Salone News

January 6 1999 in Freetown: A reckoning memory

7 January 2024 at 02:31 | 1697 views

By P. D. Sowa (PDS), Canada

War has a long tradition of reckoning memory either for its ugly past or for the traumas associated with it.

The Jan 6th attack on Freetown is a kind of war story that allows the generation of Sierra Leoneans born after 2002 to approach the horror of war without having to confront it directly. For the rest of us who experienced the 1991 war, events in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown on Wednesday January 6th, 1999 that rattled the West African state may seem to be slowly fading out of memory. Except for opinion pieces like this or local newspaper headlines, Freetown January 6th carnage doesn’t capture much attention these days as does other conflicts. World leading newspapers may never carry the siege of Freetown as a frontline story or mention it in an opinion. Yet, on that fateful day, carnage of uncharacteristic proportion was unleashed on a city that is supposed to be free - in human dignity, abundance of love, and more.

For the residents of Freetown at the time, it is still a personal story. I am still haunted by the harrowing experience of Jan 6th, 1999 and it will remain a generational trauma. Details of my own account frightens me to date when an ECOMOG soldier rounded us up at gun point in our Juba Hill neighborhood. My neighbours and I would survive through the intervention of another ECOMOG soldier who went by the nickname Baggio. The young Nigerian soldier in his mid 20s had joined the Nigerian Army just after university. Baggio and I occasionally met at a local pub where we discussed West Africa’s political problems and his home state, Nigeria. How I wished, I knew Baggio’s real name - a life saver he was for a man in uniform away from home who, like every other ECOMOG soldier felt every other Sierra Leonean was an enemy in battle.

In Sierra Leonean history, no event has been as brazen and crazy as the attack on Freetown by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). It was bold, calculated and nasty. By the time the rebels were pushed out of the environs of Freetown, over 6,000 lives were lost and many among the civilian population were mutilated. The implicit cost of the siege of Freetown can never be adequately narrated in our history books.

The Jan 6th siege of Freetown didn’t occur overnight and, as the killing and maiming unfolded, the international news coverage that somehow it was a new tactic and the final arsenal of the RUF war, was as outrageous as it was untimely.

Before Jan 6th, RUF had clashed with what was left of the Sierra Leone Army, Peacekeepers, ECOMOG, and civil defence groups in towns and villages across Sierra Leone with similar battle tactics. While the chilling images transmitted by the BBC News and others were ever so grim, those who had endured the RUF onslaught in the remote villages and other urban areas of the country were not shaken.

The siege of Freetown on Wednesday January 6th, 1999 did not so much change the face of the war in Sierra Leone. The RUF was pushed back to their forest bases, a new deadly faction , the Westside Boys seemed unbreakable, the Civil Defence Forces grew in numbers and the Peacekeepers held their own. This scenario entrenched all sides including those defending civilian communities and the Kabbah government. The war would continue until 2002.

As much as the Jan 6th siege of Freetown seemed to have been the climax of the Sierra Leone civil war, it also must serve as a reminder for those of us who went through that ordeal and for the rest of other Sierra Leoneans to think twice about violence and the unity of our country..