Sierra Leone: The Good, the Bad, and the Very Ugly

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A girl whose arm has been amputated holds a clay sculpture.

Girl proudly shows a sculpture made out of clay. She was amputated by rebels from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

Freetown, April 1999.

© Teun Voeten

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Men in front of a helicopter.

RUF leader Foday Sankoh is escorted by forces of the West African peace force ECOMOG to a rebel camp near Freetown to talk his men into disarming.

Port Loko, December 1999.

© Teun Voeten

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Children with crutches.

Kids at a shelter waiting for family reunification. Some were amputated by rebels, others were wounded in the war.

Freetown, December 1999.

© Teun Voeten

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A boy walking by an overturned car carrying a tray on his head.

After the aborted January 1999 invasion, rebels have left a trail of destruction. Boy selling sweets among the ruins.

Freetown, April 1999.

© Teun Voeten

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A boy dying on a street.

An ECOMOG jet has bombed Makeni, at that time a stronghold of the military junta and rebels. Bystanders watch a boy die.

Makeni, February 1998.

© Teun Voeten

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A woman crying with a body in the background.

An ECOMOG jet has bombed Makeni, a stronghold of both the military junta and rebels. Woman cries as she sees the destruction.

Makeni, February 1998.

© Teun Voeten

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A soldier searches a man.

Makeni is freed from rebels and military junta. A soldier of the ECOMOG searches an arrested rebel for arms and documents.

Makeni, March 1998.

© Teun Voeten

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A handcuffed man harassed by a crowd.

Makeni is freed from rebels and military junta. The people take revenge by molesting a suspected junta collaborator.

Makeni, March 1998.

© Teun Voeten

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Soldiers transport a prisoner in the back of a truck.

Government troops have captured a rebel. Rebel forces were close to the city, trying to invade again.

Newton, Sierra Leone, May 2000.

© Teun Voeten
Teun Voeten

Teun Voeten studied cultural anthropology in the Netherlands. During his studies, which took him to Nicaragua, New York, and Ecuador, he learned photography as an assistant to several fashion and architectural photographers. After graduating in 1991, Voeten chose to work as a photojournalist, covering the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Rwanda, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Haïti, and Colombia. In 1996, Atlas, the Amsterdam based publishing house, published Tunnelmensen, a journalistic/anthropologic reportage about an underground homeless community living in the train tunnels of Manhattan. Voeten’s latest book, How de Body? Hope and Horror in Sierra Leone will be published by St. Martin’s Press in Spring 2002. 

Voeten, who now lives in New York, has been published in Vanity Fair, the New Yorker Magazine, El Pais, Frankfuerter Allgemeine, and Granta. His photos are used by international organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, UNHCR, and the International Red Cross. 

Artist Statement

Teun Voeten

Sierra Leone is one of the few African colonies founded on good intentions. In the 18th century, the English bought land from tribal chiefs to give liberated slaves a new home country. Since independence in 1961, coups, military dictatorship, ongoing civil war, and fraudulent elections have plagued the country. What drives the warring factions are not ideological motivations but the riches of the diamond region in the west and south of the country. In 1992, after a relatively calm period, the civil war started again with the emergence of a rebel group called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), supported by neighboring Liberia. The RUF used terror tactics, chopping off the hands of opponents, kidnapping children to serve in their army, and burning down villages. The fighting continued on and off through 1998, the year in which the rebel leaders took over some of the most strategic cities.

In 1998 during a cease-fire, I went to Sierra Leone to do a story on child soldiers. A few days after my arrival, all hell broke loose. The military junta was brought down by ECOMOG, the West African peace force. Heavily armed men went on a rampage. Marauding rebels and soldiers nearly killed me, threatened me with torture, and then, after robbing me, let me go. For two weeks I had to hide in the bush until I could finally make it to safety. Thanks to a few brave individuals I made it back home alive. Alfred Kanu, a school principal, offered me shelter and refuge during those two terrifying weeks. Local BBC stringer Eddie Smith escorted me on a gruesome 80-mile trip over jungle tracks back to safety. To encounter such tremendous generosity and courage in a country that Robert Kaplan called “the Devil’s Poste Restante” was a powerful experience.

Although the rebel forces commit incredible acts of cruelty, most visitors to the country are impressed with the hospitality, friendliness, and honesty of the ordinary people. I went back to Sierra Leone several times, not only to help Alfred Kanu and raise funds for his school but also because I was totally fascinated by this country where the good, the bad, and the very ugly confront each other on a daily basis. With my photographs, I hope to pay homage to the people who are struggling to survive in one of the poorest countries in the world.

Teun Voeten, June 2001

Moving Walls is an annual documentary photography exhibition produced by the Open Society Foundations Documentary Photography Project. Moving Walls is exhibited at our offices in New York, London, and Washington, D.C., and includes five to seven discrete bodies of work.

Since its inception in 1998, Moving Walls has featured over 175 artists whose works address a variety of social justice and human rights issues that coincide with the Open Society mission.

Are You a Photographer?

The Documentary Photography Project is soliciting proposals for our next exhibition, Watching You, Watching Me: Photography in an Age of Surveillance.

Plan a Visit

The Moving Walls 21 exhibit is open free-of-charge to the public from January 29 through October 3, 2014.