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Death in Sierra Leone: When protest turned to tragedy, the state offered money but no remorse

Civilians say they were protesting against the cost of living. Authorities branded it an insurgency. At least 27 civilians and six police officers died

Twenty-seven coffins lay on the ground. Families of the dead sat hunched in plastic chairs, as a Christian preacher spoke about hell. “If you die in sin, in the hellfire you will go,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how you die, it matters how you spend eternity. Eternity is forever.”

This was the central mortuary in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, on October 17th this year. The 27 people had been killed by police more than two months earlier. Only four family members for each victim were allowed to be present. Security was heavy, with nearby streets blocked by armed soldiers and police.

The victims were to be buried en masse that same day. Their families had begged for permission to take away their bodies and carry out their own funerals, but to no avail.

Inside the mortuary, a uniformed policeman read a prayer: a potentially jarring moment given police responsibility in the deaths of the people lying behind him. Sierra Leone’s internal affairs minister then told the families there were buses waiting for them. The coffins were loaded onto the back of trucks, stacked up and visible as they weaved along the road. At the cemetery in eastern Freetown, which has also been used for the burials of Ebola and Covid-19 victims, several family members said they were barred from going near until the coffins were already in the ground.


‘The president said the people who went on the street were terrorists – that made me feel more angry’

Most of the dead were killed on August 10th, in what Sierra Leone’s government has called a coup and attempted insurgency, and civilians say was a protest against the cost of living. According to official reports, 27 civilians and six police officers died. Revisiting the events of that day, The Irish Times found the death toll is higher than was recorded and that there has been no justice for the dead.

The protest

Many participants said the protest was organised and encouraged by a Sierra Leonean living in Europe, who spreads daily voice messages through WhatsApp. The Irish Times was not successful in contacting him.

But participants said that the eventual demonstration was faceless, and that that man had only put words to their already widespread discontent. Sierra Leone – a former British colony and coastal west African country of more than eight million people – is one of the world’s poorest states. This year, it has experienced a fuel crisis and rocketing inflation, partially caused by the war in Ukraine, though many citizens accuse the government of corruption and financial mismanagement.

Ten leones in the local currency went from being worth 77 cent in February to 70 cent on August 10th, and 53 cent by November. Last year, the World Bank said that only 23 per cent of Sierra Leoneans have access to electricity, and fuel is used for everything from powering generators to transporting food. But the cost of a litre of petrol has risen from 8.5 leones last year to 21 leones now.

Healthcare workers have gone on strike, complaining about going months without being paid. Dozens of female market traders, who protested in July, were arrested. Under a 1960s public order act, people must acquire permission to protest, and it is regularly not granted.

President Julius Maada Bio, the 58-year-old head of the Sierra Leone’s People’s Party, came to power in 2018. He also briefly ruled the country in 1996 after leading a coup. Many Sierra Leoneans are unhappy with his position, with some even saying that his past makes them concerned about a shift towards authoritarianism. In the streets on August 10th, protesters chanted: “Maada must go.”

The demonstrators were met by security forces shooting first tear gas, then live ammunition. Speaking to The Irish Times the following day, one man said they “were really doing good protesting with [posters]” but the situation took a turn when the tear gas was fired. “That made some people go mad and [they] started throwing stones towards the police and it became violent.”

Reuters news agency verified a video that showed police firing live ammunition into crowds. The internet was shut down for two hours at noon, and again overnight. A nationwide 3pm curfew was declared, and police and military convoys patrolled to enforce it.

Vice-president Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh called the protesters “self-serving” and “unscrupulous individuals”, saying they “embarked on a violent and unauthorised protest which has led to the loss of lives of innocent Sierra Leoneans, including security personnel”.

‘Shocking brutality’

President Bio took two days to address the nation. “The peace, security and stability of this nation was shattered by persons whose insurrection was premeditated, well-planned, financed and executed with shocking brutality,” he said during an 11-minute long televised address.

“This was not a protest against the high cost of living occasioned by the ongoing global economic crisis,” he continued. “The chant of the insurrectionists was for a violent overthrow of the democratically elected government.”

The reaction from many of those watching was anger and upset. “The president said the people who went on the street were terrorists – that made me feel more angry,” said a relative of a young woman who was killed that day. ”I was expecting the president to say sorry and encourage and console [the victims’ families], but he really pissed me off.”

The families of each dead police officer reportedly received 100 million leones (€5,250) and they were buried on August 24th, in a state funeral attended by President Bio. Families of the murdered civilians had a longer ordeal ahead of them.

‘That woman was killed’

The Irish Times interviewed relatives of four civilians killed during the August 10th protests.

We met in or outside small homes across Freetown, some in areas without electricity, where there was open sewage running along the street outside. Interviewees took out laminated photos of the dead, or scrolled through images on their phones. They presented their school grades and sporting certificates. The majority did not want to be named because they are worried about retaliation. “I’ll cry until I die,” said one relative, wiping away tears as they said it.

One of those killed was 16-year-old Fatmata A Daramy. A photo shows her as a beautiful, smiling teenager, posing in a white T-shirt and jeans. She was one of five siblings: “A quiet child, humble, respectful, very serious academically, helpful, loved having fun,” a relative said.

Fatmata was not part of the protest, but had gone out to search for her mother. She was shot once in the lower belly. A video shows Fatmata lying on the ground in jeans, her T-shirt lifted up to expose the gunshot wound, a crowd around her. “Abuse, abuse, that woman was killed,” a woman’s voice shouts in the background.

When Fatmata’s family discovered that her body was being held in a local hospital the next day, they were informed that the government wouldn’t allow it to be released. They were not alone in this.

Musa S Kamara (34), was known in his local area for his love of music and for buying sweets to distribute among the neighbourhood’s children. On the day of August 10th, he left home for his irregular job as a driver.

A relative said that while he hadn’t participated in the protest, Kamara was “under strain” from the rocketing cost of living. “Things are hard in the country. Transportation is too expensive, fuel too. People want to tell the government it was too much,” the relative said.

After the protests started, Kamara’s family, back at home, heard the sounds of live bullets and tear gas being fired. “We heard through WhatsApp they were killing people,” one said.

Then they got calls from contacts who said they had seen Kamara lying dead on the ground. “They shot him in the foot and then in the side. The bullet came out through his heart,” a relative said. “Neighbours went and took his body from the street, [they] took it home, they wanted to take his body to the mosque and prepare to bury him.” But a sheikh there advised them to report the death to the police, and the police said the body should be taken to the central mortuary in Freetown. It would be held there for more than two months.

Decomposed bodies

Relatives of three victims to whom The Irish Times spoke said they were asked to attend a postmortem between three weeks and two months after the deaths. Some said they could not bear it as the bodies were so decomposed. “The body was smelling, so long had passed,” recalled one. All said they received no documents confirming the postmortem’s findings: those were kept by the state.

More than two months after the deaths, relatives of the identified victims were invited to a meeting with the government. There, they said no admission of responsibility was made. However, each family was offered 20 million leones (€1,054) in cash which they were told could go towards a memorial service. This is a huge amount of money in Sierra Leone, where the GDP per capita last year was €515, so it was hard to reject. Still, one noted: “The money they gave us was so small compared to life. Nothing compares to life.”

“There was no sign of remorse,” another attendee said. “I thought the postmortem would enable them to trace the bullets and trace it to the police officer. The officer should apologise to the family. [The state is] the one who gave them the ammunition.”

“We need an international investigation because we really need justice.”

When the mass burials took place, relatives said they were held back in the cemetery by armed guards and only allowed to see the graves after the coffins had already been covered with soil.

Weeks later, the graves were still being watched over by an armed guard, one of whom told a passer-by that they were guarding against possible exhumations.

“I thought, it’s an empty coffin,” one relative said, explaining that she had gone to the mortuary but not the cemetery, after she was barred from seeing the body.

‘Give us the corpse’

Only one relative said they believe they know the identity of the police officer who killed their loved one. I met Alusine Koroma, the half-brother of victim Hassan Dumbuya, at dusk one evening in Freetown.

He told me that Dumbuya, a 36-year-old “cool guy” who was “very peaceful, calm and respectful” had been active with opposition party All People’s Congress (APC). He left behind a wife and a child.

Unlike the others, Dumbuya died days after the main protests, on August 14th, in his home city of Makeni. He had been called from home by a childhood friend, his brother said, and arrived at what appeared to be a set-up. The police turned up within 30 minutes, shooting Dumbuya in the back, he says, though the police said he was killed in a crossfire after being found among a group of “ex-combatants ... poised to make further attacks”. Dumbuya’s body was also held by authorities, with a postmortem taking place two months later.

While Koroma claims that Dumbuya did not participate in the protests, he did record social media content encouraging people to go out on the streets. Dumbuya had become active with the APC over the past four years because he was unhappy with the new government, his brother said. Various APC officials distanced the party from the protests in their aftermath.

Dumbuya’s family refused to take the 20 million leones. “[We said] we’d prefer that you give us the corpse and no money,” said Koroma.

In October, Koroma said he left the mass burial, which included his brother’s body, early, after seeing how armed guards were keeping families of the dead away from the burial site. He said “fear” and “terror” were felt by mourning relatives there. “It’s a concern to the country’s democracy,” he said. “Anything could happen right now. If you can’t stand an opposing voice, how do you plan to rule? Something worse than this could happen... We want the involvement of the international community.”

‘I left my case to God’

How many other people were killed but went uncounted? Sierra Leone’s minister for information did not grant an interview despite multiple requests, or respond to a written request for comment on this and a list of other questions.

But I met family members of one young man who quickly bled to death after being shot during the protests. He was not included in the official figures. His relatives asked that neither he, nor they, be named, because they are still worried about their safety.

A relative of the dead man reported what had happened to police, but said he was advised to bury the body he and left the station, worried that if he asked further questions he would be arrested. “I just keep quiet, I left my case to God,” he said. They got no money and no postmortem, “nothing from anybody”.

“We had 11 years of war. During the 11 years war we didn’t lose any of my family,” the relative continued. “I’m not a politician, I’m not anything, I have no connection to politics. [Now] we think democracy, human rights have gone.”

A warning sign

In an office in central Freetown, I met Marcella Sampa-Sesay, the executive director of the Campaign for Good Governance. She was outside the country at the time of the protest, so her first understanding of what was transpiring came through videos posted to social media. “My immediate reaction to the protest was, I was taken aback because of the degree of violence that I saw.” She said there was violence was on both sides, though she saw no evidence that protesters were armed.

Across Africa, the cost-of-living crisis continues. More protests are likely. What will be the response and what will be the political framing when they happen?

In terms of police brutality, Sierra Leonean police “lack the tact and professionalism to deal with a crowd”, Sampa-Sesay said, and “accountability of their actions is basically selective in favour of the regime that is in power”.

Even ahead of the protests, she said, “it is very important to note that the political environment was very tense... there has been a massive dwindling of trust. Political tensions between the opposition and the ruling party have been very clear, [both sides] have never agreed on policies and taking positions for national interest.”

There have also notably been “high levels of violent speech on social media, especially reported from people in the diaspora... the entire WhatsApp ecosystem is polluted with those messages.”

Sierra Leone has a young population facing high levels of unemployment, and they do not feel their grievances are being heard or addressed, meaning “youths became a readily available tool to spur hate and violence”, she said.

“For us at the Campaign for Good Governance, we believe in dialogue,” she continued. Under the current government, she said, there has been “a lack of consultative spaces to build consensus around national issues impacting on governance and the welfare of citizens”. Instead of embarking on “conscious dialogue with certain groups”, she said, the government had labelled the opposition terrorists and it had become a “buzzword... deepening the divide and sharpening the mistrust and hate”.

Sampa-Sesay said the international community had “a responsibility as moral guarantors” to speak out or take some sort of action.

Across the world, there seems to be a democratic backslide, Sampa-Sesay said. Older Sierra Leoneans still remember the devastating civil war which lasted from 1991-2002, during which more than 50,000 people were killed. Two decades after conflict ended, “these issues are a big concern for us”, Sampa-Sesay said. “For us, this is a warning sign... The conditions for peace should have been established and if it is not properly established then there is a relapse.”

What happens next?

Sierra Leone’s next election is scheduled for June next year, and campaigning is ramping up at home and abroad.

On November 21st, Bio addressed the UK’s House of Lords, with a speech titled Leadership in Troubled Times: The Sierra Leone Example. He called for investment, while saying the country had come a long way from war “to a place of stability and a firm commitment to democracy, peace and the rule of law”. The president quoted Martin Luther King: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Due to the Covid-19 pandemic and then the war in Ukraine raising food and fuel prices, Bio said, “we are currently being challenged, tried and tested”.

Across Africa, the cost-of-living crisis continues. More protests are likely. What will be the response and what will be the political framing when they happen?