By Umaru Fofana
October 9 1997. It was just an everyday morning for a journalist in a war zone. I was pre-occupied with what to report, and wondering how to stay alive. I had no idea that day of just how horrifically events would unfold. I was in Juba Hills, Freetown. The Nigeria-led West African intervention force, ECOMOG, was surrounding rebel positions some 30 kilometres away.
Suddenly, Five rebels – all armed with Kalashnikov rifles and grenades – started to chase me. They had been guarding the home of the country’s exiled president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. He had been overthrown by rebel soldiers. I had gone to investigate reports that his house had been set on fire.
“Stop!” The rebels yelled at me from a distance. Only moments earlier I had passed their checkpoint where I’d seen them smoking marijuana. They cocked their guns as they came closer. One hit me on the head with his gun butt. Another kicked me. I fell to the ground. They ordered me to get up. While I struggled to do so, a red-eyed rebel started to interrogate me.
“Why do you want to go to Tejan Kabbah’s house?” he asked me in the local Krio language, as he blew smoke into my face. I stuttered and stammered and stumbled for an answer. “Are you a spy or a journalist?” he asked. As I wondered what to say, another rebel pulled his trigger, at close range. I took a step. Then there was a sharp pain in my right leg. I had been shot. My tibia bone had shattered. I struggled to control my balance, while the men took turns hitting me with their guns. Whenever I fell down, they trod on my broken leg, shouting at me to get up. I kept hopping on my left leg as they kept beating and pushing me to keep going until we got to their checkpoint.
They found my notebook: proof that I was a journalist. This enraged them further. One of them took aim and pulled his trigger to finish me off. But another rebel pushed him. The bullet missed me and hit the tree I was leaning against.
I sat still, praying for what I believed was the last time. The rebels were still studying my notebook. Then one of their senior officers arrived at break-neck speed. He was probably escaping the ECOMOG bombardment. I heard him giving them the order to release me. I thought my prayers had been answered.
But as the officer drove off, the rebels commandeered a passing car. Two of them – obviously high on drugs – flanked me on either side. They picked me up and dumped me in the boot of the car.
Just a short while later we arrived at a hideout, which, 15 years on, I still cannot identify. The men yanked me out of the car boot and forced me to put my hands on a chopping board – ready to be hacked off. I resisted, instinctively. One rebel then fetched a heavy rock to drop on my head. Fortunately at this point a few rebel casualties were brought in. His focus shifted and he dashed to the makeshift ambulance.
But my ordeal was still not over. A short while later the rebel soldiers lit plastic bags and then let them fall, flaming, onto my back. Another urinated into my mouth. Then he squeezed my lips together, before hitting me on the head to force me to swallow.
I would later learn that the owner of the commandeered car was a former schoolmate of mine. He had been forced to drive it to the hideout. And he would later tell me that he’d heard the rebels planning to kill me when it got dark.
But when night fell, the officer who‘d ordered that I be freed earlier in the day arrived. “Where did you take that journalist to?” I heard him ask. I mustered all my remaining strength and shouted, “I am here!”
The following day, October 10, I was laying on the floor of the military hospital. A fruit seller who was a regular visitor on the wards approached me. I whispered a message to her: please let my office know where I am.
The next day my colleagues told the world what happened to me. I was released and sent to a civilian hospital. And a few weeks after that the leader of the notorious rebel junta, Johnny Paul Koroma, visited me as I lay in bed recovering. He told me he was sorry.
That is my story. Compared to the horrors that were unleashed in a decade of war in Sierra Leone it is insignificant. When the then US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, visited Sierra Leone she held back tears when she saw Memuna Mansaray, a young child with her right arm missing above the elbow.
When she was just a few months old Memuna had had her arm hacked off by rebels. Her mother had been killed as she tried to save her baby daughter. The picture of Memuna’s stump reverberated around the world. And it was images like this, which put pressure on the international community to end the carnage in Sierra Leone.
Memuna now lives with her adoptive parents in Washington DC.
Home today for 45-year-old Borbor Jaia is a settlement for amputees, built by the Norwegian government, in the south of the country. In 1996 Jaia had his penis severed by rebels during the war. I met him for the first time two weeks ago. He said he would rather die than live the life he has now. Whenever he urinates, he cries with pain. He says his life has no meaning. It is worthless, he says. His hopes rest with his teenage daughter, his only child. He is desperate for her to have a good future in Sierra Leone.
In the 10 years since the civil war ended, Sierra Leone has moved on. This is a country whose forgiving spirit is legendary. Reconciliation has proved much easier to achieve than many expected. A number of former rebels stood for election five years ago. They got hardly any votes. Now they are currently campaigning again – hoping to win seats in the general election that will take place this November. There has been no serious violence. The country remains calm. And Sierra Leone’s former rag-tag army is now well trained, thanks to international support especially from Britain. It now participates in United Nations peacekeeping missions around the world. A battalion is expected to be deployed in war-torn Somalia later this year.
Like my leg, which has mended well, Sierra Leone is back on its feet. But serious challenges still lie ahead. The issues that led to the country’s bloody and brutal civil war have not disappeared. The former head of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has not pulled his punches. He is Reverend Bishop Humper and is clear that ethnic rivalries still exist. Injustices remain in Sierra Leone. And so does corruption. Unemployment persists – it is especially high among the young. But at least people now speak out about these things – and the leaders listen – sometimes.
The IMF estimates that Sierra Leone will record a growth rate of 34% this year – thanks to its huge iron ore deposits and its fast-floating offshore oil. Prayers are being offered that these newly discovered resources will not end up causing bloodshed. That has happened here before. The diamond trade fueled the war.
If Charles Taylor is convicted this week, he will be the ninth man to be found guilty at the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone. Eight others are now serving between 15 and 50 years in a Rwandan prison. Some believe these sentences will serve as a deterrent to future warlords. Others say: If that’s the case, why do atrocities in Darfur, Somalia and Syria persist?
And for many of the victims who survived the brutality in Sierra Leone, the question is: why have hundreds of millions of dollars been spent on trying nine people, while many of them are forced to beg on the streets. Perhaps as the economy booms – theses people will now receive some help and support.
And what of Johnny Paul Koroma – the warlord whose men were responsible for countless deaths? Among them – very nearly – mine. Like Charles Taylor, he has been indicted for war crimes. But not arrested. His exact whereabouts are still unknown.
This was a dispatch first broadcast on the 24 April 2012 (before the Charles Taylor verdict) on the BBC’s flagship programme, From Our Own Correspondent