It was not a normal sunday morning. Our christian neighbours had planned to go to church as usual. Sadly, this was not meant to be. We had been woken up by sporadic shooting coming from mainly central Freetown and the Murray town Military Barracks that situates on the otherside of the river Rokel. It was very worrying for me.
I had prepared to be at school the next day. I was looking forward to my normal Monday lessons. The sound of shooting had interrupted the relative peace I was enjoying. While the adults asked passersby what was going on, there were conflicting reports. Some said the rebels had attacked Freetown, others said it was a military take-over. The atmosphere was dark and gloomy. The usual early morning sunshine was absent. My heart was pounding. I was afraid of death. So was everyone.
Everyone was glued to their radios. There was fright in every eyes around our small barracks community. People gathered in small numbers, speculating and waiting for the next person coming from mainland Freetown to ask. Most times it was just a speculation. We were no stranger to this kind of situation. Our country was at war with rebels from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The city was full with displaced people escaping the war in the provinces.
We had had a previous military coup in 1992 . The National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) headed by Captain Valentine EM Strasser succeeded in removing the All Peoples' Congress government of President JS Momoh that had been in power for 24 years under a one party system. Captain Strasser's leadership lasted for three years and was removed by his colleagues and a Major General JM Bio became the leader of the NPRC till 2006 when we had our first multi party elections.
Meanwhile, since March 23rd 1991, Sierra Leone had been at war with the RUF headed by a Foday S Sankoh, a former teacher and photographer.The instability was ripping our world apart. Women and children were the major victims of the chaos.
It was the democratic government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah that was at the centre of this conflicting sunday morning. It was May 25th 1997 and a group of young men from the militray had taken over, freed a major General Johny Paul Koroma who was in prison and made him their leader. They ousted the democratically elected government that had been in power for only a year. It became the first coup in Africa that was boycotted by the United Nations. There was huge international condemnation against the mutineers.
It was around 7 am that we heard the first report of a coup. The BBC had announced that some members of the military had plotted and succeeded another coup. But there was not enough information on the situation. All was stated was 'The situation in the capital is very tense'. Around 8am, a leightenant Tamba Gborie went to the national radio station, the then Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service to announce that there had been a military coup and that their leader would be announced shortly. He called on members of the RUF to match to the city and joined hands with the military to rule the country. This culminated an already precarious situation we were in.
That day began a nine months school closure. It was a day that marked the end of education for many young girls. It also culminated the start of motherhood for many teenage girls. I lost many of my friends and colleagues at school. While some escaped with their families to neighbouring countries, some sought asylum abroad, some died escaping the instability in the country. Others became wives to rebel commanders. Some were even raped and killed. Teachers suffered too severly. Some were killed and others escaped, leaving a void in our education sector.This era is remembered as the most tragic in Sierra Leone. It was a tragedy for both those of us that could not escape the traumatic situation and those that endured the trauma of being refugees, strangers in other countries.
The news of a coup did not sound well to me. A lot of thoughts were going through my mind. I had heard horrifying stories from the war. Reports of abduction, rape, forced marriage, pregnant women having their unborn tucked out of them with sharp instruments, mothers being raped in front of their children and husbands. Sierra Leone was a real hell on earth. Indeed the AFRC and RUF alliance was hugely unholy. They committed widespread egragious attrocities against civilians including brutal killings, indiscriminate chopping of limbs, severe and deliberate dismemberment, rape and other sexual assaults and abduction.
I still remember my friend Abi (not her real name). She was lively and jovial, full of life with a charming character. She was the classmate that brought life to the class when everyone was dull. She had this gregarious personality that attracted likeness for her from everyone. Abi had gone to visit one of her parents in the east of Freetown when she was abducted and made a wife for one of the rebel commanders. When school reopens after the democratic government was reinstated, it took a long time for her to be traced and freed. later we leanrt her unfortunate ordeal.
In the new school year (form 3), Abi returned but as a different person. She was cold, kept to herself most of the times. She isolated herself from us. Even when we tried to get closed to her, she felt uncomfortable. Abi was not only physically abused but psychologically too. That is what the attrocities of conflict can do to a girl. Abi lost herself completely and until she changed schools, I realised she was a new person, far different from the person I knew and whom we all loved dearly. She became shy and was always suspicious of her colleagues. from time to time she would ask 'Is it me you guys are talking about?'
The coup pinched me hard when on the third day of the coup, military men dressed in military fatigue came to our home and asked for Papa to go with them. I knew straightaway that they had come for the keys to statehouse which were in Papa's care. They looked desperate. Some holding Ak47 and Rocket Propel Grenade (RPG). Young and promising boys in their late teens to mid twenties. They didn't speak roughly to Papa but they were firm. 'Pa you need to follow us' one of them had said. 'Where are you taking the Pa to,' Mama had asked. They didn't reply. But since that morning, Papa had not returned.
We crowded around Mama, all six of us with questioning eyes, yearning, waiting for an answer. It's been three days since Papa was collected on a Military green Landrover, Packed-full with soldiers and a few civilians. In the following days, our home was like a mourning home. Strangers went in and out. Some to genuinely sympathise with us, others to find topic to discuss. We endured an air of solemnity.
Papa was taken to the maximum security prison on Pademba road in Freetown where politicians and criminals are nomally locked up. But in real sense a person most go through the normal judicial process before being taken to such a prison. Yet, Papa's case had been different. He was neither interrogated nor taken to court. Perhaps they knew he had nothing to answer. Papa was neither a politician nor a criminal. He was just a police officer that worked at the office of the President. During conflict, a lot of injustices happen to innocent people.
Even with Papa's hard personality that sometimes frightened us, his absence in the home left a cold oblivion. I was worried about the absence of Papa. I thought of what life would be like if he never returned. How will Mama cope? Being a single Mother is a difficult task even with one child. Being a single Mother with six children, all of them girls, with Mama who had always been a house wife was definitely going to be an uphill task. Teenage pregnancy, rape and other sexual abuse were popular in our community. Our neighbours believed me and my sisters had been spared because of Papa's toughness.
Papa was a very strict father - He ruled his home with iron fist and chased every boy he found hanging around any of his daughters. What will become of us if he never returned? I thought of the war orphans I have seen begging on the streets. Some from Liberia others were Sierra Leoneans like me. I thought of young girls prostituting to care for their families. I thought of life and how unfair it could be to young girls like me.
Meanwhile, Mama got the support of some of our neighbours, who helped her negotiate Papa's release with the new guys in government. On the sixth day of his inprisonment, Papa was released. Within that six days, I saw Mama's size shrunk. She became thin. She lost appetite and was seen in her body. Our food was no longer nourished with meat and nutritious fishes. Our food portion became smaller. Mama was economising -learning to save just in case Papa did not return. We were especially frightened at night. There were reports of soldiers attacking people's homes at night to steal, rape or even kill people who they believed were not in support of them. Papa's return brought smiles back to our faces but the situation in our country continued to be bleaked for everyone.
During that period, the ousted democratic government sought the support of General Sani Abacha of Nigeria, who ironically had himself got to power through a Military coup, to help in reversing the coup in Sierra Leone. General Abacha's Nigerian army launched an attack on the Military government in Freetown. This lead to the loss of many lives.
During those attrocious months. We lived in constant fear. Our fears were made worse whenever we heard or saw our neighbours fleeing the country. Our family was large and not wealthy enough to afford the cost of fleeing. Our hope lied in God. Papa always said, death was everywhere. I believed him. There were reports of people using canoes, boats, trawlers to escape to Guinea who ended up drowning. Trucks full of people including pregnant women and young children were involved in road accidents . This happened on a daily basis and it helped to strengthen our faith in the unseen God.
I became very faithful during those days. Even though Papa was a devout muslim, I was not. That situation led me to pray five times a day. I was always worried that our family would be vanished one day by general Abacha's Alfa jet that was bombing Freetown regularly. It was always on the news. There was a day that scores of people were killed at a place in town called P-Z. Those people were used as human shield by the junta/rebel government and they were eventually bombed by Alfa jet.When I watched the reports, It struck me that humanity had degenerated to that level. It saddened me today very hard like it did then.
It saddened me even more when I see the way refugees are being treated today, called 'terrorists'. They are escapees trying to find a safe haven for them and their families. Running away from bombs, from hunger, poverty and deaths. They are in dire need of help. But how many see it that way? Many see them as invaders, stepping on the privacy of people in host nations, distorting their peace, shattering their happiness and making them financially weak. But should weblame refugees for our problems? What about the roles of our governments in negotiating peace and prevent the further influx of refugees to other countries?
At home, we were trained on how to escape the bombing from Alfa jets. Mama will ask us to lie flat on our belly under our bed or the chairs. It became a normal routine. Sometimes I looked at my five year old little sister then and thought of what implication such memories would leave on her. She had mastered the technique of what we coined 'deployment', the art of lying down on our bellies. The moment we heard the 'wheeeee' sound of the Alfa jet, we quickly went for 'deployment'. One day, the Alfa jet bombed a building closed to ours and left a huge hole on it but fortunately, no one was killed.
One place we sought solace during that period was the seaside. We were always going there to feel at peace with nature. To enjoy the sanity of the sea and to dream. However, we were also always on alert, waiting to hear the sounds of gunshots or the alfa jet. Whenever we hear any of the two we ran to the nearest hideout. We maintained this routine for the entire period of the conflict in Freetown.
The war left an indelible mark in our hearts and minds. Women bore the brunt of the attrocities committed and it will help us understand why the situation of women both in Sierra Leone and other conflicting countries and regions are what they are today.
According to physicians for human rights, 17% of displaced people experienced sexual abuse and upto 250,000 women and girls experienced abuse during that sad era. displacement lead women to disaffiliation as they leave their homes, shattering social networks and bonds. This lead to an increase in their vulnerability and make them open to further abuse. Moreover, the legacy of conflict could shape the way violence is performed. For instance an ODI report suggest that violence was higher in the east of Freetown following the war because that parts of the city had a high population of excombatants. This shows that the wounds of wars never heal. The continuity of abuse, the chopped up limbs, the widows, the orphans, the mentally disturbed women and girls are stark reminders of conflicts.
Sierra Leone's only psychiatrist Dr Edward Nahim recently told the BBC that the country has over 600,000 mentally ill people who are mainly women. Most of the mental illnesses are linked to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from the war.
As humans, we should develop the culture of negotiating, discussing rather than piling hates in our minds. We should transfer such virtues to the young generation so they too will cultivate such virtues.
Young people in post conflict countries, get angry easily and we can understand why. If throughout one's childhood all one has seen and known was war, it is difficult to separate one from violence. This is common in Sierra Leone as a simple football argument among young boys could result to stabbing.Therefore, schools in post conflict countries should develop a curriculum on peace, reconciliation and dialogue.
A safe house should be created for women who had suffered abuse.One of the major issue in post-conflict societies is getting society to accept abused women and girls back into society. In most cases, these women and girls are marginalized and stigmatized by social and religious norms, especially so in highly cultural and religious communities. For instance a community that upholds a belief that a woman/girl must marry as a virgin, could stigmatize and isolate women and girls that have been sexually abused oblivious of the trauma they have gone through. Changing such mentality requires education involving religious and traditional leaders.
Counselling services is very important to get abused women and girls to open up about the crimes committed against them. Confiding in others allays pain. Women and girls that have suffered abuse, lost self-esteem and self-confidence need the support to restore their self-esteem. This may include providing microcredits and other business and career support that would help them become self-employed and thus reinstate their lost self.
In most post-conflict countries women struggle with getting the legal support to protect them and especially so underage girls. For instance, Sierra Leone and many other post-war countries lack laws protecting young girls from abuse from teachers. Teacher-pupil relationship is common in Sierra Leone and these pupils are mainly under the age of eighteen. The issue of poverty-driven 'sugar daddy' relationship is also common. This is also an offshoot of some of the abuse girls endured during the war. A lot of girls became wives to men old enough to be their father or even grand father. There should be laws protecting these girls from older men, whether they are teachers or wealthy old men who find younger girls appealing.
When people fight, no matter where, when or whom it happens to, the stories, the attrocities are just unfathomable. Most of the horrific incidents that happened during the world wars; incidents in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, the conflict in Bosnia, the Rwanda genocide, the Biafra war in Nigeria, the Liberia and Sierra Leone wars have shown in the current crisis in Syria and Yemen. Why do we fight when there are better ways to resolve our differences? Why do we kill innocent women and children in the name of wars? Why do we hate each other when love is the simplest but most precious thing one can give to humanity? There is nothing good about wars. The experience is horrible especially for women and girls. Wars leaves harrowing marks on the wider society.
Conflict is the greatest enemy of our generation. Today many of us are unhappy because we muster hate, keep grudge and little do we know how these could translate and lay bare in the slightest of misunderstandings. The first victim of war is love. Wars do not escalate because the waring factions have guns or use drugs but because love is dead. And until the reincarnation of love, humans will continue to fight and be unhappy. Let's rekindle love.