Sierra Leone War Stories 1: Kabala to Freetown
Co-author (of Sierra Leone: Inside the War) Bernard Moigula and I collected many stories about the war, traveling to every part of the country to find people who had experienced or taken part in major events of the war. We weren’t able to include all the stories in our printed version of the book, so we are posting some of them on this blog.
Following are the experiences of David, who we interviewed in Koidu, Kono District where he is a Secondary School teacher. David was living in the northern town of Kabala when there were attacks on the town early in the war. Because of the attacks, he moved with his family to Freetown, only to be there during the January 6, 1999 invasion by the combined AFRC/RUF. This narrative follows David, his family, and his motorcycle from Kabala to Freetown. Many thanks to David for this interesting account. (David, and all the narrators in our book, gave us written permission to use their stories; copyright by narrators and authors.)
David and his daughter in 2012
I was born in 1960 in Lei Chiefdom, Kono District. I was in Freetown in college when the war started and I have an HTC (Higher Teachers Certificate) in agriculture from Milton Margai College. After I graduated I went to Kabala and taught, then I got an NGO job with FASP, Farmers Association Support Program based in Kabala town.
It was in 1994 when the rebels first attacked Kabala. It was after their second attack on Kono. I had to run away to a village on the border called Gbaintu, traveling on my motorbike. We were there for four days, and when we learned the government soldiers had driven the rebels away the manager told us to go back for petrol so we could take our vehicle back to Kabala. He wouldn’t go because he was nearly killed during the rebel attack.
When we got back we discovered that our accountant had been killed. His name was Macauley. We also learned that the leader of the Tamaboros, named Dembaso, was killed. When we arrived in Kabala we were asked by the military men to bury dead people and they wouldn’t let us get petrol until we did it. That day we buried seven people including our accountant. We found his body in a house.
The attack happened like this: we were all in the office until lunch time, then Macauley said he was going home for his things because we’d heard the rebels were coming. It usually happened like that when the rebels were attacking. Someone would come running from the place that had been previously attacked. Unfortunately for Macauley the way to his house was the way the rebels were coming. He and the manager went together with a driver in the vehicle. They met some soldiers on the way and thought they were government soldiers but they were rebels. They went and collected their things and when they were coming back the rebels attacked them. The driver drove the vehicle into a swamp and he and the manager escaped, but the accountant ran back toward his house and was killed.
As for the Tamaboro leader, he believed that he couldn’t be killed because of his mystic powers and he stayed in his house during the attack. People say he was killed with his own knife. As leader he always carried a long knife and his worship (magic protection) was possibly in the knife. The rebels used the knife to kill him. He was one of the Tamaboros who had gone to Kono to drive the rebels away after the first attack there.
Boys selling corn in Kabala
There was a second atack the same year, also during the day. I was just from work and I left my motorcycle at home and went to take a stroll in the center of town. I was sitting at a friend’s shop and they attacked again. I never went home. I just ran into the bush. My family—my wife and two young sons—also ran away and fortunately we all went in the same direction. I found them later in Dogolia village and we stayed there for two weeks. When we went back our house was completely empty and the motorbike was gone. A friend told me he saw it along the road and I went and brought it back. The tire had gone flat and the rebels just left it.
The most horrible attack was after the AFRC coup when they entered the town at night. ECOMOG Nigerians and Guineans and some surrendered government soldiers who remained on the government side were in the town. We were all asked to stay indoors. The surrendered soldiers told ECOMOG to allow the rebels to enter the town and they would attack them after they entered. They told ECOMOG to give them rifles and to stay in the back with the heavy weapons. That day the rebels really suffered. A lot of them were killed. We were indoors and didn’t see the fight. The following day was another burial day in a mass grave. After that I decided to leave Kabala. I sent my family to Freetown and I rode my motorbike there.
But the most horrible time was January 6, 1999 in Freetown. Kabbah was back in power and the RUF and AFRC came back to attack Freetown. I was at Pademba Road where we had a flat. They entered at night and the next day they opened the prison and let the prisoners out. From our flat we watched the prisoners pass by on foot down Pademba Road.
The following day four of the rebels came to our compound. One of them jumped over the gate and opened it for the other three. By then my motorbike was parked behind the house. They asked “Who is the owner of that motorbike?” and the son of the landlady said “The man is inside.” They went in and told us all to come out. There was a young girl around fifteen or sixteen years old who had come to seek refuge in the house. They took her into the outside bathroom and one of them raped her. After that he told his friends “There are a lot of women in this house” but the others said “No, that’s not what we’re here for.”
The landlady’s son pointed at me and said “This is the owner of the motorbike.” They told me to give them the key because they wanted to use it. I went up and took the key and gave it to them. They told me to start the motorbike so I cranked it about three times and it wouldn’t start. They told me they would let me try three more times and if it didn’t start they would kill me. Two of them had guns.
I cranked it three more times and it still didn’t start and they told me to lie down on the ground. I laid down and thought they would shoot me, but then they told me to stand up and hold up my hands. I was relieved when they said that. They took my watch and money and asked me to follow them, so I followed them to the gate and they told me to stand by the gate and wait for them. They left and I looked out and saw them far away so I ran out fast and went to another compound.
Most of the rebels were small boys, age twelve to sixteen. They all wore short trousers. Some of the small boys’ guns almost touched the ground when they held them. We were very afraid of them. If they came and asked for anything we just gave it to them. My wife and children were staying in Wilberforce with her sister but I stayed with a friend because it was difficult to find a place. A lot of people were coming into Freetown at that time, especially from the east side where it was very dangerous.
The next day a lot of rebels came to the area to hunt for ECOMOG soldiers. We were all asked to come out and stand on the main Pademba Road and sing “We want peace” over and over. We were standing there while they burned the houses. They burned all the houses in that area, from Christ Church going toward Pademba Road.
Pademba Road, Freetown
That night we went to one of our friends at Fort Street. We passed a night there and the next day they burned that house also. In the house there was an old man who died. He was sleeping when they burned it. We tried to climb up and save him but the rebels said they would kill us if we attempted to do it.
In the third house we stayed near a Reverend, and his son had been injured. One of the men I stayed with was a medical man. He helped the son so they gave us some bulgur wheat to live on. We were also assisted by one rebel boy. He came and said he wanted to burn the house. The landlord came down and gave him a big bottle of wine. After that he said we were safe and nothing would harm us. He said if anyone came to tell them that Lt. Musa was staying here. He was a small boy but he was a lieutenant. When he went out to get food he cooked it and said “Let’s eat.” He was there until ECOMOG took over, and he told us the rebels would put on ECOMOG uniforms for camouflage so if we saw any ECOMOG soldiers we shouldn’t cheer them or they might kill us if they were actually rebels. The rebels were in Freetown to take over the government. They said they were liberators. Lt Musa would sit and talk with us about it.
I was there when ECOMOG bombed a ship that was coming with ammunition for the rebels. Jets took off from Lungi and sank it. The rebels were waiting for the ship, and if they had got it they would have been able to stay in Freetown.
After the ECOMOG drove the rebels away the ECOMOG soldiers were killing some civilians. They shot people pointed out as collaborators. I didn’t see it, but I heard about one ECOMOG soldier at Aberdeen Bridge and Congo Bridge called “Evil Spirit”, a Nigerian. He would kill people without questioning them if he thought they were collaborators. At that time they were still screening people because some of the rebels were still in town but acting like they were civilians.
A friend of mine came from America and took me to Banjul to stay. I didn’t take my family. He was just going to try to get me to America and I could bring my family later. It didn’t work out and I stayed and worked in Banjul for four years and took my family there after the first year.
The war was really bad. For one thing, our project in Kabala was about to start growing Irish potatoes but the war stopped everything. The war moved the country backward. However, since the war there has been more transparency. People are more aware of what the government is doing and are keeping an eye on them. A lot of things happened in the war. We were just in the hands of God.