He takes me back there. He takes me back to those moments in his personal experience of the war that are his and his only. They are the scars that mark his body and heart, they are the nightmares that the non-survivor cannot imagine. His suffering. The story that he will forever carry upon his back. And perhaps because it´s his and his only that parts of this story are not to be shared. Yet he also takes me back to a collective trauma, a bloody tragedy inescapable for all. A trauma that tortured even those living thousands of miles away in Europe or the United States. It is the collective story. A story of the war that is told through war fables that are repeated from one person to another until their very telling weave them into history. And it is through this collective story that life goes on in Salone.

The sun is setting over Man of War Bay, casting soft shadows on the unfinished cement wall. A pair of dolphins play in the water below us, and canoes returning from fishing paddle ashore. Calypso is heard from the Bintumani Hotel, and the squatters that live on the other side of the wall sift through the garbage.

¨...maybe if some of the things that they did or that happened, if they were put back into reality people would not believe. They would think it was a movie But it did, it did happen. Imagine two men slitting open a pregnant woman, taking out the the child... ¨

I finish his sentence, "... to determine whether its a boy a or a girl?"

I shiver. He chuckles uncomfortably. As the international community turned its back, the realization came that war would reach Freetown. He watched his family´s home burn to the ground, and was nearly killed by the children that did it. Ecomog peace keepers beat him senseless, in their frenzy of revenge and brutality. He developed a system to count the murders as they happened. One shot heard, there could be survivors. Two quick shots, guaranteed one dead. He witnessed the flood of refugees wash west in their futile escape of the rebel advance. The streets of his childhood became a maze of death and survival, depending on the look or the emotion life came and went. Suspicion became the guideline, and fear became the city´s staple food. He grew accostomed to the gun shots and screams, even sleeping at night. But diarhea was a constant.

¨At times when I think back and look at what each and everyone did... I mean the fighting forces. The rebels, the Kamjors, the SLA and Ecomog, and I ask myself who was the most dangerous. Because even those that came to protect us, they were dangerous.¨

All were addicted to the killing.

¨And in a way I pity them, it was not by their own making. They didn´t want to, but they had to. Because imagine if you were captured. Your parents have been killed, they have you with them. Ok they want to recruit you. If you don´t cooperate they kill you. If you don´t participate they starve you to death. So in order to survive you do what you have to...¨

There´s a child soldier and he is leading an old man by a leash tied to one ankle. The man has to continue moving on his two hands and remaining leg otherwise he´ll be shot. Eventually the boy runs into another group of rebels. And one of them turns to the boy ¨Now why you torture this old man like that. Kill him.¨ And the old man responds ¨Driver, Driver. Carry me! I never asked this man to beg for me.¨

The rebels enter a mosque. And the squad leader askes the people huddling together in fear, ¨I ask you who among you is a true believer in God.¨ Silence. And then from the back of the crowd a small boy shouts, ¨There, he´s the imam.¨ To which the Imam angrily replies ¨Shut your mouth, I beg, you bastard child.¨ And the crowd bursts out in laughter. The rebels included. All their lives are spared.

He challenges me to imagine the most unimaginable horror of war: that it is a human creation, and thereby one of the few things that defines our existence.

They ask if there´s war where I come from.
The sun has set on Man of War Bay. And the red light on my recorder is turned off.
You speak in metaphors around the table. They´re short steps in regaining some sort of normality. You take short steps to get back to that place you were 25 years ago. Very short steps. Speaking in metaphors is the only way to make sense of the inconsistencies, the gaps in time that have become your history. You sit around the table recounting stories of the journey north. You talk about the outbreak of the war in Liberia and your capture by NPFL forces. You remember the long days in the machine room of gunner ships, hostage to a war you never wished to participate in. And as the war crossed the border into Sierra Leone you escaped to the Canaries. The stories tumble out of you, one tripping over the other. The chronology lost in memory. The pekins (children) have lost interest. Only your sisters are listening. Europe is not all that it was made out to be. You recall those first couple of months in the Red-Cross camps. Your sisters remember your departure. But your face they´ve forgotten. The stories compete with each other, yours and theirs. When the matriarch of your family died, so did the family unity. Sisters, brothers, nephews and neices all scattered. But you were so far away you couldn´t have known. Your mende is weak from disuse. Here you´re big man now. But its a lie. In Europe noone calls you sir. 50 thousand Leones are passed out here and there. A month´s salary in Sierra Leone, is not even a days work in Barcelona. You open the gifts bag. Clothing bought and recycled from dumpsters in Europe. T-shirts fly here and shorts fly there. Everyone has a new wardrobe. There are so many things to say. There are so many things to do. 25 years to recall, and rebuild. The light cuts out and all that can be heard is the whir of generators. The reencounter is bittersweet. Emotions that have mixed leave you wondering what it is. What are these short steps?


The plane takes off and you realize you´re on your way. Africa lies ahead. Flying over the south of Spain you watch as the earth falls further and further away. You cross the straight of Gibraltar and can just make out the Morroccan city of Tangier with its labrynth of streets below. Flying south you can almost see Western Sahara caught between its colonial Spanish masters and it´s inherited regional conflict. And then there is Mauritania. The desert below seems never ending... as it grows more with everyday. The Atlantic washes up against it beaches and somehow even the water appears dry. As the hours pass you realize the stop in Dakar is nearing. Slowly the abandoned desert gives way, and small villages begin to dot the landscape. And there it is, Dakar.

The city´s skyscrapers are a sharp contrast to the Sahara you´ve just finished passing over. They jut upward out of the rocky shoreline. A mix of dirt and paved roads weave between them. The plane touches down. But its not your stop. Some Senegalese get off followed by a procession of European tourists, aid workers, journalists, military attachès, and just plain business men. The plane sits on the tarmac for an hour. Noone gets on. Everyone starts talking, you know Freetown is only an hour and a half away. The memories are coming back. ¨Do you remember him, do you remember her? Where were you on this day, where were you on that day?¨ Again the engines begin to roar. ¨Passengers please take your seats and fasten your seatbelts in preperation for departure.¨ The plane moves south. A baby returning to his unknown home cries in the seat in front of you.

Next to me Ernest begins to sweat. Is he nervous? Nerves and emotion mix. I can´t tell exactly what he´s thinking.

Below the desert is forgotten as the earth turns ripe, a lushish green, forests and jungle, swamps and coconut beaches. The earth is alive, it´s soil red. Freetown is near. Finally the plane touches down and you taxi through a maze of abandoned aircraft, wings broken, engine parts missing, recycled for another use. The doors open and the heat rushes over you like a wave washing from your skin all the impurities of air-conditioning. On the tarmac they make you wait for a bus to drive you the forty meters to the terminal. It´s all very official but completely pointless.

There´s a sign with Ernest´s name on it, we´ve been received. 20 euros goes inside the passport and its handed to the customs agent. The bag is left unopened. We pass. Everyone seems to be Clifford the man who´s supposed to collect us, or atleast everyone seems to know him. A police officer pushes aside. Clifford steps forward with his ID card out... we´ve found him. A van pulls up, it´s sliding door opens. We load the bags and pass out euros to the crowd we´ve amassed around us. It´s an hour van ride to the ferry that will carry us across the bay to Freetown itself.

Luggage is carried on head. And the boat rocks from one side to the other. Half a euro get´s you a seat in first class, a poorly ventilated hallway full of foreigners. Arsenal is playing on the television.

Ernest has bought 3 sim cards for his mobile phone in the last 10 minutes. Not one of them works. I´m asked if I´m a journalist, the camera hanging from my neck calls attention. Outside to smoke a cigarette.

The smell of shit and piss wafts from a bathroom window. And where Freetown should be on the opposite shore it is dark, very dark for a city of 2 million inhabitants. A flicker of light here a flicker there. You land on the East Side. The ferry unloads and the mass of people push and honk their way off the boat. You pack your car or catch transport and begin to navigate the chaotic mix of people, cars, dogs, mopeds, children, cats, pushcarts, and buses that makes up the East Side.

To get to Aberdeen where we are staying we must cross all of the East Side, just as the RUF did in 1999 as they advanced on the capital... through a rain of small arms fire, mortars and rocket propelled grenades this ragtag army terrorized this part of Freetown in their attempt to push out the ECOMOG Nigerian forces. But now it seems the war has passed. All that is left are the pock marks in the buildings hit by fire. But you wouldn´t notice unless you knew how to look.

The streets are all familiar to Ernest. He jumps back into his memories, back into his reality.

You pass the building where you were born. You look for the family compound its ashes long since swept away... an empty lot remains. An apple tree stands alone. Roads have changed directions, there are new babies, and funerals have come and gone. New homes have been built and limbs have been lost.

Ernest finds himself back in the mix.

Music blares from speakers in the streets, mixing from one block to another. Generators roar powering lightbulbs. There´s a celebration of collective amnesia. The war has passed. Reggae music, reggae, hip-hop, reggae, dancehall, reggae... country western? It all mixes together. You leave the East Side and pass through the center. 10 story government buildings, a candle lights a room on the third floor. People drive with their horn, and either on the right or left side it doesn´t matter because you cannot drive fast.

We cross Murraytown junction and arrive at Aberdeen bridge, the stopping point in the RUF´s advance. It was here that ECOMOG forces held off the rebels. After the bridge we pass Paddy´s on our right, a discothek once the un-official base for international forces. Cheap prostitutes, drugs, alcohol, and proximity to the front lines made it a perfect barracks. Today Paddy´s still offers many of the same amenities only the war has ended, and instead of soldiers the clientale are aid workers and tourists.

We pass Bintumani Hotel, a monstrosity that sits on the Aberdeen hillside, a throwback to the time before the war when this city was a tourist destination. Today the walls are crumbling under the new Chinese management. We finally arrive at the compound where we are staying, a chalet surrounded by hotels and a view of the ocean. The night breeze is rich with freshness. Clifford presents us to the caretaker and Ernest dives into some fried fish and plantanes. We are here, the journey has begun.

Liberia, Sierra Leone timeline- Connecting the Regional Dots

There´s no way to understand Sierra Leone without understanding (at least a little) the history of its neighbor, Liberia. Both countries have unique foundings in comparison to their neighbors in the region. Their creation as free states for former slaves originally from England and English colonies and later from the United States created internal dynamics that would define the political history of both Liberia and Sierra Leone. And while they are two distinct sovereign nations, they share tribes, cultures, languages, customs, and most recently... wars. Thus an examination of one would be hopelessly incomplete without at least the consideration of the other.

Timeline- Connecting Regional Dots.


Sierra Leone was originally founded as a free state for liberated British slaves, primarily freed slaves that had fought on the side of the Crown during the American Revolution. Most of this group was previously living in Canadian New Brunswick. This freed slave community would come to create its own culture and identity, eventually they´d come to be known as Creole.

Early Sierra Leoneans made a mockery of the country´s mission when some members of the aristocracy were accused of themselves being involved in the transatlantic slave trade.


Great Britain incoporated Sierra Leone into its web of colonies. However initially only the capital, Freeetown, was considered a Colony. The surrounding rural area outside Freetown was considered a Protectorate. The limiting of the Colony to the capital consolidated the power of freed slaves against the majority indigenous population living predominately in the rural areas.


The Liberian coast was colonized by freed American slaves repatriated to

Africa by abolitionists and the American government- thereby creating a de-facto American colony. These freed slaves and their descendants would come to be known as Americo-Liberians, differentiating them from the indigenous Liberian population. A differentiation that would define Liberian culture as Americo-Liberians became the ruling elite while the local indigenous population was considered an inferior race. Americo-Liberians guaranteed their hold on Liberian politics with the creation of the True Whig Party- the only party in a single party Liberia from 1877-1977. And even as other African nations won their independence from colonial rule, in Liberia only landowners were allowed the right to vote.


A constitution for Sierra Leone was written with the goal of bringing together the colony and protectorate into one nation. Negotiation between two main parties would determine norms of the constitution: the National Council of Sierra Leone (NCSL) and the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP).

NCSL- led by Bankole Bright, and represented the vested powers of the ruling Creole in the colony.

SLPP- led by Milton Margai, and represented the interests of the large indigenous population of the protectorate.


CAST- Gold Coast (Ghana) based Consolidation African Selection Trust began exploring Sierra Leone´s diamond rich fields in the Kono district. CAST was owned by Selection Trust whose primary investor in turn was De Beers, one of the world´s largest companies and a diamond giant, with operations throughout Africa.


Through negotiations between the government and the Sierra Leone Selection Trust (SLST), a subsidiary of Selection Trust, the SLST was given exclusive mining and prospecting rights to nearly 8,000 square miles for 99 years.


The SLPP initiated calls for a new constitution that guaranteed indigenous rule of the entire colony. Margai named Siaka Stevens as Minister of Mines giving the young trade unionist control of the entire industry. The country was siezed by a rush on the diamond fields, and suddenly Sierra Leone was thrust into the international market. Yet on the ground a battle was erupting as the masses of illegal miners trying to survive in an SLST monopolized market, called for more mining rights.


Stevens won widespread support with his Alluvial Diamond Scheme which scrapped the SLST monopoly and introduced limited open licencing options. Stevens used the support he won with the Alluvial Diamond Scheme to bolster future political ambitions.


Margai won the Prime Minister´s position. Much of Margai´s hold on power came from the Crown itself. His politics were intensely conservative and pro-British, and while Margai claimed to represent the interests of the rural indigenous majority his government was controled by Creole ministers. This ruling Creole elite fought against independence as they feared it signalled the end to their hold on power.


As a result of his pro-British position and his disconnect with the masses, Margai faced large-scale anti-government marches in the Northern Province. There was a general rejection of the SLPP´s monopolistic hold on government.


Sierra Leone won its independence from British control. Shortly before independence Siaka Stevens would break from Margai and the SLPP to form the

All Peoples Congress. The APC exploited the disconnect between Margai´s supposedly pro-indigenous SLPP and the reality of Creole party control.


Margai died and was subsequently replaced by his brother Albert. The Margais were accused of tribal politics, preferencing their own tribe the Mende. These accusations would scare Margai into attempting to install a one party SLPP state.

1967- March.

In elections Margai lost only to be reinstated by Brigadier David Lansana and the army. Stevens was arrested and sent to prison. Lansana created the National Reformation Council (NRC).

1968- April.

Lansana´s NRC government was overthrown by rank and file soldiers and the Anti-Corruption Revolutionary Council (ACRC) took power. Shortly thereafter Stevens was returned to the head of government. Lansana was captured and executed. The Anti Corruption Revolutionary Council was an attempt at a coalition government between the APC and SLPP. But after fraudalent elections the APC again grabbed hold of government with its majority presence in parlaiment.


Stevens enacted a republican constitution, but named himself the republic´s executive president.

-Stevens effectively nationalized the SLST by buying out the company and creating the National Diamond Mining Company (NDMC) to control the industry. The country´s economy had slipped into an almost entirely criminal existence.


As Stevens starved the army of economic resources he created more and more enemies within the military and thus he became more and more paranoid. Stevens created a shadow military force primarily concerned with his own security and the security of his interests. The Internal Security Unit (ISU) or later known as the Special Security Division (SSD) was created with assistance from Cuban consultants. Stevens put Joseph Momoh in charge of the new force.


Parlaiment passes a bill pushed by Stevens making Sierra Leone a one party state. The new bill outlaws the SLPP and any other party for that matter.

Siaka Stevens ruled through a system of patronage, where while he enriched himself and those around him the country deteriorated. Just as Stevens had used the diamond mines get power he used them to bolster this system of patronage. Previously Stevens had openly supported exploitation of the SLST and illegal mining efforts. Lebanese merchants controlled much of the illegal mining in Sierra Leone, as is evidenced by Stevens naming Jamil Sahid Mohammed as the country´s diamond tsar. The continued rush on the diamond fields stirred international interest. Eventually the World Bank would encourage Sierra Leone to dismantle it´s national rail system, thereby giving up its agricultural production in favor of a single export economy where diamonds and minerals trumped all. The dismantling of the rail system further distanced Steven´s rule from the rural masses.

1960-70 -Liberia´s Golden Years.

Firestone Tire and Rubber, an American tire manufacturar, leased out massive parcels of terrain from the Liberian government. The leases were longterm with incredibly low rates, giving carte blanche to Firestone´s exploitation of Liberia´s rubber tree resources.

-discoveries of iron in the Bomi highlands brang on a rush of mining by Liberia´s own Liberia Iron Mining Company.

-with low safety standards Liberia became one of the world´s most preferred locations for registering maritime vessels, making ´ghost ship´registration one of the country´s biggest industries.

1970-80 -Beginning of the end.

A mix of bad droughts and evergrowing corruption began to bring down one African government after another. In Liberia the rising economic disparity between the ruling Americo-Liberian elite and the impoverished indigenous masses boiled over into large street demonstrations. The True Whig Party´s hegemonic hold on power began to appear threatened.

1980 -August, 12th.

Sergeant Samuel Doe led a coup ending in the capture and subsequent assassination of then president William Tolbert, the last True Whig Party´ member to rule Liberia. Doe a member of the Krahn tribe from south/eastern Liberia, created the Peoples Redemption Council (PRC) to rule the country. The PRC was made up largely by disaffected military, whose primary complaint against the Tolbert government were the poor living conditions for Liberian soldiers. Samuel Doe believed himself to be protected by supernatural powers that made him impervious to enemy attacks. He favoured witch doctors and traditional Krahn healers to political advisers and thus through a system of tribal patronage, Doe bolstered the Krahn hold on government.

-The American government used Doe as a proxy to counter other strong personalities on the continent- Gaddafi etc- supported by the Soviet Union. On the ground Liberia was a transmission point for broadcasts of Voice of America. The OMEGA maritime communication system was stationed in Liberia, giving the United States control of shipping along the entire West African seaboard. And finally Robertsfield Airbase was incorporated into the network of US airforce positions.


Liberia received 80 million dollars in aid after a Doe visit to the Whitehouse.


After mounting international pressure Doe temporarily lifted a ban on political

activity only to reinstate a de-facto ban with Decree 88ª.

Decree 88ª- outlawed all political dissent- so draconian was the decree that even Reagan was forced to threaten Doe with a hold on American aid if the political repression was not reduced significantly.

1985 -November, 12.

Thomas Quiwonkpa, a member of Doe´s government, attempted a coup by leading a small force from neighboring Sierra Leone. Krahn warriors defended Doe, defeating the coup attempt. Later Doe´s defenders were accused of eating the bodies of the mutineers.

-Reprisal killings were brutal. Gio and Mano tribesmen accused of supporting the coup attempt were rounded up by Krahn militias and excecuted. Tribal tensions begin to reach new highs.

Last five years of Doe´s rule:

-Liberian economy contracted by 3%.

-domestic investment shrunk by 16%.

-foreign debt skyrocketed to 1.3 billion dollars.

-Monrovia, the capital, became a world money laundering center.

Emerging Rebel Warlords.

Charles Taylor.

Was born in 1948 to an Americo-Liberian family. Charles went on to study in the United States, jumping back and forth from his life in Africa to his life in the United States. More out of coincidence than for any other reason, Taylor was in Monrovia on the eve of Samuel Doe´s coup. Charles won himself a position in the new government as part of its Procurement Agency. Eventually Taylor would defraud the government of millions of dollars through his position in the PA. In 1983 he was arrested on embezzlement charges while on a trip to the United States. Then in 1985 Taylor ´escaped´ from prison and traveled on to West Africa where he spent the next few years building up support for the National Patriotic Front of Liberation (NPFL). Critical to this timeline are the many months he spent in Libya in various Libyan training camps, bolstering his relationship to Gaddafi who would provide training and logistic support. Eventually Taylor would also garner support from other regional leaders like Compaore from Burkina Faso and Boigny from the Ivory Coast.

Foday Sankoh

Was born in the early 1930´s to a rural peasant family. Sankoh finished primary school and went on to work in the postal services for a short period before joining the army in 1956. For the general public the Sierra Leonean army is seen as a primarily repressive tool used by the state to put down indigenous uprisings. To make matters worse a constant underfunding of the military made it rife with corruption. Sankoh stayed in the army until 1971, when he claims to have participated in the rank and file coup that overthrew the NRC and installed the ACRC. Later in the same year Bangura failed in his coup attempt and Sankoh would subsequently be tried and convicted of knowing of plans for the coup and not reporting them. He was sentenced to 7 years in Pademba Prison. Upon his release from prison Sankoh moved to Bo, the country´s second largest city, and a traditionally SLPP region. In the early 1980´s Sankoh first came in contact with the radical student discussion group Pan African Union (Panafu). These meetings seemed to give amunition to Sankoh´s resentment of the APC. Coinciding with these developments, Colonel Gaddafi began to invest in the west African political economy through the Libyan People´s Bureaux in Ghana and Guinea. One student leader was particularly influenced by Gaddafi´s anti-western ideology, Alie Kabba would go on to lead large student protests against the APC. In an effort to quel the student uprisings Momoh used the SSD to brutally repress any dissent. As a result Kabba began to organize revolutionary training camps in the Libyan desert. Sankoh would eventually be recruited to participate in one of these camps. And it was in 1987, on the way to one of these camps, that Sankoh and Taylor would first meet. Then in 1988 they met again in Libya.


Charles Taylor flew to Sierra Leone hoping to win Momoh´s support for an invasion of Liberia, using Sierra Leone as a rear base for the attack. Momoh promptly rejected the request and threw Taylor in prison. After bribing officials he was released and met up with Foday Sankoh, who would help him to recruit disaffected youths from Freetown´s streets for the NPFL.

1989 -Christmas Eve.

Charles Taylor invaded Liberia with his National Patriotic Front of Liberation (NPFL) entering the country from neighboring Ivory Coast. The original force was made up of nearly 100 men, among them Foday Sankoh.


NPFL forces are bolstered by foreign recruits and mercenary support but find overwhelming support from Gio and Mano tribesmen in Nimba County. Krahn violence created an army of ready warriors for Taylor and the NPFL. Eventually Taylor´s force would become notorious for its ethnocide and the kidnapping of children for its child army.

In one year of warfare it was estimated that nearly 700,000 people were forced from their homes. Momoh´s government estimated that it was spending nearly a million dollars a month on refugee assistance.


NPFL forces took Buchanan just 80 miles south east of Monrovia, Doe´s government was on the verge of being overthrown. The battle for Monrovia had begun.

-former NPFL soldier Prince Johnson led his own rebel advance (the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberation- INPFL) on the capital.

-Doe refused to step down and give up the capital thus saving innocent civilians from the bloody invasión of NPFL troops.

-August. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) decided it must intervene in order to secure it´s own interests. Babangida, a Nigerian, led the ECO-monitoring group (ECOMOG) forces asserting Nigerian interests in the region. ECOMOG was notorious for its overt corruption and participation in the grand-scale looting that ravaged Liberia.

September, 9th.

Doe was ambushed by Prince Johnson forces as he attempted to meet with ECOMOG troops. In the subsequent hours to his capture, a video was made of Doe´s interrogation and torture by Johnson´s forces. The next day Doe´s body was found in the streets of Monrovia. ECOMOG troops were accused of selling Doe to Johnson.

-an interim government was hastily created by the United States and other international players. Amos Sawyer, a former political prisoner during Doe´s rule was installed by the US as president. However his control never went beyond the security ring established by ECOMOG forces, encircling Monrovia.

-Charles Taylor refused to recognize the interim government, deciding rather to create a shadow government based in Buchanan. NPFL troops continued to assualt Monrovia. However ECOMOG forces were able to hold their positions, maintaining control of the capital.

-Taylor´s shadow government in Buchanan came to be known as ´Greater Liberia´, and soon became home to a massive international black market economy where Taylor operated as the new country´s feudal lord. Firestone Tire and Rubber Company maintained its business relationship well into the existence of ´Greater Liberia´. Eventually Taylor shifted his attention to Sierra Leone which provided Lungi airport as a rear base for ECOMOG forces. Taylor was also interested in the diamond rich fields of the country. These diamond fields provided the economic lynchpin for a long term sustained conflict. The war quickly jumped the border. Even as it continued in both Liberia and Greater Liberia.


Foday Sankoh gave Momoh 90 days to step down from power before he threatened that the RUF would invade.

-March 23, The RUF crossed the border in its first attack. Days later Momoh would downplay the RUF by blaming Taylor for the aggresions.

-end of 1991, Momoh went of the offensive by forcibly recruiting over 6,000 new soldiers, drawing heavily from a street criminal surplus.

-United Liberation Movement of Liberia (ULIMO) began to push the RUF back into Liberia. ULIMO was made up primarily of Liberian ex-military, loyal to Doe.