Remembering January 6th, 1999

27 December 2008 at 00:27 | 892 views

By Victor A. Massaquoi, USA.

January 6th, 1999 would continue to be a day that would always live in infamy. Just as American and Japanese historians will never forget December 7th, 1941 (Pearl Harbor Attack), so, too, the people of Sierra Leone would not easily erase the disturbing event(s) of January 6, 1999: the day the rebel war struck the heart of the capital city of Sierra Leone. On that fateful day hundreds died, including my former colleagues in the media, and academics/professionals that I had known for a long time. Their bodies riddled with bullets, on top of the thousands who had been killed already, in the rural areas, and those who had fled fighting in the interior. On that same day, others experienced and endured painful maiming (long han or short han, they asked) and physical torture, while houses and business structures were razed and other private and public possessions, estimated at millions of dollars, destroyed or looted by rebel forces and other fragmented, gun-totting, trigger-happy, drug-ridden insurgents (including Westside Boys) masking as members of the Revolutionary United Front and disgruntled members of the Sierra Leone Military. Civilized societies settle internal political difference(s) through non-violent means rather than butchering poor, innocent and defenseless people.

This basic yet short, clear and simple retrospection is designed to refresh the minds of young Sierra Leoneans, both at home and abroad, of the eerie carnage and other flourishes of anarchy that befell our country, 10 years ago. We should never again allow such butchery and acts of barbarism to recur! Almost seven years after the conflict was officially declared over, there are semblances of development after recent completion of the recovery/reconstruction phase-a process familiar to any post-war situation.

Earlier this week, I recalled January 6th, 1999 just like yesterday. I had just returned from London, in December, 1998, after spending 12 months at Cardiff University, Wales, receiving training in advanced feature writing and international political news coverage, a project funded by the Thomson Foundation and British Council. While in London, I was glued to the radio, especially the BBC, to keep abreast of developments back home. Few of my friends/relatives in London, and a Ghanian colleague, had asked me not to return to Sierra Leone because of the grim news and recent rebel gains and advances (edging closer to the city). I was eager to return home.

I arrived in Freetown on 12/15/99, and two days later, one of our secretaries received a call from the US embassy informing her that a colleague and I were the lucky recipients of two journalism fellowships, we had applied for, two years earlier. Like everybody who had received positive news in the past, we were elated, but our excitement was short lived. Two days to our departure (1/8/999) from Freetown, the rebels had attacked Waterloo, Hastings, Wellington, Portee, Kissy and Clock Tower. News of killings and indiscriminate torture of market women, my colleagues and people I knew was swarming in like a raging burning bush in the middle of March and April in rural Sierra Leone. Traumatic!

As an executive member of a Christian organization then, in the central business district of Freetown was helpful. Members of this group and some people I was good to over the years gave me cover, food and support. I witnessed, through multiple peeping holes, three harmless, hungry-looking, secondary-school age boys shot to death, after been accused of spying for ECOMOG (the West Africa Military Forces) by a unit leader who called himself “general wan yiy” (General One Eye). Also, two grown men, in their relative 50s, were beaten and molested because they looked healthy. Looking healthy then meant they were members of the government, and they should be punished. Horrific stories of young rape victims trickled in daily. Screams of girls been raped at night were depressing.

As they say, a trained and hardworking journalist possesses intense curiosity. After few intense days in hiding from gun shots and the sound of mortar fire (by ECOMOG Forces), and even as I frantically explored multiple avenues to exit the country to pursue my journalism fellowship in the US, the ‘reliable’ rumor-mill disclosed of multiple bodies lying in decay at the Lightfoot Boston Street Mortuary entrance. We could not resist. I was stringing for an International News Agency then. I had to get the story out. A friend and I rushed down to the main hospital on Perceval and Lightfoot Boston Streets intersection. While on our way, we observed houses that were on their last stages of burning. People were searching for food, while a massive, constant flow of people, from the East was trekking to the West to avoid the ensuing bloodshed. It was chaotic!

Finally, as my youngest brother, now 32, my younger sister, now 38, and my mother, finally found me, at my location, they informed me that our house in Kissy was set ablaze and my taxi was commandeered by a bunch of rag-tags. My family also informed me that my son and his mother escaped unhurt, but other family members were not so lucky. I was relieved but determined to leave the country. I left for The Gambia few days later, and ten years now in the US, I can say, very humbly, that God has been in control in all that I, and others who fled, have been able to accomplish, both in the US and in Sierra Leone. When one has been blessed assist thy brethren. I pray that Satan does not descend like that in Sierra Leone again, as I pray for peace for prosperity for our country.

Photo: Alex Tamba Brima(alias Gullit), one of the "Westside Boys".