Freeing Freetown: A Tale of ECOMOG Soldiers’ Sojourn in Sierra Leone (Part 1)

Joseph Musa in his house in Freetown
Joseph Musa in his house in Freetown

Solomon Gyang is unsure why he still does what he does. If he had any sense, he knows, he’d have quit this life a long while back. He doesn’t want to be where he is now: Perched on a wooden seat in a market-town on the frontlines of the herdsmen conflict in Nigeria’s north.

Yet another war. Loudspeakers placed at road intersections blast high-pitched Hausa tunes in the background. He gets on the phone periodically to check on the men in his unit. A regiment sergeant major but more importantly, a man of The Word, Mr Gyang, a sergeant, carries the burden of checking the troops in the operation. Today, he must make sure a suspected herdsman is not tortured by his colleagues. They tend to get carried away, he says, and God forbid a prisoner is tortured to death on his watch.

God Forbid. That’s what he used to say when his father, a soldier, told him to join the military too. God forbid, he’d said, to the suffering of his parents. His father’s N75 salary was a mockery every month for him and his seven siblings. And he’d hated that uniform. God forbid, he’d said, even when he’d applied and written the entrance examinations because he failed to qualify for the Air Force – which he said had a much more dignified uniform. Fear of heights.

God forbid, Mr Gyang had told himself again, when his fiancee dumped him and he found himself on the edge of despair. He threw himself into the work, but there wasn’t a lot of action, not back then. Then the order came. Pack up, we’re going for war, they’d told him. He was only three years in the army.

Operation Liberty, they’d named it, a fitting name for Liberia – the land of the free. It was good luck for Mr Gyang. Not many got to go to war or see such action so fast, so green, but Liberia was burning and its West African neighbours had responded to its call for help. Nigeria had spearheaded the formation of the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) – a 12,000-strong allied armed force with troops from majorly Nigeria and others from Ghana, Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Guinea and Mali – in 1990 to intervene and keep Charles Taylor’s bloodthirsty forces from plunging Liberia further into chaos.

The conflicts soon spread west to Sierra Leone. Charles Taylor’s influence reached across the borders where he sponsored the rebellion of the Revolutionary United Front, led by Foday Sankoh. RUF sought to overthrow the Sierra Leonean government. The uprising was the result of over 20 years of state corruption in the diamond-rich country. Sankoh’s forces mirrored Taylor’s: young men, women and children abducted from their parents and given no choice but to become killing machines.

The fighting in Sierra Leone had been raging for about six years when Mr Gyang, 26, was pulled from Monrovia and redeployed to Freetown. It was 1997 and the Johnny Koroma-led Armed Forces Ruling Council, a group of renegade soldiers, had parlayed with the RUF to capture Freetown and sack the civilian government of Tejan Kabbah. West African powers wanted to restore Kabbah and none was as eager as Nigeria’s head of state and then ECOWAS Chairman, Sani Abacha, an army general. Nigerian soldiers, numbering about 700, were the first to redeploy to Sierra Leone. By the time his battalion dropped from military choppers into the dense green of a remote coastal settlement, Mr Gyang’s senses were ultra-heightened. There was an acute sense of aloneness.

“We dropped in Kossoh Town where we didn’t know, where there had not been any ECOMOG soldiers and from there we made our defence and started facing fights,” Mr Gyang remembers.

Liberia had been a blur: Mr Gyang had been with many soldiers there and had been sheltered in a way. But here in Sierra Leone, things were different, more dangerous, fewer men against the rabid rebels. The Sierra Leonean Army was weak and had had little success in holding them back through the years. In fact, the government had been so ineffective in responding to the rebels in those first years of the war, that disgruntled military officers protesting bad conditions at the front had overtaken Joseph Momoh’s government in the bloodless 1992 coup, quite by accident.

Valentine Strasser, the 25-year-old president of the National Provisional Ruling Council, and his deputy, SAJ Musa, were forced out after Mr Kabbah won general elections in ‘96, a year before Mr Gyang’s unit arrived. Things started to look up for Sierra Leone when Kabbah signed a peace accord with the RUF and a contract with Executive Outcomes – South African mercenaries contracted to help fight the rebels – was terminated before it was implemented. That turned out to be a mistake, as rebel offensives soon commenced again in ‘97, paving the way for the AFRC coup. That was when Mr Gyang’s troops were called in. Their mandate was to secure the State House and restore Kabbah. There were no templates, no history to go on. ECOMOG troops had to fight their way into the capital and forcibly hold the rebels from the State House.

The men advanced on foot from Kossoh towards Benguema which had been under the control of the RUF. It was extremely dangerous and many comrades were killed but the mission was largely successful.

“We did that in six hours,” Mr Gyang smiles boastfully.

“They never believed we were going to come and we went there and captured the place before I was withdrawn to advance to Freetown.”

It was a long time ago but it remains one of his most poignant memories. A young private, advancing under the lead of sure Nigerian captains – the bravest men he’d ever seen. He was in awe. Even when the rebels invaded Freetown on January 6, 1999, the bloodiest rebel attack – the soldiers remained brave.

“I worked with gallant soldiers. They gave us morale. We would see our soldiers dying but because of them we were able to advance.”

A Victim’s Experience

It has taken Karim Sesay 20 years and five months to muster enough strength to find the spot where his family was buried. In the heat of the blazing Freetown sun that sent invisible daggers of fire down the back of his neck, the 45-year-old saunters determinedly past the Stadium and on towards the graveyard, limping slightly, long arms swaying by his side, eyes watery and oval face set.

He hates to remember but the day comes to him clear as crystal whether he likes it or not. The day his life changed and when he started to float, as if in a constant dream state. The day he “went off”, is how Mr Karim likes to describe it to me. It was after the rebels invaded Freetown in 1999. He was 25, living with his partner and their baby daughter – the symbol of the new life that was just blossoming for him. Word had floated to him at his workplace in Congo Cross where he was a driver’s apprentice. ECOMOG troops had detained his mother and stepfather. They had taken them to the waterside in King Tom, a suburb in Freetown where his family lived.

It took a while for his mother to die, that is what upsets him the most. By the time he got to her at the waterside, she’d been beaten so severely, a huge bump had mounted on her forehead. His brothers, Khalia, Mark, and Bobo Sesay had already been shot. His stepfather was dead too. Mark was ten years old. One of the boys had stolen some money belonging to an Indian man who had recruited the ECOMOG troops for bush justice, bystanders told Karim. He stood with the crowd that had gathered, helpless, trembling.

He watched one of the soldiers hit his mother repeatedly. His name tag read Lieutenant Alusayne, or that is how he remembered it. He does not remember much about the men. He certainly does not remember seeing a cameraman in the crowd: The same cameraman who would later produce Cry Freetown, a film about the war that features his suffering prominently. He remembers one man clearly though – Major Tanko, the battalion commander who shot his mother in the waist with a pistol.

Mr Karim’s effort to appear as just another bystander had failed. Major Tanko noticed him crying harder than the others in the crowd. He got curious. “Who that boy whey they cry so?” Major Tanko asked his mother. That’s the one mistake his mother made, Mr Sesay tells me now with sad, wistful eyes, eyes that say he yearns to go back and change the horror that unfolded. “Those words that she said? ‘Na me pikin.’ That’s how Major Tanko asked them to arrest me.”

The soldiers asked them both to provide the money his brother has taken from the Indian. “I didn’t know,’ His mother had said. She was just a housewife, she knew nothing, her son knew nothing, she had cried over and over, begging for mercy.

That was the last time he saw her.

Now, Mr Karim and I turn a corner and come up on the gates of the Ascension Town Cemetery. Red-eyed boys, in their twenties or younger, lay on graves getting high and making merry. It could be a national park if one ignores the rather conspicuous tombstones lined in rows. Friends of the Dead, these boys are called here in Sierra Leone. Four of them notice us and make their way towards us. Up close, the smell of weed is stronger. Many of them were orphaned by the 11 years of civil war. Mr Karim tells them what he’s looking for.

“January 6? We remember well-well,” the group leader, a dark slim junkie says. “Na there they put them,” he points, motioning for Mr Karim to follow him. The group jump over scores of disintegrating tombstones to get to the far eastern corner of the graveyard and Karim and I follow suit. Some of the tombstones have caved in and we can make out termite-ridden coffins. The junkie starts to clear an untended patch of land covered with shrubs with his hands.

“If she had taken the money, my life would be better now,” Mr Karim says, watching the junkie work. He’s alive only because his boss, Sule, had intervened and begged for his release. The ECOMOG troops had listened to Mr Sule because they knew him. In a cruel twist of fate, Messrs Sule and Karim had driven Major Tanko and some of his men around when they first arrived in Freetown. Mr Karim vaguely remembers pushing a stalled motorboat that carried Major Tanko over from Lungi to Freetown when the troops started their offensive against the rebels. In a way, he says, he’d pushed his family’s killers closer to them.

His mother had not been so lucky. The junkie leader remembers ECOMOG troops rounding up boys in the area after January 6 for burial duty. He’d been one of them, he says as he motions to the cleared patch of land. Some of the bodies were still moving when they threw dirt over them, he tells Mr Karim in Krio. Some had been killed by the rebels and some, like Mr Karim’s family, had died at the hands of the soldiers. They were buried on this very spot, he says. Mr Karim shudders and bows his head.

Operation No Living Thing

The first sign of trouble Mr Gyang and the rest of the soldiers would face in Sierra Leone was the Krio language, he says.

Mr Gyang and his mates had wanted some rice at a local bar. It was days after they had redeployed.

“The rice don done,” the lady at the food section shouted in Krio.

The men waited, hungry but assured that their food was coming. 30 minutes, 45, one hour, and nothing. They got angry and rioted.

“The rice don done,” the food seller screamed again.

Nothing made sense. Until a kind customer who understood the chaos stepped in to mediate. He explained that in Krio, ‘rice don done’ meant ‘there’s no more rice’. But in Nigerian pidgin, the same phrase translates to ‘it is ready’.

Before the January 6 incursion, the rebel militia had blended with the population in Freetown in a way that made it hard for ECOMOG troops to identify and remove them. They had mixed with locals fleeing smaller villages already under rebel control. Freetown had ballooned. It is that tactic, many argue, that made January 6 such a disaster for the government forces.

The soldiers usually relied on the experience of the Kamajors, a civilian task force of mostly the Mende tribe working closely with the military to protect their villages against RUF. Other times, the soldiers were guided by the locals, who knew one another and who were more invested in what happened to their hometown. Many times, the locals pointed out men wearing black on black as a sign they were collaborators.

By January 6, the troops had become lax. Many of the soldiers by that time, including Mr Gyang, were on redeployment from Liberia and had not seen their families for years. He missed no one in particular, really, he tells me. After his heartbreak, he had become something of a playboy. But he thought of his family often. Not his father, he did not care much for the old soldier. It was the thoughts of his mother that carried him through those dark days at war.

There were men who carried him too, he relays. The pastor he met in Liberia who let him survive on singing for the church those first months. The $150 allowance that was standard for ECOMOG troops came three months after his first deployment. Standard practice back then, Mr Gyang says.

Men like Major Tanko carried him. The brashness and humour of their superiors helped the younger privates survive the brutality of the rebels.

There was General Maxwell Khobe, ECOMOG commander and devoted man of the gun. Mr Khobe had a track record of success – he had led the coup that ushered in President Ibrahim Babangida. He led ECOMOG forces into victory when they sacked Mr Koroma’s junta government and restored Mr Kabbah to power. That feat earned him the position of Chief Defence Staff of Sierra Leone.

Mr Gyang worked with General Khobe many times. The General would lead his men on foot, armed with a radio, scouting areas like someone with extraordinary vision. “He would tell us to fire somewhere, even when we could not see anything. We would do that and see many rebels coming out one by one. What he saw, we just couldn’t see it.”

Mr Khobe is seen as a major player in the restoration of peace to Sierra Leone. When he died in 2000, he was hailed a ‘fearless leader’ and ‘hero’ by many. But he was criticised too. Major-General Vijay Jetley, commander of the UN Forces later deployed to Sierra Leone accused Nigerian soldiers including Mr Khobe and Major-General Gabriel Kpamber, one-time ECOMOG commander, of parlaying with the RUF to steal diamonds and profit from the war.

Then there was Colonel Buhari Musa, the Freetown garrison commander who Mr Gyang admired for being a straight talker. There was Private Amos Ayuba, a big buff who knew how to make jokes in the face of death. There was Captain Ewa, a handsome soldier who the junior soldiers thought as noble, a man they aspired to be like. With those men as leaders, they almost felt invincible.

But nothing prepared them for January 6. It is Mr Gyang’s worst memory of the war. The men had been drinking with their commanders when they heard it. “We started hearing gunshots everywhere. We all scattered, everyone was confused. We could not tell who is who,” he remembers. “That was the night we experienced the worst casualties in one day.”

The rebels had, in fact, been advancing on Freetown for two days. They called the incursion ‘Operation No Living Thing.’ Nigerian air forces held them off, according to The Independent, but not for long. Civilians were ordered to stay indoors or risk death, on government orders. The renewed tensions were in part, because of the arrest of RUF leader, Foday Sankoh, in Nigeria. Sankoh had been sentenced to death. The rebels said they wanted his immediate release.

It was a massacre. Two journalists from the Associated Press were killed in the gunfire, according to reports. Over 5,000 people died – half of them civilians, Human Rights Watch records showed. Bodies of men and women littered the streets in the eastern region of Freetown now firmly under rebel control. The rebels advanced to the centre. ECOMOG and SLA troops battled with all they had. They were under heavy fire. Men started to get picked off, one by one, Mr Gyang narrates. He saw Captain Ewa fall, one clean shot to the head by a sniper. Some of the men left their cover to retrieve his corpse. It was impossible. “Five men died trying to drag his body.”

Then he saw an older Sierra Leonean soldier he had made friends with get blown apart by an RPG that hit him square in the chest. “That was the first time I saw someone die but did not see a body. There were no bones, only blood,” Mr Gyang says. He had advanced, numb, carried by the words of his superiors to focus, press on. By the 11th of January, the troops flushed the rebels from the centre. In turn, Mr Sankoh’s men burned everything in their part as they retreated. There were no celebrations in the aftermath of the ECOMOG victory: Scores of soldiers were dead, maimed or missing. The corpses of ten female soldiers who had hidden in water pipes were dragged out days after the offensive.

Mr Gyang has never again faced forces so brutal, he tells me. When RUF members captured soldiers, they tied their bodies to cars and dragged them off as far and as fast as they could. They particularly loved to hack off their limbs. When they felt particularly mean, they drove nine-inch nails into their members.

It’s why the soldiers themselves rarely took prisoners. A soldier interviewed by Human Rights Watch researchers following the incursion and the subsequent offensive said: “Sometimes we wonder if these rebels are human. After everything they’ve done, it was best to eliminate them.”

It was hard to root out the rebels from the people because they were the people, Mr Gyang says. They spoke the language and looked the same way. Gyang had a special way of knowing them though. The rebels usually had the group’s insignia carved into their bodies. “Then there was something about their hands that lets you know they’ve been carrying guns,” he says. “There’s a way they answer when you ask them questions, that you will just know.”

But locals were most instrumental in identifying rebels. Once, Mr Gyang had the misfortune of falling in rebel territory midst and the locals had saved him. He had been trying to save a small boy who was alone, lost during an attack. Just as he scaled a fence carrying the boy with him, they landed in a circle of rebels holding some locals: Rebels often used people as human shields. “They asked me ‘Who be you?” he remembers. He thought it was over for him, being a soldier. Luckily, he’d worn casual clothes. Locals who knew him as the spiritual one among the troops replied he was a pastor. The rebels asked him to pray for them, and he did in the little Krio he’d picked up. The men seemed satisfied and he escaped unscathed.

‘Every Car Or Movable Object Gone’

The relationship between the Nigerian-led ECOMOG troops and the locals in Freetown was not always rosy. There were many innocents who were wronged, Mr Gyang admits now. But it was inevitable. “In fact,” he tells me, reflectively, “I know that most of the people captured were innocent, but that is war for you.”

The ECOMOG troops were undoubtedly faced with a terrifying enemy, but there are clear cases of the soldiers turning against the very people they swore to protect in Sierra Leone and in Liberia.

Lamin Mansaray was only five years old when a soldier grabbed him from his mother and threw him into a fire. He only remembers the pain and not much about the men, the now 25-year-old says. But his grandmother tells him the story often. And he can hardly escape his story: It was first documented in Cry Freetown and then later in Peacekillers, a film that delved into the suffering of ECOMOG victims.

Sometime in 1998 – Lamin is not clear when exactly – soldiers had ordered residents in the Eastern Police area of Freetown to evacuate to the Stadium to avoid advancing insurgents. His parents trudged along the railway track close to their home, carrying his two sisters. His grandmother, Hauwa Kayateh, carried him and walked behind them. A young boy just ahead of them was accused of being a rebel by the soldiers. The boy was well known to his parents and his father made the costly mistake of intervening and vouching for him, so they grabbed him. Then they grabbed his mother when she screamed that her husband was not a rebel. They shot them both. “They took me from my grandma and threw me into a fire. She pulled me out,” Lamin tells me.

He only has his grandmother, Hauwa now. I sit with them on a log in front of Hauwa’s house, a structure perched high in the Lion Mountains that grace the edges of Freetown. Hauwa and Lamin can only afford a house in the fringes, the very edges of Freetown. Hauwa’s daughter, Lamin’s mum, used to provide for her, but now she survives on petty trade. It takes a 20-minute trip by car and another ten-minute climb up the rocky path by foot to get up the hill where Hauwa’s bungalow sits. The 80-year-old makes this trip every day. Tiny houses line up the road, many of them uncompleted. Children lift jerry cans of water on their heads and sometimes they get so close to the edges it looks to me they’re about to fall off. Lamin grew up here. Now, as a struggling chemist, he has moved back to Eastern Police where his parents once lived.

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It’s hard to say the incident has changed Lamin’s life. It is perhaps more accurate to say his parents’ death and his own immolation have defined him. Something deep inside the child is dead, along with his family. Lamin speaks like a ghost, his default voice volume several octaves below a whisper. He cannot remember a single day when he was truly happy, he tells me. “I’m not feeling alright,” he says. He is triggered all the time. “Whenever I sit with my friends and colleagues I always see them with their parents. I know how I’m feeling.”

Extrajudicial killings and torture was rife in ECOMOG operations, according to reports by Human Rights Watch. According to HRW, they documented “How members of ECOMOG, and to a lesser extent, members of the Civil Defense Forces (CDF) and Sierra Leonean Police, routinely executed RUF prisoners and their suspected collaborators or sympathizers. While the victims were mostly young men, witnesses confirm the execution of some women, and children as young as eight. Officers to the level of captain were present and sometimes participated in these executions.” HRW interviewed witnesses who said ECOMOG troops were manipulated by the local population to settle personal vendettas. Some people lied to get their neighbours in jail because they knew the ECOMOG troops trusted them and were always ready to fire.

A foreign face was automatically a rebel or a collaborator. Some soldiers were exceptionally brutal and the local population took note of them. The most notorious of them was Captain Evil Spirit. After the January 6 invasion, tempers flared on the side of ECOMOG troops and that anger amplified already terrible human rights violation allegations.

The resource curse in Sierra Leone did not help matters. While many accused men of the Sierra Leonean Army of parlaying with RUF rebels to loot diamond mines and the homes of local townspeople, there were documented reports of Nigerian-led ECOMOG troops doing the same. Gyang saw that himself, he tells me. “I remember we would free some places and soldiers would carry everything they see. They’d take diamonds and money.” The same was true in Liberia where ECOMOG was renamed “Every Car or Movable Object Gone”.

(This story was co-published by Premium Times and Mail & Guardian)


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