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The Mass Media

Living Like A Refugee

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It’s a long way from the Sembakounya camp in Guinea, where the journey of the Refugee All-Stars begins, to the Swiss resort town of Davos where the band is scheduled to perform at the annual pilgrimage of economic heavy-weights: the World Economic Forum. The Refugee All-Stars emerged from the obscurity of refugee camps last year to record Living Like A Refugee, the band’s critically acclaimed debut. On a US tour to promote the album last year, which included a date at the Paradise Rock Club on Commonwealth Ave., the band filled concert halls and has received glowing praise for its performances.

The year 2006 also witnessed the release of Refugee All-Stars, a feature-length documentary film about the band by filmmakers Zach Niles and Banker White. The documentary, which won the Jury Prize in the American Film Institute Festival in Los Angeles last November, was screened recently at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, from Jan. 19 to 21. It revolves around the tragic but inspiring testimonies of the band’s members who find comfort from the dislocations of war, the perils of life in a refugee camp, the death of loved ones and uncertainty over the fate of others, the alienation of exile and the physical and emotional scars resulting from these, in music and faith.

The civil war in Sierra Leone, from 1991-2001, claimed a million lives and displaced millions more in refugee camps in neighboring Guinea. The war, which pitted rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) against forces loyal to the government, was brought to an end in 2001 by West African forces acting under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional organization for cooperation on matters of peace, security and economic development. Nurtured and sustained by the trade in illicit diamonds and political instability in neighboring Liberia, the civil war, which was fought on both sides by child soldiers, unleashed violence that was excessive when compared to other wars on the continent of Africa. For its signature act of cruelty, the RUF revived a practice introduced to the continent by Belgian colonizers in the Congo Free State during the nineteenth century, as Adam Hochschild writes in King Leopold’s Ghost, the amputation of limbs.

“When two elephants are fighting the grass them suffer, which is the position of the civilians,” intones Reuben Koroma in “Weapons of Conflict” a reggae-infused track from the band’s debut album and a soundtrack of the documentary film. This contention is supported by the personal stories of the band’s members, which are vividly captured by the documentary. Vocalists Abdul Rahim Kamara and Muhammad Bangura had their arms amputated. Despite his ordeal, Abdul Rahim is willing “to forgive and forget.” Alhadji Jeffrey Koroma aka Black Nature, the youngest member of the group, lost his entire family in an RUF offensive and was captured by government forces suspected of being a child soldier. The band is the closest thing Black Nature has to a family.

“I don’t really understand our African people,” Black Nature said in the documentary, visibly shaken, his eyes fixated on the ground. “They are very rough. They want to destroy the future before they know what it is,” he continued, holding back tears.

Francis John Lagba aka Franco was returning home from a performance when the RUF struck. The rebels blocked access to Franco’s neighborhood and he was forced to flea to Guinea leaving behind his wife and children who he has not heard from ever since. “I am a guitarist,” affirmed Franco. “If you cut off my hand, how can I get a future? That’s why I ran away.”

“I am innocent of the innocent’s blood. I am a musician, I never did anything bad,” stated Reuben Koroma the group’s leader. Yet Reuben, who was a marginally successful musician in Sierra Leone’s capital before the war, was briefly detained by government forces and narrowly escaped a rebel offensive on his flight to Guinea with his wife, Grace Efuah who is the only female in the group.

Interspersed in the documentary with the personal stories of the band members is the power of music to heal, sustain and inspire hope. Not only does music give voice to the plight of the band members and other refugees, it provides solace, comfort and a reason to live when life has lost all value. “Living like a refugee is not easy. I took all the problems; the suffering of the people and used it to make music,” Koroma states in the documentary and in the opening lines of the band’s hit song, “Living Like A Refugee.”

On a tour to drum-up support for a repatriation program, which was sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the band played for huge crowds using homemade contraptions to bolster its meager supply of working instruments.

“We play music just to preoccupy the people from their worries,” Reuben stated after a concert at the Kouankan refugee camp, one of five different camps in which some of the band’s members had lived. A highlight of the band’s return to Sierra Leone since the war came to an end is the recording of its first album in a Freetown studio, an occasion which finds the band in a light-hearted and playful mood. “This man is 50 years old,” states Reuben Koroma, pointing to a beaming Franco, “but this is his first time in the studio.”

Alongside music, faith provided a source of strength for the band. For many of the band’s members, Rastafarianism, the religious and quasi Pan-Africanist movement with roots in resistance to British colonialism in Jamaica during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is the most visible expression of faith. Some of the band members wear thick dreadlocks. Green, red and gold are constantly on display in the documentary. Half of the tracks on the band’s album, including critiques of the war such as “Refugee Rolling,” “Weapon of Conflict,” “I am not a fool” and “Garbage to Show glass,” are influenced by the “one-drop,” a stylistic mainstay of reggae music, Rastafarianism’s anthem of resistance. Even though a few songs on the album are imbued with regional flavors such as highlife, most of the songs hearken to the heyday of Studio One, the reggae label founded by the legendary reggae producer Coxsone Dodd in 1950.

The documentary also opens a window into the work of international relief agencies involved with the resettlement of refugees, especially the UNHCR. Squalid living conditions in some refugee camps, the constant relocation of refugees in different camps, and the lack of counseling for band members such as Muhammad Bangura, whose emotional and psychological scars are palpable in the documentary, do not speak well of UNHCR’s efforts in the resettlement of refugees from Sierra Leone.

While Blood Diamond, the movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimoun Hounsou, plotted a well-known axis between natural resources and conflict in the civil war in Sierra Leone, Refugee All Stars presents a human face to the tragedy. If Blood Diamond did not change your mind about diamonds, the story of the Refugee All-Stars just might.