Arriving in Conakry, Guinea, two workers with the International Rescue Committee greeted me at the airport and welcomed me to West Africa. After clearing customs, we drove to the hotel to drop off luggage and equipment and then head to a refugee camp on the border with Sierra Leone. Rebels with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) had overthrown the government in Sierra Leone in May 1997 and people were fleeing the country for safe haven.
Sierra Leone was not getting rave reviews as one of the top ten destinations for tourists or even a quick get-away for a long weekend. Of course, if you were seeking intimidation and fear, well, this was the place to be. I mean where else could you get choices like the rebels gave innocent people cowering in their homes: “If you come out we will shoot you. If you stay in, we will burn your house to the ground.” Not your everyday “welcome to the neighborhood” greeting. As we left the hotel it occurred to me, “why did I always seem to be in places most people were trying to avoid?”
The next thing I realized was we had pulled into a gas station before making the two hour ride which would take us four. Rule of thumb in Africa: Double the time you think it will take. The attendant, a kid in his late teens, came up to the truck and was asked to fill it up. It seemed like it took him an eternity to start pumping the gas. I sat in silence looking at my cameras and thinking about the 12 hour flight.
As we sat there, the three of us noticed the strong smell of gasoline. I opened the passenger door and saw the nozzle of the pump in the gas tank of the truck with gas spilling all over the ground. I quickly got out of the truck and yelled, “What are you doing?”
The attendant calmly replied: “I’m evening the numbers.”
© 2010 Peter Tobia
Peter Tobia is a photographer based in Philadelphia.
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