So I was heading out to join the fine people of Belfast Zoo for a post-Dreamnight party. Dreamnight is an annual event which sees the Zoo open late especially for children from the hospice and the children's hospital and their families. It was a really great thing to be a part of, with the Zoo staff working really hard to make it a really special experience - getting help from the police, the army and the fire brigade who all had fun things for the kids to do (climbing walls, shooting ranges, engines and cars and tanks to play with) as well as Northern Ireland's Hell's Angels who showed off their choppers and circus types who showed off their tricks. There was also a couple of Deloreans which was cool, including one which was done up to look exactly like the car seen in Back to the Future...flux capacitor and everything! I also got to get ridiculously close to the Zoo's gorillas which was really cool and only got better when one of them decided to spit a whole mouth full of water at my friend Brendan's face from point blank range.
So, after our late evening of Zoo antics we all made our way home to get ready for our after-party. I got myself a taxi and soon got in to conversation with my driver. He was a pretty chatty guy and I was soon hearing stories about his child and his partner. He then told me that his previous job had seen him work as a bodyguard all over the world. Intrigued, I asked him what sort of places he had worked. The first place he mentioned? Sierra Leone.
I laughed at the coicidence and told him that I was soon to head there myself. Not really sure how he would respond to questions, I asked him some anyway. When were you there? About five years ago. That would make it 2003, a year after the war is considered to have ended. Where were you? All over. Were you working mostly with business men or what? Yeah, all business men.
He then told me that it was a pretty rough place to spend some time. At one point his group had had a run in with a child soldier wielding an AK-47. Deeming that it was either them or the child one of the other guys shot the child. The girl. The ten year old girl. "Job done", the driver commented.
What is our response to the actions of these sorts of private security firms? Their existence is fraught with moral dilemmas and their actions are surely extremely difficult to control. In a situation like Sierra Leone a few years ago or Iraq now, are they a neccessary evil to provide a modicum of stability beyond the capacity of any central authority? Or are they in fact perpetuating instability and making things worse in the long run? And if we do see a place for them then we surely expect them to defend themselves. Whilst killing a child in this way seems unfathomable to me, I wasn't there and of course she was capable of killing many in their group. My driver commented that his collegue had ensured that it was a painless death for the girl - shooting her between the eyes. What I certainly don't understand is why anyone would put themselves in such a situation to protect some businessman darting through Sierra Leone, presumably snaffling up whatever mineral wealth they can get their hands on in the post-war chaos. And of course conditioning children to fight and kill in these ways is disgusting.
The whole thing is just dreadful. I was extremely uneasy with the way he distanced himself from what had happened by talking about it in those kind of "job done" terms, although he did recognise the horror of what had occurred at the same time. How could you process witnessing something like that? I was also surprised, naively probably, that there would still have been child soldiers operating in Sierra Leone in 2003. But I should have known better - just people saying, "The war is over", does not mean that all the killing will cease.
A desperately sad story. But a real one. Told in surely the most unlikely of circumstances.