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War/Conflict, Economics/Industry
Geographical region for this story (eg. Africa, Middle East, Southeast Asia):
Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa
Relevant key words for this story, separated by commas (eg. Africa, Hurricane Katrina, Mother Teresa):
Sierra Leone, Africa, Civil War, Diamonds, Displacement, Refugees, Natural Resources
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The project documents the gradual transition from war to peace in Sierra Leone, witnessing the change in the general mood and attitude among the Sierra Leoneian population, from the deepest desperation during the war to joy and hope accompanying democratic elections.
Jan Dago

2001 — professional winner

On May 25, 1997, the democratically elected government in Sierra Leone was overthrown by a coalition of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). President Kabbah fled, exiled to Guinea. The civil war turned so cruel that it is unimaginable. Most of the civilians of Sierra Leone are finding themselves hostage in this conflict. They are caught in a power struggle between the different factions involved in the fight for power and control of Sierra Leone's natural resources, such as the diamond mines. The wealth from the resources in the country never reaches the civilians.

My photographic project about Sierra Leone started in year 2000. The first time I worked in Sierra Leone, my aim was to do a news story. However, during that trip, I realized that there were many directions this sad chapter in the history of Sierra Leone could take. I knew I had to come back.  

I have made four visits to Sierra Leone over the last three years. The transition from war to peace was gradual, but culminated in democratic elections when President Kabbah was reelected during my final visit in 2002.

Because of the Alexia Foundation funding, I was able to witness and capture the transition from war to peace. That is a rare opportunity in this line of work today. It was amazing to see the change in the general mood and attitude among the Sierra Leoneian population, from the deepest desperation during the war to joy and hope that was very evident during my last visit when I covered the peaceful election.

Without the Alexia Foundation funding I would not have been able to finish my work and get the final important pictures. My deepest gratitude for the support during this project.

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Kamajor soldiers control the Songo region north of Freetown, Sierra Leone. Kamajors believe that when they wear special clothing and amulets they cannot get shot or wounded. Kamajor's are originally from a hunting tribe. They were mostly fighting the rebels alongside the government soldiers (SLA). Jan Dago/Alexia Foundation
IDP (Internal displaced people) flee the rebels who systematically looted and burned down villages. The civilians usually headed for Freetown. People on this truck had nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Jan Dago/Alexia Foundation
When this picture was made, this diamond mine was still under rebel control. Many people say the war in Sierra Leone was about the control of diamonds and other natural resources, rather than an ideological war. The young men and boys (women are not allowed to enter the mines) working in the mine were paid so little that they were barely able to feed themselves. Jan Dago/Alexia Foundation
In the military headquarters in Freetown there was only one row of prison cells where the SLA government kept suspected rebels. However, a prisoner of war was a rare sight in Sierra Leone since they would normally be killed when captured. Jan Dago/Alexia Foundation
The RUF (Revolutionary United Front) rebels chopped off hands, and sometimes legs, with machetes. These are civilian people and some of the amputees are children. The girl in the center of this picture is Mariatu Kamara, 14, from Port Loko. She was hiding in the bush trying to escape the rebels. When she and her two sisters and brother were caught, the rebels cut off their hands. About 2500 people have had amputations since the war started. Some died because of lack of medical facilities. Jan Dago/Alexia Foundation
Gibrilla Kamara, 60, is from Port Loko. Rebels amputated his hands with a machete. He was asked to give the hands he voted for Kabba (the president) with. The hand to the right belongs to Isatu Biah, 26, from Port Loko. While the rebels were cutting her hands with machetes they heard a noise and ran away leaving her hand half hanging. Jan Dago/Alexia Foundation
Refugees sleep on a ferry called “Fanta.” This ferry was used to transport Sierra Leoneian refugees back from Guinea to Sierra Leone. Some of them had not seen their homeland in 8 years. In the morning, everyone was up before sunrise. As the ferry slowly entered the harbor in Freetown, all the women on the second deck of the ferry started singing, full of hope and expectations. Jan Dago/Alexia Foundation
At sunrise these men were already up after the 12-hour overnight trip from Guinea and were gathering on the upper deck of the ferry "Fanta." They focused on the coast of Sierra Leone appearing on the horizon. Many of them had not seen this country for up to eight years because they had been living in Guinea as refugees. Now, as they saw their country appear on the horizon, they were truly happy to be home. Jan Dago/Alexia Foundation
Rebels line up to surrender their weapons and ammunition. The city of Khailahun was where the war started and it was the last place to disarm. The disarming was done in collaboration with the United Nations. Jan Dago/Alexia Foundation
The Sierra Leoneian government works closely with the British military enrolling all the different factions involved in the conflict for military training. The aim is to make one army in the country in order to avoid street gangs like the West Side Boys. Bemguema Military Training Camp. Jan Dago/Alexia Foundation