THE PRACTICE OF CONVENTIONAL ‘TARGET’ WARFARE IN PHASE I OF THE CONFLICT
190. In exposing the rationale behind the original strategy of conventional warfare adopted in Sierra Leone by the combined forces of the RUF and the NPFL, it is essential to address the phenomenon of the ‘target’. The Commission understands this term to be an area of territory that the attacking force wishes to capture and establish control over, assuming an offensive or a defensive posture.
191. As such, a ‘target’ will often be the subject of concentrated reconnaissance and planning well before any operations are conducted there. The object therein is to assess the topography, including roads, rivers, forested areas, hills, natural resource endowments and civilian settlements within the boundaries of the ‘target’.
192. In seeking to understand the operational objectives of the strategy employed by the insurgent factions, the Commission gathered evidence from some of the RUF combatants charged with its implementation. The following testimony reflects one RUF junior commando’s personal interpretation of the dynamics of conventional ‘target’ warfare and, in particular, its interface with the civilian population:
“Foday Sankoh strictly warned that after the advancement into any ‘target’ and the capturing of any town or village, the inhabitants of those areas should only be responsible for feeding and accommodating [the troops] for a limited period of seventy-two hours. After that point, no single commando should stay or live in the towns, but should advance a mile or two forward and set up a defensive [position].
From thence on, the commandos should be responsible not only for the feeding but also for the security of the inhabitants of the land captured [the ‘target’]. All food to support the people of that newly-captured land should be taken from the enemy-controlled areas. In other words, Sankoh said: ‘RUF Feed the Nation and Protect the Nation’.”79
193. On the side of the pro-Government forces, the type of warfare deployed was dependent on the nature of the threat they faced. The Army was not tactically flexible enough to develop into an effective jungle warfare unit, so it largely had to respond with a conventional strategy of frontal fighting. As one soldier who was recruited during Phase I told the Commission, there was also a degree of bravado in the approaches of the two factions to conventional ‘target’ warfare:
“In that first phase, we would never use by-passes and neither would they. It was like a sense that we didn’t need to go in a roundabout way because we felt we were stronger than them: we just relied on our support and so did they.”80
194. The tempo, medium and nature of the conflict as a whole were destined to be set by the conduct of the warring factions during Phase I. In this regard, the Commission regrets that certain facets of the tactics and operations proscribed by the High Commands of the NPFL, the RUF and the SLA were conducive to an inordinate level of civilian suffering.
Enlistment into and Expansion of the Insurgent Forces in Phase I
195. Channels of enlistment into the RUF were secured with varying degrees and different types of compulsion in the early years of the conflict. The Commission has encountered sensitive and astonishingly complex dynamics in many of the accounts of how Sierra Leoneans became ‘junior commandos’.
196. In striving to generate an impartial overall understanding, it should be noted that there are always exceptional and unique tales, which will not fit comfortably into any of these categories. Nevertheless, the Commission presents the following narrative in the belief that it reflects some instances of enlistment that grew out of violations and abuses, some instances that directly caused violations and abuses, and some instances in which victims could go on to become perpetrators.
The ‘Detainee-turned-Junior Commando’ Category
197. The Commission received reports from both the Kailahun and Pujehun Districts that upon entering into major towns, the insurgents typically demanded that the residents should identify any soldiers, policemen or those in the community who were thought to be APC representatives or powerbrokers. In the event that these persons had fled, attention would turn to their relatives, their friends, their acquaintances and those who were deemed to know ‘where they were hiding’.
198. Each of the persons pointed out in this manner, even where they denied any knowledge of the status they were alleged to hold, would be arrested and placed in captivity. Accordingly, sizeable groups of local residents, sometimes up to 20 at a time, were detained in a local cell or guardhouse on the premise that they had connections to the APC regime, however tenuous the link that connected them.
199. These detentions are of special relevance to the composition of the RUF because many of the detainees were subsequently converted into members, in a similar mode of compulsory ‘recruitment’ to the one applied to the ‘detainee-turned-vanguard’ category in Liberia. One resident of Pendembu, Kailahun District described to the Commission how he was enlisted into the RUF after a two-week period of detention until 29 April 1991:
“Upon his first arrival in Pendembu, Foday Sankoh was made to understand that some people were jailed and that they were still in the cell. Immediately he sent for us and we were brought before him. We had been told the previous night that they were going to kill us next morning, so some of us thought Sankoh was going to do the killing. Rather fortunately he was our saviour.
He became very furious with the [NPFL] commanders; he told him that this was not what he had sent them on and that they should not treat his people in such a way… He apologised to us and begged us to accept it in good faith as it was wartime… He then picked me up as the youngest among those from jail and asked for my name, my occupation and my qualification. He told me that the revolution is for those of us who are educated but have no better jobs.”81
200. A similar story was recounted from the town of Gendema, Pujehun District, where Foday Sankoh appeared on 7 April 1991 and similarly lambasted his commanders for putting prominent functionaries of the authorities in a cell. Upon securing their release, Sankoh apparently embraced and praised the detainees for their courage and welcomed them, especially the soldiers among them, into his movement.82
201. According to testimonies, Sankoh described the men as “our brothers, not our enemies”; a popular refrain was that these people had no choice but to be working for the authorities because it was a one-party state. In Gendema as elsewhere, such displays by Sankoh in releasing detainees were reportedly greeted with rapturous ovations from the civilian crowds, from which Sankoh clearly drew valuable populist credentials.
202. From Pendembu, for example, Sankoh recruited his War Council Chairman S. Y. B. Rogers, his GSO-1 Moigande Moigboi Kosia and other educated persons like Francis Musah and Patrick Beinda, who would perform crucial roles in his administrative cadre. From Gendema he introduced service personnel like Patrick Mattia, Emmanuel Sheriff and Chico Myers to his growing force. In addition to their calibre, these men were destined to provide unflinching loyalty to Sankoh because he had cast himself as their ‘liberator’ and foreseen that they would then become captive to his wishes.
203. As the following testimony from a vanguard indicates, Sankoh was notorious for exerting moral compulsion over individuals and communities by playing on the perceived indebtedness of those he had freed:
“He continuously reminded me of the fact [that he was my ‘liberator’], everywhere we went. Even when we first captured my hometown, he gathered my relatives from the area and asked me to tell them where he had found me… When I just said the place, he was not comfortable. He wanted me to say ‘in prison’, which I did; so as to make it clear to the people that he had rescued me.”83
204. As with the vanguards themselves, the ‘detainee-turned-junior commando’ category would become a key sub-group within the RUF, whose contributions to decision-making, in the realms of administration and political strategy in particular, would to a great extent help to shape the evolution of the movement into which they had been enlisted.
205. There are, it would appear, some complicated sociological dynamics to be considered when looking at the concept of ‘volunteering’ one’s own or a family member’s services to the RUF. It is often in ignorance of such dynamics that Sierra Leoneans from outside the Kailahun District have expressed surprise and faint derision to the Commission that, at the outset at least, it had appeared that many families in Kailahun had actually urged their youngsters to join the RUF as a token of their support for the ‘revolution’.
206. The Commission heard of instances in which this phenomenon occurred; but these accounts do not warrant the stigma often attached to the people of Kailahun on the basis that they ‘gave their children to the RUF’.
207. At the time when the insurgents entered Sierra Leone there was deep-rooted discontent among many segments of the population, much of it attributable to the Government that the RUF declared they had come to overthrow. With this in mind it is possible to regard the acts of ‘volunteerism’ registered in Kailahun and elsewhere as symbols of an overriding will to change the system. At the early stages of the insurgency there was no means of knowing that the RUF would go on to become an even greater scourge on the people of the country than the oppressive Government they opposed.
208. Nevertheless a variety of individuals in both the East and South of the country, with particular emphasis on young men from rural areas, joined the RUF of their own volition, stayed with the movement until the end of the conflict and, in many cases, have gone on to become members of the Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP), which they feel still embodies their ideas for change. They comprise a category of recruits, first and most recognisably drawn from Phase I of the conflict, who absorbed the ideological rhetoric of the RUF’s orators, identified appealing elements to its agenda and decided in good faith that they should ally themselves to its insurgency. They are best described, in their own words, as ‘willing revolutionaries’. 84
209. ‘Willing revolutionaries’ testified in significant numbers to the Commission about their experiences before the conflict and their reasons for joining the RUF. The stereotype seems to fit a young man who had come from a lower-class background of abject poverty and whose parents had not enjoyed any favour or good fortune under the APC, despite often having worked hard in the agricultural sector. He had nonetheless been able to acquire enough education to perceive some of the blatant injustices to which he was being subjected; but at the point the RUF found him, he had lost all social bearing and was therefore open to the option of taking up arms.
210. This stereotype could be applied to thousands of former RUF combatants and it was borne out again and again by witnesses before the Commission. A common decisive factor in many of the stories told by ‘willing revolutionaries’ was that they had been ultimately convinced to join the RUF through a public address by Foday Sankoh or one of his compatriots, similar to the speeches described above. One young man narrated the impact an address by Sankoh had on him in the following terms:
“What Sankoh said was what really made me stay with the RUF for a long time – his argument was really convincing. He made reference to many Sierra Leoneans who had been killed by the APC; to the mismanagement of our natural resources, not just diamonds, but all the land – that there is a lot to boast of, but what does the average man have to show for it? He kept coming back to the point that Sierra Leoneans were being deprived of their legal rights; he talked about so much bad governance; how politicians were manipulating the people – through tribal politics, sectional politics and party politics… [He said] that unless we bridge the gap between the North and the South we can never establish national unity… and without unity we can never achieve progress. Pa Sankoh had a huge amount of national pride.”85
211. Similarly ‘willing revolutionaries’ testified that they had seen the RUF as a means of effecting a positive change in the country, of freeing themselves from their soul-destroying socio-economic circumstances and of putting right some of the injustices that they perceived to have left them disadvantaged or marginalised in society. Through its discussions with these RUF junior commandos in this category, the Commission gained plentiful evidence of Foday Sankoh’s uncanny ability to exploit the legacies of the multi-faceted bad governance that successive political elites had wrought on the country.
212. It is indeed in this regard that the Commission has come to realise the centrality of bad governance, corruption, all forms of discrimination and the marginalisation of certain sectors of society among the causes of conflict in Sierra Leone. As has been discussed in the chapter on antecedents, these historical ills and injustices had prepared the ground for someone of Sankoh’s renowned manipulative ability to canvass among the people and find scores of would-be RUF commandos who could be brought on board with relatively little persuasion.
213. Sankoh in fact made pointed and often astute attempts to sensitise and mobilise particular groups in support of his averred ‘revolutionary’ objectives. By all accounts, he spoke passionately and convincingly in his public addresses and was apparently well-received by his audiences in the early weeks of the conflict. In addition to being a generally compelling character, he would often adapt his style, or indeed his rhetoric, to play on the particular characteristics or insecurities of the local population who were receiving him.
214. Thus in the Kailahun District, Sankoh’s addresses dealt with the plight of impoverished farmers and coffee or cacao harvesters who were historically prevented from receiving due compensation for their yields; in the coastal District of Pujehun he was reported to have spoken about fishery and marine resources, as well as the local undercurrents of social disgruntlement that had given rise to events like the Ndorgboryosoi rebellion in the 1980s.
215. To accomplish such a level of familiarity with the diverse cultural and historical contours of Sierra Leone and its peoples had required years of exposure and application on Sankoh’s part; it is this recognition that lends credence to the theory that Sankoh had been methodically gathering insights and experiences that would stand him in good stead as a ‘revolutionary’ leader for years in advance of his 1991 incursion. His time working as a photographer in the late 1970s and early 1980s, along with his extensive in-country travelling, had permitted Sankoh to gather up multiple public opinions on the perceived wrongs of the APC and thus to shape himself as a man of the people wherever he might go.
216. These perspectives on Foday Sankoh go some way to assisting our understanding of how certain members of the RUF were drafted in with what one might describe as the minimum degree of compulsion. These can be considered, on a certain level, to have been ‘revolutionary-minded’ recruits, who found common cause with the powerful, albeit unsophisticated, case for a revolution expounded by Sankoh.
217. Many of them, in the fullness of time, appear to have abandoned their original philosophical orientations and engaged in atrocities in the name of the RUF; many of them became discouraged by the acts of others, but saw dissent as futile when the most powerful commanders were prone to executing dissenters; some of them indeed opposed the course and conduct of the war, but their opposition apparently cost them their lives.
218. For the few such ‘willing revolutionaries’ who remained, it is fair to consider the perpetual paradoxes that they found themselves confronting as the realities of warfare enveloped them. Yet the incontrovertible truth is that none of these people ultimately did anything concrete to temper the ascendancy of volatile combatant commanders in the RUF or to halt the overall spate of violations and abuses for which the faction is collectively responsible.
219. Thus, in the Commission’s summation, there were indeed some RUF members who genuinely and consistently seemed to believe in the possibility of effecting democratic change through a revolutionary programme; but right from the start of Phase I they constituted a miniscule and quite powerless minority in the RUF.
220. It was equally possible for the Commission to discern that there was often a very thin dividing line between purported ‘genuine subscription’ to the values of the RUF’s agenda and the opportunistic pursuit of personal gain or retribution based on misplaced grudges, grievances and vendettas. In short, many people claimed to be ‘revolutionary’ when they were actually nothing of the sort; they simply wanted to utilise the RUF as a means of acquiring a firearm and a vehicle for their own aggression. As the RUF’s former Adjutant General testified to the Commission:
“Some people felt that going on the base would give them a chance to revenge for anything that had happened to them.”86
The Original Strategic Objectives of Conventional ‘Target’ Warfare
221. The incursion as it had been envisaged by Foday Sankoh had one central objective: the capture of the strategic military barracks at Daru, situated on the banks of the Moa River in the Kailahun District. Its success would have cleared the way for the insurgents to consolidate their grip on Kailahun District without fear of large-scale attacks by the Sierra Leone Army and further to launch operations into the important Kenema District. It would also have signalled a more successful adoption of the blueprint carved out by the NPFL in the Liberian conflict, whereby Provincial military installations were routinely captured and thereafter became the training bases and fortresses of the NPFL.
222. Moa Barracks, at Daru, in the Kailahun District, was to stand out in Phase I of the conflict as the main hinge on which the fortunes of both the insurgency and the defensive effort would swing.
223. As far as the defensive effort was concerned, President Momoh, who was also a General in the Sierra Leone Army, knew that all available resources would have to be plied into the Barracks speedily and methodically to fortify it as his Eastern stronghold; its fall would have deprived the Army of its single largest installation and quite possibly stood to cripple the war effort irrecoverably before it had even properly begun.
224. Conventional ‘target’ warfare suited the geographical dynamics on the ground in Kailahun District: sizeable towns spaced apart at regular and manageable intervals; deployments of SLA units whose retreat would follow a fairly predictable path along main roads; and a series of distinct ‘targets’, progressively greater in size, that would build up to the grand strategic objective of capturing Moa Barracks, Daru.
225. Moreover, the social, economic and political conditions were amenable to a programme of the sort that the RUF purported to stand for. The area was known to be a hotbed of support for the SLPP, which made it relatively easy to derive cheap ‘revolutionary’ capital out of the political inclinations of the populace by adopting a signature colour of green and an emblem of palm fronds as RUF symbols. The following testimony suggests that these tactics were a rather crude effort, since the symbolism was not even understood by some of the people who were meant to spread its practice:
“There was a little boy who ran up to me as soon as he saw me. He asked if I was a ‘Momoh soldier’. At that time they were speaking Liberian pigeon language. The boy asked me if I was a ‘Momoh soldier’. I said I was not a soldier. I asked him who brought the war. He said they had somebody supporting them and his name was Foday Sankoh [and] that he was a Sierra Leonean. ‘We have just come to remove APC’, he said. The other boy said that we should have a palm tree or a green cloth tied on our hand.”87
226. The people were mostly farmers, who had received an especially rough deal under the APC because they were never properly paid for their agricultural produce and forced to labour long and hard to support their families. One farmer’s son who subsequently joined the RUF described his perspective in the following terms:
“Members of Parliament in the APC Government regime chiefly exploited and oppressed the poor farmers with their selfish and greedy ideas. They and their children evaded all works of life by eating out of the farmers’ farming activities… They would either cheat them of the money that was supposed to be paid for their produce, delay the payments, or pay the farmers by instalments instead of paying them everything at a stretch… They made sure that the farmers could not make any effective use out of their money earned from their plantations to make them become prosperous. We knew it was a deliberate act… so that everything should work at the advantage of the oppressors and at the disadvantage of the poor farmers.” 88
227. The Commission heard that when Sankoh’s revolution was launched through speeches laced with populism and panaceas, many villagers were convinced that they should support the RUF as a preferable alternative to the system under which they struggled. A combatant cadre grew out of many different sources of enlistment, including volunteers. There were high numbers of ‘willing revolutionaries’, as people were seduced by the simplistic RUF mantra that claimed the first step to material betterment was to turn the guns of the system against it: “Arms to the People, Power to the People, Wealth to the People.”
228. There were also recruits who were forced to undertake training purely on the basis that they were ‘able-bodied’, no matter what their age. The Commission heard from the RUF’s Adjutant General that overt pressure was applied in this regard to ensure that would-be fighters effectively had no choice:
“At that time anybody who was fit to walk could be put on the training base… if you didn’t go for training you would have a load put on your head and be made to carry it to Liberia.”89
229. The training bases set up by the RUF entailed terrifying exercises that habitually tormented their participants and often led to their deaths. As one child recruit testified to the Commission’s closed hearings, this torture commenced from the moment the ‘training’ started.
“The first day we arrived on the place they ordered us to lie flat on the floor. We had no idea and we lay down as if we were lying on a bed. They showed us how to lie down flat and if they saw your foot up they will use their foot to stamp your foot down. Then they will use the gun; they put it on the forehead of the first person in the line and fire! In that process if you are hit by the bullet you are killed. If you are not perfectly in line with the first person, that is the end of your life. They were doing that so that we can get accustomed with the sound of a gun. They taught us how to fire guns for ourselves. They also taught us courtesy and discipline that will show us how to respect them. But even though you respect them they will not respect you. It was no formal training where you go to a classroom. With that kind of training if you are sent to the warfront only God will help you.”90
230. Additionally the administrative cadre took on added capacity by abducting, indoctrinating and affording lofty positions to a range of local teachers and clerks in the communities they entered.
231. On the Southern Front, on the other hand, neither the terrain nor the human population was quite as susceptible to this type of operation. In terms of land, there were three natural obstacles to overcome from the outset: the site of a major diamond-mining settlement, in the shape of Zimmi, surrounded by lucrative fields of gemstones; the path of the Moa River through the heart of the District, flowing into the awkward Turner Peninsula on its Southern coast; and the absence of major military installations that were easily and foreseeably assailable.
232. The first factor, material wealth, would prove to be a distraction of avarice, whereby NPFL commandos with a patent obsession for self-enrichment would choose to indulge themselves in looting and mining activities, using mostly forced labour, rather than to advance further into the territory of Sierra Leone. The second factor, the riverine terrain, could not be negotiated due to sloth: effectively the NPFL commandership could not muster the necessary sophisticated tactical assaults that would have been required to transgress plentiful rivers and marshlands. The third factor, distant targets, posed a quandary to the insurgents primarily because it required concerted and sustained application on their part; having been coaxed into more profitable pursuits by the first factor and somewhat overawed by the second factor, the fighting force demonstrated that it was simply not up to a task of that magnitude.
233. The Commission’s research attests to the fact that the NPFL faction, comprising Liberians and a selected few other nationals of foreign countries in the sub-region, largely confined their bases in the Pujehun District to the areas around larger towns like Zimmi. In other words, since the goals were further out of reach than originally anticipated, it was easier for the NPFL just to rest on their laurels and live off the land.
234. This widespread deviation from original strategic objectives was confirmed by the Commission in interviews with many of those who fought for the RUF side alongside the NPFL. As one of the vanguards on the Southern Front testified:
“When the fighting started, those who were in control of the arms, when they reached Zimmi, thought that Zimmi was Bo or Kenema. The properties that they met around those areas were all that they were after, to take back to Liberia. They became so amazed with all that they had met in Pujehun that they totally forgot about continuing the war. Instead, they were only interested in looting and taking properties back to Liberia. We started getting concerned: ‘Are these people here to help us fight our war or are they just here to take all our peoples’ properties?'”91
235. In the case of the Moa Barracks, it led to a fierce, all-out battle far greater than the one that the insurgents had planned for at the outset of their planning. The magnitude of the battle in fact attests to the added importance that had been attached to the Barracks in the light of ECOMOG’s utterances that it could become a new station for its forces (supplanting Lungi on the grounds of geographical and strategic importance).
236. The Commission heard testimonies about the ferocity of the battle for Moa Barracks, Daru from combatants who fought there in several distinct capacities: RUF fighters whose objective had been to overcome the Barracks; SLA officers who provided infantry power to the defensive operations; and ‘irregulars’ from both the North and South of the country who fought on the side of the Government troops. Each of the perspectives garnered differed subtly from the next, but a unanimous, two-part conclusion was shared by them all: the battle was the single most critical strategic confrontation between the two sides in the entire duration of Phase I and it culminated in defeat for the insurgents.
237. The clash was essentially played out from the two opposite banks of the Moa River. The river runs between the town of Daru, on the Eastern bank, and the Barracks themselves, on the Western bank, traversed by a landmark bridge that is the sole crossing point in that vicinity. The insurgent forces were spearheaded by some of the most senior and most hardened fighters among Taylor’s NPFL, who were of both Liberian and Burkinabe nationalities. They were buttressed by Sierra Leonean and Liberian RUF fighters, including up to two platoons of vanguards from the Eastern Front. The total force numbered up to one thousand commandos, who were well armed with light weapons and grenades, but had nothing of the cumulative calibre possessed by the pro-Government forces on the other side of the river.
238. On the side of the Government, the most formidable firepower was provided by the Guinean Armed Forces (GAF) faction, which is thought to have comprised only 200 troops. It was not so much the quantity as the quality of their artillery that made the difference in the confrontation that ensued.