Sierra Leone remembers the horrors of January 6 1999

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 6 January 2020:

Twenty-one years ago, Sierra Leone was up in flames. The capital Freetown was under siege, as rebels belonging to the Revolutionary United Force (RUF) and former renegade soldiers of the country’s army – the AFRC, turned their guns and machetes on innocent civilians.

Thousands of people were killed and hundreds of houses looted and burnt. Children as young as few months old were amputated by drugged-up soldiers. Freetown had become killing fields in a senseless war that took the lives of over 200,000 people across the country.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, some of the root causes of the war were the abuse of human rights, lack of political space, curtailing of freedoms and civil liberty, economic and social deprivation, poor governance and corruption.

Sierra Leone has held at least five democratically run general elections since the start of the war in 1991, with relatively peaceful change and handover of power. But sadly and most worryingly, many of the root causes of the war are still highly visible in Sierra Leone today, as lawlessness, impunity, abuse of State power, poverty, corruption and youth unemployment continue to rise.

Today is not marked as a public holiday in Sierra Leone. The government has called on citizens to go about their business. But the pain of 6th January 1999 will today be remembered by almost every family in the country.

There are calls for a national memorial to be erected and for January 6 to be declared a day of public national atonement. But some politicians are afraid of what they see as opening up of old wounds. And many too, are afraid of their own shadows because of the role they played in fuelling the war.

Today the people of Sierra Leone will be praying for politicians across the political divide to promote tolerance, cohesion, dialogue; and for the government to show restraint in its control of the political space and use of executive and constitutional powers. Operatives of the ruling SLPP party that are bent on propagating violence must be brought to justice.

The Supreme Court must as a matter of urgency hears the appeals of the opposition APC, in their quest for justice after several of their constituency seats won at the 2018 elections were annulled by the High Court and taken over by the ruling party to form a majority in parliament.

A few months ago, president Bio promised to hold regular dialogue with opposition leaders in the country. He has since  reneged on that promise and must open up discussions to promote understanding and cohesion.

The following are just some of the harrowing eye witness accounts of what took place in Freetown on 6th of January 1999:

We went to bed on the night of January 5 and left the children watching videos. Around midnight I woke up and heard gunshots coming very close. I didn’t hear any shelling from ECOMOG so I figured the rebels were on their way. I called a few friends who live further east and when they didn’t answer I said, Victoria, let’s get out of here. So we put all the kids in the station wagon and left.

As we drove down the main highway there were thousands of people on the roads and when we’d gone a few more miles the cars were stopped. At that moment someone lit a flare illuminating the area and when I looked back I saw that mixed in with the civilians were hundreds of rebel soldiers. It was then I realized the rebels were among us.

There was a lot of gunfire so I told everyone to stay in the car and crouch down. I thought it was safer. Scores of rebels passed by without seeing us but then an eight-year-old rebel with an RPG14 and who was small enough to see through the window noticed us and alerted the others.

One of them ordered us out of the car and said, you people have been deceived by ECOMOG, why are you fleeing towards them, we’re your brothers. Victoria tried to calm him and told him we just wanted to go to someplace safe. He then walked us up a side street a few hundred yards away and told us to sit down. He wanted money so Victoria reached into her bag and gave him some. He said it was too little and as we were about to offer him more I noticed three or four more rebels moving up the road.

As they approached I heard them shouting, ASLA on the move…you thought we’d gone but we’ve come back. As one of them was approaching, I heard him say Awhy are you wasting time with these civilians…they’ve been supporting Tejan Kabbah and ECOMOG. We must teach them a lesson. I think we should just fire [kill] them.

And as soon as he said this, he swung around the AK-47, cocked it and opened fire on my family. It wasn’t even one minute from the time he walked up to the time he opened up on us. And then I heard one of them saying, why did you have to do it but the one who did it, who by that time was walking around to check if we were all dead, pulled Frida, who was alive, by the hair and said, see, they’re not all dead.

And then he got to me and said, I’ll just pick up Pa’s watch. I was hit on the hand which was resting on my chest so there was a lot of blood. I pretended to be dead so he just ripped off my watch and walked off with the others.

And then the roll call I couldn’t do it. Victoria had to do it. Patrick, CiCi, Mary all died instantly. Ester was dying. At that moment only Frida replied. She was wounded but not gravely. There was a lot of gunfire so I got up and said, I’m going for shelter…can anyone who can walk just please, please follow me.

Victoria took my two year-old grandson who was crying and fatally wounded. We later dragged David who’d been hit in the spine and couldn’t walk. And I could hear James calling, I’m stuck against this wall and can’t move. By now rebels were passing and we couldn’t go to him. Later we thought that he must’ve been hit in the spine and to him it must’ve felt like he was pinned against a wall. He only called a few times more and then fell silent.

Little Hassan died a few hours later; he was hit three times. And David, the last time I spoke to him I said, can you promise me, promise me you’ll survive this thing and he said, Dad I promise you but he couldn’t. He died later that day.

He [the rebel] came from nowhere. I didn’t have time. I would’ve stood up and offered myself in place of the kids. They didn’t ask us any questions. If they were to accuse anyone it should’ve been me. I would have given myself. I had some money. I would’ve offered it to them but the one who killed us didn’t come for money he came to destroy our lives. He just opened up on my family without saying anything.”

Yet humor abides, amongst the executioners at least. This is from another story taken in media res:

“Then they went to the next room. I couldn’t see what happened but I heard three gunshots and later saw the bodies of three of our neighbors. There was a blind man who lived in that apartment with his seven-year-old boy. The blind man was the only one they didn’t shoot and as they left the room I heard them say, now, you be sure and take care good care of all these people.”

Plunder is a part of the intercultural exchange between rebel and civilian:

“In the early evening a group of about twenty rebels came near the house. As usual I sent my seventeen-year-old son to hide out back, and my five-year-old adopted daughter Titi upstairs to be with my elderly mother while I dealt with them. They [the rebels] asked for water so I got several gallons and gave them all as much as they wanted.

I remember climbing the stairs and thanking God that this large group had left without doing anything to us. But just a few minutes later, another group came.”

The Use of Games to Maximize Terror

Atrocities were sometimes perpetrated within the context of games, in which the element of terror was maximized through the use of deception or teasing. Victims were sometimes given a choice as to how they wanted to be killed gunshot, machete, or burned alive, or were forced to listen to the rebels arguing over what atrocity to commit against them. Utilizing an old tactic they’d employed in past offensives, the rebels dressed up in ECOMOG uniforms, trying to illicit a favorable reaction, and would then catch the civilians who would later be punished.

After setting a house on fire, the rebels were witnessed positioning themselves near the entrances and then shooting at civilians as they tried to escape. Similarly, after killing civilians, the rebels were witnessed laying ambushes around the corpses, waiting for their relatives to retrieve them. There were numerous accounts of rebels who promised not to kill, rape or abduct an individual if the family would raise a given sum of money, but, upon receipt of the money, would commit the atrocity anyway.

Agnes

Agnes, twenty, witnessed the killing of at least twenty people on January 15 after rebels dressed as ECOMOG soldiers and, imitating a Nigerian accent, trapped a group of civilians who had come out on the street to celebrate what they thought was the arrival of ECOMOG forces. She recounted:

I was sitting in my house when I saw a group of about ten ECOMOG, or what I thought were ECOMOG, soldiers coming down the street. They were accompanied by a few women who were singing and dancing and saying, AECOMOG has liberated us! It’s over! Come out of your houses! And then speaking with an accent like an Oga man [Nigerian] the soldiers said, where are the RUF rebels, where are the SLA soldiers? We’ve come to liberate you from those people.

As they moved down the street they collected more and more civilians who said, Atanke, tanke [thank you], we’re so tired of these people. We’re happy you’ve come. You don’t know how we’ve suffered, and so on. The women accompanying the rebels clapped their hands and got the rest of them dancing and when they’d [the rebels] collected about thirty or so people, just started to laugh. And, a few moments later said, oh, we see, so it’s ECOMOG you want. We’ve really caught you now.

The civilians started begging for forgiveness but the rebels, who had them surrounded by now, ordered them to lie on the ground and shot them one by one in the head and chest. There were men, women, and even a few children killed. I saw the rebels change the clips on their pistols until all of them were dead. I was watching this all from my window.

Best Quote of the Entire Massacre: “If Jesus himself comes here, I’ll amputate his hand as well.”:

“One of the rebels quickly noticed Mr. Ben’s wedding ring; he was married to a woman named Zainab who was standing in the women’s line. The rebel told Mr. Ben he had a really nice ring and asked him his name but Mr. Ben didn’t answer him. I think he was afraid to talk for fear they’d find out he was a Nigerian. The commander asked the rest of us if he was a deaf-mute but none of us said anything.

He then started threatening us and said, We know there’re Nigerians among you.Y Tell us who they are or you all die. We don’t want them in our country and we will kill them all. Some of them [the rebels] sprinkled petrol on us and threatened to set us on fire.

Finally Ben told the commander that he was married to a Sierra Leonean and his wife Zainab stood up and said, He is my husband but he is a businessman. I can show you the papers to prove it. The rebel responded that he didn’t want to see any papers and as they pulled Mr. Ben out of the line, several of the rebels started arguing over whether to kill him, amputate his hands or set him on fire.

When they’d decided to cut off his hands Mr. Ben started pleading saying he was a businessman, and shouted, I beg you don’t cut my hand, Oh Jesus, Jesus. Then the axe man said, If Jesus himself comes here I’ll amputate his hand as well. Then they ordered him at gunpoint to put his right hand face up on a table and they hacked it off with an axe. And then his left hand. The rebel then put his hands in Ben’s blood and walked over to his wife, who was sobbing, and smeared it on her face. He told her if she continued crying he’d kill her.

As this was happening Ben’s brother started yelling, God what have you done to my brother. So they pulled him out and cut off his two hands as well. Then they pulled out the third one who started screaming that he wasn’t a Nigerian, but was from Cameroon, but they cut off his hands as well. Then they sprinkled more petrol on Ben’s brother, I think he even had tribal markings, and set him on fire. His hands were hanging off his arms and he was on fire screaming please don’t kill me. They let him burn for five minutes before a commander let some us put the fire out with dust.

Several of the rebels were dancing around the three of them saying, now you go tell ECOMOG about your problem. A few days later in the hospital I saw Zainab and Ben’s brother. That’s how I found out Mr. Ben had been killed.”

Police Officer’s Story

Then he put me in the corner of my house. He threw me on the ground so I was sitting, tied on the ground about a yard from Major S. and he said, you think we should remain in the bush don’t you, but the bush is made for animals. It was between 5:45 and 5:50 p.m.

I started to beg and told him but life is so very precious. Please, please don’t kill me. I’ve been in the force for over thirty-four years and I’m not meant to die like this. When peace comes wouldn’t you too want a government job?

Then Major S. pointed a pistol at me and said, I’ve killed 213 people and you’re going to make number 214. And then he shot me in the face. I fell down and put my tied hands in front of my face but he shot me again.

I didn’t know if I was in the world again until God woke me up late that night and I saw myself in a gutter. I had blood all over me and I felt my face to be huge. I dragged myself for some meters and hid until I was out of the road because there were still rebels around. When I felt it was safe I got myself to an ECOMOG checkpoint. As they were taking me to the hospital I saw so many corpses along that road. There must have been two hundred.

Confused Masses Herded and Used as Human Shield:

According to interviews with witnesses, victims, and military personnel, the RUF’s incursion plan into Freetown was built around the use of a massive human shield. In the early morning hours of January 6, thousands of rebels massed near the suburb of Calaba Town some eight miles east of Freetown and began to march westward, firing rapidly into the air.

This served to frighten the civilian population of the densely populated east, provoking a mass exodus of people who fled in panic towards central Freetown. The rebels, many of whom were in civilian dress, then mixed in with the crowd. Other civilians were forced at gunpoint to join in with the crowd, which was by then massive. The majority of the rebel fighters, however, remained safely behind.

Civilians described being totally confused as to what was happening and surprised to find the rebels mixed in among them. As the mass of humanity approached the first ECOMOG position, and the civilian-dressed rebels pulled out their guns, witnesses described the horror they felt as they realized they were being used as a human shield.

This surprise proved both frustrating for the ECOMOG soldiers manning their positions and deadly for the civilians being used as a human shield. ECOMOG commanders and soldiers interviewed expressed their frustration at not being able to effectively engage the enemy and respond militarily because of the heavy civilian presence.

According to witnesses, many people within the human shield, particularly those near the front, died in the crossfire once rebel soldiers, who’d mixed in with the human shield, and ECOMOG soldiers manning their positions began an exchange of fire. The tactic however, proved largely effective for the rebels.

As the ECOMOG soldiers were forced to withdraw, both because they were overpowered and because they could not respond effectively, thousands of RUF rebels marched into Freetown and took up positions in and around the city center.

Trapped with only a Radio in the Upper Floor of a Downtown Building:

Victor, forty-five, was hiding in an upper floor of a downtown building as he witnessed the same bombing. He described seeing the rebels pointing their guns at civilians to stop them from taking cover. He said:

The rebels were mixing in with the civilians in the front of the crowd but there was a much heavier concentration of them at the back. I was hiding, listening to my radio on the third floor of my building and at l:30 p.m. I heard a state announcement on 98.1 radio warning all civilians to go inside their houses because the ECOMOG jets would be searching for rebels.

Drug Injection Through the Face, A 9-Year-Olds Perspective:

Most victims and witnesses describe widespread usage by the rebels of drugs, marijuana, and alcohol and believe most of the atrocities were committed while under the influence of these substances.

Witnesses describe rebels self-administering drugs by cutting small incisions around their temples, cheeks, and other places on their faces in which a brown or white powder was inserted and then covered with plasters or adhesive tape. The rebels spoke of this drug as being cocaine. Others observed rebels cutting the undersides of their arms with a razor blade and injecting themselves, and of taking small blue pills.

Abductees who managed to escape reported having been forcibly injected with drugs, or being given food and drink laced with drugs. One father whose sixteen-year-old girl was abducted by the rebels saw her a few days later being led away with Athose plasters on her face and describing her behavior as drugged and out of it.

One abductee asked a nine-year-old rebel about the drugs they were using and was told, it’s a medicine they give us which makes us to have no respect for anybody; whatever we think to do, we just do it. Another rebel added, it gives us power and makes us fear nobody, and yet another said, It makes us feel so tall and you people [civilians] look so small.

 The Desire to Bury One’s Own Amputated Body Parts:

One rebel did all the cutting. A few had both hands cut off; others just one. And then they walked away. I couldn’t even bury my arm. And now I don’t think I’ll ever find someone to marry me.

Liberian Speaks Plainly

Then, the same Liberian said, “I’m ordered and paid by Sam Bockerie not to spare anyone and that is why I have killed. You saw it with your own eyes. But now I am ordering your hand to be cut.” He ordered me to lay face down in the road and called forward a rebel with an axe who then hacked off my hand. It was hanging off limp and bleeding and when I saw it I started to cry. The rebels just walked away.

Runner-up for Best Quote of the Entire Massacre: “You go to Pa Kabbah and ask him for a new set of arms.”

[Pa Kabbah was the then-President]

One of them called for the man with the axe to come and hack off my arms and they did it right there in that compound. When they were done they said, “you go to Pa Kabbah and ask him for a new set of arms.”

A Fifteen-year-old boy named “Commander Cut Hands”:

After they set fire to my house they caught me trying to escape out the back door. They then brought me to the compound next door where I saw they’d captured two of my neighbors. They started arguing over whether to kill me or cut my hands. Then the one who seemed to be in charge gave the order to amputate both my hands and called forward a fifteen-year-old boy they called “Commander Cut Hands.”

I refused to lie down. They beat me and it took several of them to hold me. They tripped me and when I fell to the ground three of them had to sit on my legs and back and another few had to hold my arms. Then they took out that axe. I was crying and after they’d hacked off both of my hands I screamed, “just kill me, kill me.”

They also cut off the hands of my two neighbors. I feared they might attack me because I was a driver for the SLPP [Sierra Leone People’s Party], the President’s party, but they never found that out. They knew nothing about me.

How The Women Were Treated:

Once captive the victims were frequently shared and divided among the combatants who would rape them on a daily basis for anywhere from one day to several weeks. Of the victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch, over half reported being raped by more than one combatant.

The victims often reported being kept locked up in a room with many other girls and taken out only to cook, do laundry, and fetch water. The rebels frequently told the victims they would be taken to the bush and made into a rebel wife and, indeed, young girls and women made up the majority of the hundreds of civilians witnessed to have been later abducted as the rebels retreated out of Freetown.

Well, the gory details that go in this direction I will leave out in the name of taste, although they are also plentiful. And the philosophizing kept short: reports like this are a window into a world which European man hasn’t known since the Dark Ages, and perhaps never really knew. In light of these occurrences, the 19th century epithet Savage’ doesn’t seem all that unjust.”

8 Comments

  1. Very interesting piece, however, the people who were set on fire with tyres and petrol, the victims of evil spirit and countless others shot by Nigerians. What about the victims of cannibalism by Kamajors? Or are these people not good enough.

  2. Oluwale, far be it from me to relativize the appalling slaughter and unimaginable degradation visited on our people during the rebel war years and the consequences of which live with us to this day. What I find incongruous, however, is the suggestion that Europeans, given their terrible history of brutal dispossession of other peoples and cultures, are somehow in the moral scheme of things and in the light of what happened in our country, less ‘savage’ than Africans.

    Never mind the Dark Ages: European savagery has a rich and well-documented history: Cortes and the Aztecs of Mexico, Bartolomé de las Casas and the centuries of the brutal trade in African slaves, The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 and the subsequent iniquitous partition and of our own continent. The list goes on. Throwing these facts into relief in no way diminishes the sub-humanity of the rebel war in Sierra Leone. It simply enables us to gauge the depth of the evil that man – of whatever colour, land and clime – has in him, and the unleashing of which we must always guard against.

    As regards the personal loss(es) you suffered and indeed the losses suffered by thousands of our countrymen during the despicable rebel onslaught on our homeland, rest assured that my sorrow and sympathy have no bounds.

  3. War is never a lasting solution to the problems modern societies are facing.Whenever,and wherever constructive,and meaningful dialogue fails to achieve its much desired peaceful end results,additional efforts must be made to ensure that tempers do not flare out of control.

    And again,we must be resolute, that anger remains braced like a bull,and kept in checked by vigilance, prudence and restraint. Sad,isn’t it – that to those thousands who lost their lives, now dead and gone it doesn’t matter who wins or loses an idiotic war? Have mercy on us,O Lord!

    What a great loss,only one life to live,and it is snuffed away like the flame of a candle in an unruly storm,by evil barbarians holding the keys to the blood stained gates of Hell. And where are those monsters now that ruthlessly cut off the hands and limbs of itsy bitsy, suckling infants,old men,women and children? Cowards they are!

    Now tell me you scumbags,does that icy cold,stony hearts of yours truly believe that, existence and her loyal servant Karma will look away and forget the totally undeserved anguish, pain,and suffering you’ve caused countless thousands of innocent people? Dead wrong!
    You knuckled headed, punks can run,but can’t hide from the eyes of he who sees, observes, and hears all things in the universe. Rest assured,in one way or another, there will be hell to pay. You must reap those seeds of evil,your devilish,demonic hands have sown. It must be so!

    This article is so so heartbreaking and sad. My girlfriend couldn’t stop crying and shedding tears, as she kept on reading – every now and then she would stop, gasping for air,in tears, almost choking, asking me in shock; “Why Saidu? Why did such bad things happen to so many innocent,good,poor people?” And to be honest – strangely, sadly,I had no words to say, I was totally speechless! Rising Sun Will. Rise Again.

  4. I hope and pray that Sierra Leone never never experiences the bloody civil war that lasted 11 years with the loss of over 50,000 lives, and set the country back for many years. We must settle our differences in a peaceful way.I remember S.L. every night in my prayers.

  5. “ According to interviews with witnesses, victims, and military personnel, the RUF’s incursion plan into Freetown was built around the use of a massive human shield. In the early morning hours of January 6, thousands of rebels massed near the suburb of Calaba Town some eight miles east of Freetown and began to march westward, firing rapidly into the air.”

    Believe it or not, 21years ago, on this very day, as a little boy, I happened to be among the civilian crowds described in the above quotations. Till date, I still remember vividly what transpired that particular night. Our house in Calaba Town at the time sits about a mile below the mountain top overlooking that area. On that very night, we were woken up by heavy artillery and bombardment just after 11pm. We came out only to witness the entire night sky filled with fireworks emanating from bullets. Confused and panicked, our only choice was to grab whatever few belongings we could carry and head towards the downtown direction which we thought will be safe.

    In the next several hours, we hiked our way heading to town dodging bullets and in some instances RPG explosions in nearby buildings. I remembered people falling to their death after being hit by a bullet right next to me. My family and I managed to make it from Calaba-town as far as Texaco/Grassfield Junction, where we met a heavy roadblock mounted by the ECOMOG. Upon encountering this blockade, the rebels in civilian clothing among us took their weapons and a heavy fire fight ensued.

    Within an instant, RPGs firing intensified. In the midst of the chaos some of my family members get separated. A few of us who managed to locate each other decided to seek refuge within the low-cost housing settlement overnight due to the intense firing and risk of being hit by a bullet. We hunkered over the remaining part of the night until the morning when we decided to continue towards kissy Road where we had relatives. Luckily for us, our missing relatives managed to made it to Kissy road overnight safely.

    We remained at Kissy Road for the next few days until the ECOMOG were able to drive back the rebels. In the days that followed, we the boys in my family trekked from Kissy Road to Calaba Town to check on our house. It was during this journey that we encountered the massive loss of life as hundreds of dead bodies lay all over the place.

    Upon reaching our house in Calaba Town, it was sad to discover that it was no longer there, like many other houses, the rebels had burnt it down while retreating. I can go and on explaining my personal experience during these trying times of our nation. My hope is, nothing of such will ever repeat again in our beloved nation.

  6. Horrible stories to come out of the country I love. It always fills my heart with anger each time this day comes. Almost every Sierra Leonean lost loved ones in this senseless war that was backed by imperialist forces. This is why Sierra Leoneans must come to one as a nation and make every Sierra Leonean feel not only at home, but feel safe and feel Sierra Leonean.

    More importantly, our politicians must make sure that peace and unity prevail. If they have not learnt anything since they were born, they should have learnt by now, the lessons of that brutal war. One more thing our politicians should seriously look into is, the generation that have been impacted by this brutal and senseless war. These men and women are a time bomb who will take things into their own hands in the future, to fight for their rights to jobs.

    These vulnerable group of our fellow citizens, will also be exploited by rogue and unscrupulous politicians to cause mayhem to satisfy their barbaric, violent and brutal political agenda. So, the government must do all it can to find investors to invest in the country and create jobs.

    Finally, I pray for all our fellow citizens who died in that brutal, senseless and unforgiving war. May God guide and protect all those who were amputated and pray that, God help our government provide the help and care they need. God bless the war veterans and may God help “get salone sorted”.

  7. “[…] reports like this are a window into a world which European man hasn’t known since the Dark Ages, and perhaps never really knew. In light of these occurrences, the 19th century epithet Savage’ doesn’t seem all that unjust.” Much as this article makes for compelling reading, I find the closing remarks quite staggering. How do you rate then the human slaughter and degradation unleashed by ‘European man’ during the 1914-1918 and the 1939-1945 wars?

    • Dauda – let us not try to intellectualise these brutal and babaric killings by monsters. All those who took part in kiiling civilians and hacking off limbs were sub-humans. To try to sanitise or be apologetic for their inhumane behaviour by drawing parallels with what happened in Europe in 1917 and 1948 is nothing short of dishonesty. Please show sensitivity to those of us who lost loved ones.

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