Freetown Massacre of the RUF
Warfare as waged by Sub-Saharan Africans is significantly more chaotic and excessively brutal than that which was known historically in Europe. In order to get a taste for what African warfare entails, I catalogued some passages from a 1999 Human Rights Watch report on the RUF’s massacre in Sierra Leone.
Some of the readership will wonder what connection this has to political theory or our situation in the West. Well, there are several, but let me suggest just one. We have to cultivate a more coarse, and less squeemish sensibility for all things. We have to be able to look every truth in the face, regardless of whether it’s aesthetically pleasing. This is a lesson in itself, to halt the recoil of aesthetic reflexes and digest the ugliness of the world without flinching and without conceptual cushioning. Don’t draw back into your Victorian or Edwardian citadel – these people now live amongst us. Let us, instead, look at them in an unflattering but not uncharacteristic moment, as they slay each other in their natural habitat.
The rebel occupation of Freetown was characterized by the systematic and widespread perpetration of all classes of gross human rights abuses against the civilian population. Civilians were gunned down within their houses, rounded up and massacred on the streets, thrown from the upper floors of buildings, used as human shields, and burned alive in cars and houses. They had their limbs hacked off with machetes, eyes gouged out with knives, hands smashed with hammers, and bodies burned with boiling water. Women and girls were systematically sexually abused, and children and young people abducted by the hundreds.
It is difficult to ascertain the level of seniority within the RUF at which the perpetration of human rights abuses was ordered, though the widespread participation in abuses suggests that they must have been authorized at a high level within the RUF’s command structures.
A lot of the executioners themselves were 15 to 20 years old, and high on drugs. As far as being authorized or not authorized, massacre-style tactics are part of the RUF’s modus operandi it’s distinctly possible that they didn’t need to be ordered, in a strict sense, by anyone, because these tactics are simply the methods of the organization itself. A 19-year old on drugs with an AK-47 sent in amongst a group of people he regards as traitors’ for their support of the government, has only a few possible ways in which he can behave.
If massacre-style fighting is part of the culture’ of an organization, as they say in business, then finding the specific person who ordered this or that massacre has less meaning than it otherwise would. The sporadicity of the massacres and the playful way in which they were carried out speaks to the fact that commanders on the ground were deciding at will who to kill and who to kidnap. Like Gary Brecher, the War Nerd, once said of Iraq this is an attempt to whitewash the actions of a group by pinning the blame on some all-powerful all-responsible “Mr. Big”.
The rudiments of culture have always had a presence in Africa, for example the division of labor:
Witnesses describe the existence of distinct units known for committing particular crimes, like the Burn House Unit, Cut Hands Commando, and Blood Shed Squad. Some of these squads had a trademark way of killing such as the Kill Man No Blood unit, whose method was to beat people to death without shedding blood, or the Born Naked Squad, who stripped their victims before killing them. The closer ECOMOG forces got to rebel positions, the more these squads were mobilized and sent on operation.
Whats it like in an African war?
Upon gaining control of a neighborhood or suburb, the rebels went on systematic looting raids, in which families were hit by wave after wave of rebels demanding money and valuables. Those who didn’t have what the rebels demanded were often murdered. While rape and abduction were widespread throughout the offensive, the pace of the executions, amputations and burning of property picked up dramatically as the rebels were forced to withdraw. The abuses committed in the last several days of rebel occupation of any given neighborhood were of staggering proportion.
Words from the other side: as worthless as the local currency
On June 14, 1999, Human Rights Watch spoke with Omraie Golley, official spokesperson and legal representative for the RUF. He denied that his troops had committed any atrocities against the civilian population during the January offensive He said that while they have received allegations, “I have yet to find firm evidence that points to individual soldiers or commanders responsible for committing any atrocities against the civilian population. We’ve heard a lot of stories, we’ve heard a lot of terrible things. These kinds of allegations are easy to make but difficult to prove. But, if any of our soldiers or commanders have been guilty of such atrocities they will be brought to book.” Golley also stated that the RUF has not initiated any formal investigations or disciplinary proceedings against any individual soldier or commander.
“We went to bed on the night of January 5 and left the children watching videos. Around midnight I woke up and heard gunshots coming very close. I didn’t hear any shelling from ECOMOG so I figured the rebels were on their way. I called a few friends who live further east and when they didn’t answer I said, Victoria, let’s get out of here. So we put all the kids in the station wagon and left.
As we drove down the main highway there were thousands of people on the roads and when we’d gone a few more miles the cars were stopped. At that moment someone lit a flare illuminating the area and when I looked back I saw that mixed in with the civilians were hundreds of rebel soldiers. It was then I realized the rebels were among us.
There was a lot of gunfire so I told everyone to stay in the car and crouch down. I thought it was safer. Scores of rebels passed by without seeing us but then an eight-year-old rebel with an RPG14 and who was small enough to see through the window noticed us and alerted the others.
One of them ordered us out of the car and said, you people have been deceived by ECOMOG, why are you fleeing towards them, we’re your brothers. Victoria tried to calm him and told him we just wanted to go to someplace safe. He then walked us up a side street a few hundred yards away and told us to sit down. He wanted money so Victoria reached into her bag and gave him some. He said it was too little and as we were about to offer him more I noticed three or four more rebels moving up the road.
As they approached I heard them shouting, ASLA on the move…you thought we’d gone but we’ve come back. As one of them was approaching, I heard him say Awhy are you wasting time with these civilians…they’ve been supporting Tejan Kabbah and ECOMOG. We must teach them a lesson. I think we should just fire [kill] them.
And as soon as he said this, he swung around the AK-47, cocked it and opened fire on my family. It wasn’t even one minute from the time he walked up to the time he opened up on us. And then I heard one of them saying, Awhy did you have to do it but the one who did it, who by that time was walking around to check if we were all dead, pulled Frida, who was alive, by the hair and said, see, they’re not all dead. And then he got to me and said, I’ll just pick up Pa’s watch. I was hit on the hand which was resting on my chest so there was a lot of blood. I pretended to be dead so he just ripped off my watch and walked off with the others.
And then the roll call I couldn’t do it. Victoria had to do it. Patrick, CiCi, Mary all died instantly. Ester was dying. At that moment only Frida replied. She was wounded but not gravely. There was a lot of gunfire so I got up and said, I’m going for shelter…can anyone who can walk just please, please follow me.
Victoria took my two year-old grandson who was crying and fatally wounded. We later dragged David who’d been hit in the spine and couldn’t walk. And I could hear James calling, I’m stuck against this wall and can’t move. By now rebels were passing and we couldn’t go to him. Later we thought that he must’ve been hit in the spine and to him it must’ve felt like he was pinned against a wall. He only called a few times more and then fell silent.
Little Hassan died a few hours later; he was hit three times. And David, the last time I spoke to him I said, can you promise me, promise me you’ll survive this thing and he said, Dad I promise you but he couldn’t. He died later that day.
He [the rebel] came from nowhere. I didn’t have time. I would’ve stood up and offered myself in place of the kids. They didn’t ask us any questions. If they were to accuse anyone it should’ve been me. I would have given myself. I had some money. I would’ve offered it to them but the one who killed us didn’t come for money he came to destroy our lives. He just opened up on my family without saying anything.”
Yet humor abides, amongst the executioners at least. This is from another story taken in media res:
“Then they went to the next room. I couldn’t see what happened but I heard three gunshots and later saw the bodies of three of our neighbors. There was a blind man who lived in that apartment with his seven-year-old boy. The blind man was the only one they didn’t shoot and as they left the room I heard them say, now, you be sure and take care good care of all these people.”
Plunder is a part of the intercultural exchange between rebel and civilian:
“In the early evening a group of about twenty rebels came near the house. As usual I sent my seventeen-year-old son to hide out back, and my five-year-old adopted daughter Titi upstairs to be with my elderly mother while I dealt with them. They [the rebels] asked for water so I got several gallons and gave them all as much as they wanted.
I remember climbing the stairs and thanking God that this large group had left without doing anything to us. But just a few minutes later, another group came.”
The Use of Games to Maximize Terror
Atrocities were sometimes perpetrated within the context of games, in which the element of terror was maximized through the use of deception or teasing. Victims were sometimes given a choice as to how they wanted to be killed gunshot, machete, or burned alive, or were forced to listen to the rebels arguing over what atrocity to commit against them. Utilizing an old tactic they’d employed in past offensives, the rebels dressed up in ECOMOG uniforms, trying to illicit a favorable reaction, and would then catch the civilians who would later be punished.
After setting a house on fire, the rebels were witnessed positioning themselves near the entrances and then shooting at civilians as they tried to escape. Similarly, after killing civilians, the rebels were witnessed laying ambushes around the corpses, waiting for their relatives to retrieve them. There were numerous accounts of rebels who promised not to kill, rape or abduct an individual if the family would raise a given sum of money, but, upon receipt of the money, would commit the atrocity anyway.
Agnes, twenty, witnessed the killing of at least twenty people on January 15 after rebels dressed as ECOMOG soldiers and, imitating a Nigerian accent, trapped a group of civilians who had come out on the street to celebrate what they thought was the arrival of ECOMOG forces. She recounted:
I was sitting in my house when I saw a group of about ten ECOMOG, or what I thought were ECOMOG, soldiers coming down the street. They were accompanied by a few women who were singing and dancing and saying, AECOMOG has liberated us! It’s over! Come out of your houses! And then speaking with an accent like an Oga man [Nigerian] the soldiers said, where are the RUF rebels, where are the SLA soldiers? We’ve come to liberate you from those people.
As they moved down the street they collected more and more civilians who said, Atanke, tanke [thank you], we’re so tired of these people. We’re happy you’ve come. You don’t know how we’ve suffered, and so on. The women accompanying the rebels clapped their hands and got the rest of them dancing and when they’d [the rebels] collected about thirty or so people, just started to laugh. And, a few moments later said, oh, we see, so it’s ECOMOG you want. We’ve really caught you now.
The civilians started begging for forgiveness but the rebels, who had them surrounded by now, ordered them to lie on the ground and shot them one by one in the head and chest. There were men, women, and even a few children killed. I saw the rebels change the clips on their pistols until all of them were dead. I was watching this all from my window.
Best Quote of the Entire Massacre: “If Jesus himself comes here, I’ll amputate his hand as well.”:
“One of the rebels quickly noticed Mr. Ben’s wedding ring; he was married to a woman named Zainab who was standing in the women’s line. The rebel told Mr. Ben he had a really nice ring and asked him his name but Mr. Ben didn’t answer him. I think he was afraid to talk for fear they’d find out he was a Nigerian. The commander asked the rest of us if he was a deaf-mute but none of us said anything.
He then started threatening us and said, We know there’re Nigerians among you.Y Tell us who they are or you all die. We don’t want them in our country and we will kill them all. Some of them [the rebels] sprinkled petrol on us and threatened to set us on fire.
Finally Ben told the commander that he was married to a Sierra Leonean and his wife Zainab stood up and said, He is my husband but he is a businessman. I can show you the papers to prove it. The rebel responded that he didn’t want to see any papers and as they pulled Mr. Ben out of the line, several of the rebels started arguing over whether to kill him, amputate his hands or set him on fire.
When they’d decided to cut off his hands Mr. Ben started pleading saying he was a businessman, and shouted, I beg you don’t cut my hand, Oh Jesus, Jesus. Then the axe man said, If Jesus himself comes here I’ll amputate his hand as well. Then they ordered him at gunpoint to put his right hand face up on a table and they hacked it off with an axe. And then his left hand. The rebel then put his hands in Ben’s blood and walked over to his wife, who was sobbing, and smeared it on her face. He told her if she continued crying he’d kill her.
As this was happening Ben’s brother started yelling, God what have you done to my brother. So they pulled him out and cut off his two hands as well. Then they pulled out the third one who started screaming that he wasn’t a Nigerian, but was from Cameroon, but they cut off his hands as well. Then they sprinkled more petrol on Ben’s brother, I think he even had tribal markings, and set him on fire. His hands were hanging off his arms and he was on fire screaming please don’t kill me. They let him burn for five minutes before a commander let some us put the fire out with dust.
Several of the rebels were dancing around the three of them saying, now you go tell ECOMOG about your problem. A few days later in the hospital I saw Zainab and Ben’s brother. That’s how I found out Mr. Ben had been killed.”
Police Officer’s Story
Then he put me in the corner of my house. He threw me on the ground so I was sitting, tied on the ground about a yard from Major S. and he said, you think we should remain in the bush don’t you, but the bush is made for animals. It was between 5:45 and 5:50 p.m.
I started to beg and told him but life is so very precious. Please, please don’t kill me. I’ve been in the force for over thirty-four years and I’m not meant to die like this. When peace comes wouldn’t you too want a government job?
Then Major S. pointed a pistol at me and said, I’ve killed 213 people and you’re going to make number 214. And then he shot me in the face. I fell down and put my tied hands in front of my face but he shot me again.
I didn’t know if I was in the world again until God woke me up late that night and I saw myself in a gutter. I had blood all over me and I felt my face to be huge. I dragged myself for some meters and hid until I was out of the road because there were still rebels around. When I felt it was safe I got myself to an ECOMOG checkpoint. As they were taking me to the hospital I saw so many corpses along that road. There must have been two hundred.
Confused Masses Herded and Used as Human Shield:
According to interviews with witnesses, victims, and military personnel, the RUF’s incursion plan into Freetown was built around the use of a massive human shield. In the early morning hours of January 6, thousands of rebels massed near the suburb of Calaba Town some eight miles east of Freetown and began to march westward, firing rapidly into the air. This served to frighten the civilian population of the densely populated east, provoking a mass exodus of people who fled in panic towards central Freetown. The rebels, many of whom were in civilian dress, then mixed in with the crowd. Other civilians were forced at gunpoint to join in with the crowd, which was by then massive. The majority of the rebel fighters, however, remained safely behind.
Civilians described being totally confused as to what was happening and surprised to find the rebels mixed in among them. As the mass of humanity approached the first ECOMOG position, and the civilian-dressed rebels pulled out their guns, witnesses described the horror they felt as they realized they were being used as a human shield.
This surprise proved both frustrating for the ECOMOG soldiers manning their positions and deadly for the civilians being used as a human shield. ECOMOG commanders and soldiers interviewed expressed their frustration at not being able to effectively engage the enemy and respond militarily because of the heavy civilian presence. According to witnesses, many people within the human shield, particularly those near the front, died in the crossfire once rebel soldiers, who’d mixed in with the human shield, and ECOMOG soldiers manning their positions began an exchange of fire. The tactic however, proved largely effective for the rebels. As the ECOMOG soldiers were forced to withdraw, both because they were overpowered and because they could not respond effectively, thousands of RUF rebels marched into Freetown and took up positions in and around the city center.
Trapped with only a Radio in the Upper Floor of a Downtown Building:
Victor, forty-five, was hiding in an upper floor of a downtown building as he witnessed the same bombing. He described seeing the rebels pointing their guns at civilians to stop them from taking cover. He said:
The rebels were mixing in with the civilians in the front of the crowd but there was a much heavier concentration of them at the back. I was hiding, listening to my radio on the third floor of my building and at l:30 p.m. I heard a state announcement on 98.1 radio warning all civilians to go inside their houses because the ECOMOG jets would be searching for rebels.
Drug Injection Through the Face, A 9-Year-Olds Perspective:
Most victims and witnesses describe widespread usage by the rebels of drugs, marijuana, and alcohol and believe most of the atrocities were committed while under the influence of these substances. Witnesses describe rebels self-administering drugs by cutting small incisions around their temples, cheeks, and other places on their faces in which a brown or white powder was inserted and then covered with plasters or adhesive tape. The rebels spoke of this drug as being cocaine. Others observed rebels cutting the undersides of their arms with a razor blade and injecting themselves, and of taking small blue pills.
Abductees who managed to escape reported having been forcibly injected with drugs, or being given food and drink laced with drugs. One father whose sixteen-year-old girl was abducted by the rebels saw her a few days later being led away with Athose plasters on her face and describing her behavior as drugged and out of it. One abductee asked a nine-year-old rebel about the drugs they were using and was told, it’s a medicine they give us which makes us to have no respect for anybody; whatever we think to do, we just do it. Another rebel added, it gives us power and makes us fear nobody, and yet another said, It makes us feel so tall and you people [civilians] look so small.
The Desire to Bury One’s Own Amputated Body Parts:
One rebel did all the cutting. A few had both hands cut off; others just one. And then they walked away. I couldn’t even bury my arm. And now I don’t think I’ll ever find someone to marry me.
Liberian Speaks Plainly
Then, the same Liberian said, “I’m ordered and paid by Sam Bockerie not to spare anyone and that is why I have killed. You saw it with your own eyes. But now I am ordering your hand to be cut.” He ordered me to lay face down in the road and called forward a rebel with an axe who then hacked off my hand. It was hanging off limp and bleeding and when I saw it I started to cry. The rebels just walked away.
Runner-up for Best Quote of the Entire Massacre: “You go to Pa Kabbah and ask him for a new set of arms.”
[Pa Kabbah was the then-President]
One of them called for the man with the axe to come and hack off my arms and they did it right there in that compound. When they were done they said, “you go to Pa Kabbah and ask him for a new set of arms.”
A Fifteen-year-old boy named “Commander Cut Hands”:
After they set fire to my house they caught me trying to escape out the back door. They then brought me to the compound next door where I saw they’d captured two of my neighbors. They started arguing over whether to kill me or cut my hands. Then the one who seemed to be in charge gave the order to amputate both my hands and called forward a fifteen-year-old boy they called “Commander Cut Hands.”
I refused to lie down. They beat me and it took several of them to hold me. They tripped me and when I fell to the ground three of them had to sit on my legs and back and another few had to hold my arms. Then they took out that axe. I was crying and after they’d hacked off both of my hands I screamed, “just kill me, kill me.”
They also cut off the hands of my two neighbors. I feared they might attack me because I was a driver for the SLPP [Sierra Leone People’s Party], the President’s party, but they never found that out. They knew nothing about me.
How The Women Were Treated:
Once captive the victims were frequently shared and divided among the combatants who would rape them on a daily basis for anywhere from one day to several weeks. Of the victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch, over half reported being raped by more than one combatant. The victims often reported being kept locked up in a room with many other girls and taken out only to cook, do laundry, and fetch water. The rebels frequently told the victims they would be taken to the bush and made into a rebel wife and, indeed, young girls and women made up the majority of the hundreds of civilians witnessed to have been later abducted as the rebels retreated out of Freetown.
Well, the gory details that go in this direction I will leave out in the name of taste, although they are also plentiful. And the philosophizing kept short: reports like this are a window into a world which European man hasn’t known since the Dark Ages, and perhaps never really knew. In light of these occurrences, the 19th century epithet Savage’ doesn’t seem all that unjust.