We travel to find the site of the notorious and elusive rebel camp called “Zogoda”.
BACKGROUND ON ZOGODA:
The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels first attacked Sierra Leone from Liberia in March 1991. Supported by Muammar Qaddafi of Libya and Charles Taylor of Liberia, the rebels moved quickly through the border regions and established their headquarters in Kailahun District in the far east of the country, then pushed into Kono District to take over diamond-mining areas. The government was slow to react, and after a coup in 1992 the army took command and by the end of 1993 had pushed the rebels back into Liberia with help from Nigerian and Guinean troops.
However, the rebels regrouped in Liberia and in 1994 they swept through the country using classic guerrilla tactics: controlling rural areas, traveling by foot on bush paths, and staging surprise attacks on urban areas and roads while the army controlled only the major towns, roads, and barracks.
Throughout the country the rebels overran rural villages, confiscating food and goods and abducting civilians to train as fighters or to use as laborers in camps they established in secure areas. One of the main camps they built was Zogoda, located in a mountainous area of southern Kenema District near the Moa River, which they used as a central command and training base. From Zogoda the rebels could move through the entire country, and in the following two years they attacked most of the major towns, even coming near Freetown in 1995. To counter the rebels the military government hired Executive Outcomes, a South African-based mercenary group, who brought helicopters and advanced tactics to clear the rebels out of target areas including Zogoda, which they destroyed in 1996 in a major operation with the army and civilian militias.
Despite this, the rebels continued their attempts to take over the country for five more years, using both violence and political tactics, until fighting finally stopped and disarmament was completed in December 2001, with a final disarmament ceremony in January 2002.
This map shows the location of Zogoda and movements of RUF fighters as they swept through the country in 1994:
Co-author Bernard Moigula and I made the trip by motorcycle. Our search for the former rebel camp began in the town of Blama, just off the Bo-Kenema highway in Kenema District. Blama was a major town on the Sierra Leone railway (operational 1897 to 1974) as a commercial and mission center during the colonial period. A new highway bypassed it in the 1980s and it’s now a small, quiet town with secondary schools and old stores and warehouses.
The main road through Blama –
People bathing and washing clothes, photo taken from an old railway/vehicle bridge on the main road –
Schoolgirls walk past an up-garret house –
Opposite this house is the first turn we took to reach the former camp – a right turn off the main road onto the road going south to Potoru.
A map of our trip: the first turn out of Blama passes through six small villages before reaching the town of Gbandawo.
The road passes through coffee and cocoa farms.
At Gbandawo there was a police checkpoint and the friendly crowd that gathered gave us directions to the location of the former camp. People told us that, as the rebels moved into the area, virtually the entire population left for other places including refugee centers. The rebels deployed troops along the road and stole anything left behind, including “zinc” metal roofing which they used to build the camp. These roads must have been very dangerous during the war.
After passing through two more towns, Sendehun and Sendumei, we came to a fork in the road. To the right is the main road that continues to Potoru and the south of the country. The smaller road on the left leads to our destination.
Bernard at the intersection. The main road on the right also leads to Tiwai, a large island in the Moa River that is a wildlife sanctuary with facilities for visitors. Note the sign behind it which has information about Ebola (this was in November 2018, around three years after the end of the epidemic).
Close-up of the sign:
We passed over some low mountains which are characteristic of the eastern part of the country. If you look at the route map above you can see that Foday Sankoh and the RUF built Zogoda in a secure location, surrounded on three sides by mountains of the Kambui Hills with only bush paths leading to it.
The Kambui Hills form the backdrop of the town of Kenema, but as they go south they split into two lines, one to the east running along the Moa River and the other, which we were now passing over, further inland to the west. Sankoh placed his camp in the large valley between these two lines of the Kambui Hills.
There are farms and bush along the road.
We stopped in the town of Menima to find a turn-off just past the town.
At a vehicle repair shop we met Shaka Kamara, Mohamed Tarawallie, and Abdul Sama who we hired to lead us along the track that goes to the site of the camp. However, they warned us that it wasn’t possible to get to the site of Zogoda by motorcycle – there was still a several mile walk to the site on bush paths from the last village.
Just past the town we turned left onto a small road that leads into the valley. (The road through Menima continues until it hits the Moa River at a landing called Kpandemei.) Our guides moved ahead of us, walking and riding their motorcycle.
This is a typical bridge which can still manage a four-wheeled vehicle as it goes through local farms.
Further on it becomes a foot and two-wheeled vehicle path.
The first village we came to was Lowoma. While Bernard went to find palm wine, I talked to some of the local people about the former camp. They said that all the families left the area when the rebels came in, and that the area of the former camp is now overgrown with thick bush and forest and is mainly used by local people for hunting, though there are a few isolated villages and farms. Animals include deer, fretambo (a type of small antelope), tortoises, monkeys, pythons, cobras, and vipers.
I asked what you see when you get to the former camp, and they said there are mostly bottles, especially liquor bottles, rusted roofing, old weapons, and bones. I asked them if the bones were animal or human and they said they didn’t know, and when I asked if there were skulls they all laughed.
This is a photo of some of the people we talked to in Lowoma. (Most of the adults in the village were away working on farms or in the bush during the day so there are more children than adults in the picture.)
We left Lowoma and traveled around a mile to the smaller village of Sembehun, the last village on the road where the foot paths to Zogoda start. In Sembehun we first met some people in the town barrie (pavilion). They were surprised by our visit, and said that we were the first people to come and inquire about the camp since the end of the war. They told us that the children in Sembehun attend school at Lowoma.
Scene in Sembehun –
These are some of the people we talked to in Sembehun. The man on the right, Mr Bockarie Kallon, was a member of the Kamajor civilian militia that was formed to fight the rebels.
The Town Chief of Sembehun, Mr Bockarie Kamara, who was also a member of the Kamajor militia, gave us more details about Zogoda. He said there were actually two camps: Zogoda 1 and Zogoda 2. The first was Foday Sankoh’s base, with a house and helicopter landing area. This was located at a place called Nyawa, a few miles northwest of Sembehun and across a river in Niama Chiefdom, just over the boundary from Koya Chiefdom where we were now. He said the area is now difficult to reach and requires hacking through bush.
This is the start of the path to Zogoda 1, now overgrown and hardly used.
The Town Chief further explained that the other camp, Zogoda 2, was “Camp Lion” a training camp and base for fighters. Zogoda 2 was to the northeast of Sembehun and possibly five miles from Zogoda 1, which was accessible only to select people to keep Sankoh and top commanders secure. The rebels used local recruits to guide them along bush paths, and abductees were used for farming and as porters to carry goods and weapons along the paths.
This is the start of the path to Zogoda 2, which was located around two and a half miles down the path at a village called Bargoma, with a few other villages along the path, some with just a few houses. This path is much more traveled than the path to Zogoda 1.
A stream at the start of the path to Zogoda 2. If you were a recruit or abductee of the RUF in this part of the country you would have crossed it on your way to training.
Since it was getting late we decided not to try the long walk to and from Zogoda 2, but it would make an interesting trip.
Back in Blama and on our way to Bo after a trip through local culture and history.
MAPCARTA: The maps of Sierra Leone on Mapcarta are far superior to Google Maps and I used them as the background for the route map. Here are the coordinates of Sembehun and a link to the Mapcarta map of the area.
- Sembehun – Location: Sierra Leone, West Africa, Africa
- Latitude: 7° 41′ 47.5″ (7.6965°) north
- Longitude: 11° 18′ 19.8″ (11.3055°) west
- Elevation: 148 meters (486 feet)