Bomaru was the first town the rebels attacked when the war began in March 1991. In this narrative, the Town Chief of Bomaru, Chief Kallon, describes life under the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) rebels and the effects the war had on the townspeople. This narrative is the second in a series we did for our book “Sierra Leone: Inside the War”, but which we didn’t include when the book was published. Chief Kallon was interviewed by co-author Bernard Moigula in 2013.
The Sierra Leone Civil War (1991-2002) was instigated by three men: Foday Sankor, a Sierra Leonean and leader of the RUF rebels; Charles Taylor, a Liberian and head of the NPFL rebel forces in that country; and Muammar Qaddafi, the president of Libya. In the 1990’s Muammar Qaddafi was using Libya’s oil money to support wars in countries where he could install leaders loyal to him, and he set up his World Revolutionary Center near Benghazi, Libya to train leaders and fighters for these conflicts. Two of the countries where Qaddafi fomented wars were Sierra Leone and Liberia.
PHOTOS: Foday Sankoh (Sierra Leone), Charles Taylor (Liberia) and Muammar Qaddafi (Libya)
Foday Sankoh’s RUF troops, aided by a large number of Taylor’s NPFL fighters, attacked Sierra Leone along the Liberian border in March 1991. The first place they attacked was the small town of Bomaru, located in Kailahun District in the far east of the country. Sierra Leone Army soldiers from a nearby barracks engaged them in a battle which the rebels won, though the army returned and took back the town, followed by more fighting and reversals.
Eventually the RUF rebels took over most of Kailahun District and used it as their headquarters and transshipment point for arms supplied by Qaddafi through Liberia. The war dragged on for ten years (mostly because of the incompetence of the Sierra Leone Army and lack of interest from the outside world) and the RUF was able to spread through most of the country. Bomaru remained under RUF control until it was liberated by the Kamajors, a civilian force opposed to the RUF, later in the war.
Sankor and the RUF had probably hoped he would be joined in his rebellion by members of the Mende ethnic group who live in the east and south of the country. However, the brutalities they inflicted on the civilian population turned most civilians against them as can be seen in the chief’s description of life in Bomaru.
THE TOWN CHIEF’S NARRATIVE
Chief Kallon, Town Chief of Bomaru – Interviewed in 2013
I’m fifty years old. I’ve been in Bomaru from the start to the end of the war and up to the present moment. The war started on March 23, 1991. That morning we heard a gunshot at the police checkpoint then heavy firing. Government soldiers came and there was a serious fight. One of our brother’s sons was shot and killed and a lot of people were wounded. The rebels retreated but returned with heavy gunfire. They forced the government soldiers out and put up a flag to show they that were occupying the town and that it was a proper war. They told the people they were fighting under Foday Sankoh and that they would never retreat. Their mission was to advance to Freetown.
Some people started hiding outside the town while others were captured and told not to go anywhere. I succeeded in escaping and went to Siama where I stayed for some time but that town was also attacked. They were looking for people from Bomaru and I was taken back under gunpoint. They said Bomaru was our village and we had to stay there.
We were engaged to make farms and swamps for them while they went to fight. We did all the work by force under armed guard. As they attacked other towns they brought back people they captured so Bomaru became highly populated. We didn’t eat any of the rice from the farms. They came and took everything away. When we processed palm oil they took it all. Some days they sent us out to find food with armed guards. We had no way of escaping because we were surrounded by rebels. The entire town was burnt down and only one building remained. At times we were attacked by government soldiers and we ran and hid in the bush. We became used to it.
Checkpoint in Bomaru at the Liberian Border
Main Road/Town Center of Bomaru
One time the government soldiers forced the rebels out of the town and were staying with us instead of the rebels. There was a soldier named Lt. Foday Kallon from Daru Military Barracks who captured the town and punished us a lot for helping the rebels. We were in a difficult position, between the soldiers and the rebels, and it went back and forth.
Some big men used to visit Bomaru and some of them lived here. Foday Sankoh visited several times and held meetings. On the first visit he came from Liberia and said that he was the one who brought the war to free the civilians. Rebel leaders who visited us were General Dofor, Pourvay, Monamie, Isaac, Mosquito, Boise Kallon, and a lot of others. We were here until the Kamajors came. We experienced a lot of attacks but this was a rebel base and it was very difficult for others to force them out. With the help of God we were saved and nothing happened to us with all the struggles and attacks we went through.
I was feeling very bad during that time but if they saw you feeling regretful they would kill you, so you just had to enjoy and pretend to love them. We pretended to love them but we hated them. There was no other way. You even saw children coming with guns, dragging them. The children would order you to do things and if you didn’t do them they would kill you or beat you with their guns. We didn’t change clothes. When they were dirty we washed them, dried them in the sun, and put them on. Also if your shirt was too clean a rebel might take it from you to wear.
Some of us lived on bush yams. If you wanted salt, Maggi or tobacco you had to process a gallon of palm oil and take it to Vaahun to exchange for the items. If the rebels saw you with salt or other things they would take them, so you had to hide them in the bush and just take some when you needed it.
They gave us a lot of rules. First, they didn’t like stealing though they stole anything they wanted. If they caught you stealing they would kill you. One time I was tied up which affected my arms for over a month. My arms were nearly paralyzed and there was no medicine. If they beat you the only medicine was to use hot water to heat up your body. One time there was a shortage of food and some white men from the Red Cross brought food for us in a helicopter at Baiwala, but on our way back the rebels took everything.
The monument and barrie were built during the Kabbah government, but since then no one has done anything for us. There are soldiers and police deployed in the town. We have a nurse but no hospital. Some of the houses you see were built from selling produce. The government has built a few water wells and schools but nothing else.
The war happened because of untruthfulness. Before the war we were denied our rights by the government, especially regarding money. Foday Sankoh said they were coming to free us but they were also the perpetrators as they punished us severely. As the town chief I was beaten many times, for example, when they came for food and I told them there was no food. I didn’t have anywhere to go or anywhere to complain (meaning there was no government authority) so I just stayed here.
There are some positive things that have resulted from the war. We see more truthfulness. A lot of help is coming, though not directly to this village. The worst negative aspect was the raping. As soon as they saw a woman they just told her to come and sleep with them, and if she refused she was killed. I saw it happen. They took property and possessions by force. There were people killed for no reason. By the grace of God war won’t happen again because the Kamajors, rebels, and even the government soldiers won’t fight again. Now the civilians will prosecute anyone who brings such a thing. If they had known what the war would be like they would never have fought it. A lot of lives were lost, some not by guns but by hunger. People would just fall down because there was no food.
Memorial in Bomaru for people injured and killed in the first attack
Inside the memorial