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Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: A Former Sierra Leone Native Talks About His Time With The Rebels And The Search For ĎBlood Diamondsí by Artemis Coughlan

Silence used to be Frank Laborís constant friend.

At 15, the Sierra Leone native couldnít do what normal teens do, but instead had to muster all of his strength from the depths of his soul to survive and not scream from the pain.

If Labor did scream, that meant he would die that day at the hands of rebels in Sierra Leone who went from village to village, pillaging and robbing for food, their youth and blood diamonds.

Because diamonds are abundant in Sierra Leone, rebels would move from village to village searching for the priceless gems that would help finance their war against the countryís government. Due to the amount of blood spilled through murder and torture, the diamonds earned the nickname Ďblood diamonds.í

Laborís village, Mekne, was attacked in 1998 by a band of rebels. During the attack the teen tried to run, but a gunshot wound to the leg stopped him. He watched the rebels rob the village and burn it to the ground.

The rebels moved on, taking him with them.

"During the raid, they killed most of my family," Labor said, fighting a stutter to get his words out. "It was horrible."

For the next two years the teen-turned-captive was forced to follow the rebels as they went from village to village in search of diamonds -- blood diamonds -- the rebels would use to buy guns.

"I carried their heavy ammunition boxes and did whatever they wanted me to do," he said. "I want people to know that I was one of those captured boys and Iím here to tell people about it. I want the people of America to know the real story.

"It was a bad, bad experience. I was beaten and tortured every day. It was the diamonds that caused the war," Labor said.

Those guns would be used to fight native and Nigerian soldiers to gain political control of Sierra Leone.

Two weeks before Labor walked through the front doors of The Trentonian, he saw the movie "Blood Diamonds," the movie dramatizing the two-year war on the western coast of Africa.

Labor saw and lived those horrors, the tortures, and the murder and mayhem reenacted in the movie.

The visions the now-23-year-old saw made him relive those years of his lost youth and innocence.

Every day since he saw the movie he has walked from the Rescue Mission on Ewing Street where he is currently living to the soup kitchen off Southard Street three times a day for meals, and he passes The Trentonianís front door.

One day last week he mustered up the emotional strength to walk with a marked limp through those doors, and ask to talk to a reporter.

"There were no love scenes in my life, or that I saw," Labor said referring to the love scenes featured in "Blood Diamond."

"But, the rest of the movie was real. It was very real and true. The movie took my memory back. It reminded me. I cared for all those people who died and the ones who were hurt. I just want to send my love to those people. They are in my heart."

Many men and boys his age voluntarily joined the rebels because they believed they would get rich selling the blood diamonds. It was the lure of the money and riches that turned brother against brother during that horrific war, Labor said.

Labor lived life as a rebel between 1998 and 2000. Just above his right ankle is a gunshot wound, where the rebel bullet stopped his initial rush toward freedom.

The flesh all over his body was burned cruelly with fire-heated, red-hot flat knife blades. Labor said he didnít cry out in pain when the rebels marked him with the searing hot blades, or during the many times he was savagely beaten.

"The rebels wanted boys who wouldnít cry," he said. "Because if you did, they would kill you."

They didnít want boys who cried because their crying would bring attention to the ragtag group and possibly get them captured by native or Nigerian forces, he related.

"When you are a rebel, you live the life of a rebel," Labor said.

"You lived in the bush, on the ground and in the dirt. You ate rice most of the time because all villagers grew rice. There was very little meat. We did eat a lot of fish. If they would see a dog or a cat they would eat them.

"I tried every day not to cry. Every day I would try to find ways not to cry. I had to follow the rebels wherever they went. You couldnít sit down or take a rest because they would beat you. I dodged bullets and all I could do each day was to think about what I could do that day. I worried about my life."

Those captured boys would be killed the moment they cried or tried to rest. The rebels would replace them with more boys from the next village they attacked.

He said the rebels would often cut off the hands and feet of many people or kill them with AK 47 machine guns, Labor said.

"They would ask if the people want long or short sleeves. If they wanted long sleeves, the rebels would use long glass shards or knives to cut the hands off at the wrist," Labor said.

"If they said they wanted short sleeves, the rebels would cut off the arms at the shoulders. The rebels did this so they couldnít vote in elections. They wanted to take control of the country."

His daily torment finally ended when he was 18 after the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution breaking the link between the illicit transaction of rough (blood) diamonds and armed conflict on December 1, 2000.

"The government called for a cease fire and ordered the rebels to disarm," Labor said.

"Thatís when the war was over and they let me go."

Because he had the burn marks of a rebel, the Army captured him and tied his hands and feet. It took Labor two days to convince his new captors that he was not a rebel.

"They finally believed me and let me go," Labor said.

He went back home and tried to heal. He contacted his father who lives in California who, a little over four years ago, sent Labor a plane ticket to the United States.

He stayed with his sister in Franklin Township for a while until she married and he was asked to leave.

He couldnít move in with his father because he works on an oil tanker and travels a lot.

Labor ended up at Trentonís Rescue Mission three years ago after he became very ill in 2003.

"What I see here now is better than I have ever seen before," Labor said.

"Life is good here. What happens here is nothing like what I have seen in my country."

It turns out that his kidneys failed from either the myriad beatings, tortures, poor diet or something else that he suffered during those captive years.

At 23 he is fighting a renewed battle for his life.

Labor gets dialysis three times a week to keep him alive while he awaits a kidney transplant.

"I canít get a job because I donít have a green card," he said. "I really donít care about money right now.

"I just want to get a transplant and then go to school. I want Americans to know where their diamonds came from and what went on. I just came here to tell my story."

Emmanuel Clark Gay, who researched the blood diamond conflict on Africaís west coast, said the story Labor is telling is very true.

"What he is saying is true. The rebels fought because of the promises of wealth. I know it because I saw it," Gay said.

"Kids were used to carry ammunition and some were trained to be killers. The kids who killed didnít distinguish between life or death. Killing for some of those boys was a rite of passage. It was village against village, brother against brother.

"Some of those boys who were captured have gone insane because of what horrific scenes they saw."

Gay vowed to visit Labor to talk to him and offer solace within the next few weeks.

This article appears in The Trentonian

Artemis Coughlan

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

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The views and opinions expressed herein by the author do not necessarily represent the opinions or position of or Black Electorate Communications.

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