The memories should be their punishment: War rape in Sierra Leone

Miriam (© Eric Beauchemin)

The 1990’s in Sierra Leone, West Africa. A civil war raged there for nearly the entire decade. It has been described as one of the most brutal wars in modern times. Rape was an integral part of the war strategy. “Because of the systematic nature of it,” says Corine Dufka of Human Rights Watch, “in humanitarian law terms, you can really consider this a crime against humanity.”  Thousands of young women and girls are still suffering the after-effects, but – like everyone else in Sierra Leone – they have been asked to forgive.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: January 12, 2000

The documentary won a silver medal at the Bayeux-Calvados Normandy Awards for War Correspondents in 2000.

Pictures: Eric Beauchemin

Original broadcast: January 12, 2000


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “The memories should be their punishment: War rape in Sierra Leone”. The program is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

We would like to advise listeners that the following program contains graphic descriptions of the personal experience of the victims of violence, rape and torture. Listeners may find them disturbing.

The depth of suffering that people went through is unbelievable. You can’t say anymore than that.

Sexual violation has been one of the instruments of the war. We thought it was time that the culture of silence on the rape should stop.

You had individual rape, you had gang rape, you had torture, you had sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, and then because of the systematic nature of it, in humanitarian law terms, you can really consider this a crime against humanity.

They’ve been devalued. They had the feeling that they are no longer wanted in society. You know, that stigma as a result of what had happened to them sexually.

Late Saturday morning at Godrich Beach in Freetown, in the capital of Sierra Leone, West Africa, in the waning days of the 20th century. A group of 25 girls, some as young as 10, has gathered for a day out, for a day away from the memories of the war…the 9-year war that devastated everything in this West African paradise. Almost all these girls were raped…often savagely and repeatedly, for months or years on end. Almost all speak of it as a never-ending nightmare. No one knows how many girls and young women in Sierra Leone were sexually violated. Thousands, it’s estimated…many thousands.

Cynthia (© Eric Beauchemin)

My name is Cynthia Gibson. EB: Cynthia, how old are you? I’m 18 years old. EB: Can you tell me what happened to you? On the 6th of January, the rebels took me from my mother’s home. EB: When they took you from your house, can you tell me what happened then? You were in your house with your family, what happened? We were in the house with my family, and then the rebels came in. And when they came in, they said my mother should give them money. Then my mother said she don’t have money. They beat my mother and they said they should take me away. They give me a heavy load to take away. EB: So they took you away. Then they forced you to carry a load. Yes, they forced me to carry a heavy load then I said, I don’t able to take this load. Then they beat me and dragged me. Then I took the load and start to travel. On my way traveling, then one man named “Captain Bonus” – they called him Captain Bonus – hold me, raped me on the way. EB: This captain, was he much older than you? Yes, the captain was older than me. He’s about 29 years old. EB: He raped you on the road, like that? Did other people see this? Yes, many people see this because it is open. The place that he took us was a bushy place, so there he lied me on the grass and raped me.

These girls are the victims of the war. They’ve been psycho-socially affected, brutally by the war. Almost all of them here have been sexually abused. In the bush, they spent a lot of time with the fighting forces. They acquired skills, survival skills in the bush and we are trying to develop these. Now they are cooking for us, so all of us would eat the meal together. They said they would like to cook Jollof rice. Some of them have been cooking Jollof rice for the commanders.

Maude Peacock is a counselor for the charity, the Christian Children’s Fund.

Maude Peacock
Maude Peacock (© Eric Beauchemin)

EB: These are some of the older girls who are cooking. The younger ones are drawing. They are engaged in drawing. I’m so pleased with the drawing, Eric. Originally when they draw, they used to draw airplanes and soldiers, guns, AK47, RPG. But what I have been seeing, they are drawing houses, beautiful houses, and they are coloring the houses beautifully. This is a sign of hope, and I am very pleased with it.

EB: OK, tell me your name. Rebecca Kablong. Rebecca, how old are you? 15. Tell me what happened to you. They killed my mother, January 6th. They kill her before my face…

Rebecca says her mother was killed on January 6th 1999, when the rebels invaded Freetown. It’s a statement Rebecca repeats often in her account. Then, her father and the rest of her family, she says, tried to escape by car. The rebels stopped them. In a voice, devoid of emotion, Rebecca recounts that everyone, but her, was killed.

Rebecca (© Eric Beauchemin)

EB: How long were you with the rebels? Two days. EB: Just two days? They raped me. EB: One man or many men? Two. EB: Where did they rape you? Did they rape you on the street or did they rape you in a home? Street. EB: Other people were watching. Yes. EB: What do you think of what the rebels did to you? They were paining me. They starve me, rape me.

The rebels hurt me, says Rebecca. When they first took her, they wanted to cut off her hands. But she begged and begged, she says. She told them to rape her…as often as they wanted…but please, she pleaded, don’t cut off my hands. Rebecca was raped continuously for two days. The two men only stopped when they fell asleep. That was the only time I could breath, she says.

EB: Do you know why the rebels did this? No. EB: Anything else you’d like to say Rebecca? Yeah. EB: Tell me. I want to go to school. EB: Are you going to school now? No. EB: Why not? I don’t have people to pay for me.

Like everything else in Freetown, school came to an abrupt halt on January 6, 1999. Schools have now reopened, and most basic services have been restored, but many of the raped children, like Rebecca, lost their parents during the invasion. Their guardians or foster parents cannot afford the school fees. It’s just one of the enduring legacies of that month of terror and bloodshed, says Maureen Mulhourne, the medical coordinator in Freetown of the Dutch branch of MSF, Doctors without Borders.

There was a lot of atrocities committed by the rebels when they were in town. People were used as human shields. People were burnt alive in their houses, and there were amputations committed on children, on women, just totally indiscriminately, on civilians basically. On a massive scale. Yeah, on a massive scale. And on top of that, there was mass raping of women and mass abductions of women and children who were then taken by the rebels into the bush where the abuse continued for some people up to the present day…where they’re just starting to be released now. And as you find out more information and you realize the history of the war in Sierra Leone, that these atrocities hit Freetown in January in 1999, but have been the story for a lot of people in the provinces for the past 9 years.

The war began in the early 1990s, when rebels from the RUF, the Revolutionary United Front, entered Sierra Leone from neighboring Liberia, a country itself in the throes of a brutal civil war. The RUF’s aim was to end one-party rule. But somewhere along the line, things went horribly wrong. The RUF started killing, maiming and looting. Other factions emerged, and for 9 long years Sierra Leone and its inhabitants tore themselves apart. The barbarity reached a climax when the rebels invaded Freetown on January 6th 1999. Corinne Dufka documented some of these stories in a chilling report for Human Rights Watch. She’s now conducting research on the mass rape of girls and young women during the war.

I don’t think that human rights activists or counselors or government officials have even begun to come to terms with the amount of sexual abuse that has occurred during this war. Again it was very systematic. The rebels would go into the bush. They would abduct young women and they would then make them into their wives. There was no question, and the women themselves often talk about it as though it was something that just happened. They felt as if there was nothing they could do. Often, they didn’t even have to point guns at them because they knew. There were enough of them who had been killed after trying to escape. They didn’t even try to fight anymore because they knew what would happen to them.

Miriam was captured by the rebels in early 1998. The rebels had attacked her village, and Miriam was fleeing with the rest of her family to neighboring Guinea. It was then that they ran into a rebel unit. Miriam and her older sister were taken. They began a trek with the rebels that would last over a year, back and forth across Sierra Leone, walking hundreds and hundreds of kilometers.

Miriam (© Eric Beauchemin)

They took us with them, gave us loads to put on our heads. EB: To carry. Yes. EB: What were you carrying? Clothes, pots, sometimes they give us the guns to carry on our heads. During this journey, they were killing people, cutting hands off people, burning houses, abducting people. EB: What did you think of all of this when you were seeing this? I feel so sad. Sometimes I don’t look at the people. I just go on my own way. Because I feel so sad. They are just lifting baby like that. When they fall on the ground, that’s the end of their life. EB: You mean, they were throwing them onto guns? Just throw like that. Just lift up. EB: Throw them into the air? Yes, and leave them to fall down, and that is the end of the baby’s life. EB: Did they say why they were doing these things? There is no reason, just because of wickedness. There is that wickedness in them.

EB: How big was the group of rebels you were with? They were 1000. About 1000. EB: Were there a lot of girls also there? Yes. EB: How many do you think? About 500 women, children. We have grandmothers, grandfathers also with them. EB: So every day you had to walk. Every day, during the night, because of the jets. So they said, by 7 at night, we should ready to walk up to 6 o’clock in the morning. EB: So when it was dark. Yes. EB: When you were with the rebels, besides carrying, did you have to do other things? Did they do other things to you? Yes, they always raped us. Every night. The last time, the one that I was with, I told him, I am not going to do it. Then he said, this is the reason we go and capture you people. You don’t know. He said, if you don’t go with me today, I am going to kill you. So I fear. I lie with him.

EB: And you became pregnant at some point, right? Yes. I became pregnant, you know. OK, this pregnancy, I tried to… I went to this herbalist to give me medicine to drink. I try and try but the thing doesn’t come out. But the man I was staying with, he never knows that I want to remove that thing. By the time he suspected, he said, if if he noticed that there is anything like abortion, he’s going to kill me. I should give birth for him. I told him, I have to go to school. This is not the end of my life, I have to go to school. He said, even though I have to go school, I should give birth for him. Then I try again. By the time he noticed, he took the gun for me. He wanted to do it. EB: He wanted to kill you. Yes, but some of his friends talked him. EB: When did you have the baby? June 2nd. EB: Is it a boy or a girl? A girl. EB: And what’s her name? Is she a pretty girl? Yes. EB: When you see her, do you think of the rebel? I don’t think of the rebel. I just like her because I think that’s the way God wants me to live. It’s the wish of God so there is no way for me to abandon her.

Miriam, like many of the girls and young women held upcountry, eventually made her way back to Freetown, a city that relies on generators for power. Enormous budget deficits, corruption, and a lack of international interest and support make the middle of the night the most propitious time to summon the electricity god. Clinics in the city that treat the rape victims also depend on generators to be able to examine and treat their patients. 2 years ago, Dr. Marta Vernasola set up a clinic that is treating some of the survivors of the sexual violations.

For the girls, especially those who have been staying a long time – this means months or years with the rebels – most of the problems derive from sexually transmitted diseases and from the life conditions in the bush. Anaemia is the most alarming. Nearly 99% of the girls who are pregnant resulting from rape and long period spent in the bush are severely anaemic. And most of them need for example a blood transfusion with all the problems that this can involve.

According to Corinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch, traditional practices are likely to put Sierra Leone’s girls and women at an even greater risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including the HIV virus.

Corinne Dufka
Corinne Dufka (© Eric Beauchemin)

85 – 90% of women within Sierra Leone go through female circumcision. It’s a very, very strong part of their culture. One of the things I noticed in my research was how many of the girls would take about profuse bleeding after rape. Now, when they are very, very young, 10, 11, you can of course understand them, but even those who were 15, 16, 17. I spoke with a few doctors about it, and they said that they felt as though the fact that the girls had gone through circumcision created a tightening of the vagina that then created more tearing. So they were treating an awful lot of vaginal tears. So I think that it does complicate the rapes because the girls would talk about bleeding for days on end, and it’s just something interviewing other rape victims, you wouldn’t hear that.

The scars of the war are not only physical. According to Sierra Leone’s only psychiatrist, everyone who was present during the war was traumatized – the rape victims perhaps more than most. Local organizations soon realized that they had to do something to respond to the crisis. Christiana Thorpe is the chairperson of FAWE, the Forum of African Women Educationalists.

Christiana Thorpe of FAWA
Christiana Thorpe of FAWA (© Eric Beauchemin)

Already we are talking about 80 to 90% female illiteracy. So even the few that are at school, for this to happen to them, for them to stop school, is of great concern to us. So what we are doing with these girls now who have been victims, those who have not been to school or who have been to school and have babies, we are offering them skills training – if we get the funding – offer them also you know how to cope with the baby because they are children having to cope with children. So they need to learn how to be mothers.

As the scale of the trauma and the rapes emerged, MSF-Holland decided to provide financial support to the FAWE project. It was an unusual step for the winners of the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize. MSF prides itself on being an emergency relief organization that implements projects itself. But the crime against Sierra Leone’s women was so horrendous, says Maureen Mulhourne, that MSF-Holland decided to make an exception.

People see the situation of the gang-raping on a massive scale of so many women, young girls and very young children as a crime. That it’s a crime against humanity, it’s a crime against Sierra Leone society and that they should support the women. But there are still at the same time the traditional attitudes. So there are young men who will say, don’t touch a woman from the east because they have all been had. They have already been through this trauma and then they are being re-traumatized or re-victimized by the people around them, by the attitudes that they have.

The idea is to get the girls to find a listening ear, to be able to come back to reality, to be able to cope with everyday living situations, to be able to face society again. And to know that there is somebody who can help them do this, and there is somebody who can walk through life with them because this is what we want.

Drawing therapy for war rape victim
Drawing therapy for war rape victim (© Eric Beauchemin)

The way that the program has developed has been quite interesting: for instance, where clients have been lining up for a session for instance, and they’ve started talking amongst themselves and they’ve realized that they actually have similar problems. And it’s almost like a natural self-help group has started spontaneously.

We want to work with them as a group, right, get this group consciousness, group assistance, peer assistance going. And we think that the best person to fight the cause would be they themselves. We would like to get these girls, to empower them to be able to stand up in society against the wrongs they have been victims of in order to prevent it happening in the future.

But, according to Corinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch, these were not “wrongs”. They were crimes against humanity.

You had individual rape, you had gang rape, you had torture, you had sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, and then because of the systematic nature of it, in humanitarian law terms, you can really consider this a crime against humanity because it was so profound. One of the things that has also been upsetting in my research and I’ve interviewed scores and scores of these women and girls. Number one is the age. You know most of them seem to be minors, when we speak of 18 and under. The other thing is the number of them who have suffered from gang rape. And you know it may be two or three, but you have women and girls talking about 10, 12, 15 men raping them. Then the other thing has been the horrific ways of torture. You know I interviewed a woman who had firewood, kind of small pieces of burning firewood put into her vagina. One woman was three months pregnant and accused by one of the rebels of having taken money, and he took an umbrella and shoved it inside of her, causing an abortion and horrific problems and complications after that. Women who had hot oil poured inside of them, burned with coals, just horrific forms of torture, sexual torture.

These and other human rights violations are likely to go unpunished. In July 1999, the government of Sierra Leone and the rebels signed a peace agreement. One of the key provisions was a blanket amnesty for all human rights violations. Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations condemned the amnesty, but many Sierra Leoneans cling to the peace accord. It is a buoy – albeit a treacherous one – that, they hope, will at last bring peace to this troubled corner of Africa. The peace agreement also calls for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but the violations committed before May 1999 will be out of bounds. / Moral or ethical judgements are often difficult in this nihilistic war, in which many children were both victims and perpetrators. When Desmond was 10, rebels entered his village, slaughtered his parents in front of his eyes, and forced him to join them. During the next 5 years, Desmond fought hard and “earned” the nickname “Blood Never Dry”.

Desmond (© Eric Beauchemin)

Well, at that time, yes, we rape people when we attack a town. When we see many girl, we are rape them. Even I at that time, I was having a woman. EB: How old were you then? Well, at that time, I was 12 years old at that time. EB: And you had a woman? Yes. EB: Was she the same age as you, or was she older? Yes, she’s older than me. She’s 15 years old. Yes. EB: And why did you want to have a woman? When we are with our commanders, they told us everybody should have a woman.

Asana was one of those women. She was 18 when she was abducted. She became the wife of a 35-year-old rebel commander.

Asana (© Eric Beauchemin)

Sometimes, I used to take the gun and just begin to fire at random. EB: Did you also kill people? I killed but only four. EB: You killed them with a gun? Yes, I killed them with a gun. EB: Why did you kill them? The reason why I killed because of the drugs that I was given. So sometimes we just do things just like that. We are not so much interested in the life of the other person. So we just do anything, anytime. EB: Were these young people that you killed or older people? Yes, young, young people. EB: How old? Those that I killed were 16 years, 4 years, 14 years and one other boy that they captured that was a little bit reluctant in doing things. So I fired him. EB: But the four year old, for example. Was there a reason to kill the four year old? There was no reason for that to be killed.

At Godrich Beach, the girls are praying for themselves and peace…and a better future. Over two thousand young women and girls are being counseled by local groups like the Christian Children’s Fund, CCF, and FAWE, the Forum of African Women Educationalists. Many more are believed to still be in the bush.

EB: Cynthia, you said that you became pregnant? Is that right? Yes. I became pregnant and we did abortion and I come. EB: You had an abortion when you came back to Freetown? Yes. EB: How many months pregnant were you then? I think it is 2 months. EB: Why did you want an abortion? I want an abortion because there was no father. That’s why I said I should abort the baby. EB: Are you happy you did that? Yes, I’m happy now. I’m happy now because I abort the baby. Because I want to continue my school, my education. So that’s why. EB: Are you going to school now? Yes, I’ve started my school since August when I came. CCF tried for me and now I’ve started my school. I’m just waiting for my result. EB: Are you a good student? Yes, I’m a good student. EB: What do you want to do later on? Later on, I should like to be a nurse. EB: Why a nurse? Because I like the job, and I see some people suffering from sickness. So that why I say I shall be a nurse.

Counselling therapy for child war rape victims at Godrich Beach in Freetown
Counselling therapy for child war rape victims at Godrich Beach outside of Freetown (© Eric Beauchemin)

The counseling processes have played a very important role in the development of their self-esteem. You know, they’ve been devalued. They had the feeling that they are no longer wanted in society. You know, that stigma as a result of what happened to them sexually. But now, through the counselling, we had tried indeed to make them realise that life is worth living. Originally, they didn’t have that confidence. EB: How long does the psycho-social counselling last? Well, it’s a continuous process, Eric. This is the first batch we are dealing with in this sort of recreational activity. It is just a sort of follow-up on their progress to develop their self-esteem and self-worth. EB: And also to have a bit of fun. Yes, a bit of fun which all of us need, quite so, all of us need, working, cooking, dancing together. It’s a bit of fun. We need it too, the counsellors.

EB: Cynthia, what do you think of your time with the rebels? What do you think about what happened? It is pathetic. So I pray that God will never make these same things happen no more. EB: Do you have nightmares about the captain who held you? The captain? Yes, I have nightmares about the captain because anytime I remember the captain, I feel bad. Because I just remember the times he raped me. So I always have nightmares about that captain. EB: Do you know what this war was all about, Cynthia? The war? I cannot tell, but my mind minds that the war is all about politics, governments, that’s all.EB: Do you know why the rebels took you? I really don’t know because it’s just a strain. They took me away to go and suffer. EB: Do you think these people should be punished for what they did to you? We should forgive them because hence the government says we should forgive, forgive is better. So if they forgive them, maybe they will remember all what they have done. EB: So the memories will be their punishment? Yes, the memories should be their punishment.

“The memories should be their punishment” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Rob Heerschop. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.