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Sierra Leone

VI. Freetown:
'We've come to see you on
a very important matter'

Story by Steve Coll
Photographs by Michel duCille

He felt sharp pain when the axe first fell.

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

The second, third and fourth times, Amadu felt nothing. When Tommy had finished, the rebels picked Amadu up and kicked him away from the chopping block at the school gate. He did not stay to watch his brothers, Alpha and Dawda, who were behind him in line. Bleeding profusely, he walked and fell, walked and fell, then collapsed on the clay road.

Alpha stumbled upon him. He, too, was now bleeding from a stump. They walked about a mile toward Freetown. The streets were deserted. They knocked on a stranger's door along a main road. A family bundled them inside. Alpha and Amadu each asked for a poisonous potion of cleaning fluid; they had decided while walking that they wanted to commit suicide. Their hosts refused. They wrapped the brothers' wounds, gave them milk and tried to assure them that they would survive. The boys slept fitfully in the parlor. Nigerian artillery shells echoed outside. When the sun rose, the boys found themselves on a street newly controlled by pro-government forces. One of the family with whom they had stayed took them to the hospital. The boys were bedded in a ward where dozens of amputees were beginning to arrive.

The next day, their half-brother tracked them down. He told them that their 10-year-old brother, Dawda, had bled to death in the street after his amputation and had been buried in a makeshift grave nearby. Their parents and younger sister had been locked inside their home, which the rebels had set on fire. There was nothing left of them or the house, only charred concrete and rubble.

Outside the hospital where the brothers lay, scores of bloodied stragglers and desperate relatives wandered in the streets, searching for medical help or seeking news of the abducted. On street after street in the eastern suburbs, the rebels had staged elaborately orchestrated attacks. Families were corralled and divided, some selected for death, some for amputation, some set free. Children were raped within earshot or view of their parents. The disoriented survivors zigzagged toward Freetown's center, hoping for medical attention or refuge.

Alpha and Amadu Jollah
Alpha and Amadu Jollah stand near the spot where their arms were cut off.
At the mosque in a section of Kissy's slopes called Rogbalan, about 100 Muslims and Christians had huddled for days in the sanctuary. Some were neighbors. Some were strangers seeking shelter, people whose names could not later be recalled, whose fate would be registered officially on the lists of the disappeared.

After days of harassment and threats, several rebels, including one described by survivors as no older than 10, arrived at the mosque's gate. They wore black T-shirts and women's wigs. A teenaged boy sitting on the mosque's steps was caught warning those in the sanctuary that the rebels were coming. The rebels told the teenager to open his mouth. One then jammed an assault rifle down his throat and shot him dead.

They entered the sanctuary and one rebel in a dreadlock wig stood before Alieu Bangura, the mosque's gray-flecked imam.

"We've come to see you on a very important matter," the rebel announced. "We're going to kill all of you."

Musa Bangura worships at the Rogbalan mosque, scene of one of the many bloody Freetown massacres.
"If God Almighty agrees, that will happen," Bangura replied.

They told him to take a few steps back and then they opened fire, tilting their barrels down to the floor where dozens lay huddled, spraying wildly from left to right as the refugees screamed. Some ran and were gunned down in the courtyard or in the hallway leading to a small school out back.

They missed the imam, though he stood right before them—a miracle, it would be widely agreed. As the shooting erupted, a man lying nearby, struggling with pain, kicked Bangura's legs and knocked him on his back. He felt other people's blood washing over him, even into his eyes.

The stories of other massacres would later echo with common themes: the strange, almost formal deliberateness; the chilling dialogue between killers and victims, talk that often touched on politics, although the civilian victims usually knew little; and the terrible images of the rebels with their faces covered with drug patches or masks or bandannas or wigs.

All through late January, corpses lay unattended in the streets. At the Kissy Mental Hospital farther up the hill, Human Rights Watch would later report, about 16 men were executed and six women hacked with machetes. At the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star Church in nearby Wellington, another 12, including three children, were massacred with pistols and assault rifles. In the eastern suburbs, families were locked in their houses and burned alive. Entire streets were sprayed with kerosene and set alight.

Human Rights Watch, citing the government's senior medical examiner, later reported that 7,335 corpses were registered for burial after the January rebel offensive. Thousands more people simply disappeared—dead or kidnapped, their families did not know.

Helen's family was among them: They had no idea what had become of her after she was led away into Kissy's hills by the rebels.

Helen was imprisoned for four months in a rebel camp.
As Kissy burned, Helen lay imprisoned at a rebel camp not far away. For what she would later recall as a period of about two weeks, she was gang-raped by boys and men roving in and out of the base. Like many other women abducted by the rebels, she worked to partially protect herself by forging a union with Colonel Bloodshed, relying on him to keep others away. By February, shelled by Nigerian and Guinean troops, they struck camp and trekked to the bush. They arrived at an isolated patch of jungle called the Occra Hills and settled in. Helen was forbidden to speak freely with other rebel captives. In the deepest trough of night, she remembers, "when they were asleep, I would raise up my head to see if everyone was sleeping. But there was no way to escape."

February passed this way. And March, April. The BBC resounded with news of a major war in the Balkans. In Sierra Leone, the war ebbed; negotiations for peace had begun in neighboring countries, sponsored by the United Nations. The rebels awaited the results.

"One night," Helen recalls, "they were drunk after smoking and drinking. All drunk, and dancing. And they all passed out . . . I was watching them, thinking."

She sat down beside another abductee, her friend Fatmatah. "Right now, these people are drunk. Let's run away," Helen recalls saying.

"They'll kill us," Fatmatah whispered.

"They will not know. They're drunk."

They watched some more. Fatmatah summoned her courage. "Let's not take a thing," Helen said. "Let's run."

Helen slipped into the forest and soon Fatmatah followed. They began to run. For hours they crashed through the blackness, slicing themselves on vines and brambles. They reached a stream and rested until dawn. In the light they stumbled down from the hills, found a village and were sheltered by an old woman. After two days, Helen pressed on for Freetown alone. She walked until she found the main road, waved down a van, spilled out her tale and begged the driver for a ride.

In Freetown hours later she spotted an uncle in the street, leaped out, and asked about her family. Her father, the government official, was in Connaught Hospital. The rebels had burned her home. Everything was lost. But her parents had survived.

At Connaught, she ran to Ward 8, where her uncle said her father was recovering. She spotted him sitting in the sun behind a railing on a second-story balcony.

"Papa! Papa! I've come! I've come!" she shouted.

Astonished, he called to his wife and raced to meet his daughter. Weeping and shouting, they embraced in the hospital hallway, and Helen saw the bandaged stumps above her father's elbows where his two arms had been.

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