The children of the conflict
Ten years after the civil war in Sierra Leone ended, the children who were raped and forced to commit atrocities by rebels still bear deep physical and mental scars. An Irish Aid programme is helping them rebuild their lives
‘THE REBELS USED to stop pregnant women on the street and place bets between themselves on whether she was carrying a boy or a girl. Then they would seize her, cut her open and, laughing, pull the baby out before leaving both to die. That is what they used to do. They also used to melt plastic bags into victims’ eyes and laughingly call them eye drops.”
Emmanuel Fillie is driving me through the centre of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, telling horror stories. He is not doing it to shock, although what he is saying is deeply shocking. He is simply trying to get his head around what has happened to his country since he was a young man. A decade has passed since the end of the almost unimaginably savage civil war, but the 54-year-old seems no closer to understanding how his people could have behaved so brutally. “Maybe it was drugs. They were all fed drugs. How else could they do such things?”
The war casts a long shadow. “People are more aggressive now than they used to be. The war changed personalities here, and I don’t know if things will ever be the same again,” Fillie says.
It was at exactly 6.45am on October 23rd, 1992, when this gentle man’s world collapsed. That was the moment the rebel soldiers of the Revolutionary United Front attacked his small town, west of Freetown. He punches out the date and time repeatedly, carefully enunciating each syllable as he navigates the teeming mass of humanity on Kissy Street, one of the capital’s most chaotic market streets, where wild pigs and wilder dogs rummage through the rubbish-strewn gutters looking for food. Former combatants buzz around us on motorbike taxis, bought with money received in a postwar gun-exchange programme, while armless and legless men, victims of a rebel policy of amputation, hobble dead-eyed through the traffic.
Before 6.45am on October 23rd, 1992, Fillie and his family eked out a basic living mining for diamonds in the fields around their home. The rebels came and torched everything, and the family fled to Freetown with nothing. There is sadness in his voice as he tells his stories. But there is also a hint of pride and optimism, particularly when he talks about the future and the dreams he has for his 21-year-old son, who is studying to be a lawyer, and his 17-year-old daughter, who wants to be a doctor.
At least today they have a chance. At the height of the war neither would have had any prospects other than the risk of being captured by one rebel faction or another. If they had been taken, his son would most likely have been drugged and forced to bear arms; his daughter would have been raped or forced to bear the children of rebel leaders as “bush wives” – sex slaves.
That happened to Hassanatu Kamara. Today the 27-year-old is full of bravado, but behind the brashness is vulnerability. In 1994 she was captured by RUF rebels and used as a bush wife. Then the group was attacked by renegade soldiers and she was taken. She was again used as a load carrier and as a sex slave before fleeing across the border to Guinea, where she was captured again and further humiliated by Guinean armed forces. Eventually she made it back to Sierra Leone, where she heard about a vocational programme called Caritas, set up to educate and rehabilitate the children of the conflict.