These were two young men Tamasin and I found sitting by the river crossing between Liberia and Ivory Coast. They were sat under the trees, right by the water’s edge, with a group of other young men, an uneasy air of boredom and tension hung around them. It was the closest I had ever come to a conflict zone.
Our driver and fixer, Matthew and Sherry, sat amongst them and talked, while we stared across at the other side of the river bank - Ivory Coast, in the midst of a violent post-election uprising. We could see men in army fatigues emerging out of the bushes on the other side of the river, also looking pretty bored. Tamasin and I set about trying to communicate with them, writing a note in our best schoolgirl French, and with the help of some of the young guys around us, we managed to scribble something that began: ‘Nous somme deux journalistes pour la BBC….’ The canoe-operator agreed to take it over and pass it to the soldiers.
A while later, the canoeist came back - our note returned with another scribble on the reverse side. Our request for an interview had been turned down.
Meanwhile, Matthew and Sherry told us the shifty-looking guys by the river bed were mercenaries who had been crossing the border to fight, and that two were willing to talk. We headed in to the bush and I began setting up the camera, hands clammy from the oppressive heat and nerves about what might happen. These guys were wired, with a manic look in their eyes.
They wouldn’t let us film or photograph their faces, so this is the result. One is wearing my scarf wrapped around his head. They told us horrific things - about committing terrible, violent acts against men, women and children in Ivory Coast. They had been fighters in Liberia’s own civil war and had been recruited by a former general they knew from that conflict.
Their tale may have been hard to believe by some - and it certainly fits in to a stereotype of young, bloodthirsty African men who have no qualms about wielding a machete for a few dollars. But their story later chimed with evidence gathered by Human Rights Watch, which documented horrific acts by the Forces Nouvelles in villages these young guys told us they had attacked.
And the sad fact is that there are indeed plenty of young men like them in Liberia, who first fought as young boys in Liberia’s devastating conflict and who know no other life. There may have been eight years of peace in Liberia, but there are still many young men for whom there is no other option than seek a living through arms. Hence why so many African mercenaries were found in Libya.
Matthew and Sherry, who both lived through Liberia’s conflict, certainly believed their tales. They had seen guys exactly like them with their own eyes rampaging through villages in Liberia. Later that day, long after we had finished the interview, we were driving up to the health clinic where we were staying the night. It was getting dark, and as we drove up to the clinic, two motorbikes appeared beside our jeep. It was these two mercenaries. I suddenly felt very scared - and Tamasin and I could see that Matthew and Sherry were both pretty tense too. It was one of those moments where I thought something could go horribly wrong. I would have handed over every piece of kit and every dollar I had to them without a fight, but I couldn’t bear the thought that someone else might get hurt trying to protect me, or that they might kill us all anyway.
In the end, they said they just wanted to check we were ok and had somewhere to stay the night. I locked the door to the room Tamasin and I were sleeping in and had a fitful night’s sleep, dreaming of a machete coming through the door.
Life is still too cheap in Africa.