devastated their country.
"But the gesture was so little, I felt really rattled. Even now it make me cry. I feel so lucky compared to them."
Claire, whose career rocketed after she starred in this year's Red Nose Day Celebrity Big Brother, went to Sierra Leone in October because she wanted to see for herself how the money is spent.
She wanted to do something, however small, for the Comic Relief cause.
So Claire travelled to the outskirts of the capital Freetown to report on a project where 200 boy and girl soldiers forcibly recruited into the fighting, will lern how to become children again.
The Regent Village centre, which is run by the Boy and Girls Society of Sierra Leone, has received 72,077 pounds from Comic Relief. Over the next two years they will be given the means to live some sort of normal life.
This is her diary of her three days in the country:
Big Brother has changed my life, giving me opportunities I could only dream of. But Comic Relief is about changing the lives of people who really need it and I wanted to put something back. I'm worried about how little I know about this country but I've read what I can get hold of. Sierra Leone is the worst place in the world for a child to grow up. About 8,000 have been kidnapped by the fighters. They've been forced to do some awful things and given drugs to mess them up. But none of it seems real at the moment. I'm an emotional person and when I told my mum what I was doing, she said, "Claire, this is going to upset you. I don't know how you will cope." Well, I've had my jabs, taken my malaria tablets, packed sensible clothes and prepared as much as I can. I'm just staying open-minded. Out journey began yesterday. We flew to Brussels and connected with a flight to Conakry in Guinea. From there we took a small plane to Freetown. It was an hour's drive to out hotel. For the last couple of years the United Nations has been present as peacekeepers and a programme is underway to disarm all the fighting forces. All along the road there are UN checkpoints while helicopters keep passing over. I've never seen so many people living in tents, little corrugated huts, anything. I expected to feel nervous but people are really friendly.
I didn't feel like breakfast but I force down some toast and tea because it will be a long day. On the half-hour drive to Regent Village, I am struck by how beautiful the country is. We drive alongside the most gorgeous beaches and it is really busy with kids playing football and it all seems so positive. We pull up to the camp. The children know we are coming but you can see their reserve straight away. I'm a very tactile person but, there is no response from these kids. They don't know how. The only physical contact some of them have had is violence and sexual abuse. The children are working, learning crafts which will give them the means of learning and living when they finish the project. In one hut the boys are making wooden beds. There's no electricity, so they use hand tools. In the sewing room, Mrs. Dove, the instructor, teaches the girls how much it costs to make and how much to sell their dresses for. They will all be here for six months, sleeping in bunk-beds, and then go into an apprenticeship. Most of them have no homes and their familites are dead. I talk about what they are doing and what I do. The girls ask me if I have a mum and a dad. They can't believe I'm 30 and have no husband and children. One nine-year-old boy, nicknamed Mosquito, shows me his possessions, a T-shirt and one pair of shorts. I have a whole wardrobe at home and he has one outfit. After lunch I sit in on a counselling session with some boys. They all avoid the issue of what has happened in their past. One boy, Tamba, says he buried his two sisters, killed by the rebels. He was kidnapped and forced to do terrible things such as kill another boy. Mosquito says he was kidnapped when he was eight and taught to use a gun. It was too heavy and they put a piece of wood on his shoulders to help him support it. I learn they are now ostracised by their own communities because of what they had been forced to do. Some escaped and came here, others were hidden by sympathetic women. Now they are more focused on their future and so the counsellors don't dwell on the past. They are grateful for the opportunity to make a life. I suppose I expected to be shocked, but it all seems so positive and uplifting. The shock come the next day.
This morning the children's defences are down and they meet me with bit waves and smiles. Little Mosquito gives me a big hug. I go straight into a counselling session with four girls. The story that affects me most is Finda's. When she starts talking she can't look me in the eye. I can see she is thinking, 'She won't like me any more when I tell her'. I hold her hand to let her know I won't judge her. She was 10 when the rebel army invaded her village and burned down their houses. They kidnapped her and her parents and took them to a camp. She was given a gun and told to shoot her father. The soldiers pointed their guns at her and her father pleaded with her to shoot him and save her own life. She did. Then she was forced to take drugs. After that her mind was so messed up she did anything they said. There was so much anger in her, she wanted to hit out at anything. The army she belonged to burnt people alive. They pushed them into blazing building or threw them on to fires. I can't believe this girl is talking about this, she ends up crying and so do I. Theresa tells us she was 12 when her village was raided. She saw her mother and her baby sister shot dead. She was taken away and forced to take drugs then sent back to her own village. She put a hold in the lips of one of the peacekeeping force, padlocked his mouth together and amputated his limbs. All the girls are crying. I can hardly take it in. I am imagining someone giving me a gun and telling me to shoot my mum and dad. Then the counsellors turn the session around. They move the girls from what has happened to what the future may hold and it beings to seem more positive. I feel there is hope again. Afterwards I speak to them. I have been silent so far because I am just an observer. I avoid the past because I don't want to upset them. All the girls want a foster mum, someone to love and look after them. They just want to feel safe. They want to buy their own sewing machine and start their own business. Can you imagine, they just want a sewing machine? Not much to us and everything in the world to them. Now the girls are smiling again. After lunch, they perform a dance routine and we laugh and giggle. One girl is struggling to keep her top up and the boys all come to watch. We all end up having a game of football.
I am dreading going back to say goodbye. I take them all my clothes. I give them my perfume and my roll-on deodorant. Then I have to say goodbye. Everyone asks me to come back and I really want to. I hug everyone and then I come to one little girl and I don't know what to do. She has been very very quiet and I never got to know her name, so I hesitate. I take her hand, she just hugs me and starts crying., Mrs. Dove starts crying, everyone starts crying and I am just a mess. But later, despite what I have heard and seen, I'm happy. The whole thing is just so positive and uplifting. It broke my heart and mended it again. I am going to stay in touch and I want to come back. I know I will slip back into my old routines and way of life but this puts everything into perspective.