NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
When we see images of refugees, it's usually a picture of nameless, voiceless faces - a mass of humanity seen, but rarely heard. Today, you will hear a few of those voices. The voice of Reuben Koroma, a musician who was lucky to escape Sierra Leone with his life, and the voice of Black Nature, a teenager who fled Sierra Leone after his father was murdered in front of him.
Amid the camps established is a byproduct of war they, and a few other musicians, found common cause and formed a band called the Refugee All Stars. They raised their voices to tell their stories about survival, about what it's like to live in exile as a refugee and about the difficult decision to go home again. Three members of the Refugee All Stars join us in a moment.
Later in the program, it was 20 years ago today that President Ronald Reagan gave his famous speech at the Berlin Wall, the iconic moment that presage triumph for a meaningless moment of political theater, Mr. Gorbachov, tear down this wall.
But first, the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars. If you've been a refugee, call and tell us what it was like and your thoughts on going back home. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Reuben Koroma, Ashadad Pearce and Black Nature - three members of the Refugee All Stars - are with us here in Studio 3A, along with their manager, Mike Kappus. Nice to have you all in the program today.
Unidentified Man: Thank you.
Mr. REUBEN KOROMA (Lead Singer, Refugee All Stars): Thank you.
CONAN: And why don't we begin with a song?
(Soundbite of music)
Refugee All Stars: (Singing in foreign language)
CONAN: The Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars. Black Nature on percussion and vocals, on guitar and vocals, Ashadad Pearce and the lead singer, Reuben Koroma. Reuben, what was that song about?
Mr. KOROMA : The song tells about war, you know? It is saying that we should stop war because war is not good. In Mandingo, when you say anya kalebila(ph), which means we should stop war. Kelemani(ph), war is not good. That's the meaning of the song.
CONAN: And an interesting bouncy song for such a sad message.
Mr. KOROMA: Yeah, really. Well, sometimes a sad situation cannot really take care of a sad situation. That's why sometimes we create, I mean, a music that gives happiness to express a sorrowful situation. You know, by this way, people can understand.
CONAN: If you were playing that song at a refugee camp in Guinea, would the people be dancing to the song of "War is Bad"?
Mr. KOROMA: Yes. People will be dancing because of the taste, the melody of the music. You know? But then they will also understand that there is a message in the song, you know, especially in the refugee camp.
CONAN: I assume you're speaking to everybody's experience there. They all know what you're talking about.
Mr. KOROMA: Yes.
CONAN: One person I did not mention in the introduction, Ashadad Pearce, who's a member of the Refugee All Stars. But you did not leave Sierra Leone.
Mr. ASHADAD PEARCE (Guitar and Vocals, Refugee All Stars): Oh, yes. I did not leave Sierra Leone. I was there since the war started, until the end of the war, I was in Sierra Leone.
CONAN: And you were a member of a band along with Reuben Koroma.
Mr. PEARCE: Yes, we are playing together for quite a long time in a group called The Emperors before the war. Yes.
CONAN: And I see you're wearing your dreadlocks today. I understand, from Reuben's story, dreadlocks could be dangerous at sometimes in free town.
Mr. PEARCE: Well, yes. During the war, if they see you with dreadlocks, I think they would kill you. But we are so lucky God prevent us because we are in the safe path. We are the peacekeeping force. We are…
CONAN: Ecomog, with the peacekeeping.
Mr. PEARCE: Yes, ecomog.
CONAN: A sort of regional peacekeeping force from several East African countries - for several African countries, rather. And Reuben, your experience with the dreadlocks was not so good.
Mr. KOROMA: It was not so good. You know, I was dreadlocks when the war broke out. And then, when the FRC, in collaboration with the rebels, we are fighting with the ecomog forces. You know, at the end of the day, the ecomog forces' co-captain, they threw them out of the airport. And then, so the ecomog forces, we are looking out for traces of rebels. And so when they saw me with the dreadlocks, they thought that I'm one of them. So I was arrested and brought to their camp, and then was seriously tortured. Had it not been for the timely intervention of one Ghanaian military officer who said, oh, my guys, this guy is not a rebel. He's a musician. We know him very much. Yes. It was that man who saved me.
CONAN: And nevertheless, you shortly afterwards determined it was time to leave, leave Sierra Leone.
Mr. KOROMA: Yeah. As soon as I was given a small chance, then I make my way -my wife and I told her (speaking in foreign language). This place is no longer safe for us, so we have to quit.
CONAN: Black Nature, let me turn to you. And when I said in the introduction you had to flea the country after you saw your father killed, but that's just a small part of your story.
Mr. BLACK NATURE (Rapper, Refugee All Stars): Well, of course, I was a little kid in my country staying with my family. I was going to school. But when the war broke out, we decided to escape - me and my father. But we were caught by the rebels - we are arrested by the rebels - and my father was killed in front of me. They put him into a car.
CONAN: Put him into a car.
Mr. BLACK NATURE: The bus we used. The transportation, the car we used to leave the country. They put him in the bunker. And I was in front of them. And I was arrested for five days with them. I was with them, they gave me the luggages.
CONAN: Their luggage, (unintelligible) a porter.
Mr. KOROMA: Yeah. So I was with them for five days. And when the military and soldiers attacked them, so this (unintelligible) and I managed to escape from them.
CONAN: And you found, among other people, Reuben Koroma in the refugee camp in which you found yourself.
Mr. BLACK NATURE: Yeah.
CONAN: And these are members of the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars. If you'd like to join our conversation, our phone number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is email@example.com. And why don't we begin with BJ? BJ calling us from North Carolina.
BJ (Caller): Yeah. How are you doing?
BJ: I'm on my way to work. I usually listen to your station. I'm - I was a Liberian refugee that fled to Ghana. I've spent six years - from there I came to America. And a tribe, he told me about Mandingo - that's the tribe I'm belong to. I live presently in North Carolina.
CONAN: So you were able to understand those words in that song?
CONAN: Not too many songs in Mandingo, I suspect, on radio in the United States.
BJ: No. I wish you could play a song most of the time.
CONAN: You need to turn your radio down, which is confusing both to you and our listeners.
BJ: Excuse me?
CONAN: That's okay, go ahead.
BJ: Yeah, so I'm - I'm trying to - I'm telling you that actually I'm happy because you're trying to gain contact with our people, too, to get our view, especially the Mandingo.
CONAN: And life as a refugee, their experience was not very easy. What about yours?
BJ: Oh it was not easy. You're supposed to be a refugee, so you can - if pass through that process (unintelligible) - when you talk about war, you will then know, I beg you people, let's forget about war.
CONAN: And has it - has it been possible for you to think about returning home?
BJ: No. It was not possible because, up to now, our (unintelligible) country, which is Liberia, have been occupied by the former fighter.
CONAN: So when you heard this song, and it must have brought things back to you.
BJ: Yeah. I started thinking - I brought it - I brought it all day. So actually, I decided, I need to call now, so I can purchase some of the CDs.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Purchase some of the CD.
BJ: And - I might need a miracle, but there is now that I can be reminded about Liberia. So I will log in today to hear the song.
CONAN: And I guess, in a way, Reuben, that's the effect you're looking for. You're trying to reach people with your song no matter how far away they turn out to be from this source material.
Mr. KOROMA: Yes.
BJ: Yeah. And there are a lot of Mandingo here - live in Shallow, North Carolina.
CONAN: Okay. Reuben?
Mr. KOROMA: Yes, well, that is what every artist is praying for, you know? That's when you - you create something, that something that you create would be able to attract people, you know, and make a powerful impact. So I'm so happy.
CONAN: BJ, thanks very much for the call and good luck. I'm - and I think you could find the copies of the CD at Amazon.com, if no other place.
BJ: Okay. Thank you very much.
CONAN: Good luck to you.
CONAN: If you'd like to join our conversation, give us a call, 800-989-8255, zap us an e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. Or check out our blog, npr.org/blogofthe nation. We're talking with three members of the Refugee All Stars - all musicians who escaped the violence of Sierra Leone.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. KOMORO: I wanna see you, get some loving. I wanna see you get some love.
(Soundbite of music)
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We have with us three of the members of the Refugee All Stars in studio 3A. The group is fully made up of six musicians, all of them forced from their homes by violence in Sierra Leone. To sample more of their music, you can head to our website at npr.org/talk. We'll also hear more about their lives as refugees, and how difficult it was to return home.
The Refugee All Stars include Reuben Koroma, lead singer, Ashadad Pearce, singer guitarist, and Black Nature who's playing on drums is also a rapper, and their manager, Mike Kappus is also with us in the studio. If you've been a refugee, call and tell us what it was like and give us your thoughts on going back home, 800-989-8255, e-mail is email@example.com. There's also a discussion going on in our blog, npr.org/blogofthenation.
And let's get another caller on the line - this is Melody. Melody with us from Syracuse, New York.
MELODY (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to say how grateful I am of - for your music. I adopted a wonderful little girl from Sierra Leone at the height of the war. She was adopted at age six, severely traumatized by the war, and a group of orphans escaped to Guinea and they even had problems there because as I'm sure you know, Guinea's very poor as well and could only absorb so many, you know, refugees.
But your music is really important and really powerful, but it - you know, one of the things that it reminds me, whether it's Iraq or Sierra Leone, that there are many more casualties than people ever count in the war because my daughter's trauma did not come up until she had puberty. And it breaks my heart, but day after day, she reenacts the trauma that she experience in the war in Sierra Leone. So, you know, I really hope that you also remember the children that are out there in the Diaspora.
CONAN: Black Nature, I suspect you've had some residents with that being a child yourself caught up in this war and an orphan yourself.
Mr. BLACK NATURE: Sorry?
CONAN: And an - you're also an orphan like the child that was adopted by Melody.
Mr. BLACK NATURE: Yes, of course. I think in the same position as the girl, you know, of course, I also was in the refugee camp. And, of course, I lost my father, as I was saying. So I think I'm in the same position.
Mr. BLACK NATURE: But - but now, I'm blessed because I'm passing my experiences that I've got through the refugee camp and through the war in our country to the nation.
CONAN: Melody, thanks very much for the call and good luck to your daughter.
MELODY: Thank you. Bye. Bye.
CONAN: Appreciate it. Why don't we hear another song?
(Soundbite of song, "Refugee Rolling")
REFUGEE ALL STARS: (Singing in foreign language)
CONAN: That's The Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars: Reuben Koroma, Ashadad Pearce and Black Nature here with us in Studio 3A. Obviously, my Mandingo is getting better. I thought I understood that song.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Reuben, you were talking about one of the lyrics, rolling in Australia. You just got back from a tour in Australia?
Mr. KOROMA: Yes. You know, we went to Australia and it's amazing, you know, because I think people like our music there.
Mr. KOROMA: Yes.
CONAN: It must be very different to roll up into some of this - I know, for example, you've opened for big rock and roll band at various places and to see all of the lights and microphones and all of the display. You guys are from a refugee camp at Guinea.
Mr. KOROMA: Yeah, really. It's like a miracle, you know. We feel distinct, taken from the slumps in our refugee situation, and now exposed to great America, Canada, London with all those sophisticated instruments, speakers, you know, big sound. It's really amazing, you know? It makes us feel as if, you know, things are happening for us. And it's a grateful grace for us. We feel good about it.
CONAN: Let's see if can get another caller on the line, and this is Jannie(ph) is that right?
JONNIE(PH) (Caller): No. It's Jonnie.
CONAN: Jonnie - excuse me - calling from Cincinnati. I hope I have that part right.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
JONNIE: Thank you. I was wondering if the musicians - please address - how it is that they keep, their voices sound happy, buoyant, you know, the spirit in their voices considering the horrific things they've been through.
CONAN: How do you keep your spirits up, Ashadad?
JONNIE: I think that's difficult for people in our country to do, to keep, you know, joy in the face of such history.
CONAN: Let's hear an answer.
Mr. ASHADAD PEARCE (Singer and guitarist, Refugee All Stars): Yes. You know, music is very important to me because when I play music I forgot about all that past, you see, that's it.
CONAN: So you can forget where you are…
Mr. PEARCE: I can forget. I can forget.
CONAN: …justice at the moment and where some of these awkward things happened?
Mr. PEARCE: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
CONAN: Jannie - Jonnie, excuse me, thanks very much for the call.
JONNIE: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it.
JONNIE: Bye. Bye.
CONAN: Let me ask, I don't think people, Reuben, have much understanding of what life in a refugee camp is like. We can understand fleeing from the danger. Once you arrive at a situation in a refugee camp, you're not necessarily safe. You're not necessarily fed.
Mr. KOROMA: Well, the thing is a refugee situation is really difficult. Well, if I must share my own experience to people. When you escape the war, you go to a refugee situation. You have to register. And to even register you, it's a problem because you have a lot of people and then you have to struggle, you know. Yes - to register.
CONAN: So bureaucracy there, the first hurdle to cross.
Mr. KOROMA: Yes. And besides, you know, these refugee camps were really constructed in the middle of the forest, you know? And so it's like a new settlement. In a new settlement, there are many type of, I mean, difficulties, you know. And then the water we used to drink there is not too good, not enough medicine, no job, no - and we used to sleep in these tarpaulin houses, you know?
CONAN: Like tents.
Mr. KOROMA: Yeah, like tent, you know, in the middle of the forest. It's very, very dangerous.
CONAN: I assume. It sounds pretty hot, too.
Mr. KOROMA: Yes. When - yes, when, you know that Africa is very hot.
CONAN: I've heard that.
Mr. KOROMA: Yes. And so, if you sleep in those tents in the afternoon, it's dangerous, you know.
CONAN: And yet, it is a place where people become accustomed to being and talk a little bit about the difficulty of asking people to uproot themselves from this camp, where they may have been for any number of years and think about going home.
Mr. KOROMA: Well, this is it, you know? That's why I wrote this song, "Refugee Rolling." You know why? Because sometimes if you have settled in this place, you know, then UNICEF will ask you to, I mean, to cast your - to make bricks. Yes. You will make these bricks, and then you will build your own house. Then UNHCR will give you tarpaulin, you know, then after…
CONAN: You're talking about two U.N. agencies, UNHCR and UNICEF.
Mr. KOROMA: Yeah. UNHCR
CONAN: But go ahead.
Mr. KOROMA: Yeah. So after about a period of one month to two months, then they would come to say, okay, we are going to close this camp because of security reasons. Now, we are going to transfer you to another - new settlement. When you go there again, you have to build another house, you know? So, for me, my own experience, I build five houses in the refugee camp. Yes, five. Five houses.
CONAN: Were any of them any good?
Mr. KOROMA: Well, not really good houses.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KOROMA: It's not a modern house, but just a house where you live in.
CONAN: Hmm, yeah, yeah. Let's see if we can we get another caller on the line. This is Yousef(ph). Yousef is with us from Lawrence, Kansas.
YOUSEF (Caller): Hello?
CONAN: Hi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
YOUSEF: Yeah. My name is Yousef Fukamara(ph). I am a full-bred scholar here at K.U. And actually, we are talking here about refugees. But even, we also had another group of people that lives in Sierra Leone during the war. And that is the group that I belong to. I was a displaced person. I have no chance. I did not have the means to go out to Guinea or Liberia or to any other country.
So, like, we have to live within the city and just like, find ways and means of maneuvering, escaping from the rebels because we were actually in mere danger. And at some point in time, I was unfortunate. I fell in the hands of the rebels. And, thank God, my hands nearly got chopped off. The rebels caught me. They try to - the men mutilated me all over my body, you know, like I was beaten mercilessly.
At some point in time, they told me to stand and, you know, like when they tell you, stand over there, it's for you to say your last prayer. This is your last prayer. Then they get shot. And that's the end. But thank God, I was not shot. I'm still alive. I just want to say that we are all happy today. And we are happy that we are listening to some songs that our brothers are singing, I mean, as you a result of the war. Today we can dance to those songs, but in 1999, especially when the rebels entered free zones. That was the most destructive part of the war.
CONAN: Let me ask…
YOUSEF: One night, more than - they estimated more 6,000 deaths.
CONAN: And how did you manage to get recovered from that experience to the point where you're now studying in college in Kansas?
YOUSEF: Well, I was - I was in my (unintelligible) when the rebels attacked free zones…
CONAN: Senior in high school?
YOUSEF: Yes, I was in high school, yes. All we have, like, I was in a class of 82 students. After that attack, only 12 of us returned to school in the whole class. The rest fled to neighboring countries. But like, I have, I mean, come to set up within the town. There are groups - there were people who were giving us - who were talking to us, telling all that all is not lost. You can still go back to school. And still do something, like, I had the courage, (unintelligible) trauma, - not so much a vision. I actually managed to make it up. I stopped to my (unintelligible) and got good (unintelligible). I want to thrive in college. Got my first degree and…
CONAN: And let me ask. Let me ask you, when you graduate, do you plan to go back to Sierra Leone and help build your country again?
YOUSEF: Oh yes, I have to. Of course, even if I don't want to, I have to because I am (unintelligible) two-year home country residency requirement. But even if that was not that the case, I think I owe my country a lot because I got my full degree through government grant. And I think I have something to payback to my country, even if I might come (unintelligible) in the United States. But I have to give back what I got from my country. I think…
CONAN: Yousef, thanks very much and good luck to you with your studies.
YOUSEF: Yeah, thank you…
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. We're talking today with the members of the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And, Reuben Koroma, let me ask you the same question that I was asking to Yousef, the young man from Sierra Leone now here on a road scholarship. Going back home, a difficult decision for you, I know, and a difficult decision for many people in those refugee camps.
Mr. KOROMA: Yes. It was difficult really to make a decision, to decide to return home. But, you know, I was thinking about my two little kids. You know, I left them in Sierra Leone with my eldest sister. And I was so, you know, anxious to see them. And because of that, I had to go and - besides, you know, I loved my country. And I was really eager to go back home. You know, because what really drove me out of my country was the war.
But as soon as I know that there's peace in my country, I think, I must go. And when I went back, it was, at the beginning, it was not easy, you know? I was treated like a stranger in my own land when I went back. That's - I thank God because before we went back, we had already recorded our debut album.
CONAN: Debut album, yeah, your first CD.
Mr. KOROMA: Yeah, our first CD. And so we had hopes that we could market this CD. And then get a living, so…
CONAN: You also mentioned you were thinking about the two little kids you left behind.
Mr. KOROMA: Yes.
CONAN: And you brought a big kid back with you?
Mr. KOROMA: Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Black Nature is a member of your family now?
Mr. KOROMA: Yes, he's a member of my family. Well, I've been fostering him since - we met in the refugee camp, and it's like - well, the group is family.
CONAN: It's nice that those ties that we're established under those conditions survived the release from the camps and all of the things that have happened since. Going home never an easy question. Thanks to you all. We appreciate. Where do you go after Washington, D.C.?
Mr. KOROMA: Well, after Washington, D.C., we go to San Francisco.
CONAN: Well, people, there will welcome you, I'm sure. Members of the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars, thanks very much for being with us. They joined us here in studio 3A. You heard Reuben Koroma, the founder of the Refugee All Stars on vocal. Ashadad Pearce, a singer and guitarist and Black Nature, rapper, also playing on the drum. Thanks again for being with us.
When we come back from a short break, we're going to be talking about the 20th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's famous line at the Brandenburg Gate - Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. What did that speech actually accomplished? We'll talk with the man who wrote it and with the critic in just a few minutes.
I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.