Sierra Leone: It Did Happen

AP Photo/Saurabh Das
By David Bayon

Sierra Leone is a beautiful country on the bulge of West Africa. Coconut palms and flame trees line its beaches against some of the most amazing sunsets I have seen ever. Lush green mountains and white sands under pure blue skies reflect the three colours of the national flag. 

A fertile land rich in minerals, timber and diamonds, washed by waters plentiful in catch. A capital that used to be called the Athens of West Africa. A country that has no business in being poor. Yet, when I arrived in Freetown in March 2010, I knew I was coming to a land healing from the deep – and to me, irreparable - wound of what is considered by many the most vile and ruthless civil conflict in the history of Africa.

Eight years on, memories are fresh and war stories abound for those that inquire - mostly insensitive expatriates, who at times lack the tact to know how to ask about what Sierra Leoneans wish to forget.

I recalled the words of the Greek poet Odysseas Oletys, as I tried to imagine what the country would have been like in the 1990s: “I write to keep death from having the last word”. And so I write.

Sierra Leone was a society plunged into the heart of darkness by its own illiteracy (62 per cent according to the 2009 United Nations Development Programme Report), and by the corruption of those who should have saved it. A territory so plagued by disease that one child in every three never saw the age of five. A place so distant from modern science or medicine and so overwhelmed by nature that supernatural forces were seen as the origin of every calamity or disaster. Even today, it is common to see young children wearing amulet belts around their waists in order to protect them. Education, economy and healthcare are all but inexistent. A land and a time, when people died young.

In this land there was no resemblance of a functional government or a national army. First, it was the army that had overturned the president. Then, many of its soldiers had formed on and off alliances with the rebels. The rest spent their time terrorizing and looting. Plenty of the men sweeping through the countryside were government troops, and though their stated objective was better government, their targets seemed to be anyone unarmed. The semblance of government of the then President Tejan Kabbah was defended mostly by a proxy force of Nigerians, dispatched by a dictator who had his own agenda, and by a loose alliance of Sierra Leonean hunting societies, militias whose amulets protected them from bullets.

On Lumley Beach, one night over dinner, Alie, one of the Syrians - as Graham Green refers to the Lebanese community in his novel The Heart of the Matter - explained how, while the Nigerian Army fought the opposition inside Freetown (tying, flogging and often executing anyone suspected of sympathizing with the rebels), the government troops and the rebels went into an escalating frenzy on the outskirts of the city that gave way to gruesome acts. Tiny children, too young to know, had their arms severed off at their elbows or padded wrists.

Shekku, my driver, had been the first to share with me his impressions. He described how one day, he had hidden under his bed when he heard rebels roaming outside of his house. Soon afterwards, he fled to Guinea, where he found a job working as a mechanic. Not having gone to school himself, he felt a compelling urge for his two kids to receive a proper education. He was the one to tell me about the blood stained roots of cotton and mango trees.

The names of the operations carried out by the rebels, the Revolutionary United Front, speak for themselves: Operation Burn House, Operation Pay Yourself, Operation No Living Thing. Civilians living in constant terror is what I concluded from what Umaru told me. He worked in a bank. At twenty-six, he was young and handsome, yet with a look of sadness in his eyes I felt would never fade away. As if the very worst dreams he could have had about the war had become true. When I asked him what it was like to live in the Freetown dominated by the rebels, he said: “All we did was try to survive. This meant that we never knew where the harm to us might come from. So if we had to be nice to the rebels, we were; and if we had to be nice to the Nigerians and government forces, we were”. I could only imagine what he meant by being nice. Twenty-six when I met him, his teenage life was surrounded by a state of anarchy and chaos fuelled by drugs and alcohol. Terrible to say, but he was lucky, considering that this was a war fought in large part by teenagers and children, all claiming to save Sierra Leone. But the country was not moving forward, it was not even at a standstill. The war was simply plunging it deeper and deeper into the past.

Sierra Leoneans are friendly and good-humoured. They love to smile and nothing brings them closer together than a good joke. The great and ancestral Cotton Tree in the middle of Freetown is a beautiful monument to their resilience. In a land where nature has an overwhelming presence, it stands there in all its majesty, offering protection to those that have seen unimaginable horrors and that once felt completely disconnected and forgotten by the rest of the world. The country has a long way to go, but for the first time in many years, people are hopeful of what the future might hold for them. But even if the government delivers on its promises, which it seems to be doing, there is so much to do, and it will be generations before the young ones enjoy their elder’s efforts to build a prosperous nation.


19 January 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Saurabh Das