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First a disclaimer: I have no independent source of information about Sierra Leone and can offer no judgments on the accuracy/inaccuracy of this film. All I have are some generic background/stereotypes about African nations and about international interventions.
This film does present some lessons about "nation building" in general that I feel have been under-emphasized for too long, suggesting some overdue behavior changes of the "international community".
Most important is that "men with guns" _no_matter_what_side_they're_on_ are always very hard on civilians. Troop discipline (it seems especially troops from poorer countries) is guaranteed to break down at least occasionally, and atrocities against civilians will result. Infrastructure will be destroyed, something that economically developing countries can ill afford. Mexico is a current example where what began as an apparently laudable effort to diminish corruption has resulted in intolerably high levels of violence, and where eventually it was the "good guys" (the federal troops) who were committing many of the civilian atrocities. It may (and here's what I feel the "international community" needs to learn) be better in the long run for a country to have a low level of violence but the "wrong" government, than a higher level of violence even though it eventually results in the "right" government being in power.
Another important point is that "democracy" shouldn't trump everything else. "Democratically elected" governments can be authoritarian, highly corrupt, or illegitimate, as well as incompetent. Governments that came to power -and stayed in power- in ways that aren't fully understood or sanctioned by the west sometimes do all the right things. Take Singapore for example: it has a very high level of economic development (in fact it's sometimes called a "middle power") and a very low level of violence. Yet the country was essentially controlled by one man -Lee Kuan Yew- for a quarter of a century (1965 to 1990). Why does the west care so much about the trappings of "democracy" in third world countries?
Yet another point is that regional forces (some but not all economic) can so consume the inside of a particular country that trying to stop the tide purely from inside the borders of one country simply isn't possible. The larger regional forces need to be dealt with in some way. As noted by several other reviewers, the situation in Liberia with Charles Taylor spilled over into Sierra Leone. It didn't work to deal with the issue as purely a Sierra Leoneian one. Too much money and motivation was coming across the borders. The Liberian situation needed to be at least completely insulated (better solved altogether) before a solution in Sierra Leone was realistically possible.
Lastly, to call a military force a "peacekeeping" force is just dangerously fooling ourselves. Military forces, no matter what their provenance or charter, always result in higher levels of violence. Typically when other nations send in a "peacekeeping" force, they've had to choose between democracy but with violence, and significantly less violence but no democracy. That choice isn't so obvious or simple as the word "peacekeeping" makes it seem.
Undeniably western journalistic coverage tended to be overly superficial anyway, and undeniably most western journalists were easily and thoroughly manipulated. Undeniably this film had far more "access" and far more opportunity to do deep reporting than was typical. So then I was quite disappointed that this film didn't seem to me to make its case all that well. The coverage is deeply disturbing (it may occasion hushed conversations and flashbacks and even nightmares). It seemed to me the lessons listed above were portrayed very clearly. But as far as any larger meaning, I simply didn't "get it" from watching the film.
What was the economic state of Sierra Leone at the beginning of the civil war, and just how much did its GDP change by the end? Just how much economic inequality was there compared to other African nations, third world nations outside Africa, and first world nations? Did economic inequality grow or shrink during the civil war? What exactly were the original demands of the RUF (just saying "economic independence" without any specifics is far too vague)? Specifically which natural resources were being exploited at the beginning of the civil war, and which contracts/concessions were egregiously unfair? What was the context of the history of Sierra Leone, at least back to the beginning of colonialism? If the year by year level of violence in Sierra Leone and in Liberia were plotted on the same chart, what relation between them would be suggested? What are the principal tribes and tribal boundaries in Sierra Leone? How did tribal frictions contribute to governments, coups, and the RUF?
I was also confused by some of the material that was presented. For example, the signing of a peace accord was shown once early in the film and again a second time late in the film. Did that event happen near the beginning of the civil war or near the end of the civil war? Why couldn't a time-line graphic be shown at least briefly? Also, some of the presentation felt incomplete. At one point an agreement resulted in a power sharing government with several RUF ministers. At a later point all of those RUF ministers are in jail. This was significant, something dramatically contrary to the terms of the peace accord. So there must have been some sort of explanation. Maybe it was BS. But I'll never know, because it wasn't presented at all.
The bottom line for me is that despite the great access and much deeper digging than typical western journalists, I felt I didn't learn anything.
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