Banking around over the palm-fringed coastline in the small prop plane, Dili seemed like some forgotten seaside resort. A millionaire’s folly, a lavish plaything tossed unwanted into the undergrowth. Though at a distance, its grand colonial buildings, statues and plazas appeared wracked only by time and nature, the violent truth became obvious once my feet touched ground. Continue reading
It seems the law has caught up with me again. This next few days will see me off at last to Dili, Timor-Leste, after many delays and postponements. It’s now a few months since I stepped, bewildered and sunburnt, off the plane connection from Sierra Leone. My plan to spend some few weeks indulging in the fruits of Western consumerism before plunging back into the developing world had evidently inspired a spiteful deity or deities to laugh. Continue reading
The night before I’d said some farewells. I’d taken in the Atlantic sunrise over a cup of coffee from my balcony; smiled fondly, with premature nostalgia, at the hawkers and waved at the schoolchildren on the morning drive in. I was straightening things up at the office, filing some final reports, when the news came. Hinga Norman is dead.
To paraphrase another traveller in strange lands: when first I arrived here, I thought I could easily write a book; after a month – perhaps a pamphlet; now, it has become difficult to write a single word. This is not, as some have suggested, due to some repetitive strain injury resulting from overuse of a heavy thesaurus, but rather a paralysis of another kind.
Filed under: Sierra Leone
In a country so thoroughly torn apart by war, perhaps it oughtn’t to be so surprising to encounter examples of the divergent paths of its population. This, then, is a story about two boys who, despite a common origin, grew up to be very different men.
Filed under: Sierra Leone
|Our difficult progress to Kailahun, along routes more riverbed than road, left the driver muttering mutinously in Mandingo and me with the distinct sensation of my internal organs being rearranged in alphabetical order. This remote province had been the stronghold of the RUF for near a decade, its border with Liberia allowing for easy transport of arms and ammunition from the caches of Charles Taylor. Cut off by this affiliation from even the modest development enjoyed by the rest of the country during the strife-filled 1990s, Kailahun was already at a disadvantage. Post-war, the many combatants born in these parts had generally not returned to the villages and communities that had witnessed their atrocities. The Sierra Leonean government, however, is perceived by many to see Kailahun as home to sympathisers and collaborators, and to act out its reprisals by withholding funds for hospitals, roads and schools.
This part of the country is littered with unmarked monuments to the terror of war. Touring the area in search of our few ex-RUF contacts, the journey became a grisly travelogue. Here to our left was the slaughterhouse in which fifteen captured Kamajor hunters were gutted. The road cutting through which we were passing was the very one on which was killed Rashid Mansaray, who had, early in the movement’s development, ceded control of the RUF to his elder, Foday Sankoh. Legend has it that Mansaray, set upon by the high-ranking cadre of RUF thugs known as ‘The Vultures’, had pleaded innocence to the spurious charge of betrayal, pouring water from his canteen on the dirt and invoking God to make it pour uphill as testament to his honesty. The water turned from its downward path, upsetting gravity and onlookers alike. The Vultures shot him anyway, for witchcraft.
Next stop was the bridge that saw the murder of the movement’s intellectuals, 53 of them, down to the man whose death warrant was effectively signed by his writing the RUF anthem. Man after man was shot with a single bullet to the head and pushed into the water. The movement, shortly after, forgot its initial principles and commenced a further spree of bloodletting. Further along the road was pointed out the house in which an army leader’s wife had been gangraped, prompting a miscarriage to deepen the tragedy. Her crime was that her husband had been accused of stealing diamonds intended to secure a shipment of weapons. At our destination, a sign at the village’s centre declared “Buedu is violence free”. As we noted the radio command where orders for the decimation of whole communities had been issued, this seemed to me a sick joke indeed.
Gallows humour was the order of the day, however. A suggestion that an RUF commander who had widowed a woman he desired by sending her husband to the front (mirroring the Biblical story of David and Bathsheba) was by dint of this act, a holy man, drew gales of laughter. Some biologists will tell you that the reflex of laughing is an evolutionary legacy; its staccato outbursts each echoing a threat curtailed. Humour thus speaks of an unburdening relief, joy at the realisation of survival. As my companions’ laughter rang in my ears, however, I felt the burn of bile rising in my throat, and tried to suppress it. Instead, this caused hiccups. It was hilarious.
The judge sat in silence for a full five minutes, his wordless rage expressed only through flailing gestures of dismissal, directed at his infamous courtroom guest. Stroking his unkempt and greying beard, there was nothing to outwardly mark the man who had gone from corporal in the Sierra Leone Army (and part-time wedding photographer) to commander in chief of a revolutionary movement vying with stiff competition for the title of the bloodiest in West Africa. If, aside from the training he recieved at Gaddafi’s notorious “House of Blood” in Benghazi, charisma played a part in his rise, there was none of it on show now.