Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sierra Leone in September 2008...

Smiling and serene Hannah Alpha deftly works her sewing machine, fresh out of school and looking without a care in the world.
Hard to believe that just a few years ago she was a drug-crazed, laughing killer – before even becoming a teenager.
Hannah was one of the child soldiers not only affected by, but thrust into battle during the West African country’s 11-year civil war.
Britain’s eventual intervention in the gruesome conflict remains, unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, a Tony Blair military adventure generally approved by consensus.
And the likes of Hannah – survivors, though still scarred both physically and emotionally – are grateful for the progress brought by peace.
Prosperity, by contrast, may still be a distant dream – aid volunteers here express mild pride about the year Sierra Leone rose a place in the United Nations’ Human Development Index.
That is, off rock bottom.
But no amount of UN peacekeeping troops or pledges of Western – or, increasingly, Chinese – investment can quite cleanse Hannah’s mind of those horrific memories.
Above all, she is haunted by the day she found himself gunning down a wailing elderly woman in a neighbouring village.
Like many child soldiers – some as young as six – Hannah had been doped up on cocaine by her kidnappers, rebel militia backed by neighbouring Liberia and plotting to overthrow the Sierra Leonean government.
Some, like Hannah, were force-fed the drug – others had the powder smeared into freshly-cut wounds stretched across their faces.
Hannah, now 18 but only 11 at the time, said: ‘When I was on the drug, I just didn’t see people as human beings any more – they were more like just chickens running around.
‘I shot an old woman in her hut – as she was struggling, fighting to stay alive or to die, I was just laughing. I thought it was just a joke.’
Often the rebel fighters – led by wedding photographer-turned-guerilla Foday Sankoh – would force the captives to kill their own relatives.
The rampaging troops, backed in return for diamonds by Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, burnt down villages, decapitated tribal chiefs, raped women and looted homes.
Hannah’s parents were slaughtered by rebels who stormed the key district of Kailahun, the area where the war had first erupted in 1991.
The eastern region is perhaps Sierra Leone’s most remote and forbidding, with ditches and rough terrain substituting for roads through dense, swampy jungle.
But its position just miles from borders with Guinea and Liberia offered Revolutionary United Front fighters handy bases from which to stir up support and launch ambushes.
Hannah recalled: ‘Both my parents were captured and killed.
‘I was left to drift between different relatives until the rebels came to take me away.
‘I was only about ten but they used to gang-rape me, and threatened to do away with me if I didn’t join them.
‘For about three years I was bearing a gun, a rifle.’
She was part of frequent raids on villages in the east of the country, looting for food and ammunition – and occasionally compelled to kill.
An awkward peace was finally reached in January 2002, partly thanks to the arrival of up to 16,000 UN peacekeepers – including 400 Britons, patrolling the capital Freetown.
But a nation-wide programme called DDR – disarmament, demobilization and reintegration – concentrated mainly on adult ex-fighters, ignoring many of the estimated 23,000 child soldiers and sex slaves.
The Red Cross, both in Britain and Sierra Leone, has been keen to set up Child Advocacy and Rehabilitation (CAR) centres across the country for 14 to 18-year-olds.
These offer literacy lessons, training and apprenticeships, and counselling – as well as continuing support for older adults.
Hannah has been one of the beneficiaries – but only having suffered several more traumatic years, even after peace was declared.
With no home or family to which she could return, she drifted into prostitution with friends desperate for any way to scrape a living.
Only a chance meeting with a long-time family friend introduced her to the CAR centre in the town of Kailahun – one of four the Red Cross runs, with plans for a fifth.
Tailoring lessons have given Hannah a new skills – and new hope for a future career.
Her wartime trauma still lingers – and one of the rapes left her with a baby daughter later seized from her and still missing.
Many of the teenage women enjoying cookery, carpentry, dancing or dress-making sessions with the Red Cross are accompanied by their own young ‘bush-babies’, the products of rape.
Youngsters who were attacked or saw their own relatives murdered in the war now find themselves mingling with those, like Hannah, who actually carried out killings.
But she insisted: ‘I try not to think about the things that happened, or the things I’ve done.
‘I was afraid for a while that a few people who were victims might see me now and be angry.
‘The woman I killed was from just a few villages away.
‘I think about her still sometimes – especially when I’m alone.
‘But at least I now have good work, which is helping me survive. I’m very, very happy about that.
‘The change in attitude and the skills I’ve learned – these are the two things in life that now please me most.’

Sierra Leoneans refer to their country’s bloody 11-year civil war using a creole word, ‘palava’.
If that sounds slightly comical and under-stated to English ears, then survivors’ reminiscences of coming under attack are anything but.
For all the confidently-expressed hopes for future peace, few were left untouched by the conflict and remain wounded physically, emotionally or both.
Victor Lahai still has seared across the back of his right calf the scar left by former friends who turned violently on their own village.
His crime was to refuse their demand he join their band of rebels and help carry looted food, guns and ammunition.
Among the group confronting him were former play-mates with whom he had grown up in the village of Nianoiahun, close to the border with volatile Liberia.
Victor, 24 now but 16 at the time, said: ‘I think the fact they knew me meant they decided not to kill me when I was captured.
‘But when I kept refusing to carry their luggage – or to join up with them, fighting the battle – they said they couldn’t let me go the way they’d found me. ‘That’s when they lay me on the ground and shot off the back of my leg.’
His brothers had earlier urged him to flee to dense surrounding bushland, when the militia first threatened their homes.
Now it was those brothers who came to his aid, the first to find him and carry him to a makeshift hospital.
He spent the rest of the war recuperating in a refuge camp at Gondama, one of several set up across the country to deal with some of the 2million people forced out of their homes.
About 75,000 Sierra Leoneans are thought to have died in the conflict.
Some of those who survived now tell their tales of brave defiance, relying on both luck and judgment to somehow escape with their lives.
John A Koroma, a chief in the southern village of Ngeyawamie, knew the RUF attackers had his name on a hitlist of those to be killed.
But when confronted when fleeing to the bush, he claimed his first name was not John, but Joseph.
Koroma is one of the most popular surnames in Sierra Leone – shared, for example, but current president Ernestr Bai and the RUF-sympathising ex-presuident Major General Johnny Paul.
John Koroma’s ruse worked – the 55-year-old remembered: ‘It was different to the name they had written down – so they let me go.’
Others were not so fortunate – shot or stabbed to death, amputated at the wrists or gang-raped.
Katimu Martin saw her father shot dead, five neighbouring homes burnt down and four people have their hands chopped off when the RUF occupied the southern village of Jombohun.
But she says she dodged a similar fate by daringly shoving aside a gun pointed at her.
The 40-year-old said: ‘My younger brother had urged me not to go outside because there were rebel forces all around.
‘But I didn’t listen. I came out, trying to rush around the house and towards the bush – but they followed me.
‘One of them cocked his gun, ready to fire.
‘I was sure I was about to die – but God gave a different answer. I managed to push the gun away and take the chance to run away.’
Like many escapees, she had to survive in Sierra Leone’s dense, swampy bushland – building vulnerable mudhuts, feeding on yams.
Others in the eastern region made it across the border to sanctuary in Guinea.

The bush provided a precarious safe haven for many of those who escaped RUF punishment.
Now it offers their best chance of survival in peacetime – the subsistence farming that accounts for much of Sierra Leoneans’ meager profits and nutrition.
Despite promises of technology and investment from abroad – increasingly, inevitably, China – agriculture still contributes an estimated 52.5 per cent of national income.
The country’s rich diamond resources may generate immense wealth – but largely for illegal smugglers or the foreign firms buying up mining land but paying native employees pitiful wages.
A cup of rice can sell at market for about 800 Leones, a measly 15p.
Yet this is more than double the price charged at the end of the war – and remains a considerable sum for villagers in a land where the average earning is less than a pound per day.
Red Cross activists estimate that in the southern district of Pujehun, about 50 per cent of children are malnourished.
Katimu Martin, 40, in the Pujehun village of Jombohun, said: ‘We’re no longer angry – just hungry.’
Red Cross projects are helping towns and villages – many left in ruins after rebel attacks – to slowly improve their sanitation, housing and farming prospects.
Gifts of seeds, help running micro-credit schemes and collective funds for emergencies and future harvests are offered by the charity’s Community Animation and Peace Support (CAPS) volunteers.
But rice harvests, integral to the local economy, remains vulnerable, especially during the summer rainy seasons and in the absence of adequate storage.
Sturdy homes, working wells and functioning toilets are also in short supply.
Nyanda Albert, a community leader in southern Ngeyawamie, said: ‘The priority here is a proper seed store.
‘We’ve been using a farmhouse but last year thieves came and easily made away with all the rice.
‘Another season the rains were particularly bad and destroyed all the rice we’d gathered.’
Other key produce includes palm oil, cassava, peanuts and laundry soap.
John A Koroma, chairman of Ngeyawamie’s village council, hopes all 12 of his children will complete their schooling but always remember, ‘whether they go off somewhere else or come back here: ‘agriculture is the backbone of this country’.
He added: ‘No agriculture, no food – so get used to it, I always tell them.
‘Even if you’re sitting in an office, one day you’ll come back home and realise – it’s all agriculture.’
As he said that, the villagers were already trooping out for another long day.
On foot, with tillers, planters and hoes in hand, cooking and storage pots balanced expertly on heads, babies wrapped tight in scarves around backs – back to the bush.

Kailahun is said to be where Sierra Leone’s civil war started – and where, 11 years later, it ended.
But despite six years of peace, the damaging legacy of war still looms over this desolate and poverty-ridden region.
With borders to both Liberia and Guinea, towns and villages in this eastern district were used as key entry points by rebel bands.
Revolutionary United Front forces were not only stirred up, but trained in return for diamonds by Liberian dictator Charles Taylor – now facing war crimes charges at The Hague.
Sierra Leone’s ruling All People’s Congress party was widely accused of corruption, but rival parties were repulsed by many of the RUF’s violent tactics – which included gang-rape, amputation and murder.
The rebels’ first ambushes were carried out in Kailahun district on March 23, 1991, ushering in 11 years of violence, instability and coups.
Ismail Foday, a senior tribal chief in Kailahun, said: ‘We still call it a senseless war – these rebels kept fighting, even when the original government was overthrown.
‘Our young boys are still suffering now – and I still don’t know why they got embroiled.
‘The rebels used to force cocaine into wounds on their face, pasting it into plasters, and turning these boys into bad men.
‘If told to go and tamper with their own mothers, they would do it.
‘But even after the war finally ended, there were very little help for them – many didn’t take the six-month demobilization period very seriously.
‘And those children returning from were left neglected and desperate.
‘We had gangs of thieves running rampant, and teenage prostitutes everywhere – girls on sale at 1,000 Leones (19p) for five minutes.
‘It was extremely difficult for us to control such behaviour.’
The arrival of the Red Cross and its Child Advocacy and Rehabilitation (CAR) centre in Kailahun has at least offered 150 children each year much-needed assistance.
They attend daily for literacy and numeracy classes, training in trades such as cookery, carpentry and tailoring, plus intensive trauma counselling.
Some of these pupils are former child soldiers – attending alongside others whose relatives were murdered by rebel invaders, or young girls who were raped.
Current pupil Lamin Brima, 18, still finds it difficult to forget or to forgive.
He vividly remembers the day his father, a town chief, was publicly executed after having his name called by RUF soldiers in Kailahun.
He himself managed to flee safely to Liberia, but now attends CAR clases alongside youngsters he knows may well have carried out rebel atrocities.
‘I know some of them now – when I see them it’s difficult not to feel angry again, because of the attacks they committed.’
Two-thirds of youths in Sierra Leone are thought to be unemployed, while persistent government corruption and the growing involvement of Latin American drug cartels also cause concern.
Mr Foday acknowledged: ‘This area is one deeply-populated by people drastically affected by the war.
‘But every time I now go to the CAR centre, I feel so much happier for Kailahun and its future.’

Tony Blair and Britain are seen as a significantly mixed blessing in the eyes of Sierra Leoneans.

Gratitude for the UK-dominated UN incursion that finally defeated and disarmed rebel militia is tempered by dismay at the perceived lateness of their arrival.

And a fellow-feeling based on historic national ties with Sierra Leone’s former colonial rulers is soured by misgivings about the abruptness of Britain’s withdrawal in 1961.

Sierra Leone’s renowned educational bases – including a university where Mr Blair’s father used to teach – won the country a reputation as ‘the Athens of Africa’.

But the disruption and devastation caused by the 11-year civil war ruined the country’s already-declining economy and infrastructure.

A UN-led force of 6,000 peacekeepers finally arrived in late 1999, eight years after fighting began – soon rising to 11,000 and 13,000.

An earlier collection of Nigerian-led ECOMOG troops had enjoyed only limited success against rebel forces trained and supported by Liberian president Charles Taylor.

The UN peacekeepers successfully claimed back occupied regions and disarmed Revolutionary United Force fighters in 2001, with peace declared in January 2002.

But Sierra Leone Red Cross co-ordinator Victor Fornah said: ‘Britain’s intervention was seen by many as too little, too late.

‘And there was certainly disappointment that efforts were only led in the first place by a small country like Nigeria.

‘But of course, overall, the move was welcomed – Britain had to mend some bridges, and did.’

He suggested Britain should have given more prominence to local leaders before handing Sierra Leone its independence in 1961 – then left more support in place, rather than remaining aloof.

President Siaka Stevens, who served from 1967 to 1985, was widely accused of human rights abuses such as rigging elections, corruption, suppressing independent media and executing political rivals.

But Mr Fornah added: ‘Sierra Leoneans feel especially pleased and reassured by the Queen’s promise that if any future coups are threatened, a British back-up force will be ready for action within 72 hours.’

And wartime survivor Katimu Martin revealed: ‘I only started getting over my fear of the war starting over again when I would see foreigners coming into our country.

‘They’re helping us and interacting – they’re interested in us.

‘It shows where we’re getting to, with the help of charities like the Red Cross – with that, we’re pretty sure there will no longer be war, just peace.’

Mr Blair visited Sierra Leone several times – and the second city, Bo, now boasts a school named the Tony Blair International Academy, which opened last month.

The former prime minister already had a family connection to the country – his father Leo used to lecture at the capital Freetown’s Fourah Bay College.

The university, founded in 1827, is the oldest in West Africa and a major influence in building Sierra Leone’s historic reputation for academic excellence.

English remains the country’s official language, used in schools and on radio – Sierra Leone’s most popular form of media.

But most of the population speak variations of Krio, a creole language containing shreds of recognisable English – the most commonly-used greeting is not ‘How are you?’, but ‘Ow di bohdi?’

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