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Sierra Leone

I. Freetown:
The Abduction of Helen

Story by Steve Coll
Photographs by Michel duCille

Alpha heard banging at the gates
of his family's compound, then gunshots.


Victims Gallery  
Rebels Gallery  
The Abduction of Helen
A Borderless World
In Mosquito Country
At the Crossroads
The Best Intentions
"We've come to see you..."
Toward Politics
Meanings of Sierra Leone
Among the Wounded

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.

Jalloh brothers
With their arms amputated and parents burned alive, the Jalloh brothers Alpha, 22, and Amadu, 17, wander the streets in the Kissy neighborhood of Freetown.
Tommy raised the axe high above his head and slammed it down. Once, twice, three times, four times. Sheikou's severed hand seemed to jump away from him.

The line shuffled forward. Alpha, weeping and shaking, watched his younger brother Amadu, 17, stretch out his right arm.

As Tommy raised his axe, Alpha closed his eyes.

Helen Jolted Awake. "We've come!" she heard the rebels shout. "You thought we were not coming back to the city! We're here!"

It was three days later in a middle-class neighborhood up the slope from the school gate, where the war would now force entry into the second-story apartment of a salaried government bureaucrat and his 20-year-old daughter, Helen.

Helen: an earnest student who radiates such energy and possesses such physical beauty that on the streets of some other capital, people might assume she was famous. She has a daughter by her boyfriend, Abdul. She lives at home in the wind-caressed suburban hills above Freetown, where she lounges with her doting father, and sneaks away with Abdul, and thinks about going into business, as she and her girlfriends have sometimes done in small ways, trading shampoo and food from an old metal shipping container across from a Catholic church.

Helen, who, like Alpha, belongs to a generation of young Africans whose parents' ambitions have delivered them from rural poverty to urban aspiration. They have come of age in a networked, electronic, globalized, syncretic era that for all its fractures manages to connect even to them. One world, ready or not, even in Sierra Leone, which the United Nations describes as the poorest country in the world. In Freetown, the Atlantic-washed capital, there is not a regular supply of electricity or a reliable telephone system, but inevitably, there is a functioning cyber-cafe, and the streets pulse with battery-powered hip-hop music and generator-operated satellite news and the buying power of Western Union money transfers sent by the tens of thousands who have made it to Europe and America. A progressive generation of young and ambitious Africans, you might say admiringly, except that besides Helen and Alpha, it also includes Tommy and his nihilistic brethren-acronym-happy ex-soldiers and self-styled revolutionaries who roam and sprawl across the continent, armed with Chinese- and East European-manufactured assault rifles, propelled by grievance, greed and a broad experience of impunity.

"We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said last year, explaining why the world intervened militarily to stop paramilitary bloodshed in Kosovo (as it would later in East Timor). Expanding global trade, satellites, the World Wide Web and human migration have combined to create "the beginnings of a new doctrine of international community," one where "globalization is not just economic, it is also a political and security phenomenon," giving birth to a world where "we cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure." Acknowledging the obvious limits of such a doctrine, however, Blair worried that "as yet . . . our approach tends towards being ad hoc."

Blair sought to measure his millennial ideas by the world's conduct in Kosovo during the last year of the 20th century. But an African might want to measure them against the world's conduct in Sierra Leone during that same year of 1999.

A year when, on the night of January 21, eight weeks before the war began in Kosovo, two rebels entered Helen's suburban apartment, roughed up her father and told him that they were taking away his daughter.

Helen, 20, was abducted from her father's home in Freetown and repeatedly raped.
He begged them to leave her alone. "If you keep complaining, we're going to kill you," one of the rebels said.

The next morning, her parents watched Helen walk at gunpoint up the hill, through the mango trees, past the Kissy Mental Hospital, toward the peaks that pointed to the country's interior.

Helen found herself walking with another girl from the neighborhood who had also been abducted. The pair wept and begged to be released.

"I am a school-going girl," Helen said.

"I don't want to know," replied her captor, whom she would come in the months ahead to know as Colonel Bloodshed.

The rebels took them into the grass and raped them. Then they pushed them on toward camp.

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