In the distance we could see the clouds gathering, an unusual dark grey. The winds came, unexpectedly cool, sharp, dusty. The children ran in from out in the dirt field. There was a rumbling of thunder and some loud claps, and then the rain came – too early for the rainy season. No, it was not the start of the rain, it was the end of the Harmattan wind, the wind that blows off the Sahara for weeks, making the West African sky white, hazy, ugly.
I was inside a dark office of the school building, a tiny cement room with only the window for light. I was interviewing one of the villagers, a woman of 29, asking her questions like, “do you know what a condom is? Have you ever used one?” I had already interviewed a seventy-year-old man who had twelve children. He had never used a footsock, as they are called here, but he told his sons to do so, which makes him progressive in my mind. In the government hospital over 100 people have tested positive for HIV but none have yet been told – the doctors are waiting on counselors that may or may not materialize.
I’m in the Kono district in the Northeast, the place where diamonds come from. In the center of the town of Koidu (the “city” of the region) there are fields of lunar landscapes, mounds of dirt and shallow ditches as far as the eye can see where hundreds go to work each day breaking earth with makeshift shovels and sifting sand to find sparkling stones. The diamond miner’s bodies are seriously cut, as we would say, rippling and lean (no need for a Bally’s or Crunch here).
Kono was ravaged by the war – the rebels and the government fighting over control of the mines, one of the only sources of money for the country. Homes, stores, and schools were all looted and burned. The skeletons of these buildings, now roofless, burnt out, with blackened crumbling walls, line dusty lanes and roads. Families have come back from the refugee camps in Guinea and Liberia to make homes of these shells – sometimes just a few dark concrete walls -- for their 20-plus size families.
There is no one here in Koidu, or in the country at large, who has been unaffected by the war. Almost everyone I meet has lost a parent, child, or spouse. Or they have walked for hundreds of miles in flight, often losing family along the way. One security guard told me in casual conversation, “my wife was slaughtered by the rebels. I don’t have new wife because I don’t want her to be bad to my small children.” In our own house in Freetown our houseman, Abu, walked all the way from to Koidu to Freetown, a total of over 200 miles, after the rebels came and burned his boutiques and house. He has gone from owning businesses to ironing our clothes and washing our dishes. But in today’s Sierra Leone, he’s just thankful to find work. His story is here is a common one.
What has gone on here is unspeakable. There are 20,000 estimated amputees – men and women and small children whose limbs were chopped off with machetes by the Commanding Officer Cut Hands, an official position in the rebel army (if anything was official). War brides had the initials of the rebel force, RUF, carved into their chests with broken glass. Pregnant women were ripped open, rebels betting on the sex of the unborn child.
The country’s own army in many circumstances behaved no better. Many came to be known as “sobels” – soldiers by day, rebels by night. When they “pushed back” on January 6, 1999, they turned on the population, accusing them of supporting the rebels. They visited the same atrocities on the population and blamed the rebels. And the ECOMOG soldiers (which consisted of almost 25% of the Nigerian army) who were here to protect the country also gave it a go. In addition to selling arms and home-baked PCP and methamphetamine concoctions to the rebels (which in turn were given to young “small boys unit” to make them more capable of violence), they also looted, pillaged, and raped. They had seen too many of their forces go down, and they took it out on those they could find – to them, in the end, everybody was a rebel.
And the resulting conditions read as a catalog of social disaster: poverty, hunger, widespread domestic abuse, institutionalized child abuse, rampant HIV/AIDS, mass unemployment, horrific sanitary and health conditions. Adding to all this is a devastated infrastructure – power only for the lucky few with a generator, water near undrinkable. Corruption is general all over the country from the street level on up to the government, even in some of the UN peacekeeping forces who are here to protect the delicate peace.
As we travel throughout the region collecting data for an assessment of the HIV/AIDS situation, we hear increasing desperation in the stories the locals tell us. The price of rice and palm oil (two main staples) has gone up steeply, and the UN-fueled economy has created huge inflation. When the UN pulls out (which should not happen anytime soon but is scheduled to happen this December) the economy will collapse. People are hungry, they have nothing to do, and they’re angry. They recognize the corruption of the government, and they are frustrated by the snail’s pace of reconstruction of the most basic infrastructure.
I want to stop and note here that all of the above information comes from no official sources, rather, it has been gathered from personal accounts and stories from across the country.
On our ways over the potholed and rutted dirt roads that link towns and cities together, I wave and smile at the women and girls carrying massive plateloads of pineapple or jugs of water on their heads. I greet all the men resting under grass-roof shelters or hiking down the highway with sifters for mining. I smile at every child I possibly can when they yell out at us “white man! white man!” or, if they’re near a UN base with Pakistani troops, “Pak-i-stan! Pak-i-stan!” (Similar to what’s perceived as Caucasian racism, they too think we all look alike -- Americans, Pakistanis, Lebanese, whatever! I am often called “Bangla!” after the Bangladeshi battalions stationed here.)
Sometimes on these roads I feel I’m carrying out a one-woman public relations mission on behalf of the white people in the country, not only because I want to convince them that there are some good people in the world, but also in the hopes of saving my ass if chaos breaks out (please have mercy on me, I think to myself).
Speaking of breezing down the roads here – I would very much appreciate some “why did the chicken cross the road?” jokes. It has suddenly become very relevant. You can send them in to me at vanessa (at) vanessawithoutborders (dot) com. I will post the best ones in an upcoming blog.
Also in an upcoming blog I will try to tell the story of Koidu Holdings (aka Branch Energy), the big Afrikaans-owned diamond mining outfit in the Kono region (imagine ex-mercenaries the size of small tractors in a exclusive compound, blasting minerals out of the ground). It’s too complicated and rich to note on here, and I imagine that my run-ins with them have only just begun.