There are an estimated 36,000 people living in conditions of modern slavery in Sierra Leone (GSI 2018). Sierra Leone is a source and destination country for men, women and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking. During the Sierra Leone Civil War 1991 to 2002 the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) sought to mobilise a youth underclass to form a ‘people’s army’ to overthrow the Momoh regime. The RUF abducted and trained numbers of captured youth to fight as child soldiers in their guerrilla warfare.
Musa, now about 20, was captured and forcibly inducted by the RUF/SL in a raid into north-western Sierra Leone in January 1995. Although he completed guerrilla training and served on operations, he never gained any promotion in the movement, remaining ambivalent about the struggle. He is frank that his lack of conviction was more a question of the hardship than of any political objection. He found that the RUF's ideological teaching about the state of Sierra Leone made sense. When interviewed in October 1996 he had managed to escape four weeks previously, after nearly two years, and had been re-accepted in his home community, a town not badly affected by the war. Musa provides a remarkable account of RUF/SL aims and operations, and of life in one of the guerrilla camps. In some respects, the account supports the picture the movement paints in its own propaganda document (RUFSL, 1995). The Gurkhas referred to in the account were a mercenary force of ex-Gurkhas led by a Canadian Vietnam veteran [Colonel Robert Mackenzie] hired by the NPRC government. Mackenzie was killed, and the survivors were withdrawn shortly afterwards, to be replaced by the South African private security firm Executive Outcomes.]
It was early morning. They came down the road as I was going to work. They pulled me and loaded properties on my head. They threatened to spray me with the gun if I didn't go. We walked day and night, with only snatches of sleep. We made food for them.
We walked for seven days. Any town we reached we would get food from the people. After eight days we reached the Malal Hills ... on top of the hill.
We rested for one day, then they called us to a lecture. They said, 'If we write about bad things in the country nothing will happen, so we have brought you inside the revolution to act to make bad things stop.' They showed us plenty of things that had to happen ... They said there is no freedom, no medical attention, no better roads. . . The system is rotten.
They came to scrape [shave] our heads. We were sent to base camp for training in the Malal hills.
Three months, for basic training. Then they were training us to fight. After three months government forces attacked us, so we had to evacuate the camp. The place is a long hill. The camp was shifted to the other end. So we had to advance to the other part. Then we completed training.
We were trained in all kinds of war tactics.
All of us were Sierra Leonean boys [Salong bobo dem] ... from all tribes ... Temne, Mandingo, Kailahun [Up- Mende].
We advanced to Western Area, around Mile 38 [on the Freetown road]. We reached Waterloo [twenty miles from Freetown].
I saw that what they were saying about the country was true, but I did not really want to join, mainly because of the strain . . . one, the loads we had to carry; two, the walking; three, the hunger ... We did not have good supplies, it was always a problem to get food . . . and we were under rain day and night.
I did not feel happy about the killing and looting. Some say the RUF is just different gangs with no overall leader.
It is true that there are plenty in our group who have taken over a year in the movement without seeing Foday Sankoh. But he communicates commands to us by radio message regularly. If a week goes by without getting radio messages then our commanders go to visit Sankoh. They use bypass [footpaths in the bush], through the swamps and boilands.
I went with the commander to take leave of Sankoh before he went to Ivory Coast [for the peace negotiations, January 1996]
We left the Waterloo area and went through Tonibana and Moyamba. It took us four or five days [on foot] to reach Sankoh's camp [the Zogoda]. His base camp is on flat ground in thick forest.
I joined another group to return to the Moyamba area. I was now assigned to a new 'forward defence' [camp]. I was there for six months after the cease-fire.
I was sent with a written message for another 'forward defence' [in our sector]. But I did not meet anyone in their camp. They had gone to look for food. Then I saw two people coming to check on me. I somersaulted into the bush [as trained] to hide. They passed by. I wondered what to do. Then I said to myself, 'If I meet them again I will give them the letter, but if I do not meet them, then I will give up [the struggle].' That is what happened. I kept the letter.
I reached a civilian zone behind our [RUF] line. I did nothing to them. I did not explain I was escaping. [Civilians in RUF 'ideology zones' were under strict orders to detain and return camp runaways.] I just explained that I had a problem. I made up the story that I had [accidentally] shot my friend in the foot. Otherwise they would have held me. One civilian said he would help me. I begged long trousers from him and a polo-neck [sweater], so that I looked decent. Then I said, 'You and I have made "society" [secret arrangement]. If anyone asks, don't say anything.'
I travelled as far as Sanda [chiefdom], sleeping in the bush at night. It was four days and nights before I met the road. I would sneak inside the empty farm huts at night to look for scraps of food. I did not dare approach anyone on the farms to ask directions. But when I reached the road a driver helped me. I made it to [...], and reached the checkpoint after midnight. I knocked on the window [shutter] of my stepmother's room, but she was afraid [to open it]. My dad was brave enough to peep out, and I called his name. Still, he could not believe, at first, it was me. I came with nothing, barefoot. It was September [the previous month].
All the [. . .] people are still in the camp behind Moyamba, except for the Form 2 and 3 girls. They have gone to Foday Sankoh's base camp to resume their schooling.
When I had arrived my big brother took me to the commanding officer to report. Later I went to the chief, and he called the people to say it was me, one of the young people seized in January 1995. Crowds then came to our house to ask about their children [seized with me].
The load-carrying brings some to the point of death. It is complete slavery. But plenty of others have turned to agba [become leaders] in the movement. The RUF promotes by ability, so some have really joined. But most now want peace, and to see their families.
There are no drugs in camp. The penalty for jamba [marijuana] smoking and rape is execution. There is no cocaine. Even for smoking a cigarette they beat you. If I had a headache they would give me aspirin from medicine they looted.
There is a church and a mosque. You are free to be Muslim or Christian, but if you do not pray they punish you. In Malal hills it is hard to get water. Every day we had to fetch water. You go at 5.00 a.m. It is one mile to climb back. There is a rope. Sometimes you go three or four times. The water is dirty, and sometimes you slip and drop the bucket before you reach. You do not return to camp before midday. Small boys can be promoted above you. Some were my juniors at school. A small boy can order you, 'Fuck you, go get water for me.' He is your superior.
They cut hands in revenge for the attacks by the Kamajo [hunters' militia].
What they really want is work. Some will want to learn a trade, like carpentry. Even my own boss will want some as apprentices. But others will want to be in the army.
The RUF people will forget. What has happed has happened. There is no tribalism. It is an armed struggle, but there is no pay. Many would change to national service in the army. Many want the war to end. They pray for it to end, but they do not yet have the chance to escape. Many want education-to go back to school. But they are afraid of the army-that the army will kill them. So they wait, for Foday Sankoh's last orders, to come out and lay down their arms. They are very well disciplined.
They take things [only] when villagers run away.
For example, the one on R[. . . [in February 1996]. I wanted to take part in that attack, in case I got a chance to escape. But that was why they would not let me go. They brought others, not from this district.
I never saw any government soldier in our camp. Maybe the big men have some arrangement. What I know is that there are a lot of captured government soldiers with Foday Sankoh. He holds them. Some fight for him. He says he won't kill them. They will accept him when they know what he is trying to do.
[What about the attack at Magbosi [on a convoy, August 1995]?
That was the RUF. They know how to train for manoeuvres.
[Do you know about the fight with the Gurkhas?]
Yes. It was morning time. We were listening to a radio message, to announce promotions. Then we were called out of the base, and then ordered back in. Two jets came to bombard. But we knew the air raid was not the thing, that ground forces would come, so we were ready. They told us they [Gurkhas] are coming. We began to fight seriously. It was not an ambush.
There was one white man. He had a compass, camera, gun. He was hit, and then killed. We dragged his body back to camp. We saw he had a tattoo on his arm. They cut the arm off, to show the tattoo to identify the person, to prove to the government that he had been killed. We buried Tarawali [RSLMF major, aide-de-camp to the NPRC chairman, Valentine Strasser]. After that attack the commanders decided to move the camp. After a week the jets came to bombard but we had left the camp site by then.
They listen to FM and [BBC] 'Focus on Africa' . . . but don't blast this over FM or the ones who have been left behind will feel the pain. They know that some of us who escape talk. Is there any training in camp [other than for combat]? They have 'Dr Blood' [field medical orderlies]. They teach some of the women they have captured. The have some captured dispensers, who give them the ideas. Women 'with sense' [intelligent] learn the work. Some are now very skilled in treating wounds.
Narrative 7 from Krijn Peters and Paul Richards, “Why We Fight: Voices of Youth Combatants in Sierra Leone”, Source Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 68, No.2 (1998): 183-210.