Vitabu features the memorable sixth chapter of Bakar Mansaray's new book
Bakar Mansaray, the founder of the Mandingo Scrolls blog and winner of the 2017 Writer-of-the-Year, Afro-Canadian Heroes Award, is known for his riveting short stories and tales of life in his native Sierra Leone. In his new book, My Afro-Canadian Chronicle, published by Sierra Leonean Writers Series, the author sheds a personal light on the devastating effects of underdevelopment on a country that went through one of the most atrocious civil wars in modern history.
"For those who have read books of literature, history and anthropology from Sierra Leone and yet harbour the sinking feeling that there had to be a missing link between narratives, Bakar’s book provides that missing link to complete the national narrative," writes novelist and poet Oumar Farouk Sesay in the Foreword.
"This autobiography is a portrait painted on a canvas of memory in vivid and sometimes dark hues, telling a story only a mind as lucid as the author’s can tell.
This excerpt was used with permission from the author and publisher.
The Seige - Chapter 6
During the first week of 1999, there were already rumours of an imminent rebel invasion. From afar, east of the capital, we heard persistent sounds of heavy artillery shelling. Moreover, we saw hundreds of people of all ages, carrying their bundled belongings on their heads and backs, fleeing from attacks by rebels. They told us stories of burning and looting, rape and abduction, summary killings, intimidation, and mass amputations of limbs. Unlike my wife and some close relatives, I was convinced that it was just a matter of time before we too become victims of a campaign of terror.
We heard that villages and towns about two to three dozen kilometers east of Freetown had already been overran by the A.F.R.C./R.U.F. fighters. People started dying from starvation as food and water supplies became scare. By the fourth and fifth of January 1999, we were extremely afraid to leave our homes. I was scared out of my wits, as I frequently found myself staring ahead without seeing anything. People stood by their houses in small groups, listening to their radios. A repeated radio statement broadcasted over FM 98.1, the government’s propaganda mouth-piece, warned people to stay indoors. Like the bleating of a stolen goat, the government continued to assure us that the Nigerian-led West African peace-keeping force (E.C.O.M.O.G.) was in charge of the situation.
It was on Wednesday, January 6, 1999, a pivotal day in the history of Sierra Leone when A.F.R.C. /R.U.F. fighters invaded Freetown. On that fateful day, as the town was turning on its side, trying to wake up from its deep slumber, the fighters were struggling to seize power from the civilian government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. On that Armageddon-like day, it was as if all the clocks were frozen. Every man, woman, and child held their breath. It was said that even the jinnis had never seen such a day.
At about five o’clock in the morning, just as I was about to say my prayers, I heard sporadic gunshots in the neighborhood. I woke my wife up from sleep.
“We’re under rebel attack,” I managed to utter.
“I don’t think so,” she groaned sleepily. “Those gunshots maybe from the peace-keeping E.C.O.M.O.G. soldiers,” she said with weak conviction.
In order to satisfy our curiosity, we peeped through the steel and glass window of our bedroom for a glimpse up Mount Aureol from where we heard the gunshots. To our surprise, we saw in an uneven line numerous flashes of what appeared to be flashlights being carried by people descending the mountain. At about 05:45 hours, we realized that those flashes were coming from the flashlights of rebel fighters. By then, it was too late for us to run away. The rebels had penetrated what we thought was E.C.O.M.O.G.'s impregnable protective wall around Freetown.
In the coolness of dawn, a little wind was blowing in from the mountain bringing with it the sounds of gunshots, bombs, and voices of people calling for help. Apart from those sounds, the area was as quiet as a graveyard. Not a single cock-crow could be heard, neither the barking of dogs or the rousing chants of the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer. My attitude changed from incredulity to fear. Within an hour, the A.F.R.C. /R.U.F. fighters had completely surrounded our Ginger Hall neighbourhood. We were virtually under siege.
Right through January 6, 1999, and the following twenty-one days, different groups of fighters and civilians shot their way into the premises of people. They wore a combination of army fatigues and civilian clothing. Some of them sported wigs, helmets, gas masks, and sunglasses. Others were half-naked, with belts of bullets crisscrossing their torsos. As they gave each other exuberant high fives, they shouted slogans like “One Love”, “Operation No Living Thing.”
Most of the rebels carried AK47 and G3 assault rifles or rocket-propelled grenade (R.P.G.) launchers. They opened fire at everything even inanimate objects; killing innocent people, and animals. As the onslaught continued, I learned that the rebels had a death list. The fighters were looking for certain people. Among those were government supporters, rich people, educated ones, Nigerian nationals, and journalists in general. Interestingly enough, these fighters had a distaste for people with pot-belly, bald head, and gray hair. Their logic was that such people were the ones who destroyed the country.
I saw many frightened-looking people from the far eastern part of Freetown, where the invasion started. Some were women carrying babies on their backs, and others had bundles on their heads. Most people had gunshots wounds, others had their arms amputated. Blood became a common sight. Little or no information was officially released by the government about the scheme of things but much had been whispered, gossiped, and maligned. Rumours abound regarding the onslaught. Whenever information was released over the government radio, they would blend vivid storytelling with unmatched skills of propaganda to falsify captivating news of sensational pretension and purview.
From my house located on the foothills of Mount Aureol, I could see a couple of kilometres away from the Fourah Bay community where numerous houses were set ablaze by rebels. We had word that the rebels were bitter against the Aku Mohammedan people in that community because in 1997, those people allegedly murdered one of their own sons, a Muslim cleric who played a mediatory role in the country’s peace process. His name was Sheik Mustaba. He was a fully bearded robust fellow known to be an ardent mobilizer of the youths. The handsome-looking and humble Sheik Mustaba was against some of the cultural practices of his Aku Mohammedan people, especially those related to secret societies, which he branded as unreligious.
In our neighbourhood, we were warned by the rebels not to accommodate people fleeing from their burning houses in the Fourah Bay community. As such, we were unable to lodge a group of relatives from that area whose house was on fire. It was a pathetic sight to see them leave our house that evening without any knowledge of their next destination. Worst of all, nightfall was horrific. There was no electricity, no lights, and no telephone network. The only lights were those from the headlamps of vehicles commandeered by the rebels.
Like most people, I was not only sleepless but mentally and physically exhausted. People were forced by the rebels to serve as human shields from attacks by government soldiers. We were also forced to chant, “We want peace!” “We want peace!” clap our hands, and dance. I remembered quite vividly that my adolescent son, Ibrahim, was so excited about it all that he chanted and clapped most enthusiastically while I was finding places to hide, like a wounded beast.
By then my house was rented to quite responsible tenants. My father-in-law with whom we were staying thought I was the most cowardly person he had ever met. This was largely because he couldn’t allay my fear of losing my life at the hands of rebels. The rebels were looking to capture university graduates like me, the gainfully employed, and outwardly successful people. As a result, I emptied my bookshelf and threw away my books. I had recently sold a vehicle. So I placed the money from the sales in a plastic bag and hid it in a pile of sand on our compound.
Who among us would be able to placate these crazed rebels? They pointed their flashlights at us, apparently trying to see if they could recognize anyone. A couple of them shouted: “Are there any government soldiers or Kamajor militias among you?” In unison, we all shouted back: “No!” The question was repeated and the answer was the same. One of them warned us that if they find any enemy fighter among us, they will slaughter us all like pigs. They pointed out that they didn’t care if we were taking sanctuary in a mosque or a church.
One of the rebels came so close to me that I almost urinated in my pants, wishing that I was a ghost orchid. In the partial darkness, I was able to make out his features. Those features reminded me of the notorious Maskita, one of their rebel movement’s senior commanders. Like Maskita, he was a tall, lanky young man in military fatigue, carrying what looked like an AK47 assault rifle. As he walked by me, the stench of stale sweat walked by with him. He had adhesive tapes on either side of his temples. Seeing those adhesive tapes on either side of the temples of the rebel made me shiver. I had heard that they would take cocaine so as to find it easier to torture and murder people. Gossips abound that the rebels used razor blades to make small incisions on their faces and then rubbed cocaine powder into the incisions. Then they would cover up the wound with adhesive tapes.
As the rebel with the stench of stale sweat moved away from me, I started to think about all that had been said of rebel fighters whenever they found people hiding in houses of worship, when rebels were high on drugs like cocaine. It was rumoured that they would ask the people to pray to God for mercy. In some cases, the rebels would strip them naked and ask them to dig a grave, after which the people were forced to enter the grave before they fire a volley of bullets into them. Furthermore, it was believed that most of the rebel fighters regarded Islam and Christianity as a form of foreign domination.
Within a fifteen-minute period that seemed like fifteen hours, the rebels departed from the mosque as quietly as they had come. I was surprised that the worst had not happened to us. It was as if the omnipotent God had asked them to leave without causing any mayhem. What struck me most was that even when the rebels had left, we all kept quiet. The eerie silence made me think of death, the graveyard, of hell and heaven. I passed the rest of the night at the mosque as it was too unsafe for me to return home. It was only at dawn that I went back to my family.
Another thing that struck me about that period of the war the rate at which many people became pious. I saw folks that had never prayed in their lives upholding the tenets of the Holy Quran and Bible. Even those who had forgotten to pray tried to coax their memories into action. On the same vein, some people made great humanitarian gestures by offering food and accommodation to the needy, and to those who had escaped brutality and despicable savagery. I also observed that the high esteem in which some people were held in the eyes of others dropped dramatically. In other words, the noble concept of respect seemingly took backstage during the civil strife.
Once I arrived home after learning my lesson from the saga at the mosque, I had the feeling that things were going to get worst. In other words, I was stricken by a sense of impending doom. The urge to flee from the besieged neighbourhood kept nagging me. Persistently, my thoughts darted like swallows in flight. Then I informed my relatives that it was time for me to leave home. And if my wife and two children were ready to join me, so be it. I heard from FM 98.1 radio that the west end was under the control of government troops. My dream was to head to the west end of town and eventually out of the country.
The radio also spoke of vehicles, houses, and police stations being burnt down. It was amusing to hear that the Criminal Investigation Department (C.I.D.) building had been razed to the ground. But the most terrible news was that of the release of prisoners at the Pademba Road Prison. I heard an announcer on Radio FM 98.1 lamenting how the gates of the prison had been flung open, and the R.U.F. rebel leader Corporal Foday Sankoh and other inmates set free. I imagined the scores of convicts that would be roaming the streets of Freetown.
Later on, we learned that Foday Sankoh was taken away from the prison by the government to another location before the arrival of the rebels.
Just one day after the invasion, we also heard that the rebels had advanced into the center of town and captured State House, the presidential residence. The story of the invasion and how it happened started coming out, first from Radio FM 98.1 and then from B.B.C. and Radio France International. Everyone wanted to know what had happened to their neighbours, relatives, and friends. The information blackout was laden with rumour, and contorted accounts that increased the turmoil throughout our neighbourhood. There was a great deal of tension.
The days following the invasion saw police officers being attacked both haphazardly and in a coordinated pattern. There seemed to be a passion for vengeance, which meant a justification for rebels to take out their anger on police officers. Police officers became sacrificial lambs.
It was a dangerous time. Massacres were comparable to the genocide in Rwanda. Ours too was one of tribal war, but more so it was a war over the growing gap between the rich and the poor.
The gap had been growing wider since I was a child. Decades later, there had been no change of any significant magnitude in a country blessed with natural resources---diamonds, gold, rutile, bauxite, iron ore, cocoa, coffee, and piassava. Due to mismanagement and corruption, these resources hadn’t made any major impact on the life of the majority of Sierra Leoneans. I heard about the atrocities committed by invasion forces. Young women and girls were raped. Where civilians had barricaded themselves in their houses, they were burnt alive, with the rebels or soldiers standing outside to prevent their escape.
News came about how E.C.O.M.O.G. troops were forced to retreat from Kingtom leading to the massacre of civilians. Kingtom had a landfill site called Bormeh. It was one of the largest and filthiest landfill sites in the city. The word Bormeh in the Temne language connotes something that stinks.
As the E.C.O.M.O.G. troops were forced to retreat from Kingtom, the burning and looting of property continued in my neighbourhood. Every day and night, the rebels perambulated the streets in their dozens, well-armed, and using civilians as human shields. From my living room window, I saw one of my neighbours, an elderly man, shot in the face by an adolescent rebel. The man died instantly. The relentless and indiscriminate bombardment of rebels and civilians by the Nigerian-led E.C.O.M.O.G. forces both from the air and on ground went unabated. Tracer fire frequently lit up the night sky; it must have been used by rebels to track each other’s movements.
We heard word that a safe haven could be found on the campus of Fourah Bay College, located on Mount Aureol, less than two kilometres of mountainous footpath from my house. My plan was to use the college campus as a by-pass, then head to the west end of town, and seek refuge in my cousin’s residence at Congo Cross. It was a painful decision. So one day within the week of the invasion, I asked my wife, Marie, and two children, Ibrahim and Mariama, to get ready for us to leave home for the west end of town. Marie was so confused that she started packing her shoes into a rice sack instead of gathering a few belongings for our departure. I retrieved the money from the pile of sand in the compound, and gave it to her so that she can hide it underneath her crotch. We bade farewell to the rest of our relatives, and I then carried the small suitcase containing some of our belongings on my head. We began the journey through the bushy paths of Mount Aureol leading to the campus of Fourah Bay College.
Five minutes into the journey, I suddenly heard the sound of a whizzing object close to my right ear. I ducked for cover and pushed my son to the ground. My wife and daughter ran the other way. As I turned around to see what was happening, I was amazed to see a rebel fighter with a pistol in hand taking a second shot at me. He was a half-naked young man with a talisman and a belt of bullets crisscrossing his torso. He wore a black wig on his head and sunglasses on his face.
With my heart pounding against my chest like a pestle in a mortar, I pulled Ibrahim into a nearby shrub searching for extra cover. The rebel disappeared into thin air. We continued to dodge as we hurried up the mountain. I could hardly breathe. I regretted having been a smoker and now realized how much damage smoking must have done to my lungs.
Finally, we arrived on the campus of Fourah Bay College to find a large number of displaced people who had escaped from the besieged east end of town. All I could say was that a tragedy had been averted, but the rest was yet to be seen. There was still no trace of Marie and Mariama. Among other displaced people, Ibrahim and I continued to trek along the descending mountainous motor road.
On our arrival at the intersection of Berry Street and Circular Road, we ran into a long queue of displaced people at an E.C.O.M.O.G. military checkpoint. We joined the line in order to be searched before given clearance to the west end of town. It was then I was told that my wife and daughter were at the front of the queue. That news was a great relief for me. It was like a load had been removed from my shoulders. The soldiers at the checkpoint were checking to make sure that there was no rebel among us trying to infiltrate the west end. They were checking us all to see if any of us had the tattoo of a scorpion, which was common among rebels, and if our forefingers were coarse due to the frequent use of a rifle’s trigger.
After standing in the sluggish-moving queue for what seemed like an eternity, we were cleared by the military. And there was my wife and daughter waiting for us. We quietly thanked God for reuniting us, as we headed westward, wondering what next. Pockets of soldiers manned roadblocks along the way. We were stopped once or twice and I had to show my identity card as an employee of the Sierra National Airlines.
As we continued our increasingly unpredictable journey, we saw unspeakable suffering, and carnage. Dead bodies were strewn in the streets, with hundreds of displaced people, burnt houses and vehicles. I simply couldn’t bring myself to accept that human beings could be so callous to one another. It became clear to me that the discord engulfing us in Sierra Leone was due mainly to the ineptitude of the Sierra Leonean ruling elite and their greedy foreign partners. They certainly had an imperfect grasp of history and I found it hard to acknowledge and wrestle with Sierra Leone’s social, economic and political ramifications. And so we all continued to live in a state of hopelessness.
Within an hour of walking, we found temporary refuge in my first cousin’s home at Congo Cross, Mrs. Memuna Jalloh, a senior executive at the Sierra Leone Roads Authority. She lodged us for a couple of weeks. People continued to suffer threats, harassment, and attacks. Some of the harassment came from soldiers, police, and civilians in search of things they could loot. Radio FM 98.1 continued to bear witness to the scheme of things in the capital city. The B.B.C., Radio France International, and Voice of America were now the only source of news about the civil war. On Radio FM 98.1, Information Minister Dr. Julius Spencer kept informing people to stay indoors if they didn’t want to be shot once found outdoors. Most people had kept silent out of fear. Others had left the country for Guinea, The Gambia, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Ghana, Nigeria and beyond.
At night, bonfires of tires and fallen trees were commonly seen in the city. People continued to be frightened. Grenade explosions and sustained gunfire could be heard intermittently. The sky was still dark, as a blanket of smoke hung high over the city. From E.C.O.M.O.G. soldiers, we would hear slogans like “Operation Search and Destroy,” “Operation Death before Dishonour”. By January 14, 1999, most international humanitarian organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors without Borders had evacuated their expatriates out of Freetown.
It was not uncommon to see dogs and vultures devouring the remains of human bodies, trucks, wheelbarrows, and carts load of corpses being driven to the cemeteries and the Connaught Hospital mortuary whose main entrance was littered with corpses. The national stadium at Brookfields became the temporary refuge of thousands of displaced people, especially those from the east end of Freetown. There was a daily curfew from 15:00 to 09:00 hours. In Freetown, all essential services had been down since January 6, 1999. During the three weeks that it took for Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping troops E.C.O.M.O.G. to expel the rebels, Freetown became hell upside down.
When I heard that some displaced people were getting a free ride on board a British frigate, I jumped at the opportunity. The next day, I walked all the way from Congo Cross to Cape Sierra, about a 10-kilometre distance that seemed like 15, in order to get that free ride. Unfortunately, upon arrival, I found out that the frigate had already left. I returned home tired, exhausted and in a sulky mood. In retrospect, I realized that I could have left the country on board that frigate without the rest of my family.
The difficulties of Sierra Leone were familiar, but I had expected that possibility as an element of the country’s evolution, and that with time we would iron out our difficulties. Then, unexpectedly, this inconceivable, abominable reality came to pass, engulfing the whole country. I couldn’t stand the agony coming to pass on a whole nation at the same time. All of a sudden, I became aware of the fact that the main purpose of life was to be spiritually and morally inclined, for the rest was vanity.
By January 18, 1999, those that could afford it headed for Cockerill to travel with an E.C.O.M.O.G.-owned helicopter to Lungi International Airport where Captain Reginald Asgill’s Inter Tropic Airlines was ferrying paid passengers to Conakry, Guinea.
So my next plan was to leave the country at all cost with my wife and two children. I heard of a ship anchoring at the Government Wharf transporting people to Conakry, Guinea. I told my family that we should take a chance and see if we could find ourselves on board. Our final destination was Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire where we expected to have access to communication with the Canadian High Commission in Accra, Ghana, pertaining to my permanent residence visa application. But we had to go through Conakry, Guinea, in order to get to Abidjan.
On that fateful day of my family’s departure from my cousin’s home at Congo Cross, we avoided walking through Freetown’s main streets. As we walked through Ascension Town, Kingtom, Kru Bay, King Jimmy, and finally Government Wharf with bundles of personal belongings on our heads, we passed buildings razed to the ground. There were piles of rubble everywhere. We were intercepted here and there by E.C.O.M.O.G. soldiers who were checking on the identities of people. My airline's employee ID card showing my position as Market Research Superintendent went a long way in giving us a relatively easy passage at these military checkpoints.
Between Kru Bay and King Jimmy, we had to pass in front of the Connaught Hospital mortuary whose main gate was backed up with corpses. The sight of stray dogs and vultures ravaging the remains of the dead troubled us. Two rats were chasing each other over a piece of human flesh. A pack of dogs was also concerned about satisfying their erotic desires as they chased and fought over a female in heat. The sight of those dogs, vultures, and rats feasting on human flesh made a lasting impression on me. I have been haunted by the melancholy of that sight ever since.
When the peace accord was signed, I felt as if I had just escaped what had appeared to be a continual horror. Until then, my fate, like that of most other Sierra Leoneans, had been uncertain. Since the rebel invasion of Freetown on January 6, 1999, I lived in perpetual terror of being preyed upon by gun-toting individuals that were hunting down rebels, sobels, and so-called collaborators, and sympathisers, real or imagined.
Incidentally, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, where the Revolutionary United Front warlord exiled himself, became a safe haven for us. Obviously, the civil war influenced my life a great deal, as it could be seen from my narration. It also had a major catastrophic impact on the political, economic, and social aspects of Sierra Leone.
Click here to buy Bakar Mansaray’s ‘My Afro-Canadian Chronicle’
Chapter 6 of Bakar Mansaray’s ‘My Afro-Canadian Chronicle’
2017. $23.59 (paperback). 264pp. ISBN 978-99-88-8697-9-3.