For Sierra Leone—a country maimed by an 11-year civil war that threatened to swallow an entire generation—the name of its capital, Freetown, seems ironical. The cumulative greed of multiple countries converged on the diamond-rich soil of this country, fuelling a conflict that uprooted thousands between 1991 and 2002.
The war orphaned multitudes and left children to fend for themselves. Many of them took to petty crime and are now languishing in prisons across the land.
Fernando Moleres, a Barcelona-based photographer, has been documenting the lives of juvenile prisoners in Freetown Central Prison on Pademba Road.
His photographs, which relate a tale of nightmarish proportions, are currently being shown in Mumbai as part of an exhibition by Freedom to Create, an international organization devoted to showcasing artistic work from conflict-prone lands.
Ibrahim Sesay, 14, is serving an 18-month sentence. Charged with pilfering a cellphone in 2009, he spent eight days at a police station without a morsel of food. Then the authorities washed their hands off him, registering him as a 19-year-old. One can only guess at the rites of initiation Sesay may have passed through in prison before arriving before us in a stark black and white photograph in which he is being manhandled by a group of hardened men.
Sesay and other children shouldn’t be in jail in the first place. Sierra Leone’s law recognizes anyone below 18 as a child. Yet poor documentation and a lackadaisical administration have ensured these children are dumped in prison.
Freetown Central Prison, meant to house 300 inmates, now holds more than 1,100. Many still await trial. This jail pits manhood’s muscle against the innocence and naiveté of teens and iron-fisted reality against dreams, turning every moment into a fight for survival. Violence, malnutrition, infections, lack of medical care and sexual abuse are rampant within the prison walls.
Receiving administrative permission to shoot inside the prison wasn’t an easy task. Several humanitarian and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) turned down Moleres’ request for help. “In the end, a university conducting research about justice in Sierra Leone gave me the chance to go in,” says Moleres in an email interview. He plans to document the lives of juvenile prisoners in other African countries, such as Sudan, too. Today he also runs an NGO that aids children trapped in such prisons.
Sesay’s is just one among many stories that are slowly, but surely, coming apart at the seams. And though some of these have been dragged out of the darkness by Moleres’ roving eye, garnering universal acclaim (he was the recipient of the World Press Photo Award for 2011 in the Daily Life Stories category), he hopes his efforts can help change the lives of these inmates.
Sierra Leone’s history encumbers a generation hoping to break free from the snares it has led them into. The memory of child soldiers marching through the streets, hacking away at human bodies, looms large upon these prisoners, who have more immediate, more personal battles to fight within these dungeons.
The exhibition by Freedom to Create is on till 2 June at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke in Mumbai.
Photographs by Fernando Moleres