The Vanguards of the RUF
131. Meanwhile the RUF vanguards, as described above, were largely untested in the realms of conventional or guerrilla warfare. They had been put through a programme of training that was unexpectedly curtailed due to the exigencies of the intervention plan. As one of the vanguards reflected:
“They had told us [it would last for] six months… [so] according to the schedule, we never reached the end of the training programme.”61
132. Nevertheless, this contingent would remain something of a ‘special case’ in terms of the composition of the RUF in the military and political history of the conflict. Their original number would not be expanded during the course of the hostilities, nor would the term be applied to any other group. In the folklore of the RUF movement, as it was later documented in ‘public relations’ texts like Footpaths to Democracy,62 the vanguards were the founders of the revolution.
133. In this light it is ironic that the wholesale mobilisation of the RUF vanguards from their training base at Camp Namma was actually the secondary component of the deployment plan. According to testimonies of those who were involved in the incursion, the vanguards were divided approximately in two, each half constituting an initial ‘Battalion’ of the RUF. On this point, the Commission’s research indicates that despite being numbered up to 385, the vanguard contingent in fact comprised between 360 and 370 operational fighters. The discrepancy resulted from the non-participation of most of the men with vanguard numbers from 001 to 021, who were claimed by Foday Sankoh to be ‘colleagues who will join us later’.
134. Thus the aggregate number of RUF vanguards divided roughly into two groups of 180 fighters: the ‘First Battalion’ heading for the Southern Front, the ‘Second Battalion’ destined for the Eastern Front.
135. The ‘First Battalion’ had the longer distance to travel from Camp Namma, passing through Gbarnga and Bomi Hills on their way southwards to an assembly point at Bo Waterside, situated in Liberia’s Grand Cape Mount County just over the border from Pujehun District. The ‘Second Battalion’ would cross towards the northernmost part of the Sierra Leone border, passing the NPFL stronghold at Voinjama and gathering at two assembly points, Foya Kamaya and Vahun, both of them in Liberia’s Lofa County, within striking distance of Kailahun District.
136. While senior commanders, appointed at an uncertain time several weeks in advance, clearly knew the details of this plan, the instructions given to the majority of vanguards were said to be vague and confusing:
“The Leader [Foday Sankoh] called us in the early hours and said that ‘today we are going to launch’ – we didn’t have any warning, we were just loaded into trucks and moved. Most of us had no arms.”63
137. The final sub-division of the vanguards before entering Sierra Leone appears to have been the most important. Each ‘Battalion’ was apparently split into three platoon-sized groups of about sixty (60) vanguards each, designed purposely to correspond with the ‘targets’ of conventional warfare on Sierra Leonean territory.
138. Each group was assigned to follow and buttress a particular cadre of commandos from the NPFL, with functions that encompassed both administration and combat.
139. Some of the educated and ‘ideologically-trained’ vanguards were given briefs as administrative commanders and tasks that included managing the movements and needs of civilians in the captured towns, recruiting new members into the RUF and investigating allegations of misconduct or rule-breaking.
140. Meanwhile the RUF’s ‘hardened fighters’, including its senior Battalion and Battle Group commanders, joined the frontline advances of the NPFL and began to assemble growing cadres of Sierra Leonean combatants under their own command.
141. Commandership of the First Battalion on the Southern Front had originally been earmarked for Rashid Mansaray. He had been Sankoh’s second-in-command throughout the period when the RUF was taking shape, including the training of the vanguards described above. However, due to the dispute between the two men and Mansaray’s enforced exclusion from participation in the incursion, this position had to be re-assigned.
142. The title of RUF First Battalion Commander accordingly was handed to Patrick Lamin, under whom ‘Pasawe’, Abu Kanu (who apparently adopted the battlefield alias ‘AB1B’) and Mike Lamin were senior ground commanders.
143. On the Eastern Front, the RUF Second Battalion Commander and also the overall Battlefront Commander was Mohamed Tarawallie (alias “Zino” or “CO Mohamed”). The Battle Group Commander upon entry into Kailahun District was John Kargbo. Kargbo’s biography appears to have been somewhat unique in the RUF: he was a former officer of the Special Security Division (SSD) of the Sierra Leone Police (SLP). The Commission heard that he had fought against the Doe regime in Liberia in the 1980s and was captured, tried and imprisoned. He was one ‘genuine criminal’ freed by Sankoh in his assembly of the vanguards. Pivotal ground commanders included Issa Sesay, Peter Vandy and Alicious Caulker, as well as the Libyan-trained Sankoh cohorts Noah Kanneh and CO ‘Daboh’, who joined the warfront somewhat later.
144. Both the Eastern and Southern Fronts of the RUF vanguards were firmly under the command and direction of Foday Sankoh. The above-named RUF commanders, as well as the RUF’s senior administrators, looked to Sankoh for their own distinct instructions, as well as for validation of the commands that were passed to them by the NPFL commanders.
145. Unlike Taylor, whom the Commission did not record as being present in Sierra Leone on a single occasion in Phase I, Sankoh would frequently visit both Fronts during the opening months of the war and eventually set up his own dwellings in the village of Sandiallu, Luawa Chiefdom in the Kailahun District. In his capacity as Leader and Commander-in-Chief of the RUF, Foday Sankoh was therefore in the position to have the final say on all RUF matters, including military operations, recruitment and promotion, political strategies and disciplinary measures.
146. It is worth concluding with a re-acquaintance of the RUF’s objectives at the time they launched into their incursion plan. These should be reported notwithstanding the infinitely more complex dynamics that had been introduced by the subordination of the vanguards to Taylor’s NPFL forces in terms of numbers, command and control.
147. Jonathan Kposowa, the Adjutant General of the RUF from the time of the training at Camp Namma, articulated the aim of the RUF movement in his testimony to the Commission:
“The general objective of the RUF was to capture power. Sankoh told us that the Government was not doing anything better for the nation, so we could take them out. The people in power had gained power through force; so the only way to take them out was through force. Only after capturing power would we then think about ways to improve our own lives.”64
Differing Dynamics on the Eastern and Southern Fronts
148. The Commission has come to understand that despite their supposedly common hierarchy of command and control, the Eastern Front and the Southern Front evolved as largely self-contained conflicts, at least on the side of the RUF. For much of Phase I, the combatants in the East had little or no idea of how their compatriots were faring in the South and vice versa.
149. Such disjunction was perhaps avoided at first because Foday Sankoh was able to use Charles Taylor’s Headquarters in Gbarnga as an operational base from which to monitor developments on both fronts. Indeed Foday Sankoh visited Pujehun District on several occasions in 1991, as well as spending considerable time on the ground in Kailahun.
150. However, within a matter of weeks, acrimony began to grow between members of the NPFL and RUF factions. As will be described below, a split in the Fronts and the emergence of differing dynamics became inevitable from this point onwards.
151. At the very latest, Foday Sankoh started losing contact with the Southern Front when the NPFL faction was forced out of the Pujehun and Kenema Districts by a strong alliance of various pro-Government forces in 1991. The significant factor here was that the core of the RUF in the South refused to jump on the bandwagon of the NPFL retreat to Liberia, believing that they could retain the territory they had captured until they linked up with the Eastern command.
152. On the contrary, the RUF actively encouraged the departure of the NPFL fighters by pitting itself against them. It had become clear to the RUF that the NPFL had become a liability, not sharing the objectives of the revolution, refusing to accept commands from Sankoh or any of the RUF commanders and having committed terrible atrocities against the people. In the process, the Southern Front of the RUF became isolated, territorially and in terms of communications. The separation of the Fronts would persist from that moment onwards, until the end of Phase I.
153. In one exceptional move, Rashid Mansaray, who had joined the Southern Front after his release from detention in 1991, travelled personally into Liberia and up to Kailahun in 1992 in an attempt to bridge the gap between the Fronts. However, Mansaray became ‘cut off’ from his return route and became deeply immersed in the dynamics of the Eastern Front. He was eventually executed in Kailahun District in late 1993 on allegations of connivance with pro government forces.
154. Thereafter, without direct lines of communication or any other conduits of information, Sankoh heard so little news from Pujehun that he was thought by some of his closest colleagues to have given up altogether on the Southern Front’s chances of success. It was only upon commencement of Phase II and a different set of operations – analysed by the Commission under the rubric of ‘guerrilla warfare’ – that the RUF commandos from the two Fronts came back together and the movement was once again united.
155. This clear albeit unforeseen separation of the Fronts became increasingly apparent to the Commission during its information-gathering activities. In testimonies before the Commission, most of those who had been situated in the East gave their insights on a particular set of events that were concentrated in or directed from the East. Likewise most of those who had been situated in the South told a different set of stories, specific to their own area of operations.
156. The remainder of this section attempts to characterise the key military events on each of the Fronts as they were driven by or directed against the insurgents. At every turn, through the analysis rendered, an attempt is made to place these differing dynamics into the broader context of the conflict as a whole.
Incursion on the Eastern Front: Kailahun District
157. The Commission heard that within four days of the attack on Bomaru, the full-scale incursion into Sierra Leone was launched into the same Kailahun District. Accordingly the outbreak of the conflict in Sierra Leone is most accurately recorded as having taken place on Wednesday 27 March 1991. Statements given to the Commission indicate that the attackers crossed the border at Baidu in the early evening and that the first civilian settlement on which the incursion impacted was the market town of Koindu, Kissi Teng Chiefdom.
158. This location is much further north than Bomaru, but still on Sierra Leone’s Eastern border with Liberia, close to the point where the two countries also meet Guinea. The incursion took the form of an entry along the main road into Sierra Leone from Liberia, leading directly from the town of Foya Kamala, which had been the final assembly point for the insurgents. At least one border guard was shot and killed as the insurgents forced their way into Sierra Leone.
159. The Commission further heard that the incursion was led by General Francis Mewon, a Libyan-trained commander of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NFPL), who travelled over the border in a camouflaged truck. The initial objective of the attackers was to ‘clear the road’ up to Koindu, at which point they would set up a holding position, receive reinforcements and begin to make incremental advances southwards. In the process of achieving this objective they forcibly displaced several hundred civilians from Koindu and began to carry out looting sprees and indiscriminate killings as they passed by houses on the main road.
160. The troops in the advance contingent commanded by Mewon were exclusively comprised of NPFL combatants, numbering approximately sixty – the strength of a platoon. In character and conduct, these men in almost every sense represented the prototype of combatants who would participate in the Sierra Leone conflict.
161. The insurgents carried firearms that included AK-47s, G3 automatic weapons, General Purpose Machine Guns (GPMGs) and Rocket Propelled Grenade launchers (RPGs). While the numbers alone constituted an ostensibly formidable arsenal, certainly in the eyes of the many civilian victims who reported on their activities to the Commission, it can also be pointed out that all of the firearms cited actually fall into the military classification of ‘light weapons’. From the testimony presented to the Commission, weapons of their calibre were to remain by far the most common types of arms used in this conflict as a whole.
162. The attackers did not arrive in tanks or Armoured Personnel Carriers, nor did they receive air support from bomber jets or helicopter gunships. The fighting forces that instigated the conflict were exclusively ground forces, moving on foot or in trucks, trailers, pick-up vans and 4×4 vehicles, many of which were captured or stolen from the battlefield in Liberia. In terms of clothing, these commandos betrayed their unconventional nature through a combination of camouflaged uniforms, civilian clothes and a variety of ‘charms’, which were comprised of shells, nets, wigs, face paints and other adornments. Their appearance was intended to induce awe and alarm in those they encountered, based on the premise, shared by fighters of almost every faction, that they looked ‘fearful’.
163. Crucial differences between the incursion of 27 March 1991 and the attack on Bomaru of 23 March 1991 are to be seen in the mode of entry, the nature and scale of mobilisation and the subsequent movements of the troops in question. The Commission heard that the group led by Mewon was quickly followed into the country by other fighters in trucks and on foot. These batches of insurgents did not retreat like the Bomaru group did; on the contrary they were ordered to move further into the District in the following days.
164. The numbers of insurgents present in the northern part of Kailahun is estimated to have grown to several hundred within two weeks, by which time the town of Koindu had been consolidated as a base and checkpoint, while the further towns of Dambo, Kangama and Buedu had also been taken. SLA troops in the area are reported in most accounts to have exchanged fire with the attackers for a brief period, before eventually retreating due to lack of logistics. According to one of the RUF vanguards, the SLA at that time “would repel you if you attacked them; but they were not strategising, so they could be easily defeated in battle.”65
165. Moreover a second, separate flank on the Kailahun Front had been opened when several further platoon-sized contingents re-entered Bomaru and its environs on 31 March 1991; many residents of Bomaru, scattered in panic at the original attack, had only just returned to the town when the new wave of insurgents arrived. This time the nearby village of Senga was also directly targeted. SLA soldiers inside and outside the towns were reported to have returned gunfire, but were hopelessly outnumbered and ill-equipped to resist. Baiwala and Mobai were then taken by the insurgents by 12 April 1991, each of them experiencing similar patterns of human rights violations at the hands of Liberian fighters speaking in Gio, Mano and Pelleh languages.
166. Testimony received by the Commission suggests that the incursion group into Kailahun was led by the ‘Special Forces’ :
“The NPFL Liberians were really the topmost commanders in the revolution when it met me. I came to learn that the Sierra Leoneans were just sub-commanders; they were not in control.”66
Incursion on the Southern Front: Pujehun District
167. In Pujehun, the vanguard contingent appears to have entered the country simultaneously with the NPFL commanders; the role assigned to the vanguards was to ‘backstop’ the positions taken by the NPFL as they made their advance further into the territory. A number of Sierra Leonean vanguards were left to keep control of some of the earliest townships captured by the advancing Liberians. They were also the ones who ‘prepared the ground’ for the arrival of Foday Sankoh, the Leader, in the early days of April, when he addressed crowds of local people and ‘sensitised’ them as to the purpose and objectives of his ‘revolution’.
168. A second front was opened in the south with the attack on the Mano river bridge, giving the rebels unlimited access into the Pujehun district. The capture of Potoru, and other towns like Bumpeh, Njaluahun, Gbaa and Benga, brought the rebels uncomfortably closer to Bo, the second city: Nyagorehun in Bargbo chiefdom about thirty miles from Bo town had come under attack by the 19th April, Bandajama and Koribondo in the Bo district by 27th April67.
169. Word had been circulating for some time among the Bomi Hills contingent of the NPFL in Liberia that an attack on the Southern Province of Sierra Leone was being planned for the 2nd of April 1991. On the 3rd, from Bo Waterside, a SL refugee from Liberia recounted meeting the insurgents already in place68 – he spoke with a Sierra Leonean named Ahmed Fullah who appeared to be part of a rearguard/backstop defensive position in Gendema – this was definitely reflective of the modus operandi of the insurgents: the NPFL fighters, who had a monopoly over the firearms and the lion’s share of the logistics, would surge forward on the offensive, while Sierra Leonean vanguards and some of their early recruits would remain behind to guard the rear.
170. Among those who were left to guard the first town to be captured, Gendema, were the following Sierra Leonean vanguards in the initial incursion on the Southern front: Ahmed Foulah, Patrick Lamin, Augustine Koroma, Philip Palmer, Okeh George and Isatu Sesay.
171. Foulah advised some of the new recruits – “a fighter without political ideology is a criminal”; in the evening, the RUF cadres would gather together and conduct lengthy discussions about philosophy and ideology; Foulah handed some of the recruits an exercise book in which to make notes on the RUF ideology: causes of the war, eight codes of conduct, eleven principles of leadership, history of the country – Foulah himself had made his own notes in an exercise book during his training in Liberia; the new recruit in turn was intended to absorb the material, or to jot it down, to a sufficient extent to be able to pass it on to others.
172. Oliver Vandy, the commander of the Sixth Battalion of the NPFL based at Bomi Hills, led the attack on the Southern flank through Pujehun and to a great extent appears to have dictated the character of the military dynamics on that flank. On 17 June 1991, Vandy made a declaration in Zimmi that Sierra Leoneans were the avowed enemies of the NPFL. After that announcement, the Liberian contingent became extraordinarily violent towards Sierra Leonean civilians and the ruthless killings escalated. The acrimony on this flank then owed much to the strength and single-mindedness of the RUF leadership, particularly Mike Lamin, who repeatedly stood up for what was seen as the ‘rightful’ approach to revolution. Lamin, for example, was credited with the enforcement of rules and codes of conduct against miscreant NPFL commandos by administering punishments, including killings, in a public forum.69
173. It has been contended almost universally by former RUF members who have testified to the Commission that there was a “sharp difference” between the commandos of the NPFL and the newly-formed comrades of the RUF. While the former were said to be rough and unrefined, the latter claimed to carry with them a certain sense of purpose and pride in their programme, which sometimes even manifested itself in shows of mercy or moderation.
174. The essence of this contention would seem to be borne out by the submission of one of the Paramount Chiefs who suffered a wretched plight at the hands of the insurgents, Madam Matilda Y. L. Minah V.70 The Chief was confronted with members of both fighting factions and recounted to the Commission a catalogue of violations carried out against her, her family and her people. Her testimony is salient, though, in the degree to which it demonstrates the subtle variations in the treatment of civilians and their authority figures by the NPFL and the RUF respectively:71
“Sometime in 1991 I was in my Chiefdom Headquarter Town of Karlu when I learnt that rebels had arrived in Pujehun… [After two days] they met me at Karlu. The group was a very strange-looking set of people among whom I could recognise only one person whom I had known during my time as a teacher at Zimmi Makpele.
[…] After introducing himself, [the person I recognised] introduced me to the rest of the party. Their leader then explained their policy as one designed to liberate the country from corruption and all other malpractice. They then went ahead to lay down some ground rules for their operations, among which was their practice not to visit any town or village at night. He also emphasised that as a revolution, the RUF’s policy was against looting, harassment and intimidation of civilians.
175. Foday Sankoh himself entered Sierra Leone initially through the Pujehun route, appearing in Gendema on 7 April 1991 in order to address a crowd that included three distinct groups: Liberian and other NPFL fighters; a host of vanguards from both Liberia and Sierra Leone; and a large gathering of civilians from local communities. The speech he delivered was the first in a series of efforts Sankoh made to sensitise and mobilise particular groups in support of his averred revolutionary objectives. By all accounts, he spoke passionately and convincingly on such occasions and was generally well received by his audiences.
176. According to a variety of testimonies before the Commission, Sankoh often spoke of his ‘national vision’ for the country. Many of the RUF members believe that Sankoh retained this vision for the whole duration of the conflict. He thus presented himself as an ideological force – and rather than crediting any of his mentors with his ideological posturing, he would emphasise that he owed his background only to the people of Sierra Leone and was therefore accountable only to them.
177. Despite all the efforts that Foday Sankoh made to institute some control of the destruction reaped in the name of the RUF, he was unable to put a stop to crimes against the people of Sierra Leone. From the inception of the conflict, he apparently maintained a notebook in which he would write down the names of all those whom he perceived as requiring to answer to the people of Sierra Leone. According to his Adjutant General, the notebook was Sankoh’s means of discerning individual responsibilities and noting his regrets when members of the RUF deviated from the directions he had envisaged and issued:
“Sankoh continually expressed regrets; not for the RUF in itself, but for the behaviour of its fighters. The one thing we most often heard him saying was: ‘this is not what I told you.'”72
178. The RUF fighters became the instruments of other people’s grudges. For this reason, recruitment into the RUF was compulsorily tied into the indoctrination of certain principles; at the earliest training bases, the purported idea was to educate the boys how to fight truly for their people.
179. Part of the motivation behind the insistence on a national sentiment in the RUF was meant to try and counter the dependence on personal grudges as a basis on which to wage the war. When Sankoh was around and a structure was in place to pass on such ideology, the tactic of training people ideologically was effective to a certain extent. However, this component of the RUF’s programme mutated as the realities of warfare overtook it. Although it would underpin the first several years of RUF operations, it began to be eroded very early by the practice of the fighters. According to one of the earliest recruits, the commandos of the NPFL were the ones who set the predominant adverse examples:
“The first collapse of political ideology in the RUF should be laid at the door of the NPFL. Look at the behaviour of most of their fighters; you will see they have no good ideology. Many of our young boys used to imitate the actions of the NPFLs and never understood what we were trying to do.”73
180. Difficulties were also experienced in controlling the minds of those recruits who were taken from their homes against their will. Nevertheless the RUF continued to recruit forcibly. According to one of those who participated in the enlistment of new combatants, the command for such enlistment often came from the top:
Sankoh just used to get word to us: ‘X amount of young men are required to come on base and train’. After all, this was a ‘national struggle’.”74
181. Partly because of the miscreant activities of the NPFL and partly because of the acts committed by inexperienced or dishonest RUF fighters, the RUF contrived to alienate the civilian population from the very earliest throes of its revolutionary incursion:
When a civilian population is with you one day and against you the next, there must be a reason: if you take someone’s food from them, do you think they are going to support you? It became almost a custom of the RUF that everywhere you went you would have to loot.”75
182. Among the prime reasons behind the selection of Pujehun as one of the entry points, or ‘gateways’, for an armed assault on the APC Government was that the District had a pedigree of anti-APC uprising. The opposition of the people of Pujehun to the APC had reached its pinnacle in 1982 with the civil unrest spearheaded by the ‘Ndorgboryosoi’.
183. ‘Ndorgboryosoi’ was a reference to the feted ‘bush devil’ of the Mende people. In the 1982 rebellion, it had spawned the so-called ‘Joso Group’, or ‘Bush Devil Group’, a civil militia that embodied a particular mode of traditional warfare, invoking the assistance of the spirits. The concept was that the bush devil acted as bait to enemies by drawing them into the bush and leading them astray. It was said that the ‘Joso Group’ had the capability to spring surprise attacks on several points at the same time.76
184. The erstwhile second-in-command of the ‘Joso Group’ civil militia from the Ndorgboryosoi conflict nearly ten years previously, Lieutenant Momoh Konneh, became an unlikely ally and co-ordinator of field operations in the RUF for a time.77 The original motivation for this group to mobilise appears to have grown from the widespread disgust among the civilian population at the behaviour of the NPFL commandos who had entered the District. The civilians presented a proposal to Lamin Kamara, who played a role in the RUF akin to that of a close civilian liaison to Foday Sankoh. The proposal sought the re-establishment of some kind of ‘Joso Group’ to participate in the liberation struggle.
185. The RUF took on the ‘Joso Group’ as an integral part of its infrastructure on the Southern Front. At least 27 of them were trained under Joseph Magona (alias One-Man-One), who was the RUF Battle Group Commander at the time, albeit only for a period of about three days. They were nevertheless immediately deployed in Potoru to counter the advancing ULIMO and SLA troops. Indeed the ‘Joso Group’ was probably the most prominent segment of the RUF fighting force on the Pujehun front line in the early months of the conflict.
186. The ‘Joso Group’ went into battle in a formation similar to that which would later be deployed by the Kamajors; wielding crude weapons like cutlasses and sticks with nails attached. As they bravely confronted the soldiers ‘head on’ in Potoru, these militiamen struck such a fearsome impression on the RUF fighters that the latter would later be convinced that it was not prudent to confront the similarly-constituted Kamajors.
187. Of course, the original name of ‘Joso Group’ was directly lifted from the 1982 uprising and reflected the fact that most of the fighters were in fact the same. Sankoh was aware that this group had in fact been the lifeblood of the First Battalion in its early stages, but wanted the character of the movement in the South to be more inclusive of potential other recruits. Thus, Foday Sankoh advised that the ‘Joso Group’ change its name to ‘RUF Action Group’ – partly as a stamp of his own endorsement, partly also to distance the RUF from any overt direct link with the Ndorgboryosoi uprising of 1982.
188. The advance of the initial invaders in the Pujehun District was much faster and arguably more direct than that of their counterparts in Kailahun. The reasons for this appear to be found in a combination of several factors: effective strategising and fast acting on the part of the NPFL;78 lack of preparation and failure to take the attack seriously on the part of the Government forces; little or no resistance (if not active support) from most of the communities the invaders entered; and surprise tactics in various forms.
189. Within a few weeks of the incursion in Pujehun, the RUF had formed a Special Task Force intended to gather information about the activities of the fighters at the front. The STF also had the job of explaining the ethos of the revolution to the civilian population, since the Action Group was insufficiently trained in the ideology to perform such a task, and the commandos of the NPFL could not be relied upon to do in a manner that would encourage anybody to believe them.