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DVD Review: Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars

Diamonds are a girl's best friend, or at least that's what companies like DeBeers would have you believe. But if you want a different opinion, maybe you should check with the people of Sierra Leone. For more then ten years the tiny West African country was torn apart by Civil War because the multinationals who control the Diamond mines in the country have no interest in any of the money staying in Sierra Leone.

According to information on the web site of the movie The Empire In Africa Sierra Leone is a country fabulously wealthy in natural resources, specifically Diamonds, while being one of the poorest countries per capita. Any time a government has been elected since independence in 1961 that looked to try and nationalize some of the Diamond money; a coup would conveniently occur that would re-establish a government that would retain the status quo.

In 1991 a group of disaffected army officers, intellectuals, and political activists began a rebellion in hopes of establishing a regime that would share the wealth amongst all the people. What followed was one of the bloodiest and ugliest ten years of civil war that any country in Africa had seen. At one point a coup was affected and the new government signed peace treaties with the rebel forces and gave them seats in parliament. The first act of the new parliament was to vote to nationalize the Diamond mines.

An embargo was immediately implemented preventing any medical supplies, food, or oil from reaching the country. With the help of mercenary soldiers, paid for by selling Diamond concessions to Thai business interests, the former government attacked Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone and turned it into battlefield forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee for their lives.
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That's the way it always is of course, it's the innocents who suffer in cases like these. No matter what anybody says they are fighting for, the non-combatants are going to suffer horrendously. Refugees flooded into neighbouring Guinea for what they thought would be short stays of around three months and ended up in some cases being ten years before repatriation.

When your life is totally disrupted you look for any straw you can hold on to that will give you a semblance of normalcy. This was the motivation behind the formation of the Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars. In 2002 an American documentary film team was filming musicians in the refugee camps throughout West Africa when they came across the band rehearsing in a camp in Guinea. Out of that meeting came the documentary movie bearing the name of the band Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars.

The movie introduces us to the band members and gives us their individual stories. Two of them had been brutalized and had their hands cut off, other's parents had been killed, and still others had lost other family members. Music became the bond that tied them all together and united them into a family group.

Listening to each band member talk about what the band means to them you see they have no expectations from the music beyond giving them a means to distract themselves from their reality. Perhaps, considering their collective past, none of them dared to think too far into the future and were content to enjoy what they had in the moment.
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The film does a remarkable job of tracing the history of the band, from their first concert in their own camp, to touring other camps throughout Guinea, until they finally return, temporarily, to Sierra Leone for the first time in years in order to record their first album. Seeing their faces as they witness the devastation that has been visited upon Freeport for the first time is heart breaking. You can see their joy at being home warring with the shock of what they found awaiting their arrival.

While we are with the band they take us on a tour of some of the worst areas of the city where people are literally living in garbage dumps at the water's edge and sifting through flotsam and jetsam for items of value as a means of survival. If any argument other than that is needed to convince anyone of how desperate the situation is in Sierra Leone then they are blind.

One of the special features included in the DVD is a short film showing the band succeeding beyond any of their wildest dreams. First, not only is their disc recorded but they are taken to America to help promote the original film at various film festivals. They win over audiences with their impromptu street performances, exuberant attitude, and the fact that they really are so happy to be given the opportunity to show people their music.

But it's their appearance at the South West Music Conference that makes the whole tour worthwhile for them. Not only do they wow the audience but they also get a distribution deal and bookings into major music festivals around the world because of it. As happy endings go this one is pretty damn good.

The special features also include performances from their days in the camps and deleted scenes from the documentary. A final bonus feature is a small film from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees called "about ninemillion.org." The number nine million refers to the number of refugee children currently thought to exist in the world, and the web site itself is a portal that endeavours to tell their stories.

If the world was at all the place it should be this movie would never had been made and those refugee camps would never had existed. Instead through human greed and indifference to life we have turned countries around the world into hellholes of violence forcing people to flee their homes in terror. Can you imagine what it would be like to have your whole family killed in front of you and end up living in squalor depending on handouts from others to survive?

Tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of people live like this today and little or nothing is done for them. Countries like Canada, the United States, Britain, and the European Union, the richest and most powerful nations in the world, close their doors to any seeking admittance or make it extremely difficult for them to enter. We begrudge them the measly amount of aid dollars we send and force them to trade away their futures by giving up rights to natural resources in exchange for high interest loans that cripple them indefinitely.

The story told in Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars is a beautiful homage to the power of the human spirit and hope. But the story behind that story is being re told in Darfur, the Sudan, Ethiopia, and through out Africa and other parts of the world on a daily basis and will continue to do so until we say enough is enough.

Given what the band members of the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars have been able to accomplish, can you imagine what they could do if they even only had the opportunities we take for granted? Let that be the message of this movie and maybe it will make a difference. They are only a few people among millions and millions who still living lives of desperation – don't they deserve the chance to show us what they are made of?

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