As conflict overtakes many parts of the world, Mariama Kandeh remembers the civil war that uprooted her childhood in Sierra Leone.
“The first victim of war is love.”
Like many people around the world, I was watching the news when I first saw the image of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in Turkey waters earlier this year. As a mum, this image left me terribly shattered.
As an African migrant living in the UK, it brought up something else for me, too. The images on my TV screen—of conflicts in Syria and elsewhere—vividly remind me of my experience as a child during the Sierra Leone war in the 90s.
May 25, 1997
It is a Sunday morning when we are woken by the sounds of shooting from the city center and the military barracks across the river. I am 14 years old and looking forward to my Monday lessons. Our Christian neighbors are planning to go to church as usual.
The early morning sunshine is absent, and the adults are asking each other what is going on. There are conflicting reports: Some say the rebels have attacked Freetown; others say it is a military takeover. My heart is pounding. I am afraid of death. So is everyone.
We are no strangers to this kind of situation. Sierra Leone is at war with rebels from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The city is full of displaced people escaping war in the provinces.
Everyone is glued to their radios. It is around 7am when we hear the first report of a coup on the BBC. Around 8am, Corporal Tamba Gborie confirms the military coup on the national radio station: Their leader will be announced shortly. Gborie calls on members of the RUF to march to the city and join hands with the military to rule the country.
By this time, Sierra Leone has already endured 24 years of one party rule followed by a military coup in 1992. Captain Strasser's leadership lasted for three years until he was removed by his colleagues, making way for our first multi-party elections in 1996.
It is the democratically elected government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah at the center of this Sunday morning conflict. By now the rebels, led by Foday Sankoh, have been at war with the government for six years. Instability is already ripping our world apart, with women and children the major victims of the chaos.
Our democratic government has only been in power for one year when it is ousted. It is the first coup in Africa boycotted by the United Nations. It is the culmination of a precarious situation and a turning point in my life.
Our neighbors do not go to church this day. I will not go to school the next day—or for the next nine months. Our lives will never return to the “normal” we once knew.
The end of our childhood
For many young girls, that Sunday in May marked the end of their education. I lost many of my friends and colleagues at school. Some teenage girls became mothers and dropped out of school. Some girls escaped with their families to neighboring countries, some sought asylum abroad, some died escaping the instability in the country. Others became wives to rebel commanders. Some girls were even raped and killed.
Those of us who returned to school were not the same. I still remember my friend Abi (not her real name). I knew her as lively and jovial, full of life. 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 reopened after the democratic government was reinstated, it took a long time for her to be traced and freed.
She returned in the new school year a different person from the girl I knew and loved dearly. She isolated herself from us. She became shy and was always suspicious of her colleagues. This is what the atrocities of conflict can do to a girl.
Our teachers also suffered severely. Some were killed and others escaped, leaving a void in our country’s education sector.
It was a tragedy for those of us who could not escape the traumatic situation in our country, and for those who endured the trauma of being refugees—strangers in other countries.
The conflict hits home
On the third day of the coup, men dressed in military fatigue came to my home and asked for Papa to go with them. I knew straight away that they had come for the keys to State House, which were in Papa's care. They looked desperate. Some held AK-47s and Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG).
They were 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 said.
“Where are you taking the Pa to?” Mama asked. They didn't reply.
We crowded around Mama, all six of us with questioning eyes, yearning, waiting for an answer. Our home was like a mourning home in the days after Papa was taken away on a military green Land Rover. Strangers went in and out. Some to genuinely sympathize with us, others looking for a topic to discuss.
Papa was taken to the maximum-security prison on Pademba Road in Freetown where politicians and criminals are locked up. A person is supposed to go through the normal judicial process before being taken to such a prison. Yet, Papa was neither interrogated nor taken to Court. Perhaps they knew he had no answers. Papa was neither a politician nor a criminal. He was just a police officer who worked at the office of the president. During conflict, a lot of injustices happen to innocent people.
Over the six days our father was imprisoned, I saw Mama’s size shrink. We no longer ate meat and nutritious fish and our food portions became smaller. Mama was economizing—learning to save just in case Papa did not return.
During that time, I wondered what would happen to my sisters and I if our father did not return. I thought of the war orphans I had seen begging on the streets. 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.
A new routine
Although our Papa's return brought smiles back to our faces, the situation in our country continued to be bleak for everyone. At home, we were trained on how to escape the bombing from Alfa jets.
Mama would ask us to lie flat on our bellies under our bed or chairs. The moment we heard the ‘wheeeee’ sound of the Alpha Jet, we quickly went for ‘deployment’ as we called it. It became a normal routine. My five-year-old little sister had mastered the technique. Sometimes I looked at her and thought of the implication such memories would leave on her.
The Nigerian Army of General Abacha sent the Alpha Jets to attack the military government in Freetown. During those atrocious months, many lives were lost and we lived in constant fear.
Our fears grew whenever we saw our neighbors fleeing the country. Our family was large and not wealthy enough to afford the cost of leaving. There were reports of people using canoes, boats, and trawlers to escape to Guinea. Many ended up drowning. Trucks full of people, including pregnant women and young children, were involved in road accidents.
Before the conflict, I was not a devout Muslim like my Papa was. The situation led me to pray five times a day. We sought solace in our faith and also in nature.
We were always going to the seaside to feel at peace, to enjoy the sanity of the sea and to dream. Even there, we were always on alert, waiting to hear the sounds of gunshots or the Alpha Jet.
The wounds of war never heal
The war left an indelible mark in our hearts and minds. Just as in other conflict regions, women in Sierra Leone bore the brunt of the atrocities committed.
According to Physicians for Human Rights, 17% of displaced people experienced sexual abuse during that sad era. As women were displaced from their homes, their social networks and bonds were shattered, increasing their vulnerability to further abuse.
The legacy of the conflict is still shaping our lives. An Overseas Development Institute report suggests that in the years following the war, levels of violence were higher in the east of Freetown, the part of the city with the highest percentage of ex-combatants. The abuse in families, the chopped up limbs, the widows, the orphans, the mentally disturbed women and girls, are stark reminders that we haven’t fully escaped the war.
Sierra Leone's only psychiatrist Dr. Edward Nahim recently told the BBC that the country has over 600,000 mentally ill people, mostly women. Most of the mental illnesses are linked to posttraumatic stress disorder from the war.
In Sierra Leone, a simple football argument among young boys can result in a stabbing. Many 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 is war, it is difficult to let go of violence.
We need to bring love back into our societies, especially among youth. Schools in post-conflict countries like Sierra Leone need to develop a curriculum on peace, reconciliation, and dialogue.
Women also need more support to escape the violence that continues to haunt their lives. It can be difficult to get people to accept abused women and girls back into society. Communities that uphold beliefs that a woman must be a virgin when she marries often stigmatize and isolate women and girls who have been sexually abused—adding to the trauma they have already gone through. We need to involve religious and traditional leaders to change this mentality.
During the war, many girls were taken as wives for men old enough to be their father or even grandfather. Child marriage remains a problem in Sierra Leone. Our laws need to protect girls from abuse from their teachers and older men.
We need safe houses for women who have suffered abuse. And we need counseling services. I think of my friend Abi and all of the women and girls who have suffered abuse and need support to restore their self-esteem.
Today I see the way refugees are treated around the world. They are called 'terrorists'. When I see refugees, I see my classmates and neighbors. I see escapees trying to find a safe haven for themselves and their families. They are running away from bombs, from hunger, poverty, and death. They are in dire need of help.
But how many see it that way? When I read the awful comments against these migrants, I wonder: Have we lost our sense of feeling? Have times gone so bad that we no longer see the need to empathize with the struggles of our fellow humans?
The first victim of war is love. When people fight, no matter where, when, or whom it happens to, the stories are unfathomable. I think of Sierra Leone. But I also think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. I think of the conflict in Bosnia, and the Rwandan genocide. I think of the Biafra war in Nigeria. I think of Liberia and Syria and Yemen. Conflict is the greatest enemy of our generation.
Why do we hate each other when love is the simplest but most precious thing one can give to humanity?
Let's rekindle love.