The Other War

By Steve Coll
Sunday, January 9, 2000



The Abduction of Helen

Alpha heard banging at the gates of his family's compound, then gunshots. He looked out a second-story window and saw the rebels. Some wore the combat camouflage of Sierra Leone's disintegrated army. Some wore black jeans, knit polo shirts, Tupac Shakur T-shirts. A few had wrapped their hair in handkerchiefs patterned with the American flag. All of them wore red bandannas around their foreheads. Adhesive strips patched their faces, as if they had been scratched by angry cats. The strips masked incisions where the rebels had ingested cocaine, amphetamines or other drugs that wired their heads for battle.

In eastern Freetown on Monday morning, January 18, 1999, a war that was at that moment the world's cruelest, as well as its most invisible, entered the parlor of the Jalloh family, where breakfast lay unfinished on a table in the center of the room. It was not easy to say why the rebels entered one house and not another, but a faint air of prosperity hung over this gated compound on Kissy Road. Dalibeh Jalloh's nine children by two wives included the three sweet-faced sons now standing frightened by the window. The oldest was Alpha, 22, who traded gold-plated watches he bought in Guinea, had a girlfriend, danced in Freetown's nightclubs, and who now listened as the rebels crashed through the last door and climbed the stairs.

They demanded money and Alpha's father handed over bundles. Gun barrels swung to the three brothers. A rebel commander ordered them outside. Their mother sat in a chair before the unfinished food and wept. Their father begged: "Please don't take them. They are my children. Don't take them."

Outside, the rebels forced them into line. They marched up a red clay road past small shacks and shops toward green, grassy hills.

"We are going back to the bush," a rebel taunted, "but we are leaving something with you."

The brothers began to cry. The line of youths swelled with other abductees as they walked. Some rebels told the boys their hands would be cut off and sent back to the democratically elected president of Sierra Leone, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, as a symbol of the rebels' power. Others said the boys would be killed. The Jalloh brothers begged to be taken to the rain forest, where they could be indoctrinated as rebels and join the "revolution."

"No, we are sending you to Tejan Kabbah. We are not taking you to the jungle."

Two hundred yards up the slope they reached a school driveway. Before a metal gate stood a tall, thin rebel wearing black jeans, a black T-shirt and a red bandanna. Drug strips covered his face. The others called him Tommy. He held an axe.

A neighbor the boys knew as Sheikou went first. As rebels trained assault rifles at his head, he stretched on his stomach on broken concrete before the school gate and extended his arm.

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