In 2000, I went to Sierra Leone for Vanity Fair to write about the illicit diamond trade, and I intentionally picked a quiet time during a cease-fire between the government and the Revolutionary United Front. But this was my first assignment in Africa, and I didn’t realize how fast things can change there. Almost overnight, the RUF launched attacks across the country and overran at least one United Nations base, taking hundreds of international troops prisoner. I was up-country with a photographer—a good friend named Teun Voeten—and we were evacuated along with other foreign nationals by British Special Air Service (SAS) troops on Chinook helicopters. Most of the evacuees continued to London, but Teun and I stayed in Freetown to cover the war.
One day I took a taxi out to the front lines—which were constantly shifting—and found myself in an increasingly precarious situation with a bunch of young fighters known as Kamajors. They were fighting alongside regular soldiers but were barely under government control. After a while I realized that this was not going to end well, and I hitched a ride out of there with several Sierra Leonean soldiers and a couple of Western reporters. I thought I was home free, but half an hour outside of town, a dozen heavily armed fighters stepped out of the jungle and surrounded our jeep. That was when the screaming and the gun cocking began. That was when I realized that I had never known real fear.
No one jumped out of the jeep to take photos; no one did anything but sit there mutely and wait. I don’t know what the other men were thinking, but I was pretty sure we were all going to be killed. I may have been completely wrong—West African fighters can be pretty histrionic—but they can be pretty nihilistic as well. (Two Western journalists—American Kurt Schork and Spaniard Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora—were killed on that same road just a couple of weeks later.) The guys who stopped us were from a criminal gang called the Westside Boys. They were loosely affiliated with the rebels and lived in the jungle outside Freetown. In the end, they didn’t kill us; they let us go and we returned to Freetown, shaken but alive. Later I heard that the Westside Boys had tried to fight a contingent of British SAS forces and were wiped out almost to a man.
Many years later, I decided to write a short story that would start from my own experiences and then take them a step further. I wanted to horrify myself with the possibilities; I wanted to crank things up and see how I would react. I’m not a brave person; I think my reactions are very close to those of most people. I wrote this story hoping that others would think about what it means to be scared, and to be brave, and to have the power to take a human life. It’s the ultimate power, and yet it’s so very poorly understood.