The Maclean’s Excerpt

Nightmare in West Africa

A Canadian war correspondent recounts how he almost died in Sierra Leone

March 18 2002
The Maclean’s Excerpt

Nightmare in West Africa

A Canadian war correspondent recounts how he almost died in Sierra Leone

March 18 2002

Nightmare in West Africa

The Maclean’s Excerpt

A Canadian war correspondent recounts how he almost died in Sierra Leone

Ian Stewart, 35, comes from a family of Canadian journalists that includes his uncle Brian Stewart, a prominent foreign correspondent for the CBC. By 1998 Ian, too, was a veteran foreign reporter, serving as West African bureau chief for the Associated Press wire service. Among the wars he covered for AP was the brutal and chaotic struggle in Sierra Leone between rebels and government forces backed by a Nigerian-led coalition of neighbouring states. Traumatized by the horrific violence—the rebels systematically killed or maimed civilians with machetes—and despairing of the world’s indifference to it, Stewart decided to request a transfer. Butfirst, he planned one last trip to Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, accompanied by two other AP employees, cameraman Myles Tierney, 34, and still photographer David Guttenfelder, 29. As Stewart’s African memoir, Freetown Ambush, recounts, their luck ran out on Jan. 10, 1999, the day the war claimed nine journalists.

With the heavy thud of a wooden door slamming shut, an artillery shell crashed down onto Freetown’s

Aberdeen peninsula near the Cape Sierra Hotel. My bleary eyes popped open with the blast’s echoing boom. Slowly, I dragged myself out of bed and peered out the window into the brilliant sunlight dancing off the ocean surf. I gazed east down the coast; smoke still curled up from the many fires gutting Freetown’s commercial district. War suddenly seemed uncomfortably near in the unblinking light of day. I began to feel a flutter of panic in my stomach.

Setting out in our station wagon, we joined up with Sierra Leone communications minister Julius Spencer and his convoy —two jeeps, a truck of volunteer undertakers, and another truck of soldiers. We pulled up on the crest of a small hill. At first, I didn’t know why we had stopped. “Snipers!” one of the Nigerian soldiers shouted and pointed across the ravine toward the bowl-shaped soccer stadium. A lone bullet zinged past. Then the echoing ricochets of several more flew by overhead,

bouncing off the craggy escarpment on the opposite side of the road. Soon, as we got out of the car, the air was filled with the dizzying sound of bursts of automatic fire. With every round, I ducked lower behind our station wagon. My heart raced with that same exhilaration I always felt whenever I came under fire.

Myles, his TV camera propped up on his shoulder, was several yards ahead of me.

He squatted in the grass by the side of the road, doing what Myles Tierney did best —capturing on video the stark terror of combat. Looking away from his viewfinder, he peered back at me over his shoulder. His face beamed with the excitement of a young child who has discovered the simultaneous terror and thrill of getting caught breaking the rules. I breathed more easily when Myles grinned at me; his smile assured me, saying, It’s cool, man. Everything’s going to be fine.

Slowly, I crawled closer to David and Myles on the roadside, my head ducking with every incoming bullet. I marveled to myself that we had made it this far. Fear gave way to pride and a bit of the bravado that makes a war correspondent feel invincible.

Afterwards, we got back into the station wagon. David slipped into the backseat on the driver’s side; Myles and I walked around to the passenger side. Myles would now be joining us in the back, because Spencer had assigned two bodyguards to ride up front to protect us. Suffering from mild claustrophobia, I hesitated at the door to see if Myles would get in first, leaving me the seat by the door. He stalled as well. Finally I realized that he needed the window seat to shoot video. I opened the door and slid in beside David. Myles’s bulk crammed in next to me. We approached downtown, moving over a short exposed bridge only a few hundred yards from the stadium. It felt as if we were creeping across the bridge.

We’re sitting ducks here, I thought. This is way too dangerous.

“Holy shit,” David said in a subdued but emphatic voice. “D’you see that?”

I craned my neck to see out the back window.

“See what?”

“Those vultures eating the bodies over there.”

I looked again, and spotted the group of heavy black-winged birds. One of them tugged at a strand of flesh until it snapped like a rubber band. The vulture gobbled it down.

I felt sick. My chest was heavy, as if someone were standing on it. I struggled to fill my lungs with the damp, heavy air. My shirt, saturated with sweat, stuck to my sides. Myles sat on my right. David was on my left. The added temperature of their bodies made the cramped backseat suffocating. A twinge of terror gripped me at the idea of being trapped in the car.

I want to get out of here! I thought frantically. I have to get out of here!

My thoughts hovered near panic. I shoved my elbows into Myles and David and spread my knees to claim more space. I still hadn’t said a word. “Take it easy, man!” Myles finally snapped in response to my squirming. “You’re in the safest seat in the car.”

“If anyone starts shooting,” he added as an absent afterthought, “you’ve got my fat body to protect you.”

We continued along the abandoned street for another ten minutes or so until the convoy stopped near four rebels in jeans and flip-flops. Three of the men nervously clutched AK-47 assault rifles in their hands. One of the gunmen wore a black Oakland Raiders stocking cap and dark sunglasses. A second man had a rainbow-colored Rastafarian cap on his head. All four wore khaki army shirts similar to the kind worn by the Nigerian troops. Under his unbuttoned shirt, the third gunman wore an orange-brown tank top. A black bowler hat sat askew on his head.

The Nigerians in our car ordered us to stop. The rest of the convoy drove ahead about a dozen meters. One of our Nigerian bodyguards rolled down his window and leaned out to the gunmen.

“Who are you?” the bodyguard asked, his dialect instantly identifying him as Nigerian. The man in the bowler smiled.

The corners of his mouth turned up as he began to chuckle to himself maniacally.

I sat perfectly still and held my breath. Every muscle in my body tensed, my heart pounded in my ears, and my mouth ran dry, my tongue sticking to the back of my teeth.

Myles carefully lifted his camera to his shoulder. He peered through the viewfinder.

“Oh shit,” he said.

Before anyone could move, the bowlertopped rebel’s AK-47 jumped in his hands; flames belched out of the thin barrel. The window beside Myles exploded as a hail of bullets tore into the side of the white station wagon. A wave of heat flooded the car.

Myles slumped forward onto his camera, blood pouring from his head and chest.

My head jolted backward, slamming into the seat. For a split second my left side went rigid, and then I slid sideways onto David’s shoulder. I groaned as he pushed me to the floor in case the shooter fired again.

Suddenly I was no longer a war correspondent; we had become the story.

A single bullet had hit me square in the centre of my forehead, just five cm above what would have been a fatal hit between the eyes. I would never be able to remember the moment of being shot or the days afterward, but David and other people told me about it much later.

In the blink of an eye, the street erupted with more gunfire as the Nigerians in the lead truck returned fire, killing the shooter and another man. Both fell where they stood as scores of bullets ripped into their bodies. The two other rebels darted down the sidewalk and jumped into the burnedout shell of a Nissan hatchback. A Nigerian

with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher

on his shoulder took aim and squeezed the trigger. The grenade exploded with a foosh. It whistled, flying in a spiral toward the wrecked car. The street shook as the grenade slammed into the hatchback. On impact, the grenade lit up the car’s gutted interior like a Halloween jack-o’-lantern, killing both rebels instantly.

The convoy sped on toward Wilberforce Barracks—named for the English abolitionist William Wilberforce—in downtown Freetown. In the reception area of Wilberforce’s cramped medical clinic, David, dazed and badly cut by flying glass, stopped short at the sight of Myles’s body on the floor. Where is Ian? he thought to himself, his eyes quickly surveying the room. Then he spotted me writhing on the floor in my boxer shorts.

The Nigerian bodyguards in our car had dragged me from it by my arms and left me near an examining room, where the medical staff cut away my blood-soaked pants and shirt. Reacting to my head wound, I had become combative and had tried to punch one of them. In response, they hogtied me at the wrists and knees. After an X-ray, the medic and a soldier returned me to my spot on the cement floor. I cursed at the top of my lungs and fought my restraints like an animal until my wrists and ankles turned raw and red with rope burns.

“David! Cut me free, man!” I shouted, my voice cracking with panic. “You’ve got to help me!”

“I’m trying to help you,” David said, “but you’ve got to stay calm.”

The Nigerian medic reappeared and motioned David into his office.

“What’s the news, doc?” David’s words trailed off as he froze in mid-stride. The medic was holding a profile X-ray of my skull up to the window’s light. It clearly showed a bullet—shockingly white against the shadowy negative image—lodged in the back of my skull.

Frantic efforts by Guttenfelder, AP and Canadian diplomats managed to get Stewart out of Africa and into Londons National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery by 9p.m. the next night. His struggle to recover his physical and mental health lasted more than a year.

Printed with the permission of Penguin Books Canada from Freetown Ambush:

A Reporter’s Year in Africa.