Caught in a military standoff between government and rebel troops, Foday Kamara reflects on his experiences of wartime in Sierra Leone, and the difficulty of forgiveness when memories are not easily forgotten.
This post is part of Njala Writes, a blog series resulting from a writing workshop hosted at Njala University, Sierra Leone in June 2019, in collaboration with the LSE Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa.
During wartime in Sierra Leone, from 1991 to 2002, people’s experiences were sometimes uncomfortable to share publicly. Often sharing stories from wartime can relieve emotional tension and enhance forgiveness, especially when they are difficult to forget. In this light, here is my story.
In this period, the Revolutionary United Front, the rebel army that fought and ultimately failed in the war, occupied the capital, Freetown, and saw the coastal town of Lungi as enemy ground. Lungi’s business activities were primarily linked to the capital, and the rebel leaders imposed sanctions to prevent the Lungi community from crossing over to do business. During this period, the entire banking industry closed, leaving no access to our relatives abroad to solicit financial support, and the circulation of money was outside the control of any financial entity. Transactions were mainly made through physical cash and a barter system. People lived by community-limited agricultural activities, fishing and informal business services. Most young women survived through prostitution with military personnel, who had resources. Married women abandoned their matrimonial homes to start relationships with the peacekeeping forces for survival. It was disheartening to see this life pursued by teenagers.
How did livelihoods manage in Lungi? The settled troops gained an interest in doing business in Conakry, Guinea, given links with the capital were limited. These businesses were mostly run by ladies who were in relationships with the military personnel and their male friends. I had a friend who was running a government military helicopter within the sub-region. He was bringing in products such as rice and cigarettes for business purposes. We both became highly popular because we were dealing our staple food and the sole supplier of Benson and Hedges cigarettes, mainly smoked by military men. Some people took out micro loans when their salaries were delayed to pay for the cigarettes. Much of the money I made from my business partners was used to support my parents.
My life during the rebel war in Sierra Leone was difficult, although similar to the experiences of other innocent citizens. Unbearable things happened and nothing could be done to address them. I spent most of my life in Lungi Chiefdom in northern Sierra Leone, and part of it in Freetown during the war. Lungi became a popular and sensitive community which accommodated a number of important features during the rebel insurgency. It hosted the International Airport, which was needed by both the rebels and the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) who fought them, and hosted the Vibrant Media House (Radio Democracy 98.1) as well as some of the government’s cabinet ministers and civil servants. This community existed, for a time, as place of refuge for most state functionaries and ordinary citizens due to the protection the military afforded.
Lungi became a serious battleground between the African peacekeeping forces and the Revolutionary United Front. The community sustained a series of attacks as attempts to control the International Airport and the Radio Democracy took place at the International Airport premises. It was hard to cope with heavy artilleries, and there were frequent outbreaks of measles. Community members hardly had time to relocate for survival.
Fully militarised and fearful, the Lungi community was untrusted by foreign troops who were suspicious of their collaboration with the rebels. In the midst of this mistrust, I was fortunate to live very close to the foreign troop’s military camp. My close relationship with the forces started early on, when they were deployed around the Airport fence in preparation for any offensive attack by the rebels. I developed a habit of waving to them each morning, afternoon and evening. Two weeks later, the tension was reduced and relaxed. One of them asked me to fetch water to bathe. After this was done, many others requested I provide them water and do other errands. I developed a strong relationship and trust and they nicknamed me ‘ECOMOG BORBOH’.
One day, the rebels launched a serious attack. They were shooting right from my compound (called the White House) into the military camp. The compound accommodated a number of people including children and women. I lost my grandmother during the evening of the attack and, because there was no way to do a burial, his unprotected body remained in the house.
In the very early hours of the morning, the ECOMOG soldiers advanced close to my compound. I heard the team’s commander order the whole area to be blown up because from that area they were receiving gun. I heard another voice say that everybody should be asked for identification, which proceeded to happen for the entire compound inside the military camp. We survived, and we asked to go back home and to be vigilant. The battle calmed and we managed to bury the deceased.
The ECOMOG peacekeeping force resisted the rebels and permanently kept Lungi as its main base and headquarters.
During this period, my dad was accused of collaborating with the rebels. A series of unannounced visits were made by soldiers in search of evidence. Nothing was found, but he was later arrested and dumped with other suspects in an unfinished building inside the International Airport. He spent four months there and was later released to join us at home. My military friends were unable to advocate for his release because it was an order from a Field-Commander in Chief, Brigadier Maxwell Kobah. I was only assured with the promise that they would give my dad special care. I was smuggling food and clothes through the personnel to support him in the prison.
I was very close to the site and I could stand in view of the prison house and prisoners. Most were terribly thin and unhealthy. Often, when a prisoner was to be killed by the military personnel, they would bring him to the back of the building and ask a citizen to dig their grave. After digging relentlessly, they would then tell them to enter the grave and turn onto your back. The officer would release bullets on the individual and cover up the site. A number of innocent citizens were killed this way in Lungi.
One may be interested to know how Sierra Leoneans forgive and so easily forget such a bitter life. The truth is that revenge is not the best way to manage peace – otherwise, a nation remains permanently at war. For this reason it is laudable that Sierra Leoneans put aside these memories and experiences and focus on the future, on development.
Photo: Eduardo Fonseca Arraes