In January 1999, three Associated Press (AP) journalists were been driven slowly in a military convoy down one of the most dangerous streets in one of the most dangerous cities in the world. They were in Freetown, capital of war-racked Sierra Leone. They were reporting the battle between rebel forces and an international military coalition. The rebels had overrun the ravaged city a few days earlier. The journalists were heading towards downtown Freetown when they were hit by an ambush. The convoy had stopped to question men armed with AK-47s. Suddenly gunfire erupted. The journalist’s car was hit. One was killed immediately, the second was unhurt and the third miraculously survived a bullet in the brain. This is his story.
His name was Ian Stewart. He was AP’s West Africa bureau chief and his job was to co-ordinate news coverage from 23 countries. Stewart was from Toronto and studied journalism at Columbia University in New York. He was an experienced foreign correspondent who experienced wars first hand in Afghanistan, Kashmir and Cambodia before being posted to Africa.
In 1997, Associated Press's West Africa correspondent resigned to join Newsday. Stewart was then in Vietnam, missing the adrenalin rush of war zones. Intrigued by a coup that had just occurred in Sierra Leone; he applied for the Africa job. Just before Christmas, he found out he got the job and with it a promotion to bureau chief. AP’s offices were in Abidjan, the commercial capital of the Ivory Coast. Stewart flew in to his new role in February 1998. The day he flew in, he read how a Nigerian led coalition was staging a massive offensive to overthrow the new Sierra Leone ruling junta backed by the infamous rebels, the Revolutionary Army Front. Nigerian fighter jets were bombing Freetown in advance of the ground assault.
The Sierra Leone war to come would be Stewart’s first major African assignment. But first he needed to get himself sorted in Abidjan. He had three staff, an American named Tim Sullivan, a fellow Canadian Glenn McKenzie and a Ghanaian woman Amba Dadson. Although Abidjan was a wealthy city by African standards, its poverty, dirt and desperation were still an eye-opener for Stewart.
In March, Stewart was ready to travel to Sierra Leone. By now the Nigerian led troops had driven the rebel president out of Freetown and were preparing to re-install President Kabbah to power. Stewart travelled to the inauguration with David Guttenfelder, an American who was the AP’s West African photographer. The pair hitched a lift from a Lebanese crew to Sierra Leone’s international airport. Named Lion Mountain by the Portuguese, Sierra Leone ia now officially the worst place on Earth according to the UN Development Program Survey. Life expectancy is 38 years while 164 babies in every thousand die in infancy. Only three adults in every hundred can read and write.
The country had seen decades of almost continuous upheaval since the end of colonisation. In the late 1980s, a low ranking officer named Foday Sankoh founded the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) under the influence of Libya’s Gaddafy. The RUF launched a savage civil war. Women and girls were raped and children were kidnapped and forced to serve in the RUF. Their rise to power was assisted in 1997 by a disgruntled army officer named Johnny Paul Koroma. He held a military post in the country’s diamond producing Kono region. Koroma struck a deal with the RUF to give the rebels access to the mines in return for a share of the profits.
Sankoh then struck a deal with neighbouring Liberian leader Charles Taylor to smuggle guns and money into Sierra Leone while smuggling diamonds out. Koroma deposed President Kabbah and invited the RUF to help form a government. The West African Economic Community was appalled and used a military intervention force called Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) initially set up to impose a peace on Liberia to cross the border into Sierra Leone. Though they had now regained Freetown, much of the rural part of the country remained in rebel hands. Stewart and Guttenfelder travelled to Makeni to observe the ongoing fighting.
There they found a Jesuit run pastoral centre where they tried to heal the wounds of children who suffered in the war. Most of the children had lost arms. The RUF had chopped off their arms with machetes. Others had legs amputated or eyes poked out. Stewart saw this was a war against children. On 9 March they returned to Freetown for Kabbah’s return. The journalists drove through the anarchic city to the ceremony in a football stadium. Kabbah was back in power but the RUF were not yet defeated.
Stewart went back to Abidjan where he prepared for his next assignment: the Pope’s visit to Nigeria. The visit promised to be highly newsworthy. While John Paul II was international respected as a man of peace, his host-to-be Sani Abacha was a butcher whose human rights record was second only to Idi Amin, in the annals of African infamy. Stewart flew to Enugu in Eastern Nigeria where the pope was due to arrive. There, the Pope spoke out about the dignity of human rights. The following day he requested the release of 60 political prisoners and journalists. Abacha made no reference to the request in a ceremony to mark the Pope’s departure. And life went on regardless. Despite Nigeria’s $4.5 billion oil industry, 80 percent of its people lived in abject poverty. Stewart stayed on to interview survivors of the Biafran War and also met workers in the oil rich Niger Delta region. There he also met Myles Tierney, an American television journalist before returning back to Ivory Coast
Barely a few months later news came through that Sani Abacha had died unexpectedly. But at the same time, news was also coming from Guinea-Bissau where officers in Portugal’s former colony had staged a failed coup. Stewart set off to investigate. With help from a Guinean reporter he secretly crossed the border from Senegal into Guinea-Bissau. Portugal had bitterly resisted the end of colonisation and left their old possessions like Angola and Mozambique in a mess. Guinea-Bissau was no different. Stewart drove through the countryside ravaged by war and now full of refugees. 300,000 people were on the move. When Stewart stopped to interview an old man left in an empty town by himself, they were forced to seek shelter from mortar fire.
Stewart’s next overseas assignment was to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to cover another failed coup. In 1997 Laurent Kabila had replaced long-time strongman Mobutu and everyone had high hopes he might lead the DRC in the path of democracy. But instead Kabila went the way of all despots. He abolished all opposition parties, gagged the media and threw out the UN war crimes investigators. Stewart interviewed Kabila in Kinshasa and asked him if he planned to introduce democracy. Kabila replied the problem wasn’t democracy; it was stability. Stewart was able to travel around the capital which was a rat-infested disease-ridden slum. He took the ferry across the Congo River to Brazzaville, the capital of the neighbouring Congo Republic.
The Congo Republic was also racked by a political war. Long time dictator Denis Sassou-Nguesso had regained power after an electoral defeat at the cost of ten of thousands of dead. The capital was emptied out of people. Here again many children had been recruited as child soldiers. Stewart went back to the DRC to follow up on the Rwandan-backed coup against Kabila. He could see fires from his hotel room but no sound of fighting. Later driving through the city, his car was set upon and he narrowly escaped an angry mob. Troops gathered from Angola and Zimbabwe to support Kabila’s army. Stewart saw army troops capture rebels before tying tyres around them. The soldiers set fire to the tyres and the rebels were incinerated.
Stewart escaped to Abidjan, emotionally drained by all he had seen in the Congo. He took some peaceful stories in South Africa, Mali and Burkina Faso to try and get war out of his head. But in January 1999, he was hearing of renewed violence in Sierra Leone. Stewart made arrangements to travel to Freetown with Guttenfelder and the TV journalist Tierney. They flew into an airport terminal swarming with Nigerian soldiers, refugees trying to escape and a few journalists trying to get in. That day, the RUF stormed Freetown overrunning Nigerian positions and destroying everything in their path.
After a couple of days stuck at the airport, the journalists hitched a lift to the capital on a Mi-8 military helicopter. In Freetown they hooked up with an ECOMOG commander whom they bribed to be allowed to stay. The crew spent two days in the relative safety of the ECOMOG zone interviewing survivors. But Tierney was pushing for pictures of combat. On the fourth morning, bombs dropped close to their hotel. The war was coming to them. Despite a curfew, the three men piled into a car to investigate. They hooked up with a military convoy and followed them.
They were forced to stop and duck behind the car when snipers started firing at the convoy. Then they met men armed with AK-47s. A Nigerian bodyguard spoke to the men. Suddenly the rebel turned around and started shooting at the car. Tierney with his camera at the window, died instantly. Guttenfelder on the far side was unhurt. Stewart was seated in the middle and he took a bullet square in the centre of his forehead. Amazingly the bullet missed all vital organs and did not break up on impact. These two impossibilities saved his life. The Nigerians returned fire and killed the shooter and another rebel.
The convoy sped away to a medical clinic at the army barracks. Initially they thought his wound was superficial. Stewart was still conscious and asking Guttenfelder a barrage of questions. News travelled quickly about the attack. The government arranged for a helicopter to remove the dead and wounded journalists. They took them to Conakry, the capital of Guinea where they met a flight to Abidjan. There was little the doctors could do for Stewart in Abidjan. He was running the risk of severe brain damage due to the swelling in his skull. AP arranged for a Swiss air ambulance which took him to London.
Stewart was taken to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in central London’s Queens Square. He was given little chance of survival by the surgeon. He had several craniotomies the first of which carefully removed dead brain cells and foreign matter using a micro-thin suction tube. A second hole was drilled in his brain measure cranial pressure. The second operation removed the bullet itself. The surgeon drilled a hole in the back of Stewart’s brain and the swelling inside provided enough pressure to push out the bullet through the hole by itself.
Stewart’s recovery was long, slow and painful. He had to relearn how to talk, how to walk and how to do simple daily tasks. His left side remains totally paralysed and he has learnt to do all things one-handed. He returned to his parent’s house in Canada where they looked after him. After a year of recuperation, he was ready to go back to work. He wrote a 3,000 word piece for AP describing his Freetown experience. His article “What Price, the News” appeared in hundreds of papers worldwide and won a range of awards. It was eventually turned in a book “Ambushed”. Stewart now lives with his wife in California and speaks publicly about his experiences. In 2002, he spoke to a panel about the death of fellow journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan.
He said no situation could justify the loss of one journalist in exchange for a story. "No story at all is ever worth dying for,” he said. “If you're killed doing a story, you're never going to tell another story." But he also justified the reason he was in Africa in the first place. "So many people are left without a voice. So what drew me, and I suspect what drew Danny Pearl, was to try to defend and give back a voice to these people.”