Salone News

Kiamp Mani: Terror in Conakry

By  | 10 September 2010 at 03:32 | 999 views

Commentary

September 9, 2010 marks exactly ten years, since Sierra Leoneans in Guinea saw the ugly side of some of their hosts, especially in the capital, Conakry and in towns like Forecariah and Kaliah where the UNHCR had set up major camps for refugees in the heat of the 1990s war in Sierra Leone.

I say ‘some’ because I lived in Conakry myself and many other Guineans – especially those who had lived in Sierra Leone in earlier years – either stood by for fear of being branded rebel collaborators, or secretly aided vulnerable Sierra Leoneans in hiding from or escaping the wrath of vigilantes.

On the eve of the Weekend of September 9, 2000, the then President Lansana Conte made a nationwide speech on radio and TV. He addressed Guineans in French, partly blaming refugees for the border skirmishes in some parts of Guinea. Conte, now deceased, alleged that dissident compatriots who sought to invade his country were colluding with rebels from neighbouring countries, notably Sierra Leone and Liberia. All hell broke loose and for obvious demographic reasons Sierra Leoneans bore the brunt of the persecution that ensued. They were more conspicuous, being the bigger population of alien refugees across Guinea. Conte later recanted but by then his reputation as ‘master host’ had been dented. The media broadcast; translated in various local languages, unleashed vigilantes who quickly became marauders.

As for the term ‘Kiamp Mani’ I need to digress. That was the operational word for the aggressors. It loosely translates as ‘Camp Man’. History has it that around 1787 camps were set up by religious and anti-slavery bodies when they resettled freed slaves in the western peninsular of Sierra Leone which is now the Western Area. They named the camps Freetown. However, the indigenes by then were largely Themneh or Temne people. So they called Freetown ‘ doh Kiamp’, their pronunciation of the English word ‘camp’. It is akin to the Mende people calling Freetown, ‘Sa Lon’. Both names have stuck to this day, only that they are far from derogatory in either Mende or Temne culture.

This is not so in Guinea-Conakry, at least not 10 years ago. Kiamp Mani gradually became derogatory and contemptuous as more and more Sierra Leoneans flocked into the neighbouring country in flight from fighting back home. On that day, Saturday September 9, they were attacked in their homes and on the streets; chased, beaten up, imprisoned, their money and personal effects seized and household property looted. The saddest part was that the various security forces took active part in the affair, making mass arrests and detention.

Guinea has quite a number of distinctively uniformed security forces. There are the elite Berets Rouge (Red Berets); the Anti-Gang unit; the paramilitary Gendarmes (much like Sierra Leone’s SSD); Etat Major, you name it. Each was autonomous, if not entirely separate from the conventional army or police forces. It was hardly apparent in their respective uniforms. All but the mainstream police had military-style camouflage fatigues and the differences were mainly in the beret colours or the crest on those berets. All of these agencies had their operatives typically armed with rifles and/or handguns. Thus it was not uncommon to hear automatic gunfire in Conakry at anytime. Armed robbery was part of nightlife and security roadblocks and all civilians, citizens and foreigners alike dreaded sudden raids.

In any case that September weekend saw school classrooms being used as makeshift prison cells, crowded with Sierra Leoneans. The Sierra Leone embassy situated in the Belle Vue area was jam-packed and overflowing. I saw one lady lying on a mattress in the embassy compound, looking seriously ill. She told me she had been admitted in hospital before the vigilantes came. She claims they yanked off the IV drip (Intravenous medical aid) when they found out she was Sierra Leonean. Embassy personnel were overwhelmed as ambassador Sheku Saccoh worked overtime. The UNHCR was taken unawares. The private commercial boats did brisk business, hurriedly ferrying those who could afford the fares back to Freetown. Those were the days of boats like KAMTEK, MADAME MONIQUE and AGIOS NIKOLAS.

The irony is that Guinea and Sierra Leone have so much in common culturally that probably only previous colonialism now separates them politically and economically. France colonized Guinea while Sierra Leone was under British rule, roughly concurrently. Pre-colonial migration and settlement makes a mockery of present national boundaries among Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Liberia was a colony of the USA So even though the respective official languages are French; (American) English and UK English, the ethnic distribution in this area clearly defy the national boundaries that go with them. The flags, national anthems and fiscal currencies may be different but the lines on the ground are blurred. Guinea has Francs; Liberia uses Dollars while Sierra Leone deals in Leones. Currently, the three sister countries are working together for regional integration, mainly through the organization Mano River Union (MRU).

Guinea has three major ethnic groups: Maninka (Madingo), Fulani or Peule (called Fullahs in Freetown) and the So-So (Susu). Other minor groups included the Kissi, the, Gollah and the Gbereseh; together they are termed as ‘Forestieres’ since they lived in the forested southwest of the country. Each of these groups is also found in the other two MRU countries; some even beyond, as far as Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire). Note that the term Kiamp Mani is used largely by the So-So who call Conakry home. Funnily, the So-So call pepper ‘Gbengbeh’, the same name in Sierra Leonean Temne. Growing up, I recall, we had ‘Guinea Mango’ and soccer players had the makeshift ‘Guinea Goal’. I can go and on.

All said, in the spirit of the Mano River Union and in fairness as a journalist, I must highlight some not too distant history. For example Francophone Guinea has Diallo while Sierra Leone has Jalloh among the Fulani/Fullahs. Taking it across: Turay and Toure; Abdulai/Abdoulaye; Shaw/Sowe; Diabate/Jabati; Traore/Tarawally; Seydou/Saidu; Zenab/Zainab, Fatoumata or Fatou/Fatmata or Fatou, etc. Colonialism also affected accents by speakers of native languages.

There are three sides to a story: theirs, the impartial truth and ours. To Sierra Leoneans, the events of September 9 2000 were blatant persecution borne out of malice, xenophobia and envy fuelled by the flow of US dollars to refugees who had folks in the European and American Diaspora. To Guineans it was self-preservation broadened into patriotism. The border skirmishes were real and Kiamp Mani refugees were really strangers who might have sinister, ulterior motives.

The truth is what goes around comes around. Remember the 1970s when Guineans were forced out of Sierra Leone in truckloads? What about the days when Sierra Leoneans had to change or somehow adapt their names to stay and work in Liberia? Let bygones be bygones.

Viva Mano River Union!

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