Sierra Leone: A personal odyssey

In rebel-held territory, a few hours' drive from Freetown
Rebels a few hours’ drive from Freetown (© Eric Beauchemin)

Eric Beauchemin has covered the aftermath of numerous wars. Throughout the 1990’s, he kept being drawn to places where the world saw the worst in man come to the surface – places like the Great Lakes region, Angola and Liberia. It’s a fascination with why and how, in some places, evil triumphs over good. The conflict in Sierra Leone had a much deeper impact on him than most of those conflicts.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: April 19, 2000


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Sierra Leone: A personal odyssey”.

Eric Beauchemin has covered the aftermath of numerous wars. But the conflict in Sierra Leone has had a much deeper impact on him than most. We’d like to advise listeners that they might find Eric’s account disturbing.

We came to the bush to fight against the government and to bring sanity into this Sierra Leonean society.

It’s hard to fathom how these things can happen and… And even the people who are committing atrocities are victims of previous atrocities. It’s a cycle of violence that goes on and on.

I asked him to put the hand back. He said, “you can’t. The hand is spoiled already. So we have to throw it away.” So I start to cry…crying like a little baby.

We can describe what happened, but we can’t really explain it. The level of brutality is profound. And yet you wonder what had the civilians ever done to these people to provoke such a response.

It was one of those rare summer afternoons in Holland: a brilliant sun, a gentle breeze, and only the planes flying into Schiphol Airport to disturb me. I sat down in my tiny garden to read a report I had heard about earlier that day. The title of the report was graphic: “Sierra Leone – Getting away with murder, mutilation, rape”.

This report was the result of about three months’ worth of research in which I interviewed hundreds of victims and witnesses and atrocities that were committed during the January offensive.

Corinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch arrived in Sierra Leone in the spring of 1999 to investigate the violations that took place a few months earlier during the rebel offensive on the capital, Freetown.

Corinne Dufka
Corinne Dufka (© Eric Beauchemin)

Human Rights Watch characterises that offensive as being the most concentrated period of human rights abuses in the 9-year Sierra Leonean War. There were over 3000 executions, between 100 and 200 amputations. We could say that thousands of rapes of girls and women, and then probably about 5000 civilians who were abducted and taken to the hills, against mostly young women. There were a lot of people burnt in their houses. There were probably over 5000 houses that were burnt.

Corinne Dufka included these dry facts in her report, but “Sierra Leone: Getting Away with Murder, Mutilation, Rape” is more than just a factual document about a few weeks of horror. I’d had some inkling of the brutality back in January when I saw television pictures of vultures feasting on bloated corpses in the streets of Freetown. These images did not prepare me for Corinne’s report, a catalogue of unimaginable brutality, told by the victims themselves. That afternoon, the air was not only full of the sound of aeroplanes, but also expletives of revulsion and anger.

Several months later, I arrived on the western outskirts of Freetown on the daily United Nations helicopter flight from Conakry. I keep being drawn to these places where the world sees the worst in man come to the surface – places like the Great Lakes, Angola and Liberia. It’s a fascination with why and how, in some places, evil triumphs over good.

As we drive into the city, we pass the amputee camp, a sprawling collection of white plastic tents. The driver looks away. He tells me can’t bear to see the people without arms or legs. These people remind him too much of the suffering that he and everyone else’s been through.

Damba, child amputee in Sierra Leone
Damba, child amputee in Sierra Leone (© Eric Beauchemin)

EB: Tell me your name. Damba. EB: And Damba, how old are you? 8. EB: Tell me what happened to your hand. They were in the farm when the rebels arrived. So they instructed them to lay down their arms so they could chop them off. So she did and they took out her left hand, then likewise they did with the mother. When they amputated them with a cutlass, the mother had to faint. So they threw water on her for a while, then the rest of the people, all of them were amputated. EB: Damba, how many people were amputated then? 9. There were nine people. So the remaining people were killed. EB: How many people were killed Damba? She can’t explain how much but there were many.

As her mother watches on, Damba recites the rest of her story, how the rebels finally left, how they walked for days and days, until they reached a village and a helicopter took them to Freetown for treatment. Damba doesn’t look up as she talks. Later, when I take a picture, I have to coax her to get a smile. And when Damba finally smiles, those eyes full of life and hope briefly blot out everything else. 17-year-old Jawati looks down too, as he describes how his hand was cut off.

Jawati, 17-year-old amputee
Jawati, 17-year-old amputee (© Eric Beauchemin)

The rebels entered the house, and they told everyone to come outside. And they caught me and put me on the floor, and they said I should put my hand for them to amputate it. EB: Did they give you a reason why they were doing this? Well, they don’t give me no reason. They just told us that when the amputate you, you go to the government to go and tell them this is what the rebels are doing. EB: What happened to your hand? Did you just leave it there or did you take it with you? Did you think they might be able to sew it back on? Well, the rebels take it along. They took it along. Yeah. They was telling me that they were going to get two or three bags of hands. Yeah. EB: And what were they going to do with the hands? Do you know? Well I don’t know. I don’t know. EB: They cut off your right hand. Are you right-handed or left-handed? I’m left-handed. EB: Oh, my God. So I’m just managing how to write.

I’m so shocked by the huge scar in Jawati’s right forearm that I’m left speechless. The longer I stay in Sierra Leone, the more normal it becomes to ask about the abnormal, about the madness. A few days later I hear that some of the cut hands gangs, as they were called, even used scissors to carry out amputations. I have to be able to imagine to explain, but I still can’t fathom that gruesome detail. Corinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch reassures me: some acts simply defy the imagination.

There was this particularly perverse practice of rewarding rebels when they came back with bags of hands. I didn’t believe this when I first heard it but then I kept hearing it again and again and again. Where they would put the hands of the victims into a rice bag and carry it back to their commanders. I have interviewed members of cut hands gangs within the rebels, and one of them actually told me that as well, that in fact it did happen. That he actually got a promotion when he brought back a bag of hands. So you wonder what had the civilians ever done to these people to provoke such a response. It would involve such anger at a population to do something like that.

Some of the amputees are now living in a camp on the western outskirts of Freetown. Handicap International has provided weights and equipment for the amputees and the other patients to exercise on.

This guy is Amari Kamara. He’s 15 years of age. He suffered a gunshot on the left knee and this problem has led to a complete stiffness of the knee. And if at all physio attention is not paid to this guy, then maybe one day he might be amputated or not be able to use his limb. So as such, that is why we have just come in to see that we try to put this foot to full extension.

Abdul Sankoh, 28-year-old teacher
Abdul Sankoh, 28-year-old teacher (© Eric Beauchemin)

On Sierra Leone’s scale of brutality, Amari’s wounds are relatively minor. Even the victims realise that there are others who’ve suffered more than they. The most horrific cases are always presented to me, in the hope that I, or those who hear me, will be moved to act. It’s a journey along the fringes of inhumanity…to try to discover that there’s a limit, that things simply can’t get any worse. A 28-year-old teacher, Abdul Sankoh, taught me how futile this quest is.

He tied me, beating me up with guns. So he sent for an axe. Then they brought the axe from our house. Then he amputated this of my right hand. Then I apologise for my lifetime. Then he said no. So he amputate both of my hands. Then I told them to kill me. He said, no, he won’t kill me. He said because of I having a mouth, that is why I am causing noise to him. Then he cut off my mouth, then it hangs. He cut off my ears so at that time, he left me lying on the ground. So I was there shouting, crying.

A few days later, I’m heading off to rebel-held territory to find out why the combatants unleashed such brutality on their own people, the people they claim to have been fighting for. It’s taken days to organise this journey. A rebel commander and his bodyguards pick me up at 9 o’clock in the morning. We have to go back to their run-down motel to dress up in suits. Is it vanity or the fact that their leader, Johnny Paul Karoma (1960-2017), has asked to see us? Then, an even larger delegation, complete with more commanders and bodyguards, gets into the jeep and another car. A few hundred metres later, when we reach the main road, one of the cars dies.

Johnny Paul Karoma, head of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council
Johnny Paul Karoma, head of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (© Eric Beauchemin)

These men in their dark sun glasses leap out and start an animated discussion that goes on and on. These men are convinced that they’re the centre of the world…or of Sierra Leone at least. Passing drivers insult us. The bodyguards scowl and curse some of them. Finally, it’s decided that some of the men should go back to the hotel. Everyone else squeezes into the jeep and we go to their leader’s magnificent villa overlooking a pristine beach, with palm trees at each end. West African peace-keepers wave us by from behind their machine guns. Then we pass a throng of young men, many with rippling muscles and dead eyes, into Johnny Paul’s sanctuary. Many more young men loiter inside, and we’re ushered into the office. An overweight, scowling man enters. Within a few minutes, Johnny Paul Karoma is chiding my hosts about their appearance. “What will the men in the field think”, he asks, “when they see you dressed like this? They’ll think we’re living it up in Freetown while they’re out in the bush suffering”. These men who thought they owned the world were suddenly acting like sheepish children. So we head back to the hotel for the commanders to change yet again.

We finally leave town in the early afternoon, 8 people, squashed into an expensive jeep. The next day, I find out that it was stolen from a UN diplomat at gun-point by Brigadier 55, the man who’s struggling with the jeep’s gear box. We stop at a petrol station and some of the bodyguards re-appear a few minutes later with two bags full of small sachets of cheap gin. They expertly rip them open with their teeth, drinking one sachet after another. The bodyguard next to me pulls out a handful of small brown pills. He swallows them in one gulp along with more of that vile concoction. Is this is how these men prepared for battle?

The Sierra Leonean soldiers and peace-keepers who stop us at the frequent checkpoints greet the rebels as if they’re long-lost friends. The rebels I’m travelling with are Sierra Leonean Army soldiers who were disbanded in 1997. They then joined the rebel Revolutionary United Front in what experts describe as an all-out war against the people of Sierra Leone. Their goal was to capture the country’s vast diamond and mineral resources. Not true, says Brigadier Gullit, the man in charge of this expedition to rebel territory.

Brigadier Gullit
Brigadier Gullit (© Eric Beauchemin)

Well the revolution was a grass-roots revolution at least to achieve the basic and fundamental rights of each and every Sierra Leonean. The revolution is the success boom to sweep all rotten corruption in any economy for a true-lasting democracy. So it is better we clean up the city or we clean up our nation. Later, at the end of the day, we will achieve a true democracy of our land. EB: So the revolution was, in other words, intended to promote democracy. Yes, the revolution is a true African democracy because the former government were talking about democracy, but that was not the democracy we were expecting.

Like much of what I hear the rest of the day, Brigadier Gullit’s words don’t make much sense to me. He talks about grand ideals, but he speaks like a parrot who’s memorised the words in the wrong order. By now, the brigadier’s bodyguards are so drugged that we have to push them into a sitting position for the last leg of the journey to Occra Hills.

Soon after I arrive, I ask the men about the brutal atrocities they’re alleged to have committed. Brigadier Gullit and Brigadier 55 ensure that I hear little.

And when I push too far, all I encounter is anger.

What did I tell you? As a revolutionary struggle, it’s a gateway to a true and lasting democracy. That is where you have your equal rights and justice, when you have a democracy. Isn’t that so? That is a war situation. I wouldn’t like you to tell me about war situation. During that period, you wouldn’t expect law to operate. Everything is suspended. You understand. That is what you have to expect. Actually, I don’t want to get myself too particular about what really went on. Telling you about the war is…I mean, it’s my experience about the war so far. You understand. That is what really I want us to base our argument, our discussion on. I don’t want us to go into what you are carrying me into. EB: What is it that you want to talk about then? I just want us to talk about God, God, God, God. How marvelous God has worked for the people of this country.

AFRC rebel
AFRC rebel (© Eric Beauchemin)

Sierra Leone’s tragedy, I discover, is that everyone feels victimised, even the perpetrators. Almost everyone has suffered from poverty, corruption and extreme inequalities, the things that sparked off the revolution in the early 1990s. Hassan, the man who negotiated my trip to Occra Hills, understands my frustration with these narcissistic men who still try to defend the horror they unleashed on Sierra Leone. Now that there’s a peace agreement, Hassan and his Movement to Unite People regularly come to talk with the rebels to encourage them to put down their weapons. Peace and reconciliation are Hassan’s mantras, despite all the blood-letting and suffering.

We do realise that a lot of them have done things which are unsightly, even in the path of God. There are times people say war is a necessary evil. But it is good to avoid war because you get innocent people killed in any war. So what we want to avert now is this recurrence of war, war, war, war, since 1991. But we are looking forward that even the process of peace in Sierra Leone, that even the government should try to be more accountable because a lot of these people, they get disgruntled because they know there aid coming in for the government, but at the end of the day you will not see…it will not meet its targeted beneficiaries. Just some group or a class of people, like you have the bourgeoisie. I mean, they will enjoy from all these things. So this even why the war in Sierra Leone. I mean, you will take the guns from their hands, but you cannot heal the pains that they have. And if you cannot cater for them after taking the guns from them, so it is like, it will continue. I mean the minds will be war-like. The minds will be war-like, even if they don’t have guns.

As the sun sets Sierra Leone’s peace is strange. Everyone and claims to want peace, even the combatants, but most of them, including these rebels, are still refusing to surrender their weapons. As I wait, a group of 20 men suddenly emerges. They’re heavily armed and all look quite menacing. I pull out my camera and suddenly the rebels are posing as if they’re in some grizzly fashion show. The local commander here, Brigadier Sesay, tells me their last battle was only a few weeks ago, and they have no intention of surrendering their weapons.

Brigadier Sesay and his men
Brigadier Sesay and his men (© Eric Beauchemin)

We are still holding in the bush because we know that if we go down to Freetown, there is no accommodation there for us. And even those of our colleagues who have been taken into the demobilisation centres are not fed. You see, they are not fed. They are not properly taken care of. And so, we believe if we go there to Freetown, that is the same problem we are going to encounter. And so that is why we prefer to stay in the jungle until everything is done perfectly for us before we can go to that demobilisation centre.

As the women prepare dinner, I think about the talks I’ve had during the day. I’d come to try to understand these men’s motivation, the reasons behind the mayhem they’d inflicted on Sierra Leone. But after a day with them, I’ve had enough of these pathetic men and their revolutionary struggle. I could begin to understand their feelings of injustice, frustration and desperation. But do you have to kill and maim your neighbours to make your voice heard?

Brigadier 55
Brigadier 55 (© Eric Beauchemin)

It takes us hours to get back to Freetown that night: checkpoints everywhere with soldiers training their rifles and machine guns on us. The curfew has long passed. Twice it nearly goes wrong: at an ECOMOG checkpoint, a Nigerian soldier asks to see my press card. One of the drugged bodyguards in the back of the car growls that he shouldn’t bother. He can’t read anyway. Within a minute, the Nigerian is screaming at Hassan, whom he suspects of having uttered this infamous accusation. Brigadier 55 eventually gets out of the car to carry on the shouting match. Less than a dozen kilometres later, Brigadier 55 almost shoots another soldier who doesn’t show him the respect he feels he deserves. Hassan tries to calm everyone down. “This isn’t war time anymore,” he says. “We’re all brothers.” But after 9 years of war, his assertion rings hollow.

When I arrive back in Freetown late at night, long after the curfew, the gracious, miserly women who runs the guesthouse has the generator switched on. She and others tell me I’m quite lucky that I got back from Occra Hills alive. I’m the first Western journalist to have gone there. These guys, I’m told, committed some of the worst atrocities during the war. It explains the look of incomprehension and utter fear I’d seen on the faces of people as we drove through the centre of Freetown on our way to rebel territory. I am lucky, but I’m also very angry at these men and especially their leaders. Johnny-Paul Karoma is now a born-again Christian. He has even paid a visit to the amputee camp for a crying session with the victims. Foday Sankoh, the leader of the main rebel movement, the RUF, has also tried to atone, but he still regularly issues veiled threats. In their mad conquest for power and Sierra Leone’s diamonds and minerals, these men and their lackeys destroyed and traumatised a nation.

In the process, they robbed a generation of its future. They forced thousands of kids to join them. All the former child soldiers I meet tell me that they had no choice: if they didn’t fight and kill, they’d be killed. Kids tell me that if they tried to escape, they’d be beaten and even killed. Those who refused drugs had them administered, either forcibly or unknowingly. I have interviewed child soldiers before, but 16-year-old Ibrahim still seems like a grotesque caricature. Ibrahim was abducted at the age of 8. He eventually was promoted to the rank of general. General Bloodshed.

Ibrahim, a.k.a. General Bloodshed
Ibrahim, a.k.a. General Bloodshed (© Eric Beauchemin)

We fight, we do a lot of destruction, killing because I was staying with the Zebra Battalion, so our battalion used to do a lot of things, drinking human blood before going to a front, taking drugs. EB: Drinking human blood and taking drugs? Yeah. So that I used to do before going to a front. EB: And this would give you courage? Yeah, yeah. It give me the force to do something. EB: How did you get this human blood? There’s a lot of capture of civilians people, we used to capture them. Yeah, so sometimes, we ask for blood and they give it. Sometimes they kill them from the prison, then they would give us. EB: Did you have to drink a lot of blood? Yeah. When I am going to the front, that is my first thing in the morning. That is my coffee I take in the morning…every morning, even not going to war front. EB: It’s like taking coffee? Yeah. So I have to do that.

General Bloodshed still haunts me. Some of the former child soldiers love the games they are now told to play. They’re learning again – or is it for the first time? – what childhood is all about. But General Bloodshed doesn’t understand these games. All he wants to do is boast about what a great fighter he was. The social workers tell me he always volunteers to speak to visitors. General Bloodshed doesn’t understand why he now suddenly starts shouting for no reason, why he attacks some of the other kids in the camp. This 16-year-old with empty eyes is trying to impress me. I just feel fear and disgust.

I rape women. I kill children. I don’t know how many children I killed. I don’t know how many persons I killed. Because whenever I have bullets, you don’t know who it is going to kill. And you are not going to count how many people you kill in a front. But I mean some people you shoot from a distance, but other people you said you shot them from very close range. EB: Did you kill many people at close range? Yeah. I can’t remember. Because sometimes for a day I kill more than 5. So I can’t remember how many people I killed, you know. EB: So did all the other fighters fear you? Were they afraid of you? My boys, they are afraid of me. And some of my fighters are afraid of me, because whenever I am with my pistol, sometimes I shot anything. Like we are sitting down talking, you know. They want to bring something up. I just shoot you and die. Yeah. Maybe sometimes when I am moving, I just see something that is strangeful to me, and I say this, I want to kill this person. I just look at it and say I will kill you. You would not believe, I just went I kill you, you know, yeah.

I find it difficult to suppress my revulsion. This boy has learned his lessons well: he became a killing machine, and I know that if he had a gun, he’d kill me. I ask questions that don’t make sense to him, that irritate him. General Bloodshed used to be king. Now he wants to become a reverend, he says, to do God’s work.

At the camp, General Bloodshed and other former child soldiers are learning skills like carpentry so they can become productive citizens. While I interview some of the other children, soldiers from the ECOMOG peace-keeping force suddenly appear and surround the centre. The peace-keepers are accompanying a boy whose head is full of blood. He’s from a different faction than the other boys. That morning, he’d been so angry that he’d defecated on the floor of their dormitory. Then he went out to the main road. Demons were pursuing him, he told me. He’d run across the road four times, trying to get run over by a car. But he’d failed, so he’d taken a rock and hit himself repeatedly. By the time he reached the ECOMOG checkpoint, there was blood pouring out of the gash in his head. He told the West African peace-keepers that the camp for the former child soldiers was full of rebels and they should go kill all of them. The social worker re-assures me. If I come back in a few hours, this 14-year-old will act like any other kid.

The children had not developed a sense of appreciation and understanding for the value of life, so that they would do anything. They just had no ability to evaluate the effects of their acts. Kids are kids. They saw it as a game. They saw it as…especially when they’re pumped up on drugs, they saw it as fun of going into battle. And you know, they were obedient, and that’s what a war needs. Obedient children make for good combatants.

I speak to many of these children during my stay in Sierra Leone. One morning in Bo, the country’s second city, I go to a school to interview some of these former child soldiers. I only want to speak to two or three of them for my programme. But I get caught up in this vicious cycle: I have to do justice to each child’s story, so I have to ask more questions, and time and time again, the children reveal details that I’d rather not hear…that I’d rather no one hear. After the fifth child, I can take no more. I go out and see that there are three more waiting outside the door. I tell them I’ve had enough, but they plead, “please sir”. The last child is 9-year-old James.

James (© Eric Beauchemin)

I can’t take another story, and I have trouble understanding, but James has been waiting patiently for two hours to speak to me, to tell me anything I want to know about his life.

James was 6 when the rebels captured him. I’ve already spoken to over a dozen child soldiers, so his story is familiar. But then, after days of conversations about unbelievable horror and inhumanity, James tells me things that no 9-year-old in the world would ever say.

Those who did bad should be tried and punished, says James. He wants to become lawyer. He wants those who did these things, who killed, he wants them to be punished, severely punished. They’ve killed our people, he says, so many people. They want us to forgive them, but they should be tried, and punished, for they have sinned.

Mohammed Bo, 18, public relations officer of the amputee and war wounded camp in Murray Town
Mohammed Bo, 18, public relations officer of the amputee and war wounded camp in Murray Town (© Eric Beauchemin)

I keep going to places like Sierra Leone because of kids like James, Damba (the 8-year-old who had her arm chopped off), and yes, even because of General Bloodshed. Terrible crimes have been committed in Sierra Leone, and worst of all, a generation’s childhood has been stolen, and so has its future. And hardly anyone has heard about these crimes, and when they have, it’s mostly been dry facts about murder, mutilation and rape. To listen to even one of the victim’s stories is to plunge into a world of brutality and horror that we’d rather not know about. I continue to listen because I want others to hear, not only about the suffering, but also about the resilience of the human spirit, and the very simple dreams Mohammed Ba and others have.

I worry much about my hand when I lose my hand. My little baby, just six years old, I want to take her. I cannot. She fears me. She fears the hand. So I start to cry because that’s not the way with my family. I feel so much bad. I worry about my children, how they are going to get education. Before, when I was working to the vessels, I was getting my own money. I solved my problems without asking anybody. But now I can’t. That’s all. So this is the way of my own lifetimes. For this problem now I am really suffocating inside my mind. So I need help. So thank you very much.

You’ve been listening to Eric Beauchemin’s Personal Odyssey through Sierra Leone. Technical production: Frank Meijer. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.