We interviewed “Joe” for our book in 2012 – some years ago, but it’s good to remember how the war affected people’s lives.
Joe was around 13 years old in 1993 when he was captured by the RUF rebels. He was trained at Peyama Camp, near Tongo Field in Kenema District, and then at Zogoda, the big rebel camp in the south of Kenema District. Joe spent most of his time in the east, engaged in attacks on Koidu and on ECOMOG. He took part in the capture of Makeni and, following SAJ Musa, the AFRC commander of the North, to Freetown for the attack on January 6, 1999, though he didn’t make it into the city because of fierce fighting. Joe spent many years in the bush as a rebel fighter and explains the reasons why he remained with the rebels as a child fighter.
Captured and Trained
I was going to school in Port Loko and was in Form 1 when the war began in 1991. I still remember what happened during the war.
In 1993 I was captured by the rebels when I went to Kambema village in Lower Bambara Chiefdom, Kenema District, for holidays. Eight people were captured including some women. The women were released and we, the boys, were taken to Peyama Camp for training. After that we were taken to another camp called Zogoda where Foday Sankoh was based, and I stayed there six months. We were trained how to crawl, maneuver, and “haraka” (firing from all positions) – guerilla training.
I was very active and was later appointed as a patrol commander because I had completed some secondary school. I felt that I had no other option after I was captured.
The rebels had a radio station at Buedu, Kailahun District. This place was in the rear but we were always in the front so I never saw the rear areas. Those who stayed in those areas were just enjoying while we were defending them.
Fighting in the East
After passing out we were sent to Kono. We attacked Koidu but didn’t succeed in capturing the town. The SLA (Sierra Leone Army) drove us away and chased us. We regrouped in the bush around Motema (a small town west of Koidu) but we were still being attacked by soldiers and we received orders from Peyama to go back.
In 1995 we attempted to attack Koidu again. The front line was at Gandorhun (south of Koidu, on the road from Kailahun District). We hit the soldiers very early in the morning, at 6 AM, and captured Gandorhun and slept there. The next day reinforcements came for the government soldiers. We pushed them up to Kanekor (toward Koidu) but the soldiers ambushed us at Waoma so we took a bush road to Motema and at 6 PM launched another attack.
A few men took the main highway that goes through Motema, while others went to Ngaiya where the armor door (armory) was located. Luckily we captured the armor door and ammunition. After that we attacked Koidu and entered the town. I was using a G3, a gun called “Black Man” because if you got shot you turned completely black before you died.
When we attacked Koidu, twenty-one of us dressed as soldiers using uniforms we took from Sierra Leone Army soldiers. At the checkpoint we pretended to be SLA and told them we had been driven out of Kono by rebels and they shouldn’t fear us. Then we captured and disarmed all of them except one who had a bicycle and who had seen us from a distance. We chased him and he rode the bicycle for some distance then ran into the bush.
On another mission we laid an ambush for the ECOMOG Nigerians on the highway between Kono and Makeni. The mission was led by Dennis Mingo (AKA Superman). The Oga (Nigerians) were moving from Makeni to Koidu. There was a heavy exchange of fire and we destroyed one of their vehicles and captured another. We killed a lot of them and the others ran into the bush.
The way we made an ambush was to do it in a place where the road was bad and they couldn’t drive fast. We stayed on one side of the road on a hill, which made it difficult for them to see us and shoot up but easy for us to shoot down. We had a lot of tactics for attacking. Another was, when we went to attack a town we wouldn’t take the main road but follow a by-pass to the back of the town. Most attacks were very early in the morning when there was still dew (fog), around 5:30 to 6:00 AM, so no one would see us and raise an alarm.
After that I wanted to go to Kenema to see my parents. This was during the time the RUF was joining with the SLA (after the AFRC coup in 1997) while the Kamajors were becoming stronger. My brothers from Freetown told me that if I went there I would be caught and killed by Kamajors because they knew I was a rebel, so I didn’t get to see my parents.
Moving on Freetown
In 1998 we dislodged the ECOMOG soldiers from Kono and forged ahead to Makeni. There we attacked the ECOMOG soldiers at the military barracks and drove them away. After that we received orders to follow SAJ Musa and others into Freetown. They were moving right ahead of us, but before we reached Waterloo we heard that SAJ Musa was dead. He was killed in the armor door explosion at Benguema Military Barracks.
While we were in Waterloo others were already in Freetown (in the January 6th attack) and we were hoping they would send a message for us to go and reinforce them. We didn’t receive a message. They had been heavily attacked in Freetown and had to return to Waterloo. We rehogged (regrouped) there and attacked Freetown again. We reached the outskirts of the city but after heavy fighting we had to retreat. We weren’t able to penetrate the city.
Issa Sesay was our leading commander then. From there we traveled back to Masingbi (on the road between Makeni and Koidu). We controlled the highway and traveled in convoy there, but were attacked by government soldiers. We had a revenge attack but didn’t succeed and were all scattered.
Later I went to Makeni and stayed there, then I went back to Kono around 2001 to 2002 and then to Tongo Field. When I arrived in Tongo one of my uncles who was a chief in Kenema heard I had returned from the jungle, so he came for me. My parents talked to me and said I should go to Kenema whether I was armed or not, so I left my gun in Tongo Field and went to Kenema.
Tongo Field in 2012
Life of a Guerilla
We were really guerilla fighters eating any kind of food—bananas, cassava, or rice. When we attacked a town we took any food that was there. We had bush camps from where we made attacks and slept in pan body (sheet metal) houses because we could be attacked if we slept in town. Everybody had to make his own camp in the bush. Some people drank omole (local gin) to give them zeal to fight. Others smoked ganja or took cocaine. Some people didn’t take anything.
I used no witchcraft for protection like the Kamajors, though some RUF used it. I didn’t use it because I trusted nobody but God. I always prayed before I went into a battle. In the jungle we had different ways of dressing, sometimes like soldiers, sometimes half combat half civilian. We used civilians as spies, most often the ones who were loyal to us. We also used them to do other work such as carrying things.
I knew some of the top commanders. I was in action with Superman, Issa Sesay, and Gibril Massaquoi—the top commanders. Gibril Massaquoi was our spokesman and also a fighter. In the jungle the top men would visit us and in the morning hours we stood in formation and they would talk to us to give everyone heart to fight the war. They told us our mission for the day and any problems or good news.
When we were attacking I felt bad, either that I would die or get wounded. We were attacked by Kamajors many times and in many places—Bandajuma-Yawei, Kwellu-Ngieya. They would attack and scatter us. We would regroup from the direction of the sunrise so a rebel had to know where the sun rose and set.
When we went to a place we made signs on the road to direct others, to show where we were and places that were dangerous. You could only understand the signs if you joined us. When we went to the war front if any of our fighters were shot and injured we wouldn’t leave them there. We would try to retreat with them by any means. One of my friends was shot in the leg between Njala and Motema. We carried him on our backs and treated him in the bush.
The rebels had different battalions and you knew where they stayed by that.
4th Battalion: Kimber Base (Peyama)
Kenema By-Pa (Zogoda)
Foday Sankoh talked to us and told us that the war was being fought for freedom of speech and rights for everyone. He said that if we didn’t continue fighting the war it would be a disgrace for us because we were already in the jungle. He told us that when the war was over and we had succeeded he would let everyone in the country enjoy, particularly we the fighters. We would be the first to get positions and facilities. Wherever we were based he would come to talk to us.
Concerning the raping and cutting off of hands, I think in any group there are some elements who don’t obey orders. When we first started there was nothing like that happening. It was later in the war that this happened. I experienced it when we were all merged with the government soldiers (after the AFRC coup). When we were mixed together some took it as a way of expressing their grievances on other people so they cut off their hands and burned their houses.
I saw some Liberians, especially from the Gio tribe when I came into the “game”, though only a few of them stayed. Kai Londo was one Liberian I knew. Most of them were commanders. I recently saw Kai Londo who is staying near Makeni. He’s living a very peaceful and comfortable life. Of course others like Issa are in prison, Mosquito is dead, while I’ve only heard of some others but haven’t seen them.
Doctor Gbanda, a Sierra Leonean, was another commander. He was our doctor in the jungle. We got supplies of drugs from Liberia or if we attacked a town we had people who would rush to the hospital and take all the drugs and later in the bush the doctor would identify what the drugs were for. Many of our colleagues would become seriously sick in the bush and die even though they hadn’t been shot.
About the War
I don’t think that war will happen again in Sierra Leone because everyone, no matter which side you were on, tasted the bitterness of war. Even those who have handled guns wouldn’t like to go back because the jungle isn’t easy. Today you are here, before the day ends you are dead or you see a colleague dead, so it’s not easy. Nobody will scream for war and I pray that God doesn’t bring it to this country again. War brought destruction to the country. Some people won’t be able to rebuild their houses during their lifetimes. Before the war Tongo Field was very nice but now all the houses have been burned.
Really the war was bad. Now we have more transparency. We have more rights and are able to talk in public. You can even talk to high level people and tell them they’ve done something wrong which was not the case before. Now there is more democracy. Everybody has their rights. To prevent the reoccurrence of war we should love one another. If you do bad to someone you should realize what you’ve done and have a clear conscience to talk to them about it. That way there won’t be any grudges.
The new government should make facilities for youth. Out of 100 percent if only 90 percent are working it won’t be too much of a problem. If everybody is busy you won’t think of doing bad. There should be more employment facilities so the big people can’t convince youths to go and fight, and then no bad thing will happen in the country again.
Kenema back street in the rainy season (2012)
Hangha Rd, Main Street of Kenema (2012)