Photo: Foday Sankoh, leader of the RUF rebels
In 1991 a brutal civil war broke out in Sierra Leone, a small, former British colony on the west coast of Africa. Known locally as the Rebel War, it was a shockingly violent conflict in a country that had been peaceful and friendly though divided by political and tribal rivalries. Many people outside Africa first learned about the war in 1999 when the Revolutionary United Front rebels and their army allies attacked Freetown, the country’s capital, and killed or mutilated thousands of people. Reports of the attack were followed by news of child soldiers, amputations, and the “blood diamonds” that were mined by the rebels and exchanged for arms.
The war had actually begun eight years earlier when former Sierra Leone Army corporal Foday Sankoh and his RUF rebels invaded Sierra Leone with the support of Muammar Qaddafi, president of Libya, and Charles Taylor, a Liberian who was, at the same time, waging a war to take over his own country which is Sierra Leone’s neighbor to the southeast. The conflict became more complex in 1997 when the army staged a coup d’état and asked the rebels to join them. This resulted in heavy fighting as pro-government forces fought
the rebels and the army junta to control the country. Western countries weren’t willing to become involved in the fighting and supported stopgap peace agreements that were ignored by the adversaries.
For most of the war West African troops were the only forces that kept the rebels from taking power, and many Nigerians and other West Africans died in the fighting. It wasn’t until 2000-2001 when Britain sent troops, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Charles Taylor, and Guinean, Liberian, and Sierra Leonean fighters overpowered the rebels that the war finally ended.
The Rebel War was particularly violent because the RUF tried to take power through terror, believing the government would yield to the sheer brutality of their actions. A list of atrocities compiled after the war by the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission includes killing, rape,amputations, abduction and arbitrary detention, sexual slavery, drugging, forced labor, torture, looting, destruction of property, and cannibalism. All the factions, which included the rebels, the army junta, and the Civil Defense Forces, committed atrocities during the war, and some of the torture and killing was done by children under the age of fifteen.
When the war was over many civilians and ex-fighters required counseling, and an extensive reconciliation process was implemented so that ex-fighters and civilians could accept the tragedies that had taken place and live together peacefully. A UN-sponsored Special Court tried the leaders of the three factions, a process that ended in 2012 with the conviction of Charles Taylor for war crimes.
After the war there was a great deal of discussion on human rights, child rights, gender issues, transparency, and fair elections, and Sierra Leoneans became more vocal on these issues and hopeful that their leaders would be honest and conscientious, and follow international conventions. However, political and tribal rivalries remain along with endemic corruption and mismanagement, and there is still the chance that the country could experience political violence, and that poverty, poor education and health services, and low
life expectancy will persist.
History and Narratives: This book is divided into two parts. The first part includes an explanation of Sierra Leone’s culture and historical background followed by a detailed history of the civil war. Sources for the history include the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, testimony and judgments from the Special Court trials, and news articles, books, and academic papers written about the war. In addition, the Special Court Judgment (verdict) of Charles Taylor from 2012 presented significant
information on Taylor’s involvement in planning and supporting the war.
In the second part of the book the story of the civil war is retold by Sierra Leoneans who lived through it. As most of the reporting on the war was Freetown-based, we, as co-authors, aimed to explain how the war progressed through the country, starting with the first attacks in the east and south, through the guerrilla takeover of almost the entire country, to the climactic incidents in Freetown, the north, and along the Guinean border. We also wanted readers to understand how the war was experienced and perceived by both civilians and combatants. Therefore, we interviewed people from all parts of the country and fighters from all three factions, and presented our
results in the form of narratives that follow the war from beginning to end.
Narrators who were civilians during the war were willing to tell their stories and were glad that others would hear what they had experienced. However, it sometimes took time to gain the trust of the former fighters who thought we might be exposing them to prosecution, while some ex-fighters refused to talk to us.
As in all wars men did most of the fighting, but the factions in the Sierra Leone war also had child soldiers and, except for the Civil Defense Forces, female soldiers. Our biggest challenge was finding female fighters who would tell their stories, as women and girls who fought in the war can be ostracized if people know about their past. In the end, we were able to interview a cross section of ex-combatants and gain significant information on details of the war and the attitudes and motives of the fighters.
The narratives provide not only details and experiences, but insight into the social, cultural, and economic aspects of the fighting. By combining the discourse of the narrators, the cultural background, and the history of Sierra Leone and the war, we hope that readers can gain an understanding of the causes of the war, the reasons for the sometimes confusing progression of events, and of the motivations, reactions, and feelings of individuals caught up in the fighting. We hope that this will, in turn, lead to an appreciation of the reconciliation process that has allowed Sierra Leoneans to live together in relative peace, though in truth, many people who experienced the war
haven’t reconciled with the violent and inhumane events that followed the invasion of the country by the Revolutionary United Front.