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22 June 2007

’A war of unimaginable atrocities’

Joe N'Damena, who was responsible for aid distribution at a Methodist church in Freetown, describes

By Scot Broch

The war started in the far eastern district of Kailahun, a direct result of a similar rebellion over the border in Liberia. It was a war which was fought with brutality and unimaginable atrocities.

Before the invasion of Freetown in January 1999, the impact of the war was felt mostly through distant news of killings, burning of villages, maimings, amputations and the confinement of internally displaced people (IDPs) who lived in squalid camps dotted around the country.

Freetown’s residents didn’t have the slightest inkling of the suffering of those in the provinces where the fighting was taking place. They would ask, “What do the rebels look like? Do they have tails?”

With the involvement of the regular army, the situation became much worse, taking the war into a phase of wanton destruction of lives and properties.

Originally Freetown was invaded by the combined forces of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the renegade soldiers of the Sierra Leone Army (SLA). I didn’t think I would be behind the rebel line. I know now this was wishful thinking.

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On the day of the Freetown invasion, I, my parents (who were visiting me from the provinces), my wife and two children were woken by the loudest gunfire one can imagine. The Methodist compound where we were residing was the main centre for relief food and medicine distribution in Freetown.

During the fighting we found ourselves caught in no man’s land between the fighting factions. It was a nightmare. Our compound, covering about 10 acres, was swarming with fighters firing their guns continuously.

It lasted for over 12 days. All that time we were locked up in our house with no food supply, though we had running water in house – thanks be to God.

By the time the guns went silent, the Methodist compound was filled with thousands of hungry, panic-stricken, desperate and devastated people. They were all fleeing the fighting from various sections of the eastern and central portions of the city and primarily looking for food.

Soon a camp-like condition emerged, as people learned that the Methodist Church Relief and Development Unit had about 500 tonnes of food for relief distribution. But this level of food was far below what was required for the thousands affected.

Throughout Sierra Leone the IDPS lived in makeshift structures in deplorable conditions. Although provided with tents and tarpaulins there weren’t enough to go around. The displaced (mostly women, who had lost their spouses or contact with close relatives) still had to walk long distances into the bushes to fell trees for sticks to make temporary structures.

It all meant an atmosphere of despair and desolation in the camps. It was a dehumanizing situation, where people used to catering for themselves had to queue for food, used clothing and medicine to be distributed to them.

Some of the IDP camps were huge. One 13,000-capacity stadium had become a camp for 45,000. And the air was filled with constant tension: a fear of the unknown, anger against the perpetrators and a general feeling of hopelessness.

This feeling of hopelessness only changed into hope, when the British army intervened.

For us, working under such circumstances was psychological torture because we saw and understood how our people felt. Only the end of the war brought us some relief, as people finally had the chance to start rebuilding their lives.

Charles Taylor in his quest for Sierra Leone’s diamonds gave his unflinching support to this carnage. In my opinion he deserves to face the full penalty of the law.