'It Hits So Close to Home'

Kadija Jalloh, 20, is president of the Maryland chapter of Youth for Sierra Leone Improvement, which organized an outing to see the film.
Kadija Jalloh, 20, is president of the Maryland chapter of Youth for Sierra Leone Improvement, which organized an outing to see the film. (By Michael Temchine For The Washington Post)
By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 11, 2006

Abibatu Dainkeh was 14, staring at a dead woman and envious of her peace.

The teenager had fled rebel soldiers who had raped girls younger than she was. She had watched a bomb destroy the home of the boy next door and leave his legs "torn like paper," she said. She had seen a crowd run so scared, so frantically that no one stopped to pick up a baby strapped to his dead mother's back.

"I can still hear the cry of that baby, so loud and clear," Dainkeh said.

Fast forward more than seven years. It was Saturday night at the Majestic 20 theater in Silver Spring, and Dainkeh easily blended into the crowd. She wore a black puffy jacket and gold high heels that gave no hint of her past -- of hiding in a swamp for days or dodging bullets in a canoe.

Dainkeh is now 22, a college student, a soon-to-be nurse.

But when she walked into the theater Saturday to see the latest Leonardo DiCaprio movie, "Blood Diamond," that teenager was with her.

Dainkeh and about 30 other native Sierra Leoneans who had fled the country after the 10-year-long civil war broke out in 1991 watched the atrocities that some had felt firsthand spill out on the big screen as Saturday-night entertainment. For two hours and 18 minutes, they straddled an emotional line between fiction and reality, laughing at times with a distance afforded by Hollywood and, in other moments, staring with expressions weighted by their memories.

When schoolchildren in one scene sang, they sang with them, not missing a word. When armed men spoke their country's Creole and the screen did not provide subtitles, they translated among themselves. When a character was shown inviting the attention of rebel forces, they chastised him out loud.

"God left this place a long time ago," DiCaprio's character said at one point. "God is not there," Dainkeh whispered to the woman next to her.

The Washington area is home to more Sierra Leoneans than any other place in the United States, earning it the nickname of Little Sierra Leone. It's unclear exactly how many are here. Many came as a result of the civil war that displaced more than a third of the population in the small West African country -- smaller than all but 10 U.S. states. The movie gets its name from the diamonds sold to finance the conflict.

Janeba Jalloh Ghatt said her group, the Sierra Leone Fund, read the script before the movie was launched and contacted Warner Brothers with some suggestions. A few were taken, she said, and the result is a movie that depicts the country's past but, she hopes, doesn't scare off investors who could help secure its future.

The blood, as the title forewarns, is plentiful. People about to lose limbs are asked if they want "short sleeve" or "long sleeve." Child soldiers carrying automatic weapons, fire into crowds. There is death, and then more death.

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