It was my dad’s birthday – January 6 1999, that is – and it happened to be in the month of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for Muslims. My dad was fasting so my mom had prepared some fry fry (fried fish, plantains, potatoes, akara etc) the day before which would serve as lunch for us and sokoli (the early morning pre-fasting meal that Muslims have) for my dad. That sokoli was like manna from heaven in the days following the invasion.
My dad – an early riser – was the first to find out and it was through his favourite program, the BBC’s Network Africa. A fan and devout listener of the program, my dad never missed a day or edition of the program. Lansana Fofanah was reporting live from Kalaba Town where the Revolutionary United Front had invaded Freetown and were heading towards the centre of town. The then President Alhaji Ahmed Tejan Kabba had also fled for his life to a neighbouring country. My dad must have panicked but did not say or do anything to alarm us. Thankfully he let us sleep until 5am – our usual wake up time – when my mom woke us up to take a bath. By then the rebels had not gained significant ground since we could hear the relatively faint sound of gunfire. Neither the gunfire nor the cold harmattan winds could deter my mom from accomplishing her mission of getting us all squeaky clean. Nobody said a word to us. It was while we were bathing that we saw throngs of people with baggages heading in our direction. They had migrated from their dwellings in the east and were seeking asylum in the west end of Freetown. It was at that point that our dad explained the inevitable to us – the rebels had invaded Freetown. Hurry up and get back inside. He said. Not Again. I thought. We had barely recovered from the trauma of May 25 1997.
After bathing, we quickly rushed through the house chores; washed the dishes, swept the parlor etc. The rebels were steadily progressing, according to news reports, leaving heavy destruction in their wake– maiming, mutilating, and raping innocent civilians. It was only a matter of time before they reached us, it seemed. But we were praying. My mom, the head of intercessory in our home, was praying fire. She had sprinkled the blood of Jesus so many times that we were completely covered in the blood of Jesus. The gunshots were getting louder and clearer. By 8am, the rebels had gained control of the state house and other government institutions as well as the surrounding areas of Kingtom, Greybush, Crabtown etc.
The tension in our home was almost tangible to the point that you could slice through it with a knife. My dad was restless and worried sick about his girls – my mom and us three girls. If there was ever a time when it was a crime to be a woman/ girl, it was then. Rape was used as a weapon of war and it was reported that many women and girls were gang raped women in the open, in front of family members and strangers alike. The very thought of rape churned our stomachs as we prayed for deliverance. My mom cladded us in some yambo – long shapeless dresses – and head-wrap to avoid drawing any undue attention to ourselves. It was in no one’s best interest to appear attractive at that moment anyway. We spent that morning and many days thereafter lying under our treasured sponge mattress in our parlor/living room; apparently, a bullet would be less potent if it went through the sponge I got to know. We were protected but for the heat! The zinc shack had a heat of its own combined with the heat from our five bodies huddled under the mattress and the heat from the mattress itself. We could have baked a cake in our home that day without any hassle.
Our dad had decided to break his fast, first with a cigarette, to calm his nerves I guess. He had no appetite for food. In fact, nobody but me had an appetite in my family. I don’t know how but I had faith. (My family can confirm). I guess I had seen God answer my mom’s many prayers and JUST HAD FAITH THAT NOTHING WILL HAPPEN TO ANY OF US. It was probably this faith that fuelled my appetite. And I ate. In fact, I snacked on the fry-fry for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. I was not afraid. I accompanied my sisters when they had to make a run to the bathroom with no fear of stray bullets whatsoever.
As the day wore on, we could hear gunshots from both ends – the ECOMOG-occupied West End and the RUF-occupied east end. ECOMOG was taking out anyone who was suspected to be a rebel (they had their criteria). We could hear the gunshots and the occasional screaming each time a suspected rebel was killed. It was agonizing and we were caught in the crossfire that ensued. The rebels came as far as Faulkner street – the junction between our house and the ‘congo town’ local market and intense firing followed as they battled for ground. The rebels were looking to advance their hold while ECOMOG-led forces pushed back. In the end the rebels retreated. They never crossed that junction. However, one of our neighbours Pa George, was killed in the safety of his home when some fragments from the firing went through his roof into his home. He was hurriedly tossed into a grave. Another neighbour, a very good friend of mine was also hurt in the crossfire. A bullet had gone through their roof entered her wrist one way and out the other leaving her handicapped for life. A catering student at YWCA then, the incident completely changed the course of her life as she had to learn a different craft/trade that did not require much use of her hand.
We later moved into the cellar of our neighbour’s house as the battle for Freetown continued. We came out of that, unscathed, unharmed. Like Pa George, a fragment had cut through the roof of our house letting in some much needed light but without causing any harm to any of us. One of us could have died if it had touched us. But God! Moreover, even though we lived in a large unfenced compound with many occupants somehow none of the rebels thought about entering it. It was a miracle! Besides, many girls and women were physically violated during that time. There was nothing special about us but God spared us not allowing the rebels to see or touch us. As a nation, we’ve come a long way. We’ve survived a 10- year civil war that still holds the torch for one of, if not the most brutal wars in Africa and one of the most deadly outbreaks—Ebola. Yet we still exist as a people. Talk about resilience! Even if there is nothing to thank God for, the very fact that we are still alive inspite of all that we’ve been through, is an unceasing reason to be grateful to Him for the gift of life.
I’d love to hear about your experience and or memories of J6 on here or on my Facebook. I look forward to reading your stories!
Happy New Year!
Daughter of the King