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Dark Days in Sierra Leone
by Janine di Giovanni
Friday May 19, 2000 (The Times of London)
West of Petitfu Junction, where the road turns to red dust and the bush grows darker, the villagers fly white neutrality flags over their mud shacks. It is their way of saying that they are peaceful civilians, a feeble protection from the Revolutionary United Front rebels, who are quickly advancing into this territory.
Further up the road that leads to Port Loko, there is real panic. The people who live in this bush are simple people who farm potatoes, grow rice and tap the palm trees for oil. This area was once held by the RUF, and the rebels know what the rebels will do if they come back. So the people are fleeing, walking quickly in the heat of the day, or pedalling on rusty old bicycles, their children walking alongside them.
They are terrified, the fear is etched on the faces that pass me. These people are not political; most of them are uneducated. They do not know the statistics, nor the number of dead the RUF has left behind, but they understand the language of fear: the moment they heard shooting early on Wednesday they took their meagre possessions, bundled them on to their heads and began running.
"I'm afraid of those boys," said John, who used to sell cans of cola and piles of onions in a small stand in his village. "They cut people, or they kill them. They have guns. If they had sticks, I wouldn't be so scared." They stopped running at the last British army checkpoint in Lungi Loi.
The British Pathfinders are calm, typical British soldiers, confident in the middle of the rebel advance. One of them, young, with a thick Liverpool accent tells me that the villagers feel safer around a foreign army, it does not matter who they are as long as they are not rebels.
"When we arrived, they were terrified," the young soldier says. "Now they stand behind that wall and watch us."
He said that 300 people a day wander into Lungi Loi from the eastern regions where the rebels were mounting more attacks. They began setting up makeshift tents and lining up cooking pots, fetching coconuts and water, getting their children into makeshift beds for the night.
Kadiatu Barrangura was leaning against a wall. She walked miles and miles because someone told him the British were nearby and would protect them, and before she left her hut, she put on her best green stone earrings and her beaded tribal necklace before she tied her two-month-old baby, Kanbebo, on her back and began walking. She hiked with her two other children 13 miles in the bush before she found the British Pathfinders. "I heard the first gunshots Saturday or Sunday. On Wednesday it got worse. The rebels are coming, and we had to run away," she said.
Her daughter, Isatu Kamara, 15, had greater fears. She dropped her eyes as she explained why she is afraid. "They take women away," she said quietly. "They do terrible things. And they cut off your hands."
It is a sleepy place, this outpost. It looks like the Wild West, except for the people, exhausted, scared. Some are lined up on the verandah of a mud hut, silently watching the road leading east, as if they could see the rebels, believed to number a thousand, charging towards them. All of them saw the body of the young RUF soldier that lay on the roof of the battered car, the result of Wednesday's firefight with British and Nigerian troops. Someone finally took the body away, after it began to rot in the sun, but they can still see the deep, rust-coloured blood stains that line the bonnet of the car.
An older man, Alie Conteh stood near the car, his eyes fixed on the blood. He quietly told his story; he had been captured and released by rebels near his village of Yakiba. "They had already looted all the other villages, and they were carrying stuff on their shoulders," he said. They took him and kept him with them for a day, making him carry their loot deeper into the bush.
The rebels, he said, were only teenagers. "They were young boys, but they were frightening," he said. He managed to preserve his hands: he said they did not hurt him because they needed him to carry things. "Then they let me go, but they had a commander called Gborie, who told me to go back and tell everyone that they were coming back," he said.
Transistor radios are a real luxury here, so the real news is spread amongst people, a woman moving from group to group with the latest updates. Sia, who comes from Bombeh has some news. She said that Lungi Loi was overrun with rebels on Wednesday. She said most of them came from Mabonie, an RUF stronghold, and as dawn was breaking they pushed their way towards Lungi airport.
"The rebels are trying to get to Freetown," she said softly. She heard the news of Foday Sankoh, the rebel leader, being captured on a borrowed radio that she stopped to listen to as she was walking, and she says the rebels are advancing closer because they are desperate. "They have nothing to lose," she said. "Now they have to cut their way into this bush."
She, like everyone else is running away because she does not want to get "cut" – the infamous trademark of the RUF, to cut off either both or one hand, either "long sleeves" – cutting at the elbow, or "short sleeves" cutting at the wrist."
An aid worker tells me just the mention of the Ruf is enough to clear an entire village. Everyone has seen the amputees. They can't work, they can't take care of their children, they can't gather water. If you are an amputee, you might as well curl up and die under a bush.
The aid worker says, "People begin to run the minute they hear a mention of them. The worst thing that can happen to these people is to lose their hands or arms. It means they are dependent on other people, that they can't work. For them, it's worse than dying. The RUF know that. They spread that fear."
As night falls, the people gather mangoes for dinner and prepare to sleep under the trees. A mother nurses a newborn baby and children play in the dust. But there is a strange silence and fear is heavy in the air.
"When you go to sleep in this country you do not know if you wake up the next day," said Sia. She lies her head on her makeshift pillow. She tries to sleep, to forget the day.
A Slave in Freetown
May 13, 2000
There's another girl called Sia, but this one has a secret, one that she tells with her eyes dropped, her voice soft. She says she was 11 when her elder sister was killed in front of her. She did not have time to weep. She was abducted by an RUF rebel soldier, taken to his commander and made a "bush wife" - a sex slave who is kept in a command post and raped repeatedly by soldiers.
When they were bored, the rebels sent her into villages they planned to attack on "missions" - to sleep with Nigerian Ecomog soldiers to find out information. She walked to the village wearing her best dress and seduced the Nigerians, officially the rebel's enemy, and as they were drifting off to gin-induced sleep got them to talk.
"I was a spy," she says, a little bit proud. "I gave them sex and they gave me information. Then we would come back the next day and kill them."
Before long, the RUF realised Sia's value. She was a tough little operator, she didn't get soft on them. She did her job, went under the trees and fucked the Nigerians and then led the rebels back to kill them with no emotion whatsoever. So they made her a captain. She went through an initiation rite which included carrying out her first killing, eating the victim's heart and liver, being cut all over her own body with long knife slashes, and injecting her wounds with drugs. Sia is now 18. But she still has the scars, deep angry marks which run down her arms and neck. At first she is embarrassed to admit what they are.
Then she shows me, lifts up her dress, shows me her arms, tells me the kind of drugs they slipped inside the flap of her skin, drugs that made her run fast and talk fast and be strong to have sex with lots and lots of rebels.
She spent seven years, her pre-pubescent and teenage years. with RUF before the UN found her in the bush, a wild kid, half woman, half animal. They brought her to St Michael's Lodge, a rehabilitation camp run by two Xavieran priests. There's 152 former child soldiers, all of them former killers, rapists, abusers and abused. Sia has been at the centre for more than one year. She still looks scary, her eyes still look wild. But the priests say that she has remorse. She is training to be a hairdresser. She reaches out and grabs a clump of my hair. "It's thick," she says. "You should cut it." I am not ashamed to admit that Sia frightens me. When I am near her, I still smell how many people she killed. She has not yet shed the past. But she looks solemn when she says, "I'm tired of killing. I'm not taking drugs, so I don't feel the need to go out and kill."
Around 5,400 children have been forced into combat in the Sierra Leone conflicts. The initiation to prove they are worthy of the job is brutal - beatings, indoctrination, torture and drugs. Some of them are made to kill a family member to prove their loyalty. According to one Unicef report last year, children often make better killers because their conscience is not yet fully developed.
Sia told me she knew that she would be a good soldiers, so she got the best weapons training. "I learned how to kill close up with a pistol. They gave me two pistols for close range. I always saw the people before I killed them. I checked if they were dead, then I gave them another shot in the head if they weren't." She says that she was stoned when she did this. She snorted "brown-brown" (cocaine), took "red tablets" and "white tablets" (believed to be amphetamines or crack) "blueboats" (crack) and was injected with "medicine" (cocaine or speed) that "made me strong and made me want to go out and kill". She was so good at killing and cutting off limbs that she began to train younger children - captured five, six and seven year-olds. "She was a good teacher," says Anthony, now 11, a fat little boy who comes to speak with me. "Sia told us to kill or she would kill us. So we killed."
Although Sia will talk willingly about the killings, she is embarrassed by amputations, which she calls "cuttings". She says that one of her other children would hold down the victims while she brought down the axe on their elbow or wrist. "I cut people big and small, big and small. I couldn't kill everybody, so the ones I didn't kill, I cut."
But all that is finished now, she says breezily. She wants to move into her own house in Freetown with her boyfriend, another child soldier, whose nom de guerre in the bush was Killer.
"Why Killer? How many people did he kill?"
I go inside to look for the priests. Sia is beginning to frighten me now, even though she is skinny and not nearly as tall as me. From the outside, St Michael's looks like a run-down holiday camp in the middle of the bush. Outside the window of the bungalows where the boys live, the Atlantic Ocean breaks on an idyllic beach. The boys, drawn from all the militia factions, swim on Sunday after Mass where many now sing gospel in the choir. The girls live in another part.
The two priests, one Spanish, one Italian, spend months, sometimes years, trying to enable the former killers to function in the real world. The priests are protective of the kids, who sometimes get agitated when they speak of the old, murderous days. The Italian priest brings Momoh who is 17, over to see me. Momoh spent five years as a soldier for the Sierra Leone Army (SLA). His dark eyes grow hostile when he recalls the cannibalism he committed, the murders and the rape.
"When he first got here, he used to complain that he needed to eat a human liver," says Father Chema, a young, bearded priest who has long hair and wears shorts, a T-shirt and sandals. He says it calmly.
"Some of the other boys, when I try to break up fights, scream at me: You can't tell me what to do! I drank human blood!" They are not lying - all of the children speak of cannabilism and eating the organs of their first victim.
It usually takes three months for the children to trust the priests. "We first make them feel safe and secure, then we talk to them all the time," says Father Chema. One boy, Prince, aged nine, is so traumatised that he clings to the priest's legs and is unable to talk about his experiences at all.
Many of them are angry that in the bush, they lived like kings in the bush with sex slaves, drugs and looted goods. At St. Michaels, they live like the priests: in poverty. When they arrive, they get weaned off drugs. Then the chain of command that they established in the bush is broken. Then the priests talk to them, endlessly. "But still, they scream at night for a long time."
Although the priests will keep the children at the centre until they are 18, they are free to go at any time. But many of them know that they are not safe to leave. They can't go home to families because they have been identified as RUF or militia killers. The people in town might recognise them. They might see a former commander.
"They are never really safe again," says Father Chema. "They not only lost their childhood, they lost their future."
When I leave, I see Sia watching me. She gives me a weak looking wave, and says, "Maybe see you in Freetown?"
I don't know, I say. Halfway down the road, I turn. Sia is still there, watching.
© Janine di Giovanni