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.
Earlier this week Minister for Development Joe Costello and a delegation from Irish Aid, the Department of Foreign Affairs’ international-assistance programme, travelled to the Caritas headquarters in the city of Makeni to see the impact Irish funding is having.
“I find it very difficult to talk about the war,” Hassanatu says. “But I want to talk about Caritas. They took me in and taught me how to cook, and now I have my own business and I have money for myself.” She points to the gold jewellery around her neck and on her hands and arms. “I bought this for myself. I can do what I want now.”
Kumba Moore is another former child soldier. She and her family fled a rebel advance on the city of Bo in the latter stages of the war. For nine months they ran, but they were eventually taken. The rebel leader demanded that she become his bush wife and threatened to slaughter her family unless she agreed. She had no option. Weeks later her mother died. And then her brother died after being fed an overdose of heroin by the rebels, who routinely pumped child fighters with cocktails of heroin, marijuana and gunpowder to better manipulate them. During one particularly bloody battle she and her two sisters took advantage of the mayhem and fled the camp. Her father fell behind and was killed.
“Before I was trained by Caritas I was troubled,” she says. “My community would point at me and stare because they knew I had been captured by the rebels. For years I never left my house; I always lived indoors and was troubled in my mind.” A sense of pride has replaced the sense of shame she shared with many women caught up in the conflict.
The former boy soldiers are equally troubled. Abdul Rahman Tholley runs a welding shop in Makeni. He was captured by the RUF in 1995, when he was 17, and forced to join a Small Boys Unit. He was made to fight for nine months before escaping and hiding in the bush with little or no food to eat. He came close to death but pulled through and eventually tracked down an uncle who put him in touch with Caritas. He trained as a welder and now employs six people.
David Sesay was 12 when he was captured. “I was on my way to school when the rebels came. The 52 houses in my village were all burned down, including my parents’ house. I could not find them anywhere. I never saw them again. After three days on the run with nothing to eat I went into a village, but the rebels came again, and me and my sister ran again. She went one way and I went the other, but I went the wrong way, and I was captured.”
The rebel commander, who had christened himself Rambo, took David under his wing. “He loved me, and had me doing domestic chores, but then he told me the time had come for me to joins a Small Boys Unit. I was afraid and did not want to go. I was drugged and indoctrinated and made to fight.”
He lifts his shirt to show the scars left by the syringes used to shoot heroin into his unwilling body. “When we passed through Makeni our attack was foiled, and I managed to escape. I fell in with an old man who took me to Freetown to his family, but they were frightened of me because of my past. Eventually the old man enrolled me in the Caritas programme.”
Sesay now has a higher diploma in peace studies. His younger sister, who went one way as he went the other, died.
Their stories are horrifying but not without hope. Hundreds of child soldiers have been through the hands of Caritas, and it continues to work at rebuilding shattered lives.
The Special Court of Sierra Leone in central Freetown was set up to try those warlords deemed to be most responsible for the most heinous crimes of the conflict. Today the building is silent and only scuttling gekkos disturb the peace of the prison yard.
All told, only eight people faced justice here. The last person to be sentenced was the former Liberian president Charles Taylor who last month was given 50 years in prison. He was actually tried in The Hague for security reasons but Sierra Leone is anxious people know the trial was under its jurisdiction.
Taylor is likely to spend the rest of his life in prison in the UK. The rest of those tried and convicted are serving their sentences in Rwanda. Last year they complained that they were being denied the food of their homeland so a chef from Sierra Leone was employed. The many thousands of victims they left in their wake are not afforded such luxuries.
Living with slavery and rape: A teenager's story
Sexual assault continues to be an enormous problem in Sierra Leone. Billboards all over Freetown proclaim: “Rape is a crime.”
That people need to be reminded of this fact is telling, as is the low level of prosecution. Accurate figures are impossible to find, but it is estimated that the police investigate fewer than 5 per cent of all rapes.
In the Women’s Hospital in Freetown a programme aimed at reaching out to the victims of assault has been set up and is being part-funded by Irish Aid.
Agnes Smith is a small, frightened girl who has just turned 17. An orphan, she lived until two years ago with an aunt in a town two hours’ drive from Freetown. A man approached her aunt and offered to bring her to the capital to school. Instead he took her to his house, where he lived with his five children, and put a knife to her throat and raped her, repeatedly. He also put her to work, cooking and cleaning for him and his children.
“After a week I rang my aunt and told her what was happening. I told her there was no school, but she just said she had her own husband to look after and that I was on my own now,” she says, tears streaming down her face.
She was raped every day for weeks. Then she was assaulted by the man’s 21-year-old son. He beat her senseless; when she complained to the man who had enslaved her, he “flogged me and threw all my belongings onto the street. I had nowhere to go.”
She went to the police, who conducted a half-hearted investigation. “They called to his house twice, but he was not there so they gave up,” she says.
The police did least tell her about the International Rescue Committee’s Rainbo Center. She visited and received extensive counselling. They also helped her contact her only living family member, a brother who had also moved to Freetown.
Today she is in school and likes it. She wants to be a social worker. “I lost my mother, but now I have many mothers. All the people in the centre are like my mothers.”