Mikhail, the big man answered in a gruff Eastern European accent. He paused to fan his sweat-soaked T-shirt. Hope youre ready for the heat, he added.
The two of us abandoned the small refuge of light to step into darkness. Our driver, a man with midnight skin, materialized out of the shadows to assist me with my backpack. Then, my two escorts ushered me down a dirt path to a beat-up Range Rover.
Stickers of AK-47 machine guns, crossed out by big red Xs, covered the car bold letters underneath proclaimed NO ARMS. I slid into the passenger seat trying not to second-guess my own intelligence: why had I voluntarily entered a place where vehicles needed to declare their lack of an arsenal? Mikhail, clearly an assertive man, insisted on getting behind the wheel. Our chauffeur, rendered obsolete, climbed into the back seat and sulked there silently. You dont mind, do you? Mikhail asked me. Just got here last week and Im still getting my bearings, he explained. As we lurched forward, I shrugged to myself, content for the moment to be simply on the ground.
A hot breeze engulfed us as we headed into the heart of the city Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, was pitch dark at night. My two guides and I drove without conversation, listening only to the steady hum of the engine, as enigmatic buildings passed by the window. I tried to reassure myself that I could handle whatever my new home might contain, but didnt feel all that convinced. Nothing seemed even vaguely familiar to me. Nothing looked like home.
Headlights suddenly materialized out of the darkness, followed by the frantic honking of an oncoming truck. For a few fearful seconds, I found myself pressing down hard at an imaginary brake-pedal beneath my feet, my adrenaline surging, as the oncoming vehicle swerved by, barely missing us. Why did he do that? Mikhail complained to our driver, after the road had again returned to the comfort of shadows. But while I tried to relax my legs, the back seat offered only indignant silence as answer.
As we entered the sleeping city center, our car passed a sole lit sign, a plaque identifying the adjacent building as the Sierra Leone Reconciliation Court. The country had been at war since 1992, between the government in Freetown and the Rebel United Front (RUF). These two main combatants had raped, maimed, and murdered wantonly, before finally signing a United Nation brokered peace accord. The mandate of the court was to prosecute the worst of the prolonged conflicts many war criminals.
I watched the building pass, barely able to imagine the drama that had recently occurred within its walls. Just a week prior, judges there had issued an arrest warrant for Charles Taylor, the neighboring Liberian president. The magistrates accused the dictator of crimes against humanity, for creating the RUF and subsequently supporting the rebels by providing a conduit for the groups illegally mined diamonds to the international market. But, no one knew what would come of the indictment. Charles Taylor was ensconced in nearby Liberia, safely out of the reach of international justice.
As the sign for the Reconciliation Court faded away in my side-view mirror, I recalled the many crimes of which Taylor was charged. Over 200,000 people had been killed and one million forced from their homes, in a lengthy war punctuated by some of the worst human rights abuses known to the modern world. The atrocities were so extreme that they seemed almost unbelievable: arbitrary killings of civilians, widespread torture, systematic rape, deliberate amputation of limbs, and the forced recruitment of countless child soldiers, among others.
As I tried to come to terms with what it meant to have suddenly entered such a trauma-ridden land, Mikhail interrupted my uneasy thoughts. Up for a drink before we hit the guesthouse? he asked casually. I wanted nothing more than to find a safe room in which to huddle, but didnt want to seem overwhelmed. Sure, I cautiously agreed.
Excerpted from The Lassa Ward by Dr. Ross Donaldson. Copyright © 2009 by Dr. Ross Donaldson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
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